top of page
  • Writer's pictureRomina Rosso

St. Pancras Old Church

A walk in the past that transformed a tomb in the telephone box and more secret stories.

Joseph Michael Gandy, Perspective design showing the Soane Family Tomb in an imaginary landscape, c. 1816, Sir John Soane's Museum, London

St Pancras Old Church is one of the secret places in London that you would love to discover.

This ancient site was the home of one of the oldest parishes in London, the place of a railways, the inspiration for the iconic telephone box, the childhood of Charles Dickens, a day out for the Beatles and a memorial place of powerful women.

The little hillock on which the church now stands rose above the flood valley of the River Fleet, the largest of London's subterranean rivers.

St Pancras Old Church, London, 1721

Historians have suggested that a Roman encampment was based here, sloping down towards Kings Cross and Euston. The hill may have been the site of a rural shrine, which was later converted to Christian use, making St Pancras Old Church one of the oldest sites of Christian worship in London.

Most churches in England named for the martyr St Pancras have, or may have, ancient origins, suggesting that veneration of the saint spread quickly after his death in 304 AD.

The St. Pancras Old Church you can see today is largely the result of comprehensive restorations of the ancient building.

St Pancras Old Church, external view

The church seems to have escaped the ferocity of the Reformation; legend holds that St Pancras Church was a favourite of Elizabeth I, who allowed Latin mass to continue there, and the memorial to her cook can still be seen inside on the south wall. St Pancras Old Church didn’t, however, escape action during the English Civil War. In November 1642, the Parliament ordered the “deserted Church of St Pancras to be disposed unto lodging for fifty Troupers” and used as stable for horses. It was probably at this time that the remaining treasures at St Pancras were hidden under the tower.

Charles Dickens born just over two hundred years ago (7th February 1812) spent part of his childhood with family friends nearby in Little College Street which is now known as College Place. His parents were at that time in prison for debt. The house has long gone but he described this area as a desolate place surrounded by little else than fields and ditches. He walked a great deal around London gaining inspiration, writing about housing and the canal near here. In A Tale of Two Cities’(1859) St Pancras Churchyard is where Jerry Cruncher and his son came fishing, (body snatching), in this case fishing with a spade. Roger Cly, an Old Bailey spy and character in the same book, was described as being buried here as Mr William Jones, Charles Dickens schoolmaster who provided the inspiration for the ferocious headmaster of David Copperfield.

In 1822 St Pancras New Church was opened, and St Pancras Old Church fell into disuse.

By the 1840s it was virtually in ruins. The industrial expansion of London, however, meant that

St Pancras now sat in a fully populated area, and in 1847-1848 the church underwent a complete restoration.

Rebuilt and enlarged 1847-8 by AD Gough and RL Roumieu who extended the nave westwards.

The medieval features have almost entirely disappeared, but where a section of the north wall has been cleared of plaster, the reveals of the north door and part of its circular arched head can be seen.

Further restorations were made in 1871 and 1888 by AW Blomfield who remodelled the church in 'Norman' style.

In the interior of the church is possible to see the passage of the time in the historical memorials and in the old medieval altar.

St Pancras Old church, internal view

The most interesting side of the area is the Churchyard, that was closed for burials in 1854 and had accommodated centuries of burials. It was the favourite burial place of the Catholic Irish, and during the French Revolution the French Catholic refugees who died in London were buried here.

In the 1860s, over 10.000 graves were excavated to make way for the new London train terminus at St Pancras Rail Station (now the international train station connecting UK to Europe).

The Hardy Tree, Churchyard St Pancras Old Church

The poet Thomas Hardy was employed as an overseer for the architect Arthur Blomfield and was charged with the task of clearing the site to make space for the station’s expansion north. Hardy exhumed the dead and placed their gravestones in a spiral around a tree. Arthur gave rise to one of the churchyard’s most iconic sights, the “Hardy Tree”. The fusing of the living tree and the rescue gravestones fascinates artists and writers to this day.

Elsewhere in the cemetery, the gravestones mark the final resting places of other notable figures: the most imposing is the Mausoleum built by Sir John Soane.

