Acts of God’: Fires in cathedrals

At around 1850 on December 29, 1940, the Number 2 Watch loggist recorded the first entry in a busy night in the Firewatcher Team Occurrence Book, in the Crypt Headquarters of St Paul’s Cathedral, sitting on Ludgate Hill, the highest point of the City of London.

The raid, small by normal standards – around 136 aircraft – had begun around 1800 that evening but had already started to cause a conflagration north of St Paul’s threatening one fifth of a square mile of densely populated homes and factories. Above the drone of the Heinkels, Junkers and Dorniers and the ever-closer rumble of explosions, a clatter was heard on the cathedral’s library floor. A phone call from the Advanced HQ in the Whispering Gallery told the loggist that an incendiary bomb, the first of 28 that night, had landed on the library floor.



Twenty-eight incendiary bombs landed on St Paul’s Cathedral on the night of December 29, 1940


The Second Great Fire of London

The Surveyor of the Fabric and the Dean himself used mains water from the cathedral’s dry riser system to extinguish the fire. Doubtless thinking about the total destruction of Coventry’s great medieval Cathedral of St Michael six weeks earlier during the bombing raid of November 14, the members of the watch, mainly staff of St Paul’s, already knew they would be busy. In the hours that followed, a firestorm erupted around them and a combination of factors – the Thames being at low tide at that time, the water mains failing (and with that the dry riser in the cathedral) and a strong wind – would make this a potentially disastrous night. As numbers of incendiaries landed on the roof and the dome of the cathedral, firewatchers no longer had need of the red light placed in the centre of the bottom of the dome to help orientate them in the blackout – the orange glow of the fires surrounded them and the most iconic building in the country.



“Bleeding lot o’ wood that bloke Wren used, didn’t’ ‘ee?”

A cockney fireman commenting on the heavy fire loading embedded in Sir Christopher Wren’s portfolio of churches and cathedrals in London, 1940, from Neil Wallington’s Firemen at War, (1981), David and Charles, London



Observers on other buildings saw sticks of incendiary bombs land on the dome itself, with some bouncing off onto stone floors and others embedding themselves within the roof itself. The cathedral fire watchers, by then armed only with stirrup pumps and shovels, managed to tackle the fires taking nearly 45 minutes to put them out.

One bomb, stuck in the lead roof, half-in half-out was of particular concern. The burning phosphorus in the bomb was melting the lead and if it dislodged, it could fall outwards onto the fire resisting stone floors or inwards into the wooden skeleton and roof of the Great Dome itself. Catastrophic failure of structural members of the roof would bring the whole 850-ton edifice crashing down into the crypt. Journalists watching the developing fire knew that if the fire spread inside it would mean the end of the second St Paul’s Cathedral. By the grace of God, good fortune or accident the bomb fell outwards, and St Paul’s was preserved once again.

Unlike many premises in London, including a large number of churches, St Paul’s had a comprehensive firewatcher system in place, which meant that small fires were contained before they could spread and destroy the whole building. On the night of December 29, a large number of churches and other 17th century buildings were lost including a swathe of Wren’s other creations including St James’s and St Brides’ churches.

Watching from the roof of the cathedral, the fire watchers looked on hopelessly as a ring of fire surrounded the building, an island in a sea of flame, with the fire spreading along its perimeter as refugees from the inferno took shelter in its crypt while their homes burned. One American news correspondent described the night as being the ‘Second Great Fire of London’.

York Minster

It does not take a lot to wreak havoc and destruction on some of the oldest and most valuable buildings in the country – the churches and cathedrals, mediaeval and modern, traditional and modernist, wood and concrete, brick and steel. The causes of these fires are varied and unusual, sometimes “Acts of God”, sometimes human error. What they have in common is a difficulty in containment and access due to the construction and nature of the building.



York Minister was set ablaze by a lightening strike on July 8, 1984


In 1984, York Minster was threatened with destruction in one of the most serious incidents involving a British cathedral since the Blitz. York Minster (the ‘Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Saint Peter in York’ to give it its correct title) originated in 1215 when a plan was made to build a Gothic cathedral to match that of Canterbury with initial construction taking place between 1220 and 1250. The cathedral was finally consecrated in 1472 following the addition of new towers (and the replacement of the central tower which collapsed in 1407), all of which makes CrossRail seem the quintessence of project management.

The travails caused by the Reformation, destruction of many contents as a result of the Elizabethan attempt at eradication of traces of Roman Catholicism from the cathedral and the impact of the English Civil War, all changed the internal loading of the building but left the structure itself relatively unscathed.

The building itself was the largest gothic building in the world until the completion of Cologne Cathedral in 1880, (which survived World War II despite the city having been the subject of over 200 air raid attacks). York Minster is 160m long and the central tower is 72m high and the choir has a height of over 30m. The transepts’ roofs (transept – the arms of the “cross” in the layout of many large churches and cathedrals) are made of ancient wood and there is extensive use of timber throughout the remainder of the structure, with much of the material being several hundred years old and in a variable condition, due to age and decay.

