Charlie as a young Leading Fireman in 1957.

Station Officer in 1977.

Charlie Woodford, former Station Officer at Sandown Fire Station, published two booklets in the 1980's. The first 'A Vital Spark', dealt with the history of Sandown Fire Brigade. The second 'My Sandown, My Island', featured a personnel recollection of Charlie's life. In chapter 8 1949-1981: Retained Fire Service, Charlie focussed on his fire service experiences. That chapter in its unaltered entirety is featured below.


In April 1949 I filled in the necessary forms, passed a medical, and was finally accepted into the retained fire service at Sandown, on 14 April, I was detailed into Red Watch while Peter Thearle, who joined with me, was detailed into Blue Watch. Drill night was every Tuesday, and every other Thursday evening was cleaning night. Station Officer Don Orchard was in charge of the station, and Jack Gray was his sub-officer.

Having served a few weeks, without riding to fires, we were shown the equipment and given the chance to use, and get used to it. The appliances were housed in the station side-by-side. There was an ECU (Escape Carrying Unit), which towed a light trailer pump, and a wartime ATV (Austin Towing Vehicle), which towed a heavy trailer pump.

The first fire call I attended was on a Sunday afternoon - assisting Ventnor brigade tackle a barn fire at Downcourt Farm, Chale. Jean and I had been out for a walk and had gone into the Chocolate Box, St John's Road, for tea when the siren sounded. Leaving her some money, I ran off to the fire station - her first experience of what life would be like as a fireman's wife. 

In 1952 a vacancy arose for a Leading Fireman post. Along with some colleagues, I applied for the position, undertook the tests, and was accepted. Fire calls averaged about 100 a year - and this was to be the case throughout my service period.

The Social Fireman

On the social side, we held a flag day each July for the Fire Service National Benevolent Fund, when the fire station was open all day to the public. The old manual fire engine from Newport headquarters was repaired, put in working order and, with a horse towing it, toured the town - later also taking part in Sandown Carnival.

In the winter months, a Mrs Smith, of St John's Road, made a lot of rag dolls and kindly presented them, year after year, for us to sell. Early on flag day morning, we would set up a lean-to shelter by the pier and display the dolls, each of them individually numbered. Tickets were 6d (2.5p) each, or five in an envelope for 2/6d (12.5p). When a purchaser had a lucky number, he or she claimed the prize immediately. We made sure there were winners amongst the visitors, out for their morning papers and cup of tea. They went back to the hotels pleased, and our early morning efforts paid off. After breakfast, we were indundated with people.

During the winter months, social evenings were held at the local stations. Either we would go to Shanklin, or Shanklin would come to us. The same applied with Bembridge. 

Until the government disbanded the AFS (the Auxiliary Fire Service), we staged a big exercise once a year at Fort Warden, Totland, which involved the whole structure of the fire brigades, working together on an imaginary incident. Each exercise crew reported to their respective stations at 1600 (4pm) on the designated Saturday, to find the appliance to be used in the exercise marked with a coloured disc, and a number tied to the vehicle, front and back. Booking out to Newport headquarters, we were then given map references which told us where we would meet up with other appliances to form a mobile column. From that rendezvous point, we made our way to Fort Warden Holiday Centre.

An image from one of the Fort Warden exercises.

Here, each crew was allocated chalets and, in the main hall, ladies of the Women's Voluntary Service prepared supper for us (and breakfast in the morning). After supper, a dance was organised in the ballroom. The swimming pool was available for those who fancied a swim, or we could stay in our chalets, playing cards. Sleep was the last thing on our minds! The bars stayed open until midnight - and did a good trade!

In the morning, we were briefed, with each section given a different route map to reach the main rendezvous point. When the column was completed, we moved into the imaginary 'fire ground' and were given our instructions and the order to get to work. What surprised us - and the powers-that-were - the most was the smooth way the 'incident' always went. There were no slip-ups; everyone was amazed!

I was sorry the AFS was disbanded. Here on the Island, they were the only back-up for the trained people - although, to be honest, on the night of the fire at Folly Works (see below), Hampshire, Southampton and Portsmouth brigades did contact our headquarters to see if assistance was required.

Memories of Service

In 1952, Sandown Fire Station was provided with a new pump escape vehicle, replacing the old ECU, together with a self-propelled light pump. These vehicles were too large to be housed side-by-side, so they were parked in tandem, with the pump escape in front. This meant that, at every fire call, the first driver in had to put the pump escape outside on the road, in case the rear vehicle was the one being called for.

There were, of course, too many fires during my period of service for me to detail here, but I will relate two;

We were called one night to Chapel Cottages, Apse Heath, a building which had a centre passage, with rooms off, and a back door at the end of the passage, opposite the front door. At that time there was a certain policeman at Lake who reckoned all fires were the result of arson! The Pc (who had better remain nameless!) walked up the path to the cottage that night and had just entered when he was soaked with a ??????? Picking himself up, he got on his cycle, went home, changed - and made the mistake of returning. Yes, he got soaked again - but this time he also got the message!

The other incident was on a December evening. We had the fire call at about 6pm and, having arrived at the station, we were told to take our water tender to Brigade HQ at Newport on standby. Turning from Lake Hill into Sandown Road, we could see a machine from Shanklin approaching. They turned up Newport Road, ahead of us. "Must be something big going on" someone said. As we got to the top of Newport Road, we could see a glow in the sky. Having followed the Shanklin machine through Arreton, I told the driver to go the opposite way to Newport when we reached the foot of the downs. Shanklin turned left and went Merstone way; we turned right and went over the downs to Newport. Approaching the Hare and Hounds pub, we noticed it was getting lighter, and, as we turned off towards Newport, we could see the enormous conflagration. "My God," I thought, "what have we let ourselves in for tonight!" Arriving at HQ at the same time, Shanklin were facing in the right direction, and were ordered to proceed to the 'fire ground' at the Folly plywood factory, Whippingham. We, in the meantime, had to stand by in Newport.

