Captain John Franklin Baker of Ventnor Fire Brigade died as the result of a bizarre shotgun accident on 31 May 1897 aged 30.
When Ventnor's Captain Frank Rennick passed away unexpectedly in May 1896, the post was quickly filled by Baker who arrived in Ventnor from New Alresford in Hampshire six years before aged 24 and bought into a partnership at John Williams and Co., ironmongery.
John was born in New Alresford in October 1866 the son of Charles and Elizabeth. The Baker family lived at several addresses in the town's Broad Street but predominantly at No. 27 Mitford House. John's father, a successful draper who was fifteen years older than his mother, passed away in 1880 when John was 13. After moving to the Island he married Elizabeth Stubbs in April 1894 and they set up home at 113 High Street, Ventnor, which they shared with their young daughters Marjorie and Phyllis.
He was a driven and energetic young captain who's first controversial move was to recommend the appointment of twelve new firemen. This didn't go down very well and for good reason; and the reason was rooted in the same issues that Baker was keen to eradicate.
For the previous two decades Ventnor Fire Brigade were unique among Island brigade's due to the management structure created by the Local Board. Essentially in all other brigade's the superintendent of the service was the captain and he therefore maintained command of the brigade and its firemen in all respects. Baker's predecessor Frank Rennick, had been plagued throughout his career by the appointment of a superintendent by the Local Board. The management structure represented a dog-leg line of communication. As brigade captain Frank Rennick was in charge of the firemen during drills or at fires but the superintendent, Mr Moses, was in charge in all other respects. This enabled the firemen, if ever they were dissatisfied with the command of the captain, to by-pass his rank and authority and legitimately make complaint to the superintendent who sat at Local Board level. Had the captain made serious failures in command this may have been a worthy practice, however a group of Ventnor's firemen used it for more nefarious self-serving purposes. Frank Rennick's life as brigade captain was made a living hell and a split developed between those willing to abuse the system and those committed to an unquestioning performance of duties under the appointed captain. Superintendent Moses did little to mitigate the effect and when he retired in the early 1890's his replacement Thomas Coleman was a retired fireman greatly favoured by the agitators and Rennick's situation showed no sign of improvement while his health began to fail.
Baker determined to end this division of the brigade by installing twelve good men loyal to himself and despatching those he considered the trouble-makers. He also demanded that the current superintendent, Thomas Coleman, be dismissed and that no replacement be appointed, essentially removing the role of superintendent from the brigade structure allowing him total and unquestioning command in all respects. As Coleman sat on the Local Board he was able to rouse enough of its members to reject Baker's demands, but the irrepressible young captain insisted on being given an opportunity and therefore offered a challenge to Coleman and the firemen he wished to remove.
Against Coleman's wishes the Board's blood was up and they insisted that the superintendent drilled and assembled his three best men to contest for the future of the brigade in a best-of-three drill competition against Baker's three best men. Had Coleman won, Baker would have remained as captain but under the same conditions as his predecessor and in command of the firemen he distrusted in addition to his dozen chosen men being discarded. If Baker won the role of superintendent would be abolished, Coleman dismissed, the agitators removed and Baker's twelve men appointed.
A date was set for the drill-off; the evening of 23 October 1896. The drills were attended by all the councillors and many spectators. Given that Coleman was a time-served veteran of the brigade the Board were confident that his drill team comprising Coleman himself with Charles Groves and G. Collins would return victory and the status quo. Experienced firemen Charles Jenkins and William Pearson sided with and represented Baker but seeing as the young captain was new to firefighting he was considered a weak link and that Coleman's win was guaranteed. District councillor Mr Houston acted as judge.
The County Press correspondent wrote of the drills; There were three competitions in three-men drill, each team doing very smart work. The new brigade beat the old by an average of eight seconds in each competition, and the performance most satisfactorily established the reputation of Ventnor's new Volunteer Fire Brigade.
Among Captain Baker's first acts was the appointment of William Pearson as his deputy and to order the repainting of the sides of Ventnor's manual fire engine with the title Cpt. J.F. Baker. Whilst Thomas Coleman was removed and the role of superintendent abandoned, the veteran wasn't entirely eradicated having been appointed the new fire station caretaker by way of consolation.
Despite these gung-ho brigade beginnings Baker was remarked on as a open-hearted and courteous young townsman.
On 31 May he and a friend decided to spend a day shooting on St Boniface Down and ascended in the thick mist of the early morning. Separating at the top of the hill they intended to meet up at an agreed location. Baker never arrived as planned and a short while later a local teenager stumbled across his body. Evidently as he'd attempted to scale a gate he'd slipped, sheared his ankle as his foot became entrapped in the bars, and in the fall his own shotgun blew a hole through his abdomen. For a while evidence from a person in the locality that referred to a third gun-wielding individual stalking about in the poor visibility raised suspicion but the Police were quick to rule out foul play.
The captain's arrival at Ventnor Fire Brigade was as explosive as his sudden tragic death barely twelve months later. Baker's remains were conveyed back to his family's mainland home and laid to rest in the family plot at New Alresford's St John the Baptist Church cemetery.
Rest in peace Captain Baker.