The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead

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December 2013

Thomas Ainger

Lucinda Moore

2013 marks 150 years since the death of Thomas Ainger, energetic social reformer and vicar of Hampstead Parish Church for some 22 years, until his death on 15th November 1863. After a century and a half, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there could be little left to bear witness to this Victorian clergyman’s time in Hampstead, and even less of relevance to life in the 21st century. However, his material legacy is not only still visible in our church and on our streets, but his spiritual legacy also lives on in Hampstead today. Here we take a timely look back at Ainger’s life and his legacy for Hampstead, using the material remnants left to us today.

The youngest of six children, Ainger was born on 1st August 1799 at Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire. He was educated at Norwich Grammar school and St John's College, Cambridge. Graduating in 1821, he became curate at St Giles's Reading in 1822, and after about three years, he became assistant minister at St Mary's Greenwich. Aged 42, Ainger was presented by Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson with the perpetual curacy of St John's, which is where our story begins.

When Ainger came to Hampstead with his wife and family in 1841, they were not the only additions to the local population. Along with the rest of London, Hampstead’s population was expanding rapidly, rising from 10,000 residents when Ainger arrived in 1841, to 15,000 by  1851: an increase of 50% in just 10 years. By 1861, the population had climbed to 19,000. As the population grew, living conditions for the poor becoming increasingly cramped and unsanitary, with medical care beyond the means of many. Ainger collaborated in the founding of the Hampstead Provident Dispensary in New End in 1846 as a ‘relief’ club for the sick poor. Initially, the organisation used rooms in the New End Workhouse, but in 1850, land was purchased at New End, using money from collections in all Hampstead churches and chapels “…as a thank-offering to Almighty God for his special mercy in sparing this parish during the visitation of cholera in the year 1849.” Ainger’s name and this text can still be read on the weathered commemorative sandstone plaque at New End, which features on the side of what today is Heathside Preparatory School.

Another consequence of the population explosion was a shortage of church space. Ainger’s solution was to subdivide the parish into ecclesiastical districts, for which five new churches were erected; no mean feat, even if the same was to be attempted in the 21st century. These church buildings are in part monuments to Ainger’s vision, and testify to the sheer numbers of church goers that he strove to provide for, and are still provided for to this day in the establishment of these churches.

A growing population also brought challenges for children’s education in Hampstead. Ainger was responsible for the development of new local schools, obtaining the nearby Holly Bush Vale site and moving the Hampstead Parochial Schools into new buildings on this site. The Parochial School(as it’s now known today) continues to flourish to this day in the heart of Hampstead in these same red brick buildings. Ainger’s contribution is remembered in an annual school service held at St John’s, and in the giving of the Ainger prize, awarded to pupils for their involvement in the life of the school. As a Cambridge graduate, Ainger must have known and valued the gift of learning, and his endeavours to secure a site for the Parochial School formed a bedrock on which many children’s primary education is still founded. Ainger left a further legacy to the world, as the father of eight children himself. To give just one example, his son Arthur Campbell Ainger, born the year his father came to Hampstead, followed in his father’s footsteps to Cambridge University, also becoming a clergyman and writer of hymns.

Though an energetic advocate of practical action in the community, Ainger was also a theological heavy weight. He published four volumes and a number of single sermons, and was reported to be a charismatic preacher. He became a canon of St. Paul's in 1859, a role which he held until his death, and was described as a loyal Church man who co-operated with members of other churches, without any concession of Anglican principles.

For a taste of how Ainger was remembered in the years after his death, visit his strikingly colourful memorial at the back of St John’s* Set in a frame studded with jewel-like coloured marbles, a profile portrait of him is encircled by a halo of faded gold, and framed by ornate columns. The text on the now-corroded metal plaque beneath his portrait details the raising of the memorial in his memory by grateful parishioners. Ainger’s elaborate tomb can be seen in the churchyard; a further physical reminder of his presence in Hampstead after his death. Ainger Road, near Primrose Hill, was laid out in the years after his death, as part of the then-new estates being built to serve the growing population: perhaps so named in homage to his work in the local area.

Despite the glowing testimonials that remain, as in any community, Ainger’s actions won’t have been received with universal approval. Arguably, looking back at his life through what remains on commemorative plaques and marble memorials is inevitably going to give a selective and rosy-tinted view of his endeavours. However, even this part-portrait of his time in Hampstead, as seen through the material culture, is a valuable reminder not to underestimate the difference that one person can make, right here in Hampstead, even in times of hardship. His was not an easy time to live in; the threat of cholera and other problems stemming from a growing population were serious challenges to his mission, but he made these a vehicle to make far reaching changes for the better for the community.

Following the launch of the Mission Action Plan earlier this year at St John’s, what causes would Ainger champion in 21st century Hampstead, and what conventions would he challenge?  It may be 150 years since Ainger walked our streets, but even today we can still see some of the positive effects of his 22 years as a vicar in Hampstead. Though stone plaques, memorials and buildings remain, perhaps the most eloquent part of his legacy are the ‘living stones’, the people who through Ainger’s vision find their lives changed today through participation in education and in the church communities he built.


The memorial Lucinda refers to is by the door into the NE lobby.  Ainger’s grave is in the churchyard, down near Constable.

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