St Pancras Gardens
Here Lies …
Here lies Adam’s glory which ‘shall never pass away’! Here, though, come the martyr’s icy fingers every May. Here lies King Death’s last hurrah with his subcommittees. Here the dispossessed inherit the new rail of two cities. Here lies an architect, in one of only two. Here’s the thing: it’s his design, and we all share it too. Here lies an immortal force; vampires; living dead. Here romanticism breeds. Here, the wild get wed. Here lies Mozart’s mentor, remembered on a plaque. Here is where we left him, and deigned to call him Back. Here lies old faith ancestry; God bless ’em, every one. Here sits Queen Bee’s obelisk waiting for the sun. Here lies a root of hope to countervail our dread: Here grows high a Hardy tree to laurel all the dead.
St Pancras Old Church claims to be one of the oldest sites of Christian worship in the world. Pancras was a fourteen-year-old boy beheaded during the reign of Emperor Diocletian in the year 304. Some say a church was established here just ten years after his death, though this is disputed.
The parish of St Pancras practically stretched from the West End of London to Highgate. In 1822, the status of parish church passed to St Pancras New Church, which was consecrated on the New Road (Euston Road) half a mile away. However, St Pancras Old Church still operates as a place of worship today.
The church was rebuilt several times over the centuries. The seventeenth-century version was depicted in several prints in the early nineteenth century. At the gateway to the church sat the Adam and Eve tavern, which was demolished in the 1870s when the churchyard was formalised as a public park.
The last major reconstruction of the church was completed in 1848 by architect and local parishioner Alexander Gough. During these works, Roman tiles were revealed in the fabric, but ones that had been reused. They also found an inscribed altar stone dated to the year 625 and said to belong to St Augustine of Canterbury. According to archaeological expert Phil Emery, these elements suggest a Saxon foundation about three centuries later than originally claimed, but still of considerable antiquity.
Archaeological records show that the original graveyard design dated back to the church’s Saxon period. Therefore, it must be regarded as one of the oldest Christian burial places in England.
The Ice Saints or Saints de Glace, St Mamertus, St Pancras and St Servatius, are so named because their feast days fall on the days of 11, 12 and 13 May respectively, roughly corresponding with the spring frosts that some gardeners dub ‘the blackthorn winter’.
In 2005, I spoke to a surveyor from the St Pancras International construction project who was supervising the impact of the Eurostar rail extension on the churchyard. She told me that during excavations, several corpses had been dug up from what looked like a medieval plague pit. British workers refused to touch them, and foreign labour was used to exhume and relocate the bodies.
It has been asserted that many Roman Catholics were burnt here in Queen Elizabeth I’s reign and that it became a favoured Catholic place of interment. Indeed, it is claimed that the last bell tolled for the old Catholic mass in England was at St Pancras.
In the 1650s, Oliver Cromwell’s cavalry troops used the burial ground as a stable yard during the Civil War.
Jonathan Wild, ‘Thief-Taker General’, was buried alongside his wife in St Pancras churchyard in 1725, next to the church where they had been married four years earlier.
Wild is one of the most fascinating characters from the dark chapters of London’s past. On the one hand, he formed an early skeleton of the modern police force, championing law and order as the self-proclaimed ‘Thief-Taker General’. On the other, he was one of the most powerful overlords ever known in the world of organised crime.
Wild’s ‘Corporation of Thieves’ comprised a huge army of crooks. In a great scam, they masqueraded as the returners of stolen goods at the Office of Recovery of Lost and Stolen Property. It was almost certain the goods were originally stolen by the gang members, and then ransomed back at a price. He also controlled a vast underworld network of spies, destroying all suspected rivals. He betrayed at least 120 men to hang, half of whom were his own accomplices. His evidence also helped to convict the popular rogue Jack Sheppard, whose defiance of Wild made him a hero. Wild was later caricatured as Peachum in John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, with Sheppard the original inspiration behind ‘Mack the Knife’.
Wild was convicted and hanged for stealing lace! Shortly after his burial, his body was dug up and sold for dissection. Today his skeleton is on display at the Hunterian Museum, inside the Royal College of Surgeons, which sits directly opposite Sir John Soane’s Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
Somewhere in the churchyard lie the remains of the German composer Johann Christian Bach (1735–82). The youngest son of J S Bach, his own contribution to music is immeasurable: during the 1760s he spent several years in London teaching one of the greatest composers of all, Mozart. Despite his legacy, J C Bach’s body rests in an unknown pauper’s grave. All we have to remind us of his burial here is a faded inscription on a small grey stone plaque. It’s propped up against a railing. Meanwhile, his name is lazily spelt in the burial register as John Cristian Back.
The founder of modern feminism, Mary Wollstonecraft, married the philosopher William Godwin at St Pancras Old Church. Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, she was also buried here in 1797 after she died from complications brought on during the birth of her daughter Mary. Seventeen years later, it is said that the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley fell in love with Mary Godwin after assignations at her mother’s grave, and planned their elopement to Switzerland. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published shortly afterwards, was partly inspired by her visits to this graveyard. A memorial tomb for Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin still remains, though their true graves are now in St Peter’s church, Bournemouth.
