Until 1791 Roman Catholics had been unable to exercise their religion freely in the United Kingdom, and it was not until 1829 that the Catholic Emancipation Act allowed Catholics to hold public office as George III felt that it violated his Coronation Oath. Subsequently it was opposed by both Robert Peel and Lord Wellington, the great British Hero and conqueror of Napoleon at Waterloo. Eventually Wellington as Prime Minister forced Peel to introduce it as political expedience because of the controversy over an election in County Clare in 1828.
At this time there were few Catholics in England but their number was to be increased greatly by the expansion of the railway system and the arrival of the "navvies" - navigators - who were responsible for its construction and who largely came from Catholic Ireland. Many of these men and women settled in the Holloway area. There was still very great suspicion and resentment against "papists" in the British population as a whole. Indeed as recently as 1780 a demented nobleman - Lord George Gordon - had roused the London mob to make an armed attack on the Houses of Parliament under the old cry of "No Popery", although the 'Gordon Riots', as they became known, degenerated into an orgy of plunder and drunkenness. Even more recently, and of greater concern was a similar riot in Highgate itself in 1849 after Father Ivers had rented a small room at 17 High Street and had held Mass and gave a series of lectures on Catholicism. Father Ivers won compensation for the damage and personal injury suffered in the riot but was unable to find any local property owners willing to rent other premises.
So when Father Ignatius Spencer became Provincial of the Passionist order in 1848 and needed to find it a permanent home in the London area it was not a simple matter of finding suitable premises and raising the necessary finance. The Honorable and Reverend George Spencer, brother of Lord Althorp, originally a beneficed clergyman of the Church of England who had become convinced of the claims of Catholicism, had taken the name Ignatius on his conversion. The Community first moved into the Hyde, in Hendon, into Woodfield House in Cool Oak Lane but this proved unsuitable. Despite Father Ignatius travelling extensively through Continental Europe he had not been as successful in raising funds as he hoped.
Father Ignatius began to look for other suitable premises, which had to satisfy the requirements of the order in being outside of the town and yet close enough to serve it, eventually finding the present site in Highgate which, despite being thought by his agent to be too small and too close to the Whittington Hospital, seemed to be ideal. However the prejudice against Catholics and the likelihood that the owners would be unwilling to sell to Catholics would have to be reckoned with. So Fr. Ignatius and his colleagues disguised themselves at the house of Mr Martin in Argyle Street before setting out to inspect the property but despite looking at it from every side they were still unwilling to enter the building in case the owners guessed who they were. So on May 5th 1858 a Brother Thomas was suitably disguised and accompanied by their Agent went to see the inside of the property and reported favourably. Next Father Eugene Martorelli disguised himself in the clothes of a Mr Matthews who was a Hall Porter of the Custom House and visited the property.
It seems that their fears were well founded as the Chronicle of the Retreat records show that the former owner, a Mr Woodward, had wanted to sell the property in 1849 but had a dream the night before the sale that his estate had been bought by Papists and was so disturbed by this that he withdrew it immediately! Of course had he ignored the dream or had been less prejudiced against Catholics the property would have been sold in 1849 and would not have been available in 1858!
The site was ideal although the property on it was a public house named 'The Old Black Dog' frequented by Cattle Drovers who would bring their animals down Highgate Hill to avoid the expense of the toll road, now the Archway Road. Whether the 'Old Black Dog' took its name from the favourite dog of the drovers or as Mr Larwood suggests in his 'History of Signboards'from "the canine spectre that still frightens the ignorant and fearful in our rural districts, just as the 'Dun Cow' and the Lambton 'Worm' (or dragon) were the terror of people in the midland counties and the North of England in former times" is now lost in the mists of time. An Inn by that name was recorded as early as 1552 in this location but it had ceased to be used as an inn by 1826, was by now occupied as a private home, but was still known locally by the former inn name.
Now their problems would really begin - how to raise the money to secure the property and would the Cardinal give permission? The property was auctioned on May 26th 1858 so the prejudice of the vendor would not matter if a successful bid could be made without revealing their true identity before the sale. By the 25th of May the Cardinal had still not given permission but relented and finally consented at 8pm when the final arrangements for the following day could be put hand. And the money?
Father Ignatius had been trudging from place to place in the 20 days between the decision to proceed and the day of the auction when a deposit would have to be placed to secure the property. He succeeded but only by borrowing substantial sums at high rates of interest. Fortunately the auction went better than the fund raising and property was secured. When the identity of the purchasers became known there was local consternation, particular as four old ladies still lived in the 'Old Black Dog' and they were worried that they would be immediately dispossessed.
