St. Pancras Old Church
R. L. Roumieu and A. D. Gough
St. Pancras Old Church Churchyard, London
[See commentary below]
Photograph and text 2006 by Jacqueline Banerjee.
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Christ's sacred Altar
there first Britain saw
And gaz'd and worshipp'd
with an holy awe. — "St Pancras Old Church,"The Gentleman's Magazine XIX (1749): 276)
In gardens just behind two great London railway termini (King's Cross and St Pancras) stands a small church with a big history. St Pancras Old Church is truly old. It is reputed to be the oldest church in Britain — maybe even the oldest of all Christian churches. 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. The Roman martyr Pancras was beheaded in 304 AD when he was about 14 years old, and the Basilica of St Pancratius, which preserves the site his martyrdom, is close to where St Augustine lived in Rome: "Hence his devotion to the boy-saint and desire to spread his cult" (A Guide to St Pancras Old Church, p. 2).
The church building covers many periods. Roman bricks and tiles and Norman masonry have been found in the North wall of the nave, and as late as the early nineteenth century the church had a modest and proportionate thirteenth-century tower complete with weather vane. But in 1822 a lavish new parish church was built closer to the city, in Greek Revival style, on what is now the Euston Road. This new church, with its impressive Ionic portico and side pavilions with terracotta caryatids, reduced the old one to the role of a Chapel of Ease, and it quickly fell into disrepair. By the time the move to restore it began, with the coming of the railways and the spreading out of London's population, it needed to be radically rebuilt. This work was carried out by the Huguenot architect R. L. Roumieu and his partner A. D. Gough in 1847-48.
The Church Guide describes the rebuilding as "ruthless," and particularly decries the removal of the old West Tower and the addition of a new tall and ornate "Belgian style" bell tower on the site of the old South porch (p. 7). It records with evident relief that this tower wore badly, and the top part had to be removed, leaving it as it is today. Mention is also made in the Guide of the "undistinguished cladding of nineteenth century ceiling plaster" (p. 8) inside the church, which was removed later to reveal the beautiful old timbers beneath. Another phase of refurbishment later in the Victorian period, in 1888, is recorded with disapproval as well. This may all be a matter of taste, but it does seem that the disinterrments in the graveyard (see The Hardy Tree) were not the only indignities forced on this ancient church by the Victorians.
The simple interior is not at all Victorian in appearance. This is because the side galleries and fixed pews which had transformed the old church into a "preaching box in the evangelical tradition" (Guide p. 7) were removed along with the offending ceiling cladding in the twentieth century. On the other hand, all remnants of the early centuries (a sixth-century altar stone, an eighteenth-century font cover and so on) have been lovingly preserved. Unfortunately, bomb damage during World War II and desecration by Satanists in 1985 also tell the story of our own times.
A Guide to St Pancras Church (available from St Pancras Old Church, Pancras Road, London NW1).
Last modified 14 April 2006