Thursday, 17 April 2008

Old St Pancras


I was meeting a friend at London's St Pancras International recently and, since I had some time to kill, walked up the road to Old St Pancras church, just behind the station (not a place to linger in after dark!). For some unaccountable reason, I had never been there before, and yet it claims to be one of the oldest Christian sites in the country. Indeed, the sign boldly claims that the church has been 'a site of prayer and meditation since 314 AD.'




There is no hard evidence for the claim, but it is an impressive one to make - the dedication of St Pancras is certainly a very ancient one and may have originated with the mission of St Augustine of Canterbury, who promoted the cults of Roman saints as part of his evangelization of the south-east. In the nineteenth century what was thought to be a sixth century altar stone was found - and immediately dubbed 'St Augustine's Altar'! Some think that the site of the church was a pagan shrine that was converted to Christian use in Roman times, long before St Augustine (and 314, just after the conversion of Constantine, seems a convenient date).

The interior of the (Anglican) church is pleasant enough, with a few old monuments (including that of the minaturist, Samuel Cooper), an exposed bit of Norman wall (on the extreme left of the photo below) and a shrine to Our Lady of Walsingham (out of view). One feels a million miles away from the bustling station nearby!



The most interesting dimension of Old St Pancras is the graveyard, which was once favoured by the Catholic community due to its ancient origins and the tradition that the church was one of the last where Mass was said publicly at the Reformation (the Elizabethan incumbent, a Marian priest, seems to have celebrated Mass in Latin well into the second half of the sixteenth century and was tolerated by the authorities). Several of the Vicars Apostolic were buried in the churchyard, including Bonaventure Giffard, and many of the French refugees during the Revolution (including Archbishop Dillon, whose porcelain false teeth were recently found). Other famous burials include J. C. Bach and Sir John Soane. Next time you're at King's Cross or St Pancras, it's worth popping down Midland Rd (the road in between St Pancras and the British Library) and visiting this site, sanctified by centuries of Catholic associations.

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6 Comments:

Blogger Guhn said...

See Please Here

10:56 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your were fortunate to get into old St Pancras church; it's usually locked for understandable reasons. A large part of the cemetery, including swathes of Catholic graves, was lost when St Pancras Station was built and the land purchased for development.

11:46 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

St Pancras Wells

The river Fleet ran right past the ancient church of St Pancras; this church is raised on a mound called Church Hill. Pancras Wells were situated on the south side of the hill. St Pancras Church is the oldest in London, thought to be founded c. 314 A.D., commemorating the death of the child martyr Pancratius in Rome in 304 A.D. Again, there is a connection with Helen, this time St Helen the mother of the Emperor Constantine. She is said to have founded the the church after her son declared Christianity the official religion due to his vision of the True Cross. The church was built on Roman remains and was probably on a very ancient sacred site. So, although the wells are not mentioned until the 17th century, they were, I think, of great antiquity.

Their first mention occurs in 1697, when the proprietor of a local tavern called the 'Horns' issued a handbill stating their virtues; the waters were declared to have been found 'by long experience, a powerful antidote against rising of the vapours, also against stone and gravel, and as a general and sovereign help to nature'. By 1700 an extensive garden had been laid out with long straight walks, shaded by avenues of trees. There was a Long Room, two pump rooms and a House of Entertainment. The 'Adam & Eve' tavern stood next to the church and in 1722 the proprietor of the wells complained that the good name of the place had suffered by 'the encouraging of scandalous company'.

In June, 1769 the Pancras waters were advertised as being 'in the greatest perfection and highly recommended by the most eminent physicians in the Kingdom'. During the period 1795-1811 the well appears to have been enclosed in the garden of a private house near the churchyard, 'neglected and passed out of mind'. Part of the site of the old well and walks was formerly occupied by the houses in Church Row, where Percy & Mary Shelley lived. These houses were destroyed along with most of St Pancras' churchyard in the massacre of the district by the Midland Railway.



The area of St Pancras and Kings Cross is very rich in 'earth mysteries' material; sadly due to the destruction and loss of the wells, this article may seen devoid of my own personal response to them. However, I did have one of the most 'spiritual' experiences of my life by a well in this area. I went for the first time to visit a friend. At lunch, I could 'feel' a divine presence by the fireplace, very 'pure', very 'loving', with the image in my mind of a shining woman, a Lady of the Well. When the presence disappeared, I asked my host if there was a well nearby; she said there was one in the garden, and that her house had been a convent. Sometimes the rooms were filled with the strong smell of lilies. The whole feeling of the place was very sacred, feminine and warm. It is the only time I have experienced the real 'feeling' of a well. My friends want no publicity and would prefer their address not to be published, so you will have to take my word for it! I am very happy anyway that there is at least one well left where so many have been destroyed.

1:08 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Old St Pancras Church was my Parish Church for many years. It is an oasis of quiet calm in the busy King's Cross area.

Roman roof tiles that can be seen in the north wall as the site was supposedly a temple to the Roman God "Mithras", which was probably used by the Soldiers billeted at the nearby fort at the Brill.

The graveyard to the north of the church belongs to the Parish of St. Giles in the Fields, where many Huguenot and other refugees from France are recorded on the recently restored memorial. Bach's family lie there.

In another part, close to the tomb of John Soane (of British Museum fame) lies the last survivor of the Black Hole of Calcutta.

The headstones moved from the parts of the churchyard when the railway came were placed around one of the huge plane trees and are now gripped firmly in among its roots, hiding the names of the dead forever.

Plague pits were also dug in the 1820's for the many soul's who succumbed to Cholera epidemics. These were often left uncovered until "full" and complaints were made to the Parish Officers!

Indeed, the River fleet still flows past the cemeteries... in a huge black pipe. This can be seen crossing the Regent's Canal.

10:16 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Old St Pancras Church was my Parish Church for many years. It is an oasis of quiet calm in the busy King's Cross area.

Roman roof tiles that can be seen in the north wall as the site was supposedly a temple to the Roman God "Mithras", which was probably used by the Soldiers billeted at the nearby fort at the Brill.

The graveyard to the north of the church belongs to the Parish of St. Giles in the Fields, where many Huguenot and other refugees from France are recorded on the recently restored memorial. Bach's family lie there.

In another part, close to the tomb of John Soane (of British Museum fame) lies the last survivor of the Black Hole of Calcutta.

The headstones moved from the parts of the churchyard when the railway came were placed around one of the huge plane trees and are now gripped firmly in among its roots, hiding the names of the dead forever.

Plague pits were also dug in the 1820's for the many soul's who succumbed to Cholera epidemics. These were often left uncovered until "full" and complaints were made to the Parish Officers!

Indeed, the River fleet still flows past the cemeteries... in a huge black pipe. This can be seen crossing the Regent's Canal.

10:16 pm  
Blogger andy said...

was the graveyard still in use during ww2,my grandad lost of his family when the germans bombed st pancras,im trying to trace where they might be buried the surname was Clapham and you can see the details on cwgc.

8:42 am  

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