Fire in the Belfry

Yapton’s ancient church, built during the 11th and 12th centuries and dedicated to St Mary the Virgin in circa 1555, lies at the junction of Church Road and Church Lane in the centre of the village. It sits amid a well-kept, peaceful churchyard abounding with tales of smugglers and contraband. Amongst the attractions are the original font and the shingle roofed leaning tower. The tower was noticeably leaning in 1617 and it was recommended that buttresses be built to prevent the problem getting worse.

A disaster was averted by the alertness of a local early riser, Mr. Wilson of neighbouring Church Farm, who noticed smoke beginning to drift skywards from the church tower. The time was shortly after 6am on March 14th 1909. Calling for his wife to raise the alarm, Mr Wilson went to enter the Church only to find that the doors were locked. The Church Warden, Mr R.A. Bishop, was sent for but by the time access to the Church was gained the fire had taken hold of the base of the Belfry.The fire appeared to have started in a cupboard and spread to one of the oak pillars which supported the floor above. Fortunately, this floor was made of solid oak and prevented the fire from consuming the whole tower before the arrival of the Fire Brigade. In response to the alarm being raised, P.C.Luff arrived to take command of the situation.

R.A. Bishop, Church Warden

Superintendent White, on duty in Arundel Police Station, received a telegram at 6.20am informing him of the fire and immediately rang the fire bell. The fire crew, including Lieutenants Evershed, Augwin and Foreman Kendall had a horse harnessed to the Fire Engine and left for Yapton within 15 minutes. It took them another 15 minutes to arrive at the Church to find that several villagers had almost got the fire under control. They were fighting the fire with buckets of water carried from Church Farm and Church House. As it was impossible to reach roof level with the water, a hand pump had been brought from Sparks Engineering Works which was located near-by. To prevent any chance of the fire re-igniting, the firemen hosed down the Belfry floor for some time before returning to Arundel.

The Belfry floor had suffered considerable damage and because the ground floor room was being used as the Choir Vestry, all the surpluses and church music had been destroyed. In spite of this, church life continued as normal with the exception of the 8 o’clock Communion which had to be cancelled.

Following the fire, a new six-bell frame was made, possibly by Charles White, builder of Burndell Road. There had been four bells at the time of the fire inscribed as follows:

1. Stephen Rogers C W 1712
2. Samvell Knight Kast mee 1712
3. Thomas Wakefield made me KR 1615

(Thomas Wakefield was a Chichester bellfounder 1615–1618)

Church Bells after fire

These bells can be seen in the photograph after they had been removed from the Belfry, burnt timbers can be seen in the background up against the tower wall. Following the fire there was an insurance claim for Gillett & Johnson of Croydon to re-cast the bells. The rim of the bell inscribed ‘AVE MARIA +R’ was made into a candelabra and still hangs in the Nave today.

Candelabrum made from bell no. 4

The village had to wait until 1985 before the full set of six bells was completed. One was "In memory of John Colin Loveys 1918-1982" and the final one was "Presented by the Parishioners of Yapton". It is said that the peel rings "Shut The Gate and Clap’n says the bells of Yapton".

Allen Misselbrook
January 2019

(Originally published in Sussex Local Magazine, Arundel, March 2019)

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