Four weeks in Somers Town

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Dr Dominic Keech, an ordinand at St Stephen’s House, spent four weeks this summer on placement in Fr Jellicoe’s old parish, as part of the Jellicoe Community.  Dominic worked alongside Fr John Caster, who is preaching the 2011 Jellicoe Sermon at Magdalen College, Oxford on 23rd October.

In July, I spent four weeks living and working in the Anglican parish of Old St Pancras, based at one of its four churches: St Mary the Virgin, Somers Town. This part of the borough of Camden forms a rectangle lengthways between Euston station and Mornington Crescent tube, bordered at the West by Eversholt Street and at the East by St Pancras International. It grew in the mid-nineteenth century with the train-lines running north. It is now an archetypal inner city hub of shops and offices, high density housing and travel interchange.
Somers Town is better known than the many urban estates which reflect it, perhaps through the documentaries which have told its important history, and the 2008 film Somers Town, by Shane Meadows. In common with much of London at the turn of the twentieth century, Somers Town was a place of condemnable conditions: dilapidated and infested housing, poor sewerage and intense overcrowding. In the 1920s, the remarkable ministry of Fr Basil Jellicoe initiated a scheme of slum clearance, and the foundation of a housing cooperative in which local residents – re-housed in new buildings but within their existing community – could vest their interests. Unlike much of Camden surrounding it, Somers Town remains a place of predominantly social housing, and many of the people who live there are related to the first residents of the St Pancras Housing Society homes.
Fr Jellicoe is symbolic of social action, deeply and stably engaged in a community, which flourishes in real change for people on the ground. It is a model of commitment to community which the parish of Old St Pancras (which also includes St Michael’s Camden Town, St Paul’s Camden Square and St Pancras Old Church) continues to take seriously. It is an inalienable part of the Anglo-Catholic tradition of those churches, which believes the Incarnation and the Sacraments of the Church are here to catalyse change in the world, and not only adorn it.
The parish has been involved in the foundation of North London Citizens from its outset, and established a listening campaign within its four churches early in 2011. The issue which surfaced most pressingly in those conversations was housing: as a basis for stable community for everyone, but particularly for the elderly and infirm; for vulnerable adults; for unrepresented and transient immigrants, and for low income families. This concern presented itself most consistently in Somers Town, where peoples’ homes are administered by housing associations, and the borough council.
I was invited to come to St Mary’s by its priest, Fr John Caster, and the Rector of the parish, Fr Philip North. They asked me to build in some way on their listening campaign, by hearing myself what was concerning people, and relating it to the bigger picture of social housing policy in a time of considerable political change. My time in the parish was split between investigating the history and current state of Somers Town’s housing stock, local government housing policy, and national plans laid out in the Welfare Reform and Localism bills; and listening to people talk about their housing situations.
Both national and local policy promise to change the way social housing is funded in a very radical way. This in turn will have an effect on the way housing associations and councils set rent levels – to perhaps as high as 80% of the market rate, an impossible increase for lower and even middle income households in urban areas. Inner London estates, in close proximity to high-cost private housing, are therefore in a highly compromised position. If welfare reform reduces the level of Housing Benefit without regard for local variations in real housing cost, this looks set to impact some of the most vulnerable people in our cities. I produced a detailed discussion paper for the parish, which attempted to draw together these different aspects of the housing scene as they are emerging. I hope it will be of use as the Old St Pancras team develops its role in the work of North London Citizens. It was a privilege to be so warmly welcomed by people at St Mary’s, who want to make sure that the inheritance of Jellicoe carries on animating their community to come together, and change things for the better.

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