IN THE BEGINNING – 1848
Although a church was not consecrated until 1853, it was in the momentous revolutionary year of 1848 that a committee first met to plan the fifth new district to come out of the Parish of St. Pancras. This area, now in the Borough of Camden, is known to have been inhabited for 4000 years. 2000 years before Christ the ancient Britons practised Druidism here, Primrose Hill being one of the sacred places of worship.
St. Pancras itself was named after a 14 year old boy from Asia Minor named Pancratius (A.D. 289-304), a convert to Christianity. He was beheaded by order of the Emperor Diocletian for refusing to sacrifice to the Roman gods. The old church of St. Pancras, traditionally older even than St. Paul’s Cathedral, was named after him.
By 1848, many European countries were experiencing political turmoil and revolutionary fervour, and Britain was not exempt. The elderly Iron Duke of Wellington was brought out of retirement to bolster London’s defences against the Chartist protestors, and in this same year Karl Marx and Frederick Engels (later to live in our Parish) published the Communist Manifesto – the first systematic statement of modern Socialist doctrine.
THE BUILDING OF ST MARK’S
If any one man can be called the ‘Founder’ of St. Mark’s it is surely the remarkable Evangelical churchman, Dr. Thomas Dale, later Canon Dale, the Vicar of St. Pancras. In the mid- 19th century, Dr Dale and his immediate predecessors had become gravely concerned by the increase in population in their area. After much effort Dale obtained agreement from the St. Pancras Church Extension Fund to provide support for clergymen to work in those parts of St. Pancras where there were as yet no churches. This resulted in the first committee meeting at 4 Albert Terrace, then only partially built, where the new district was planned.
Appointed to the pastoral care of this new district was a Scotsman and Graduate of Glasgow University, William Brown Galloway. At the time he was curate of St. Pancras Church and, like Dale, an Evangelical and prolific writer.
A temporary church was quickly erected at the corner of Princess Road, where 4 St. Mark’s Square and 36 Regent’s Park Road stand today. The building was duly licensed by the Bishop of London, Dr Blomfield, a great church builder, and opened for worship on 16 March 1848. An interesting statistic is that out of the 600 pews only a quarter were free. Pew rents were expected to be paid for the rest, as was then the custom in the Church of England.
It was Thomas Little, a local architect, who presented St. Pancras with the ground on which the church now stands. His plans for a building of Gothic design were approved by the committee, and a contract quoted at £6,546 was awarded to the company of Myers. On St. Mark’s Day, 25 April 1851, Dale came to lay the foundation stone of the permanent church.
Two years after the laying of the foundation stone the church was finally completed. Once again it was on St. Mark’s day that Bishop Blomfield consecrated the nave and the aisles. The Bishop preached a sermon, and after the service clergy and congregation were entertained at breakfast by the local Church Committee.
When the Committee met in December 1853 they felt justified, we are told, in incurring a large budget overspend and consequent debt of some £2000 in view of the pressing need of the district. So much of the area was being rapidly covered with houses that they expected the population would be doubled in a few years. The debt was finally cleared in 1859, the year of Little’s death.
An obituary in ‘The Builder’ of 31 December 1859 states that as a young man Little had practised as an architect and surveyor, but later concentrated on architecture. According to this obituary he was “much appealed to as an arbitrator, his strict honour and integrity being known”.
In 1858 William Galloway, being the natural choice, was appointed the first Vicar, but both he and the people of St. Mark’s had to wait another 38 years before the money could be raised to complete their chancel.
At the time of his retirement at 77 years of age, William Galloway claimed a congregation of more than a thousand. We can only imagine the scene on a Sunday morning with the tightly pewed and galleried church packed with locals, friends, family and children. Although William Galloway retired before the building of the chancel, he did see its completion, living to the age of 92, dying on 23 March 1903. A memorial tablet, put up by his friends in the year of his death, can be seen on the north wall of the church.
THE SPARROW AND THE CHANCEL
Galloway’s successor was Dr William Sparrow-Simpson, a high churchman, one of the most learned clerics of his day, and a prolific writer. He is best known for the text of Stainer’s ‘Crucifixion’, which includes the hymn ‘All for Jesus’. Whilst not equalling Galloway’s 40-year tenure, his 16 years made a huge contribution to the development of St. Mark’s.
