Vic Keegan’s Lost London 12: Saint Pancras Old Church

by Victor Keegan

Saint Pancras old church – not to be confused with its Johnny-come-lately namesake on the Euston Road – deserves to have a book written about it. The original building goes back to the fourth century, pre-dating Saint Peter’s in Rome and making it one of the oldest churches in Christendom. But that is not what attracts people to this icon on the former bank of the River Fleet, a short walk from Saint Pancras station along the Camden Road.

Pride of place is the Thomas Hardy tree, whose enveloping roots seem to grip the gravestones, not wanting to let go. They were positioned there in the 1865, when the future novelist and poet was working as an assistant architect on the expansion of the Midland Railway. This entailed the young Hardy moving the  gravestones and the remains beneath them from their original locations. Some became affixed to the tree. Very Hardyesque. 

A few yards away is a mausoleum for the family of Sir John Soane, the architect of the Bank of England and many other buildings. This is one of only two Grade I listed tombs in London, the other being that of someone called Marx in Highgate Cemetery. The sculptural features of the tomb are immediately recognisable as the shape of the world famous K2 red telephone box (and subsequent variations), which inspired its designer Sir Giles Gilbert Scott

Nearby is the grave of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 to 1797), the early advocate of women’s rights. It is where the poet Percy Shelley, who lived nearby, first set eyes on his future bride Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, praying at the grave of her mother. She, as Mary Shelley, became the author of Frankenstein.

At the end of the churchyard is Saint Pancras Coroners Court where, in 1943, the coroner, in strict secrecy, authorised the use of one of the corpses in his care as a decoy, which floated ashore on a Spanish coastline with documents suggesting the Allied landing against Germany would be off the Greek coast and not in Sicily, as planned. The ruse worked and the story was later made into a film – The Man Who Never Was.

Previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be found here. Vic’s latest books of London poems can be purchased here.

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