It is 30 years since Cardinal Basil Hume consecrated Our Lady Help of Christians to serve the burgeoning Catholic community in Kentish Town. This pamphlet highlights some of the salient features in the development of the Catholicism in the area and the different buildings that have been used by the Catholic community. Cardinal Hume is quoted later in the text to the effect that the word church means two things – the building and the people who worship in it. Just at the present time, with renovation work to restore the fabric very much in mind, the building is in particular need of the generosity of the people who worship beneath its fully and amply restored roof.
Background to the Area of Kentish Town
In the 18th century many people use to visit Kentish Town from the inner areas of London to take the fresh air or to walk down Anglers Lane to fish on the banks of the river Fleet. The cows in the meadows behind the houses in Kentish Town Road supplied the Dairy that until quite recently stood opposite Caversham Road, while the Bull and Gate and the Bull and Last pubs are a testimony to the herds that gazed here at that time. In the19th century rapid industrialisation and the expansion of London changed the rural nature of Kentish Town into the crowded urban neighbourhood that we know today. The railways provided work for many people, some of whom came from other parts of Britain and Ireland. This new influx of people would have boosted the Catholic population of the area.
The First Catholic Place of Worship in Kentish Town
Gospel Terrace/ Fitzroy Terrace, Highgate Road
Before the 1840s there were no places of worship for the Catholic population in Kentish Town, although the Toleration Act of 1791 had legalised the construction of Catholic churches for the first time since the Reformation. The first place of Catholic worship in the area was established by the Rev Hardinge Ivers, a convert priest. Fr. Ivers was by all accounts an interesting, albeit eccentric character. He spoke six languages and was descended from an old propertied family of Kentish Town. His family can be traced back to Thomas Ives (sic), who in 1252 was granted permission by King Henry III to “enclose” part of the highway outside his Kentish Town manor. At this time Kentish Town was in the countryside well outside the mediaeval city of London.
Fr. Ivers travelled widely in Europe, saving Jesuits in Lisbon from death at the hands of an angry mob. He was invited to Rome and was made a hereditary Count of the Holy Roman Empire by Pope Gregory XVI. He entered the Catholic priesthood and returned to Kentish Town where he established a physical Catholic presence.
Fr. Ivers observed the “horrible state of spiritual destitution in which Kentish Town was plunged” and in 1846 he applied to Dr Giffiths, Bishop of London, to open his private chapel to the public as a preface to building a new church. The difficulties encountered by Catholics at this time was shown by the fact that opponents, who did not want him to carry out these plans, obtained a warrant against him and one night he was arrested and spent a night in jail.
He was, however, able to execute his plans with the help of donations of £100 from Bishop Griffiths and £50 from the Jesuits. This helped him open a temporary church dedicated to St Alexis in July 1847. The new church was very close to his residence and private chapel in Gospel Terrace, an address which no longer exists, but was located where Nos. 110-118 Highgate road now stand.
In a letter to the “Tablet” in 1847 Ivers wrote that “it was the first time since the reformation that the Angelus bells tolled in Kentish Town and the Blessed Sacrament was carried in the streets”. But he made some enemies as a result of the bells and the processions – the shop across the road from the church had a large sign up saying “no connections with the church over the way”. He lived in an age before the ecumenical movement and his triumphalism about people leaving the local Anglican church for his Catholic chapel did not endear him to the wider community of Kentish Town.
His next plan was for the construction of a larger permanent church at Fitzroy Place (now 57-59 Highgate Road). The foundation stone of this building, designed by W. Wordell, a renowned Catholic architect of the time, was laid in October 1849 but it was never completed. A dispute broke out about the site between Fr Ivers and Cardinal Wiseman and the mission was closed. This episode had a rather sad end, according to newspaper reports. After a law suit and expulsion from the Church Fr Ivers died in penury in College Lane in 1868.
Fortess Road Church
In 1850, the Restoration of the Hierarchy of the Catholic Church in England and Wales triggered a wave of church construction throughout the country. In Kentish Town a new mission was opened in February 1856 in yet another temporary chapel in Junction road dedicated to Our Lady Help of Christians while a permanent church was built in Fortess Road, on a piece of freehold land, see picture below.
Temporary Catholic Church of Our Lady Help of Christians, adjoining manor house in Junction Road 1857
The funds for the new church in, Fortess Road, were provided by Cardinal Wiseman and the building was designed, in a Gothic style, by E.W. Pugin, son of the more famous Auguste W.N Pugin, responsible for much of the interior decoration of the Houses of Parliament. The new construction included worship space and schoolrooms. Its foundation stone was laid on 16 August 1858 and the basement of the building was ready as a temporary church in January 1859.