At 9.30 we were told to go to Macfisheries restaurant and have a fish and chip meal. Then, at 10.30, we were ordered onto the 'fire ground'. Most of the factory was built on greenheart wooden piles over the River Medina. Those piles were merrily burning away, like candles. As the tide came in, the flames were extinguished, but as it receded, it was not long before the piles burst back into flame! When day came, it was just as if a bomb had hit the site, with RSJ girders twisted like bits of wire. A welcome cup of tea and a sandwich was brought to us at 6am, and that went down very well. We were eventually relieved by another crew, and left the 'fire ground' at 8am.


The SARO Medina Works at Folly before the fire.

Moving Up the Ladder

In 1965 Jack Gray retired from the brigade on reaching the age limit. Wally Draper, who had been Jack's sub-officer, was made up to Station Officer, and I was appointed as Wally's sub-officer. Jack and Wally were the station's representatives on the British Fire Services Association. The meetings were nearly always held on the mainland, and I went with them on several occasions, enjoying the chance to meet up and talk with colleagues from other regions. Wally Draper, incidentally, was awarded for life membership of the association, which we regarded as a great honour for him.

Whilst sub-officer, it was my pleasure to take over from Wally on his promotion and give lectures to the Boys' Brigade, the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, in order that they would qualify for their badges. Towards the end of my career with the brigade, some of the boys I had lectured became firemen themselves.

In due course, 1975 arrived and Wally, having reached the age limit, had to retire. I was appointed Station Officer, with Norman Thearle as my sub-officer. 

On reflection, the highlight of my service came in 1979, the centenary year of the original Sandown Fire Brigade. An open day and exhibition, with photographs, was held at the fire station in Grafton Street. The old manual appliance was proudly displayed, and Newport sent out the turntable ladder. Most of the personnel took the day off work, and we made a collection for the benevolent fund.

That year we were told we would soon be getting a new fire station. The site the county was looking at was at the Barracks, which was in a good central position. Chief Fire Officer Arthur Perks told us; "If you lads would like to submit a drawing for a proposed new station, I would be very pleased". This we did, but at a later date, the site was turned down. The county wanted to buy part of the churchyard to widen the road. The Church Commissioners and relatives objected. We suggested then that the Broadway, from Beachfield Road to New Street, should be made one-way, going towards Ryde. Shanklin-bound traffic would turn down New Street into Beachfield Road. The idea was scuppered by the county. (I have noticed since that, when they want it to work, for roadworks etc., such an arrangement is very successful). Eventually, in 1980, a new fire station was opened at East Yar Road, on the site of the old gas works.


Ghosts of Firemen Past

The last night at the old fire station, after all the personnel, appliances and equipment had left, was a traumatic time for me. My mind went back to the beginning of my brigade career - the hours I had spent on station; the personnel who had come and gone; all pleasant and sad memories. Upstairs, the billiard table had gone, and the walls had been stripped of the certificates won by the pre-war firemen in competition at national camps. Having looked in the old watchroom, which had latterly been turned into a kitchen, I went back downstairs and walked across the appliance  room floor to the said door.

The end of an era had come. I switched off the light. The appliance bay was in darkness, except for a light which shone through the back window from a street lamp in Grafton Street. I felt strange, and a sort of haze appeared, building up in the muster bay area. A creepy sensation came over me as I thought I heard movements of shuffled feet. I knew imagination ran wild at times like these, but I wondered if this might be the ghosts of the first fourteen firemen to form Sandown Fire Brigade, falling-in to say their last farewell... Frank Cantelo, Walter Jolliffe, Harry Brown, Richard Pitt, William Hawkins, John King, James Dore, Henry Attrill, William Brown, William Porter, William Seymour, Frank Toogood, Nicholas Hoar, Henry Love.

Standing there for the last time, facing the muster bay, I saluted, closed and locked the door, and left. Even if the new station survives 100 years, it will never have the same atmosphere and nostalgia that the old one possessed.

Sandown Fire Station 1907. The frontage was extensively reconfigured, brought forward to match the frontage of the Town Hall and a floor added and formally re-opened in January 1912 and remained almost unchanged when the picture on the right was taken in 1978.

I was fortunate enough to have been selected to attend an officers' course at the Fire Service College at Moreton-in-the-Marsh and I had only two disappointments the whole time I was in the brigade. The first was when the new station opened. I was off sick with a bad back. Although I could get about after a fashion, I had been firmly told my presence was not required on station. Secondly, after reaching the age limit, I was offered, and accepted, three months' extension. As I had joined on 14 April, I required just another 14 days to complete 32 years' service, but this further extension was denied. So I retired from the fire service on 31 March 1981. Les Benford, who had been my sub-officer since Norman Thearle's retirement, took my place as station officer.

All through my time with the fire brigade, the lads all did their best, when called upon, to help out with different functions, and to this day, although they have left the brigade, they continue to do so. In years gone by, they helped to build and maintain the carnival queen's tableau - work carried out for many years by Peter Sprack and Derek Harvey. The former fireman are still to be seen setting up and letting off the fireworks on Regatta Day and at other times.

Footnote; Taking a place of honour in the old fire station was a framed letter of thanks from the council at Ryde for the speed and efficiency shown by the Sandown men at the disastrous Town Hall fire there. The records show that the fire was on 6 June 1933, the call was received by Sandown at 1.40pm, and the appliance was at the scene in Ryde at 1.52pm. No wonder the policeman who rode to fires with the firemen went home by train!