A Church with Literary Links

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St Pancras Old Church

Not far from the hubbub of the Euston Road located just beyond St Pancras International Station is an architectural gem, which transcends the ages. The origins of the site are believed to date back possibly to 313 or 314 AD, as a place of worship to honour the death of St Pancras, a fourteen year old who was executed by Diocletian in Rome 304 AD. The first recorded mention of the church is in the Domesday Book, and as the years passed more documented evidence was accumulated to testify to its history as a site of worship, and from the 12th century there is a full list of Priests who administered to the needs of the local parishioners.

The church became disused when St Pancras New Church was consecrated in 1822. The church became derelict and was rebuilt in a Norman style during the late 1840s by a local born architect Alexander Dick Gough. Gough with his partner Robert Lewis Roumieu, designed schools, churches and residences in Islington. They also undertook surveys in the Southwest and West for the railway. When the partnership dissolved he built and restored churches, as well as designing schools. The church has undergone a number of restorations over the years especially in 1948 due to war damage.

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Church Interior

The Neo-Romanesque exterior encapsulates a whitewashed interior made up of Roman tiles, a Norman wall and window, and a eleventh century altar stone. These perfect white walls enhance the memorials, which date from the 17th century and later, giving the impression of a tasteful and respectful art gallery.

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The Hardy Tree

Stranger than fiction is The Hardy Tree, an ash tree surrounded by gravestones. The tree and the gravestones have become one entity, strange and beautiful in a weird way. It was created by Thomas Hardy, a young assistant architect working in the practice of Arthur Blomfield. Hardy was given the task of excavating and exhuming the bodies in St Pancras Old Church’s graveyard, ready for the building of the new terminus for the Midland Railway at St Pancras. When the job was complete he was left with several gravestones, which he decided to arrange round the ash tree. A permanent monument to his early career as an architect. Hardy eventually left London and returned to the Southwest to pursue a career in writing which proved to be more successful.

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Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin’s Tombstone

There is a large square grey block of stone that was originally located in a different part of the churchyard. It was erected by William Godwin, the political philosopher and novelist for his wife Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. Mary was a writer, philosopher and an influential advocate of Women’s Rights. She was read by and influenced the writings of among others Jane Austen, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Elliot and Virginia Woolf. She is mostly remembered for writing A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and for being the mother of Mary Shelley. Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin were married at Old St Pancras Church on 29 March 1797. They both did not believe in the principles of marriage but agreed to marry as she was pregnant at the time. She already had an illegitimate daughter by a liaison with Gilbert Imlay. On the 30 August 1797 after a difficult labour Mary gave birth to a daughter, ten days later she died of septicaemia due to complications of the birth. The baby was given the name Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and was baptised on 12 February 1798 at the family church. The years passed and she would visit the grave and it was here that she would rendezvous with Percy Bysshe Shelley. A month after declaring her undying love for Shelley, at her mother’s tomb, she ran away with him to the continent. Mary Shelley had wished to be buried with her parents, but as the graveyard was neglected her son Percy Florence Shelley and her daughter-in-law Jane choose to bury her at St Peter’s Church Bournemouth, near their home at Boscombe Manor. Out of love for Mary they exhumed her parents and reburied them with her.

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Mr William Jones The Sadistic Schoolmaster

Charles Dickens also has strong links to the site, during his childhood he lived in various locations in the Parish. There is a gravestone for a Mr William Jones, a schoolmaster Wellington House Classical and Commercial Academy Hampstead Road. Dickens attended this school at the age of 13 leaving after two years. Jones provided the inspiration for the sadistic schoolmaster, Mr Creakle of Salem House in David Copperfield and some of his other publications. Dickens also used the site for the grave robbers in his novel A Tale of Two Cities. The Burdett-Coutts Memorial Sundial was unveiled by Baroness Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts who was a Victorian philanthropist who worked to rid London of its slums and was a close friend of Dickens.

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“Melancholy day indeed! The burial of all that is dear to me in this world and all I wished to live for.” Sir John Soane

On the 22 November 1815 Elizabeth Soane died and was buried in St Pancras’s graveyard, her husband the renowned architect Sir John Soane was devastated. He designed a monument to her memory covered with symbols of eternity and regeneration. The central Carrara marble cube is enclosed by a Carrara marble canopy supported on four Ionic columns, surrounding this structure is a Portland Limestone balustrade with steps leading into the vault. A hundred years later this monument was influential for the K2 telephone box designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, who was a trustee of the Sir John Soane’s Museum.

I am biased about this church as I have a strong link through my great grandparents who were married here in 1884. Walter was a printer originally from Somerset, and Susan was a milliner from Islington.

This little church has witnessed so many events, and the last resting place of significant people. It knows so many secrets and I am proud to say my family are part of it.

The photos are from the author’s own collection.

 

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Author: heritagehistorian

I am a historian, writer and editor. I spend my time researching architectural history, people and places.

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