Before it became a parish in its own right, what is now the parish of St Mark’s was in the much larger parish of St Pancras, with the parish church well over a mile away. There was certainly a need for more churches in St Pancras by 1840 and even more so by 1850. From a parish on the outskirts of London with a population of a couple of thousand in 1750, mostly in Kentish Town, this grew to 46,000 in 1811 and 130,000 in 1841. There was church accommodation for only a small percentage of the population.
Unfortunately, church building had become a very contentious issue in St Pancras, as the vestry in the days before reform in 1832 had spent a prodigious sum of money on building New St Pancras Church without ever accounting properly for what was spent. The Radicals, who controlled St Pancras politics after 1832, were determined never again to allow rates to be spent on churches.
Nevertheless, by heroic efforts, a substantial number of churches and chapels were built or enlarged in St Pancras in the years before and after 1846, when Thomas Dale became Vicar of St Pancras. St Mark’s was the fifth new church. After a fund-raising campaign, enough money was raised for the erection first of a temporary and then a permanent church, designed by Thomas Little and consecrated in 1853. The temporary church, with a capacity to hold five hundred people, was on the corner of Regent’s Park Road and Princess Road. It is unclear what this looked like, though its outline is preserved in a map of St Pancras dating from 1850.
The land where St Mark’s was later built was bought at Lord Southampton’s sale on 12 August 1840, when the whole area of Primrose Hill Village (other than the fields between what are now King Henry’s Road and Primrose Hill Road) was auctioned off. In this the government bought six lots, by private agreement before the beginning of the auction, to add to what became Primrose Hill Park in 1842.
There was a problem, however, with one of the lots. On Lot 234, at the corner of Primrose Hill between Prince Albert Road and Albert Terrace, a lease had been granted by the Southampton estate in 1838 to Felix Calvert, the brewers, to build a pub. The government therefore bought one more lot, No. 237, of 2 roods and 6 perches, a little less than an acre, to solve this. The crown wished to offer Lot 237, on which St Mark’s now stands, to Calverts, in exchange for the lease on Lot 234. As Edward Driver, the crown’s agent, reported on the day after the sale:
‘I stipulated that Lot 237 should be added to the purchase, as that would afford the crown the opportunity of making an exchange with Mr Calvert … According as the other lots sold at the auction, I have no doubt 237 would have sold for 600 or 700 Guineas … whereas I have secured it at £300 per acre’.
Calverts were perfectly happy to agree to the exchange, but the buyers of the lots on either side were distinctly unhappy about the thought of a pub between the houses they intended to build.
The buyer of the lots between St Mark’s and Primrose Hill was Dr Edward Thompson, a wealthy and vigorous high church clergyman. He was a prolific author who was intensely interested in church extension. He wrote to the Department of Woods and Forests in November 1842:
I am the largest freeholder among those who purchased land of Lord Southampton in that part. My intention was to have built first-class houses, but if a public house is to be built, or there is an uncertainty about it, it will be a question with me whether third-class houses, or a cemetery, would not answer my purpose better.
The developers Joseph Guerrier and Peter Pearse, who had bought the lots facing Regent’s Park between Lot 237 and Gloucester Gate, wrote with equal vigour. They complained that they already had to deal with the blight caused by the York and Albany, John Nash’s only public house, at Gloucester Gate. They were supported by the architect Thomas Little, who had bought the lot on the corner of Princess Road and Regent’s Park Road, and who was to be the architect of St Mark’s.
The matter was resolved when a consortium of those who had bought lots in the auction, headed by Thompson, Guerrier and Pearse, and Little, grouped together to raise £500 to buy Lot 237 and to compensate Calverts. The crown added £250 to the compensation.
The driving force in all this was clearly the Reverend Dr Edward Thompson. It was his explicit intention to build a church on the site. He indeed got a pledge of £1000 towards it from James Blomfield, the Bishop of London, from the Metropolitan Church Fund. Thompson employed Little as his architect, calculated the cost of the building as £6000, with another £1000 for furnishings, and began recruiting subscribers. In 1846 the crown conveyed the site of the church to the Commissioners for Building New Churches. If, however, it stops being a church, the land reverts to the crown.
That St Mark’s was built in 1853, not in 1843 or 1846. can be put down to three reasons. The building of houses on the lots acquired in 1840 was a slow process. It was a number of years before there were enough householders to provide sufficient subscriptions to build the church. Secondly, negotiations about the transfer of the land were very slow. Thirdly, there was a threat, which never materialised, that the site of St Mark’s might be acquired by a railway company as the site of a station. The Regent’s Canal was not profitable and there were several schemes to convert it from being a canal into a railway.
For a mixture of these reasons, Dr Thompson decided to concentrate his considerable energies elsewhere, in the parish of St Marylebone. In 1846 he built another church, All Saints, just off the Finchley Road. It was designed by none other than Thomas Little, who also built the houses for Dr Thompson on the lots between St Mark’s and Primrose Hill. All Saints shared many of St Mark’s features, though you cannot now see the church, as it was closed in 1976 and subsequently demolished. Thompson also built an extremely grand vicarage for himself, designed by Thomas Little, and a school to go with the church. Lack of funds meant that St Mark’s only acquired a vicarage after the First World War. Sadly, Edward Thompson died in 1850, so never saw the completion of St Mark’s.
