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The Derbyshire Times remembers the Spire fire

Chesterfield's Crooked Spire fire 1961

Chesterfield's Crooked Spire fire 1961

THIS WEEK’S Derbyshire Times newspaper features stories and pictures of the day Chesterfield’s Crooked Spire Church suffered a dramatic fire.

The blaze struck St Mary and All Saints Church, on Church Way, on December 22, 1961, after it was sparked by an electrical fault and caused about £30,000 of damage.

But firefighters successfully saved the Grade 1 listed building and it continues to stand as an important landmark and as a symbol of pride for the town.

Among our special Christmas edition of the newspaper, we also recall different accounts of how the near-disaster was reported in 1961. Below is some more of the coverage from the time...

Some Prayed -Some wept

As firemen battled to confine the flames to the North transept, The Archdeacon stood alone in the church yard and prayed. While he stood with bowed head and clasped hands, women standing near the Cavalry In Church Walk fell to their knees and also prayed. Some wept.

Fearing for vestments, sacred vessels, church records with some dating back to 1558, and altar furniture, the Archdeacon dashed into the vestry beside the blazing transept. He was soon joined by the borough librarian and his staff, church officials and bands of volunteers, who carried the archives to safety in the church yard. Processional crosses, candlesticks and fitting were removed and later housed in the library across the road.

By 10.45am the fire was surrounded but not under control and as the firemen struggled to confine the blaze at the North Transept, came the alarming news that the tower and spire were threatened.

Intense heat started timbers smouldering in the floor of the ringing room at the foot of the tower. A large square trap door in the floor of the room fell out and plunged 50ft into the church below. With it went a massive mahogany table, which normally stands on the trap.

Threat to the spire

The Spire was saved when firemen forced entry into the bell ringing chamber and used jets over the walls and roof timbers. At one stage the flames jumped 20ft to the South Transept damaging about 25sq ft of timbering. In the bell chamber, damage was caused mainly by heat.

A senior fire official said: “If the fire had not been stopped there the whole of the spire would have gone.”

Paintwork on all sides of the ringing chamber was ruined. One door which gives street access to the roof timbers of the nave was blackened inside.

The fire spokesman added: “If the door had burned through it is almost certain that the main body of the church would have caught fire.”

At one stage firemen used breathing apparatus to get into the church. The battle continued all through the morning but at midday news leaked through to the crowds outside that the blaze was under control. An eye witness Mr Arthur Ellis told The Derbyshire Times: “I stayed until mid- morning and then left. I couldn’t stand it any longer, I’ve been a member of the choir since 1897.”

Transept Gutted

The North Transept was completely gutted. The organ, one of the finest of its type in the world and valued at £12,000 was reduced to a lofty blackened skeleton of charred timbers. Built in 1786 by a German, the organ has been rebuilt on a number of occasions and a few years ago £3,500 was spent on its modernisation.

Below the organ, nothing was left of the choir vestry and the wooden cupboards, which separated the vestry from the body of the church, and were reduced to open work frames. Choir robes, music and several valuable vestments were also lost in the blaze. Holes were burned in the roof of the North Transept, but the Chapel Of The Blessed Sacrament, which adjoins the transept escaped almost unscathed.

Squads of church members were hard at work inside the building by 2pm on Friday, cleaning up water which stood inches deep. They included a number of youth club members and choirboys on holiday from school. Before firemen left the building, a woman bell ringer was at work cleaning up the ringing room.

In the nave, women, men and boys mopped and swept around the empty shell of the Christmas scene. The nativity figures should have gone into the scene at the weekend and were in the fire-ruined cupboards charred, smashed and sodden. Among the few intact pieces were the infant Jesus and the cot of straw.

Offers of help

News of the church’s dilemma brought offers of help from churches in many parts.

On Saturday morning, a Manchester firm ordered the free loan of an American Baldwin electric organ for as long as it was needed. The offer was accepted and it was installed and ready for use on Sunday. At evensong on that day it was augmented by five violins and two trumpets played by past and present members of Chesterfield School.

Southwell and Derby Cathedrals sent music for Mass and Mansfield Parish and other churches quickly dispatched psalters and other music. Neighbouring churches rallied to appeal for cassocks and by the weekend 90 had arrived at the Parish Church.

Said Mr C A Bryars, organist and choirmaster: “Fortunately most of our surplices were saved. They were being laundered ready for Christmas.

“Apart from 24 hymn books which had been left in the choir stalls, all our music was burned.”

From Sheffield Cathedral came copies of the special music to be used in next month’s television programmes and on Boxing Day the choir‘s oldest member Mr Ellis promised that as his contribution to the church restoration he would buy new cassocks for the 30 men of the choir.

Mr Bryars said: “Everything went off wonderfully over the weekend- thanks to the generosity and sympathy of other churches.”

Services at the church were not affected but a funeral on Friday afternoon was transferred to Holy Trinity Church where the Archdeacon took the service.

Thanksgiving

On Saturday morning, parishioners gathered in the church for a special thanksgiving service as firemen continued to make a full scale investigation into the cause of the blaze.

At Evensong on Sunday, members of the choir robed by candlelight and on Christmas Day- the coldest in many years - the choir shivered as winds whipped through the burned out transept window.

Money for the restoration of the North Transept of the parish church has been flowing into the vicarage without the launching of an official appeal.

Probably the first offer of help was made to a representative of The Derbyshire Times in the churchyard at the height of the fire. Mr J Toothill, of Ernest Miller Ltd, said: “If an appeal is launched, put me down for £25.”

Contributions

Yesterday the Archdeacon, the Ven T. Dilworth Harrison told The Derbyshire Times: “It is astonishing how people from all over England are sending us contributions. So far I have received £415 in cheques and cash. One cheque from a man in Scarborough was for £100 and another for the same sum came from St John’s Church, Abbeydale. Christ Church, here in Chesterfield, sent £40 and it is not a wealthy parish.”

Other contributions came from places as far apart as Cumberland and Norfolk and Staffordshire. Another Chesterfield organisation quick to spring to the aid of the church was the Chesterfield Royal Hospital. A collection was held at a concert given by doctors and nurses on Friday evening which raised £7.10. The hospital staff decided to meet the cost of the snow’s costumes out of their own pockets and gave the £7.10 to the church.

On Friday and Saturday collection boxes were placed in the churchyard and these raised £156 so the total contributed to date is £571.

Practical help was quickly forthcoming for the stricken church. As reported elsewhere churches over a wide area supplied choir robes and music in time for Christmas services. Early on Friday afternoon Mr W S Thompson of Whites Ltd, the Chesterfield furnishers and organ suppliers, was in touch with the suppliers of Wurlitzer church organs. He traced the nearest available model to a distribution in Nuneaton who immediately offered the instrument on loan and by Saturday morning it was installed and connected to an emergency electrical circuit which had been put in.

Later in the day a second organ arrived from Nottingham Cathedral supplied on a free, indefinite loan by a Manchester firm Swan Pianos Ltd. Transport for this instrument was arranged without charge by the Chesterfield and District Co-operative society Ltd.

 

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