Many are the firefighters of past and present who can recount tales of incidents involving animals – many have a humorous twist – some are sad, but few, very few, in fact only one caused a rift between firefighters and the police that enduced almost a decade of bad feeling, quarrels and competition to be the first to a fire.

Ryde’s Borough Constabulary of 1882, under senior policeman Superintendent George Hinks, had already gone some way to getting the firemen’s goat by that summer. Some angst existed between envious policemen who meandered through Ryde’s darkened streets on their nocturnal beat in the knowledge that the town’s firemen slept soundly in their beds. It never occurred to the constables that while they enjoyed the highest salaries among working class men of the town, the firemen were paid only when called and at an incomparable pro-rata rate.

Given their night-time beat, it was always the duty constables who were first alerted to a fire during the hours of darkness. It had become commonplace for that first constable to run to Brunswick Street and wake Superintendent Hinks and then begin to gather members of the force. The officers of the law often descended on the stricken property en-masse, would begin firefighting with buckets or fire-squirts, if available. Sometimes they would despatch a constable to alert the fire brigade, and sometimes they did not – the alert often being received from a concerned resident of the town. On several occasions after eventually being summoned, the brigade arrived to find either – smiling policemen who’d overcome the fire – or a fire so madly out of control that it had evidently been burning for a protracted period before they were called. Relations between fire and police were strained, to say the least.

Ryde policeman of the era.

In 1882 Ryde’s John Street was an exclusive and desirable residence at the town’s centre. Ninety degrees off and within a short walk of the lower High Street its wide thoroughfare opened out at its western end to the impressive edifice of All Saints Church. A few hundred metres in length its residents were a select crop of the professional and successful of the era.

At Lansdowne House on the night of 28 August 1882 resided the venerable Dr Hastings, his wife, their servants, a female house guest, and a cat.

John Street, Ryde. Lansdowne House was (and still is) the building in the distance beyond the one with four in-line chimney pots.

The clock had passed thirty minutes into the 28th when Mrs Hastings coughed herself awake. Concerned by a palpable smell of smoke she eased herself from the bed, and promptly leapt back in when her bare feet contacted the heat of the floorboards. Her jump startled the doctor to wakefulness and the pair donned shoes and gowns and made their way out to the landing. Here the smoke was at its most dense, but they were able to wake their guest and the servants. The party stumbled through the broiling soot and heated fire gases down the stairs, past the blazing library room and out the front door of the property. En route the doctor grabbed an antique oriental gong, dragged it to the street and used its hefty hammer to create a din to summon assistance.

The residents of John Street leapt up in alarm. A short distance away Police Constable Watson, who had been ambling listlessly through the gloomy streets, reacted to the noise – ran towards its source and noted a ripening smell of smoke with every stride he made.

According to his official report Watson gazed upon the sight of the doctor thrashing at the gong as smoke poured from the ground floor of his lavish home. Watson claims he ran down the High Street to the Town Hall, rounded to the rear and hammered on the door of the Town Hall keeper’s residence (the veracity of Watson's report became questionable when the Hastings house guest alleged to the press that it was her who had run to Buckett's abode). 

In 1882 Henry Buckett was an industrious 41-year-old townsman who fulfilled the multiple roles of caretaking for the Town Hall, town crier – town sergeant, lost property officer, and captain of the fire brigade. At that time, he, his wife Ellen and six of their children resided in the modest accommodation offered by the single door at the rear of the Town Hall in Market Street. Buckett was an uncompromising man – reckless with his own safety, fearsome to the point of dominating those under whose authority he worked, yet driven by a deeply held conviction to come to the aid of those in need no matter the situation or the risk.

Henry Buckett, in Town Sergeant attire.

Woken by the hammering, the Buckett’s adopted their usual routine – for the Buckett's the fire brigade was a family undertaking - accessing the fire station in the north-west corner of the Town Hall by the internal door that separated their home from the place where the manual engine and hose cart dwelled. Drilled by years of practice the family began preparing the engine and hose cart, hauling them into the street and checking on the escape ladder – too large to be kept indoors it dwelt in the passage between the Town Hall and St James’ Church – as the bell was rung to herald the firemen, those undisturbed by its tintinnabulations received the juvenile fists of the boy messengers, the 'knockers-up' rapping on their doors. All attended, bar two who being Rifle Volunteers were away at a military encampment.

Ryde's first fire station in Market Street - the station doors are now concrete blocked with the door to the Buckett's abode to the left of the image.

Police Constable Watson was by now, according to his report, heading back up the High Street towards the police station in Brunswick Street where he woke Superintendent Hinks and the call was placed for members of the constabulary to converge on John Street.

