Parishioners saved a church from devastating fire damage after a ceiling-high curtain went up in flames.

The priest of St Stephen's Church in Warwick Road, Thornton Heath, as well as church wardens and congregation members, held the blaze at bay for 15 minutes until fire crews arrived to extinguish it.

Fire officers praised the actions of Reverend Geoffrey Thompson and five others who reached for extinguishers to prevent flames spreading onto the wooden roof of the 300ft-long church.

The fire started after a memorial candle brought to the church by a worshipper ignited the curtain, which then fell onto pews, on the morning of Saturday, December 29.

Revd Thompson said: "It was pretty spectacular. The candle caught the curtain in the Lady chapel and it was quite old so it spread through the material quickly.

"We all started to swing into action. It was all over in about 15 minutes. By the time the fire brigade got here it was all but out, but it could have been nasty if it had happened when we were not here.

"We have a wooden roof which would have burned very quickly - that would have been the worst thing about it. It doesn't bear thinking about what the damage could have been."

Two fire crews from Norbury station and one from Croydon attended the church after 11.30am and tackled the remains of the fire with ladders, hoses and breathing apparatus.

Shawn Howlett, watch manager at Norbury, praised the church's staff for battling the flames and preventing a more serious incident.

He said: "It was lucky that there were staff to help keep the fire at bay until we got there because it is a really big building and I have no doubt that the whole lot would have gone up in no time."

"But the staff deal with it very well and damage was kept to a minimum."

The church was evacuated as a precaution but no one required medical treatment.

The curtain was destroyed in the fire, while some sacrificial timber was damaged and two pews suffered light burns.