Just before midnight, October 19th 1906, workers who had been installing a new system in the organ saw flames in the window. Soon fire raged through the building. Glass shattered, flames leapt through the roof, the towers acted as great chimney belching smoke… silver streams of molten lead poured into the church… Selby Abbey was burning. It wasn’t the first time.
There had been a fire too in 1340 which had caused extensive damage. Parts of the church had never recovered. This time, however, the damage was worse. Fire crews battled to save the Abbey. A special crew were dedicated to an attempt to preserve the great treasure of the East window, keeping it cool and wet against the flames in a desperate effort to protect the fourteenth century glass.
The roof of the choir and the belfry were destroyed, as was the interior woodwork and much of the glass. A peal of eight bells in the tower had melted. The devastation of the Abbey, which had survived so long, seemed complete. Given the level of destruction, it would have been understandable if only a chapel had been preserved for future worship and the rest allowed to fall into ruin. The people of Selby, however, had other ideas.
Within hours, a restoration fund had been established. Money poured in from across the country. Townsfolk stood at the gates of the Abbey and held sheets into which visitors threw money. The Abbey, it seemed, would, like the proverbial phoenix, rise once more from its own ashes.
“…And so long as you haven’t experienced
this: to die and so to grow,
you are only a troubled guest
on the dark earth.”
The restoration began. The foundations, laid on a meagre three feet of sand, had caused collapse in 1690. At that time the central tower had collapsed, destroying the south transept, and while the tower had been rebuilt, the transept had remained in ruins. Sir George Gilbert Scott had restored the church in the nineteenth century, but it was not until the fire of 1906 that a complete restoration was undertaken.
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