Event review: commemorative concert at Croydon Minster on the 150th anniversary of its devastation by fire

By - Friday 13th January, 2017

A beautiful and remarkable piece of new music commemorates a dramatic event

Photo public domain.

On the freezing, snowy night of 5th January 1867, a defective gas heater in Croydon church (nowadays Croydon minster) caught light. The flames spread rapidly. Then, when the alarm was raised and fire crews rushed to assist, they were unable to get water to their hoses. The supply had been turned off in the area at night to prevent burst pipes. By the time the hoses were working, it was too late.

Local historian Brian Lancaster’s pamphlet, ‘Consumed by Fire’, is available from the minster (£4.50) and contains pictures showing the terrible devastation.

The fire destroyed a church which had stood on the site of present-day Croydon Minster since the tenth century. Its medieval structure had been altered during the Reformation and again during the reign of Queen Victoria. It was the burial place of six archbishops of Canterbury and contained many famous monuments along with a celebrated organ built by John Avery in 1794. Its interior was even more elaborate than that of its later replacement, containing a gallery for musicians, and the organ itself was positioned not at ground level, as now, but above the west door. A few remaining pictures in the minster’s archive show its beauty.

It was also a place that everyone went to, and where key moments of living were celebrated: christenings of babies, weddings, funerals. It stood at the heart of the community of Croydon and its loss was a dreadful event.

Philip Gower launched his narration at full shout

On Saturday 7th January at 11:00am, a commemorative concert took place in the minster, featuring the first performance of a new work by organist emeritus Martin Howe, for voices, organ and piano.

Narrator Philip Gower, singers Gail Winter, Julie Beaumont, Pamela Hall and Victoria Winter, minster sub-organist Tom Little and, at the piano, composer Martin Howe himself, gave terrific performances, with Pamela Hall also acting as a second narrative voice for part of the performance. From its opening moments, with haunting notes by the four hidden singers then Philip Gower’s launch at full shout, the concert was powerful and compelling.

Martin Howe’s work also takes risks: taking the Christmas carol ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ but altering its lyrics after verse one to tell the story of the fire is a brave piece of composition. It succeeds through the conviction of all the performers. Pamela Hall’s calm and beautiful narration don’t conceal the fact that her text is upsetting her, and her authentic reaction adds even greater depth.

One section of the concert was called simply ‘Desolation’

The fire was truly heartbreaking for Croydon. Martin Howe’s music is all about loss, and the mourning of the town for its broken church, and an entire section of the performance is called simply ‘Desolation’. The words of the then vicar, John Hodgson, spoken during the concert, were of ‘deep grief for this event’, and a tribute to the ‘ancient, noble’ building. As the record makes plain, its destruction was felt as irretrievable: ‘…whatever genius modern design may attain, nothing can bring back’ that which has been lost. Monuments can be repaired (as quite a few were) but ‘reflections of minor lives’ and the memories within the building cannot.

The Victorians accepted the process of mourning. They weren’t afraid to stop and be sad. Modern people want to go hastening on, not to deal with what’s been taken away and the way that makes them feel. Parallels between the minster fire and the riots of August 2011 have been made for good reason, but response is among the most striking differences between the two events.

Music and words as beautiful as the building they honoured

Anyone who mentions August 2011 now (and this has been the case for years) is hastily shunted along. But ‘shush it’s all gone away’ is the breadth of a hair from ‘it never really happened.’ This concert has something to say to the shushers and shunters – something about how pausing to acknowledge pain and failure and disaster leads to true recovery.

It’s a shame that a condensed version of Brian Lancaster’s pamphlet isn’t available to download from the minster’s website. This is fascinating and dramatic local history which should be made as accessible as possible. Even within the restrictions imposed by the national curriculum, it would be wonderful for as many of the children of modern day Croydon as possible to hear the story.

Croydon is no longer a monocultural community but the minster and its history belong to everyone, and the concert’s music and words are as beautiful as the building they honour.

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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