Sir John Soane was one of the most renowned architects of his day, creator of monumental public buildings including the Bank of England, Dulwich Picture Gallery, churches, and country houses, as well as an avid collector of antiquities.

On 22 November 1815 his wife Eliza Soane died and Soane designed a mausoleum in her memory in 1816.

Sir John Soane, The Mausoleum, Churchyard St Pancras Old Church

The mausoleum is built out of gleaming Portland stone, propped up in classical ruin.

When Soane died in 1837, he joined his wife and their elder son John, who died prematurely in 1823, in the tomb that he had designed.

Sir John Soane didn’t know that century later it changed the British streetscape through the strange afterlife of the tomb he designed for his wife, which inspired the design of the iconic red telephone box.

Close to St Pancras station, there is a Victorian gothic masterpiece the Midland Grand Hotel built by Sir George Gilbert Scott. Just under half a century after, the architect’s grandson, Giles Gilbert Scott had entered a competition to design a telephone box.

He was one of three architects invited by the Royal Fine Arts Commission to submit designs for new telephone kiosks. The invitation came at the time Scott was made a trustee of Sir John Soane's Museum. His design was in the classical style, topped with a dome reminiscent of the mausoleum Soane designed for himself in St Pancras Old Church yard and for the Dulwich Mausoleum.

Scott knew the tombs well as a trustee of the Sir John Soane’s Museum for 35 years, and his 1920s creation is now an endlessly imitated landmark in British design.


Sir John Soane, detail of the dome, Churchyard St Pancras Old Church
Red telephone boxes in James Street, London

Though the design of the iconic red telephone box evolved over the years, from the K2 in 1926 to the K6 model in 1935, the structure remained the same: a column-like construction capped, like the tomb, by a domed roof.

Giles Gilbert Scott's design for GPO telephone kiosk number 2: plan, elevations and section, 1924, RIBA Collections

Futhermore in the cemetery, the gravestones mark the final resting places of other notable figures as the British writer, philosopher, and advocate of women's rights: Mary Wollstonecraft, writer of

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) and the mother of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein (1818).

Feminist scholar Sandra Gilbert has argued that Mary's novel is actually a fictional retelling of her very origin life. Mary is the beast, made terrible by an ungodly birth, desperately seeking the acceptance of her father and creator.

Mary's life begun with disaster. She was delivered safely, but her placenta got stuck inside her mother.

A Doctor had to remove its pieces, he did this successfully, but with unwashed hands.

The wound grew infected and 11 days later Mary's mother died.

She was buried in Old St Pancras Burial Ground.

Mary Wollstonecraft's headstone, Churchyard St Pancras Old Church

As Mary grew into a girl this would become her second home.

Her mother also having been called Mary, she learnt to spell her name by tracing a finger across the engravings on her mother's headstone.

When she was older, she read books beside it and this was the place where she was meeting secretly and fell in love with her future husband, Percy Shelley.

Tucked away along the northern side of the Burdett Coutts memorial is a plaque to “The English Bach”.

Johann Christian Bach was music master to Queen Charlotte, wife of George Ill. Born in Leipzig 1735 he was the youngest son of Johann Sebastian Bach. He died on Tuesday 1st January 1782. With Carl Friedrich Abel (1723 – 1787), also buried in the churchyard, foreign musicians were introduced into London in Bach-Abel Concerts.

The Beatles exploded on the popular music scene in the early 1960s. As the decade wore on getting them together in one place became increasingly difficult and the publicity photographs of the group were outdated. On Sunday 28th July 1968 a hop step and a jump from Bach’s two century old resting place, John, Paul, George and Ringo paused on a whirlwind photo shoot. To this day visitors arrive following the path of the Beatles “Mad day out in London”.


Beatles, Mad day out in London, Sunday 28th July 1968, Churchyard St Pancras Old Church
Beatles, Mad day out in London, Sunday 28th July 1968, Churchyard St Pancras Old Church

Burdett Coutts memorial, Churchyard St Pancras Old Church







43 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page