Opposite, at number 56 Fortess lived the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Ford Maddox Brown, who would have watched the construction of the new church from his studio. Maddox Brown and his family left this house in 1862 for a grander house in Grove Terrace, the elegant terrace of Georgian houses in Highgate Road. According to his biographer he did so in a fit of anger because the new Catholic church spoiled his view of Hampstead Heath.
In 1857 Maddox Brown painted from his first-floor studio window the watercolour, now in Delaware Art Museum USA, entitled “Hampstead from my Window”. In the foreground of this painting is a plane tree which may be the same one still standing in the front garden of number 54. This picture shows the empty plot where the Fortess Road Church was built.
Our Lady Help of Christians moves to Lady Margaret Road
This church in Fortess Road served the Catholic community well, but by the 1960s the growth in the congregation meant that a much larger building was needed. Some of the older members of today’s congregation have memories of people spilling out over the pavement and into the street during Sunday mass. At times two masses were being celebrated at the same time, one in the church and one in the basement hall.
Following a survey of the neighbourhood in search of a larger church, Fr Bernard Ferry arranged a deal whereby the local Methodists and Catholics exchanged their buildings. After much negotiation and some physical alterations in 1970 the Methodists moved to Fortess road and the Catholics took over their church in Lady Margaret Road.
The late Cardinal Basil Hume consecrated the building at a Mass on 20th September 1979. More than 700 people, including the Bishops of East London and Lindisfarne, the vicar general and the Mayor of Camden, packed into the church for the historic service. During his homily the Cardinal said: “This church has been for a long time a house of prayer. The Church is not just these walls; the Church is you. We use the church in a double sense – the building where we assemble to worship God and celebrate Mass but the word church means us – all of us who are baptised. The consecration of a church is very like the ceremony of baptism.”
Methodists in Kentish Town
Without the historical presence of Methodists in Kentish Town the Catholic community would not be occupying their present church building. For this reason it is worth reflecting on Methodism in this part of London.
John Wesley (1703 -91), the founder of Methodism, used to visit his friends William Clulow, a lawyer, and his wife Elizabeth in Kentish Town during the last few years of his life. The Clulows lived in a house at Old Chapel Path, which no longer exists, but which was located between modern day Anglers Lane and Holmes Road. In 1789 Wesley stayed with the Clulows for two days while his last Will and Testament was being prepared and duly witnessed by his two friends.
In 1792 the London Methodist Circuit (similar to a Catholic diocese) had thirty-two preaching places, including Kentish Town, at which Sunday services were held. Initially services were held in the open air but eventually they were offered the use of a brick-built barn on a farm at the end of a track near Green Street. This was the beginning of Green Street Chapel, which held 200 people and was eventually reconstructed with a stone plaque placed on its front wall bearing the words “Wesleyan Chapel”. Its site is still commemorated by the small cul de sac called Wesleyan Terrace on the west side of Highgate Road between the railway and Gordon House Road.
Another small Methodist Chapel was built on the east side of Highgate Road near Willow Walk, now called Fortess Walk. This chapel was converted to a house in 1828, when the Methodists moved. We can see what the chapels looked like from the detailed drawings made by J.F. King in his Kentish Town Panorama.
In 1828 the Methodists built a small brick Mission Hall just off Leighton Road, at a site which is now occupied by a housing development at Maud Wilkes Close. The Mission Hall used to stand on open ground and had seating capacity for 257 people, but by the mid 19th century this building had become too small for the burgeoning congregation. In 1867, the Methodists moved again to Lady Margaret Road, building an uncharacteristically large and formal church which became known locally as “the Methodist Cathedral”.
The mission hall was eventually sold in 1880 to the Presbyterians, providing funds for a school in Falkland Road next to the new church for poor boys, girls and infants of the neighbourhood. Later the school building was developed into the current parish hall. It is possible that one remnant of this Methodists history survives in the church today in the shape of the small sculpture on the right hand of the central arch beside the organ: parishioner Fred Harkin suspects that this is the face of John Wesley himself.
Interesting Architectural Features
Our Lady Help of Christians, Lady Margaret Road was built in 1867 by the architect John Tarring, a well known designer of non-conformist places of worship. The conversion to the current internal layout was carried out by the builders Messrs Burles Newton and partners. The parish priest, Fr. George Stack, now Bishop Stack, had the wall dividing the sanctuary from the day chapel removed and replaced with sliding glass doors. In the Methodist times there were only two small doors from the porch into the church, Fr Stack had the external double central doors installed to match the new arrangement of a central isle. This new configuration of the church made it easier for weddings and funerals to take place. During Fr. Stack’s time the great organ was completely dismantled and serviced by the company, Forster and Andrews of Hull, that had originally installed it. Renovation work included putting gold leaf gilding on the bishop’s nitre on the organ pipes.