The property was occupied on September 29th 1858, the first Mass in Highgate since 1849 was said and work was to begin on the alteration of the public house to a more spiritual purpose as the home of the community. As the Catholic community grew rapidly, partly because of the Catholic Navvies in Upper Holloway, partly through Father Ignatius's efforts in scouring the countryside for miles around reconverting lapsed Catholics that he encountered, so the chapel formed in the entrance hall off the old inn became too small. By May 1859 foundations were being laid for a chapel behind the inn but a builders strike in London caused a delay which allowed a much larger chapel to be constructed, work commenced in January 1860 and was completed by 25 April 1861. Where did the money for this come from? Certainly not the parishioners. It was clear that the parish was growing rapidly and so a building was needed which would be large enough to accommodate the future needs rather than the current needs.
Father Ignatius asked his nephew John, who was by now the fifth Earl Spencer, for £1,000, an enormous sum in present day terms, to finance the development. The Earl did not provide the £1,000 but did reinstate an annuity (a form of pension) of £300 per annum which had been stopped when Father Ignatius became a Passionist. The income this produced was sufficient to enable a mortgage of a £1,000 to be taken out so that the work could be done.
Father Ignatius died in 1864 and so did not live to see the next remarkable developments. This church served a rapidly growing community as many local Protestants converted, and by 1867 Schools were built on the site and by 1875 work commenced on the present monastery building. By the late 1880's a community of less than 30 Parishioners had grown to more than 2,000 and a new church was again desperately needed. In 1869, Howitt, in his book 'Northern Heights of London' records that "Of late years Catholics have established a large chapel and house for the priests on the hill descending towards Holloway, by the entrance to Maiden Lane (it did not become Dartmouth Park Hill until much later) under the name of St Joseph's Retreat. The greater part of the priests there being foreign, and with a predominance of Italians, speaks prettily of its origin in the Propaganda; and it seems to have succeeded greatly, its chapel being generally crowded, especially by the Irish living in Upper Holloway."
In 1886 a meeting was called by Father Gregory Callaghan of the men of the parish to consider the building of a new church - attendance was poor, those who did not attend were unenthusiastic, and the project was dropped. The need remained and so in 1888 the then Rector, Father Gerald Woollett convened a second meeting with greater success. It was resolved to construct a new church on the site.
It was intended to partly demolish the old church, building on that site, moving into it on completion and then demolishing and rebuilding the rest, but this was impractical. A temporary iron church was constructed in the monastery grounds and was complete and ready for occupation within 3 months! The iron church cost £700 and had seating for 700. It was sold for £100 and there is no record of the buyer or its fate.
The foundation stone of the new church was laid on 24th May 1888, almost 30 years to the day after the original acquisition of the site. A history of the church, written in 1932, a Souvenir of the Consecration of St Joseph's Church, records that an old parishioner recalled the sight of teams of horses, eight, twelve, sometimes as many as sixteen, struggling up the hill with huge blocks of stone to be hewn and shaped in the courtyard of the 'Old Black Dog'. The construction work was led by Brother Alphonsus Zeegers, who in the habit and stone mason's apron worked tirelessly supervising the works. It is recorded that Brother Alphonsus had built much of the furniture in the old church, including the alter rails and pulpit which were reinstalled in the new church. "He never seemed to sleep, and it was no uncommon occurrence to see him wandering round the works late into the night, and yet again he was the first man on the scene in the morning".
On the evening of Thursday 21 November 1889 the building was blessed by the Bishop of Liverpool and on the following day a program of eight days of High Mass and services commenced which saw the presence of 300 Priests, three Bishops, two Archbishops and a huge congregation. The parish had erected a church which for many days afterwards attracted huge crowds from all parts of the city to see the interior, as the 1932 history records, "no doubt attracted by the lofty dome rearing itself above the surrounding buildings, and easily seen for miles around".
The creation of the church was a triumph but it left the parish with a burden of debt that would take 43 years to clear, although the high altar had been consecrated in 1905 this burden prevented the fabric of the building being consecrated as well. When Father Edward Le Maitre became Rector in 1929 the church debt stood at the substantial sum of £4,700 and a further £1,000 was needed for essential redecoration and repair. Father Edward galvanised the parish into raising the sums needed to extinguish this continuing burden, by monthly collections, bazaars and even an all-star Variety Concert. Within 3 years the money was raised and church was finally consecrated on 28th April 1932.
As the author of a life of Father Ignatius recorded in 1964, shortly before his death, "Highgate is wonderfully adapted to all the requisitions of our rule and constitution. Situated on the brow of a hill, it is far enough from the din and noise of London to be comparatively free of its turmoil, and yet sufficiently near for its citizens to come to our church. The grounds are enclosed by trees; a hospital at one end and two roads meeting at the other promise freedom from intrusion and a continuance of the solitude which we now enjoy".
Paul Soper © 1999
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