Rebuilding St Mary's Church 1875-1877

A drawing showing flood level in 1795

St Mary’s Church is built on the bank of the river and is susceptible to flood.  Throughout the years, flooding has been a problem.  The drawing shows the level of the flood of March 1795 to have almost reached to the top of the doorway at the west end.  As well as damaging the contents of the church, it was having an adverse effect on the stonework.

The flood of March 1795 was particularly bad.  There had been a cold Winter with the river frozen for quite some time.  There was then a sudden thaw with ice building up against the bridge much as it did in March 1963.  Whilst this was probably the highest flood, it was by no means the only flood affecting the church.

At various times thought was given to dealing with the problem but these ideas tended to be quickly forgotten.  The drawing shows an early attempt to deal with the problem.  The lowest line is marked “Old Floor Line” and about a foot above it is a line marked “Present Floor Line”.  The internal floor was lifted by about a foot at some date but compared with the 1795 flood level, it was almost of zero value.

Action at last

A picture of the church before rebuilding

However, things changed in 1875.  On 2nd April 1875, a meeting was held at the Town Hall in High Street to “promote the restoration” of the church, attended by many local names and chaired by the Archbishop of York.  Before them were plans that had been drawn up to take down and rebuild the church in the same style, but five feet higher, leaving the tower untouched.  The proposal was approved and adopted.

The biggest challenge was funding the work.  A fund was started with the Archbishop putting in £20.  The fund grew rapidly and records remain of every contributor however small the contribution.


Whilst local support appears to have been unanimous, there were some critics. James Fowler of Wakefield protested in a letter to a newspaper in July 1875 saying “I hear with regret that the venerable church of Tadcaster is threatened with destruction. If the requirements of the parishioners absolutely demanded such a course, I might perhaps hesitate in addressing you. But I am informed by an able architect and skilled antiquary, who has personally visited and carefully examined the state of the building, that no such excuse exists; that portions of rebuilding here and there alone are needed; that repair throughout is perfectly practicable; and that the difficulties of damp and flooding are capable of being effectually provided against.”  He continued, “It should be borne in mind, it is not the property of the parishioners of Tadcaster alone, but a national monument, of which the country, and especially the students of our national art and history, will not suffer themselves to be deprived without a murmur.”

Interior of the church before rebuilding including a stove

It is notable that most opposition came from places away from Tadcaster, who did not have to deal with a muddy floor and damp walls.  No suggestions were forthcoming as to how to stop the church flooding to a depth of 5 feet and it seemed to say that the residents of Tadcaster should put up with these conditions so that a piece of history should be maintained.  Opposition to change seems to have been much the same as now.

The work

The plans had been drawn up by Edward Birchall, an architect from Leeds and the appointed contractors were Pearson Brothers of Leeds.  The work was supervised by Mr M Harrison.

One thing has changed from how things are done today, and that is the speed with which things happen.  On 8th August 1875, the last service was held in the church – future services would be held in the Town Hall.  By late August, only three months after the meeting, the interior of the church had been gutted and redundant timber sold at an auction in the church yard.  The church was taken down over a period of the following 6 weeks and by early October it was reported that the church had been razed leaving only the tower, with work on rebuilding already started.

In February 1876 it was reported that the decision had been made to rebuild the tower.  On 7th February, a Farewell Peal was rung on the bells in what was the isolated tower, something which would almost certainly not be permitted with present views on safety.

The Church, before and after rebuilding. Only minor changes were made to its appearance

How the work was undertaken is not clear.  As the church was taken down, the material had to be stored somewhere.  With the churchyard full of graves, this must have been a challenge.  How much stonework had to be replaced does not seem to be recorded but clearly, a lot of the original stonework was reused after re-facing.  Some pieces of stonework from the 12th century Norman church were found and incorporated into the south-west wall.

The church tower arrangement as designed

As the work progressed some changes were made.  The original plan would have left the tower unchanged.  A set of steps would have led down from the new level of the nave to the original floor level under the tower.

As the work progressed some changes were made, the original plan having been to leave the tower unchanged.  This would have left the original floor level under the tower five feet lower than the church floor.  A set of steps would have led down from the new level of the nave to the original floor level under the tower.  Had this been implemented, there would, as a result of continued flooding, have frequently been an open tank of water at the west end of the church.  The west doorway and window were to have remained at the original level.  Access to the bell ringing room and bell chamber was by a spiral staircase accessed from ground level in the tower.

The Tower

Photo taken at the 2015 flood showing the lean of the tower

There was an existing issue with the tower in that it leaned to the west with the top of the tower overhanging the base by 17 inches – Tadcaster’s answer to the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

It was decided to raise the west doorway and window, and bring the floor of the tower to nave level.  Access to the spiral staircase could not simply be achieved by a new doorway above the existing one, as it had to meet the spiral staircase at the right point.  The access was moved outside so as to join the spiral stairway at the point where it reached the new ground level.  The north and south walls of the tower were not taken down, only the east and west walls.  The height of the tower was to be increased by 7 feet and the six bells dating from 1780 were reinstalled.

The rebuilding of the tower – the pink area was left standing


The building work was completed and re-opened by the Archbishop on 29th May 1877.  The work was completed 25 months after the initial meeting when the proposed rebuilding was approved and 21 months after starting work.  Given the tools available at the time, this seems to be a remarkable fete.

At the time of reopening the work had cost £8,342 2s 10d with £7,046 10s 2d raised towards the costs at that date.  Work on the tower had cost £1,200.

Other work

Inside the church were some galleries which were about six feet above floor level.  It was decided not to reinstate these.

The organ dating from the 1830s was repaired.  Gas lighting was provided and “warming apparatus” installed, replacing the stoves.

The arch at the east side of the tower was raised providing a view of the west window from inside the church.  Viewing this window had not been possible before the rebuild.

Most of the glass of the windows had been plain glass.  Many new stained glass windows were provided over the next few years.

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