YORK Minster in peril, screamed the headline in the Yorkshire Evening Press on April 7, 1967, adding: “Central tower could fall after 15 years”.

The story that followed was truly shocking.

“York Minster, the largest Gothic building in England, is on the move,” wrote reporter John Richardson. “The 197ft Central Tower has been given only a 15-year life – unless the foundations are improved.”

It sounds like classic media hype – but the threat to the Minster was very real.

A two-year study of the cathedral’s stonework led by the Minster’s surveyor of the fabric, Bernard Feilden, had discovered terrifying evidence of just how fragile the great building was.

The Central Tower, which weighs about 25,000 tons, was slowly sinking under its own weight, twisting and cracking as it did so and putting huge strains on the rest of the building.

York Press:

April 7, 1967: Bernard Feilden examining cracks near the base of York Minster's central tower

“Large cracks have been discovered in the two western towers, and the East End is leaning outwards,” wrote Mr Richardson in that day’s Evening Press. “It is 2ft 11in out of plumb.”

Other problems identified included distortion of walls and arches, rotting foundations and holes in what were thought to be solid pillars.

So bad was the subsidence that even a mild earth tremor could bring the tower down, the newspaper reported.

The revelations were contained in a report for the Dean and Chapter prepared by Mr Feilden. He described the threat in graphic terms.

“Judging from the movements of the last 30 years, the probable life of the Central Tower structure is another 15 years if nothing is done,” he warned. “If a shock such as a mild earth tremor or piling of nearby foundations were received, the structure might easily collapse.”

York Press:

A 30-foot crack in the central tower's south west corner, seen from a scaffold 120 feet up

According to Vicky Harrison, the Minster’s present-day head of collections, the problems were caused largely by the cathedral’s poor foundations.

The Norman cathedral had been built on the remains of the old Roman principia – the main building of the Roman fortress. The later Gothic cathedral – the Minster we know today – was then built on the foundations of the earlier Norman cathedral. But the Gothic cathedral was much heavier, and those foundations weren’t really up to the job, she says.

To add to the problems, the huge Central Tower was unbalanced. The tower’s south-west tier was resting on the remains of the old Roman principia. But the rest of the huge tower was essentially standing on nothing but mud – and was moving. “The building was coming apart around the tower,” Ms Harrison says.

The Minster authorities knew that the foundations needed to be shored up – and quickly.

York Press:

Streel buttresses used to shore up the Minster's East Front

And in a press conference held at the Guildhall on April 7, the Earl of Scarborough – the Minster’s High Steward – launched a £2 million appeal to save the building.

The idea was to excavate a large hole beneath the cathedral, pump it full of concrete, then drive steel rods down through it to underpin the whole building.

“You’d have the Norman rubble, the Norman core, then the Gothic medieval foundation, then concrete, then the rods that would tie them all together,” Ms Harrison says.

York Press:

Restoration in progress: workmen with a core drilled from beneath the floor of York Minster in June 1967

Two million pounds was a huge amount of money in 1967. But within little more than a month, the appeal had already passed £500,000, thanks to large donations from organisations such as the West Riding and North Riding county councils, The Pilgrim Trust and Sheffield City Council.

Work was able to begin almost at once, even though it took another five years to reach the £2million target.

In the event, the battle to save the Minster proved to be an engineering triumph, says Ms Harrison.

The work took five years. “But it was completely successful,” she says. “The movement stopped. It was an engineering masterpiece, and engineers still come today to marvel at it.”

York Press:

June 5, 1967: drilling operations to reach the Minster's foundations

Saving the Minster was clearly the priority. But given the hugely important nature of the site, the work offered another opportunity too – for some archaeology.

Archaeologists worked alongside engineers, probing deep beneath the Minster’s floor. “Often the archaeologists were excavating at night, and the engineers came in during the day,” Ms Harrison says.

The archaeologists never found the remains of the original Anglo-Saxon cathedral, which they’d hoped to discover. But there were plenty of other finds, including the remains of the Roman column that now stands outside the Minster’s South Transept.

York Press:

July 4, 1967: Sandbags were used  to fill excavation trenches dug by archaeologists to prevent further weakening of the Minster's foundations

The engineering work also led directly to a decision to create the Minster’s Undercroft.

This was intended to be a “basement” museum for Minster relics, according to the Yorkshire Evening Press of September 12, 1968.

It had been discovered that to completely fill the excavations beneath the Minster would be as costly as to turn part of them into an Undercroft, the newspaper reported.

The Undercroft would consist of a sequence of 12-foot high rooms, the exact pattern of them determined by the stainless steel rods which would reinforce the foundations, the newspaper said.

Exhibits would include carved Saxon stones, the Horn of Ulf, the stone coffin of St William of York and the insignia of Archbishop Walter de Grey.

York Press:

February 1971: The plastic moulds used to form poured concrete into the attractive coffered ceiling of the new undercroft

The Undercoft is still there today, of course – it recently played host to the Revealing York Minster exhibition. And 50 years on from the appeal to raise £2m to save the Minster, the York Minster Fund, as it is called these days, is still going strong.

Over the years it has continued to fund the conservation, restoration and development of the Minster, raising £1m a year on average.

Recent projects have included the five-year, £20m, Heritage Lottery Fund-supported York Minster Revealed project to restore the Great East Window.

The Fund is now raising money to restore the South Quire Aisle, which is expected to cost £11m over the next 11 years.

The Duke of York’s visit to the Minster yesterday afternoon was in part to join in the 50th birthday celebrations of the York Minster Fund.

While he was there, he will no doubt have paused to reflect on how lucky we are that the Minster is still standing today.

Without the original appeal, and the emergency engineering works it made possible, the Minster as we know it may not have been here today, Ms Harrison says. A sobering thought.