St Pancras churchyard has always had a strong French connection. In the early nineteenth century, a large number of refugees, driven from France during the revolution, were buried here. Amongst them were several French bishops, noblemen and diplomats.
In the 1820s, vampire writer and physician John Polidori was buried in St Pancras churchyard, as was the great sculptor John Flaxman, a man who made heroes immortal.
Sir John Soane (1753–1837) was a classical architect who obsessively collected relics of buildings past, as can be seen in his peculiar labyrinthine museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. In St Pancras churchyard he built an impressive mausoleum for the burial of his beloved wife and was later interred in it himself. The mausoleum is one of only two Grade I listed funerary monuments in London (the other being Karl Marx’s tomb in Highgate). The structure’s canopy inspired the twentieth-century architect Giles Gilbert Scott in his design for the roof of the famous red telephone box.
Charles Dickens made the churchyard the location of a body-snatching scene in his 1859 novel A Tale of Two Cities, set in London and Paris at the time of the French Revolution. The gravestone of Dickens’s former schoolmaster William Jones can also be found here. He was the inspiration for Mr Creakle, the cruel headmaster of Salem House in David Copperfield.
The churchyard grew considerably over the centuries and was enlarged several times, particularly during the post-medieval period as London morphed into a monster metropolis. There was a major expansion between 1792 and 1802 when the church of St Giles-in-the-Fields acquired the adjacent land as a burial ground extension. By the 1850s, the necropolis around St Pancras Old Church stretched across eight acres.
Both graveyards were closed for burials in 1854. In the early 1860s, the Midland Railway were laying the foundations for the new St Pancras station. The company got permission to drive their tracks directly through the old graveyard without necessarily removing thousands of buried remains. A public outcry forced the Bishop of London to ask architect Arthur Blomfeld, designer of London’s Royal College of Music and himself the son of a former Bishop of London, to exhume and remove the bodies before the construction.
In 1865, Blomfeld employed his assistant, the young novelist Thomas Hardy, to supervise the workers. Struggling for space on the limited hallowed ground they arranged for some of the headstones from the disturbed graves to be placed in a circle in St Pancras churchyard where an ash tree later grew. One evening, Blomfeld and Hardy watched as a coffin disintegrated, revealing a skeleton with two skulls. Years later, when they met again, Blomfeld reminded the now-established writer about the incident: ‘Do you remember how we found the man with two heads at St Pancras?’’
Queen bee refers to Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts, one of the richest women of the nineteenth century. The banking heiress, also known as the Queen of the Poor, ploughed much of her own personal fortune into a variety of philanthropic causes, including women’s employment and education, child welfare, animal protection, military hospitals and international relief projects.
Burdett-Coutts helped the poverty-stricken of London by building new housing and public spaces. She oversaw the conversion of disused or dilapidated burial grounds into gardens for local residents, including the churchyard of St Pancras Old Church. Here she presented an impressive fountain and sundial (now Grade II listed) as a memorial to graves lost in the clearances.
In the summer of 1968, the Beatles reunited for the first time in several months to record the White Album. The famous opening lyrics, ‘Hey, Jude, don’t be afraid …’ were about to be conveyed to the world, and, as part of a promotional shoot, the band visited St Pancras churchyard with the renowned photographer Don McCullin.
The session, which became known as the Beatles’ Mad Day Out, included various poses near the gates, the drinking fountain, Soane’s tomb, the church doorway, flowerbeds and various benches. A plaque on one of the benches reads, ‘John, George, Paul and Ringo from the Beatles sat here during their Mad Day Out, July 28, 1968.’ Unfortunately, the Beatles did not ‘come together’ for very long, and soon after this shoot they began to fragment. Indeed, Ringo had actually left the band by the time ‘Hey Jude’ was released a month later, although he subsequently rejoined.
It is claimed John Lennon had written ‘I Am the Walrus’ and ‘Glass Onion’ several months earlier in deliberate response to fans who looked for hidden messages in their lyrics. ‘Glass Onion’ was the first track recorded as a full band after Ringo rejoined. The lyrics suggested that Paul McCartney was symbolised by the walrus. In 2013, construction workers on the St Pancras International project discovered the remains of a walrus in a coffin while clearing the graveyard. No one has been able to fully explain how it came to be there.
St Pancras International station became the terminal for the London to Paris rail line in 2007. The opening was commemorated at St Pancras Old Church with a bilingual service and a twinning with the church of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul near the Gare du Nord, Paris. In 2009, a stone sculpture was placed at the entrance to the church. Created by the artist Emily Young, it was inscribed, ‘And I am here, in a place beyond desire or fear’: an extract from the poem ‘Praise’ by Jeremy Clarke.
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