Brief history of St Martin

Brief History of St Martin Coney Street 

St Martin stands at the northern end of Coney Street within York’s central core conservation area. Coney Street is now one of the principal pedestrianised streets in the heart of York city. In the past St Martin was a prominent parish church within the city but today most who pass by know it best for its huge public clock positioned on a bracket above the street. St Martin was one of the more prominent and substantial of the medieval parish churches in the city such that it is still referred to colloquially by some as St Martin-le-Grand.                                                                                                        

St Martin church is listed Grade II*. It dates from the 12th century but was developed and rebuilt over successive centuries ultimately comprising a nave with clerestories, south and north aisles, an early 15th century tower and a south porch added in restorations carried out in the mid-19th century. The church is surrounded by other buildings in a manner typical of medieval city density. To the south and west there is a flagged area which is the remnant of the closed churchyard. The church was bombed in April 1942. Much was destroyed by the resulting fire. Post-war it was left a ruin and worship transferred to St Helen Stonegate.

The church was extensively remodelled and rebuilt between 1961 and 1968 to the designs of George Gaze Pace. It now comprises the south west tower, the south porch, a nave fashioned from the former south aisle, a short north transept and narrow north aisle. The rest of the site, including all of the original north aisle and the majority of the nave was transformed into an enclosed courtyard garden all to Pace’s design. 

St Martin was merged in 1910 with nearby St Helen Stonegate. In 1954 St Martin was reduced to Chapel of Ease status.

THE CHURCH

The square tower comprises 3 stages topped with a gilded iron weather vane. The tower is perhaps the only part of St Martin that is visible from any distance amongst the cluttered roofscape of central York. It can be appreciated from Lendal Bridge and the opposite river bank walk.

The belfry contains a full peal of 8 bells which are rung regularly. Additionally, the bells sound the hours for the Coney Street clock and, since 2012, specially composed quarter chimes. Bell ropes pass through the bell chamber as manual ringing is undertaken from positions around the font.

 St Martin is said to be the largest complete church restoration project undertaken by George Pace. His style is instantly recognisable through the use of common themes. Limed oak has been used throughout for the pews and other church furniture produced for the restoration. It is used for all internal doors, fitted storage, stairwell and internal meeting room dividing wall. All metal furniture is in black iron to a vertical pattern with battlement decoration as demonstrated by the St Martin window screen, the external courtyard railings, the sanctuary light and communion rail. The courtyard is believed to be the only surviving example of this type of George Pace design work and the new vestry with meeting room overhead is wholly attributable to him. The restored church is a clever incorporation of surviving elements within his wholly new design. The resulting St Martin is “of a piece”. 

The floor of the nave comprises modern flagstone paving dating from the rebuild except that there is dark woodblock where the pews are provided. All dates from the 1960s rebuild. Above there is a roof of reused oak beams with gilded medieval bosses. The rafters are decorated in bright colours evoking the pre-Reformation traditions of colourful inspirational decor. This inspired scheme dates from the restoration and was designed of course by Pace.

On entry the visitor is confronted with the St Martin window. This magnificent 15th century window was originally the great West window of St Martin. It had been taken down in 1940 for safe keeping and so survived the destruction. It was given in 1437 by Robert Semer, vicar of St Martin 1425-43. Pace designed the reconstructed north transept to display these 5 light perpendicular masterpieces in its full glory.

The South Wall of the nave survived the air-raid. The windows contain medieval glass decoration with some modern consolidation, notably the blue borders, undertaken as part of the restoration. The North wall is part of the modern reconstruction. Along its length are placed various monuments salvaged from the ruined church. The East end adornments are modern.  Above the altar is the Reredos on the theme of the Last Supper, a piece by Frank Roper dated to 1968. The East window is a 1965 work by Harry Stammers and depicts this church engulfed in the 1942 flames.  Beneath the tower at the west end stands the font which is medieval but of uncertain age. The striking font cover was gifted to the church in 1717. Beside is the organ, built in 1967 and a gift from the people of Germany. It is in full working order and regularly played.   The West window is a modern replacement installed in the restoration.

The enclosed courtyard garden occupies the site of the destroyed greater part of this church. This dates from the Pace restoration and is intended as a reflective space dedicated to remembrance and to the maintenance of peace. The courtyard is kept closed except on special occasions but is visible from Coney Street.

On the external east wall hangs the St Martin public clock. Long a feature of Coney Street there has been a clock here since at least 1668. It was replaced in 1856 and the scrolled and gilded bracket dates from then. The clock mechanism was restored by Geo Newey & Son in 1966 and remains faithful to the 1856 design. The clock drive is taken along the top of the nave roof in a duct. The clock is wound by hand weekly, the weights concealed in a wooden box section that drops to the nave floor.

The figure on top of the clock drum above Coney Street dates from 1778. Clearly a naval officer and known locally as the “Little Admiral” no- one knows who he is supposed to be nor who carved him nor who caused him to take up post there. The clock face, bracket and the “Little Admiral” were restored during 2012. Originally, he rotated to follow the sun. By virtue of electronic programming this feature has been reinstated and he now also revolves when the hour strikes. The introduction of quarter chimes was undertaken as part of this upgrade.

In summary the significance of St Martin may be considered from two perspectives. The first embraces the surviving elements of the bombed church which have been carefully incorporated into the reconstructed church which emerged in phoenix fashion. The second is the totality of the reconstruction design by George Pace.