Sheffield Daily Telegraph,
Mon 3rd Jan 1887
1st of 3 columns
Sheffield was startled yesterday by the news, which spread very quickly, that Ranmoor Church was on fire. Many people heard of it while on their way to morning services; others knew nothing of it until they had left their respective churches and chapels, by which time the beautiful edifice which formed so picturesque a feature in the most attractive of our suburbs was a mass of charred and smouldering ruin. A fire in a great town like this is no unusual sight; but a church in flames is, happily, an unprecedented spectacle with us. This was what met the eyes of those who followed the Fire Brigade, as they hurried, fast as the frozen and slippery roads would permit, to Ranmoor. The Church of St. John the Evangelist, the magnificent gift of the late Mr. J. Newton Mappin, which filled up the pleasant ground rising above Ranmoor road, was wreathed in flames from the chancel to the western gable, from the organ chamber to the southern porch.
It was an impressive and a sorrowful scene. Here and there, as the fierce heat burnt away the timber, the loosened tiles dropped into the interior, and through the roof protruded tongues of fire; these, meeting, formed ever-broadening belts of flame, which made the tar coating run like ink, and consumed everything within reach so rapidly that within forty minutes of the outbreak being observed nothing was left of the interior of Ranmoor Church except the blackened walls.
The fire of an hour had wrought a weird and wondrous change. The church had been made ready for morning service: on the altar were the vessels of silver to be used in the Communion. Everything was becoming and beautiful, as befitted the House of God. An hour later and the interior of the sacred edifice was as a roaring furnace, with the flames crackling and hissing, liquid tar and burning timbers falling on nave and chancel and organ-chamber, wrecking and ruining wherever they fell. Nothing was saved from the fury of the fire, the very service spread upon the fair white cloth, melting as if in a furnace.
When the disaster was at its height the spectacle is described by those who saw it as exceedingly beautiful. The interior was one seething mass, which outlined the architectural features of the building; as beam after beam crashed into the nave a great shower of sparks rose above the flames, which licked the limestone and threatened to burst the very walls which 'prisoned them. All the time there was a noise as of the roar of many furnaces when the doors are thrown open, and very soon the great volumes of black smoke, lit here and there by lurid gleams from the nave, told to Ranmoor that its church was doomed. And not yet all Ranmoor, for at the hour for service there came up members of the congregation who learned for the first time that the building in which they had hoped to worship on the opening Sunday of the New Year had nothing left but the bare walls and the belfry tower.
The fire was discovered by Thomas Leighton, of Upper Ranmoor Road, the clerk and caretaker of the church, whose duties required him to be at work very early in the morning. He reached the church soon after five o'clock, and remained until half-past eight, spending the greater portion of his time in the cellar, attending to the heating apparatus. The furnace, it should be stated, had been kept alight since Friday at noon. There was a midnight service, which necessitated the building being well warmed, and the fire within the furnace was kept going for Sunday heating. In this, we understand, there was nothing of an unusual nature. Leighton "fired up," got the furnace at a good heat, and at eight o'clock left everything apparently safe. The next half hour he spent inside the church, laying out the communion service ready for the administration of the sacrament after morning service, and attending to other duties of a routine character. At half-past eight o'clock, all then being as usual within the building, he went home for breakfast.
He returned about twenty minutes after nine o'clock, again went into the firing hole, and "fired up." Having turned on the water sprays for ventilation purposes he came out of the cellar, and at this moment detected a smell as of burning wood. Knowing he had put no sticks on the fire he wondered what caused the smell, and turned towards the chimney. Where he stood the chimney was not visible, but he saw smoke overhead, and so much of it as to excite alarm. Hastily running round a portion of the walls to get sight of the chimney, he saw the smoke, not proceeding from the chimney only, but creeping through the roof of the organ chamber. Leighton immediately opened the vestry door, and walked through the vestry towards the interior of the church.
