Father Basil Jellicoe: The priest who transformed Somers Town’s social housing
PUBLISHED: 16:43 03 September 2018 | UPDATED: 17:04 03 September 2018
Pub landlord, social housing reformer and missionary priest: Somers Town’s Father Basil Jellicoe packed a lot into his short life. Ahead of a talk at Camden’s local studies centre, Paul Shaw gives us the lowdown on a remarkable campaigner and people’s champion.
At the close of the First World War, housing in Somers Town was in a sorry state. The area’s slums had expanded as the railway stations at Euston and King’s Cross opened during the 19th century, and living standards had stagnated.
However, as early 20th century Britain put itself back together, one transformative Anglo-Catholic priest made a huge difference to the lives of the impoverished in the area, as he put into action his belief that religion was about maintaining “the right for people to live decent lives”.
Father Basil Jellicoe’s crusade against inadequate housing saw the founding of the St Pancras House Improvement Society and a huge slum clearance programme.
Memorably, he theatrically burned paper maché representations of vermin, and even – unusually for a man of the cloth – found himself landlord of the local pub, the since-closed Anchor in Chalton Street.
Paul Shaw is an archivist with for the Poor Servants of the Mother of God (SMG) and is giving a talk at the Camden Local Studies and Archive Centre (CLSAC) about Fr Jellicoe’s work in the area.
Paul told the Ham&High: “What he did was transformative. At the end of the First World War he became Magdalen College’s Missioner in Somers Town, and he saw the state of housing in the area as a scandal.”
The Magdalen Mission was the outreach arm of Oxford’s Magdalen College.
Paul added: “He decided to set up a housing association to build high quality homes at decent rents, and he was absolutely determined that this wouldn’t be gentrification.
“He built flats in Somers Town and he was very concerned that the people who had been living in the slums were able to afford the rent in his new properties. He became a towering local figure.”
Perhaps what marked Fr Jellicoe out among other great housing reformers was his desire to make sure people living in Somers Town were living in enjoyable surroundings, too.
Paul explained: “On washing lines and generally around the flats there were little ceramic decorations.
“It was incredible, work by Gilbert Bayes adoring buildings where the slums used to be. Some of it’s still there.”
Sadly, Fr Jellicoe’s health suffered as he was improving the lives of others, and he died aged just 36 in 1935.
Paul said: “In a very real way he probably worked himself to death over the issue of housing for the poor.
“He had his problems, certainly – he was forced to resign as president of the housing association because of his health, but even then he went around the country propagandising about improving social housing.”
Fr Jellicoe’s role as a pub landlord grew out of his empathy for the working class families in the area. Paul explained: “He wanted somewhere where working men could go after work, where they could take their families.”
Ironically, the pub, which opened as a “reformed pub” in 1929, served its first drinks to the then-Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Fr Jellicoe’s motivation was to run a pub in a way that didn’t take advantage of the poor or drive them towards alcoholism.
All of this, according to Paul, came from Fr Jellicoe’s idea of how Christianity should be.
He said: “He believed people should see God’s work in action in their lives.
“Part of this was his great concern that religion should be all about showing people God loves them and they should have the right to decent lives.”
To this day, Fr Jellicoe’s influence on Somers Town can be seen as his work in housing continues through the Origin housing association – which absorbed the St Pancras Housing Association he founded.
Plaques commemorating Fr Jellicoe’s work in Camden were installed at the St Nicholas flats and Basil Jellicoe Hall in 2014.
Fr Jellicoe’s work was not confined to London.
Paul told us: “He would drive up and down the country fundraising and raising awareness in a tiny little car.”
He also founded other housing associations in Sussex.
An exhibition of some of the artwork created for Fr Jellicoe’s buildings can currently be found in the foyer of the British Library in St Pancras – just around the corner from the district he so transformed.