The church is built of Kentish rag and the exterior commands a good corner site at the junction of Falkland Road and Lady Margaret Road. In 1867 the Illustrated London News referred to the building as an “ornament of the neighbourhood”, although commenting much later the architectural writer, Pevsner, was less complimentary, describing it as “ugly and uninspiring”. Today Our Lady Help of Christians is a Grade II listed building.
The west front of the church reflects the interior nave and aisles, with its prominent N W tower and octagonal spire with three tiers of dormer windows and a gabled south bay. Above the main entrance is a large window comprising of seven lights (small perpendicular windows) and bearing a geometrical tracery at the top.
Beyond the main entrance the church opens out into a spacious area. The deep gallery at the rear of the church which extends into the north and south aisles is supported by slender cast-iron columns. Has your mind ever strayed during mass and contemplated how these slender columns hold up such a large and sturdy gallery? The wonders of Victorian engineering!
The bright red and blue abstract design of the south-east window is by Carmel Cauchi, a Maltese artist and sculptor, and is dedicated to Jim Breheny.
In the gallery on the west wall is a small stain glass window depicting Our Lady, which is one of the few things that came from the old church in Fortess road.
The stain glass window in the gallery is the only one that made the move from the Fortess Road church.
Some of the older members of the congregation have memories of the church both in Fortess Road and the early days after the move to Lady Margaret Road.
Frances Small has these memories of the Fortess Road Church:
“The church had lovely wooden beams and stained glass windows. I remember when I was a small child my mother always sat in the same seat on the right hand side near the pulpit. One of the windows used to fascinate me as its dedication was – “Please pray for the soul of Leonora Ghent – February 1916”. Many, years later the Parish still benefits from the “Ghent Foundation” which has been going all that time. The old church had a hall underneath – in fact it was in two rooms. One had a huge billiard table and a tea bar, strictly no alcohol, the other had a small stage and as children my brothers and I were in the yearly Nativity play where I graduated from being a sheep, to an angel and finally to Mary. Meanwhile, I joined the Brownies, then Girl Guides. Then on to Youth Club, Children of Mary, Choir, dances and so on. We had one famous member of the choir. His name was Brendan O’Dowda, he had a wonderful lilting Irish tenor voice and knew how to make the most of it. He only had time to sing occasionally with us but what a thrill it was. It must be said – he was very good looking and knew it. He made records that were played on the radio programme “Two-way Family Favourites”.
Parish priests: The earliest one I remember was Fr Howlett. Then came Fr John O’Neill who, I think, was around from 1928 to the late fifties and retired to Buckfast Abbey in Devon and lived to a ripe old age. In the 1950’s there was a large influx of Irish and Caribbean people who swelled the congregation very considerably. So much so, that extra Masses were even said in the Parish Hall. The church was right on the main Fortess Road with a great deal of traffic, including buses, with only a narrow pavement – so when crowds came out of church they spilled out onto the pavement and into the road which, of course, was very dangerous.
The next Parish Priest, Fr Bernard Ferry, realised the danger of our over crowded church and negotiated a swap with the Methodists at the present church in Lady Margaret road. There was quite a lot of renovation to be done and in the meantime we had Mass at St Bennet’s church in Ospringe Road where, in earlier years, we were forbidden to enter!!!
Sadly, Fr Ferry did not live to enjoy the fruits of his labours because he died before we actually moved in”
Ethel Horacek remembers Fortess Road as a homely church where at Christmas time there was a variety show and a Christmas lunch. In fact it is where the tradition of the Christmas lunch started.
Agnes Cloherty remembers the evening mass spilling out onto the pavement of Fortess Road and the wonderful singing of the choir.
Many Parishioners remember the full social life that was associated with the Fortess Road Church. Charlie Gregory has fond memories of: belonging to the youth club at the Fortess Road church during the war time and the boys and girls walking home arm in arm during the black out, it being pitch dark with no lights allowed at night.
Others can recall:
Bingo twice a week, that helped pay off the debt associated with moving to the new church.
Regular weekly dances with a band which were packed with all ages, even when there was no bar! Those who came when the pubs shut were charged 50p. There were Dinner and Dance events at New Years and on other special occasions as well as the usual parish organisations like Brownies, Cubs and the Union of Catholic Mothers.
Some of these organisation and events continued after the move to St Margaret’s Road but over time they have changed and other activities have started up.
