Fire! Commemorating 150 years since Croydon church burnt down

By - Friday 6th January, 2017

One January night in 1867, a beautiful Croydon building dating back to Saxon times was destroyed in just a few hours

Image by the Museum of Croydon, used with permission.

On Saturday 5th January 1867, a terrible fire raged through Croydon’s ancient parish church, reducing it to a broken shell in a single night. It was a fire which, according to accounts of the time, could have been put out, had it not been for a series of mishaps, fire brigade rivalry, technical problems and very bad luck, all combined with a snow storm and high winds. The people of Croydon woke on Sunday morning, many of them unaware of the events of the night, and made their way to church, only to be met by a scene of utter devastation.

The sense of shock, grief and loss at this tragedy was felt for a long time afterwards, but the community rallied round to raise funds to rebuild the church. Three years later they achieved this, and the new church, (which is now known as Croydon Minster), was opened and re-consecrated in January 1870.

In January 2017 it will be exactly 150 years since the fire, so the people of Croydon Minster are remembering and reflecting on the tragedy of the fire and the aftermath with a series of commemoration events.

The firefighters discovered to their horror that the water supply was not turned on

The fire broke out on the night of January 5th 1867: a night of bitter cold, high winds and snowstorms. At 10.45pm, flames were discovered by the sexton, and he raised the alarm by alerting the town’s Volunteer Fire Brigade. The old church had three Gurney stoves which had been lit during the day to heat the building for the Sunday service; the stove on the south side near the tower had overheated, and flames had ignited wooden beams in the roof.

The Volunteer Fire Brigade, one of two brigades in the town, duly arrived at just after 11 o’clock and set up their water hoses, attaching them to the town’s water supply. But they discovered to their horror that in their haste to get there before their rival fire brigade (of the town’s Local Board), nobody had notified the turncock to turn the water on – Croydon had an intermittent water supply at the time. The water eventually reached their hoses just before 11.30, during which time the fire had spread rapidly and was burning through the roof, driven on by fierce winds and helped by the fact that the roof timbers were made of flammable pitch pine. Only three quarters of an hour after the fire was first discovered, the entire church roof collapsed, causing massive damage to everything beneath.

There are terrible parallels with the riots of 2011, which burned so close to Croydon Minster

Meanwhile the fire had also spread to the tower, and despite the efforts of both local fire brigades (plus firemen from London who had arrived by train), by half past midnight it too had been reduced to an empty shell. All but one of the eight bells inside the tower had actually melted in the heat; the huge tenor bell crashed down to the ground and lay broken at the tower base. The renowned Avery organ which at that time was located by the tower, and which was once said to have been played on by the composer Mendelssohn, was reduced to a heap of charred timber.

Thus, in a matter of hours the fire destroyed a historic building dating right back to Saxon times, and containing centuries of monuments and memories. There are of course ironic parallels when we remember the riots of 2011, including the unforgettable images of the fire raging at Reeves corner and the tragic destruction of the Reeves building and neighbouring houses just yards away from the Minster.

But thankfully in 1867 that was not the end of the story. The community, inspired by the kindness and brave leadership of the vicar, John George Hodgson, quickly resolved to rebuild the church, and thus began a shared journey from sadness to joy. The new church was built using most of the foundations of the old one, although it was extended at the east end. The tower and the south porch survived and were incorporated into the new building, as were many small fragments and parts of monuments from the old fabric. For example, you can still see Archbishop Sheldon’s monument (restored), Archbishop Whitgift’s (rebuilt – an accurate copy), and many more in the church today.

Our exhibition about the fire will give people a real sense of what the ancient building was like

Having researched the old church and the fire, and having spent much time in the church as a congregation member and churchwarden, I find the loss of the old church very sad, and would love to have seen what it was like. Luckily we have not only tantalising fragments of the old church within the new, but also very detailed documentation of the old church, thanks to the meticulous writings and illustrations of the author and draughtsman John Corbet Anderson. Our exhibition on the fire, running from Thursday 5th January to Saturday 15th 2017 at the Minster, will tell the story of the disaster but also give people a sense of the old church, using some of his detailed images of the interior and exterior.

At Croydon Minster, as we remember the shared journey of our predecessors from destruction to re-consecration, we are also on something of a journey ourselves at the moment. We currently have no Vicar of Croydon (since Canon Colin Boswell left last June), but we hope to welcome a new Vicar during 2017, and the arrival of the new Vicar will begin a major new chapter in our story, at the same time as Croydon itself is embarking on a new phase of development and growth. Exciting times lie ahead, for the Minster, for other Croydon churches and for the town.

You can find out more here about the commemorative events which will be taking place in the next two weeks to mark 150 years since the devastating fire. These include a talk, an exhibition, a commemoration service and a concert at 11am on Saturday 7th January at the Minster, featuring a specially commissioned work on the fire, written and performed by the Minster’s resident composer and Organist Emeritus Martin How (piano), with Tom Little (organ) and Paul Wilson (orator), plus a selection of additional songs.

Karen Ip

Karen Ip

Karen was born in Croydon and has lived here for much of her life although she spent some years living abroad, including six in Hong Kong where she worked as a technical author. She now does freelance careers guidance in schools, and is currently a churchwarden at Croydon Minster and a trustee of several charities including the Croydon Almshouse Charities group. She has discovered that being a churchwarden of a historic church is very much compatible with her interest in local history, and so now there’s no stopping her. She is also a keen cyclist and is interested in how cycling will develop in the town in future.

More Posts