Short story: Fire! Fire! The night that Croydon Minster burned down

By - Tuesday 10th January, 2017

Put your feet up, forget about the news, and take a trip to the past

Photo public domain.

How this story came to be written

It’s now 150 years since the terrible night when fire swept through the ancient Saxon church at Reeves Corner following a gas heater malfunction. The minster has held a series of events to mark the anniversary, which have included a concert on Saturday 7th January, a talk by local historian Brian Lancaster and an exhibition in the Mary chapel at the minster which continues until this coming Friday.

I wrote this story to be read aloud during the Croydon Heritage Festival in June 2015 by a member of the Breakfast Cat Theatre Company. It formed part of ‘Tales of Croydonia’ (a regular event at which the work of Croydon writers is read by Croydon actors) which joined in the festival that year.

Since I first heard of it I have found the disaster of 5th January 1867 deeply moving. Anyone who has lived through an instant of realisation that something of life-altering importance to them has gone irreversibly wrong has stood there in the fire and snow with vicar John Hodgson and his congregation. These events also happened a couple of hundred yards from where I lived for thirteen years, so I feel doubly connected to them.

I wish now that I’d mentioned the Saxon church’s organ, work of celebrated organ builder John Avery, which was completely destroyed by the blaze. But I didn’t really know about it. It’s only in the last few months I’ve learned more as I’ve worked with the minster’s education officer, David Morgan, on his book, Musical Notes From Croydon Minster, to be published by Filament Press in spring 2017. It contains a fascinating chapter on the turbulent life of Avery and how he came to execute one of his greatest pieces of work in our town.

Croydon has risen from disaster before

And of course, the parallels between January 1867 and the riots of August 2011 are there to be seen. Understanding that Croydon has burned before, in a dreadful sequence of events which could have been prevented but weren’t because of human ineptitude, and that people felt like despairing back then, but didn’t, and instead set to work for their community’s recovery, is profoundly encouraging. We’re a tough old lot in Croydon, then and now.

It’s also astonishing to think that the beautiful minster as it stands today was re-built in just three years (which included raising the funds to do it) and re-dedicated in 1870. In 2017 we can only dream of that kind of construction timetable.

The minster’s ‘Fire!’ exhibition is free, so I hope that as many people as possible will get along to see it. As for the story – all of the events related here are true. A few twenty-first century Croydonians appear too, behaving as I believe they would if called upon to help in an emergency. The record of words spoken that night shows that John Hodgson acted bravely and provided leadership. But the disaster of 5th January 1867 overwhelmed them all.

Fire! Fire!

John George Hodgson MA was vicar of Croydon church (later Croydon Parish Church and nowadays Croydon Minster) at the time of the great fire which almost completely destroyed the original building on the night of 5th January 1867. 

The events described here are entirely true. Reverend Hodgson’s story, however, is related as it might have happened.

Red sparks drift over Croydon. A trail of smoke is rising, black on black, prickling in the back of your nose and throat when you take a breath, as if the air itself is grown spiteful. Somewhere, something is on fire.

John Hodgson has been called out this night. The knock at his door came at seven o’clock – unwelcome, if he was honest, but a family of his parish had need of him and a priest must serve his people. They’re good people, honest and generous; he feels privileged to work amongst them. Tonight he has blessed a man who is very sick and his frightened family, and stayed with them until the crisis has passed. The sick man is sleeping now, and his wife can snatch a few hours’ rest.

He’s touched by their gratitude and the good God’s mercy, for with five small children, he fears for Mrs Butler of Mint Walk if the Lord takes her husband. So a job well done, and the hour is late. It’s time for him to head down Church Street and home.

Above him, an ashy finger points to the moon above Reeves Corner. For a moment he mistakes it for cloud. Moonlight is bright on the snow, but even in white and unearthly light such as this there’s no knowing, amidst the jumble of houses, the source of the smoke. As he watches, it gathers to form a determined plume. Somewhere in the tangle of streets beneath him – St John’s Road, Abbey Road, Harrison’s Rise – is a serious blaze.

John Hodgson wonders briefly if he should turn back, head up the hill towards the nearest of Croydon’s two fire brigades… but his legs aren’t so young any more and a local lad could go faster. Better, he thinks, to find out what’s afoot and alert others. As he stands there, trying to decide, fragments of fire swirl over him, fading and dying on the night wind. They are nearly beautiful.

