The York Glaziers Trust is 50 years old today. STEPHEN LEWIS looks back at the Trust's origins - and its half century of preserving the stained glass of York Minster

THE Zeppelin raid of May 1916 rained down death on York. Bombs landed in Upper Price Street, Nunthorpe Avenue, St Saviour's Place and elsewhere. By the time the raid was over, nine people were dead, about 40 injured, and several homes had been completely destroyed. The people of York would never regard the skies with quite the same calm assurance again.

The raid had another effect, however. The Dean and Chapter of York Minster realised the implications - and a scramble began to remove the cathedral's priceless stained glass windows to a place of safety.

They never got around to taking down all the glass, admits Sarah Brown, the director of the York Glaziers Trust: the war had ended before they could so. Only about 22 windows were ever removed, in fact.

But there was an important consequence nonetheless. "They realised that a lot of the glass was in a rather poor state," Sarah admits.

In one sense, therefore, you could perhaps date the origins of the York Glaziers Trust - which officially celebrates its 50th birthday today - to that Zeppelin raid. In 1920, galvanised by the poor state of the priceless ancient glass, the Minster launched a nationwide appeal for its restoration. By the 1930s, much of the glass had been cleaned, then re-leaded in an effort to strengthen it. In an echo of today's Afghanistan Memorial Window, meanwhile, many of the restored windows had been dedicated to those who lost their lives in the First World War.

This wasn't the first time the Minster's famous stained glass had been restored, of course.

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A panel from the Minster's Great East Window. Photo: York Glaziers Trust

When they were working recently on the project to restore the stained glass of the Great East Window - created in a burst of extraordinary artistry over a period of six years by John Thornton in the early 1400s - conservators found the words 'top front' scratched in the centre of God's forehead on the panel that sits right at the very top of the window.

The words had been inscribed there by an unknown restorer in the 1820s who was keen to ensure that the panel was returned to the correct place in the window following restoration.

That restoration had been prompted by the famous York architect John Carr, who in the 1770s had been commissioned to survey the cathedral. He found evidence of structural problems - but it wasn't until the 1820s that the Dean and Chapter got around the removing the stained glass from the Great East Window so the window's stonework could be repaired.

Since the glass had had to be removed anyway, craftsmen took the opportunity to re-lead it - and it is probably a good job that they did. In 1829, arsonist Jonathan Martin deliberately set fire to woodwork in the Minster's choir - causing a fire to rage through the organ and choir. Many people were amazed that the Great East Window managed to survive the fire - and it was probably only the fact that it had been re-leaded a few years before that saved it, Sarah admits.

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The Great East Window. Photo: York Glaziers' Trust

In 1861, just over 30 years after Jonathan Martin's fire, the restorers moved in again - this time giving many of the windows at the Minster a covering of outer glass to protect the ancient stained glass from the effects of wind, rain and smog.

So there has been a long history of attempting to protect and preserve the Minster's glorious glass, some of which is more than 600 years old.

Nevertheless, the state of the glass when it was removed in the First World War clearly gave the Minster authorities a shock. Hence that national appeal.

Once the glass had been cleaned and re-leaded, it wasn't long before it was being removed again - this time for the Second World War.

When Eric Milner-White arrived to become Dean of York in 1941, much of the glass had already gone - put into storage in country houses or, in the case of the glass from the Great East Window, at Thicket Priory in Thorganby.

Dean Milner-White, who had previously been Dean of King's College, Cambridge, had long been interested in stained glass.

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Dean Eric Milner-White

With the war over, he made tracking down and bringing back the Minster's glass a priority. The cathedral already had its own small glazing team - foreman Oswald Lazenby and glazier Herbert Nowland - and with their help, the Dean embarked on a major project of cleaning and restoring the Minster's glass, then replacing it. Between 1945 and 1967 all the windows were restored and reinstalled - the first being the Great East Window, the last the Great West Window.

The Dean wanted to go further, however. Stained glass conservation at the time was seen as a craftsman's job, says Sarah Brown. He wanted to professionalise it, and bring to the job of restoration not only a craftsman's skill, but also an understanding of the glass's history and artistic importance.

He dreamed, in short, of setting up a centre of expertise in York that would become a world leader in the handling and restoration of stained glass.

