Chichester Cathedral
The fall of the spire - February 1861

This article has been transcribed from the Illustrated London News dated 2nd March 1861.


A CATHEDRAL, built mostly of wood, was founded in Chichester in the year 1108.  The present Cathedral, which was erected during the thirteenth century, exhibits some specimens of Norman design, and also some examples of the first Pointed style, when the Petworth or Sussex marble came into fashion.  The site of Chichester endows this cathedral with a peculiar character.  It is the only one in England which can be seen at sea; "and its spire," says Mackenzie Walcott, in his Handbook to the Cathedrals of the United Kingdom, "was a landmark alike to the pilgrim of its shrine, and to the mariner entering the historic waters of the naval stronghold of England."  The cathedral consists of a nave and choir and transepts, forming the cruciform plan usually adopted in buildings of its class.  Its extreme length from east to west is 407 feet; from north to south, 150 feet; the transept is 129 feet long and 34 feet wide; and the nave and aisles 97 feet wide.  In the interior there are nine monuments by Flaxman - one of them to the memory of William Collins, the poet, who was a native of Chichester.  It also contains several ancient monuments, which are curious, and some of more recent date that are not unworthy of notice.  At the east end is attached a Lady chapel, now used as the cathedral library, and at the west end there were two towers, although one of them became ruinous and was removed.  This cathedral has been classed among our smaller and least interesting cathedrals; but, nevertheless, in the massive and lofty detached belfry-tower, in the unusual arrangement of double aisles to the nave, and, above all, in the spire, placed in the centre of the building, rising to a height of 272 feet, and only surpassed in altitude by two other spires in the kingdom, it possesses features which, in the opinion of those who have much studied it, raise it to a higher rank of estimation than it has generally enjoyed.  The spire, its most striking feature, fell to the ground on Thursday week.

In the autumn of 1859 certain alterations were determined upon in memorial of the late Dean.  The object was to remove the fittings of the choir, to which part of the building the performance of Divine service had been hitherto confined, and to make the whole church, as far as possible, available for the use of the congregation.  The removal of the fittings, such as pews, pulpit, and wood floors, stalls and organ gallery, was accordingly proceeded with.  The removal of the stall-work and shrine disclosed some serious defects in the supports of the great western arch of the tower.  The four arches and their piers, or supports, belonged to the work erected at the end of the twelfth century.  The tower was added about the year 1200, and the spire was placed upon it about 200 years later.  The piers bore the enormous addition of weight with difficulty, and settlements and displacements have occurred at various periods, particularly about the supports of the south-west corner.  The necessary reparation was immediately commenced.  As a precaution, strong framings of timber were placed under the west, north, and south arches, which, up to the last moment, exhibited no sigh of weakness whatever.  In November last some part of the new work in the north-west pier was observed to yield slightly, having then been finished about a month, and a slight movement was also detected in the south-west pier, certain of the old fissures extending themselves thereby into the new work.  These were carefully watched, and it was believed that when time sufficient should have passed to allow the new work, which had been constructed in "lias" mortar, to solidify, they would be unimportant.  On the 14th inst. a change was observed; cracks in the south-west and north-west piers began to enlarge, and it was determined at once to erect additional supports to the piers.  Active measures were adopted.  After the usual Sunday services on the 17th ult. in the nave, which had been temporarily screened off, the church was taken possession of by the workmen, who have, with but little intermission, pursued their task by night and day down to the hour of the final catastrophe.  It soon became evident that the heart or core of the piers was rotten:  the task of sustaining on each pier a weight exceeding 1400 tons thrust forward the facing on every side, and when the masonry was restrained in one place by props and shores the restraint caused it to bulge on the adjoining surfaces faster than it was possible to apply remedies.  The terrific storm of wind on Wednesday se'nnight caused these difficulties to increase with alarming rapidity; but the efforts of sixty workmen appeared still to offer some possibility of ultimate success when, at three hours and a half past midnight, they quitted the building.  On their return, however, after less than three hours absence, it was found that the shores and braces exhibited many signs of suffering from the enormous strains to which they had been subjected.  The force of men was increased, and various expedients to strengthen what was strained were put in requisition.  The crushing and settlement of the south-west pier had caused a serious pressure on the top of the south-east and north-west piers, the entire separation of the church walls from the western supports of the tower had become evident, heavy stones burst out and fell, the core of the south-west pier poured out, crushed to powder, and the workmen were cleared out of the building, and the noble spire left to its fate at a quarter past one.  Not more than a quarter of an hour later the tower and spire fell to the floor with but little noise, forming a mass of near 6000 tons of ruin in the centre of the church, and carrying with it about 20 ft. in length of one end of the nave, and the same of the transepts and choir.  The spire, in its fall, at first inclined slightly to the south-west, and then sank gently into the centre of the building.  The appearance of the fall has been compared to that of a large ship quietly but rapidly foundering at sea.

The View of Chichester Cathedral on page 202 (reproduced below) was taken by one of our Artists shortly after the fall of the spire.  We may possibly give in our next Number some engravings of the cathedral from a work now in course of publication by Murray and Co. on the Cathedrals of England.


Transcribed by Mark Collins

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