A beetle’s eye view

A beetle’s eye view

A black and white photograph showing dark wooden beams forming a triangular shape, braced against a stone wall. The end of one beam (labelled 'B' in chalk) is badly decayed, leaving a gap between it and the wall which has been filled with smaller pieces of timber.
A decayed tie-beam in the Quire before its removal [SGC PH ROB.92.1]
From 1 April 2022 to 31 March 2023, a display of photographs and documents from the Archives will be open to the public in the south quire aisle of St George’s Chapel. This exhibition showcases the extraordinary 1920s restoration programme, a decade-long effort undertaken a century ago to save the fabric of St George’s Chapel.

The 1920s restoration of St George’s Chapel aimed to stabilise and preserve the building for the future. The reports of the consulting architect, Sir Harold Brakspear, were mainly occupied with the crumbling stonework and the condition of the stone, iron and glass in the Chapel, but there is enough wood in the Chapel for woodworm to also be a significant threat. This was particularly a problem for the roof; the massive tie-beams, linking one side of the roof with the other, form a vital part of the structure.

Despite Brakspear’s lack of mention of the timber in his early reports, Sir George Gilbert Scott’s report of 1921 makes specific mention of the decay in the roof, which ‘has produced a very dangerous state of affairs’. Some of the beams needed extra supports along their length, but others needed to be entirely renewed.

In 1922 work started on repairing the rafters and the ends of the beams, and soon the beams were also being treated for woodworm. The name ‘woodworm’ covers several different beetles; it is the larvae that eat wood, particularly old oak. The larvae of the death-watch beetle can live for up to ten years, and they are extremely difficult to eradicate. The 1926 report concluded ‘the death-watch beetle has been found in most of the original beams; the portions affected have had the rotten parts removed and the remainder has been dressed with a preservative solution’.

Although some of the beams only had their ends replaced, where there was very little sound wood left, the beams needed to be completely replaced. This introduced another difficulty: modern oak beams were too small. Occasionally, the timber supplier managed to find a suitable tree, which could produce a beam 41ft long (12.5m) by 2ft wide (0.6m) and 15 inches thick (0.4m), but at other times Brakspear had to investigate piecing two smaller beams together.

The ‘preservative solution’ used in 1926 was probably Professor Church’s formula. It was made of one ounce of a corrosive substance to 25 ounces of 60% spirits of wine or methylated spirits, and unsurprisingly, was described as ‘exceedingly poisonous’. It was so corrosive that it could not come into contact with metal and had to be applied using glass syringes and brushes.

However, it was perhaps not completely satisfactory, as a new product from the British Oil Produce Company was tried in May 1925. It was dismissed in June, when the Chapter Surveyor wrote that he had been told that the proprietor, Mr Lefroy, was ‘something of a charlatan – a great boomster, who is out for publicity, and all that kind of thing’. They reverted instead to Professor Church’s formula.

Preserving the wood of the Chapel was just one part of the restoration of the Chapel throughout the 1920s. To learn more about the restoration in the 1920s and Brakspear’s efforts to save the Chapel, visit the south quire aisle exhibition. Windsor Castle opening hours and admission fees apply.

Anne Courtney, Assistant Archivist

The Queen's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.