Devastating church fire could be seen for miles

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They say that lightning never strikes twice; but in the case of St Paul’s Church, Hanging Heaton, it struck three times between the years 1912 to 1923.

By far the worst incident was in 1916, at the height of World War I, when fire completely gutted the church’s interior, leaving only the four stone walls and tower standing.

And in the summer of 1923, while the church was still being restored, lightning struck again, this time shattering a pinnacle on the tower and setting the nave alight.

Undeterred, the faithful parishioners continued their work of restoring this sacred edifice, and the church was finally re-opened for worship in 1925

The church had suffered its first lightning attack in 1912 resulting in one of the pinnacles being brought down. The fact that it still survives is a testament to the dedication and determination of its members, both past and present.

St Paul’s Church has always been a notable landmark in the district, standing as it does, quite majestically, upon a high elevation between Dewsbury and Batley.

Indeed, it was an accepted fact that the high altitude of this beautiful church rendered it susceptible to such acts of Providence.

It is 100 years since the disastrous fire of 1916, an anniversary which parishioners of St Paul’s plan to commemorate with a series of events next month.

On Saturday June 11, the church will be open from 11am to 2.30pm, and, there will be stalls outside and a fire engine to commemorate this tragic event.

Other events that day include a tea party to celebrate the Queen’s 90th birthday, and on Sunday June 12 at 11am, a special service will be held at the church, with the Rev Kevin Partington preaching.

The disastrous fire of 1916 produced a series of events which today seem scarcely credible. There was only one telephone in the village, which meant a delay in contacting Batley Fire Brigade, whose fire engines were horse-drawn at that time. The horses pulling the engines couldn’t climb Mill Lane because it was too steep, and they had to go up Grange Road and into Leeds Road.

Further delays followed when the toll gate at the top of Grange Road was closed, and the gate-keeper refused to get out of bed to let them through. Then an argument ensued about toll charges because he argued there was no mention of fire engines on his list of fees. By the time they got to the top of Grange Road, Dewsbury Fire Brigade was waiting for them at the boundary between Dewsbury and Batley.

Incredibly, they hadn’t gone straight to the fire because fire services at that time had to observe strict demarcation lines with each brigade having to have permission to enter each other’s area.

It was only when the Batley Brigade were close enough to yell to the awaiting Dewsbury Brigade to go ahead, that both brigades were able to gallop at break-neck speed to tackle the fire together.

Worse was to come. On arrival they discovered there was no local water supply for their hoses, and had to string yards and yards of extra hoses across the fields to the nearest water supply.

By this time, the blaze was out of control and nothing could be done to save the interior of the church.

The large quantity of wood inside lent itself readily to the ravages of the fire, with the heavy wooden gallery falling first. The heavy roof then fell into the debris, and the blaze, which could be seen for miles around, lit up the district. Among the articles recovered from the debris were the communion plate, the parish registers and the brass eagle lectern.

It was a wild, tempestuous night when lightning struck St Paul’s on February 17 in 1916, causing one of the worst church fires in Yorkshire’s history. It happened in the middle of World War One, and many wrongly thought it had been caused by incendiary bombs being off-loaded from German planes.

Some people had been disturbed by thunder at 1am and seen vivid flashes of lightning, but police constable Davison, in the vicinity of the church at 2am, saw nothing to arouse his suspicions.

The fire was discovered at 4.10am by Samuel Pleasants who saw a glare from his bedroom window and ran to wake the verger, Mr J R Sykes, who lived in High Street.

He told Mr Pleasants to run to Shaw Cross Post Office and telephone the police in Dewsbury, thus enabling the Dewsbury Fire Brigade to become aware of the fire.

Many beautiful artefacts, including the organ, were completely burnt out and a fine series of stained glass memorial windows destroyed.

For a number of years, parishioners held their services in the nearby Sunday School which had been adapted to become Hanging Heaton Parish Church, the Bishop of Wakefield having granted the necessary licence.

Eventually, a new parochial hall was erected near the ruined church, and this was adapted to meet the requirements of the parish pending the completion of the restoration of the parish church.

The reason it took so many years to restore the church was because of delays caused through WWI, shortage of materials and later their high cost when eventually available.

The first stone was laid in connection with the building of St Paul’s in 1823 and the church was consecrated in 1825 by the Archbishop of York.