The years between 1846 and 1853, and indeed beyond, were ones of strenuous fundraising and strict accountability. A complete and audited list of subscribers exists. One of subscribers was Roger Fenton, the photographer, who lived at 2 Albert Terrace. His celebrated photographs of the Crimean War of 1854-56 are a graphic record of the combat and the earliest major set of war photographs. He was on the committee behind the building of St Mark’s, contributed towards it and took two remarkable early photographs of the church while it was being built.
After the contract had been put out to tender to eleven builders, the church was built by the leading firm of George Myers. Including galleries on both sides, the total cost of the church to June 1853 was £8458 4s. 10d. Due to lack of funds, the chancel had to wait until 1891, when this was added to a design by Arthur Blomfield, Bishop Blomfield’s son. Later a fine reredos by Sir Ninian Comper was added to its east end. The church was a great success, with a thousand people attending services in the 1850s and later, filling the galleries and listening to the fine Father Willis organ.
The first vicar, W.B. Galloway, was a learned, philosophical Scot, who had previously been a curate of St Pancras and the priest in charge of St Mark’s before the church was built. He remained as vicar until 1888, when he was succeeded by the prolific author William Sparrow-Simpson, vicar from 1888 to 1904. Sparrow-Simpson wrote the libretto for John Stainer’s The Crucifixion (1888) and over fifty books. Drawing worshippers from a distance, he was described in 1902 as ‘one of finest preachers I have ever heard’. His successor, Maurice Bell, vicar from 1904-12, was a talented musician who collaborated with Percy Dearmer, vicar of St Mary’s Primrose Hill, and Ralph Vaughan Williams in the creation of The English Hymnal. Perhaps reflecting the high church practices of St Mark’s, Bell eventually became a Roman Catholic.
By the time of the First World War, however, the congregation had shrunk, making the galleries redundant. The last was removed in 1908. After a number of short-term vicars, Hugh Stuckey provided continuity as vicar for over thirty years from 1928. A bachelor, he was devoted to cats.
The Second World War brought disaster. At midnight on 21 September 1940 the church was hit by an incendiary bomb. The roof quickly caught alight and the fire rapidly spread from the west to the east of the church. The blaze only lasted a few hours but when it was over the interior was completely destroyed. Five days later the church was again hit, this time by a high explosive bomb which fell in the chancel. The reredos, the fine Willis organ and the high altar frontals were destroyed, though the vestments and the registers, and most of the contents of the vestry, were saved.
In the summer of 1941 a service was held within the walls of the church. As the congregation wished to return to St Mark’s, the former choir vestry was enlarged and converted into a small chapel which could hold fifty people. Two years later a prefabricated building was erected on the Zoo side of the church. According to the Hugh Stuckey, this was ‘bitterly cold in winter and correspondingly hot in summer’.
The rebuilding took many years and the church was only reopened in 1957, seventeen years after its bombing. To echo its connection with Zoo, and its alternate title of ‘The Zoo Church’, the new stained glass contained a range of Zoo animals. In the west window, a little way up the central light, can be seen a less exotic animal: a black and white cat, said to represent Hugh Stuckey’s cat. A new reredos by Sir Ninian Comper was added in 1959.
In more recent times, under the vicariates of Michael Dean, Tom Devonshire Jones, Peter Baker and William Gulliford, St Mark’s has maintained a tradition of accessible but distinctive high churchmanship, including singing by a professional choir. It continued and continues to attract a small but loyal congregation, but suffered a renew tribulation on 12 November 1994 when an unknown arsonist caused £220,000 worth of damage, taking a year to rectify.
For many years, St Mark’s was known for the teas served in its garden on Sundays, a tradition begun in the 1930s. The crypt is used for a nursery school on weekdays and for Sunday school on Sundays. Its most idiosyncratic service, but one well attended by local children, is an annual service to commemorate St Francis of Assisi at the penguin pool in London Zoo.
During the last few years there has been a considerable amount of activity both within the church itself and in its beautiful garden. This activity has been both practical and creative. On the practical side there has been a reconfiguration of the West End of the church and the installation of an eighteenth century Italian organ built by the Neopolitan organ builders Michelangelo and Carlo Sanarica. A Ninian Comper reredos has also been installed, donated by the St Luke’s Hospital Trust. In the church garden there has been the creation of a new fence at the foot of the garden on the east side of the church together with a gate and path leading from the canal towpath up into the garden and a garden shed has been erected for storage purposes. The most recent development has been the removal of the inner door of the porch and the installation in its place of a glass door, engraved with the lion of St Mark’s, which enables visitors to view the interior when the church is not open. On the creative side there has been an opening up of the church during the week to a variety of events including creative workshops, fashion shoots and theatre groups. Then there are the summer concerts which take the form of organ recitals preceded by refreshments.
This opening up of the building on week days has also involved welcoming an increased number of visitors from home and abroad who have relished the beauty and history of the building.