Two years after he became Vicar permission was obtained to build the chancel, which was to correspond externally with Little’s original design. Sir Arthur Blomfield, son of the Bishop of London who had consecrated the nave in 1853, was asked to undertake the task. The foundation stone for the chancel was laid on All Saints’ Day, 1st November 1890. Mrs Temple, wife of the Bishop of London, performed the ceremony. Watching his mother was her nine year old son William, later to become Archbishop of Canterbury. The completed chancel was consecrated on 11th June 1891, and as part if this re-ordering the church’s original galleries in the nave were removed.
Sadly, by the 1890s, the glory days of Galloway’s thousand-strong congregation were already a thing of the past. According to Charles Booth’s survey of the churches lying to the south of Chalk Farm published in 1902: “Not one is ever more than half full, unless it be St. Mark’s, to which many people are drawn from a distance, attracted by the extreme High Church practices adopted”. According to the same source, Sparrow-Simpson was “one of the finest preachers I have heard, who drew large congregations every Sunday to hear his sermons…”
In 1904 Sparrow-Simpson resigned to become Chaplain of St. Mary’s Hospital, Ilford. In this same year St. Mark’s also suffered the loss of its schools in a rationalisation of parish boundaries. Both the boys’ and girls’ had been opened in the time of Galloway. The building is now The Cavendish School in Arlington Road where the lion of St. Mark can still be seen.
FOUR VICARS IN 24 YEARS
From 1904 onwards, four Vicars followed each other in quick succession. This must have been a turbulent period for St. Mark’s, as it was for the world at large.
Maurice Frederick Bell (1904-12) was a talented musician and composer. In collaboration with Percy Dearmer (Vicar of St Mary’s, Primrose Hill) and Ralph Vaughan Williams he helped to create ‘The English Hymnal’, published in 1906. Despite reports of an increase in church attendance in the parish magazine of 15 October 1908, the overall trend was downwards, a fact borne out by the removal of the remaining galleries in the same year. Bell left St. Mark’s in 1912 and eventually converted to Roman Catholicism.
Bell was succeeded by Herbert Deedes Barrett (1912-21), the man who saw St. Mark’s through the political turmoil leading up to the First World War, the horror of the war itself and its painful aftermath. Sadly any Roll of Honour commemorating the lives of parishioners killed in the war was lost in the total destruction of 1940.
In 1921 Rupert William Mounsey (1921-24) became Vicar of St. Mark’s, after serving as Bishop of Labuan and Sarawak, and Geoffrey Hodgson Warde (1924-28) succeeded him three years later. Like Galloway, Warde had been a curate of St. Pancras Church. He was incumbentat St. Mark’s for four years and went on to become Dean of Gibraltar and later Suffragan Bishop of Lewes in the Diocese of Chichester.
FROM TEA PARTIES TO FIRE BOMBS
In 1928, with Britain in the throes of the Depression, the incumbency of Hugh Stuckey began. He was to oversee not only something of a Golden Age, but also experience the near financial ruin and destruction of his beloved church in 1940 . It is almost entirely due to the unceasing efforts of Stuckey that we have the St. Mark’s we know today.
Stuckey was also something of an innovator and moderniser. In 1930 he had the original idea of opening up the church gardens for tea parties on the Summer Bank Holiday Mondays for visitors to London Zoo. Starting on August Bank Holiday, the parties were an instantaneous success. “But there was more to it than tea”, to quote Hugh Stuckey. The parties made substantial sums of money and aroused the interest of the Press, so that St. Mark’s became known as “The Zoo Church”. After tea the visitors were shown around the church, and some would stay for an organ recital before setting off home.
Another source of revenue was the parish magazine which continued until 1967. In spite of these revenue-raising schemes hardship was never far away and Stuckey predicted near financial ruin in the 1939 edition of the parish magazine. However, the beautification of the church was never compromised and one of the most beautiful modern altar-pieces in London was created by Sir Ninian Comper in 1938.
When disaster did finally strike it took a different form. On 21 September 1940, at the height of the Battle of Britain, St. Mark’s was set alight by incendiary bombs. Much damage was wrought including the destruction of the Comper reredos, although one parishioner described how the church clock went on striking the hours. Five nights later the church was again hit, this time by a high explosive bomb which fell in the chancel, “and the ruin was complete”.
