Commissioners’ Churches

Anglican church-building had not kept pace with building developments and vastly increased populations in the ancient parish of St. Pancras, meaning that until 1822 the burden fell on the single ancient parish church, now known as Old St. Pancras. Parliament in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century attached great importance to churchgoing, but here just as in the rest of Britain the main population centres had shifted away from their parish churches, meaning parishioners faced a long journey to worship there. Instead, chapels-of-ease were built so that parishioners could attend somewhere closer. For example, a medieval chapel of ease in Kentish Town was demolished in 1784 and replaced by a new chapel on Highgate Road. However, finding funding for these chapels could prove difficult and since the Church of England was the established church the creation of every new parish church required an Act of Parliament.

Public concern continued to grow in this period about the rapidly-growing and often poverty-afflicted urban populations1. That concern combined with the shift in population centres and official fears of losing people to the non-conformist churches all eventually proved sufficient to pass an Act of Parliament in 1818, known as “An Act for the Building and Promotion of Building Additional Churches in Populous Parishes”. 2 This Act and its six its six subsequent amendments enabled the Government to set apart a fund of one million pounds for the particular purpose of building new Anglican churches, drawn from the 100,000 francs of reparations which France had been forced to pay Britain after Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo in 1815. The fund was administered by a Commission, whose members were known as Commissioners. Not everyone was pleased by this prospect: the legal philosopher Jeremy Bentham wrote crossly in a manuscript that Lord Liverpool, then Home Secretary, could find money to build churches but not his Panopticon Prison.

The Commissioners’ remit was to locate communities of more than four thousand people who lived more than two miles from their parish church, and had the ability to fund a new church. Once these conditions were satisfied the Commission approved an architect and funded the construction of a new church. The geographical area became a legal entity by an Order in Council. Six hundred of these new ‘Commissioners’ churches’ were built in the nineteenth century, including thirty-three in the ancient parish of St Pancras. 3

Between 1822 and 1824 two architecturally significant new Church of England churches were built, both designed by architects W. and H. Inwood and both in the neo-Greek style: the new St. Pancras on Euston Road and Camden Chapel on Camden Street. New St. Pancras replaced the ancient St. Pancras Old Church as the main parish church, with the ancient church becoming a chapel-of-ease. Camden Chapel was another of the parish’s chapels-of-ease, assigned a district and a perpetual curate. The first man to hold that office was the Rev. Alex D’Arblay, son of the novelist Frances Burney (she attended the chapel’s consecration), but he was sacked soon afterwards for serious problems with his time keeping. 4 Inwood also designed a third chapel-of-ease for the parish, St Mary’s Somers Town, completed in the Gothic style in 1827. This phase of the church-building boom ended with Christ Church Albany Street in the southwest corner of the ancient parish, completed in 1837.

The churches founded under the Act were usually set up as District Chapels. These were ‘daughter churches’ of the main parish church, from 1824 new St. Pancras. Such ‘daughter churches’ were allowed to hold services, but not perform baptisms, marriages or funerals, which had to take place at the parish church, so that the parish church did not suddenly lose the income from these rites of passage, nor the locally levied tithes and bequests, sometimes ancient. Usually sited in newly-urbanised areas without such tithes and bequests, the Act allowed ‘daughter churches’ to charge for pews to raise income until other sources could be found. That other source usually came when the parish church’s existing priest died or moved away and a proportion of local tithe payments could be assigned to the ‘daughter church’, turning it into a parish church in its own right. However, some ‘daughter churches’ refused to charge for pews, since a large proportion of their local inhabitants would be too poor to pay – St. Michael’s was one of these churches that were free to all right from their foundation.

Mary Sokol and Edward Smith.

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  1. Geoffrey Rowell, The Vision Glorious: Themes and Personalities of the Catholic Revival in Anglicanism, Oxford, 1983.
  2. 58 Geo III, Cap.45.
  3. Roger Sainsbury, St. Michael’s Church Highgate: A History, 2014.
  4. We thank Gillian Tindall for this information; see Streets of Camden Town, ed. Steven Denford and F. Peter Woodford, Camden History Society, 2003, p. 83.