July 8, 1984 had been a warm early summer’s day causing large amounts of evaporation which led to thunderclouds developing over the Vale of York and leading to a spectacular storm overnight. Just after midnight, a lightning bolt was believed to strike a finial or lightning rod at the top of York Minster which arced through an electrical panel in the south transept roof igniting timbers and starting the fire. The exterior of the roof was sealed with lead which made it difficult to gain access early enough to make an effective attack on the fire in the initial stages.

Firefighters attending the incident were familiar with the building and they knew that it had a sensitive smoke detection system throughout, including in the roof spaces. Because the oak beams and timbers in the roof were tinder dry, the fire spread rapidly to involve the whole of the transept roof. The initial station commander in attendance requested additional pumps and on the arrival of the Divisional Commander, a “Make pumps 15” message was sent.

Falling timbers and molten lead from the transept roof made firefighting all but impossible from inside the building and firefighters were forced to withdraw to safety as the fire increased in intensity. As is the case with many fires in historic or high-value buildings, while firefighting operations were being undertaken, simultaneously those not directly involved in fire suppression were carrying out the removal and salvage of priceless and irreplaceable artefacts. At great risk to themselves, members of the public, volunteers and Minster staff, using handkerchiefs and cloths to cover their faces, entered the smoke-filled transept and moved artefacts to areas of safety.

The firefighting strategy, common in these buildings, was to contain the fire to the area in which it originated and prevent spread to those parts unaffected. While the roof remained intact in the south transept, firefighting was difficult and the temperature at roof level was threatening to cause spread across into the main area of the cathedral. At around 0400, when the fire seemed to be gaining the upper hand and about to envelop the other parts of the cathedral, a fortunate collapse of the roof of the south transept occurred, which released a critical amount of heat and sent showers of embers into the sky. This release of heat enabled firefighters to attack the fire from closer quarters than had been previously possible.

The reason for the collapse has developed into an urban myth and it has been suggested (and recorded) that firefighters deliberately put large quantities of water onto the roof to ensure its collapse. Clearly, this is unlikely because, as most people know, the purpose of a roof is to keep water out and if the roof is not intact then water will pour through it to the lower floors (but the myth makes for a better story). As is the case at most incidents, the roof is likely to have collapsed because the supporting timbers have been burned away.

The fire was brought under control at around 0524 just as the sun was rising over the Vale of York. The damage at the time was considered to be serious but not the disaster it could have been. The restoration project took around four years to complete using medieval tools and materials to replicate the originality of the cathedral. The cost was put at around £2.25 million but additional work has taken place since then.

Despite the near certainty of the electrical storm being the cause of ignition, there was speculation about the underlying reason for the electrical strike. The Right Reverend Dr David Jenkins was blamed as being the cause of God’s wrath (and hence the lightning strike) having been appointed as Bishop of Durham and the fire occurring several days after his consecration inside the Minster. He was given the epithet the “unbelieving Bishop” after doubting that God would have arranged the Virgin birth and the Resurrection and became caricatured as a puppet on the TV show, Spitting Image.

Notre Dame

Fires involving places of spiritual worship have an unsettling effect on the community and sometimes even the whole nation. The fire at Notre Dame in Paris on April 15, 2019, had an impact not only in France but also on the rest of the world as the photographs of the building on fire became an iconic image.

A true “landmark” building, the cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was built in the 12th century with traditional material including stone, with a roof and spires made of wood, significantly much of it 14th century oak and covered in lead sheet to make waterproof. It has been damaged previously by fires and other decay and the Spire had most recently been rebuilt in the 19th century. In 2014, the French Ministry of Culture estimated the cathedral needed renovations costing €150 million, which were underway at the time of the fire.



Over 400 firefighters fought the blaze at Notre Dame, whilst a further 100 formed a salvage group with Paris Police and municipal workers to save precious artifacts


The fire broke out in the attic space beneath the roof at 1818 with the alarm been sounded two minutes later, when guards began the evacuation of the cathedral. One guard was sent to investigate the cause of the alarm but was sent to the wrong location. He found no fire and it took another 15 minutes before the mistake was realised and it took several more minutes for guards to climb 300 steps to the attic to find a well-developed fire.

The Paris Fire Brigade was called at 1851 when the guards returned to their command point, and appliances arrived within ten minutes. Millions watched across Europe and the rest of the world as over 400 firefighters attacked the fire, mainly using interior suppression operations within the structure that was potentially unstable for much of the time. An additional 100 firefighters formed a salvage group which worked with others from Paris Police and municipal workers to move precious objects to safety using a human chain.

From outside, at times it appeared that the only firefighting action was being undertaken by precariously perched firefighters working off exposed flying buttresses at the top of the transepts and at the base of towers. Water supplies were provided by hydrants and from fireboats in the Seine. Even if possible (the height of the cathedral would put it beyond use of hydraulic platforms and aerial ladder platform and water towers), a water attack from outside would not only be dangerous by risking collapse but liable to cause unnecessary damage within the cathedral itself and add to the risks facing firefighters inside. As at York Minster, molten lead caused problems for firefighters.


