Church where hymns and carols were debuted celebrates 150 years

Rev Percy Dearmer third vicar of St Mary-the-virgin Primrose Hill with the choir

(centre back row) Rev Percy Dearmer third vicar of St Mary-the-virgin Primrose Hill with the choir - Credit: St Mary's archives

The church where familiar hymns including In The Bleak Midwinter and Dear Lord and Father of Mankind were first heard is marking its 150th anniversary.

The first service was held at St Mary-the-Virgin, Primrose Hill on July 2, 1872 where three decades later vicar Percy Dearmer put together The English Hymnal with Ralph Vaughan Williams – setting new words to traditional tunes and commissioning fresh arrangements for existing lyrics.

As Vaughan Williams wrote: "I was sitting in my study when a cab drove up and ‘Mr Dearmer’ was announced. I knew his name vaguely as a parson who invited tramps to sleep in his drawing-room; but he had not come to see me about tramps. He went straight to the point and asked me to edit the music of a hymn book."

Britain's greatest contemporary composer Dr Ralph Vaughan Williams arriving for Royal Philarmonic So

Early in his career composer Ralph Vaughan Williams was commissioned by St Mary's vicar Percy Dearmer to work on The English Hymnal which gave us favourites such as O Little Town of Bethlehem and In The Bleak Midwinter - Credit: PA Archive/Press Association

Appointed in 1901, the socialist, keen cyclist and author of The Parson's Handbook, wanted to gather the best hymns for his Primrose Hill congregation. Dearmer collated and rewrote lyrics, while the Lark Ascending composer gathered Lutheran chorales, Swiss and French traditional melodies, Scottish and Welsh hymns and English Folk songs collected by Cecil Sharp or himself.

The Ploughboys Dream rearranged for words by Bishop Phillips Brooks became O Little Town of Bethlehem. Vaughan Williams also reworked an English melody for Dearmer's John Bunyan-inspired He Who Would Valiant Be, and asked composers such as Gustav Holst to pen tunes for the likes of Christina Rosetti's In The Bleak Midwinter.

Dearmer hailed it "a collection of the best hymns in the English language", and along with the later English Carol Book and Songs of Praise (which gave us Morning Has Broken with words by Hampstead resident Eleanor Farjeon), it was widely used in schools and parishes.

"Many hymns we know today were first sung at St Mary's," says long-serving parishioner and "honorary archivist" Dr Christopher Kitching, who has written a history of the church.

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"Dearmer appointed Martin Shaw as director of music who built up a flourishing tradition which has continued to this day with organists, four professional singers and a choir. St Mary's is also known for its fine liturgy, support of women's ministry and pioneering outreach work."

St Mary's origins lie in a home for destitute boys in Regent's Park Road founded by two Hampstead businessmen moved by seeing starving children on street corners.

"It didn't initially have a chapel but the chaplain held services in the schoolroom until the growing congregation built a temporary iron church off Ainger Road," says Kitching.

"Primrose Hill was a newish area under development with a solid middle class element but also quite poor people. Those who lived south of the railway began to think of themselves as a community and campaigned for a more substantial church."

St Mary's Primrose Hill

St Mary's held its first service in June 1872 - Credit: Christopher Kitching

Built on land owned by Eton College, and designed by congregation member MP Manning, half the cost was provided by heiress Emily Andre, who later married the first vicar Charles Fuller. But four years after completing the first phase, disaster struck when London and North Western Railway started excavating the second Primrose Hill tunnel.

"The church started to collapse – the priest kept a diary of the cracks. The railway admitted liability and paid compensation. The north aisle had to be completely rebuilt and the chancel arch reinforced so it didn't fall down."

Fuller fell out with the bishop and had a breakdown, but second vicar Albert Spencer raised thousands to complete the works including a south aisle, sacristy and chapel.

"I've always thought of him as the great patron saint of St Mary's. He raised an enormous amount to get the church finished," says Kitching.

He handed over a thriving congregation to the dashing Dearmer who strived for beautiful decor, music and church services.

Although committed pacifists, in 1915 Dearmer and wife Mabel left to serve in a Red Cross ambulance unit. But when Mabel died of typhus and their son Christopher in the Dardanelles, a heartbroken Dearmer relinquished the parish to Rev Arthur Duncan-Jones.

A procession in 1930 to mark the Jubilee

A procession in 1930 to mark the Jubilee led by Rev Hubert Harcourt - Credit: St Mary's parish archive

"Although families in the parish lost love ones in the First World War, the Second World War had a much more serious impact," says Kitching. "There was the devastation of the Blitz. The church windows were blown out and services interrupted by air raids. Even though the vicar was determined to carry on, attendance plummeted. With anti-aircraft guns on Primrose Hill, it was thought a dangerous place."

Records show Rev Hardcastle oversleeping and missing a service, while celebrating others with freezing hands after a November 1944 bomb in King Henry's Road killed eight and left St Mary's open to the elements. St Paul's in Avenue Road was also bombed, declared redundant and merged with St Mary's in the 1950s. Its school moved from Winchester Road to Elsworthy Road in the 1970s.

"After the war, there was a huge amount of redevelopment. It was a period of transition with George Timms in the 50s and Howard Hollis in the 60s giving bleak accounts of how half their parish was being demolished and rebuilt. Every vicar since Dearmer said it's wrong to assume Primrose Hill is all well heeled. The big houses were often sub divided into flats and bedsits with poorer people living there."

At the Millennium, Rev Robert Atwell raised funds to employ a professional youth worker who reached out to deprived areas.

St Mary's Palm Sunday procession

A Palm Sunday procession in 2018 - Credit: Steve Reynolds

"He had the vision to see that youth work shouldn't be limited to the congregation and the wider needs of young people was something that affected the whole community. One of the reasons St Mary's is on the map today is our current youth worker Jason Allen is little short of a saint tackling the terrible upsurge of knife crime and gangs."

Reverend Marjorie Brown of St Mary's Primrose Hill

St Mary's twelfth and first female vicar Reverend Marjorie Brown has overseen a thriving community parish - Credit: Polly Hancock

The twelfth and first female vicar Marjorie Brown sanctioned a microbrewery in the crypt, selling beer at farmers markets to raise funds for church projects. Parish activities have burgeoned, hosting concerts by the Camden Choir, the annual Primrose Hill lectures and a cold weather shelter. As Kitching comments: "There are so many community activities there's inadequate space to fit it all in."

A 1.5m appeal Grow The Wonder, backed by local Mary Portas, aims to reconfigure and extend the building to survive and thrive for another 150 years.

St Mary's Primrose Hill brews beer

St Mary's Primrose Hill has a microbrewery including a brew named after former Vicar Percy Dearmer - Credit: Archant

St Mary The Virgin A Church and Its People by Christopher Kitching is published by Troubadour £25.