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 Pancras Old Church …

St Pancras Old Church, Pancras Road, Camden Town, London NW1 1UL

I have recently had the opportunity to revisit the medieval church of  Old St Pancras to help out with the music for the main Sunday service there. This was a rather nostalgic visit since I was organist there immediately after my days as a post-graduate organ student at the Royal Academy of Music (1980-81), and I subsequently taught for a while at the parish school.

Old St Pancras church is modest in scale, comprising just an unaisled nave and chancel with a 19th-century tower on the south side. The history of Old St Pancras church is well documented, dating from at least Saxon times while some would claim that the site dates back to the days of the Roman occupation. Images and maps showing the building in its setting are plentiful.

There was a major rebuilding project in 1848 by the partnership of Alexander D. Gough (1804–71) and Robert Lewis Roumieu (1814–77). At this time, when the  old tower was relocated and redesigned, Continue reading “St Pancras Old Church …”

From Medieval to Gothick

St Bartholomew the Less, West Smithfield, London EC1

The Smithfield area just beyond the north-west corner of the City of London owes much of its current street plan to the history of its medieval Augustinian priory and hospital, while the historic character of its architecture – some dating back to the Middle Ages– is due in no small part to the fact that the area narrowly escaped the Great Fire of London in 1666, and was relatively little damaged by aerial bombing during the Second World War.

St Bartholomew-the-Great, Smithfield, looking east.
St Bartholomew-the-Great, Smithfield, looking east.

Smithfield Priory

The priory church (1123) survives today as the Anglican parish church of St Bartholomew the Great. It is an impressive edifice by any standards although only two-thirds of its former length now survives and most of its priory building have long gone, thanks to the destruction of church property wrought throughout England during the religious battles of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The hospital

St Bartholomew’s Hospital (1123) – known to most Londoners simply as Barts – was founded as an integral part of the Priory and survives on its original site, although most of its historic buldings date back only as far as the early eighteenth century.

Smith field

Over many centuries Smithfield been a site of many notable gatherings, for example:

  • From 1123 Smithfield was the site of the annual Bartholomew Fair originally designed by the Priory to mark St Bartholomew’s Day, 24 August. The fair survived the Reformation and the Civil War and by the early 1700s lasted at least two weeks and attracted vast crowds of fun-seeking Londoners. The fair was a regular source of anxiety for various civic-minded groups concerned with public order and public morality but it was not until 1855 that the fair ceased.
  • In 1374 Edward III (1312–77) held a seven-day tournament at Smithfield, for the amusement of his mistress Alice Perrers (1348–1400).
  • On 15 June 1381 Richard III met here the the leaders of the so-called Peasants Revolt. The meeting turned violent and several of the revolutionaries were killed by the London militia, including the peasants’ spokesman, Wat Tyler
  • In 1390 Richard II (1367–1400) hosted a two-day tournament organised by Geoffrey Chaucer, who was then the clerk to the king. The tournament – reported across Europe – was described by Jean Froissart (c.1337–c 1405) in his Chronicles (of the Hundred Years War).
  • Until the late seventeenth century Smithfield was a place of public execution. In 1305 the Scottish rebel William Wallace was executed here. During the sixteenth century it was often religious dissidents who met their deaths on Smithfield, while in the seventeenth century it became a place of execution for swindlers and coin forgers.
  • From as early as 1132 livestock and horses were traded here every Friday, a practice that developed in into the Smithfield meat market that operates today in a splendid Victorian market-hall that covers much of the former Smithfield.

St Bartholomew the Less

Less well known in the story of Smithfield is the ancient church of St Bartholomew the Less (1184), located within the hospital precinct. It replaced the Chapel of the Holy Cross (1123).

Although the ground-plan of the present church is Norman, the west-end and tower are largely 13th-century structures;  two of the tower’s three bells date from 1380 and 1420. and are still hung in a medieval–period ‘bell frame’. The architect and theatre-designer Inigo Jones (1573–1652) was baptised here. His father was a Welsh clothworker living in nearby Cloth Fair.

In 1789 the nave and chancel of the church was ‘repaired’ (rebuilt) by the hospital’s surveyor and architect George Dance the younger (1741–1825). Dance chose the modern ‘gothick’ style to create a brand-new, light and airy octagon–shaped nave within the church’s medieval walls. At the same time he removed many of the old tombs and memorials.

The pipe organ

There have been several organs in the church supplied by various organ-builders as follows:

  1. Richard Bridge, c.1729
  2. John Byfield jun. with John Byfield III, 1794.
    This organ was an ‘annuity organ’, which meant it was installed gratis by the organ builder but in return he provided the organist – in this case his son – and took the organist’s fee. (Organists of the City of London. Dawe: 1983. 33). As I noted in my blog of 24 September 2016, a similar annuity-organ contract was made in 1790 between William Warrell and the parish of St Mary-le-Strand.
  3. John Gray, 1825
  4. Gray and Davison, 1863
  5. William Hill and Son & Norman and Beard Ltd, 1930
  6. N. P. Mander, 1978

Alas, no images of the earliest organs seem to have survived. The current organ’s pipework is located in somewhat cramped conditions, deep-set under a narrow arch at the west end of the church. The organ’s console is in the  south-east corner. The instrument has no pretensions, being simple in looks and plain in tone; even at full-organ it does not overwhelm. However, since it speaks directly along the main axis of the church it is adequate to accompany congregational singing.

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