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.
Every scrap of flame-blackened stone had to be cleaned. Woodwork and glass needed to be painstakingly replaced. Yet work progressed rapidly. The nave was rededicated within a year. The tower restored within three. The south transept, which had never been rebuilt after the collapse in 1690 was rebuilt, funded by William Liversedge and reopened in 1912. John Oldrid Scott supervised the painstaking task of bringing the Abbey back to its former glory, conserving and preserving its fabric and beauty for the future. In 1935 Charles Marriott Oldrid Scott raised the height of the west towers and, for the first time in its history, the Abbey was finally complete, consolidated and able to show its true beauty to the world undamaged.
It is only because of the flames that the church was able to be reborn, whole and complete. Without the disaster, would it simply have known the constant struggle against time and decay that is familiar to us all? From apparent devastation, something beautiful emerged, a butterfly from the cocoon. This too is part of the human story… who amongst us has not seen those radiant ones who come through disaster to shine the light of the human spirit and inspiration into the dark corners of our own despair?
A thousand years of history lie in these stones. Two thousand years of faith echo in these quiet chapels as whispered prayers. It was the love of the local people for this scarred and ravaged beauty that gave her once more the strength to shed her veil and stand proud and glorious to face the world. Love can work miracles. From ruin to the delicate bridal veil of light and colour she was brought, reborn and clean, made whole through love.