15 June 2022

Corroding Caryatids and
the two churches at
Saint Pancras, old and new

Saint Pancras Old Church, London … a warm welcome for two visitors last week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Walking between Euston Station and King’s Cross, many people are struck by Saint Pancras New Church and its two sets of caryatids, inspired by the Erechtheion on the Acropolis, and its vestibule and tower inspired by the Tower of the Winds in Athens.

The church was completed 200 years ago in 1822, to serve what was then a fashionable end of Bloomsbury and with seating for 2,500 people. It cost £76,679 to build, making it the most expensive church to be built in London since the rebuilding of Saint Paul’s Cathedral.

When Saint Pancras New Church opened in 1822, Saint Pancras Old Church, about 900 metres away, fell into disuse, and it was virtually in ruins by the 1840s. However, the industrial expansion of London brought in a new population, and the Church underwent a complete restoration in 1847-1848.

Inside Saint Pancras Old Church, London, facing east (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Last week, while two of us were visiting London, we received a warm welcome from the Team Rector, Father James Elston, and many of the parishioners.

The Parish of Old Saint Pancras was formed in 2003 and its boundary stretches from Euston and King’s Cross in the south to Camden Lock in the north. It includes Saint Pancras Old Church and three other churches, Saint Michael’s Church, Camden Town, Saint Paul’s Church, Camden Square, and Saint Mary’s Church, Eversholt Street, Somers Town, which is closed for urgent repairs.

Saint Pancras Old Church has the appearance and atmosphere of a much-loved country church in the heart of London. It stands as witness to the enduring faith for which its young patron, Saint Pancras, died in 304.

The shrine of Saint Pancras was installed in the church in 1978 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The little hillock on which the church now stands rose above the flood valley of the River Fleet. Historians suggest a Roman encampment was based here, sloping down towards King’s Cross and Euston. The hill may have been the site of a rural shrine that was later converted to Christian use, making Saint Pancras Old Church one of the oldest sites of Christian worship in London.

Local lore claims Saint Pancras Old Church is, perhaps, even the oldest church in England, possibly dating back to the early 4th century. Many accounts date it to 313 or 314.

Inside Saint Pancras Old Church, London, facing west (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Although little remains of the original medieval church, the church has been on this site since the 11th or 12th century. By the 11th century, Saint Pancras was in the demesne (or domain) of Saint Paul’s, and the Domesday Book records in 1085 Walter, a canon of Saint Paul’s, who was attached to Saint Pancras.

The church was ruinous in the 13th century, and a survey in 1297 noted that ‘the churchyard is befouled by animals.’

The church was rebuilt in the 14th century, and half abandoned in the 16th century. But it seems to have escaped the ferocity of the Reformation; legend holds that Saint Pancras Church was a favourite of Elizabeth I, who allowed the Latin Mass to continue there, and the memorial to her cook can still be seen on the south wall.

The reredos was designed by Arthur Blomfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The church was restored in the 17th century. But during the English civil war, it was used as a barracks and stable for Cromwell's troops. Before the troops arrived, the church’s treasures were buried and lost.

By the 18th century, its primary use was as a burial ground, as well as a place to go for a quick wedding, with no questions asked. For this reason, probably, a pregnant Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin were married there in 1797. She was buried in the churchyard later that year shortly after the birth of her daughter, the future Mary Shelley.

Saint Pancras New Church opened in 1822, and Saint Pancras Old Church fell into disuse. By the 1840s, it was virtually in ruins. The industrial expansion of London, however, meant that Saint Pancras was in a fully populated area, and in 1847-1848 the church underwent a complete restoration.

The Norman door at the west end of Saint Pancras Old Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The architect AD Gough wanted to renovate the church in line with its 12th century foundations, adding new windows and doors, a new north vestry and dismantling the 13th century west tower, adding a new bell tower on the south wall instead.

During these works, many of the items lost in the Cromwellian era were recovered, including a sixth century altar stone said to have been used by Saint Augustine of Canterbury, an Elizabethan silver chalice, an Elizabethan or Jacobean flagon and an Elizabethan paten that is used to this day at the Sunday Mass.

