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Site on English Heritage Register of Historic Parks and Gardens, for Register Entry see http://list.english-heritage.org.uk
St Pancras Old Church is one of the oldest churches in London with part of its fabric dating from before the Norman Conquest, although it has been much rebuilt. It served the village of St Pancras from the Middle Ages and the core of the building today is C11th with later medieval additions. When St Pancras (New) Church (q.v.) was built in 1822, the old church became a chapel of ease but in 1863 was reinstated as a parish church. For a time it had become somewhat derelict but had been rebuilt and enlarged in 1847-8 by AD Gough and RL Roumieu who extended the nave westwards but the south porch and west tower were replaced by a new vestry on the north and the south tower. Further restoration took place in 1871 and 1888 by AW Blomfield who remodelled the church in 'Norman' style. Later restoration took place in c.1925 and again in 1979-80 by Erith and Terry. There is a reference to St Pancras Church in Charles Dickens' 'A Tale of Two Cities'.
The original churchyard was proving inadequate by the 1720s as the population in the area grew, and a further piece of land to the south was purchased in 1726, consecrated in 1727. By 1789 the churchyard had again become very overcrowded and it was enlarged in 1792; it was a preferred burial place for Roman Catholics and French émigrés fleeing the Revolution had their own area, but this was later destroyed. The churchyard was managed until 1840 by the Church Lands Trustees who had responsibility for improvements and enlargements. By the C18th some of the more populous London parishes were seeking additional burial grounds when their own churchyards became full, often acquiring land in less built-up areas outside their own parish. One such was St Giles-in-the-Fields (q.v.), which established a burial ground to the north of St Pancras Churchyard in 1802, which was consecrated in 1803.
By 1815 St Pancras Churchyard was in a very poor state and discredited the parish according to a report in the 'New Monthly Review', which described monuments and graves in a ruinous state, 'bones of all descriptions and fragments of coffins [. . . ] spread over the ground'. As a result a bonehouse was built in 1818 to store bones unearthed when new graves were being dug, but the problems of overcrowding continued until St Pancras Churchyard was eventually closed to burials in 1855. The St Giles burial ground had closed for burials in 1854. Like many overcrowded churchyards in London, closure came as a result of the first Burial Act of 1852 and its subsequent amendments during the 1850s. The disused St Giles burial ground and part of St Pancras Churchyard were later encroached and partly destroyed by the construction of the Midland Railway to St Pancras station from 1863 on, the clearances of tombs and bodies causing much outcry.
In the 1870s the movement to allow conversion of disused burial grounds into public gardens gained support and in 1875 St Pancras Vestry acquired the St Giles land for use as public open space. The Metropolitan Open Spaces Acts of 1877 and 1881 and the Disused Burial Grounds Act of 1884, later extended under the Metropolitan Open Spaces Act of 1887, enabled 'open spaces and burial grounds in the Metropolis for the use of the inhabitants thereof for exercise and recreation'. Most of the monuments and gravestones were removed or moved, and the former burial grounds were laid out as public gardens, among the first London burial grounds to be converted for public recreation. They were opened in June 1877 as St Pancras Gardens, when Baroness Burdett-Coutts, an important local benefactress, laid the foundation stone of the memorial fountain and sundial she had presented. This elaborate structure was designed by G Highton of Brixton and made by H Daniel and Co, cemetery masons of Highgate; it has relief carvings by Signor Facigna. On the west side these show St Pancras with palm and book above a 2-part inscription of the Beatitudes from St Matthew and a religious poem by an unknown author. On the south side is a relief carving of Morning, represented by a female with a cockerel on her head, above a list of the names of eminent persons buried in the former churchyards of St Giles and St Pancras. The north side has a relief carving of Night above a similar list and the east side a relief carving of St Giles again above a similar list. The basins have extensive mosaic enrichment depicting flowers and the seasons, and panels of relief carving. Within C20th cast-iron railings around the fountain are 4 carved stone statues of seated dogs on pedestals and the 3-tier octagonal basins are now filled with flower beds.
The gardens were laid out in their present form in 1890-91 by the Vestry, in conjunction with the Midland Railway Company, with a geometric layout with paths, mature trees, grass and central rose garden. There are two sets of fine C19th wrought-iron gates and railings on a low wall; those to the gardens, adjacent to the Gardener's Cottage, have a roundel with a figure of St Pancras holding a martyr's palm and the flanking panel to the left with a cartouche having the letters SP entwined. Those to the forecourt of St Pancras Old Church has no figure and the letters SP are incorporated in the band below. In the gardens is a painted cast-iron drinking fountain of 1877 manufactured by Andrew Handyside and Co. of Derby for William Thornton, a senior Church Warden who presented it to the church, the design based on the Choragic monument of Lysicrates in Athens.
Among the monuments that remain in situ is a marble chest tomb of 1678, now restored, that commemorates Abraham Woodhead, a Roman Catholic apologist and sometime Fellow of University College Oxford. Sir John Soane's fine family tomb was erected in 1816 in the St Giles burial ground, Soane being resident within that parish; it was designed by Soane following his wife's death in 1815. The design of the central domed structure influenced Giles Gilbert Scott's design of the K2 telephone box. Among other well-known people buried here are composer Johann Christian Bach (d.1782), youngest son of JS Bach, who died a pauper; the renowned sculptor Thomas Flaxman whose family tomb dates from c1840; William Godwin and his two wives, whose late C18th tomb was restored in 1992. Godwin (d.1836) was the author of 'Political Justice and Caleb Williams; his first wife, Mary Wollstonecraft (d.1797) wrote 'The Vindication of the Rights of Women' in 1792; his second wife Mary died in 1841. Among other monuments that remain in the gardens is that of Mary Basnett c.1756, which has an unusual bas relief of a baby in the arms of a winged woman.
An ash tree at the back of the gardens has grown among the gravestones in such a way that the stone and wood have fused. This is known as 'Hardy's Tree', due to the involvement of Thomas Hardy in the clearance of the graveyard for the building of the Midland Railway. Blomfield was commissioned by the Bishop of London in the 1860s to oversee the proper exhumation of tombs and Hardy was given this task, who was studying architecture under Blomfield between 1862 and 1867. Hardy later wrote a poem recording this.
An HLF grant was given to restore the gardens and a circular planter inscribed with the date of restoration by LB Camden was erected in c.2000.
EH Register: E Cecil, 'London Parks and Gardens', 1907, pp242-4; N Pevsner 'London except . . . Westminster', 1952; LCC 'Survey of London', 1952; G Tindall 'The Fields Beneath', 1977. John Richardson, 'A History of Camden. Hampstead, Holborn, St Pancras' (Historical Publications Ltd, 1999)