He walks slowly these wintry nights: a film of ice has settled already on snow, making it treacherous under his feet, and he fears to fall heavily and injure himself. But now he hurries, uneasy as he wonders if any of his parishioners’ homes might be affected.

As he turns into Old Palace Road, amber light rises behind the eastern window of his church of St John the Baptist, as though the setting sun is reflected there.

But it isn’t. John Hodgson catches his breath. Sunset was long ago. What is that light?

In the instant of his understanding, tiredness and caution vanish. He is galvanised into action – a surge of energy that pushes him into a run. Immediately he skids on the ice and comes close to falling. But he rights himself and stumbles forward. A wave of terror dries his throat and makes his voice creak as he yells the alarm.

“Fire! Croydon church is burning! Fire! Fire!”

He’s horribly short of air before he reaches the church’s door, legs papery-weak. He clutches at its heavy latch for support. At the instant he does so, a whoosh like the exhalation of a giant’s breath comes from within, as the fire pounces on some new source of fuel: wood, paper, cloth – his cassock, John Hodgson wonders – his bible? His prayer book? His very life in that place? – and whirls it up in its fury.

Others who’ve seen the flames are approaching quickly – friends and neighbours, some already carrying buckets of water. He gathers himself: he is the leader of this community and must make it count for something. If only panic wasn’t hopscotching through his body now, making him tremble from head to foot.

First on the scene is Michael Jones from Waddon New Road – a big, solid man he knows well, father of two young boys.

“Quickly, your reverence! My lads Edmund and Rufus can run for the fire brigade!”, he shouts, and John Hodgson nods in acknowledgement, catching Michael’s determination to be doing something to help. It strengthens him.

A voice from the darkness yells back, “Which brigade?”, but right now this hardly seems to matter. For although the town has two separate fire crews, rivals, with no love lost between them, surely at such a time the community is one. Both will come and fight the blaze.

“Yes!”, he shouts back, “get them both – but don’t wait for them! We must quench these flames! Water – water quickly!”

Already smoke pours through the cracks around the church windows and in the glass itself. There’s a splintering pop as the heat breaks one pane then another, and shards shower to the ground outside, ice on ice. Snow on the paving stones melts in the warmth, dissolving into water… water, the thing they most urgently need.

“Fetch water!”, he yells again. More and more folk are converging now, drawn by the fat stripe of smoke overhead and the rising din of voices. Some are carrying buckets and pails, liquid spilling out of them, splashing their clothes and feet as they hasten, sliding on the icy ground.

“Form a line! Pass the water forwards! Men at the back – hand it over then go for more! Fill buckets! Jugs! Quickly!”

Rather to John Hodgson’s surprise, his parishioners obey him. Those in the forefront begin to throw water at the walls and windows, tentatively at first, then with more certainty. No-one dares to open the great west door, lest what crouches within escapes and overpowers them. But more people are coming. The shouting increases.

“The engine, your reverence! The fire engine is here!”

John Hodgson has heard it approaching already. Big and ugly he thinks it, gigantic wheels and springs and pumping levers, linked by a maze of gleaming pipes. Although the snow deadens the sound of the horses’ hooves, the creatures are fearful of fire, and whinny and shy, bridles jangling, struggling in their harnesses, making the engine behind them sway from side to side.

Painfully slowly the fire engine’s hose is unspooled and laid on the ground, flat and crumpled, needing the jetting of water to harden it. Alongside the contraption, its team of men cranks a handle. John Hodgson can’t believe how long it’s taking – each second feels like an hour.

Behind him the roaring within his church increases, and the door is burning hot to his touch. All the snow has melted around them now, and it’s stifling despite the bitter night. He’s sweating with heat and fear. How long before the door will burst and burn, releasing the beast within?

Then there’s a lot more noise: another team of horses arrives with the new-fangled steam fire engine, pride and joy of Croydon’s second brigade. Its crew has made enemies with their proud declarations that they – and their triumph of the very latest engineering – are the future of fire-fighting. Progress and modernity, they declare – a brave new world. The people of Croydon aren’t so sure. But surely, in such a crisis as this, their gleaming machine will work faster?

What happens is just more unwinding. Another great hose is unleashed and laid on the ground with maddening slowness to be readied for use. The wind swirls and changes direction, scooping and sweeping hot smoke into the faces of the desperate crowd. John Hodgson chokes and closes his eyes in the stinging grit. Everyone doubles up coughing.

