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At St Pancras Old Churchyard

June 28, 2015
by the gentle author

The Hardy Tree

As I arrived at Old St Pancras Churchyard yesterday, the Verger was sweeping leaves from the steps and she informed me there was a wedding taking place inside the church. Yet I was more than happy to explore this most ancient of central London churchyards for an hour while the nuptials were in progress.

The churchyard itself is upon a raised mound that is the result of all the hundreds of thousands of burials upon this ground which is claimed to be one of the earliest sites of Christian worship in London, recorded by the Maximilian Mission as already established by the year 324. Such is the proximity of St Pancras Station, you can hear the announcements from the platforms even as you wander among the tombs, yet an age-old atmosphere of tranquillity prevails here that cannot be dispelled by the chaos and cacophony of contemporary King’s Cross and St Pancras.

However, the railway has encroached upon the churchyard increasingly over the years and, in the eighteen-sixties, architect Arthur Blomfield, employed Thomas Hardy as his deputy, responsible for exhumations of the dead. Tombstones were arranged around an ash tree which has absorbed some of them into its trunk over time and acquired the name ‘The Hardy Tree,’ commemorating this unlikely employment for the young novelist whose subsequent literary works express such an inescapable morbidity.

Once the bride and groom emerged from the church door, the Verger ushered me in through the back and I was delighted by the intimate quality of the church interior, studded with some impressive old monuments. The Verger relished telling the tale of St Pancras, beheaded by the Emperor Diocletian in Rome in 304 at the age of fourteen for refusing to renounce his faith.

When the cloth had been removed from the altar after the ceremony, I was able to view the small sixth century altar stone, marked with five crosses of curious design, of which the only other examples are upon the tomb of Eithne, mother of St Columba, on the Hebridean island of Luing, dated to 567. A modest piece of Kentish rag stone, there is a legend this once served as an altar for St Augustine.

“We try to fall down every two hundred years,” explained the Verger breezily, drawing my attention to the alarming cracks in the wall and outlining the elaborate history of collapse and rebuilding that has produced the appealing architectural palimpsest you discover today.

Outside in the June sunshine, the newly-married couple were getting their wedding photographs taken, while rough sleepers slumbered among the graves just as the long-gone rested beneath the grass. A text carved nearby the entrance of the church reads “And I am here in a place beyond desire and fear,” expressing the quality of this mysterious enclave in the heart of London perfectly.

The Vestry

St Pancras Coroners

Sir John Soane’s tomb of 1837 inspired Giles Gilbert Scott’s design for the telephone box

Baroness Burdett Coutts was responsible for the vast gothic memorial sundial

Mary Wollstonecraft, born in Spitalfields and buried in Bournemouth, but commemorated here with her husband William Godwin

The grave of Charles Dickens’ school teacher, William Jones, believed to be the inspiration for the ferocious Mr Creakle in David Copperfield. “By far the most ignorant man I have ever had the pleasure to know … one of the worst tempered men perhaps that ever lived.”

Norman stonework uncovered in the renovation of 1848

The seventh century altar stone is incised with crosses of Celtic design

“O passenger, pray list and catch
Our sighs and piteous groans,
Half stifled in this jumbled patch
Of wrenched memorial stones!”

“We late-lamented, resting here,
Are mixed to human jam,
And each to each exclaims in fear,
‘I know not which I am!’”

Thomas Hardy, The Levelled Churchyard (1882)

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16 Responses leave one →
  1. June 28, 2015

    Fantastic photos. I look forward to seeing the churchyard next time I visit London. I never knew that there was a church so close to the train station!

  2. June 28, 2015

    Sic transit Gloria mundi.

  3. June 28, 2015

    “There’s not a modest, maiden elf
    But fears the final trumpet
    Lest half of her should rise herself
    And half some local strumpet.”

    Hardy himself ended up buried half in Dorset, half a Londoner. He remembered to a colleague the time, while carrying out the relocation of graves, that they found a skeleton with two skulls.

  4. June 28, 2015

    Nice post – thank you. Bradshaw took me to the church in December 2013 when the light was quite different, but I felt the same quiet, mood of antiquity in this very atmospheric place and I also tried to capture it in photographs.

  5. June 28, 2015

    I am stunned such a beautiful, unspoilt place sits beside King’s Cross/St Pancreas! I thought nothing of ‘old London’ was allowed to exist around that area now given it’s current modernising which gets worse every time I go. I am making a plan to visit this next time I pull into the station!