When the parish first moved to the new building there was much that needed doing. Nora Lucey recalls: Fr Cassidy said we didn’t have to kneel down because the floor was too damp.
Frances Small remembers the priests who have served since Our Lady Help of Christians moved to Lady Margaret Road:
Fr Patrick Cassidy came next, took on the debt and over a period of years managed to raise the money to clear it. Fr Cassidy was with us for 14 years before he semi-retired. He died only fairly recently.
Next came Fr George Stack (now Bishop Stack), He was able to see the potential for changing the layout of the church. It originally had two aisles but he realised that a centre aisle would be better for weddings, funerals and the opening up of the space. He also unearthed the Ghent Foundation fund which had been building up in the Westminster Diocese coffers. He used it to give the beautiful organ a complete overhaul instead of the usual patch up. He also arranged for the Confession room to be built to link the church to the house for easy access. Previously it was only possible to get into the church from the house either by having to go out of the front door and along the street to the church or by going out of the kitchen and across the garden to the door at the end of the church. His sermons were wonderful and we always wished they could have been recorded.
He was followed by Fr Pat Browne – a man with a most beautiful voice – oh what wonderful services we had with him and also concerts in the hall. He was with us for about 7 years during which time he encouraged many musicians and choristers to give us memorable services. He and Fr Reg Dunkling, one of his curates, went to India and met with Mother Teresa. He sang for her and she said that if ever she was in London, she would visit the parish and she kept her word! It was a fantastic day for the parish and a great honour to greet her and several of her sisters.
After Fr Pat left us, Fr Stuart Wilson, a former C of E priest, was with us for a few years but he was chosen to lead the At Your Word Lord programme. The present parish priest, Fr Tom Forde, was thrown in the deep end when Fr Stuart had to leave suddenly to take up his post at Christmastime with all the services over the weekend and Christmas day to step into.
Saints with connections to Kentish Town
Just south of the Junction Tavern on Fortess Road there used to be a block of large villa houses known as Bellina Villas. Number 4 Bellina Villas – Ivy Lodge – was occupied by 45 nuns from the order the Sisters of Marie Auxiliatrice (Mary Help of Christians). The Sisters arrived in this country in 1870 as refugees from the Franco-Prussian War. The order was founded in 1864 by Marie Therese de Soubrian to help relieve the poverty brought about by the French Industrial Revolution and was first based in Toulouse in France. In England the sisters were asked to help the match girls during their industrial strike against against the company Bryand and May in 1888. Sister Marie Therese de Soubiran, the founder, was beatified in 1946 by Pope Pius X11.
Many remember the time when Mother Teresa visited Out Lady Help of Christians in 1993. The place was packed and many couldn’t get into the church. Two policemen were on duty outside the church when she arrived with Fr Pat Browne and two other sisters. Fr Browne and Fr Reg Dunkling, one of his curates, had been to India and met Mother Teresa. He sang for her and she said that if ever she was in London, she would visit the parish and she kept her word. She found time to visit while in London in 1993 collecting the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion for her extraordinary efforts to help the homeless in Calcutta.
Frances Small recalls Mother Teresa’s visit: It was a fantastic day for the parish and a great honour to greet her and several of her sisters.
Our Future depends on the Roof
In the 30 years since the church was consecrated by Cardinal Basil Hume many people have moved into and out of the parish. We have a thriving community, an interesting history to share and a historical building to preserve. But it will not be preserved without a strong roof! So give generously to the roof fund and help keep the church – both the building and people – dry and safe.
Jenny Rossiter June 2009.
Important Dates in the History of OLHC Kentish Town
- 1847 Temporary Catholic Church, St Alexis, opened in Gospel Terrace.
- 1849 Foundation laid to new church in Gospel Terrace, but church not completed.
- 1850 The restoration of the Catholic Hierarchy.
- 1856 Temporary Chapel in Junction Road dedicated to Our Lady Help of Christians
- 1858 Foundation stone to Our Lady Help of Christians Fortess Road laid.
- 1867 Methodist church in Lady Margaret Road completed.
- 1868 Fr Hardinge Ivers dies.
- 1970 Fortess Road church is swapped with Lady Margaret Road Methodist church.
- 1959 Basement of Fortess Road church is ready as temporary church
- 1979 Cardinal Basil Hume consecrates OLHC at Lady Margaret Road.
- 1993 Mother Teresa visits Our Lady Help of Christians.
- Camden Local Studies and Archive Centre
- Catholic Churches of London by Denis Evinson
- Mission Founded in Kentish Town by the Rev Hardinge Ivers by Miles Gerald Keon, 1858.
- Streets of Kentish Town by Camden History Society, 2005.
- Interviews with parishioners