Then a crash resounds within the church. A jet of fire streaks from a shattered window like a demon’s breath, making those close to it leap back in terror. Michael Jones rushes forward with a bucket and hurls water into the creature’s mouth. It retreats – but only for an instant – then roars with renewed ferocity.

“For pity’s sake – hurry!”

Both hoses are linked to the stopcocks now, and their crews are cranking their handles furiously, shouting curses. The water must flow, in the name of God. What can be stopping it? Men yell in desperation for more haste, more pressure, more help. Where is the water?

Oh – sweet Jesus.

John Hodgson stops dead, consumed with horror. It’s not an oath he utters, but a prayer, whispered alone in a wild world of noise. For a moment he’s the only one who understands what’s wrong. When he tries to form words his voice cracks, and only those close to him catch his meaning.

“The water is off! It’s turned off at night, in this whole area, in winter-time! To stop the pipes from bursting!”

The cry is taken up in the melee. ‘Water’s off! No water! No water!’. People are milling, bumping into each other in their haste to hand on buckets and pails, spilling the precious drops on the ground, jaws clenched and eyes starting with effort, terrified faces lit by a fiery glow against darkness behind.

It’s a vision of hell, seen with his waking eyes. For to Reverend Hodgson the essence of hell is the ending of hope – the certainty that here in Croydon tonight, there will be no deliverance.

“Dear heaven! How do we turn the water on, your reverence?”

“At the waterworks – in Surrey Street!”, he shouts back. “We must turn the valve, to get water! Send a young man – someone who can go quickly!”

Three or four run instantly – racing away through the orange night and the melting snow.

“We must fetch more water – now!” ,John Hodgson knows one thing – they must not despair. They will not surrender Croydon’s church to the flames. With each pail flung the fire falls back, but only for an instant. The creature renews itself and surges forward.

And then – BOOM! High above is the roar of a violent ignition. Every man and woman cries out in helpless fear. There’s a sequence of hollow thuds – flat, drab clunks such as bodies might make as they fall from a height. The roofbeams are giving way. The ground shakes beneath John Hodgson’s feet.

The black night turns gold as the roof of Croydon church explodes in flame. Burning timbers and beams plummet like a volley of arrows, and helpers and firefighters alike run in all directions, beating out sparks that are falling upon them. Everyone is screaming, and the useless fire engines are dragged along by the terrified horses, colliding with those around them. The church has opened like a flower, roofless, blazing.

Nothing can calm these flames. The beast is unbound. This is the end.


“Twenty minutes, your reverence”.

“I see, Michael”.

John Hodgson stands on the wet and filthy ground. Before him, the unbelievable ruin – the broken hulk of the church he has loved. He’s too stunned for tears, for grief of any kind. He feels nothing.

It is Sunday 6th January 1867 – the feast of the Epiphany. It’s bitterly cold.

Michael Jones has not slept. He is red-eyed and has bandages on his hands. His jacket bears scorch marks on both its shoulders.

“Twenty minutes, your reverence, to wake up the watchman and turn on the water. My lads ran as fast as they could. By the time the hoses would work, your reverence – it was too late”.

Too late – and his church is gone. When shock recedes, sorrow will come and he knows this, but right now is nothing but cold, within him and out. White snow falls on black ash.

“Your reverence – we tried. We did all we could do. But there was no water”.

From the silence within him, John Hodgson reaches out in prayer. It’s all that remains. He stretches his hand and rests it on Michael’s head.

“You did all you could do, my son. The fire took it. The fire was unquenchable. No man could have saved it”.

“Yes, your reverence”.

“Croydon did all it could do. This was too much for us. There was no water”.

“Yes, your reverence”.

“We worked together. We tried to quench the flames”.


“If fire comes to Croydon again, our heavenly Father will protect us. He will strengthen us. He will give us the power to build again. We will rebuild this place after the fire, Michael”.

“Yes”. The big man is crying now, and John Hodgson finds that he is crying too.

“We will rebuild, and what we will build will be better than what was before. The fires of Croydon will not make an end of us”.

“They will not, your reverence. They will not”.

The two clasp hands. Embers glow at their feet. Croydon, the feast of the Holy Epiphany, 1867.

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

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

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