Most of our readers will be familiar with the fact that the church has no transepts, but is under one roof from end to end. There is, however, an organ chamber, which juts out slightly like a transept and the vestry is parallel, extending several feet beyond the end of the organ chamber. As soon as Leighton stepped into the church his worst fears were realised. The organ was on fire. The flames were bursting out all about the top of the organ pipes, creeping inch by inch lower, whilst forks of fire shot up against the arching, and curled upwards into the roof of the church. There was a good deal of smoke, but not so much as was afterwards the case. At this moment the organ alone was burning, and being composed of very inflammable material, it did not produce a dense mass of smoke.
Leighton ran out again, and was going towards the road when he met a neighbour, whose attention had also been attracted by the smoke. A horse was obtained from Mr. Outwin's yard, adjoining the Ranmoor Inn, and away galloped the messenger to the Broomhill Police Station. At Broomhill a telephone message was despatched to the Fire Office, and Superintendent Pound and his men were soon speeding on their way to Ranmoor, and at the same time the Broomhill hose reel was journeying to the scene.
Meanwhile, Leighton appraised the Rev. A. G. Tweedie of his discovery. He ran to the Vicar's house, hurried forward into the hall, and called out at the top of his voice, "Mr. Tweedie, the church is on fire." Having satisfied himself that Mr. Tweedie heard his tidings he went on to the house of Mr. Hamer Chalmer, one of the churchwardens, who was just sitting down to breakfast. Mr. Chalmer left the meal untasted and was quickly with Mr. Tweedie, and the two were soon afterwards joined by Mr. Robert Colver, the other churchwarden. Mr. and Mrs. J. E. Bingham, whose front windows directly face the west side of the church, were amongst the earliest to see the smoke. At first Mr. Bingham could not believe that anything was amiss, but when the real state of affairs was manifest he and his son were on the spot in a few moments, and rendered much assistance.
Mr. Tweedie reached the church very soon after the alarm. He succeeded in getting into the vestry, and peeped through into the church. The east end was then almost in total darkness. There was such a dense volume of smoke that penetration of the sight was impossible. From the organ chamber there were flames, but hardly any light was given out from them, so condensed was the mass of smoke. Looking towards the west Mr. Tweedie could make out the familiar objects of his church, but only dimly.
To enter the church and save any of its contents was out of the question; all Mr. Tweedie, Mr. Bingham, and the other gentlemen who gathered round the doors could do was carry off some of the furniture of the vestry, together with the books and registers from the safe, the alms dishes, and the portion of the communion service not set out on the altar. The flames, which for the moment had been clouded by smoke, soon asserted their sovereignty, and almost as quickly as it takes to tell it the whole building was ablaze. The roof was one mass of fire; tiles were thrown about in all directions; there was a cracking as of an immense furnace; and huge tongues of flames leapt up higher and higher. The scene was one of great though awful grandeur, yet had it been witnessed at night time the effect would have been immensely enhanced. One by one the windows were blown out with a sound like small artillery, the memorial windows going in the common ruin. Then the roof began to fall as the smaller beams burnt out. The large west window fell outwards with a great crash, and behind it came a great volume of smoke, which as it cleared away, opened out a transformation scene of thrilling splendour. The arched rafters of the roof were in a ruddy glow, twinkling all over with points of fire, and then as they burnt themselves out, they wavered in mid air, tottered and fell into the ruins below, attended by a glowing shower of sparks.
Superintendent Pound received the call to Ranmoor at 9.50 and at 10.10 he was on the spot with the tender. The hose reel from Bromhill preceded him by a few minutes and got to work from a hydrant in Gladstone road. Superintendent Pound took in the situation at a glance. The roof was then one mass of flames, and below the fire was raging amongst the pews and decorations. It was evident that no good could be done by bringing water upon such a conflagration, and time would only be wasted in doing so. But the tower might yet be saved, and towards the tower Superintendent Pound directed his effort.