Engineer James William Drake of Cowes Fire Brigade passed away on 30 June 1950 aged 50.


James was born in Newport on 21 December 1899. The 1901 census shows that he’s living with his mother Ellen and elder sister of the same name as boarders at the home of Alfred Arnold at 2 Hunnyhill, Newport. Ellen senior is described as a ‘soldier’s wife’ suggesting that his father, James senior, is serving elsewhere.

By 1911 the family were reunited with the former soldier now earning his living as a picture framer to provide for a family including an additional three children at Newport’s 85 Upper St James’s Street.

James William was too young to serve when war broke out but he was soon to join the Isle of Wight Rifles, although he wasn’t deployed to Gallipoli with them, so he opted instead for the Royal Naval Air Service where by 1917 he was with the ‘stone-ship’ (shore based) HMS President II.

Although history cites the formal formation of the Royal Air Force as 1 April 1918, James’s military records evidence that he signed up for the RAF on 29 January 1918, surely making him one of the first members of the fledgling air force. By now his family had moved to 18 Lugley Street, evidenced on the same military form that describes him 5’ 9”, of brown hair and grey eyes, bearing tattoos featuring clasped-hands, heart and sword on right forearm and crossed swords on the other.

He was transferred to the RAF Reserve on 10 December 1919 but in May 1920 his commanding officer had recommended him for a gallantry award for a reason not present in his records; the scrutiny board denied him the medal his CO intended but whatever he did he received a written commendation for it. Following his transfer to the Reserves he returned home and became one of the first drivers of the Southern Vectis Omnibus Company and was later employed by the Newport Gas Company.

When the Second World War broke out he was called up on the reserve and soon mobilised with the Royal Army Service Corps. By Christmas of that year he had been mobilised, crossed to France and was serving with the British Expeditionary Force somewhere in the, so far, unoccupied territories. As history has shown the situation for the BEF was to deteriorate badly and James was among those rescued from the beach of Dunkirk by one of the ‘little ships’.

On his return to Blighty he was demobilised from the armed forces but undeterred he immediately joined Cowes Fire Brigade. Soon after Cowes and East Cowes fire brigades were combined and placed under the command of Chief Officer T.J. Upward formerly of the Central Fire Station, Tottenham. One of Upward’s beliefs was that the district would benefit from the facility of a fire-boat. He negotiated with Mr T.C. Ratsey who freely donated his motor lifeboat the ‘Dignity’ for the duration of the war which was converted at Clare Lallow, renamed ‘Fireflash’ (NFS serial number 270) and equipped with a 30h.p. Kelvin engine and two 500 gallon-per-minute fire pumps that could supply up to eight powerful water jets to be manned by a crew of six waterborne firemen.

The challenge appealed to James William Drake and he was appointed its engineer. The craft and crew first displayed the ability of the craft to a crowded shoreline in July 1941, just one month before the combined Cowes-East Cowes brigade were absorbed like all others in to the National Fire Service.

Whilst I have no evidence to prove that it operated during the infamous Blitz of May 1942, it seems impossible that it wouldn’t have. After the war James was employed at Groves and Guttridge and later by the IW County Agricultural Executive Committee as a motor mechanic.

James died at home 188 Newport Road, Cowes, on 30 June 1950. The well attended funeral was at Carisbrooke Church on the following Tuesday.

Rest in peace Engineer Drake.