Nazi bombs, secret hiding places and an 80-year riddle finally solved - the incredible story of how valuable stained glass lost from a Sheffield church was finally found decades later
It sounds like a storyline straight out of an Indiana Jones movie - but a decades long mystery involving Nazi bombs, secret cavernous hiding places and valuable missing stained glass from a city church can finally be unravelled today.
As the country became engulfed in the conflict of the Second World War a decision was taken to take down the stained glass windows at St Mary's Church in Bramall Lane and hide them underground to protect them from Nazi bombs.
But just a year later the church was damaged in the Sheffield Blitz and the records detailing the secret hiding place containing the valuable glass became lost.
However, the glass has now been found and sold at auction last year with the windows now with their new owner in Buckinghamshire.
Colin Mantripp, who owns a wood carving studio, bought what he thought was a box of fragments of stained glass which he could use in his bespoke designs.
He said: "I didn't go to the auction and just put a bid in. I think I only put in £300 and so I was completely surprised when it wasn't a small box of glass I went to pick up but an 8 foot by 3 foot wooden box full of 13 beautiful stained glass panels."Colin said he did not know where the seller got the glass from but noticed the outside of the box had St Mary's scrawled on the side.
After some research on the internet he found the story of St Mary's missing glass and realised he had the missing windows.
He said: "Although I bought them I wanted to let the church know I had them and made contact with them and offered to gift all the windows back to St Mary's if they were in a position to put them back in the church where they belong."
The church has kindly declined the offer and Reverend Claire Dawson said: "The windows are an important part of the church's history which dates back to 1830 and as nice as it would be to see them so much has changed for the church for the better that it wouldn't be practical to have them back."
In 1939, the great 20-by-12-foot neo-Gothic east window which shone down over the altar of St Mary’s, was removed to avoid bomb damage, and stored with other stained glass from the church hundreds of feet below ground.
As the location had been lost rumours vary as to the where the glass was hidden with some saying it was buried in a South Yorkshire coalfield, others claimed it was down a Peak District cavern while some believed the glass was buried in a North Wales mine.
After the church was devastated during the Sheffield Blitz it took almost 20 years before restoration work could begin and with the windows lost the church had clear glass instead.
The restoration in the 1950s involved a then-revolutionary scheme, in which its huge nave, originally designed for 2000 worshippers, was cut in two to create a community centre and a smaller church. It was successful, and in the 1990s it underwent a £3-million modernisation.
Today, the church, which is next to Sheffield United’s football ground, has a congregation of about 60. The community centre has been converted into a conference venue, where up to 1000 people attend meetings each week.
Rev Dawson said: "We are so much more than we were in 1939 we wouldn't be able to display them anymore as windows as we have a beautiful new window which was installed above the altar and is a celebration of the journey from the church's beginning to the present day."
In 2009 the glass was replaced and by a new £80,000 a modern abstract design window which was funded by the Arts Council and created by Helen Whittaker.
Colin added: "I understand why the church can't have them back as it has evolved and changed over time but people are still going to the church so the building has a continued purpose which is great. I'd hate to see it fall to ruin if it wasn't being used at all.
"One of the windows is very broken so it's perfect for my line of work but I'm not sure what to do with all the other windows. As they were commissioned for a church it would be nice to try and get them back into a church but I don’t know how that would work."