The Fire of 1906 - Destruction & Rebirth

The Fire of 1906 - Destruction & Rebirth

Selby Abbey

Shortly before midnight on October 19th 1906, flames were seen pouring out of an Abbet window. Soon the old timbers of the roof were burning fiercely as flames and smoke filled the sky. The central tower looked like a huge chimney as smoke poured out, bells came crashing down and molten lead poured like streams of silver.

As dawn broke the next morning, the Choir lay open to the sky, charred beams were all that was left of the roof of the nave. The Choir screen, like most of the ancient preciously carved timber, lay in ashes. Women wept, others stood speachless as the impact of the devastation became apparent.

It would have been very easy to give up; let most of the building fall into ruin and restore only part of the church for holding services. But the people of Selby had a different idea. Within hours a restoration fund was opened. Visitors threw money into sheets held by townspeople at the south and west gates and contributions came pouring in from all parts of the country. Debris was cleared away and the mammoth task of restoring Selby Abbey began.

John Oldrid Scott, who had previously worked on the Choir, was given the task of chief architect. Within a year, the nave has been re-dedicated and within three years the Choir and upper stages of the tower restored and, the south transept, which had lain in ruins since March 1690, was expertly rebuilt.

Finally, in 1935 under the direction of the architect Charles Marriot Oldrid Scott, the pinnacles were removed from the tower on the west front, their height increased, and the pinnacles replaced. So expertly was all this work carried out that when it was finished, Selby Abbey, perhaps for the first time in its long history, stood as Norman builders had intended.

Looking after such a building is an endless task. During the last 100 years motor traffic and pollution have caused the stone to darken, which requires regular attention. In 1973, after a number of years of the Abbey being shrouded in gloom black ash from pollution, it was given a well deserved clean. The building was washed from end to end and top to bottom. The cost was met by a Government grant, with generous help from the local authorities.

The result was a building with a clean exterior and an award from English Heritage. But the contrast with the spotless outside made the interior, blackened by smoke and fumes from fires and gas lamps, look decidedly grubby. A huge sum of money was required for such a difficult task as cleaning the interior and Brigadier Kenneth Hargreaves CBE, Lord Lieutenant of the West Riding, was turned to for help. He became president of an appeal launched to raise £200,000 and, within two years, the money was found.

Work then went ahead and the opportunity was taken to gild the roof bosses, renew and re-point crumbling stonework, rebuild the organ and insulate the roof, putting the Abbey in better shape than in all its previous history.