The men who rebuilt York Minster

Master Stonemason John David who was one of a team of craftsmen who helped rebuild York Minster following the 1984 fire.
Master Stonemason John David who was one of a team of craftsmen who helped rebuild York Minster following the 1984 fire.
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On the 30th anniversary of the fire which devastated York Minster, Sarah Freeman meets the craftsmen whose painstaking work saw the cathedral rise from the ashes.

At 2.30pm on July 9, 1984 - exactly 12 hours after the emergency services had received the 999 call to tell them York Minster was ablaze - a small team gathered in one of the cathedral’s back rooms.

Bob Littlewood, then superintendent of works and the third generation of his family to have worked at the Minster, was there as was the Dean of York. With the smoke having not yet cleared and the south transept still smouldering, the agenda of that very first meeting of the reconstruction team was brief.

They didn’t need to discuss whether the Minster’s team of expert craftsmen would be able to rebuild the Gothic cathedral. The answer to that was a given. Less certain was how long it would take and how much it would cost.

John David remembers it well. Back in 1984 he was a 33-year-old stonemason who already had significant knowledge of the Minster’s complex architecture and intricate carvings. However, it quickly became clear that the south transept project would test the team’s skills and at times their patience.

“The minster was still smoking, the undercroft was still under six inches of water and bosses from the roof were lying under piles of rubble,” he says, 30 years on from disaster which made international headlines. We’re sat in the stone yard, just around the corner from the main cathedral building, where John is now master mason.

“However, for all the scene of devastation, we never doubted that we would be the ones to rebuild the Minster. Of course we knew it was special, that it wasn’t just another restoration project, but we were just itching to get on with it. We wanted to put it right.”

As archaeologists began sifting through the debris and specialist steeplejacks started the delicate process of wrapping exposed masonry in protective plastic sheets, civil engineers and quantity surveyors who had been involved in a major restoration of the Minster just a few years earlier boarded trains from London.

Once fire and police chiefs were happy they had obtained enough evidence from the scene, the Minster staff, along with scores of volunteers, were given the nod and the massive clean-up operation got underway.

“Local businesses arrived with wheelbarrows and there was a real sense of community spirit and once the debris had been removed we were left with a bit of a blank canvas,” says joiner Geoff Brayshaw, who like John still works at the cathedral. “If we could, we would have started work the next day, but it wasn’t as simple as that. Some wanted the south transept to be restored to exactly the same blueprint as the original roof, while others thought it was an opportunity to use different materials. When you’re dealing with an old building there are lots of permissions that have to be granted and it was a little while before the plans were finalised.”

While the architects and senior clergy debated the various restorations options, with corrosive dust having settled into every nook and cranny, the Minster was the subject of a major spring clean. Working on hydraulic platforms and armed with industrial vacuums, a team spent days and weeks removing the ash, stopping only each day at noon so not to disturb lunchtime prayers.

Eventually, it was decided that the roof would be restored in line with the original design, but the reconstruction was not easy and sourcing both the giant oak timbers and the limestone needed to replace crumbling stonework proved difficult.

“The roof beams were 40ft long and you don’t get many oak trees that tall,” says Geoff, who remembers the Royal estates and various country landowners rally to the Minster’s cause. “Once we’d sourced the timber, it took another year for the timber to be dried and treated. We just had to be patient.”

Even the miners’ strike ended up delaying the restoration. Crushed limestone is traditionally spread on the floor of coal mines to prevent a build up of dust. However, the year-long, bitter industrial action meant supplies were no longer needed. With British quarries finding it uneconomic to cut limestone solely for the Minister rebuild, staff had to go hunting suitable stone from France.

“We got there in the end,” says John who spent a year climbing the 101 steps inside the south transept several times a day to take detailed measurements of all the stonework damaged in the fire. “Once I had what I needed, I’d go back to the stone yard and on a large drawing board replicate the designs which were used as a blueprint by the team of Minster carvers.”

With all attention focused on the blackened end of the Minster, a number of other projects had to be put on hold, including the planned restoration of the Heart of Yorkshire window. For the York Glaziers’ Trust, which had been formed in 1967 to preserve and repair the cathedral’s acres of stained glass, much more imperative was saving the Rose Window.

“Peter Gibson was the man in charge and I remember the first time he saw the window up close after the fire that he almost shed a tear,” says Alan Stow, who was then divisional fire commander at York.

In the heat of the blaze the 8,000 panels of the 16th century window had cracked into 25,000 fragments. However, as Peter placed yards of sticky tape across the face of the window to prevent the glass from moving, he also knew it could have been much worse. Had the fire notched up a few more degrees, the lead would have melted and the entire window would have come crashing down.

While services at the Minster resumed within a few days it was much longer before the south transept was restored. It took five weeks to remove the cracked panels of the Rose Window, it was a year before the masonry work on the gable end was complete and another three before the roof was finished and the new bosses unveiled.

While initial estimates had put the damage at £1m, the final bill came to £3m and while the Minster’s insurance company covered the bulk of the cost, public donations amounting to £2m paid for the rest and much else besides.

In July 1988, four years after the devastating fire and one year ahead of schedule, a service was held in the Minster to mark the official reopening of the south transept. Of those who gathered in the pews that day, the most observant would have noticed that the large crucifix, virtually untouched by the blaze, was framed by sooty streak and a splash of lead.

They’d been left by the restoration team as a reminder of the fire which so nearly destroyed the Minster.

“I don’t think any one who saw those flames could ever forget that night,” says John. “But to have played a part in the restoration of this great building will always be both a pleasure and privilege.”

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