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A St Giles family story

Just before Easter a visitor from Manila, Ian Gill, visited St Giles researching his family history. Ian is not the first and will not be the last to do this, for many find exploring past generations compelling, and a fair number come to St Giles itself because in the 18th and 19th centuries the neighbourhood was crammed with large families and a multitude of artisan workshops. Such visitors come and go, take some photographs and, if very keen, go on to visit the London Metropolitan Archives where the majority of our archives are now kept (though today it is possible to see many of them online); and then are forgotten until the next researcher comes along.

Ian, though, brought a more detailed and illuminating story than most which bears repetition now, and I am grateful to him for permission to share it. It tells of the family of his great, great grandparents, John and Ann Newman who, between the years 1817 and 1840, had ten children baptised at St Giles-in-the-Fields. As far as we can tell these children were baptised in the font that now greets the visitor as they enter the church so, as you might imagine, a photograph of the great, great grandson was duly taken!

In 1817 the baptismal register records that their first children, Henry Newman and George Newman, were baptized on 25th May, at St. Giles-in-the-Fields, in the district of Holborn, as the area was then known. John and Ann were living at 18 King’s Street, between Covent Garden and Seven Dials (though nothing remains of the street now). John, 20 years old, was listed as a soldier, possibly from the end of the Napoleonic wars. The next child, John Thomas Newman, was baptized in 1822. Mother and father were still living in King’s Street but his occupation was now entered as a musical instruments maker. (Mothers’ occupations were not listed at this time). George Newman followed on 7th March 1824 and then Sarah Newman, the first daughter mentioned, received her baptism on 27th August 1826. John and Ann were still living in King Street but John’s occupation was now given more generally as a brass worker.

On 2nd November 1828, when the next son, William, was baptized, John and Ann had moved to 16 Carmarthen Street in the parish of St Pancras and John had now become a brass ‘manufacturer,’ which suggests that he had established his own business. Three years later Edward Newman was born on 9th November 1831 and was brought to church for his baptism on Christmas Day that year; John and Ann were now living in Duke Street. Henry John Newman was next, baptised on 6th September 1835. John and Ann had moved once more, this time to 9 Plumtree Street; John was described this time as a brass maker.

Then another daughter, Mary Ann Newman, was born to the family, and baptised on 3rd September, 1837; and, finally, twenty three years after bringing their first child, John and Ann walked to St Giles on the morning of 29th March 1840 for the baptism of Eliza Newman, their address and John’s occupation being unchanged from before.

So there we have one St Giles family story: Henry, George, John, George, Sarah, William, Edward, Henry, Mary Ann and Eliza, all born to John, father and brass worker, and Ann Newman, mother, within the parish of St Giles-in-the-Fields circa the first half of the 19th century. One family out of many crammed into the narrow streets and terraces, and amongst the workshops, of Covent Garden, Seven Dials and St Giles, and bordering onto the notorious Rookeries to the north of the church and surrounded by the houses of the local gentility gracing Bedford Square and environs. John, it seemed, had steady employment and together with Ann they played their full part in maintaining the capital’s birth rate with hardly an interruption: 1817, 1822, 1824, 1826, 1828, 1831, 1835, 1837 and 1840! I know that probably by the time Henry John came along in 1835 his elder brothers Henry and George might well have flown the nest and would certainly have been working, but even so we imagine a noisy, lively, eventful family (illness, loss, impoverishment, love, marriage, grandchildren) jostling with any number of other noisy, lively and eventful families who no doubt also had occasion to make the short local walk to the doors of St Giles in the High Street for their baptism and whose children might later attend the Parochial Church School, on the corner of Endell Street (named after a former Rector) and the High Street.

I labour the point, of course, to bring out how the evident differences between the days of the Newman family and our days has so radically altered the community in which we are set and the Christian ministry that is appropriate for it. We still have children living among us, and these you can see walking to and from St Joseph’s School in Macklin Street or St Anne’s School in Soho, but there all comparisons end. We no longer have that continuity of families and neighbourhood that was once the norm and which was at times served by a bevy of clergy in the mid-19th century. Welcome to the corporate world.

I recently met someone undertaking ‘research’ on future ministry in and around Oxford Street. I understand his starting point, and how the pattern of ministry enshrined in the local parish church no longer makes much sense where short-term relationships of role or position in a far broader economic environment have replaced long-term local relationships of family, neighbourhood, school and community. In his mind and that of others, ministry must become more entrepreneurial and Christian witness more centred on brand and image. My ‘researcher’ is not wrong to ask questions, but if the apparent answers to those questions were to erode still further the worth and value a locally-rooted expression of Christian life then my heart sinks, because the demand for modernity alone will have destroyed the very foundation upon which an authentic tradition depends and will continue to depend for generations to come. Pandering to popularity will surely only reduce the complexity and depth of the faith we have in Christ as revealed to us in scripture and tradition.

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