Disaster struck St Michael on St Peter’s Day, 29th June 1993. At 1.50 in the afternoon wisps of smoke were spotted coming from the roof over the north aisle and the Fire Brigade called. Soon fire engines from Newquay and eight other Cornish fire stations were at the scene. Thick smoke from burning roof timbers filled the air, fanned by a north wind off the sea. However the efforts of fifty firemen were hampered by the fact that the roof of the church was close boarded and water could not penetrate to the burning roof timbers. By the end of the afternoon most of the roof had been destroyed and several tons of roof timbers, slates and plaster had fallen on the pews and floor. The organ and half of the pews were destroyed beyond repair; the figures on the rood screen were badly charred and broken by falling debris; water had seeped into the heating ducts and basement vestries leaving the several inches deep in water, but by the efforts of the Fire Brigade and parishioners many portable treasures were saved.
A police investigation into the cause of the fire showed that it had been started deliberately , but forensic tests of samples taken from the charred remains of the church proved inconclusive. No one was charged in connection with the fire.
Work on planning the rebuilding of the church began the next day, but how it was to be done proved controversial. Eventually, after a three day hearing, the Chancellor of Diocese approved a scheme which meant that the Comper rood screen was reinstated in its entirety, but with a Nave altar in front of it. The same scheme provided for other changes, including the provision of a meeting area and new door at the west end; new vestries on ground level, with the basement rooms being used for an office and storage, and other less significant changes, but including greater accessibility, especially for those having mobility problems.
There were also delays in starting the rebuilding caused by difficulties in getting stone from the same quarry as was used originally, but these were overcome, and rebuilding started on 16 January 1995, and was completed just in time for the rededication of the church on 29th September, the Feast of St Michael and All Angels, 1996, exactly 39 months after the fire. The architects for the rebuilding were Richard Church and John Tanner, of Bazeley Miller-Williams and Corfield, St Austell, and the main contractors were K.H.J.Trethewey & Sons Ltd, St Erme. As far as possible all sub-contractors, suppliers and materials were from Cornwall.
Unhappily it has not proved possible up to the present to reinstate the Nicholson organ, though it is still hoped that a pipe organ of equivalent quality will one day be installed. Until then a high quality electronic organ has been in use since the reopening, supplemented by a Steinweg-Grotian (?) grand piano. (Those who are interested in electronics may care to note that at the heart of the electronic organ are a number of Z80 chips – as in the Sinclair Spectrum! – but running at a much higher clock speed.)
Note: a fuller account, with illustrations, of the fire and the rebuilding of the church can be found in the booklet “Out of the Flames”, available at the church bookstall.
Next: A Guide to St Michael’s