A hand-tinted print of a chapel on fire, surrounded by shocked onlookers, is not a common choice for framed prints, but still, one such copy found its way to me.
‘Destruction of Park Chapel, Camden-Town, By Fire, on Tuesday Evening.’
Park Chapel has long since gone, as has Grove Street on which it was situated. Today, in its place, sits a small recreation ground, surrounded by blocks of flats. Arlington Road, on which the church may have sat at an intersection, now extends as a road filled with high-end Victorian housing, contemporary shops and a hodge podge of office blocks and bingo halls. There is certainly no sign of a chapel; and there certainly hasn’t been for some time.
On Tuesday 6thJune 1848, shortly after 9pm an enormous fire broke out in the school room attached to the chapel.
A large and fashionable non-conformist church, its services were incredibly busy, with much of the congregation travelling from far afield. This was quite a notable feat in a time where most walked to their local church and London was certainly not short of places of worship.
This could be partially attributed to the modernity of the building, which also housed a day school and Sunday school.
There is little history available online about the chapel, with the only clear timeline as to its rebuilding buried in ‘A Brief Sketch of the History of Park Chapel, Camden Town, and of the circumstances attending its destruction and re-erection with a list of subscribers. 1848.’
However, the first incarnation of the grand Park Chapel was a brief one. Built in 1844 by the ‘Metropolis Chapel Fund Association’, it was erected to serve the rapidly expanding population of Camden, many of whom were dissenters (attending churches other than C of E) and they required a new place of worship.
Funded by donations and the substantial contribution of a ‘Mr James Crane Esq.’, the first stone was laid on 3rdJuly 1843 and work was completed on December 6th, 1843. On the same day that work was finished, the church opened for worship with space for 975 parishioners.
The pulpit enjoyed a cycle of several ministers for over two years until The Rev. Joshua Clarkson Harrison was invited to become their pastor after a particularly popular sermon in December 1845.
As soon as a regular minster was installed, congregation members increased enormously, with the Sunday School soon having 400 children on its books.
However, with large congregations and sturdy buildings, combined with the city heat, an atmosphere was created so hot that changes had to be made.
The chapel would employ workmen to ‘improve the mode of ventilation’, but soon strayed from the original workplan. The now-accepted theory is that, working by wooden structures and shavings, the workmen’s soldering irons were to be the downfall of the chapel. A stray spark, landing in shavings ‘smouldered on for some time until all had left the building , and then burst out into that terrible conflagration which at first filled every heart with dismay.’
The initial report, as reported in the Illustrated London News was that it was attributed to an ‘escape of gas’, however, this report may be inaccurate as there is only mention of a gas line following the rebuild.
The pastor was attending to some of his parishioners at a nearby house when the news came of the fire. The group rushed to the site where hundreds of other onlookers had gathered. The fire brigade arrived shortly afterwards, but there was nothing to be done. By then, ‘the fire had extended along the flooring and communicated with the pews. The engines were soon ready for work, but, unfortunately, the supply of water was not sufficient to subdue so large a body of flame; and, notwithstanding the utmost exertions of all parties present, the work of devastation continued.’ 
The chapel was completely consumed by flames, the roof collapsing into the inferno as the crowd watched. By midnight, all that was left were the walls.
After holding meetings in the Temporary Rooms, the pastor and committee returned to the former architect and began to adapt plans. The chapel was enlarged, taking in the old school and vestry with room for 1500 adults and a further 500 children in the school. The enormous rebuild, despite an insurance payout, appears to have been predominantly funded once more, by private donation.
As recorded in victorianlondon.org, ‘seat rents’, whereby monied members of society would reserve a ‘good’ seat in the church. The fee also contributed to the income and general running of the church. Not to mention, having a seat on the lower floor, closer to the altar was an undeniable status symbol and a contrived attempt at proving one’s piety through monetary donation.
‘PARK CHAPEL, Arlington-Road, Camden Town— Terms of membership: “Admission by the Church on personal profession of faith.” Seat rents, with slight deductions for taxes, &c., form the minister’s salary (charges per sitting not stated). Number of sittings 1,500 number of communicants 6oo. Number in Sunday schools 850; number in Day schools 700.’
The list of ‘subscribers’ that funded the rebuild covers several pages, each donation meticulously recorded in ink. For all that can be said for presenting history as it was, rich and poor, the plight of the Park Chapel is just another sad and frustrating reminder of the longevity of the ‘haves’ instead of the ‘have nots’.
When the church was demolished, or if it was another war casualty is unclear. However, the tinted flames of a long-forgotten etching will always provide some curious interest, especially to someone with 50p and a spare afternoon.
Illustrated London News – June 19th1848 and accompanying print are images from my own collection.
A Brief Sketch of the History of Park Chapel, Camden Town, and of the circumstances attending its destruction and re-erection with a list of subscribers. 1848:
Illustrated London News June 19th, 1848
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