First Engineer Ernest Hayles of Newport Fire Brigade passed away very suddenly at home on 2 September 1906 aged 57.
Ernest was born in Crocker Street, Newport on 1 July 1845, the son of George (a brewer) and Louisa who later relocated to 45 Sea Street. He married Mary Abberley in Beddington-and-Wallington, Surrey on 3 October 1867 and for a time served as a fireman with the Brighton Fire Brigade.
By the time of the 1871 census he had returned to the Island with his wife as publicans of the Partlands Hotel, Swanmore Road, Ryde. Ten years later they were in Newport at 4 Holyrood Street where Ernest earned a living as a clerk. Ten years later they were still in Newport and by then running their own shop.
In 1893, following the debacle that ensured Newport's firemen effectively sacked themselves by having their bluff called over a pay claim, the entire brigade was remodelled and hastily recruited on voluntary lines. Having previous experience in Brighton Ernest was among those recruited and appointed to the role of voluntary Second Engineer. Additionally he was employed as fire station caretaker responsible for general cleanliness and maintenance of the facilities, engines and equipment for £25 per annum. Within the first twelve months it wasn't uncommon for Ernest to take charge in drills, suggesting the superiority of his fire service knowledge in comparison to the hastily appointed novice Captain Percy Shepard.
By April 1894 he was elevated to First Engineer. His understudy as Second Engineer was Joseph James Billows who around a decade later was to become Chief Officer of Cowes Fire Brigade. In June 1895 a drill competition was held in Brighton and Ernest jumped at the chance to show off his new service to his former colleagues. It was reported that whilst they won no prizes they ran their mainland rivals close.
Although Ernest maintained a high level of capability he was unfortunate to never have been on a winning team within an IWFBF drill competition. He was however a fearless fireman. Normally an engineer remained at the water supply end of a firefighting operation but in November 1895 he was reported in the Press for cracking several ribs after being thrown from the roof of Newport Methodist Church when a sudden surge in water pressure to the branch he was operating caught him off balance. Ernest was to suffer a second fall from a roof at a fire in the years to come - neither of which ended his tenacity or service.
Increasingly towards the end of the late Victorian period Press reports of derring-do at fires and the excitement created at drill competitions elevated many notable members of Island fire brigades to local celebrity status and Ernest's approach to his duties, and his repeated return to duty following tumbles from height, put him at the forefront of attention in the Newport brigade.
Before the end of the century he was hauled before Hampshire County Court on a charge of not having paid for goods supplied to his shop. His defence being that his wife conducted the shop business while he was busily employed by the fire brigade won little sympathy with His Honour who ordered him to make the payments by instalment.
By 1901 the Press were reporting another man, Norris, as Newport's engineer although Ernest continued to attend fires and remained responsible as caretaker of the station and equipment, including the Shand Mason manual pump now on display in the service training centre at Ryde. On one occasion in January 1902 he was so quick to attend a fire in the High Street that he had the matter in hand on his own account before the remainder of the brigade arrived.
Ernest and Mary were to have two sons, Ernest George Humphrey in 1868 and Sydney Archibald who died shortly after his birth in 1871. However in 1897 Ernest fathered another child Victor Albert Ernest who was registered with the surname Dopson. This appears to be the surname of his mother Martha from Yorkshire who represented herself as Martha Hayles at the time of Ernest's death but no record of a marriage exists between Ernest and the much younger woman who was just 26 when Ernest died.
In April 1904 more controversy surrounded Ernest when he was accused of not properly cleaning the appliances after fires. He was also asked to explain multiple occasions of unapproved absence from the town - as the brigades sole paid employee, albeit as caretaker, he was required to apply for permission to be absent. In June of 1906 Ernest was again, as caretaker, in the thick of the action when the Malt and Hops took fire.
Three months later came the sudden occurrence of his premature death just four days before the 1906 IWFBF competition in Newport. A modest report of the funeral held the day before the competition, included the reference that at his family's request the fire brigade did not attend - leaving one to wonder at the circumstances. No details have been unearthed other than the entry in his death certificate - chronic intestinal obstruction - exhaustion. A few weeks previous, as was common, Ernest was one of the few firemen named in the Press when attending a stable fire in Orchard Street - such was the local interest in his heroics and occasional mishaps, he was virtually a household name and well known throughout the district and by many others within the Island's firefighting circle. Naming him and remarking on his actions was commonplace and of obvious interest to County Press readership. In the build-up to the heavily invested drill competition one would have expected Ernest, as voluntary fireman and full-time caretaker, to have been deeply involved in preparing both the drill teams and the equipment as Newport's manual appliance and peripherals, the very items for which Ernest was specifically responsible, were those to be used in the drills. What happened on that Sunday we may never know, but after a life of firefighting both in Brighton and Newport there must have been a reason for his family to block the brigade from paying its last respects. Even the meeting of the town's Fire Brigade Committee of the following week makes no mention of Ernest's death - an oddity given that it was common during the era for the committee chairman to call for a moment of silent remembrance before opening a meeting following the death of a fireman. Neither did the committee discuss sending a letter of condolence to the family, or of arrangements for the payment of pension or outstanding wages - things normally associated with such an occurrence.
For a man who had given much voluntary service to the town, often with little regard for his own safety, his family's stance and the committee's silence poses many unanswered questions. As controversial as he may have been, with heroic near reckless firefighting exploits, questionable business practices and a common-law wife of less than half his age, Ernest was beyond doubt a gritty and committed old school firefighter.
Rest in peace First Engineer Hayles.