It should probably come as no surprise that this rather elegant memorial in the former graveyard of St Pancras Old Church is that of architect – and founder of a rather remarkable museum – Sir John Soane (as well as his wife Eliza and their oldest son, John).

The tomb, described by architectural commentator Nikolaus Pevsner as an “outstandingly interesting monument”, was, of course, designed by the heart-broken Soane, the architect of neo-classical buildings like the Bank of England and Dulwich Picture Gallery, following the death of his wife on 22nd November, 1815.

Erected in 1816, it features a central cube of Carrara marble with four faces for inscriptions topped by a domed canopy supported on four ionic columns. A Portland stone balustrade surrounds the whole structure as well as stairs down to the subterranean tomb itself.

Among the symbolic decorative elements on the monument are a pine cone finial – a symbol of regeneration, a serpent swallowing its tail – a symbol of eternity, and reliefs of boys holding extinguished churches – symbols of death.

Sir John’s son, John, was buried in the tomb after his death in 1823 and Sir John himself was interred following his death on 20th January, 1837.

The monument is said to be only one of two Grade I-listed monuments in London – the other being Karl Marx’s gravestone in Highgate Cemetery. It is also famously said to have formed part of the inspiration for Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s design of famous K2 red telephone box.

The Soane tomb was vandalised in 1869 – and it was suggested at the time that it should be relocated to Lincoln’s Inn Fields for its protection.

It was more recently restored in 1996 by the Soane Monuments Trust and again, after more vandalism, in 2000-01 as part of a restoration of St Pancras Gardens by the London Borough of Camden.

The graveyard of St Pancras Old Church, incidentally, is also the site of The Hardy Tree.

WHERE: St Pancras Gardens, Pancras Road, Camden Town (nearest Tube station is Kings Cross St Pancras); WHEN: Daylight hours; COST: free; WEBSITE: https://posp.co.uk/st-pancras-old-church/; www.camden.gov.uk/parks-in-camden.

PICTURES: Michael Day (licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0).

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Located in the churchyard of St Pancras Old Church, the Hardy Tree takes its name from its association with novelist Thomas Hardy.

Before Hardy found fame as the author of such novels as Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Mayor of Casterbridge and Far from the Madding Crowd, in the 1860s he worked as an assistant to a West End-based architect, Arthur Blomfield.

Blomfield’s firm, in order to make way for a new line for the Midland Railway, was commissioned by the Bishop of London to exhume bodies from their graves in the churchyard and relocate them.

Hardy was given the job of supervising the removal of the corpses – apparently among those exhumed was a coffin containing a man with two heads!

It’s said that after he had removed the bodies, Hardy had to decide what to do with the headstones which remained and came up with the idea of placing them in a rather lovely fanned collar around an ash tree growing in a part of the churchyard unaffected by the railway line.

Whether Hardy was actually responsible for the placement of the gravestones remains somewhat uncertain (although it’s a nice story). But his work in the graveyard is believed to have at least partly inspired his poem, The Levelled Churchyard.

The moss-covered gravestones and tree have since merged and now make a fascinating monument to the churchyard’s past life, attracting Hardy pilgrims from across the world. And, of course, the churchyard is also famous as the site where Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, planned her elopement with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, while she was visiting the grave of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft not to mention Charles Dickens’ famous reference to it in A Tale of Two Cities and its association with so-called ‘resurrection men’ or ‘bodysnatchers’ in the 19th century.

PICTURE: Stef (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

Having died in 1797 at the age of just 38, Mary Shelley’s mother and noted feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, was buried in the churchyard of St Pancras Old Church.

“Her remains were deposited, on the fifteenth of September, at ten o’clock in the morning, in the church-yard of the parish church of St Pancras, Middlesex,” wrote Godwin afterwards. “A few of the persons she most esteemed, attended the ceremony; and a plain monument is now erecting on the spot, by some of her friends…”

Apart from the fact it is where her mother was buried, the grave played an important role in Shelley’s story. Not only is it said that her father, William Godwin, taught her to read her name by tracing the letters on the gravestone, it later became a place of key importance for Shelley in her developing relationship with Percy Bysshe Shelley.

In fact, it was at this gravestone that Mary and the poet would meet in secret prior to their elopement to Europe (some even speculate it was here that they first consummated their love). Secrecy was a necessity – Percy Shelley was already married and Mary’s father disapproved of their relationship.

Interestingly, Wollstonecraft is no longer buried here (although the gravestone still stands there). In 1851, as per the wishes of Mary Shelley, Wollstonecraft’s remains – and those of her husband which were buried there after his death – were removed by her grandson, Percy Florence Shelley and reinterred in the Shelley family tomb in St Peter’s Churchyard in Bournemouth.