With the crashing of the doctor’s gong and reverberations of the firemen’s bell the whole town was alerted to the growing catastrophe, including a reporter of the Isle of Wight Observer. As was his habit, the correspondent had noted from his pocket watch the moment at which he was awakened by the bell and was able to report that from his position on the far side of John Street, Ryde’s firemen had a working hose entering the fire within 18 minutes of the call. As slow as this may sound today it was no mean feat in 1882.

Buckett and his men, given the close proximity of the fire to the fire station, wasted no time in collecting the horses to haul the engine and instead heaved the weighty device, together with the hose-cart and escape ladder up the High Street and into John Street. A fireplug was located nearby, the brigades engineer quickly released the wooden plug, allowing a fountain of water to be shot into the air by the substantial head of water provided from Ashey reservoir. As the initial cascade reduced a forceful wash remained. He unfolded and placed the lightly-framed canvas dam over the opened plug, the opening in its base allowing for an inefficient but sufficient pooling of the vital resource while the excess gushed away, lifting silt and dust from the sun bleached street and carrying it off in large deposits down Victoria Street to be dumped unceremoniously to the fore of the Methodist Church.

The engineer dropped the rigid suction pipe and strainer into the dam while volunteers, the Beer Oi! crowd, unfolded the engine handles and began their rhythmic labour – up on the left, down on the right, down on the left, up on the right – knowing that their efforts would likely receive liquid compensation from the wealthy doctors insurers. Leather studded hose and some of the newer canvas type were run out – pressurised water raced along their lengths to emerge at their brass end piece – the branch – as Captain Buckett in his booming Town Crier’s call that was said to be capable of causing windows to rattle all the way down Union Street – hollered at his firemen to get in amongst the flames which were by now pouring from the shattered windows of the library.

Items of early Victorian water mains - pipework produced from hollowed timber with the fire plugs which were hammered into holes bored in its sides and concealed just below street level. Difficult to locate and even harder and more hazardous to remove in a hurry as the force of water would send the loosened plug shooting upwards like a missile.

A late Victorian engraving showing a band of volunteers drawn from the onlookers swinging the pumping handles, and to the left use of the inefficient dam system with a fountain of water forced upwards from the base of the dam caused by the head of water at the nearest reservoir.

Dutifully and with little protection other than a hastily knotted neckerchief pulled over their nose and mouth, the firemen at the sharp end pressed inside the broiling doorway. Hauling the weighty hose their crouched entry into the oblivion of smoke logging was occasioned by the pardonable shatter of furniture and ornaments cast aside in their wake. Unable to see the fire but for an orange glow in the eye-stinging haze, they directed their jet into the library as at floor level, where visibility was at its best – one spied the Hastings resident cat – barely alive and struggling for a breath of the clean air that was at best just a few yards away.

An example of a typical manual fire engine of the period, this one being manufactured by Merryweather of London - powered entirely by those willing to swing the handles.

Lansdowne House as it appears today. The fire was in the ground floor library but it is not known which room it is today.

The unnamed fireman scooped up the stricken moggy and removed it to the modest front garden, returning instantly to assist his colleague to negotiate the serpent like hose through the property. Superintendent Hinks, outside ordering his constables to keep back the burgeoning crowd of onlookers, saw the cat delivered to fresh air, stepped into the garden, scooped it up and brought the sooted feline to the grateful arms of Mrs Hastings. Amid the terror and madness of their home in peril, the saving of her much-loved cat brought solace of unparalleled proportion.

Ryde’s firemen at the front pushed inwards and began to flush the last vestige of flame out of the yawning window aperture. Thinning smoke allowed them an improved view and the opportunity to wet glowing embers and douse the last flickers of fire.

Perhaps the most serious fire which has occurred in Ryde since the destruction of the George Street Chapel took place – began the report in the following weeks Isle of Wight Observer as praise came in for Ryde’s firemen who had managed to stop the substantial blaze before it had progressed beyond the room of origin. Heat conduction had caused blistering of paint, the curling of paintings and even the cracking of glassware on the other side of the wall in the drawing room, but not one flicker of flame erupted beyond the library.

The Isle of Wight Observer, an Island newspaper with its main office in Ryde.

In the aftermath the Mayor heaped praise on Captain Buckett and his men. Mr Pollard, one of the leading townsmen of the period, argued that it was time the authority equipped the firemen with patent respirators, and the Press reflected these thoughts in several articles over the coming weeks all of which added to the mystique and esteem Ryde’s public felt for their poorly recompensed firemen.