  6. June 28, 2015

    Thank you for these wonderful posts

  7. June 28, 2015

    A very romantic Site …

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  8. June 28, 2015

    Wonderful!

  9. Pauline Taylor permalink
    June 28, 2015

    Thank you so much gentle author for this, St Pancras Old Church is of great interest to me as my 3xgreat grandparents took two of their children there to be baptized on 27 October 1807. Mary Ann Seir Greenwood, born on 23 May 1804, and Charles Seir Greenwood, born 9 September 1807. Sadly Charles Seir Greenwood was to die, aged only 10 months, and he was buried in the churchyard of St Pancras Old Church on 17 July 1808. The parents, Charles Greenwood, who was coachmaker and a coachtrimmer, and Ann his wife, had several more children; twins, Charles Sayer Greenwood and James Sayer Greenwood, William Greenwood, Henry Greenwood, Joseph Greenwood, John Greenwood and Alfred Greenwood. Joseph Greenwood was my 2xgreat grandfather and his brother, James Sayer Greenwood (1809-1891), was the father of Frederick Francis Greenwood (1830-1909) and James William Greenwood (c1832- 1927) which means that St Pancras Old Church has connections with two more literary figures!

    Frederick Francis Greenwood was an author and the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, he wrote for a variety of newspapers and journals, and he wrote the final chapter of Wives and Daughters after Mrs Gaskell died unexpectedly in 1866. He also had a great interest and influence in politics at the time.

    His brother, James William Greenwood, was a successful children’s author, beginning with a novel ‘Under a Cloud’ which he wrote with Frederick Francis, this was first published serially in ‘The Welcome Guest’, and in 1860 as a separate volume; he then went on to produce more than thirty children’s novels some of which were illustrated by Ernest Griset, an artist born in France but known as the English Dore. But James William Greenwood is best known for his account of a night which he spent, disguised as a tramp, in Lambeth Workhouse. This account was published in three successive issues of the Pall Mall Gazette by Frederick Francis. James William then went on to write and lecture as the ‘Amateur Casual’ for the next thirty years, producing further observations of the poor districts of London again disguised as a tramp.

    Known to his friends as Jimmy or Bill, James was said to have known Dickens and this is probably true as a relative of Frederick Francis recalled in her memoirs, when she was over 100 years old, that she could remember meeting Mr Dickens and Mr Thackeray in her uncle Frederick’s house, she didn’t like Mr Dickens very much but Mr Thackeray was very nice!

    Works by James William Greenwood are now sought after but very scarce so even I, with my booksellers hat on, have not been able to acquire any.

    Pauline.

  10. June 28, 2015

    A church I didn’t know existed until now. Fascinating to read and hope to see one day. I love the idea of the grave stones becoming subsumed into the tree and that the church has survived even though it is so close to one of London’s busiest railway stations.

  11. cynthia booker permalink
    June 29, 2015

    I have only seen (and studied) the church on Google street view, so I thank the author for such interesting detail, and of course the fantastic photographs.

  12. Cathy K permalink
    June 30, 2015

    Thank you for your blog and these beautiful photos. I felt that I had walked with you there!

  13. Peter Holford permalink
    June 30, 2015

    I’ve just been catching up after a week away and was delighted to see this post. I spent a mere 30 minutes in this churchyard a couple of years ago. I would have liked more but there was a time limit on getting from Euston to my next train at Waterloo. Half of my grandmother’s family (the Staffords) were christened, married and buried in this church before the new church was built opposite Euston Station. The new church is a remarkable building in its monumentality but this one has far more character.

    Unfortunately I didn’t find any family tombs – the wood probably rotted away years ago!

  14. margaret mac permalink
    July 3, 2015

    Thank you once again for a wonderful contribution. I know the church is very close to St Pancras but I am not very mobile. If you could spare the time could you tell me how close?. I believe you go out of St P to where the taxi rank is but not sure where from then. I appreciate your blog so much, it brings all the delights of London to me.

  15. the gentle author permalink*
    July 3, 2015

    It is a ten minute walk out of the back of St Panrcas International Station. If you are not very mobile get a taxi from King’s Cross to the churchyard gates.

  16. July 24, 2015

    St Pancras has just moved to top of my to-visit list for my next trip to London (whenever that may be)! What a wealth of fascinating history.

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