Captain George Howard Harrison passed away on 20 July 1930 aged 75.
Although George Howard Harrison never captained or served in an Island brigade, except in an honorary capacity at Sandown, his influence and contribution to the evolution of Island firefighting during the late Victorian to pre-WW1 period is extensive.
George was born circa 1855 in Leytonstone, the middle child of five of Henry, a contractor for public works, and Sarah. The family resided at Maple Lodge, Claremont Crescent in Kingston (or Surbiton depending on the year of the Census referred to). He was still there aged 26 when the 1881 Census was taken. The original document evidences that he was a pupil of mechanical engineering.
Ten years later George is found living with his wife Margaret Annie from Stratford and has totally changed direction as his occupation states that he was a Middlesex Justice of the Peace although post-nominals in another document show that he was a Member of the Institute of Chartered Engineers. They must have been doing well for themselves as their home is shared by three domestic servants and a barge boatman in their employ.
Around this time George was also appointed as Captain of the Kingston, Surbiton and District Fire Brigade. When he announced his intention to leave in 1895, for the purpose of moving to the Isle of Wight, a lavish occasion was held at Kingston's Albany Hall during which he was presented with a set of golf clubs, a caddy's bag and carrying case embellished with a plate. During the proceedings one of his non-brigade acquaintances dropped in an anecdote regarding George's conscientous yet unostentatious commitment to his voluntary fire command duties. During one particular dinner party he had slipped from the table to attend to a heath fire with such stealth that it was some time before anyone realised he had gone. He returned a short while later and was resuming his repaste when a further call came and again he slipped quietly away without remark. His concept of duty was admired and remarked upon by several present.
His move to the Island was to set up home at Thornton Manor in the St Helen's district (now Ryde) and it's apparent from the 1901 Census that he brought several members of his domestic staff with him. By now they were also with children, 8 year old Donald and 3 year old Vivien.
His move to the Island was coincident to the recent establishment of the Isle of Wight Fire Brigades Association (Federation by 1897) and Ryde's Captain Charles Langdon, chief orchestrator behind its formation, was quick to recruit the esteemed former Captain's services as its President. George agreed to stand as the IWFBA figurehead with Charles formally appointed its Secretary and between them they became highly influential throughout the Island's firefighting community.
A year later, 1896, Captain James Dore of Sandown, clearly impressed by George's pedigree and experience, successfully encouraged him to fill the supernumerary role of Honorary Captain of the brigade; although how much direct involvement he had in brigade matters at Sandown isn't known.
Speeding from dinner parties was no longer a nuisance of George's life but clearly he revelled in his status among the Island's brigade and local authorities as a man of knowledge and experience and by the early 1900's was to add the role of Chairman of the Southern District of the National Fire Brigades Union to his portfolio. The remainder of his spare time was spent playing golf and sailing in addition to sitting on the St Helen's Urban District Council (SHUDC).
Other pursuits included membership of the Cowes Harbour Commissioners, the committee of the IW County Hospital, the IW Lifeboat Committee, vice-president of Ryde Conservative Club, president of the Royal IW Golf Club, vice-president of Ryde Rowing Club, membership of the Royal Victoria Yacht Club, the Island Sailing Club, the Bembridge Sailing Club and chairmanship of the Solent Classes Racing Association. During his life his engineering skills enabled him to patent several devices for use in sailing vessels. Once on the Island it is unknown if he sustained a passion for acting, having once been a popular member of the amateur set in Kingston and well known for his prominent parts in Gilbert and Sullivan musicals with the Genesta Amateur Dramatic Club.
In 1898 he spoke openly, and wrote to the local Press, concerning the sorry state of the lack of fire protection in the St Helen's district. His views often brought him to loggerheads with his opposers on the Council. By 1902 his frustration with their lack of attention to the matter caused him to raise an idea for a scheme that for fire protection purposes split the Distict into three distinct sectors; St John's, St Helen's and Seaview, in which he offered to freely take overall command and organise the instruction and drilling of the volunteer firemen. This was rejected at the time. When Captain George Hutt's Appley Towers suffered a severe fire in 1904, literally around the corner from George's home at Thornton, George attended the fire and remarked on the good work done by the firemen of Ryde, Sandown, Newport and Hutt's own staff firefighters. This also caused St Helen's Urban District Council to take notice but it still took several years to establish their own brigade. When they finally did it is noticeable that despite George having no involvement, they followed his three-sector plan precisely as he'd suggested many years before.
In April 1903 the IW Observer's On Dits columnist remarked that George had announced his retirement from all matters connected with fire brigades. Although he did leave his post in the NFBU it is known that he remained as president of the IWFBF until June 1905.
When the 1911 Census was taken it is noted that one his original domestic servants, Elizabeth Thorpe, spinster and nurse, remained employed and living with the Harrison's alongside a parlour maid, two housemaids and a kitchen maid. Donald, who would have been 18 at the time, is not present in the household. It could be that he had departed to make his life as a commissioned officer in the army as tragically George's only son was killed in action as a Lieutenant with 'C' Battery, 306th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery on 16 September 1918. Donald is remembered on a plaque in St Helen's church but remains at his last resting place in Estaires, northern France.
In 1925 George donated to Ryde Fire Brigade the magnificent painting A Fire in London which still hangs at the modern station to this day.
Prior to his death George's health was indifferent for a protracted period and he finally passed away at Thornton on Sunday 20 July 1930. The County Press devoted an entire column to the tale of his life and of the funeral, attended by a multitude, crammed in to St John's Church before the interment in an unpolished oak coffin at St Helen's churchyard. Charles Langdon took responsibility for what was remarked upon as the highly efficient arrangements. At several prominent places throughout the district and in other parts of the Island, flags were lowered to half-mast.
George Howard Harrison may never have fought a fire on the Isle of Wight, but had inspired the best out of many that did and was to have an unparalleled breadth of influence during a period of the Island's fire brigade evolution both within the IWFBF, the NFBU and local politics.
Rest in peace Captain Harrison.