Railways

The first railway to arrive in the area was the London and Birmingham Railway in 1830. This was followed by the East and West India Docks and Birmingham Junction Railway (later renamed the North London Railway) in 1850, and by the Midland Railway in the 1860s. The Great Exhibition Map of 1851 shows St. Pancras Old Church now surrounded by the streets of Somers Town, and many new streets in Camden Town. In the triangle formed by the junction of Kentish Town Road with the new Camden Road, where St. Michael’s church now stands, there were instead three large houses with very long gardens sited next to Kentish Town Wharf and saw mills and printing works. Two of these houses were later demolished to make way for St. Michael’s.

Later maps of 1863 and 1870 show Camden Town now completely laid out with streets, while further north Kentish Town was no longer a village surrounded by fields but a dense urban area. Agar Town was a large unplanned urban sprawl soon to more or less disappear under the lines and Goods Yards of the Midland Railway, while the streets of Somers Town surrounded St. Pancras Church. The viaducts of the North London Line still dominate the north of Camden Town, now forming part of the Overground network. 1

This new, densely populated urban area was a source of concern to many. The large number of fine new middle class houses built in the new suburb in the first three decades of the nineteenth century began to be affected by the construction of railway lines, bridges and goods yards, demolishing many homes and displacing large numbers of people. In Dombey and Son (1848) and Our Mutual Friend (1864-5) the novelist Charles Dickens, who lived in Bayham Street as a child, described the terrible mess and dirt in Camden Town that resulted from railway building, and the immense dust heaps on Battle Bridge Road that belonged to ‘the Golden Dustman’. 2 Newspapers, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners and the vicar of St. Pancras, Canon Thomas Dale (1797–1870), all denounced the poverty and squalor of Camden Town. Even worse was the notorious Agar Town, said to present the most appalling spectacle of temporal and spiritual destitution in the whole diocese of London. Concerned, the Government of the day took action, demolishing the rookeries and planning new homes, only to be overtaken by yet more railway building and chaos until what was left of Agar Town merged with Camden New Town around Camden Square. 3 The philanthropist Charles Booth’s survey into life and labour in London c. 1898-9 included colour coded maps to indicate relative wealth or poverty. Sheet 4 shows that by the end of the nineteenth century Camden had become poorer and more overcrowded. Nearly every house was in multiple occupation. 4

Booth also sent out a team of researchers, one of whom interviewed Penfold in 1896, showing changes and continuities in the parish’s housing and poverty levels in its first twenty years:

As regards the district, the general tendency has been down in his time. Union Terrace when he came was a very respectable place, for instance, but went down with a run on getting into the hands of its late owner, Mr. Bridgeman, who built it up at the back in a disgraceful way, and let it out on conditions that ensured rapid decline. But, like Mr. Connan, he denied that the houses had ever been brothels, as Tomkin told me. On the contrary, the people had been simply very poor and low class casual labour. He ran over some of the families that had lived there in a way that seemed to make out his case. The top part of Albert St. in his parish, is now almost entirely let out in apartments, respectable, and it is quite the exception to find a house in the hands of a single occupant. In Arlington St. he said, to my surprise, that there had been no great change in his time. The poorest bits in the parish now are Stuckley Place and Pleasant Row and Passage. Stanmore Place is now poor, but “not very poor”. In his classification of his people (see form) he gives no place to ordinary middle class private occupants, who would have figured considerably when he came [in 1876]. He was severe on the buildings that Bridgeman, already mentioned, put up in the Kentish Town Road, W. side S. end, between Brown’s Dairy and Union Terrace….

Charitable relief averages about £45. Tickets, of which one is inserted [on page 122], are only given to the sick and aged. A counterfoil has to be filled up by the Visitor who gives them away. They do not have much to do with the C.O.S., but the Vicar spoke well of their work.

In an attached questionnaire, Penfold noted that 60% of the housing in the parish was then “Poor”, 20% “Tradesmen” and 20% “Apartments”, there was a “growth of rough loafing class” of criminal and the parish’s attitudes to marriage were “Lax. Probably great many unmarried / or living with other men.”. He stated its overall health to be “Not good [due to] … unhealthy condition of life /and drinking habits” and the general condition of its housing to be “Deteriorating. Overcrowded. / Immense diff[icult] to get house – but no marked rise in rentals.”[Notebook: Clergy District 18 (Somers Town and Camden Town) (BOOTH/B/215), pages 119, 121 and 129]

Many in what would become the parish of St Michael’s were illiterate, as shown by its first Register of Marriages and of Baptisms, in which several men signed X instead of their name. These also give an indication of male employment in the area – variously described as being in occupations such as bookmakers (e.g. print makers), harness makers, builders. There were also many labourers who probably worked on building the new railway. These, then, were the difficult conditions in which a new church district was formed in Camden Town in 1876.

Robert John Kemble signs the marriage register with an 'X' in 1884.
Robert John Kemble signs the marriage register with an ‘X’ in 1884. [Courtesy of London Metropolitan Archive].

Mary Sokol.

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  1. We thank Gillian Tindall for help with local history and for permission to study maps from her private collection.
  2. Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, 1864-1865.
  3. The Rev. Roger Conyers Morrell (1883-1977), The Story of Agar Town, 1935, Premo Press NW1, now deposited with the St. Michael’s Parish papers at the London Metropolitan Archives. The author was mayor of St Pancras from 1926 to 1927.
  4. As noted in Streets of Camden Town, p. 12.