Listen to the Audio Guide and discover:
- How the Abbey's woodwork was rescued from being eaten away by Death Watch beetles
- What it was like to be part of the 3-man team who worked on the Abbey's timber frame and restored the Abbey’s woodwork from 1947 to 1951
- What a challenge it was to be tasked with making a new carving the Abbey's West door in 1947 (The door itself dates back to 1617!)
An infestation of Death Watch beetles
By 1939, an infestation of Death Watch beetles had caused the Abbey’s roof timbers to decay dangerously.
Mowbray Green (a leading architect in Bath) wrote to the Archdeacon, William Selwyn, on the 26th of September 1939, saying:
“To prevent further action by the Death Watch Beetle, it will be necessary to hack off the decayed portion of the oak timbers in the Chancel roof and to clean them with a vacuum brush and spray them with creosote … All this work is essential for safety and the fact that any future work may be considerably delayed is a greater reason for making the roof safe at the present time.”
The roof timbers above the North Aisle and the North Transept were repaired, cleaned, and treated between 1939-1940. However, as Mowbray Green suggested, the Second World War delayed any further work to the Abbey’s roof timbers until 1947.
Roof timbers suffer from decay and dry rot
Death watch - and now furniture beetles were causing further decay and dry rot had began to affect the Abbey's roof timbers. In 1947, local building firm Haywood and Wooster employed three men – Victor Helps and father-and-son team George and Norman Halse – to remove the decayed wood, replace it with new timber, and treat it with tar distillate (a substance similar to creosote). During the post-war restoration, 550 gallons of beetle insecticide were used.
Repairing the Abbey's timbers 1947-1951
Victor, George and Norman began their work on the timbers above the South Aisle Nave and moved on to those in the Tower and South Transept.
The beetles were active in the timbers in the tower, the bell frames, and the floor of the ringing chamber, as well as wooden steps of the staircases. The Haywood and Wooster team made this woodwork safe. Where it was not possible to chop out the floor boards, they soaked them with the Tar Distillate. Rather than replace the wooden treads of the steps with oak they were renewed with concrete, as were the landings. The cost of repairing the stairs to the ringing chamber and Tower alone was £400 in 1949 (that’s worth about £9,000 today). If you take a Tower Tour, spare a thought for the team and look out for evidence of their work as you climb the steps!
The work to the Tower roofs was completed by the 26th of October 1949 and the team moved on to work on the timbers above the South Transept. During their work there they found that the fan vaulting against the Tower had been badly shaken (possibly as an effect of the bombing of Bath in 1942) so much so that some of the stone panels between the ribs rocked. The Haywood and Wooster team carefully pinned the stones with slate in cement and grouted the open joints. Nearly 40 tons of builders’ debris and organic debris from birds and bats was removed from the roof spaces.
Father-and-son team, George and Norman Halse
Work on the Abbey’s roof timbers continued into 1951 and in 1950 Norman and George Halse were given special praise by Professor Kearns of Bristol University, the man responsible for examining the roofs and advising on the chemicals with which to treat the timbers. In letters on the 16th of February 1950 he wrote:
“Mr George Halse and his son’s great skill and outstanding care have made a lasting contribution to the preservation of one of the most beautiful abbeys.
“I hope the Parochial Church Council appreciate the skill and interest put into the work by Hayward and Wooster and the outstanding skill of George Halse. I know that George loves the abbey and I do so hope an appropriate entry is made in the Abbey Records of the skill of a class of craftsmen that is now so rare…”
In 1948, the combined cost of repairing the damage to the roof timbers, windows, and organ was put at £10,000 (worth about a quarter of a million pounds today!).
The West door
One piece of wood carving that was completed in 1947 that you can see today is on the big wooden front door of the Abbey. This door is called the West Front door and was given to the Abbey in 1617 by Sir Henry Montagu, the Lord Chief Justice, in memory of his brothers Bishop James Montagu and Sir Walter Montagu. The door is decorated with three shields displaying the coats of arms of the three Montagu brothers. In 1947, the lowest coat of arms, in the middle of the door needed to be repaired. The diamond in the middle of the bottom-right quadrant needed to be recarved and replaced and it was a wood carver from Haywood and Wooster who was chosen for the task. His name was Charlie Hatchard and his niece Margaret Davis, recalls coming to see him completing the carving in 1947…
We hope you have enjoyed this audio guide to the post-war restoration of the Abbey’s woodwork. If you would like to explore the roof spaces in which the Haywood and Wooster team worked why not take a Tower Tour?