St Michael’s: 1914-1918

“The one thing to be thankful for is the knowledge that England has taken up arms in a righteous cause … It has not always been so, but it is so to-day … And yet it must be for the sins of Christians that Almighty God has allowed this disaster to come. That fact must make us pause and think deeply.”

So ran the Vicar’s letter in the September 1914 Parish Magazine. St Michael’s was thriving – the previous year it had installed a new aumbry in the side chapel and new choir stalls in the chancel, sending the old stalls to Fr Keelan’s new church at Golders Green.1 One of the worshippers at St Michael’s Camden Town, Albert Charles Roberts (1892-1916), was already a Torpedo Engineer on a Royal Navy cruiser and in July 1914 had written to the Parish Magazine about visiting Bethlehem and Jerusalem during a stop-off at Jaffa (now Tel Aviv). He was married at St Michael’s in 1915 and killed when his submarine struck a mine in the North Sea in 1916.

343 men from the parish were on active service by March 1915 and over 500 by the war’s end. A litany of intercession for them was already in place by October 1914 and the dead were prayed for every Saturday by August 1915. One of the church’s curates, Olive Edward Gittins [sic] (1882-1950), quickly volunteered to be an Army chaplain and served in France and Palestine before moving to South Africa after the War.

In some ways, however, business as usual continued. In December 1914 the body of Reverend Alexander Grey (1870-1914) lay in St Michael’s prior to his funeral – he was an old friend of Fr Osborn and brother of Sir Edward Grey (1862-1933), Foreign Secretary. In early 1915 a pneumatic shoe was added to the main door to enable it to open automatically and the final marble step in the side chapel was installed. The Blessed Sacrament had already been reserved in the side chapel since the start of the War and possibly earlier – it became especially important for the increasing numbers of soldiers briefly home on leave as well as for the sick of the parish. The parish continued to push for more men and women to pledge total abstinence from alcohol for the whole War and reports continued to appear about children in Africa sponsored by the church’s Sunday School.

The February 1915 the Parish Magazine announced that new photographic postcards of the church’s interior had been taken – many of these were sent out to soldiers and sailors, whose letters home record how fond they were of them. One in the February 1916 Parish Magazine, probably by Albert Charles Roberts, stated: “A glance at that photograph brought back everything. I could smell the incense, hear the Yuletide hymns and (strange flight of fancy) see Charlie Bean (RIP) and myself as young lads walking up and taking those processional candles from their sockets.”

Yet the War soon made its presence felt. The Easter Day collections in 1915 were given to the Red Cross. The parish suffered from anti-German rioting as early as 1915, possibly in part as a result of early Zeppelin raids. The Parish Magazine carried advice on how to act bravely during the raids, which frequently interrupted services. Guest preachers were kept away by War duties whilst the catechists saved money to buy cigarettes for soldiers serving abroad.

In July 1916 the parish became involved in the “war shrines” movement, setting up eleven tablets, each listing a single street’s living and dead servicemen. Clergy from the parish visited each shrine twice a week to read out the lists of names and say prayers, and local parishioners kept the flowers on them fresh. This drew the attention of the Daily Mail, who interviewed T. H. Kett, one of the parish’s curates, on 7th September:

“We may not have done better than any other parish … but we are proud of what we have done. Our coster brigade went in joyfully; and if they have not won any VCs or DSOs we know they have done the ‘donkey work’ of the Army well and thoroughly. This district is the dumping-ground for unskilled labour – men who were earning from £1 to 25s a week before the War, and it is mainly from them that our particular ‘army’ has been drawn. Those who are left behind are working hard and enthusiastically; all the girls are doing something either in munitions or in various industrial spheres; and we have practically no distress.”

However, the Parish Magazine’s response to the report the following month seems to suggest that Kett had been misquoted:

“[the reporter] meant to be kind, no doubt, but was not quite fair or happy in its description of our parish. …. We will not have our Parish called a “dumping ground” or its work “donkey work” for all the “Daily Mails” in the world.”

From December 1917 onwards photographs of the fallen and flags of the Allied nations were placed at the foot of the Calvary. On Easter Eve 1918 a new statue of St. Michael was dedicated by the entrance door to the church, on a plinth that had remained empty since the church was first built. Now in the Resurrection Chapel, the statue was produced by the sculptor Clement William Jewitt, a former choirboy at St Michael’s.

260 demobilised men were invited to a welcome-home party at the Mission Buildings on 10 March 1919, but only 40 were able to attend. Donations started to be made for a permanent War Memorial as soon as June 1919, including a £6 cheque from the Girls’ Club. In March 1920 a sub-committee of the Parochial Church Council picked Jewitt to design it. He provided two designs, one for a memorial on the external west wall and one for a crucifix. The latter was chosen and after further fundraising pushes it was dedicated on 3rd October 1920 during the church’s Dedication Festival, unveiled by the Vicar’s wife. In the years that followed, its floral decorations for Armistice Day often reached up to the feet of the figure of Christ.

[Courtesy of London Metropolitan Archive].
[Courtesy of London Metropolitan Archive].

The Memorial’s 100 names include casualties from Egypt and Palestine as well as the Western Front. Though at least two seamen and one airman feature, most of the hundred men served with the Army. They included the 18-year-old drummer boy Percy Childs (1898-1916) and the brothers Richard (1891-1917) and Stanley Hersant (1898-1918), sons of Lydia Hersant (1863-1949), the parish’s Mission Woman – a pyx, missal and chasuble were given to the church in their memory. There is at least one father and son pairing, Frederick (1892-1916) and Benjamin Bewley (1872-1916), both killed on the Somme less than three months apart – Frederick joined up when he was already too old for military service. The names also testify to the social make-up of the parish, with several men from the piano-making and railway industries as well as Herbert Plumb (1897-1917), son of the landlord of the Oxford Arms on Camden High Street. Almost all the men on the Memorial served and died as privates, with few rising above sergeant and only one known commissioned officer, Edward Linford Thorogood (1897-1918). The Memorial also features George Vogel (1886-1915) and Ulysse Albert ‘Bert’ Hannard (1896-1914), both sons of French immigrants, along with Alfred Kalthoeber (1889-1916), probably descended from late 18th century German refugees from the Napoleonic Wars.

Edward Smith.

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The header image of this page shows women working in Camden’s Crowndale Works, making gasmasks. © IWM (Q 28556), used under an IWM non-commercial license. Original.

  1. Aumbry – Parish Magazine (April 1913 – main aumbry; May 1914 – addition of a stone surround); stalls – Parish Magazine (November 1913)