THE area’s churches escaped Easter unscathed this year, but that was not the case 120 years ago when a seaside church caught fire during an Easter service.

The sexton was passing St Mark’s in Marske at 8.30am on Easter Sunday, 1902, and spotted smoke seeping from under the eaves of the tower roof. Inside, the vicar, the Reverend Francis Grant-James, was leading a congregation of about 100 people in a choral communion.

The Northern Echo: The burning church tower from Marske High Street 120 years ago

The burning church tower from Marske High Street 120 years ago

A note was passed to the vicar, who asked the congregation to leave quietly, and, sensibly, instructed the choir to take out the valuables – the silver communion plate, the chalice, candlesticks and altar cross.

“An old man of 70 years carried, with trembling hands, the Parish Registers to safety,” said an account of the fire that was published shortly afterwards to raise money for the rebuilding.

The vicar even had the presence of mind to arrange for heavier items, like the altar and the pulpit, to be shifted to where they could be easily removed should the fire threaten the whole building.

The Northern Echo: The congregation watches as ladders are placed against the tower of St Mark\'s Church, Marske-by-the-Sea

The congregation watches as ladders are placed against the tower of St Mark's Church, Marske-by-the-Sea

Once safely outside, the congregation formed a human chain down to the village pond and began passing along buckets of water to fill up posstubs that they had placed in the churchyard so that when the horsedrawn engines arrived they would have something to pump onto the flames.

The first to arrive, within an hour, were appliances from Skelton and Brotton, followed soon by engines from Guisborough, Saltburn and Redcar. When the last engine, from Middlesbrough arrived, the blaze was out, but the 12 mile gallop had been so strenuous that one of its horses dropped dead.

The Northern Echo: Horse drawn fire pump with volunteers and spectators by the pond on Half Acre Green in Marske with the burnt out church tower in the background

Horse drawn fire pump with volunteers and spectators by the pond on Half Acre Green in Marske with the burnt out church tower in the background

At the time of the fire, St Mark’s Church was fairly new, built in 1866 when the Cleveland coast was booming because of the arrival of the railway, the opening of the ironstone mines and the beginnings of tourism – the population of Marske itself rose from 573 in 1841 to 5,874 in 1871.

The coastal area around the bay from Redcar to Saltburn had been one parish centred on the ancient clifftop church of St Germain at Marske, but Redcar had split off in 1867 followed by Saltburn in 1873.

To complete St Mark’s, Lord Zetland had a £150 clock to go in its tower 12 weeks before the fire. The clock had been started on New Year’s Eve, but it was destroyed by the Easter Day blaze which was caused by birds’ nests in the church boiler’s flue catching alight at the top of the tower.

The 1902 fund-raising booklet says: “One week after the event, the Yorkshire Fire Insurance Company had agreed to settle the claim for £532.25. The tower top was replaced with the present 'battlement' style and the clock replaced.

“Miraculously the church bells had survived unscathed, although when they were removed for restoration in 1972, many of the supporting timbers were found to have been badly charred by the heat radiating from the walls.”

The Northern Echo: The illuminated star on the tower of St Mark\'s Church, photographed by Peter Downham, of Marske-by-the-Sea. The tower caught fire during an Easter Day service 120 years ago

The battlemented top of St Mark's Church which was built with the insurance money after the fire 120 years ago. Picture by Peter Downham, of Marske by the Sea

So St Mark’s Church has survived the ravages of time, unlike St Germain’s which is now just a tower on the clifftop surrounded by headstones.

There has been a church on this exposed spot since Saxon times – St Germain himself was a 7th Century bishop of Paris.

In medieval times, the village retreated from the coast, leaving the church out on a limb, and so during the boom of the 1860s, it seemed sensible to build a new church nearer the people.

St Germain’s was abandoned and finally demolished in 1955, although its 12th Century tower remained as a navigational aid for those at sea.

The Northern Echo: The sunlit 12th Century tower of St Germain\'s Church, Marske, pictured by Tim Dunn, of Stokesley.

The sunlit tower of St Germain's Church, Marske, pictured by Tim Dunn, of Stokesley

At the foot of these romantic ruins is the churchyard which contains the graves of people from all walks of life. There are 50 buried there who lost their lives in the ironstone mines, including a boy of 13; there are 17 who died during war, including those killed at the First World War aerodrome next to the churchyard.

There are countless sailors who succumbed to Redcar rocks, plus, beneath a headstone showing a capsized boat, are smugglers who drowned in 1774 – St Germain’s was such a smuggling capital that contraband was hidden in the church tower and moved while the revenue men were distracted by an on-going service.

William Peachey, the architect of the Zetland Hotel and railway station in Saltburn plus the station in Middlesbrough and the Baptist church in Darlington, was buried in the churchyard in 1901 – he was a brilliant architect but had a habit of taking back-handers from contractors, much to the dismay of the straight-laced Pease family who developed Saltburn.

Perhaps the most famous burial in St Germain’s is Captain James Cook’s father, also James Cook. The captain’s mother, Grace, predeceased his father and she was buried with five of his brothers and sisters in All Saints Church in Great Ayton. For the last year of his life, the 86-year-old Mr Cook lived with his daughter, Margaret, in Redcar, where he died. He would have been carried along the beach to St Germain’s where he was buried on April 1, 1779. He would not have known that his son had been killed six weeks earlier on Hawaii.

In 1844, Charles Dickens sought out the grave in St Germain’s.

  •  With many thanks to Peter Sotheran for the information and pictures