SELBY today is a Yorkshire working town with a stunning abbey at its heart. It also has a fascinating history – King Henry I, who was the fourth son of William the Conqueror and who went on to become one of the most effective kings of early Norman England, was born here for a start, in 1069.
According to local historian Paul Chrystal, in his new book Selby & Goole Through Time, it is the abbey which tends to define Selby physically and spiritually. But it is the River Ouse and its bridges which have been pivotal in the commercial development of the town, leading to it becoming a busy port and shipbuilding centre. The vessel which was to become Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior was built in Selby, Paul notes.
His book tells the story of Selby through a rich selection of photographs, both old and new. There are, as you’d expect, plenty of images of the abbey – which, Paul notes, has had an eventful history in itself, surviving the Dissolution of the Monasteries, a collapsing tower, and two destructive fires.
The abbey rises in the background of two photographs of Gowthorpe – one taken in 1903, the other more than half a century later in 1960, by which time the street is already dominated by round-shouldered cars. The abbey is there again in a photograph of the busy Market Place.
In 1906, the abbey was badly damaged by fire.
“The fire started in the Lathom Chapel, where a new organ was being installed,” Paul writes.
“Fire units from Selby, Leeds and York (arriving by train) were unable to prevent the destruction of the roof and much of the interior. The Selby firemen were hampered by the fact that the water supply, which was switched off overnight, had to be reconnected. All to no avail, as the abbey was well alight, the tower included, from which the bells clanged to the ground.”
One extraordinary photograph in Paul’s book shows those bells, at least one of them clearly damaged by the fire and the fall.
Other photographs in the book illustrate Selby’s importance as a commercial, shipping and market town. One shows the toll bridge itself; another, the steam tug Lancelot heading towards the bridge.
The tug was built for the York Corporation in 1905 for £3,175, Paul notes. And as for tolls: these “were permitted after the Selby Bridge Act was passed in 1791: coaches paid 3s; cows 1d (paid by the cow herds) and pedestrians 2d.”
There is a photograph of Brownies at Selby’s Market Cross, taken on St George’s Day, 1961 – we wonder if any readers recognise themselves here?
But perhaps one of the most poignant photographs in the book dates from August, 1914.
It shows troops recruited in and around Selby marching through the Market Place before heading for the front. How many of the young men pictured here survived the war, we wonder?
• Selby & Goole Through Time by Paul Chrystal is published by Amberley, priced £14.99