Great Fire 1853

An Empty Shell in Three Hours – Defective flues were blamed.

Taken from the Doncaster Chronicle.

“Our Holy and our beautiful House where our Fathers praised Thee, is burned up with fire.”

Those words, attributed to Isaiah, the greatest of all Hebrew prophets, were tragically fulfilled in Doncaster in the very early hours of Monday February 28th 1853.

In the space of three hours that beautiful house of God – Doncaster Parish Church – in which our forefathers worshipped, was reduced to a shell by fire.

At 1 am two workmen passed by the silent church. They saw the light of fire where fire ought not to be. Then they realised it came from the church itself. They gave the alarm, but it was too late.

In less than half an hour the church was enveloped in flames, before 2 am the west end had collapsed, taking with it the arches and pillars; at 2 am the clock struck for the last time, the pulpit was wrapt in flame, the oak stalls and pews were burning to ashes, the organ was in ruins, the nave, aisles, transept and choir chapel were all ablaze.

Then the flames leapt up the tower, the bells began to melt, and the molten metal added to the fury of the flames.

The Times, which gave a column report of the fire that same morning, says that about 2:45 am a courageous effort was made to save the Parish Registers which were kept in an iron safe in the vestry at the south-east corner of the church.

Mr Waite, an auctioneer and Mr Johnson of the Great Northern locomotive department, distinguished themselves in this effort and saved the greater part of the books and also the communion plate.

Near the vestry was the celebrated organ by Harris, one of the finest in the country, which was in course of re-erection, having been removed from the west-end of the church to facilitate improvements. Nothing of that was left.

In the two years before the fire, much had been spent in decorating and restoring. The Cooke Memorial Window in the west end had been there only a short time, and had in fact been inspected by Mr Disraeli only a few days before the fire. On the south side of the chancel, three smaller stained-glass windows, costing over £400, had just been completed.

A great part of the nave had been re-stalled and a new pulpit and reading desk were added. The total loss was estimated at £100,000 and no part of the building was insured.

At 7 am, two fire engines arrived from York. They had been summoned by electric telegraph message. Some reports say the firemen came by special train and even while they were 15 miles away they could see the glare in the sky. There was little they could do. Just over an hour later three walls of the tower crashed down and fortunately, every one of the 20 firemen escaped injury. In their haste to escape from the crumbling walls, some spectators were trampled upon, but not seriously hurt. The Vicar, Dr. Sharpe, whose home was near the church, had moved his household to a summerhouse in the garden.

About 10 am, a corner of the west end of the church, which was dangerous, was pulled down, and the churchyard was barricaded. The remaining wall of the tower fell about noon, and what remained was pulled down the next day.

Its Origin

There were, said The Times, various views as to how the fire began. The generally accepted view was that there was a defect in the heating arrangements. It was thought that matting had been placed on or near a faulty pipe. But let The Times tell its own story of the ‘judicial investigation’ into the origin of the fire. In its issue of March 24th, it says:

  • “It was found by men of nearly thirty years experience that the flues were defective, and instead of their being swept three times a year, they have only been done once. Mr Lister, the Coroner, summed up the evidence in a very clear and lucid manner. He directed the attention of the jury to another case in point – the fire at Windsor Castle – and alluded to the leading remarks on that subject in The Times. After nearly three hours deliberation, the foreman handed the following verdict to the Coroner: In the absence of more conclusive evidence, the jury find the actual origin of the fire is involved in mystery; that it was accidental; but they incline to the opinion that the probable cause may be assigned to the state of the north flue; the defective and unsafe construction of the heating apparatus, and particularly the negligence and inattention of those who had charge of them. The jury cannot close their inquiry into this lawful visitation without strongly impressing upon the town council the lamentable supply of water, the want of sufficient fire plugs, and another and more powerful engine with sufficient hose for sudden emergencies.”

The Chronicle of that eventful week described the calamity in these words:

  • “The greatest public loss which has ever befallen the town of Doncaster – at least in modern times. The fine old Parish Church, so long the pride and glory of the place, the object of attraction to visitors from all parts for centuries past, the mother church of the district, the connecting link between the present and the remotest generation of the townspeople, the most distinctive feature of the town, the repository of objects of value and interest such as few parish churches in England can boast, is now reduced to a scanty heap of stone and ashes.”

Little left

That was written but a day or two after the fire. For over 500 years, the church had overlooked the town and the river; its massive tower had been a landmark for miles; it had withstood storm and tempest; now, it was in ruins.

“The damage was estimated at £100,000. Nothing was left standing but the nave and chancel walls, the south porch and the west doorway, and a fragment of the tower”, writes Mr Ernest Phillips, a former editor of the Chronicle, in his book – ‘The Story of Doncaster’.

The temple of our forefathers had gone, but not for so long, for out of the ashes was to rise a still greater edifice, which preserves many of the beauties of its predecessor.

From The mount, the Sheffield home of the poet James Montgomery, came thse words in reference to the old church:

“Thou wast no pageant of the past, no wreck beyond redemption thine; thy first estate was not thy last; a better comes – behold the sign. The evidence of things unseen, faith prophesies ‘Thou Shalt Arise’, hope hails it through the veil between, and Charity will realize. Amidst the glories of our land, (thy sister churches) thou again, holy and beautiful shalt stand, a joy of angels and of men.”

Help came

And so it was and always will be. A calamity, like fire or flood, unites all in one common purpose. In Doncaster, no sooner had the ashes ceased to smoulder than the purse strings were unleashed, from near and far, high and low, came help – funds wherewith to build anew.

Within a week of the fire the decision was made to rebuild. On the Saturday of that same week, a public meeting in the Guildhall, launched a great re-building campaign. In that first weekend over £8000 was promised. The Corporation of Doncaster gave £5000 and by the end of the next week the fund had reached £14,000. Towards the end of that same month, a further public meeting was held, at which the then Archbishop of York announced a gift from Queen Victoria. The Archbishop himself gave £500 and the Corporation gave a further £4000. In less than a month after the fire almost £20,000 had been raised for the re-building. Gifts poured in from far and near.

The final figure to rebuild the church stood at £43,128 4s 5d and the balance sheet was passed by the then Mayor, Richard E Clark, together with 4 others. A fine manual organ was installed which at the time was the largest in the country. Molten metal from inside the ruin was reclaimed and from it, new bells were cast. The clock which struck for the last time at 2 am on that eventful day was replaced by one designed by Lord Grimthorpe (then Mr Beckett Dennison), the same man that designed ‘Big-Ben’. The new Doncaster clock, in fact, began to strike almost a month before Big-Ben. Gradually the ravages of fire were replaced with that which was better; the House of God had been built anew.

2 responses to “Great Fire 1853

  1. Whenever i pass through Doncaster on the train i always admire the current building and take a keen interest in historical buildings in general. This is a very informative article and i thoroughly enjoyed reading through. Do you know what remains from the original building and are these visible within the current building?

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