November 10, 2012


"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way."
~Charles Dickens (A Tale of Two Cities)



Tucked away behind the Victorian grandeur of St Pancras railway station, St Pancras Old Church(not to be confused with its grander offspring down the road, the cleverly named St Pancras New Church) is an interesting, if obscure, attraction worth missing a train, or two. 
“St Pancras Old Church is truly old. It is reputed to be the oldest church in Britain. Once pleasantly situated on the banks of the River Fleet and overlooking a Roman encampment, the site is thought to have been used for Christian worship well before the arrival of St Augustine at the end of the sixth century. However, the name of the church (and surrounding parish) may date from that mission..." (A Guide to St Pancras Church available from St Pancras Old Church, Pancras Road, London NW1)
History was not kind, bomb damage during World War II and desecration by Satanists in 1985 tell the story of our own times.  Today, however, it shows no glimpse of its traumatic past.

I wandered into the small church and found the spiral staircase open, so I explored the library upstairs full of overstuffed armchairs, and pamphlets on the history and spiritual significance of both the church and the church yard.
Tucked away close to the railway lines is the remarkable sight of an ash tree intertwined with rows of gravestones, known as the Hardy Tree.

What was Hardy doing here?
A plaque next to the tree explains that the famed novelist and poet Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) studied architecture in London from 1862-67 under the Gothic supremo Arthur Blomfield before moving on to full time writing.
During the 1860s the Midland Railway line was being built over part of the original St. Pancras Churchyard. Blomfield was commissioned by the Bishop of London to supervise the proper exhumation of human remains and dismantling of tombs.
He passed this unenviable task to his protegé Thomas Hardy. The headstones around the ash tree would have been placed here about that time. Some of the headstones were placed in a circular pattern around a young ash tree. Over the decades the tree has, inevitably grown and parts of the headstones nearest the tree have disappeared in to its growth.
Charles Dickens makes reference to Old St. Pancras Churchyard in his Tale of Two Cities as the churchyard in which Roger Cly was buried.  Indeed there are a number of French aristocrats who sought refuge in London buried here.

Here too, poet Percy Shelley fortuitously met the young Mary Godwin, future author of 'Frankenstein', whilst she was visiting her mother's grave - her mother being of course Mary Wollstonecraft, author of 'Vindication of the Rights of Women' (a book written long before its time). 
The stone bearing Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin’s name is not hers alone. Her husband erected it soon after her death and, demonstrating an accurate judgement of how history would remember her (a judgement so singularly lacking when he rushed into publication of the too-much, too-soon Memoirs) he had it inscribed thus:

Mary Wollstonecraft
Author of
A Vindication
of the Rights of Woman
Born 27 April 1759
Died 10 September 1797

When Godwin died, nearly four decades later, he was buried in the same place, and his entry was carved on another face of the square, rationalist marker. His second wife survived him by five years, and she too gets one surface. (The final face is left blank; had he needed a third spouse, there was space.) With so many divorces nowadays, will we see a trend for multiple occupancy burial sites?  Polyamorous posterity?
Next to one of the rather magnificent and seriously under appreciated gilded gates sits a placard explaining the gardens. It gives Mary a parenthetical mention, as 'Wife of Important Man'.
Because of the earlier tampering with the graveyard there are few headstones left.  Architect John Soane has a striking tomb of his own design. It is easily recognisable as the prototype design for Giles Gilbert Scott’s iconic London telephone box.

the monument as seen by Giles Gilbert Scott

Johann Christian Bach, youngest son of Johann Sebastian Bach, and Master of Music to Queen Charlotte, is also buried in the churchyard, as is William Franklin, son of Benjamin Franklin, and the last colonial Governor of New Jersey. Although the exact locations are not known and with the railway station having encroached upon the burial ground at least twice it is likely that many ancestors are now underneath the railway arches.

Oh, and Beatles fans may recognise it as the site of a certain ‘Mad Day Out’ photoshoot in 1968.


Charles said...

Wowee, St P churchyard and Skyfall?
Great post!

Syl v O said...

Thank you for this intriguing bio of the church. I will visit next time I'm in London. Great pictures 2.

frenchtoast said...

Nice post.

Anja said...

I have been to some fine concerts there. Glad you discovered this too.

Mona said...

Good morning Ms Edna thank you for the lovely post.
Dear Charles, will Glen Etive ever be the same?

Charles said...

Or the Aston Martin DB5?

Ms Capshaw said...

Thanks for the post, I spent a lovely afternoon there eating lunch! never realizing its fascinating history. Where would I be without your input?

asterix said...

St Pancras became the natural resting place for refugees from the French revolution. As well as aristocrats and their households fleeing the escalating violence of the reign of terror (September 1793–July 1794) some of our ancestors included(paying attention Clive?).
Alas, as you mentioned, difficult to locate.
In 1882, some 16 years after the exhumation process Hardy - by now a celebrated novelist and poet - was moved by his experiences to write a poem, The Levelled Churchyard. Its second verse reads:

…We late lamented, resting here
Are mixed to human jam
And each to each exclaims in fear
I know not which I am!

Thank you Ms. Edna.

frenchtoast said...

...and there I sat and lunched in the company of ancestors. Who knew?

American Expat in London said...

Thanks for this moment of silence.
And thank you for mentioning William Franklin, Johann Christian Bach and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. The day I visited was Mary’s birthday and a red tulip had been placed on top of the memorial.