This is one of a series of occasional essays on places in London where significant events occurred in the past. To find out more about the project check out my earlier blog posting.
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“I believe these people are all ground up!”Arthur Bloomfield
From St Pancras International trains run to places as diverse as Luton, Sheffield and Paris. Just after they have left the station they will pass a small church standing in an old churchyard. There has been a place of worship on this site possibly since Roman times.
The churchyard itself contains graves of a number of a notable people including John Polidori, the author of the very first vampire story; and Sir John Soane, the architect. Soane designed the memorial for his wife and himself and it is said to have inspired Gilbert Scott when he came to design the first public telephone boxes.
The early woman’s rights campaigner, Mary Wolstonecraft, was also buried there along with her husband, William Godwin, but their daughter, Mary Shelley had them removed to Bournemouth, although the tomb is still there along with Godwin’s second wife.
Shelley had her parents’ remains removed because there were plans to build a new railway which would tear through a part of the old churchyard.
In the mid-Victorian era Britain was at the height of railway mania. New lines were snaking out over the country, many of them from London. The first of these opened n 1836 running out into Kent and Sussex from London Bridge. It was quickly followed by lines running to the north and west from Euston and Paddington respectively. St Pancras was one of the later stations to be built, providing services to the Midlands and East Yorkshire.
It was this line that would run through St Pancras Old Churchyard and it is here that a young architectural student who would later find fame as an author and poet enters the picture. The name of the student was Thomas Hardy, later to become famous as the author of The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the D’Urbevilles, and other novels depicting rural life, as well as a vast body of poetry.
Hardy had come to London from his home in Dorset in 1862, seemingly on an impulse. He had no work and no place to stay. He did have two recommendations, one of which found him an internship at an architectural practice (his first profession) and he very quickly found paid work with the architect, Arthur Blomfield, and stayed in London for the next five years.
The young man from the countryside (he was in his early twenties) threw himself into London life. He walked its streets, exploring “every street and alley west of St Paul’s like a born Londoner”, as he put it; he visited art galleries and museums, heard Charles Dickens read his works and went to numerous dance halls. He even became an extra in a play at the Haymarket!
Above all, he observed the people around him; the commuters on Oxford Street and the prostitutes in the dance halls. Some of these observations would later find their way into his poetry. Because Hardy also used his time in London to recognise what he really wanted to do with his life; and that was to become a poet. To that end he put in as much reading as he could. He never went to university but he often described these years in London as his student years.
The London Thomas Hardy arrived in was a dark and grim place. It was a polluted and smelly place. Shortly after his arrival he wrote to his sister, Mary:
“To-day has been wretched. It was almost pitch dark in the middle of the day, and everything visible appeared of the colour of brown paper or pea-soup.”Thomas Hardy in letter to his sister Mary, 19th February 1863
It was a city in transition. The mainline termini were being built and the new Underground line between Farringdon and Paddington opened in Janauary 1863 (Hardy was amongst his earliest passengers). Some construction work had not begun yet, most notably the sewers under the Embankment that would ultimately divert the human waste from the River Thames. The famed “Great Stink” which forced MPs from the riverside Houses of Parliament had taken place just four years before Hardy arrived.
It was also an era of political change. The Second Reform Act which enfranchised many working class men (no women!) was passed in 1867. Hardy’s own political inclinations were to the more radical end; he went to hear John Stewart Mill speak and he may have attended (at a little distance) the rally that took place in Hyde Park in 1865 in support of the Reform Act. Until the Act came into force it is worth noting that he himself would not have had the vote.
It was in this world that Hardy found himself presented with a very grim task.
Blomfield, as the son of a bishop, was considered a “right and proper” person to oversee the removal of human bodies where new railway lines would slice through old churchyards. An earlier project had not gone well. There were suggestions the railway company had simply carted away the corpses.
The work at St Pancras Old Church would be carried out with greater supervision: A clerk of works was appointed to be on site at all hours, and Hardy was given the task of dropping in unexpectedly at different times of the day to ensure the work was being carried out correctly. He attended the churchyard between 5 and 6 (and at other hours). In his autobiography (ghost written in the third person by his wife, Florence Dugdale) he described the scene:
“There, after nightfall, within a high hoarding that could not be overlooked, and by the light of flare lamps, the exhumation went on continuously of the coffins that had been uncovered during the day, new coffins being provided for those that came about in lifting, and for loose skeletons; and those that held together being carried to the new ground on a board merely; Hardy supervising these mournful processions when present, with what thoughts may be imagined, and Blomfield sometimes meeting him there.”The Life of Thomas Hardy, Florence Hardy, pp44-5
Sometimes some of the exhumed coffins would break open and their grim contents spill out. One of the coffins contained a skeleton with two skulls!
This was to be one of Hardy’s last projects in Arthur Blomfield’s employment. Shortly afterwards he became ill. He felt he could hardly hold his pencil and square to draw and when he visited his family in Dorset they were appalled at his ghastly pale complexion. Blomfield suggested he spend some time in the countryside and held his job open for him. In the event though, Hardy stayed in Dorset initially returning to the architectural practice in Dorchester where he had previously worked.
Hardy’s first visit to London had found him moving in very different circles to those he had grown up in. His boss, Blomfield, was the son of a bishop whilst Hardy was the son of a bricklayer and most of his colleagues were privately educated, “Tory and High Churchy” as he described them. The Reform League set up to campaign for the Second Reform Act had its premises on the floor below the architectural offices much to the delight of some of the trainee architects who occasionally attempted to disrupt its visitors.
Hardy was to return to London a number of times throughout his life, especially under the influence of his first wife, Emma Gifford, who was keen to see him advance his career as a writer. He was always, however, something of an outsider. A visitor to a lively party in London described him as “a little, quiet grey old man wearing a red tie” who seemed a set apart from the “brilliant and very ‘literary'” conversation going on about him. Hardy’s ambivalence to London life extended to his death; his body is buried in Westminster Abbey but his heart remains in another churchyard, this time in Dorset.