“The loss of a sacred building may be priceless but is it worth the loss of the life of a firefighter or salvage worker or volunteer?”


By 1900, flames were seen from outside and for a while it looked like the building was about to be destroyed in its entirety but fortunately at around 1950, divine intervention appeared to show its hand again when the spire of the cathedral collapsed causing an overpressure that sent a “fireball” through the attic, narrowly missing retreating firefighters but also releasing the build-up of heat which had threatened to extend the fire.

By 2030, attempts to extinguish the roof were abandoned and the focus shifted to saving the towers with firefighting taking place inside the towers themselves and from the outside. The wood and metal roof and the central spire were destroyed in the fire and much collapsed onto the ceiling of the cathedral interior, which was formed by the stone vaults underneath. Some of the vault collapsed, which sent debris onto the marble ground floor. Most of the roof, however, remained intact because of the strong Norman-built rib vaulting. Much of the artwork had already been removed in anticipation of the renovation and large amounts were salvaged from the building during the fire itself with all the cathedral’s sacred relics saved. The burning of roofing materials in the ceiling has increased surface lead levels significantly in the local area and across Paris generally. While the delay in locating the fire, calling the fire brigade and therefore beginning firefighting undoubtedly caused additional destruction, the operation was successful in once again containing much of the damage to a single area and saving most of the artefacts.

The cause of the fire remains unknown: an electrical short circuit in the spire’s electric bells, or in an elevator, or the careless disposal of cigarette butts by roofing contractors working at the base of the spire, have all been considered but there has been no conclusive determination and there are no underlying spiritual reasons why Notre Dame has been selected for calamity. Reconstruction will be paid for by charitable donations of at least €1 billion, of which at least €880 million were contributed less than a day after President Macron’s appeal to restore the nationally-owned cathedral. Controversially, these donations initially attracted an enhanced tax relief of 90 per cent (30 per cent greater than the standard 60 per cent). The relief was reduced after a public outcry but by the end of June 2019, only €80 million had been raised as many of the initial, spectacular donations have been renounced on the grounds that the appeal was so successful.

Difficulties of Fighting Cathedral Fires

Despite the massive damage caused by the fire at the Notre Dame as well as that of York Minster, there is a clear message that a small fire in such an ancient and vulnerable building can lead to catastrophic (in terms of property and not life) losses. The high fire loading of these vulnerable premises means that a rapid growth of fire is likely if not inevitable: architects working on the restoration of Notre Dame later admitted that they significantly underestimated the potential speed of fire spread in their initial assumptions for the fire safety strategy during restoration. Ancient timbers and dry rot all contribute to rapid combustion and, controversially (the scientists are still fighting over this one) long-term exposure to low temperatures can also result in the creation of pyrophoric timber or carbon, with a potential for ignition at very low temperatures.

Access to parts of the building is always problematic in a structure that was built by artisans whose physical size was significantly smaller on average than the well-fed, muscle-bound firefighter of the 21st century, who can potentially become trapped like Winnie the Pooh in the beehive as they attempt to thread their way through the ever-decreasing channels in tight roof spaces. Seriously, access into a confined space is more than problematic and raises questions about operational risk assessments and the viability of undertaking potentially “novel” operations in the event of a fire.

“Operational discretion” is a solution to barriers when facing life-endangering situations but developing improvised “workarounds” (such as standing at the edge of a buttress, controlling a large jet, producing several hundred Newtons of jet reaction, with a 200-foot drop to the ground without a harness, crawling into a confined space to find a suspected fire in a tinder dry roof space) where no life is at risk, creates a dilemma both for firefighters and incident commanders. At Notre Dame and York Minster, there have been “near misses” where firefighters have been spared by luck and not necessarily judgement. The loss of a sacred building may be priceless but is it worth the loss of the life of a firefighter, salvage worker or volunteer?

The UK is rich with architectural treasures and priceless, irreplaceable artefacts and relics. To retain them requires investment before ignition of a fire which may not be stoppable. Fire protection measures including automatic suppression systems may be expensive but if only included in protecting the areas inaccessible to high-rise firefighting appliances or enclosed spaces beyond rapid access by firefighters are an essential cost to preserve these buildings. Not “lost money” but an insurance policy for decades.

The Tower of Westminster Abbey is 69 metres at its highest point, Westminster Cathedral 87m and St Paul’s Cathedral 111m. The capability of even the highest aerial appliance in the UK, the 64m high turntable ladders just purchased by London Fire Brigade, will be challenged by a roof space fire in one of the great cathedrals. All of which indicates that the only way to suppress a serious fire in a cathedral is through the use of automatic suppression or a reliance and expectation for firefighters to use their operational discretion to compensate for deficiencies in preplanning for such incidents. Can protection against fire be guaranteed by protective measures or is it best to hope it does not happen on my watch? Is it again a question of when and not if we will have a major fire in a historically important building, with irretrievable and irreplaceable artefacts being lost to posterity? Or should we put the contents in a hyper-safe, environmentally-conditioned repository, locked away and seen only by the few?

[email protected]

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More