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Behind the British Library, situated between the extensive works of the Channel Tunnel Rail
Link and a housing estate, lies St Pancras Gardens. This public patch of peace, still scattered
with monuments of all shape and fashion, contains towering trees, stunted grass, a network of
carelessly meandering paths and a curious air of melancholy. A tall brick wall at the rear divides
it from the encroaching railway works; a powerful iron fence at the front, through which The
Beatles once peered for a photo opportunity, firmly separates it from the busy thoroughfare of St
The Gardens are the combination of two burial grounds, although the boundary between them
can no longer be traced: the northern section was an extra-parochial ground for St Giles In The
Field, the southern section the ground of St Pancras itself. Here the Old Church remains, one of
the most historic sites in Camden and, believed by some, to be one of the oldest church sites in
Pancras was a Phrygian orphan raised at the court of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. He was
beheaded on the Aurelian Way in 304 AD for refusing to offer incense to the Emperor as a
symbol of worship. He was 14 years old. Some believe that the first church was raised in this
spot only ten years later, on the site of a Roman encampment and on the banks of the River Fleet.
Others claim that the church was actually consecrated after the arrival of St Augustine in 597, as
the monk was known to have an interest in the cult of Pancras.
In truth, either theory may be correct or, indeed, completely wrong. The origins of St Pancras
Church are lost in time. It was certainly restored or rebuilt in Norman times, as the church still
contains material from that period, and a chapel of ease - later dedicated to St John The Baptist -
was built not far away in Kentish Town.
The chapel in Kentish Town proved a touch too convenient. St Pancras, due to its position on the
banks of the Fleet, was prone to flooding and this seems to have encouraged the congregation to
favour the firmer ground at Kentish, leading to the virtual abandonment of the Old Church
which, not surprisingly, fell into disrepair - although the ground surrounding it remained the
burial ground for the parish.
For centuries, the building deteriorated while the burial ground continued to fill. Obscurity did
not accompany this abandonment, and writers scribbled of St Pancras and its ancient
connotations with a tone of awe: Norden, in his Elizabethan 'Speculum Britanniae', describes it
as 'all alone, utterly forsaken, old and weatherbeaten' although it did not 'yield in antiquitie to
Paules in London'. He later added this curious anecdote: 'Although this place be, as it were,
forsaken of all, and true men seldom frequent the same, but upon deveyne occasions, yet it is
visayed by thieves, who assemble not there to pray, but to waite for prayer; and many fall into
their handes, clothed, that are glad when they are escaped naked. Walk not there too late.'
Oliver Goldsmith's 1794 'Citizen Of The World' claims that 'if you except the parish church and
its fine bells, there is little in Pangrace[sic] worth the attention of the curious observer.'
Maximilian Missom compared it in importance to St John Lateran in Rome, and Charles Dickens
mentioned it in 'A Tale Of Two Cities' (appropriately enough, the ground had become a major
burial site for French refugees), but it was not to be until the nineteenth century, with the
explosion of the local population which rose in half a century from 600 to 35,000, that the parish
was to receive a new chance of glory.
The delapidated building on the site of the parish burial ground was considered too 'unworthy' of
some of the area's more opulent residents (in truth, it was probably too small!), and in 1818 a
plot was purchased on the Euston Road for the erection of a replacement. The architects were to
be a local father and son team, William and Henry Inwood. The New Church was consecrated in
1822, its cost £89, 296, the largest amount spent on a church in London since Wren's rebuilding
of St Paul's Cathedral. Its vaults were used for burials - for those who could afford it - while the
majority of burials continued at the Old Church. By the time the burial grounds of St Pancras
were closed in 1854, replaced by the St Pancras & Islington Cemetery, 476 burials lay in the
crypt, including Wiliam Prowse who captained HMS Sirius during the Battle of Trafalgar
However, this was still not enough for the burgeoning population, and in 1848 St Pancras Old
Church was restored in a heavily Victorianised fashion, although traces of its ancient fabric can
still be seen. The tower was replaced and the building lengthened. The churchyard was closed to
new burials, and before long faced a new problem: the rise of the Railway.
The Midland Railway Company would have happily obliterated the ground as it constructed its
tracks into St Pancras Station, but due to public outcry and articles in periodicals such as the
Builder, the damage was reduced to some curtailment on the eastern part of the grounds, an area
that had been popular with local Catholics and had provided the last resting places of many
French notables fleeing from the Revolution. One of the trainee architects involved in the
repositioning of graves was Thomas Hardy. Many gravestones were piled together in a spot
where they have become intertwined with the roots of a tree; this curious reminder of the march
of technology in Victorian London is now known as the 'Hardy Tree' and remains one of the
more unusual curiosities to be found in a London churchyard. The churchyard was landscaped
into a garden in 1891, and today is the largest public space in Camden.
The Victorian period was damaging to many of the churches and church grounds of London, but
of course this was not to be the end of the troubles. World War II saw the Old Church being
renovated once again following bomb damage, and in recent times the churchyard was further
curtailed by the Eurostar workings which still continue today. On this occasion, however,
archaeologists were on hand to help with the removal of some 1500 sets of remains, and the
scientific study of these exhumed remains have revealed that Arthur Richard Dillon, the
colourful Archbishop of Narbonne, was interred with a set of false porcelain teeth! These are
now on display at the Museum of London.
