Documentary evidence for the early history of the church is scanty. It is considered by some to have existed since AD 314, although there is no archaeological or documentary evidence to support this. A common story is that the church was founded by Roman monks who landed in Essex and were bearing the relics of St Pancras. The 1847 reconstruction of the medieval church revealed Roman tiles in the fabric of its tower and an inscribed altar stone dated to AD 625, which might suggest an early 7th-century foundation.
After the Reformation the isolation and decay of the church made it a tempting place for Catholics. St Pancras (and to a lesser degree Paddington Church) were the only places in London where Roman Catholics were permitted to be buried.
The graveyard served not only as a burial place for the parishioners, but also for Roman Catholics from all around London. They included many French refugees (émigrés), especially priests, who had fled the Revolution, one of them the transgender spy Chevalier d’Éon. Notable people buried in the churchyard include the notorious colonial administrator Joseph Wall who was executed for cruelty in 1802, vampire writer and physician John Polidori, the composers Carl Friedrich Abel and Johann Christian Bach, the eleventh son of Johann Sebastian Bach, and the sculptor John Flaxman. William Franklin, the illegitimate son of Benjamin Franklin, and last colonial Governor of New Jersey was interred here in 1814. There is a spousal memorial tomb for philosophers and writers Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, though their remains are now in Bournemouth. In the 17th and 18th centuries, many foreign dignitaries and aristocrats were buried in the graveyard; they are commemorated on the Burdett-Coutts Memorial Sundial, an elaborate memorial commissioned by the philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts, 1st Baroness Burdett-Coutts.
The architect John Soane designed a tomb for his wife and himself in the churchyard, which is now Grade I listed. This mausoleum provided the inspiration for the design by Giles Gilbert Scott of the iconic red telephone boxes.
In the mid-1860s, the young Thomas Hardy, was in charge of the excavation of part of the graveyard, in the course of the construction of the Midland Railway’s London terminus. At the time Hardy was apprenticed to Arthur Blomfield, an architect based in Soho. Blomfield had been engaged by he bishop of London to arrange the proper exhumation of remains and the dismantling of tombs. It fell to Hardy to arrange and organise their relocation beneath a nearby ash tree.
‘The Levelled Churchyard”, an early poem by Thomas Hardy, is thought to have been inspired by his abhorrence for the task he was set:
“We late lamented, resting here
are mixed to Human jam
And each to each exclaims in fear
I know not which I am”
The Hardy Tree is still there to this day, with the gravestones tightly clustered around the base.
One of the most famous exhumations from this period was that of the pioneering feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft and her husband William Godwin. Mary Wollstonecraft’s most famous work is The Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Mary and William had lived locally, at the Polygon, and were married at Old St Pancras church in 1797. Mary was to die only months later after contracting blood poisoning following the birth of her daughter, also called Mary. When the younger Mary was in her teens, she would meet Percy Bysshe Shelley at her mother’s tombstone before they ran away together to the Continent. When the burial ground was threatened by the development of the railways, Sir Percy Shelley – son of Mary and Percy – arranged for his grandparents’ graves to be relocated in 1851. Their remains now rest in Bournemouth, but their gravestone remains at Old St Pancras
Another wave of exhumations was necessitated in 2002-3, as extra land was needed to accommodate the new Eurostar terminus at St Pancras Station. This was a controversial move, with the media discussing the ethics of disturbing burials to make way for railway infrastructure. From the burials disturbed by this work archaeologists were able to gain a fascinating insight into a cross-section of the people who had been buried at Old St Pancras. The clay soil and wet conditions meant that many of the burials had exceptionally well-preserved coffins and even inscribed coffin plates, which gave researchers the ability to name some of the individuals exhumed. Amongst these named individuals were a number of French immigrants, who had moved to London after the French Revolution. One of the individuals who was identified was Archbishop Arthur Richard Dillon, who was buried with a fine set of porcelain dentures.
Bizarrely, the archaeologists also found a number of bones belonging to a large walrus. The bones of this huge creature showed signs of being dissected – perhaps it had been used by a scientist for research or a presentation, and then buried later on. Evidence of dissected human remains, found in the trenches where paupers’ burials took place, could possibly point to grave robbery. The mass burial trenches would have been more vulnerable to the attentions of the “resurrection men” than private graves, as it would have been easier to steal remains without detection. In A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens names Old St Pancras as the site of Jerry Cruncher’s grave robbing. The burial ground would have been a prime spot for grave robbery as it was more rural than many of London’s churchyards and not so well guarded.
The churchyard was reopened in June 1877 as St Pancras Gardens, following the movement to allow conversion of disused burial grounds into public gardens. Angela Burdett-Coutts, an important local benefactress, laid the foundation stone of the memorial sundial she had presented.
The burial ground reopened as a public park in 1877, and became known as St Pancras Gardens. Angela Burdett-Coutts, a wealthy banking heiress and philanthropist, paid for a remarkable memorial sundial that commemorated those whose bodies had been moved to make way for the railway. The monument, completed in 1879, has a Gothic tower that resembles that of the nearby St Pancras Station, and the base is decorated with mosaics.
Today, St Pancras Gardens is a peaceful place, far removed from the days of exhumations and body snatchers.
Telegraph Article Philip Johnston 03/06/2014
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