The tomb is Grade II-listed. The lettering was restored in 1992 to mark the bicentenary of the publication of Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

PICTURE: The gravestone in St Pancras Old Churchyard (Chris Beckett/licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0/Image cropped and lightened)

An intriguing feature at St Pancras Church are the eight female figures known as caryatids employed to support the rooves of two pavilions standing above the north and south entrances to the crypt.

The caryatids are modelled on those on the Erechtheum on the Acropolis in Athens – Henry William Inwood, who designed the church with his father William Inwood, apparently brought plaster casts of the original back to England to help with their plans for the building.

The caryatids, which were modelled by John Charles Felix Rossi, are made of terracotta constructed around cast iron cores. An original from Athens can be seen in the British Museum.

Unlike the caryatids on the Athens’ structure, however, each of the Inwoods’ statues carries an extinguished torch or empty jug, a reference to their position over the entrance to the crypt – a place of the dead.

The entire building, which is also known as St Pancras New Church to distinguish it the original St Pancras Church which is located to the north, was built between 1819-1822 and is an early example of the Greek Revival style. Other features of the church which also reference this style include its octagonal tower, modelled on the Tower of the Winds in Athens.

The church (we’ll take a more in-depth look at the building as whole in an upcoming post) now has a Grade I listing.

WHERE: St Pancras Church, Euston Road (nearest Tube stations are Kings Cross/St Pancras and Euston Square); WHEN: 8am to 6pm, Monday to Thursday (see website for Sunday times); COST: Free; WEBSITE: http://stpancraschurch.org

PICTURE: Tony Moorey (licensed under CC BY 2.0) Top image cropped. 

This name – now only usually used in reference to several buildings and landmarks around the Kings Cross area including churches, a road, hotel and railway stations – was originally that of a separate village.

The village was named for the church in its midst which had been dedicated to St Pancras. The church – which has been dated back to at least the Norman era – is said to have been built on one of the earliest sites of Christian worship in the UK and was dedicated to a Roman-era boy martyr, St Pancras (in Latin, St Pancratius).

Tradition holds that St Pancras was a citizen of Rome who converted to Christianity and was beheaded for his faith during the Diocletian persecution in the early 4th century when aged just 14. When Pope Gregory the Great sent St Augustine on his mission to England in the late 6th century, he sent relics of the saint with him, hence why many English churches are dedicated to St Pancras.

The village which had been based around the church was apparently largely abandoned in the Middle Ages – possibly due to flooding – and the area was only resettled in the late 18th century with the development of Camden Town and Somers Town.

While the church – now known as St Pancras Old Church – was restored in the mid-19th century, a new parish church – known as St Pancras New Church – which built about a kilometre away on Euston Road.

PICTURE: Stephen McKay/licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

The self-styled “Thief-Taker General”, Jonathan Wild was one of the most famous figures of London’s underworld in the early 18th century, credited by some as being the city’s first organised crime boss.

Jonathan-WildBorn to a family in Wolverhampton, Wild – who had at some point undertaken an apprenticeship as a buckle-maker – was married and had a son when he first came to London as a servant in 1704 and although he returned to the city of his birth after being dismissed, he apparently abandoned his family and returned to the capital in 1708.

Little is known of the first couple of years he spent in London but records show he was arrested for debt in March 1710 and sent to Wood Street Compter where he quickly ensconced himself and was even awarded the “liberty of the gate” – meaning he could leave the prison at night to aid in the apprehension of thieves.

It was also during this period that he came under the influence of a prostitute Mary Milliner. Upon his release in 1712 – thanks to an Act of Parliament passed to help debtors – he lived with her as her husband (despite his earlier marriage – and hers) in Covent Garden.

Acting as her protector when she was on the street, Wild also branched into the business of being a fence or receiver of stolen goods and racketeering offences like extortion. In 1713, he joined Charles Hitchen to be his assistant. Hitchen, who had been suspended from his position as the City’s Under Marshal thanks to his practice of extorting thieves and their victims (it’s thought he may have taught Wild the craft), was then working as a thief-taker.

Wild apparently took to the new role with fervour for when Hitchen was reappointed to his post as Under Marshal, Wild parted from his company and continued his work as a thief-taker, opening his own office in the Blue Boar Tavern in Little Old Bailey.

