Built to serve the growing population of London, when it opened 200 years ago, St Pancras New Church was the most expensive church built in London since the rebuilding of St Paul’s Cathedral.
Just a decade before it was built, all around this part of modern London was still mostly fields, but London was expanding fast, and just 20 years later, the whole area was to have been built on with the street layouts we mostly recognise today. It was that surging population growth that saw a need for a large new church, and in 1816, approval was given to build a church on this site, although it was to take 7 years to complete.
The first stone was laid by the Duke of York at a ceremony on 1 July 1819, in an event described by the New Times newspaper as attended by “spectators of the most reasonable description”. The foundation stone was carved with a Greek inscription, of which the English translation was “May the light of the blessed Gospel thus ever illuminate the dark temples of the Heathen!” It took until 1822 to complete the church, a year longer than planned, and it was eventually consecrated on 7th May 1822 by the Bishop of London.
At a cost of £76,679 7s. 8d., it was the most expensive church to be built in London since St Paul’s Cathedral.
Externally, it looks not unlike a cross between a church and a Greek temple, and that’s because the design is based two ancient Greek monuments, the Erechtheum and the Tower of the Winds, both in Athens, which had been visited by the architect, Henry William Inwood.
That is one of the reasons why the side of the church has the curious addition of four caryatids holding up a stone entablature above their heads. It looks like it’s the sort of thing a Europan museum would have “liberated” from the Greeks, but in fact, it’s a 200-year old replica of the Greek inspiration. There is a legend that when they arrived, they were taller than the space designed for them, so the middles were cut out, removing their slender waists and making them a bit dumpy instead. I can’t see it myself, but it’s a nice story.
Dominating the entrance are the huge, and I mean huge, red doors that are almost impossibly large to photograph fully set back behind their stone columns.
Inside though, the most notable feature which is hard to spot unless it’s pointed out is the lack of columns holding up the wide ceiling. Thanks to modern technology, they were able to span the wide space without needing to prop up the ceiling, and while today we’re used to wide open spaces inside buildings at the time this was radical.
A semi-circular upper gallery runs around the church as was common in Georgian churches to fit in more people, and the church has a capacity for 2,500 people. The crypt underneath was designed to hold 2,000 coffins, but wasn’t filled before burials in London churches were banned in 1854. Used as an air raid shelter, today the crypt is an atmospheric art gallery that puts on temporary exhibitions.
When it opened, the Euston Road that it sits next to had two large gardens on either side. The northern side is still there as Euston Gardens, but the southern side was built over in the 1920s, and the church doors which had faced the garden now faced an office block instead.
Today the church is open Mon-Sat between 11am to 2pm for visits, which I caught by pure accident as I have walked past so many times when the big red doors were firmly closed.
And equally accidentally, to have visited on the year of its 200th anniversary.