The day York Minster burned

Retired firefighter Alan Stow, who was in York Minster when the roof came crashing down.
Retired firefighter Alan Stow, who was in York Minster when the roof came crashing down.
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Thirty years ago, York Minster made international headlines when a fire ripped through the south transept. Sarah Freeman speaks to those who saw the disaster unfold.

WHEN Alan Stow received a call at 3.02am on the morning of July 9, 1984, informing him there was a severe fire in the south transept of York Minster he was sure of one thing - it was nothing more than a training exercise.

Then divisional commander of York fire brigade, he had been well-briefed about the emergency plan which would be triggered in the event of a disaster at the city’s best-known landmark. However, grabbing his uniform he assumed this was just another practice.

Everyone knew the cathedral had been fitted with sophisticated technology, the kind which meant even in the unlikely event of a blaze starting it could never take hold, and these kind of exercises were just designed to keep them on their toes.

“It happened from time to time,” says Alan, who remembers that day like it was yesterday. “But as soon as I turned onto the main road I saw the flames. The Minster was silhouetted against the night sky. It was a heart in your mouth moment. The drive wasn’t long, no more than 10 minutes, but it gave me time to collect my thoughts and run through the plans.”

The 999 call had been made by one of the Minster’s dedicated police officers half an hour earlier. He’d only been in post a few weeks and was working his first ever night shift when he found himself at the centre of a story which would make headlines across the world.

As nearby homes, guest houses and hotels were evacuated, a small crowd, bathed in the early morning light, gathered to watch the disaster unfold. They saw minster staff, clutching wetted handkerchiefs to their mouths, brave the burning building. Led by the then Dean of York, Dr Ronald Jasper, they dodged burning timbers falling from the roof to rescue altar cloths, books of remembrance and candlesticks from the inferno.

“There was a lot going on, but you know what? It was also eerily quiet,” says Alan. “It was a very still night and the only things which seemed to be moving were the wisps of smoke around the building.”

While there might have been an air of quiet professionalism among the fire fighters, there was also an unspoken pressure. Every single officer on the ground knew that if they couldn’t stop the flames reaching the 200ft central tower, the entire Minster, one of Europe’s greatest buildings, would be lost.

“They’d tried tackling the blaze internally, but it was no good,” says Alan. “They were being hit by moulten lead and burning embers. There was no other option, but to try deal with it externally.

“By then we knew the roof was beyond saving. We needed it to collapse, we needed ventilation. If it didn’t, the fire would just keep on burning.”

As thousands of gallons of water were being pumped onto the Minster roof in an effort to dislodge the ancient timbers, the then Archbishop of York, Dr John Habgood, arrived by car. Accompanied by his lay chaplain David Blunt, who was still wearing his pyjama top, the pair were briefed by North Yorkshire’s Chief Fire Officer Ralph Ford.

It was not a pretty scene. At the peak of the blaze 114 fire fighters and 20 pumps blasted the Minister and while no one wanted to admit it, as flames continued to lick the historic Rose Window, for a while it seemed their efforts might well be in vain.

“And then it happened,” says Alan, who had been working closely with the Minster’s superintendent of works Bob Littlewood, whose intimate knowledge of the building proved invaluable to the fire crews. “I remember being stood inside the Minster engulfed in this incredible heat. It was getting hotter and hotter and we were very aware that if the windows shattered that it could be very dangerous.

“Then there was a rumble like thunder and a tremendous crash. You wouldn’t think the floor of the south transept could shake, but it did that day. We looked up. There was no roof. All you could see was the grey early morning sky.”

The worst was over. However, by the time the last of the flames had been extinguished and the fire was officially declared under control at 5.54am, all those on the ground knew that it was only just the beginning for both the investigation into the cause of the fire and the clean-up operation.

Just 10 years earlier the Minster had been the focus of one of the most extensive restoration projects ever carried out on an English cathedral, but within hours of the last fire engine leaving the scene, the damage was estimated at more than £1m.

The blaze had left its smoky mark on the stonework, the heat had cracked a significant amount of stained glass and beyond the haze, which lingered for some hours, the south transept lay under 6ft of dirty water which had seeped into both the undercroft and treasury.

“Our first thought was just to get in and start clearing up, but we couldn’t,” says master mason John David, who still works at the Minster’s stone yard. “York Archaeological Trust came onto the scene very quickly. They marked out a grid over the debris so they could begin working out where the timbers had fallen from and then the fire service and police had to carry out their own investigation.”

While the cause of the fire was never known for certain, the most likely explanation was perhaps appropriately, an act of God. Lightning playing across the roof of the Minster earlier in the evening and electronic experts from Leeds University concluded the massive power surge created by a strike may well have caused the automatic fire detection unit, which should have given early warning of the blaze, to short circuit.

“A lot of lessons were learned from that fire,” says Alan. “Smoke detectors had been fitted, but they weren’t at the highest possible point, which is really where they need to be to work effectively. Rather than having to get the scaffolding out every time they wanted to check whether they were still working they had put them at a more reasonable height.”

Returning home briefly to grab a bite to eat and a change of clothes, later that same afternoon Alan was back at his desk at the York headquarters and it was then he realised the impact the disaster was having, not just in this country, but much further afield.

“I remember our switchboard was getting calls from around the world, people who had visited the Minster just wanting to offer their condolences,” he says. “Later there were calls from the teams at Canterbury and Winchester cathedrals. They wanted to know if it could happen to them.

“If there was any good which came out of the York Minster fire is that it really made everyone realise just how at risk these buildings were.”

DOWNLOAD COPIES OF THE YORKSHIRE POST AND YORKSHIRE EVENING POST FROM 1984...

God’s house in flames - Yorkshire Post front page from July 10, 1984

Yorkshire Post eight-page supplement from July 10, 1984

Yorkshire Evening Post front page from July 9, 1984