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

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.