St Martin's was largely destroyed by fire during an air raid on 29 April 1942
York received its heaviest bombing raid in the early hours of 29 April 1942. It was one of a series of raids which included the historic towns of Exeter, Bath and Norwich and which became known as the Baedeker Raids mounted in retaliation for the bombing of the Hanseatic League towns of Lübeck and Rostock. Bombs fell over a large area of the city, including the railway station, but one bomb load of high explosive and incendiary bombs fell in a line destroying part of New Street, the Leopard Arcade in Coney Street, St Martin's and the dairy next door, and the Guildhall. There are contemporary reports on the damage and map online. In all, 106 people were killed on the ground and six German aircrew. This page contains one person's memories of the event.
It is likely that an incendiary bomb came through the 19th century east window and lodged in the organ which occupied a bay in the north aisle. In other circumstances it might have burnt out causing relatively little damage, but the organ would have ignited easily and the fire crews were overstretched, so that over the coming hours the fire spread and much of the interior burnt out with the exception of the south aisle which escaped almost undamaged. If you look today at the piers (columns) in the present church the contrast between the intact original stonework and the fire damage on the other side is easily recognisable. It was impossible to save the church despite heroic attempts, and the story is told of the verger rushing in and saving the marriage register set out for a wedding that day. Fortunately the glass in the great St Martin window which occupied the west end of the nave had already been removed in 1940 for safety, but much was lost including the medieval glass of the clerestory and 1856 clock movement in the tower by Thomas Cooke, and the eight bells of 1719 came crashing down after the frame burnt through.
In the hours and days following the raid efforts were made to get church life back to normal. Legal arrangements were made to enable the wedding booked that day to take place in St Helen's, which became the parish church, and regular services removed for a time to St Michael Spurriergate. Outwardly the shell of the church appeared largely intact, and hopes of returning it to its former glory were strong amongst members of the congregation. Practical realities were against them however. Limestone burns, and there were real fears that the badly damaged north arcade would collapse endangering passers by on Coney Street. Normally, this would have been supported temporarily by timber, but labour and materials were in very short supply, and priority had to be given to repair of the many damaged houses. Despite strong representations from the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings the difficult decision was taken to remove the north clerestory, though sufficient man-hours were approved to make it possible to dismantle it carefully with a prospect of later repair.
Even in 1942, there were strong voices against rushing into commitments to restore the old church. Despite the closure of a number of churches over preceding decades, York still had a high concentration in the city centre and relatively few in the newer suburbs. That was something that successive archbishops had struggled with, and the strength of passions on this was very evident in a furious row shortly after the raid between the vicar Canon Bell, naturally anxious to win a clear commitment to rebuild, and the diocesan registrar who felt that no such undertakings should be given until after the war. There were similar tensions also within the city council, where some officers and councillors were clearly keen that the city should modernise to adapt to the motor car and new retail methods, and so mindful of the possibility of further and possibly more extensive damage in further raids or improvements based on a new and modern street layout. St Martin's thus became the touchstone for a debate that was to rumble on in the city particularly for the next three decades. The city council was persuaded to pass a purely symbolic resolution supporting rebuilding, and the Dean of York, Canon Milner-White, published a booklet on why St Martin's should be restored and went on to become one of the founders of the York Civic Trust.
Given that initial passion, it is perhaps surprising that the ruins at St Martin's quickly slipped to the back of people's minds. The truth was that the flourishing former St Martin congregation quickly adapted to a new life at St Helen's or elsewhere whilst Canon Bell declined into old age, and within the wider church the prospect of founding new churches outside the centre seemed eminently sensible. Financially, the ideal would have been for the diocese to claim the cost of the damage from the government's War Damage Compensation Fund and at the same time sell off the valuable site for commercial redevelopment. That turned out not to be possible because the fund would pay only for repair, whilst there was disquiet at the idea of selling off consecrated land especially as there were burials both within the church and in the closed churchyard on the south side.
It was left to the archbishop and archdeacon, together with one of the churchwardens, to decide what should be done with the ruins. A small working party in 1950-51 came up with the proposal, endorsed by the archbishop, to enclose the ruined south aisle and restore it as a memorial chapel, and to open up the space occupied by the former nave and north aisle as a garden of rest, all paid for by the War Damage Compensation Fund.
That modest, and in hindsight probably ultimately unsuccessful, project might well have be carried out had it not been for the archbishop's inspired proposal of George Pace as architect. Canon Bell and the PCC would have preferred to go to an older established London practice, and ultimately the choice was theirs, but George Pace was based in York and already gaining a reputation as architect of a number of important church commissions in particular Llandaff Cathedral in Cardiff, itself badly damaged in a bombing raid in 1941. The St Martin brief grew with the parish's request for a meeting room, created as an upper room of a new extension at the west end of the old church, and the need to house the St Martin window which George Pace inspiringly placed at ground level in a new transept facing the entrance. Lastly, he realised that if the old aisle was to be of practical use as a chapel it would have to be wider.
By 1957 the plans for the new church were complete. Another eleven years were to pass before the new building was ready, largely due to a protracted dispute with the War Damage Commission over whether such an elaborate scheme should appropriately be funded by them. Ultimately, George Pace probably won because the cost of restoring the old building to its previous state would have been even more. Not all was paid for by the British taxpayer. The damaged bells were stolen around 1960 and so replacement was clearly not covered, and their absence in turn meant that constructing a mechanism in the clock to drive the quarter chimes could not be justified. The organ was paid for by the German church and federal government, and the Civic Trust assisted with the churchyard and other work. What emerged was one of the outstanding pieces of church restoration of its period.