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The York Glaziers Trust studio in the 1980s

On July 20, 1967, that dream came true, with the formal establishment of the York Glaziers Trust. Peter Gibson, who had begun his career as an apprentice to Oswald Lazenby and Herbert Nowland, was the Trust's first superintendent - a post he held until his retirement in 1995.

Sadly, Dean Milner-White never lived to see the establishment of the York Glaziers Trust. He died of cancer at the Deanery on June 15, 1963, aged 79.

But the Glaziers Trust, now the oldest and largest specialist stained glass conservation studio in Britain, is his enduring legacy.

There won't be much of a fuss made today to celebrate 50 years of the Trust. Instead, there will be Evensong at the Minster, then a quiet dinner for conservators with friends of the Glaziers Trust in the Chapter House. 

Dean Milner-White would no doubt have approved.


In the 50 years since it was formed, the York Glaziers Trust has been constantly repairing and restoring York Minster's stained glass.

Its first job was to oversee the return of the glass of the Great West Window - known as the 'Heart of Yorkshire' - to the cathedral in 1967, following its wartime storage and subsequent restoration.

Probably the Trust's most famous restoration project, however, was the saving of the Rose Window, which was nearly destroyed by a fire in the south transept in July 1984.

During the fire, the window reached temperatures of 450 degrees C, and cracked into about 40,000 pieces. Many people felt it couldn't be saved, says Sarah Brown, the Glaziers Trust's current director.

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Peter Gibson by the Rose Window. Photo: York Glaziers Trus

But Peter Gibson, the Trust's then superintendent, was adamant that it could. He was right. After what was one of the largest conservation and restoration projects of its kind in Europe, the window was back in place by the summer of 1987, just three years after the fire.

Between 1998 and 2007 the Trust worked to conserve the 15th century St William Window, in the cathedral’s Quire, which was the first project to reveal the potential of using modern conservation to rediscover the window’s medieval narrative.

More recently the Trust has worked to conserve and restore the Great East Window, the largest expanse of medieval stained glass in the country, as part of the York Minster Revealed project. The work included installing state-of-the-art UV resistant protective glazing, which was the first time the material had been used in the UK.

Away from York, the Trust has worked on many of Britain's most important windows, including at four Oxford Colleges (Balliol, Lincoln, New College and Trinity) and scores of parish churches throughout England and Wales. And it also has international reach: director Sarah Brown, for example, is on the advisory committee for the restoration of stained glass at Naumburg Cathedral in Germany.

Today, the Trust is an acknowledged world leader in the conservation and restoration of stained glass, just as Dean Milner-White had envisaged.

It has a team of 14 glaziers and conservators, plus a couple of trainees - training the conservators of the future is one of its key priorities. And over the last 15 years or so, the skills and professionalism of the team have developed and broadened enormously, says Sarah Brown.

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Sarah Brown, director of the York Glaziers Trust

In addition to the traditional craft skills of stained glass conservation and restoration, the team has expertise in the history and development of stained glass production, glass painting, metallurgy, metal-work, environmental management - and even data crunching.

A series of monitors sited throughout the Minster monitor humidity and temperature. Glaziers Trust staff can then interpret that data to identify any possible 'vulnerable points' - areas of the Minster where conditions might be placing the glass at risk Sarah says.

Today, there is also a much more planned approach towards conserving the Minster's stained glass than in the past. The glass is inspected every five years. Those inspections are then used to prepare 'forward planning' lists of what will need to be done, when.

That is important, because the Minster has a '100 year scaffolding policy' - a rolling cycle of scaffolding use designed to cover all areas of the Minster over a 100-year period. That means conservators are constantly faced with questions such as 'do we do it now, or can we afford to leave it?', Sarah says. Proper planning, therefore, is vital.

The general philosophy is clear. Past restorations have sometimes themselves caused damage - in Victorian times, for example, some restorers cannibalised glass from one part of a window to fill in gaps elsewhere. Conservation techniques are constantly developing and improving, however, and the York Glaziers Trust is conscious of that. its principle is, in effect, 'first, do no harm'.

"So you do as much as necessary, but as little as possible. It is about making sure that you are safeguarding the glass," she says.


Yorkshire Film Archive has a copy of a film made in 1986 about the work of the York Glaziers Trust. You can see the video here: