A life in stained glass: tributes to Minster Window-cleaner

Peter Gibson with one of the stained glass windows at the Spurriergate Centre, York
Peter Gibson with one of the stained glass windows at the Spurriergate Centre, York
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Tributes have been paid to the man who called himself the “Minster Window-Cleaner” and who helped save its iconic Rose Window after the terrible fire of 1984.

Peter Gibson, former Superintendent of Works at York Glaziers Trust, who was granted Honorary Freemanship of the city for his services to York churches, especially the Minster, died on Sunday.

York Minster was always part of his life. As man and boy he lived at Precentor’s Court close by, and from the age of 12, was an altar server under Dean Eric Milner-White.

Sarah Brown, current Director of the York Glaziers’ Trust, said: “When he first left school his mother went to see the Dean over what he might do when left school. The Dean was an enormous stained glass window enthusiast and he suggested he might come as an apprentice to what was then York Minster Glaziers.”

Peter joined the workshop straight from school, and spent the whole of his working life there, becoming a leading national and international expert on the conservation of medieval stained glass.

“In the Friends of York Minster annual report they reported how terrible it was that young Peter was taken away to do National Service, and than in 1953, there was great jubilation that he had returned to the workshop,” said Ms Brown.

In 1967, he became the first Superintendent of the newly-established York Glaziers’ Trust, a position he held until retirement in 2003.

The most challenging moment in his career came in July 1984 when fire devastated the Minster’s South Transept and threatened to destroy the Tudor Rose Window.

Less than an hour after firefighters put out the fire, Mr Gibson was escorted up the narrow gantry at the base of the blackened window. Its 73 panels of early 16th century glass had 40,000 cracks but he was convinced the window could be restored.

“If you imagine a piece of glass the size of the palm of your hand cracked into 300 pieces, that gives you an idea”, he recalled.

There was real concern the glass might crumble away, but he was convinced the glass would “shine again” - and so it did.

Ms Brown said: “Over the next few years he spearheaded the programme of conservation. The whole question of how to stabilise fire-damaged glass had rarely been tackled before. He was really going into unchartered territory.”

The restoration of the Rose Window was only a small part of a long and illustrious career.

He received both the MBE (in 1984) and the OBE (in 1995). In 1989, the President of Italy bestowed on Mr Gibson the very rare award, for a non-Italian, of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic with insignia.

He was presented with the St William Cross by the Archbishop of York in 1995, in recognition of his services to the Northern Province of the Church of England.

He also gave thousands of lectures, locally and over the world, becoming an Ambassador for York, the Minster and stained glass. often jokingly referring to himself as “The Minster Window-Cleaner.” “(When I came) I had to try and fill Peter’s very large shoes,” said Ms Brown.

“I used to think: ‘Crikey, no pressure there.’ He had been so well known, for so many years, it was rather daunting.”

He was also Warden Emeritus of the Parish of St Michael-Le-Belfrey with St Cuthbert, York and was a leading light in the life of the church for several decades.