St Thomas, Agar Town: gone but not quite forgotten …

In 2019 I found myself helping out with the music at the lovely early nineteenth-century church of St Clement King Square in Islington (London) where – following rebuilding work in the 1950s – a second-hand organ was installed, taken from the newly redundant church of St Thomas Agar Town, near Kings Cross (London). Here is a little post about Agar Town and its church, all now long vanished.

In 1816 William Agar (1767-1838), a lawyer from Lincoln’s Inn, acquired from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners a 21-year lease on land south of present-day Agar Grove and built there a mansion for himself; Elm Lodge. Extensions were applied to the lease in 1822 and again in 1839 (following Agar’s death) on behalf of his son, also named William (1814–1907).

Agar’s son  began to issue his own 21-year building leases on small strips of his land  and thus developed the neighbourhood known as Agar Town, a shanty of hastily built housing and workshops. While Agar Town survived little more than 21 years, its reputation as a noted place of urban poverty remains.

Housing in Agar Town c.1855
Housing in Agar Town c.1854 [Source: ‘London Shadows’ (1854) George Godwin. (London: G. G. Routledge & Company)]

Time was when the wealthy owner of a large estate had lived here in his mansion; but after his departure the place became a very ’abomination of desolation’ […]  a dreary and unsavoury locality, abandoned to mountains of refuse from the metropolitan dust-bins, strewn with decaying vegetables and foul-smelling fragments of what once had been fish, or occupied by knackers’-yards and manure-making, bone-boiling, and soap-manufacturing works, and smoke-belching potteries and brick-kilns. At the broken doors of multilated houses canaries still sang, and dogs lay basking in the sun […] and from these dwellings came out wretched creatures in rags and dirt, and searched amid the far-extending refuse for the filthy treasure by the aid of which they eked out a miserable livelihood; whilst over the whole neighbourhood the gas-works poured forth their mephitic vapours, and the canal gave forth […] upon the surface of the water […] a thick scum of various and ominous hues. Such was Agar Town before the Midland Railway came into the midst of it.”

Image of Paradise Row, Agar Town.
Paradise Row in Agar Town c.1854 [Source: ‘London Shadows’ (1854) George Godwin. (London: G. G. Routledge & Company)]
A report in 1847 stated that about 5,000 people lived in Agar Town. There was no provision for sewerage or running water, and no proper roads.  With no school, church or chapel to serve the area – other than the Old Saint Pancras church, which was in the process of being restored – a temporary iron church was therefore erected in Agar Town, together with a Ragged School.

St Thomas Agar Town (Engraving: 1858)
Design (c1858) by S. S Teulon, of the never completed church and school of St Thomas Agar Town, London (UK). [Source: London Metropolitan Archive. Saint Pancras HA 13724]
As the Agar’s – and their tenants’ – various 21-year leases expired or were abandoned the Church Commissioners steadily took back ownership of the site and began planning improvements. In 1860 construction began on the first permanent church on Elm Road in Agar Town  (to be dedicated to St Thomas) and a school, both designed by S. S. Teulon (1812–73). However, within just a couple of years the Commissioners sold almost all of its Agar Town land to the Midland Railway “for a considerable sum” to accommodate the Midland Railway’s rapidly expanding infrastructure associated with the new St Pancras station. Within just two months of the sale Agar Town was cleared  – including its incomplete church and school site – all to be replaced with railway sidings; and the remaining Agar Town inhabitants moved to neighbouring districts like Kentish Town.

The second church: Elm Road/Wrotham Road

The  Church Commissioners used some of the money it earned from selling most of its Agar Town land to create on the remainder some new streets of substantial middle-class housing and to build another church of St Thomas – also by Teulon – at the junction of Elm Road and Wrotham Road, 1863-4. This church – damaged by aerial bombing in the Second World War – was demolished after 1953, the parish being absorbed into St Michael’s Camden Town. However, the church’s organ survived, being rebuilt at St Clement King Square, London EC1.

It is somewhat ironic that the railway infrastructure  that swept away Agar Town has itself now been swept away to be replaced by housing, and (high-tech) workplaces. Plus ça change …

Picture of old gasometer and new housing.
Part od the newly (c.2010) redeveloped area of what was once Agar Town and then railway yards.

The pipe organ

The first organ in the church was a loan instrument by the firm of Gray and Davison (NPOR; DBOB). in 1868 a permanent instrument was provided by the firm of T. C. Lewis (Musical Standard, 28 March, 1868).

Musical Standard, 28 March 1868
St Thomas Agar Town, London (UK), specification of the organ by T. C. Lewis (1868)

The third organ in St Thomas Wrotham Road was installed in 1875 by the local firm of Henry Willis; a two-manual mechanical-action, hand-blown  instrument located in the south cnacel aisle (NPOR). It remained unaltered throughout its life there. (Morrell). At the demolition of the church the organ was moved to St Clement, King Square and rebuilt there.

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St Clement King Square, EC1: saved by accident

The fine-looking early c19 Anglican church of St Clement King Square is little known, though quite unjustly so. Admittedly it is barely visible to most passers by, being tucked  away along a cobbled cul-de-sac beside a small, quiet urban park (King Square) and overwhelmed by later c20 housing developments.

The church building – originally dedicated to St Barnabas – was designed by Thomas Hardwick (1752–1829) and competed in 1826 at a cost of around £17,000. Hardwick’s design was part of a middle-class garden-square housing development built on land owned by St Bartholomew’s Hospital, and was intended as a chapel-of-ease to St Luke’s Old Street.

This article’s rather oblique title derives from the fact that tn the late 1930’s the church was designated for closure in favour of other nearby church buildings, specifically:

      • St Clement, Lever Street (1863–5; arch. George Gilbert Scott, 1811–78)
      • St Matthew, City Road (1847–8; arch. George Gilbert Scott. Additions 1866: arch. G. E. Street, 1824–81)
      • St Paul, Pear Tree [Peartree] Street (1868; arch, Ewan Christian, (1814–95).

However, as a result of aerial bombing during the Second World War those churches were damaged beyond repair and were closed. St Barnabas, itself bombed – but not irreparably – was retained and renovated by the Norman Haines Design Partnership to create a fine neo-classical interior. It was re-dedicated on 12 June 1954 as the church for a newly created parish of St Clement with St Barnabas and St Matthew Finsbury. The people here are very warm and welcoming, and the building is also well used for concerts of music, not least by musicians from the nearby City University.

The pipe organ

The first organ in this building was by the firm of William Hill and Sons, but was lost when the church suffered war damage. The rather nice two-manual organ we find today is derived from the mechanical-action organ by Henry Willis that was originally installed (1876) in St Thomas, Agar Town (1860-61; arch: S. S. Teulon, 1812–73) . That church was closed and demolished in the early 1950s at which point the Willis instrument there was salvaged by the firm of Mander and Sons for re-use, some of it here. The case, console and electro-action are new.

References