A perambulation of the two sites provides a remarkable contrast. St Pancras New Church is a
magnificent edifice, standing firm against the constant roar of traffic from the neighbouring
Euston Road (this traffic means that the Church faces a perpetual battle to keep the white
Portland stone clean). The Inwoods turned to the Classical world for inspiration. They based
their design for the church building upon the Ionic Temple of the Erectheum at the Acropolis.
This building is famous for its caryatids, sculptered female supports taking the place of pillars -
and the most eye-catching feature of the New Church are the caryatids, four on the north and
four on the south, built of terracotta around cast-iron columns by John Rossi, guarding the
entrances to the crypts. An error during their construction meant that they were too tall, and they
had to be truncated at the waist. The tower is an inflated copy of the 'Tower Of The Winds', by
Andronicus Cyrrhestes, found on the Roman agora in Athens.
The impressive entrance portico dwarfs the entrance to an octagonal vestibule, and a clear view
down the axis of the church displays the apse at the other end, ringed with six magnificent Ionic
columns. Remarkable apses seem to be a feature along this road - further west, the broadly
contemporary church of St Marylebone also boasts an impressive apse. The interior of St Pancras
is very spacious and very high. Extensive galleries exist above the aisles and the pulpit, veneered
in mahogony, towers over the pews. It was created from the 'Fairlop Oak' in Hainult Forest,
toppled by wind in 1820. The windows, originally clear, have been gradually replaced by stained
glass, most notably the three panels by Clayton and Bell in the apse. More recent innovations can
be seen in the North Chapel, which has a screen of etched glass dating from 1970.
The church is still a vital part of the community. During the War, the cleared crypts were used to
shelter the local populace from the bombs which damaged the Old Church, and more recently
flowers were laid at the entrance after the 7/7 bombings, one of which happened close by at
King's Cross. The sculptor Emily Young created a memorial, an onyx head of the Archangel
Michael, its plaque inscribed with 'In memory of the victims of the 7th July 2005 bombings and
all victims of violence. 'I will lift up my eyes unto the hills' Psalm 121'.
Sir John Summerson stated, 'St Pancras is the Queen of the early 19th century churches; its
architecture earns it the title as much as its size and cost'. In marked contrast, the older Church,
tucked away to the north-east, may seem humble and sidelined, but it is certainly no less
venerable. The length of its history alone guarantees equal worth with its formidable descendant.
New Church has been listed Grade I, the Old Church Grade II, but the elder stateman sits quietly
above Pancras Road, course of the now subterranean Fleet, seemingly oblivious to the hum of
the traffic and the cacophony of construction. It is indeed curious to notice just how peaceful the
old churchyard seems, considering that it surrounded by top representatives of 21st Century
To meander through the gardens is to wander through the faded glory of history itself. Various
features catch the eye. A range of monuments, of varying styles and antiquity, culminating in the
fence-ringed Mausoleum of the architect John Soane. This structure, designed by Soane himself
and crowning the family vault, is one of only two grave memorials in London that has been listed
(the other is Karl Marx at Highgate). Its shape was the inspiration for the famous red telephone
boxes. The Hardy Tree, sitting snugly behind the church and almost seeming to defy the
encroachment of the huge brick wall separating it from the Eurostar works. The Burdett-Coutts
memorial sundial, holding the names of many of the notables who rest in this grouns, with
particular emphasis on the French emigres. At the base of its protective fence can be found a
supine memorial to Johann Christian Bach, the composer and son of the composer Johann
Sebastian. Known as the 'English Bach', he rests nearby.
Other notable memorials can be traced. A squat block stands above the burial site of the authors
William Godwin and his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft. Their daughter, Mary Godwin, used to meet
her beau Shelley at this spot. The Godwins were removed to St Peter's, Bournemouth in 1851, to
rest alongside their daughter, yet the original memorial remains here. Not far from this, right by
the side of a path, can be seen two ledgers with faded inscriptions, that cover the vault of sculptor
John Flaxman and members of his family. A plaque fixed to one gravestone reveals it to be the
marker of William Jones, schoolmaster to Charles Dickens. Behind the church, close to the
Hardy Tree, can be seen a stone for Samuel Webbe the church musician. In the church itself lies
Samuel Cooper, considered by many to have been the greatest painter of miniatures.
Many others lie in spots now unmarked, some of them memorialised on the Sundial, others not:
• James Barenger, painter of animals
• Tiberius Cavallo, scientific essayist
• Jeremy Collier, clergyman and polemicist against the stage
• Chevalier D'Eon, French diplomat, spy and transvestite
• William Franklin, Colonial Governor and son of Benjamin
• Giacomo Leoni, architect of Lyme Park
• John Mills, last survivor of the Black Hole of Calcutta
• John William Polidori, Lord Byron's doctor and author of 'The Vampyr'
• Simon Francois Ravenet, engraver
• Thomas Scheemakers, sculptor
• William Woollett, engraver
• Mary Young, the infamous pickpocket 'Jenny Diver'
Jonathan Wild, the notorious thieftaker turned criminal, was also buried here following his date
with the gallows; however, he was stolen by Resurrectionists and apparently ended up in the
hands of the dissection lobby.
Once sited in liminal areas, the Churches of St Pancras now stand surrounded by the bustle of
Camden, yet still they dominate. The history of the entire area begins with these buildings, and
they have proved obstinately resistant to the ever-changing landscapes around them. The grime
on the New Church will continue to be removed, the Old Church will continue to cast its faded
gentility across its environs. Without the Churches of St Pancras, there would BE no area named
St Pancras in London. They have been here possibly since Roman times, the first significant
buildings in the locality, and they will endure.
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