St Pancras Old Church

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St Pancras Old Church
St Pancras Old Church
Denomination Church of England
Tradition Anglo-Catholic
Parish Old St Pancras
Deanery South Camden
Archdeaconry Hampstead
Episcopal area Edmonton
Diocese London
Province Canterbury
Vicar(s) James Elston

St Pancras Old Church is a Church of England parish church in Somers Town, central London. It is dedicated to the Roman martyr Saint Pancras, and is believed by many to be one of the oldest sites of Christian worship in England. The church is situated on Pancras Road in the London Borough of Camden, with the surrounding area and its international railway station taking its name. St Pancras Old Church, which was largely rebuilt in the Victorian era, should not be confused with St Pancras New Church about a kilometre away, on the Euston Road.


St Pancras Old Church in 1815. It was largely reconstructed later in the 19th century. The River Fleet has been covered over.


Originally, the parish of St Pancras stretched from close to Oxford Street almost to Highgate. In the early Middle Ages there was a centre of population in the vicinity of what is now known as the old church. However, in the 14th century the population abandoned the site and moved to what is now Kentish Town. The reasons for this were probably the vulnerability of the plain around the church to flooding (the River Fleet, which is now underground, runs through it) and the availability of better wells at Kentish Town, where there is less clay in the soil. The church subsequently fell into disrepair. Towards the end of the 18th century, services were only held in the church on one Sunday each month; on other weeks, the same congregation would use a chapel in Kentish Town.[1] It lost its status as the parish church when the New Church on what was to become the Euston Road was consecrated in 1822, and became a chapel of ease.

Early history

Documentary evidence for the early history of the church is scanty, although it is considered by some to have existed since AD 314.[2] but there is no archaeological or documentary evidence to support this. The claim is discussed below under Legendary origins.

Phil Emery and Pat Miller discuss the issue in 'Archaeological findings at the site of the St Pancras Burial Ground and its vicinity'. They say: 'The 1847 reconstruction of the medieval church revealed Roman tiles in the fabric of its tower and an inscribed altar stone dated to AD 625, which might suggest an early 7th-century foundation. The original cemetery around the church appears to have been sub-circular like many late Saxon cemeteries.'

Remnants of medieval features and references in the Domesday Book suggest it pre-dates the Norman Conquest.[3] It was known simply as "St Pancras Church" until — in response to 18th- and 19th-century urban expansion — St Pancras New Church was built a little over half a mile away on the south side of what is now the Euston Road.[4]

After the Reformation the church (and to a lesser degree Paddington Church) were the only places in London where Roman Catholics were permitted to be buried[5]


Interior view of the chancel.
Interior looking west.

As it stood in the early 19th century the church consisted of an unaisled nave, a chancel without a chancel arch and a western tower. The south porch had served as a vestry since the 18th century.

By 1847 the Old Church was derelict, but in view of the growth of population in the southern part of the parish, it was decided to restore it. The architect of the alterations was Alexander Dick Gough. The old tower was removed, allowing the nave to be extended westwards, and a new tower was built on the south side. The south porch was removed, and a new vestry was added on the north side. The whole exterior of the church was refaced or reworked.[3] The enlargement and the addition of galleries increased the capacity of the church from about 120 to 500.[6]

Answering a query about the church in the Building News in 1871, Gough's partner in his architectural practice, Robert Lewis Roumieu wrote:

The old church was principally late Tudor. When it was pulled down to be rebuilt, several small Norman columns, pilaster piers and other remains of a Norman edifice were found among the materials used in the wall, leaving no doubt but that the original church had been a Norman structure which had been at some time completely rebuilt and part used as building material in the reconstruction.[7]

There were further restorations in 1888, in 1925 when the plaster ceiling and the side galleries were removed,[3] and in 1948 following Second World War bomb damage. The building was designated a grade II* listed building on 10 June 1954.[8][9]

Present organisation

The church has a chaplaincy to the nearby St Pancras Hospital and since 1 June 2003 has formed part of the Old St Pancras Team Ministry (which also includes St Michael's Church, Camden Town, St Mary's Church, Somers Town and St Paul's Church, Camden Square).[10] On 11 December 2007 it marked the opening of the nearby St Pancras International station with a bilingual service and a twinning with the Church of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul, Paris, near the Gare du Nord, Paris.[11] In 2013 an official appeals project was launched to raise the funds necessary to preserve the church and grounds.[12]

Legendary origins

As early as 1593 the cartographer John Norden had commented in his Speculum Britanniae that the dilapidated St Pancras church looked older than St Paul's Cathedral.[13] By the 18th century there seems to have been a local belief that St Pancras was of very great age, perhaps the oldest church in England. The contemporary London historian William Maitland dismissed this as a "vulgar Tradition", and suggested that there was confusion with the ancient church with the same dedication in Canterbury, which was said to have been converted from a pagan temple by St Augustine of Canterbury in 598.[14]

In 1870 local historian Samuel Palmer reported "This old and venerable church is said to be the first Christian place of worship in the county of Middlesex in the eighth or ninth century."[15] Later attempts to prove an early date for the foundation of the church include the claim by J. Carter Rendell (vicar 1912–26) that a medieval altar slab marked with five consecration crosses, found during the 19th-century building works, could be dated to the 6th century.[16][17]

An earlier vicar is said to have claimed to have seen in the Vatican Library a manuscript mentioning that St Pancras church was built in the 9th century, and another to have seen a similar document placing the foundation in the 4th century.[16][17]

Information panels outside the church today state that it "stands on one of Europe’s most ancient sites of Christian worship, possibly dating back to the early 4th century" and has been a "site of prayer and meditation since 314 AD". The case for these claims seems first to have been argued by local historian Charles Lee in 1955, who wrote:

There can be little doubt that a Roman encampment was situated opposite the site of St Pancras Church about this period, and that the church is on the site of a Roman Compitum, which served as a centre of public worship and public meeting... It seems probable that the Roman Compitum at St Pancras was adapted to Christian worship shortly after the restoration of religious freedom in 313 (taking its name from the recently-martyred Pancras).[16]

Samuel Cooper's grave, Old St Pancras Church, London

Lee's "Roman encampment" was "Caesar’s Camp at Pancras called the Brill", identified by the antiquary William Stukeley in the 1750s.[18][19] However, even Stukeley's contemporaries could see no trace of this camp, and considered that Stukeley had let his imagination run away with him.[20] Gillian Tindall has suggested that the lumps and bumps in the fields to the west of the church that Stukeley interpreted as a Roman camp were actually traces of the original medieval village of St. Pancras, before the centre of the settlement moved north to the area now known as Kentish Town.[21]

Lee's use of the word compitum, properly a Roman temple or shrine situated at a crossroads, indicates his indebtedness to the work of Montagu Sharpe (1856–1942), a Middlesex magistrate, former chairman of the Middlesex County Council and amateur historian and archaeologist.[22] Sharpe had proposed, in a book first published in 1919, that the area of the county of Middlesex had in Roman times been subject to the form of land division known as centuriation, marked out by roads in a regular grid pattern covering the whole county.[23] Sharpe noted, when plotting his gridlines, that a number of ancient parish churches appeared to be on or close to intersections, or at least on road alignments. He concluded that these churches must therefore stand on the sites of pagan compita, and represent the deliberate conversion of pagan temples to Christian use by early missionaries to the Middle Saxons in the 7th century. And St Pancras Old Church is one of those marked on Sharpe's map.

The above makes it clear that there is no reliable evidence for an early date for St Pancras, and that the claims are all based on unsupported speculation, with no archaeological or documentary evidence to back the speculation up.

Internal monuments

The church contains the grave of Samuel Cooper (or Cowper) the miniaturist against its east wall.


Tomb of John Soane

The churchyard, which is the largest green space in the locality, is managed by the London Borough of Camden. It has some fine mature trees, and was restored in the first few years of the 21st century.

The graveyard served not only as a burial place for the parishioners, but also for Roman Catholics from all around London.[24] They included many French refugees (émigrés), especially priests, who had fled the Revolution.[25] Notable people buried in the churchyard include the notorious colonial administrator Joseph Wall who was executed for cruelty in 1802, vampire writer and physician John Polidori, the composer Johann Christian Bach and the sculptor John Flaxman. William Franklin, the illegitimate son of Benjamin Franklin, and last colonial Governor of New Jersey was interred here in 1814. There is a spousal memorial tomb for philosophers and writers Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, though their remains are now in Bournemouth. In 2009, commemorations of the 250th anniversary of Wollstonecraft's birth were held by various groups, both inside the church[26] and at the gravestone.[27] In the 17th and 18th centuries, many foreign dignitaries and aristocrats were buried in the graveyard; they are commemorated on an elaborate memorial commissioned by the philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts, 1st Baroness Burdett-Coutts.

The architect John Soane designed a tomb for his wife and himself in the churchyard, which is now Grade I listed. This mausoleum provided the inspiration for the design by Giles Gilbert Scott of the iconic red telephone boxes.

The Hardy Tree, growing between gravestones moved while Thomas Hardy was working here
The Burdett Coutts Memorial to Lost Graves in Old St Pancras Churchyard
The grave of Abraham Woodhead, Old St Pancras Churchyard, London

Other people associated with the churchyard include the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and the future Mary Shelley, who planned their 1814 elopement over meetings at the grave of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, mentioned above. Charles Dickens mentions it by name in his 1859 novel A Tale of Two Cities, making it the location of body snatching to provide corpses for dissection at medical schools, a common practice at the time. Burials in the churchyard eventually ceased under the Extramural Interment Act in 1854, and St Pancras and Islington Cemetery was opened in East Finchley.[28] In the mid-1860s, the young Thomas Hardy, was in charge of the excavation of part of the graveyard, in the course of the construction of the Midland Railway's London terminus.[29] More burials were removed in 2002

The stone installation by Emily Young and Jeremy Clarke

The churchyard was reopened in June 1877 as St Pancras Gardens, following the movement to allow conversion of disused burial grounds into public gardens. Angela Burdett-Coutts, an important local benefactress, laid the foundation stone of the memorial fountain and sundial she had presented.[30]

A recent addition is a polished marble stone at the entrance to the church, a collaboration between and a gift from the poet Jeremy Clarke and the sculptor Emily Young. It is inscribed: "And I am here / in a place / beyond desire or fear", an extract from the long poem "Praise" by Clarke.

Names of note listed on the Burdett Coutts Memorial as lost

This impressive monument was erected in 1877 when the northern half of the churchyard was formalised as a public park, clearing most of the smaller gravestones. It lists stones lost to this and earlier clearances for the railways.

Other known burials

see [31] and [32]


On 28 July 1968, The Beatles were photographed in the churchyard grounds, in a famous series of pictures designed to promote the single "Hey Jude" and the The White Album.

The video for Lene Lovich's 1979 hit "Bird Song" was filmed in the church and churchyard.

In 2013, British R&B singer Sam Smith performed a live version of his song "I've Told You Now" at the church. It was included on deluxe editions of his album In the Lonely Hour.


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  33. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:Scheemakers


Further reading

External links

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