A Rare 19th Century York Minster Relic - The Great Fire Of 1840

Favourite Finds

Ahoy there! Welcome to another instalment of 'Blog Post Monday'.

Now, didn't I find some fascinating pieces on my travels this week! One of them, being a piece of local history, is going to be the subject of today's post. A rare survivor of a fire in 1840 that left the magnificent Minster in our beautiful city of York, shaken.

So, as always, get that kettle on and make yourselves comfortable, as we travel back to 1840 and to York, to find out about the devastating fire that ripped through its heart...


Image:  my York Minster relic find 


This rare 19th century oak book slide caught me eye whilst I was on my travels this week.  Of course, the first thing to grab my attention was the York Minster crest.  Being from York myself, this crest is a symbolic part of our city and its rich history.


Image:  my York Minster relic find 


It is a beautiful piece of work in its own right.  Wonderfully crafted from oak with a lovely patina and with a carving of the York Minster crest at either end.  To be fair, I was sold on this as it was.  However, it gets better!  When I flipped the piece over, to the underside was some text which read "A relic of York Minster from the Nettleships 4 Blake St York".


Image:  my York Minster relic find 


Needless to say, I snapped it up and began my research as soon as I got home.  I was sure that it related to one of the Minster fires, as there has been a few, firstly in 1753, then in 1829, again in 1840 and finally, in 1984.  But which one...?


Image:  York Minster


Well, while conducting my research, I stumbled across another piece online which happened to have the exact same text on it.  But in addition to this text, it had a date! It was an oak two compartment tea caddy in neo-Gothic style.  Inside the caddy were two lidded compartments.  


Image:  the tea caddy with similar text to my find


The under side of the caddy was covered in blue paper and was inscribed: "A Relic of York Minster From the Nettleship 4 Blake St York 20th May 1840".


Image:  the tea caddy with similar text to my find


York Minster was burnt down on 20th May 1840 (the same date as that on the caddy), when a clockmaker from Leeds, William Grove, had been carrying out repairs in the South West Tower.  When he had finished for the night he had left a lit candle, which caused the fire in the belfry of the South West Tower and the Nave.  The roof and vaulting were destroyed. 


Image:  York Minster fire 1840 


Thankfully shortly before this fire, a record of the boss designs within the vaulting had been made.  Therefore it was possible to return this part of the minster to how it had been before the fire, except for one alteration. – One of these bosses depicts the Virgin Mary feeding baby Jesus.  In the original she breast fed him, however the Victorian sculptors changed this by giving her a feeding bottle (pictured below)!!


Image:  the boss depicting Virgin Mary bottle feeding baby Jesus 


Records show that at the time of this fire, a Joseph Munby (clerk to the magistrates) was at 4 Blake Street (the address on my piece) as "Fire & Life Offices" "Eagle Life".  

In 1877, Joseph Munby is recorded as contributing half of £1,500 to the church in Osbaldwick, about two miles East of York, where the pulpit was a piece of ancient oak work, formerly of York Minster.


Image:  my York Minster relic find 


Certainly, when you compare the text on both my piece and the tea caddy, it almost definitely matches.  Whilst my find doesn't have a date on it, I think it's safe to say that it's from the same period as the tea caddy and was almost certainly rescued from the great fire at York Minster on 20th May 1840.


Image:  my York Minster relic find


Inevitably, as happens most times, I got lost in my web of research.  I ended up looking into the Munby family too.  Remember, Joseph Munby was recorded as being the clerk to the magistrates at 4 Blake Street in 1840.  

Well, interestingly, I discovered that the Munby family were well known as one of the oldest names in the field of law in York - they ran the long-established firm of Munby and Scott in York.  In 1838, the firm moved to 18 Blake Street, where it remained until 2007 when the building was sold and the firm merged with Langleys.


Image:  York walls 


The family had considerable social impact - they had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances and carried out a considerable amount of philanthropic work - Frederick Munby supported the missionary activities of Rev. Frederick Lawrence, was a leading member of the Gentlemen's Committee, and handled legal matters for the York Penitentiary Society. He was also a leading member in the management of the York Refuge for Fallen Women, and the firm of Munby and Scott handled many of the records of the Refuge.  The family was also involved with the Wilberforce Home for the Blind, later the Wilberforce Trust. 


 Image:  York Minster

Our clerk to the magistrates in 1840, Joseph Munby (b.1804), followed in his father's footsteps as a solicitor as did his own sons Frederick James and John Forth Munby.

And, this is where it takes a rather fascinatig twist...


Image:  Arthur Munby 


Arthur Munby (pictured above), the Father of Joseph, was a minor Victorian poet, civil servant, and diarist.  He had a somewhat unusual relationship with Hannah Culwell (pictured below), a maid-of-all-work, who kept her own diaries from 1854 - 1873.


Image:  Hannah Cullwick


Arthur Munby’s relationship with Hannah Cullwick revolved around redefining the established sexual and social norms of Victorian Britain.  Their relationship also pushed the social boundaries surrounding race and empire by engaging via Cullwick’s racial crossdressing.  The transgressions of sexuality in the public and private spheres, and the intermingling of different socio-economic classes, offered Munby and Cullwick the chance to exercise agency and control over the rigid norms of Victorian society.


Image:  Hannah Cullwick


Cullwick wrote letters almost daily to Munby, describing her long hours of work in great detail. She would arrange to visit him "in [her] dirt", showing the results of full day's cleaning and other domestic work.  Cullwick had a particular interest in boots, cleaning hundreds each year, sometimes by licking them.  She once told Munby that she could tell where he had been by how his boots tasted.


Image:  Hannah Cullwick's diaries


Cullwick's diaries reveal that her erotic games with Munby often included infantilism and ageplay, with Cullwick carrying Munby in her arms and holding him on her lap.  In a time when women suffered from vapors and breeding was valued more than integrity, Hannah Cullwick laid her own path.  Her diaries reveal a life of a Victorian fetishist and "Maid-of-all-work".  They trace a life of unabashed deviance.


Image:  my York Minster relic find 


Anyway, that went off on a bit of a tangent.  Back to the York Minster relic.  You'll be pleased to hear that this piece will be available to purchase very soon.  In the meantime, please do get in touch if you are interested.


Image:  my York Minster relic find 


Well, that's it for this week folks.  I hope you've enjoyed this little insight into my York Minster find, the great fire of 1840 and, on a side note, the fascinating life of Arthur Munby and Hannah Cullwick...  As always, let me know what you think in the comments section below.



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So, until next week, stay safe, keep buying those antiques and keep spreading that Source Vintage love!

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  • MIke on

    Hello! I have another book caddie nearly identical. Did you end up selling it?
    Thanks so much much for any help/info!


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