Further notes on the Parish Church Fire, 1853

Picture gallery at foot of page.

During the early days of spring in the year 1853 our beloved St. George’s Church, the Parish Church of Doncaster met with a cruel fate. Those of you that have read my article at http://doncasterhistory.co.uk/local-history-3/religion/doncaster-minster/great-fire-1853/ will know some of the details and reasons why the stately pile met its fiery end. The horrific incident was a reminder of a previous fire in the year 633 A.D. which too had razed to the ground the holiest place in Doncaster. So fierce were the flames that the fire could be viewed for miles around and the lead from the roof rained down on the imploding ruin like a heavy shower of rain. The heat was so intense that the lava-like metal ran into every crack in the paved road and walkways and sought out every void for some considerable radius. Apart from the building itself one of the greatest losses in the fire was an archived library of volumes, “Dispatches of the Right Honourable Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Stafford, Knight of the most Noble Order of the Garter, Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland.” The public generally were refused access to this library and its door was seldom opened, when it was, the room was dark and unused with huge cobwebs hanging from every wall. The library had contained upwards of 570 volumes and it was a sad day indeed when they were lost forever, especially now that we know that their contents were a mystery and would have been an invaluable resource for the Doncaster historian today. I for one would have given my right arm for the opportunity to have read through just one of them. Along with the Thomas Wentworth archive was a huge library of other books which had been collected and kindly donated over the previous 139 years. The list of donors is endless but here is a brief overview of some of them:

  • Mr. Wilkinson, of Warmsworth
  • Sir George Cooke, Bart.
  • Bryan Cooke Esq.
  • Mrs. Priscilla Cooke
  • The Rt. Hon. The Lady Elizabeth Hastings (of Ledston Hall)
  • Rev. G. Mompesson, vicar of Mansfield
  • The Rev. Mr. Hoole, of Haxey
  • Mr. Savage, of Wheatley
  • Rev. Dr. Charles Blake, Archdeacon of York
  • John Batty Esq. of Warmsworth
  • Rev. John Turner, vicar of Braithwell
  • Dr. Audley, Chancellor of York
  • Mrs. Jane Wrightson (widow of Thomas Wrightson Esq.)
  • Rev. John Holm, rector of Sandall

In the days that followed the great fire, the smouldering ruin had collapsed more and more and when the centre support from the main arch, a solid piece of Edlington limestone measuring some 5 yds by 2 yds by 2 yds, came crashing to the floor of the chancel, the thunderous and deathly vibration signalled the end of an era. Every last architectural feature from terra firma skywards lay strewn around the churches footprint as if a nuclear blast had been the cause of the redistribution of them. A description of the scene from the time describes the scene very well when it reads, “On Saturday April 9th, the steps on the north side were discovered not to be damaged, though covered with immense blocks of stone, some of which were quite as warm as if they had been brought from a baker’s oven. The iron railings in front of Copley’s vault were rendered useless. The three elegant brass chandeliers, the gift of Mrs. Margaret Neale, which had been placed within the rails as a place of security, were melted, and the metal had infused itself amongst the broken stones. The whole of the once magnificent organ was an entire wreck. Its brilliant tones, its exquisite sweetness and great power are the faint remembrances of this unrivalled instrument.”

The peel of bells from the belfry had liquefied in situ much the same as the lead on the roof had, so that much of the metal could now be found concealed below the transept floor. Amazingly, the giant pendulum of the clock was discovered “in an upright position, and as perfect as on the day when it was fixed.” On further exploration in what was left of the north chancel a tomb was found beneath the floor at the east end, which read – “Here Lyes Thomas Ellis, late of Doncaster, Gentleman and Alderman, who in honour founded one Hospital, in the same town, for the poor, called ‘St. Thomas’ House of the Apostle,’ of which Thomas died on the 15th day of the month of July, A.D. MDLXII (1562). On whose soul, Jesus have mercy Amen.”

