St Pancras

St Pancras is a church rather than a neighbourhood, but it gave its name to a metropolitan borough that included Camden Town, Kentish Town, Somers Town, and half of Bloomsbury.

Old St Pancras Church
and around in 1700

St Pancras (not “Pancreas”) was a Roman Christian who was beheaded in 303 AD, at the age of fourteen, for refusing to renounce his faith. His original church is on Pancras Road at the northern end of Somers Town. In the middle ages, it was the centre of a neighbourhood known as Pancridge. But being on the River Fleet’s flood plain made it rather wet, and its residents gradually moved away to the sunny uplands of Kentish Town, leaving the church, if not exactly high and dry, at any rate short of a congregation. By the nineteenth century it was derelict, and although it was rebuilt, the parish seat was officially moved in 1822 to St Pancras New Church on the Euston Road.

Caryatids on St Pancras New Church
(detail from photo by Reading Tom, CC BY 2.0)

The most notable feature of the new church is the caryatids (pillar statues) which hold up two porticoes on its north and south sides. Supposedly, they’re missing their midriff sections, but that seems to be an urban myth. The church is at the north end of Bloomsbury, which was divided rather randomly between the boroughs of Holborn and St Pancras, leaving Russell Square and Bedford Square in Holborn, while Gordon Square, Tavistock Square, and all but the northwestern tip of Brunswick Square were in St Pancras. The neighbourhood was united when the two old boroughs merged with Hampstead in 1965 to form the London Borough of Camden. Fitzrovia (North Soho) on the other hand, split down Cleveland Street between St Pancras to its east and Marylebone to its south and west, remains divided between Camden and Westminster to this day.

William Camden and Charles Pratt

Camden Town is ultimately, but not directly, named after the sixteenth-century historian William Camden. He had a house in Chislehurst, and after he died, it became known as Camden Place. In the eighteenth century it was the home of Whig politician Charles Pratt, who got a peerage and chose the title “Earl Camden”. He built up some land he owned in what was then the manor of Kentish Town, and by the early nineteenth century it had become known as Camden Town. Pratt Street is named after him.

The Camden Town Murder by Walter Sickert

Camden Lock on the Regent’s Canal is now the centre of a popular market, which dates back only to 1974. Local music venue the Roundhouse is so shaped because it was originally a turning shed for railway locomotives. The neighbourhood’s residents included singer Amy Winehouse, who lived at 30 Camden Square and drank at the Hawley Arms. Before the First World War, there was a group of post-impressionist artists called the Camden Town Group, the best-known of them being Walter Sickert, whose paintings were so dark that he was later accused of being Jack the Ripper.

Amy Winehouse (detail)
by Eddie van der Walt

The borough’s oldest neighbourhood, Kentish Town, has nothing to do with Kent, which may explain its lack of oast houses. “Kentish” is probably a corruption of “Ken Ditch”, the ditch in question being the River Fleet, which flows through it (or nowadays, under it). The “Ken” bit may refer to it coming from Ken Wood, or may be from the Old English for a corner, meaning inside the junction where the river’s Hampstead and Highgate branches meet. Karl Marx lived locally, as did George Orwell, and also Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, who called it an “odious swamp”. Its open fields are now long gone, but it does have a farm, and some consider it the best place to live in London.

St Pancras station & Midland Grand Hotel
(detail from photo by Jay Sobel)

St Pancras’s most famous landmark is of course its 1868 station, and the adjoining Midland Grand Hotel, a wonderful Victorian gothic pile which opened in 1873. Having knocked down Euston station (Arch and all) in 1962, and rebuilt it to be as boringly functional as they could, British Rail’s bean-counters decided to do much the same with St Pancras. This time, however, the conservationists were ready, and led by poet John Betjeman and codebreaking opera singer Jane Fawcett, launched a campaign to save the station, which was duly listed in 1967, narrowly escaping Euston’s fate. A statue of Betjeman now stands on the concourse.

John Betjeman statue
at St Pancras station
(photo: Graham Lester)

St Pancras produced an unlikely and unwitting Second World War hero in the form of Glyn Michael, who’d been born into grinding poverty in a Welsh pit town and ended up homeless and destitute sleeping in abandoned buildings around King’s Cross. He died in 1943 from ingesting rat poison, possibly deliberately. In Operation Mincemeat, an elaborate hoax by British Intelligence (with the borough coroner’s connivance), Michael’s corpse posed as a military officer who’d died in an air crash carrying phoney papers made to fool the Nazis that the Allies were about to invade Greece, as opposed to their real target, which was Sicily. So successful was the ruse that the Nazis not only diverted troops to Greece from Sicily, but also held them back from Kursk on the Eastern Front, aiding the Soviet victory there. Glyn Michael was buried in Huelva, Spain, with full military honours.