Many weeks later, in possession of a generous insurance pay out, Dr Hastings sent five pounds to Captain Buckett in appreciation of the work done that night. That sum would be worth around £600 today – a considerable sum for firemen who received a few pence from the town for their efforts. Buckett did not hesitate in dividing that sum equally between his men.

A few months later, 25 November, a ceremony was hosted by Dr Hastings. The grateful doctor had not forgotten the vision of Superintendent Hinks emerging from the smoke-filled front garden clutching his wife’s beloved cat. At the completely repaired and refurbished Lansdowne House he welcomed the Superintendent, Major Bethune, the IW Observer correspondent, and a representative of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. From the latter, the smiling Superintendent received a diploma of his humanity in bravely entering the burning house to save the cat. From the doctor, who had offered Hinks the same five pounds as he had to Captain Buckett, Superintendent Hinks was presented with a lavish marble fourteen day clock to the value of five pounds, as requested by the Superintendent in lieu of the cash, bearing an inscription that included - Presented to Superintendent George Hinks of the Ryde Borough Police, by admirers of his having saved the life of a cat during the night of the fire.

Henry and Ellen Buckett.

Ryde’s firemen, including Captain Buckett, were galled by the doctors well-intentioned but mistaken appreciation – and even more so that the Superintendent had not shared his five pounds – but insisted on it funding a extravagant item bearing words he had allowed to germinate to enhance his profit and public reputation.

Relations between the fire brigade and police became increasingly frosty.

By New Year 1883 the matter emerged publicly in a series of letters in the IW Observer following a series of incidents where the police had been slow to summon the brigade, with the aftermath causing both public and council to question the efficiency of the firemen, not the police. Fireman Robert Mundell, a High Street carpenter, contested - Our captain is not the man to screen any person shirking his duty, and it is hurtful to us who risk our own lives to save others, to have this slur cast upon us. So let the police do their duty and we will do ours.

Reflecting on a fire in Pier Street an anonymous writer submitted - I think the police and their superintendent deserve a rap on the knuckles. In the case of the fire at the Eagle Hotel the alarm was given to Mr Buckett by a policeman who, instead of helping Buckett to get out the hose and reel, or Mrs Buckett (who dressed herself and went out directly) to call up the other firemen, ran to the police station to rouse the superintendent and the other policemen on duty. These too did not go to Buckett’s assistance but flocked to the hotel and when Buckett and his men got there, no less than seven policemen (including the superintendent) had taken possession of the place.

I cannot help thinking that the superintendent of the police acted at this and at the previous fire in John Street in complete misapprehension of his duty, and with a mean desire to take credit at the expense of the men who legitimately earned it – the firemen! Let the police remember that they are not to act in opposition to, but in concert with, the firemen. If the police are so well able to leave their respective beats, as it seems they are, the least they could have done would have been to have given Buckett a helping hand in getting out the hose or rousing his men, and not to rush off and then utter the silly taunt – ‘Oh we got there first’.

Like a great many others who have suddenly risen from a subordinate position, and stimulated, doubtless by a few silly people who made a ridiculous fuss about his ‘saving’ (!) a cats life, the superintendent of police now manifests a great deal more zeal than discretion, and it is mainly his fault that a feeling exists between the members of the police force and the members of the fire brigade, decidedly inimical to the efficient action of either in case of fire.

When another anonymous writer submitted a letter in support of the police, the original writer followed up with - With regard to making mountains out of molehills, the molehill consisted, I may inform GLW, in saving a cat’s life, and the mountain was the ridiculous diploma and the presentation of a clock. How many men have risked their lives for others, and lived lives of self-denial, without one-tenth of the praise which was lavished on this trumpery cat incident? Sir, if, when five pounds was given me for this wonderful act of bravery, I had given it up and received instead a clock for my own special delectation, I should have preferred to have shared the money as the captain of the fire brigade did his amongst the men. 

For many years Ryde’s police force and fire brigade had shared an annual dinner. This changed in 1883 when Captain Buckett chaired the occasion with his firemen in attendance – and remarked on the unfortunate situation that existed between the organisations.

It was a situation that Buckett may have regretted, but in some respects perpetuated, as it wasn’t until 1889, when Captain Buckett withdrew from the brigade due to ill health, that Charles Langdon was appointed as captain and began the process of rebuilding a working relationship between Ryde Borough Constabulary and Ryde Fire Brigade. It was Langdon’s forte to bring people together, exemplified in his creation, five years later, of the Isle of Wight Fire Brigades Federation.