In the north transept was St. Katherine’s Chantry, or Harrington’s Chantry, where once stood the fine monuments and memorials of that distant branch of the Copley’s of Sprotbrough and Netherhall.  Now all that existed there was desolation and complete destruction. Beneath the floor at this point was discovered the ancient crypt which, on closer investigation was found to measure 21 feet long, 14 feet wide, and 12 feet 7 inches high to the centre of the arched ceiling. Parts of its construction, especially the ribs that gave support to the structure were found to be undoubtedly part of the original castle of Doncaster having been dated to 1192 (or perhaps even earlier) by the Reverend Edward Cutts. Within the crypt were, “an immense pile of skulls of every form and size. The bigger bones were collected in large quantities, and it was really astonishing, on a closer examination, to find them so perfect. The teeth, in many instances, were adhering to the jaw bones; and in one case, silvery locks of hair, giving to it a most venerable appearance, were still on the head. Many of the skeletons in the crypt had been removed from the excavations at the Magdalene Church Yard, during the erection of another wing to the Doncaster theatre.

“The whole of these relics were carefully removed and again consigned in the burial ground adjoining the pleasant gardens of the vicarage. The pit opened for their reception was necessarily of great size, and it was computed that there was not less than twenty-five tons in weight.”

On further excavations there arose various ancient grave covers from almost every period of history from the 13th Century to the modern day. Out of all the various mouldings on each of these stone slabs, one moulding stood out as the most interesting displaying a cross within a circle, unquestionably the badge of the Knight Templar’s. It was decided that such was the design of the crypt that it was surely a chapel of divine worship for the primitive Christians of Doncaster. The crypt most likely fell into decay after the Reformation during the reign of Henry VIII, after which its existence below the congregation was almost forgotten. It had been converted into a Charnel House, a building for the purpose of storing skeletal remains. Charnel houses were a way of freeing up grave space. The body would be interred for a few years to allow for natural decomposition, after which point it would be exhumed and the bones placed in the Charnel House so freeing up the grave space. In a time before cremations, burial space was at a premium, especially in the grand St. George’s Churchyard. In or around the immediate vicinity of the crypt there was also discovered other datable evidence including coins of Trajan, A.D. 98 – 117; Victorinus, A.D. 265 – 267; Carausius, A.D. 287 – 293; Constantine, A.D. 306 – 337; and a silver penny of Edward IV 1442 – 1483, demonstrating the fact that the church had been a major part of town life from at least the early Anglo-Roman period.

In the immediate years before the great fire, the finishing touches were being made to the new organ. To accommodate it, various alterations had to be made. Firstly, its site was moved from the Western Gallery to the North Chapel, “to afford an opening to the beautiful stained-glass window erected to the memory of Sir William Cooke, Bart., and the floor had been lowered by 3 feet and 1 inch to obtain space for the instrument.” At the falling of the main tower on the occasion of the fire, the ground inside the church had a huge crater in it to a depth of 3 feet. The largest of the stones fell directly onto the entrance to the Cooke family vault smashing it open and filling the entrance with rubble. Luckily the inside of the vault was intact and the coffins unscathed.

The Cooke family have a long and distinguished association with our town, tracing their local ancestry back to the Carmelite Priory which once stood in the vicinity of Priory Place and the Mansion House. Various Cooke Baronet’s (who were created such by King Charles I for their support of him during the English Civil Wars), had held the office of Mayor of this town, together with other high positions within the Doncaster Corporation. They were the Baronet’s of Wheatley and also Lord’s of the Manor of Arksey, near Bentley. They have two family vaults to this day beneath the transepts of All Saints Church, Arksey. In all, there are 41 members of the Cooke family resting in peace below the floor boards of Arksey church (there may even be more). Some of the family members resting there are listed below:

  • George Augustus Cooke, Esq. Died May 5th 1808 aged 27 years.
  • Louisa Janetta, eldest daughter of Sir Wm. Bryan Cooke, Bart. Died July 12th 1838 aged 14 years.
  • Sir William Bryan Cooke, Bart. Died 24th December 1851 aged 69 years.

There is so much more that I could write about the Cooke Baronets but I will reserve that for another time.

And so here ends these few additional notes on our fascinating St. George’s Church whose structure is but a 19th century landmark. It’s foundations are most certainly built upon the ‘Rock Mass’ being so deeply rooted, quite literally, in our ancient past and ancestry.

4 responses to “Further notes on the Parish Church Fire, 1853

  1. Your article really does make the history of the town come alive adds so much reality to the past. Thank you again for such a vivid account.

  2. A fascinating account. Just goes to once more underline that sites of importance are used and re-used over millenia. Thanks for this. Jon

  3. once again a really interesting article Symeon, I didn’t realise how much alike the old and new St Georges looked

Add your comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s