Wild’s method of operation was simple enough – he would organise thieves to steal items and then, when it was announced that said items were stolen, claimed to have found them and would return them to the rightful owners for a “reward”. At the same time, he’d often also aid the police by bringing to justice thieves from rival gangs (including Hitchen’s, for they were now rivals) or those of his own gang who had crossed him – and in all his dealings manage to keep at arm’s length from the actual business of stealing and receiving.

By 1718, Wild – who wore a sword as a sign of his authority and had pretensions of being a “squire” – was calling himself the “Thief-Taker General of Great Britain and Ireland”. It’s said that more than 60 thieves were sent to the gallows on the back of his testimony including the prolific housebreaker (and jail escapee) Jack Sheppard and his associate Joseph “Blueskin” Blake (who almost succeeded in killing Wild while he was awaiting trial).

Wild’s pursuit of Sheppard was the beginning of his own downfall (although authorities had as early as 1717 passed an Act of Parliament aimed squarely at ending his criminal enterprise, it seemed to have had little effect, at least initially). Sheppard’s demise had been unpopular with the masses and the press of the day – and in February 1725, Wild himself was arrested for assisting in the jailbreak of one of his gang members. Other members of the gang turned against him and eventually, in May that same year, he was sentenced to death for the theft of lace.

Having unsuccessfully attempted to kill himself by drinking laudanum before his execution, Wild was hanged at Tyburn on 24th May before a large and raucous crowd which apparently included an 18-year-old Henry Fielding.

Wild was buried in secret in the churchyard of St Pancras Old Church next to his third wife (and one of his many lovers), Elizabeth Mann (she had died in 1718 and he apparently married another woman shortly after). His body was later reported to have been dug up and eventually, following the recovery of a body with a hairy chest from the Thames which was identified as being Wild’s, a skeleton said to have been his was donated to the Royal College of Surgeons (it’s now on display in the Hunterian Museum).

The subject of numerous articles, books and ballads, Wild’s story has been since told numerous times and for varying purposes. Among them are Daniel Defoe’s True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild, published in 1725, Henry’s Fielding’s ironic The History of the Life of the Late Mr Jonathan Wild the Great (1743), and John Gay and John Rich’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728) which features the character Peachum, said to have been based on Wild.

PICTURE: From “Ticket to the Hanging of Jonathan Wild”/Wikimedia Commons

To read more about Jonathan Wild, see Gerald Howson’s Thief-taker General: The Rise and Fall of Jonathan Wild.

The location now known as King’s Cross, north-west of the City, takes its name from a monument adorned with an 11 foot high statue of King George IV which once stood on a site now occupied by King’s Cross Railway Station.

The area had been previously known as Broadford Bridge or Battlebridge – the latter a name many associated with the apparently erroneous belief that it was here, at a bridge which once crossed the River Fleet, the Iceni Queen Boudicca (also known as Boadicea) ill-fatedly confronted the Roman Army under the command of Gaius Suetonius Paulinus.

From the 1830’s (King George IV ruled from 1820 to 1830), however, the area took on the name of King’s Cross thanks to the erection of what Walter Thornbury described in his 1878 text, Old and New London, as a “ridiculus octagonal structure crowned by an absurd statue of George IV”.

The structure, said to be 60 feet high, was erected at the intersection of Gray’s Inn Road, Pentonville Road and what we now know as Euston Road, and during its relatively short lifespan, was employed at different times as a police station and as a pub (complete, apparently, with a camera obscura in the upper level).

It was completely removed by 1845 (King’s Cross Railway Station officially opened in 1852).

The area of King’s Cross has been settled back as far as Roman times – St Pancras Old Church is one of the oldest sites of Christian worship in England although the current church is Victorian – but it wasn’t until the 1700s and 1800s that it was transformed in to an urban area with the arrival of canals – including The Regent’s Canal – and the railways.

Traditionally one of London’s poorest areas, it survived World War II bombings but subsequently suffered as the railways declined in the post-war period. By the 1980s, it had become notorious as a red light district.

It has since gone through – and is still going through – a gradual gentrification process, however, with the 67 acre development King’s Cross Central among the projects currently under construction.

Key attractions of the area include The British Library, The London Canal Museum, arts centre King’s Place, and the recently refurbished St Pancras Renaissance London Hotel.

It’s also now home to St Pancras International – London’s Eurostar terminus (having been moved here from Waterloo) – as well as King’s Cross Railway Station which is believed by many, despite the lack of any evidence, to be the burial site of Queen Boadicea (it’s said she still lies beneath platform 9 or 10) and which is the home of the fictitious platform 9 and 3/4 from which Harry Potter catches the train to Hogwarts.