The destruction of the fabric of the building did not mean that worship ceased. Within eight hours of the first bombing the usual Sunday morning Communion was held at Turner House in Chalcot Square, a Church Army home for blind women. St. Mark’s was allowed to use the chapel for three services each Sunday and four weekday services until July 1941, at which time the ruined church porch was used, followed by the still standing vestry. By 1943 a ‘hut’ chapel was constructed in the grounds which, despite discomfort, served the congregation until 1957.
The Second World War saw the destruction or damage of some fourteen thousand churches. St. Mark’s was the first Anglican church in London to be completely rebuilt. But this was not achieved overnight. Seventeen weary years were to be struggled through before the church was restored. In true form Hugh Stuckey wasted no time in opening an appeal fund. By 1946 progress in the planning of the new church had advanced to the point where an architect was required and Arthur Knapp-Fisher was appointed. However, another 11 laborious years were to pass for him and Stuckey
before the church was consecrated on 5 October 1957.
From contemporary reports we get some idea of the occasion. “The church was packed to capacity, more than fifty of the clergy took part in the ceremony, which was performed by the Bishop of London. Although over 93, Sir Ninian Comper attended and took part in the procession.” His new High Altar reredos was to be completed two years later. It was due to the fine taste and the tenacity of Hugh Stuckey that St. Mark’s arose out of the ashes of Thomas Little’s original building. The new church is his monument.
A PERIOD OF ENHANCEMENT
When Michael Dean accepted the living in 1964 he inherited a handsomely restored church with a small congregation. The years without a permanent building and the exertions of restoration had taken their toll.
Michael Dean had served as a priest in parishes of a Catholic tradition, and he brought to St. Mark’s a knowledge and love of ordered ceremonial and musical performance of a high quality. With his organist, Geoffrey Hanson, he appointed four singers to lead the worship, a tradition continued to this day.
St. Mark’s became known for its excellent music, in particular the Advent Carol Service begun in 1966. Geoffrey Hanson nurtured this musical life by writing Mass settings and anthems and by organising concerts with his London Ripieno Singers.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s the congregation grew – by 1977 the membership was over one hundred. The Vicar continued to make all sorts of improvements to the church to enhance the worship. The two candlesticks on the high altar (a number favoured by Comper) were increased to the traditional six, a thurible was made for the incense, new altar rails were installed and further candlesticks commissioned to replace those stolen from the All Saints’ Chapel. It was in the early 1970s that the sad decision was first taken to keep the church locked when unattended.
Much that Michael Dean achieved is still evident in the life of St. Mark’s today. The fine liturgical and musical tradition is maintained using many of the material additions of his time, including the beautiful Latin vestments that he brought with him from St. Stephen’s, Bournemouth. In this way he is still remembered, as the ‘Church Times’ remarked on his retirement in July, 1981, “for liturgical standards beautifully maintained”.
THE SECOND TRIAL BY FIRE
As one who loved music and had a great knowledge of the fine arts Tom Devonshire Jones creatively built upon the achievements of Father Dean, nurturing the already strong choral tradition and exercising a sensitive care of the church.
Primrose Hill was fast changing, increasingly favoured by writers, artists and those working in film and television. Tom’s gift of friendship and remarkable memory for names and faces served to strengthen the Christian presence in the local community and welcome new church members. This period saw the establishment of the daily Nursery School that still flourishes in the Crypt – where also, each week, the children of church families enjoy Sunday morning activities.
Having survived Hitler’s Blitz, St. Mark’s was threatened once again during Tom Devonshire Jones’ incumbency, this time by an unknown arsonist. On 12 November 1994, the eve of Remembrance Sunday, the church was set alight. The Fire Brigade was able to put out the fire before any serious structural damage was done, but the effects of smoke and water were considerable: the heart of the fire in the All Saints’ Chapel destroyed the altar, a quantity of furniture, and the organ and electrical system were badly damaged. The many who worked the next morning to make it possible for the Remembrance Day service to be held have described the black river running down the nave and the acrid smell – and the sense that history was repeating itself.
The next year saw the work of restoration, the total cost of which amounted this time to £220,000. On 1 October 1995 a splendid Sung Eucharist celebrated the re-opening of the restored church. The Vicar preached to a packed and even more beautiful St. Mark’s.
In March 2000 Tom Devonshire Jones retired, handing over the reins to Peter Baker, the tenth Vicar of St. Mark’s. Under his guidance the church celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2003, and a short but extensively illustrated booklet tracing the history of the building was published to mark the event.