Skip to content

At Old St Pancras Churchyard

October 11, 2022
by the gentle author

Tickets are available for my Spitalfields tour throughout October & November


The Hardy Tree

As I arrived at Old St Pancras Churchyard, 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,” describing 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)

You may also like to read about

At St Mary Stratford Atte Bow

At Bow Cemetery

Musical Hall Artistes At Abney Park Cemetery

10 Responses leave one →
  1. marianne isaacs permalink
    October 11, 2022

    I had a wonderful hour or so in this churchyard a few years ago while waiting for the cross channel train . A truly wonderful experience . I felt a great calm to be part of such a long all encompassing past .

  2. Lewis Jones permalink
    October 11, 2022

    Johann Christian Bach (d 1782)
    Carl Friedrich Abel (d 1787)

  3. October 11, 2022

    Another wonderful place in London to spend hours — if you can find the time to do so in London! 🙂

    Love & Peace

  4. October 11, 2022


    I lived near St Pancras in the late 1970s and 1980s and would often walk and sit there. I wrote this poem in 1981.

    Saint Pancras Garden

    Evergreen bushes display the gift of light

    but the older trees cast bare shadows,

    their leaves and history wait for a riper sun.

    Spring wind falters, thickens, striking

    their upper limbs, delivering fat grey pigeons

    toward a man who appears to be throwing

    about scraps of food, or fag ends and stones.

    Some gravestones have been huddled together

    others hidden, for open space, daffodils,

    hyacinths, cut grass, a children’s playground.

    An ash tree rises from a pyramid of headstones,

    They resemble the crippled, blind, possessed,

    leaning toward a life that’s discarded them,

    dead supplicants their names and dates erased.

    The children’s enclosure is tarmacadamed,

    the usual steel and plastic instruments

    arranged inside: slide, swing, see-saw

    roundabout. Occupying the centre, a small

    cracked stone tomb dithering inwards,

    surrounded by a cage of black spiked railings

    through which a small girl pokes a stick.

    Three starched young nurses accompany

    two sexless geriatrics in wheelchairs,

    shrivelled heads bob on bulging totems,

    wrapped and swaddled against the cold

    which children who occasionally break

    from the playground’s cage do not feel,

    the children are singing or screaming.

    A black man hurries through, strapped

    in a railwayman’s uniform, stooped,

    the beginning of curvature of the spine,

    his black skin does not reflect the sun,

    a cigarette hangs from his closed mouth.

    The wind breathes inflating leaves to green

    teasing the nose with an antiseptic tang.

  5. October 11, 2022

    To Stephen Beckett-Doyle: an incredible and unexpected poem. I like it very much and and I try to trace its exact meaning. — I would probably have similar impressions in St Pancras Churchyard, but would fail to put them into such great words …

    Love & Peace

  6. Peter Jackson permalink
    October 11, 2022

    Yet another valuable piece of work, thanks.

    The church and its surroundings are worthy of a few hours meanderings. The collection of 19th century municipal buildings say so much about the social history of the period.
    The Fleet runs [just] under the churchyard – accounting for the sogginess underfoot at times.
    The link with Hardy is fascinating. What a job he was given!

  7. Gillian Tindall permalink
    October 11, 2022

    What must now be 40-odd years ago, when I was researching a book (`The Fields Beneath’) on the way St Pancras rural parish was eventually absorbed in ever-expanding London, I wandered quite a bit in the church-yard. At that time a tombstone commemorating someone who had been imprisoned in the `Black Hole of Calcutta’ (1756) as a young man – and presumably survived to live to old age back in peaceful St Pancras – was decipherable. I have looked for it several times in the last 2-3 years (the gardens being my favourite walking place during lockdowns) but have not found it again. I suspect that 40 more winters have worked to semi-obliterate its message, for the present
    Vicar, Father James, being young enough to be my son, has no knowledge of it. Anyone else recall it?

  8. Frank permalink
    October 12, 2022

    From the west coast of Canada I visited London in 2016. My father was born in Kensington in 1901.
    I had a special priced trip for 10 days focused on aviation museums. I tired of them in 5 days so decided to look over London, particularly Pepys areas. What joy, but I was not very well organized.

  9. Frank permalink
    October 12, 2022

    Part 2. So much to see and absorb, impossible in a short trip. At 82 now, it seems another trip is not in the cards. But some memories are better than no memories. I have the shorter book on Pepys and the book has more meaning even with a abbreviated journey.

  10. October 12, 2022

    I recall the tombstone of the ‘last survivor of the Black Hole’, I came across it prior to writing the above poem. There were many notes and drafts, and initially it was just general interest in St Pancras Churchyar on my part from which the poem arose. I probably spent too much time there! I found this –

    John Mi…
    Struggles on the verge of invisibility
    The cupful of air finally taken away
    Last survivor from the Black Hole of Calcutta
    The history of our times
    Wipes the stone

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS