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After Notre Dame burned, the fires which have ripped though Canterbury Cathedral are recalled

By Gerry Warren

The world watched in sadness yesterday as the beautiful Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris burned.

But Canterbury's own magnificent cathedral has not been without its own dramas and losses in its 1,400 year history.

It has suffered at least three major fires and was heroically saved by fire watchers during the World War Two Baedeker raids.

Scroll down to hear from Dr Emily Guerry, an expert at the University of Kent

Notre Dame in Paris ablaze (8664320)
Notre Dame in Paris ablaze (8664320)

It was a very different structure than today, when the building was largely destroyed in a blaze 1067, a year after the Norman Conquest. Rebuilding began in 1070 under the first Norman archbishop, Lanfranc.

He cleared the ruins and reconstructed the cathedral to a design based closely on that of the Abbey of Saint-Étienne in Caen, where he had previously been abbot, using stone brought from France.

But just over 100 years later on September 5, 1174, fire broke out again, having apparently started in cottages outside the walls of the Monastery but quickly spreading to the cathedral itself.

The intensity was said to be so great that lead on the roof melted, a fragment of which is still on display in the cathedral.

Canterbury Cathedral (8664971)
Canterbury Cathedral (8664971)

The blaze ravaged through the build, destroying the Quire, which required totally rebuilding over 10 years, the result of which changed its original Norman style.

Theories that it had been started by jealous monks, were investigated in a recently-published book by historian Dr Emma Wells, called Heaven on Earth

She believes a bitter rivalry between two of England’s grandest cathedrals, Canterbury and Durham, turned ugly as they both sought to become the country’s most popular place of worship.

She claims that monks based at Canterbury purposely set fire to their own cathedral so they could then build an elaborate crypt which would draw in visitors, and more importantly, compete with Durham.

The fire in 1872 destroyed part of the Cathedral roof (8662774)
The fire in 1872 destroyed part of the Cathedral roof (8662774)

It was almost 700 years later in 1872 when fire struck again, destroying the Trinity Chapel roof at the east end of Canterbury Cathedral and threatening the entire destruction of the historic building.

It is thought to have started when a pot of burning charcoal being used to solder lead was knocked over.

Smoke and flames were soon seen pouring from the east end of the roof near Beckett's crown and people are reported to have streamed into the Precincts to watch.

While new waterworks to supply Canterbury from a reservoir on St Thomas's Hill had been established a couple of years earlier, no hydrants had been fixed around the cathedral.

But the hose belonging to the Phoenix and Kent Fire Offices and the City Volunteer Fire Brigade was long enough to be attached to hydrants in the adjoining streets and carried through the Cathedral yard to the burning building.

Although men from various brigades were on the spot as quickly as possible, it was only two hours later that any water could be hosed directly onto the flames, meaning the whole of the eastern roof was lost.

The fire fighting effort was supported by the arrival of men from the Cavalry Depot Brigade and Royal Horse Artillery who marched into the Precincts.

But it was George Delassaux of the Canterbury Volunteer Fire Brigade who was considered the hero of the day after breaking his way though a small window in the clerestory and dragging his hose after him, to bring a second stream of water onto the flames.

The building was insured at the Sun Fire Office for £20,000 and the damage is variously estimated at from £3,000 to £5,000.

The risk of the cathedral burning down was very high in 1942 when the German Baedecker raid rained bombs down on Canterbury.

Fire watchers in the Nave roof in 1942
Fire watchers in the Nave roof in 1942

But while the Deanery was destroyed, a brave group of firefighters went up onto the cathedral roof to pick up and throw to the ground any incendiaries that landed on the roof.

Their leader, Mr Hoare who died in 1957, was awarded the British Empire Medal in 1944 for his services in the Blitz and he was presented to the King and Queen during the royal visit in 1946.

The memorial plaque to the cathedral fire watchers
The memorial plaque to the cathedral fire watchers

But he and his fellow firefighters, Alfred Burden, Joe Wanstall and Tom Shaw were later recognised for their courage following a campaign by the Kentish Gazette, called Remember Our Blitz Fire Watchers.

It resulted in the unveiling of a carved stone memorial plaque to them in the cathedral in 2004.

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