The Saint Pancras Old Church two of us visited last week is largely the result of the restorations of 1847, 1888 and 1925. The reredos is by Arthur Blomfield (1888), and was restored to its original position beneath the East Window in 1985. The carved panels from the old pulpit are ascribed to a pupil of Grinling Gibbons.

Saint Pancras Old Church retains a relationship with Saint Paul’s Cathedral to this day: the Dean and Chapter are the patrons, presenting a new priest whenever a vacancy arises.

The Soane Mausoleum was designed by Sir John Soane … did inspire Gilbert Scott’s design of the telephone box? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The burials in the churchyard include Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, the parents of Mary Shelley (1797-1851), the author of Frankenstein.

The Soane Mausoleum was designed by Sir John Soane, the celebrated architect of the Bank of England, following his wife’s death. Soane’s monument looks for all the world like a telephone box, yet it predates the telephone box by almost a century. That design competition in the 1920s was won by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, grandson of George Gilbert Scott, who designed the Saint Pancras Hotel. As a trustee of the Sir John Soane Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Soane’s design from a century earlier must have rung a bell.

Charles Dickens refers to Old Saint Pancras Churchyard in his Tale of Two Cities (1859).

Thomas Hardy placed the headstones around ‘Hardy’s Tree’ in Saint Pancras Old Churchyard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Sadly, the churchyard is about to lose the Hardy Tree, which is being felled due to disease. The novelist and poet Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) once studied architecture in London from 1862-1867 under Arthur Blomfield.

When the railway line was being built over part of the original Saint Pancras Churchyard in the 1860s, Blomfield was commissioned to supervise excavating 10,000 graves. The task fell to his protégé Thomas Hardy, who placed the headstones around the ash tree that became known as Hardy’s Tree.

Although the churchyard closed to burials in 1850, the Burdett Coutts Memorial Sundial was erected in 1877-1879, at the behest of Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906), 1st Baroness Burdett-Coutts. Her sister Clara married the Revd James Drummond Money (1800-1875), who was one of predecessors as Vicar of Askeaton in 1830-1833. Clara and James were the parents of Francis Burdett Thomas Nevill Money-Coutts (1852-1923), later the 5th Baron Latymer.

The ornate gothic sundial records on each side many notable figures who were buried in the churchyard and their professions, including French émigrés from the time of the Revolution.

The two sets of caryatids at Saint Pancras New Church were inspired by the Erechtheion on the Acropolis in Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

As for Saint Pancras New Church, which opened 200 years ago in 1822, it was designed by a local architect William Inwood and his son Henry William Inwood, who based their designs on the Erechtheion on the Acropolis, while the vestibule and tower were inspired by the Tower of the Winds in Athens.

The two sets of four caryatids are carved and draped female figures, used as pillars to support the entablature above their heads. They stand above the north and south entrances to the crypt.

They were modelled by John Charles Felix Rossi (1762-1839), but differ from the originals in that each one of these holds an empty water ewer and an inverted, extinguished torch, as a symbol of their standing guard over the crypt.

The massive figures are of terracotta, cemented together round pillars of cast iron. A close inspection reveals the marks where the sections of each caryatid were joined. The need to move them in sections led to the stories that when the statues arrived to be put in place, they were too tall to fit into the gap that they were to fill in the porticos. It is said the only way to install them was to either cut away or leave out the midriff of each figure.

Although some of the statues look squat when viewed from certain angles, others look serene and elegant. It all may be a matter of perspective.

Sadly, the metal clamps in the statues are now corroding, expanding and cracking the structure. A radar survey assessed the extent of the metal fractures last year (2021), and this will inform a planned restoration project.

The Revd Anne Stevens has been the Vicar of Saint Pancras since 2012. She was ordained in 1991, and has worked in parishes in Greenwich and Battersea, as a chaplain of Trinity College Cambridge, and as the Director of Reader Training in the Diocese of Southwark.

The regular services at Saint Pancras New Church include the Sunday Choral Eucharist at 10 am and a mid-week Holy Communion at 1.15pm on Wednesdays.

The Caryatids on the Erechtheion on the Acropolis in Athens inspired the two sets of caryatids at Saint Pancras New Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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