The church fire that consumed a thousand years of history

Destruction: many tombs, records and graves dating back to medieval England were lost forever on the night of Jan 5, 1867

MARVELS OF THE MINSTER: Dating back to the Domesday Book, Croydon Parish Church was almost destroyed one cold winter’s night 150 years ago. Here, DAVID MORGAN takes up the story of the Great Fire of Croydon

Ebenezer Whittaker, the parish clerk, was exhausted.

A week had gone by since the fire and he had barely rested, let alone slept. His voice sounded tired and scratchy from talking to so many people. Everyone wanted to know about the tragedy. Questions were flung at him. Papers had to be signed. Decisions had to be taken.

Living so close to the church on St John’s Road, it was like he was always on call. He was glad to sit with the sexton, Richard Kilmaster, for 10 minutes, just the two of them, and mull over the events.

“You’ve heard the latest, I take it? We’ve got conspiracy theorists now, on top of everything else! Some chap was walking to the station past the church at about 10 o’clock on the Saturday morning and he noticed the workman up on the roof.

Devastating: an early photograph shows the extent of the fire damage to Croydon Parish Church

“Of course, we know they were clearing snow from the roof of the south aisle, but some folks listening to his story have jumped to the conclusion that one of these chaps dropped one of their own smokes and set fire to the roof that way.

“I don’t understand why people won’t believe the Fire Brigade’s explanation. They are the experts.

“I still keep running through in my mind the first time I saw the flames, though. If I close my eyes I can still see them.

“I know you saw them first and you did right when you came running to my door to fetch me, but when I saw them, they weren’t so large. I never imagined the whole place would go up.

I know that everyone was trying to do their best that night, in an emergency, but for the fire crews to forget that the water was turned off at night was shocking.

“I was so pleased to see them arrive, but those delays in getting the water out of the hoses was crucial. And the rivalry between the crews didn’t help. They have to find a better system in future.

“Old Clifford, the turncock, he only lives in Sturt’s Yard off Surrey Street. Once he was told about the situation it must have taken him five, maybe six minutes to get dressed and run down to turn on the water.

“I know the weather was against us, too. All that frozen slush outside the church made it difficult to locate the plug to put the hoses in.

“And what about the sign we had at the church, ‘In the event of fire, apply to the turncock’.

Gutted: when the volunteer fire brigade arrived, they had to go to Surrey Street to wake up the turncock to open the water supply

“I assumed the volunteer brigade had already seen it. It was a nightmare, turning on those hoses and seeing just a trickle of water come out. They had got quite close to the seat of the fire by going up into the gallery on the north side, but with no water pressure in the hoses they had to retreat back down.

“The vicar, Mr Hodgson, is putting a brave face on things, poor man, but he’s shattered.

“Yesterday he was saying more about the things that we have lost. We’ve had to make a list. He put the Archbishops’ tombs at the top. He didn’t realise at first, as there were much bigger things to worry about, but all the original historical charters about the church have been destroyed, too. They went right back to Edward I in 1277. There was even one from Richard III’s time, 1483 I think. You can’t replace those sorts of things.

“Did you hear they dug the hands of the vestry clock out from the debris? Fused by the heat with the time saying half past 11. The fire took hold so quickly. I mean it was just about quarter to 11 when small flames were seen, then 45 minutes later, boom, the roof comes down, the whole building gone.

“Why did we have varnished pitched pine for the roof? People keep asking me that. Too inflammable some chap piped up. You would have done better with oak or Spanish chestnut. Those two would have withstood the heat for much longer before bursting into flame.

“And that design for the heating system keeps coming back to haunt me.

“Years ago, when they put the system in, Truscott, the churchwarden was told by William Tidy, his sexton, that he didn’t think it was right that the flue pipes were placed so close to the roof timbers. Any argument against it was dismissed as scaremongering, because they have Guerney stoves and pipes everywhere. St Paul’s Cathedral has them, the Houses of Parliament has them.

Dramatic: an artist’s contemporary painting of the devastated Croydon Parish Church

“Apparently, there have now been other fires in buildings like ours where the flues have got overheated, so now it’s an issue all of a sudden. The insurance people never worried about the flues. The Sun and Union are always quick to take your money, and they never said anything.

“Mind you, we were insured for £10,800 for the fabric, including the chancel and the organ and, of course, now everything has gone up in smoke the powers that be can see that amount was too low, far too low. Hindsight, eh?

“Just to replace the organ itself, what are we talking about? Over one thousand pounds? How are we ever going to find that kind of money?”

Whittaker paused in to cough. It was a hacking cough.

“My lungs aren’t right, not since the fire. All that black smoke I reckon. That fireman they almost had to drag out of the church said he’d never seen black smoke like it. Dense and pitch black.

“Handkerchiefs we put over our noses and mouths were as black as Newgate’s knocker by the time we took them off. Those chaps did well to pick up the lectern and carry it to safety. At least that’s one thing saved from inside. Just think that lectern was standing in the church when Henry VIII was king. It should clean up alright.

“It’s strange that only a few flames appeared for a good 20 minutes or so. I think they must have spread in the gap between the inner and outer roof. Some people said they could hear the popping and shattering of the slates on the roof before the flames burst through above the chancel.

“We could have done with rain falling to help us put the fire out, but all we got was a snowstorm. People in the crowd said it started snowing about the same time the roof went up. And when the flames burst through the stained glass windows, they said it was a spectacle of colour to behold.

Much was lost: Croydon Parish Church had almost a thousand years of history accumulated within its walls by the time of the 1867 fire

“Every day since the fire, different people keep on coming up to me with things I never thought of. Mr Rhodes, the organist, had all the sheet music up in the gallery by the organ.

“Irreplaceable he says. Copies of anthems and songs over the years. Now he’s got no music, no gallery, no organ. Poor man, music is his life.

“Loss is such a terrible thing. It’s going to take years to get over this, isn’t it Mr Kilmaster?”

Ebenezeer looked up.

Mr Kilmaster was asleep in the chair. Ebenezer wished he could just drift off, too, but when he closed his eyes, he just saw the smoke and the flames.

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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2 Responses to The church fire that consumed a thousand years of history

  1. Michelle Ann says:

    Thanks – a very vivid re-creation!

  2. Norman says:

    Excellent read. Would you happen to know more about the clock I read somewhere that it was maintained by Budgen of Croydon?

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