If you happen to be strolling on the north side of Regent’s Park you will see in the distance a spire which is the spire of St Mark’s Church. The church is situated in St Mark’s Square at the junction of Prince Albert Road, Regents Park Road and Princess Road. If you were to leave the park and cross over the road to pay the church a visit you will be confronted by an essentially Victorian building set in a beautiful garden. This building has an interesting history as follows.
Before it became a parish in its own right, what is now the parish of St Mark’s was in the much larger parish of St Pancras, with the parish church well over a mile away. There was certainly a need for more churches in St Pancras by 1840 and even more so by 1850. From a parish on the outskirts of London with a population of a couple of thousand in 1750, mostly in Kentish Town, this grew to 46,000 in 1811 and 130,000 in 1841. There was church accommodation for only a small percentage of the population.
Unfortunately, church building had become a very contentious issue in St Pancras, as the vestry in the days before reform in 1832 had spent a prodigious sum of money on building New St Pancras Church without ever accounting properly for what was spent. The Radicals, who controlled St Pancras politics after 1832, were determined never again to allow rates to be spent on churches.
Nevertheless, by heroic efforts, a substantial number of churches and chapels were built or enlarged in St Pancras in the years before and after 1846, when Thomas Dale became Vicar of St Pancras. St Mark’s was the fifth new church. After a fund-raising campaign, enough money was raised for the erection first of a temporary and then a permanent church, designed by Thomas Little and consecrated in 1853. The temporary church, with a capacity to hold five hundred people, was on the corner of Regent’s Park Road and Princess Road. It is unclear what this looked like, though its outline is preserved in a map of St Pancras dating from 1850.
The driving force in all this was clearly the Reverend Dr Edward Thompson. It was his explicit intention to build a church on the site. He indeed got a pledge of £1000 towards it from James Blomfield, the Bishop of London, from the Metropolitan Church Fund. Thompson employed Little as his architect, calculated the cost of the building as £6000, with another £1000 for furnishings, and began recruiting subscribers. The years between 1846 and 1853, and indeed beyond, were ones of strenuous fundraising and strict accountability. A complete and audited list of subscribers exists.
After the contract had been put out to tender to eleven builders, the church was built by the leading firm of George Myers. Including galleries on both sides, the total cost of the church to June 1853 was £8458 4s. 10d. Due to lack of funds, the chancel had to wait until 1891, when this was added to a design by Arthur Blomfield, Bishop Blomfield’s son. Later a fine reredos by Sir Ninian Comper was added to its east end.
The church was a great success, with a thousand people attending services in the 1850s and later, filling the galleries and listening to the fine Father Willis organ.
The first vicar, W.B. Galloway, was a learned, philosophical Scot, who had previously been a curate of St Pancras and the priest in charge of St Mark’s before the church was built. He remained as vicar until 1888, when he was succeeded by the prolific author William Sparrow-Simpson, vicar from 1888 to 1904. Sparrow-Simpson wrote the libretto for John Stainer’s The Crucifixion (1888) and over fifty books. Drawing worshippers from a distance, he was described in 1902 as ‘one of finest preachers I have ever heard’. His successor, Maurice Bell, vicar from 1904-12, was a talented musician who collaborated with Percy Dearmer, vicar of St Mary’s Primrose Hill, and Ralph Vaughan Williams in the creation of The English Hymnal. Perhaps reflecting the high church practices of St Mark’s, Bell eventually became a Roman Catholic.
By the time of the First World War, however, the congregation had shrunk, making the galleries redundant. The last was removed in 1908. After a number of short-term vicars, Hugh Stuckey provided continuity as vicar for over thirty years from 1928. A bachelor, he was devoted to cats.
The Second World War brought disaster. At midnight on 21 September 1940 the church was hit by an incendiary bomb. The roof quickly caught alight and the fire rapidly spread from the west to the east of the church. The blaze only lasted a few hours but when it was over the interior was completely destroyed. Five days later the church was again hit, this time by a high explosive bomb which fell in the chancel. The reredos, the fine Willis organ and the high altar frontals were destroyed, though the vestments and the registers, and most of the contents of the vestry, were saved. The rebuilding took many years and the church was only reopened in 1957, seventeen years after its bombing. To echo its connection with the Zoo, and its alternate title of ‘The Zoo Church’, the new stained glass contained a range of Zoo animals. In the west window, a little way up the central light, can be seen a less exotic animal: a black and white cat, said to represent Hugh Stuckey’s cat. A new reredos by Sir Ninian Comper was added in 1959.
The church suffered a renewed tribulation on 12 November 1994 when an unknown arsonist caused £220,000 worth of damage, taking a year to rectify.
During the last few years there has been a considerable amount of activity both within the church itself and in its beautiful garden. This activity has been both practical and creative. On the practical side there has been a reconfiguration of the West End of the church and the installation of an eighteenth century Italian organ built by the Neopolitan organ builders Michelangelo and Carlo Sanarica. A Ninian Comper reredos has also been installed, donated by the St Luke’s Hospital Trust. In the church garden there has been the creation of a new fence at the foot of the garden on the east side of the church together with a gate and path leading from the canal towpath up into the garden and a garden shed has been erected for storage purposes. The most recent development has been the removal of the inner door of the porch and the installation in its place of a glass door, engraved with the lion of St Mark’s, which enables visitors to view the interior when the church is not open. On the creative side there has been an opening up of the church during the week to a variety of events including creative workshops, fashion shoots and theatre groups. Then there are the summer concerts which take the form of organ recitals preceded by refreshments.
This opening up of the building on week days has also involved welcoming an increased number of visitors from home and abroad who have relished the beauty and history of the building.
The current situation:
St Mark’s maintains a tradition of accessible but distinctive high churchmanship, including beautiful singing by a professional choir. At the time of writing the church has had to be closed owing to the current health crisis. However it is very much hoped that worship and events can resume when possible and that people will feel encouraged to engage in the traditional form of moderately High Anglican worship offered to the community by St. Mark’s. If you would like to join our circulation list for information regarding worship and events please email the Parish Clerk, Ros Miskin, on firstname.lastname@example.org.