’Slum Priests’ in Camden Town

Some Oxford Movement priests were inspired by the life of the seventeenth century St. Vincent de Paul in France, who was captured by Barbary pirates and sold as a slave. When freed he spent his life working among the poor. Inspired by St Vincent, the Society of the Holy Cross, known by the initials SSC, was founded by Charles Lowder and others in 1855, and became a link between priests sharing Anglo-Catholic convictions.1 Many nineteenth century Oxford Movement priests saw it as their mission to found churches and mission houses among those living in the crowded newly urbanised areas, and became known as the ‘slum priests’.2

Following the completion of the first phase of building at St. Michael’s, Fr Penfold, who was one such priest, raised funds to build a Mission House in Camden Town. The earlier Church History reports on the fundraising ’great Bazaar’ held on 9th May 1887. It was opened by HRH Princess Christian, who was given an address of welcome read by senior choir boy George Hoddy, and given flowers by ‘one of the Sunday School girls’. The Royal party, clergy and parishioners were joined at the two-day event by numerous well-wishers including Lady George Hamilton and the Duchess of Rutland. All were treated to ‘two recitations’ by Mrs Kendall, a famous actress, and a monologue by ‘the great comedian’ Mr Toole entitled ‘Trying a Magistrate’. Three hundred and fifty pounds were raised despite paying ‘somewhat heavy expenses’ for the impressive and very high profile event Fr Penfold had arranged.

The Mission Buildings were built at the junction of York Street and York Place, now Greenland Place, and officially opened with great ceremony and celebrations by HRH Princess Mary Adelaide, Duchess of Teck and mother of Queen Victoria in 1888. In 2001 Fr Penfold’s grand Mission Buildings were largely demolished and the Spectrum Centre built on the partially retained and still visible walls of the old St. Michael’s Mission Hall.3 In these Mission Buildings the church organised an enormous number of activities: ‘Industrial exhibitions, Concerts, Social Gatherings, Temperance Meetings, Soup Kitchen, Men’s Benefit Society, Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs, Savings Bank, Clothing Clubs, Mothers’ Meetings, not to mention Sunday Schools’.

Penfold’s obituary in the Church Times later read:

“Gradually, with much prayer, and with the infinite pains which he lavished on whatever he set his hand to, … [he] built up, in that north-west district of London, a congregation that was no less remarkable for its internal harmony, than for the reverent tone and self- restrained ritual which were just a reflex of the mind and character of its parish priest. Guilds of communicants and churchworkers, instinct with reality, loyal to the best tenets of the Anglican Communion, gathered about St. Michael’s. Admirable school buildings were built and opened. Everything evidenced quiet, healthy, Catholic life.”4

Several Missions to the parish took place, the first in 1885 when three priests visited the parish and undertook many tasks in ten days of intense activity. Holy Communion was held twice a day with a meditation between, and there were short addresses at midday, Bible readings, and addresses to men only, to shop assistants, servants, mothers, young women and children. Factories were visited and, where possible, addresses given to the workmen. The sick and dying were visited and the local Hospital visited daily. Holy Communion was given to the sick and children were baptised. At the conclusion of the Mission a closing service was held at which memorials were distributed to those who had made resolutions for spiritual progress, or undertaken work. In later years several other such large Missions took place, as well as many shorter ones lasting up to five days. Carved in Oberammergau, the church’s Calvary was originally dedicated in the south aisle in 1908 as a memorial to a Mission two years earlier.

The South Aisle Calvary as it appears today.
The South Aisle Calvary as it appears today.

The first Parish Magazine of 1884 reported on a Thanksgiving Service held in the Church to give thanks for the recovery of seventy-two people in the congregation from an outbreak of typhoid fever. Fr Penfold appealed for funds and received eighty pounds from friends and others in response to an appeal in the Daily Telegraph. He arranged for two nursing sisters from Kilburn to come and help.5 The Kilburn nuns, together with some members of the congregation, visited every known case of typhoid in the parish every day. Beef tea and ‘dinners’ were provided for the sick, and rather surprisingly wine and brandy prescribed by doctors for daily intake. Two local wine merchants liberally supplied the wine and brandy. After the patients were better some were sent away to the seaside to regain their health, cared for by Fr Penfold and their fellow parishioners.

In 1902, Fr Penfold made a statement to the Church Building Fund Committee expressing his gratitude to God for being permitted to complete the work of building the chancel of St. Michael’s Church and his earnest hope that when the members of this committee had passed away the church would remain and prove a means of blessing to succeeding generations. 6

Mary Sokol.

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Page header: Detail from Over London by Rail, Gustave Doré. c.1870. Public Domain.

  1. See Geoffrey Rowell, The Vision Glorious: Themes and Personalities of the Catholic Revival in Anglicanism, Oxford, 1983, pp. 119-120 on St. Vincent.
  2. Ibid., p. 116.
  3. In the Beginning: The History of St. Michael’s Camden Town, and Streets of Camden Town, p.34.
  4. Church Times, 9th August 1907.
  5. Rowell, 1983, pp. 98-110. The Cambridge University cleric and Anglo-Catholic John Mason Neale was influential in the founding of Anglican orders of nuns, who like the Kilburn Sisters, worked among the needy in cities and the countryside.
  6. London Metropolitan Archive, St. Michael’s Church, the Diocesan Parish File, 15th July 1902 Church Building Fund Committee.