Captain George William Hutt passed away on 4 January 1910 aged 45.

 

Through the course of his comparatively short life, George William Hutt comprised one of the Isle of Wight's most fascinating characters involved in the fire services, although he was never truly a fireman.

He heralded from an esteemed family (family crest displayed at the top of this page). His father Major General Sir George Hutt was a distinguished officer of the Indian army serving with credit through the Scinde and Afghan campaigns of 1839-44. He commanded the artillery during the Persian War of 1857. Post-service he became registrar and secretary to the commissioners of Chelsea Hospital. He passed away at Appley Towers in 1889, the family's long held Island residence. His brother, George William's uncle, was Sir William Hutt, politician, former pupil of Ryde School and was later commissioner for the foundation of South Australia and was instrumental in the colonisation of New Zealand, a principality of the nation and the river running through it still retain the Hutt name. George William's uncle John became governor of Western Australia. Suffice it to say, his family were accustomed to positions of power.

Sir William Hutt, George William's esteemed uncle.

George William Hutt was born in Kensington on 25 February 1864. The first Census in which he appears, of 1871, listed the family as resident at the Chelsea Royal Hospital for Pensioners where his father worked for the commissioners. This document evidences George seniors birthplace as St Helens and suggests that his mother Adela was also a child of the empire having been born in Bombay, the daughter of General Sir John Scott. George was 7 at the time. His younger siblings Francis (5) and William (1) were both born in Chelsea. 

The 1881 Census lists 17 year old George junior at boarding school in Stoke near Guildford. His father retired from the Chelsea hospital five years later, retired to Appley Towers and died there in 1889. Two years later George, now 27, was listed as a Lieutenant of the Army Service Corps living at Portland Street in the Landport area of Portsmouth. He lived there with his wife Caroline Edith (nee Townshend) of County Cork, Ireland, on 3 June 1890. 

It seems that his regular service with the army wasn't extensive as by 1894 (or possibly before) George had relocated with Caroline to Appley Towers and resigned his regular commission but continued to serve as a reserve Captain of the Royal Scots; somewhat odd given the geography. 

He first achieved in mention in local Isle of Wight Press in connection with firefighting in 1894. A meeting of St Helens Council of 16 April that year included an apology received from George for using water for a little fire practice at his Appley Towers estate. He received a reply that the water main that ran adjacent to his estate was outside his rateable area, and as such he wasn't required to pay for it, although he offered. The Council however conceded that the hydrant would be made available to him in the event of a real fire, but not for practice. The most interesting aspect of this discourse is that it reveals that George possessed his own fire appliances and that he was training members of his own estate staff to use them. This reveals the roots of what became known as the Appley Towers Volunteer Fire Brigade of George's creation and which at the time and for many years to come, was the only firefighting force in the vast area that fell within the scope of the St Helens Urban District Council. During the era in question this included the area recognised as St Helens today, plus all of Seaview and all of what is today the St John's area of Ryde. 

Over the next few years George retained his Captain's title but by now was attaching it to the command of his private fire brigade. He also earned a place on the St Helens UDC and was one of those who pressurised that authority over the matter of fire protection for the district. In 1898 he was behind the move by a number of notable ratepayers that wrote to the Clerk of the UDC stating that in their opinion fire protection; falls very short of efficient means for the saving of life and property. The letter suggested Ryde's willingness to respond to St Helens but that the Borough's manual pump would be both slow and inefficient to cover the district. A suggestion was made to acquire a steam fire-engine, this being almost a decade before any of the established brigades achieved the same technological advance. Among the many high society signatories was the legendary General Sir Samuel James Browne (of Browne belt fame). 

George Hutt revealed at the meeting following the reading of the letter that whilst at Appley Towers he had much to lose in the event of fire, he was unbiased in his opinion of support for the suggestions. He also revealed that an agreement had been reached with the UDC since 1894 that permitted him to hold a set number of his fire brigade's practices each year on the basis that his personally owned appliances were placed at a position where anyone could access and use them in the event of fire; on Tuesday there shall be a notice put up directing the public to where it is.

A further reference in the Press the same year reveals that Hutt's appliances were basic, comprising a standpipe to connect to the hydrants (described as fire plugs at his front and rear gates), several lengths of hose and some branches. 

1907 map of the district showing Hutt's Appley Towers in the area now inhabited by the estate known as Marina Avenue. Note the buildings that still remain on either side, St John's Lodge to the west and Little Appley (now the Appley Manor Hotel) to the east.

Despite the heavyweights that submitted to the letter to the UDC, the Council still wouldn't budge. No practical means for fighting fire were established at St Helens other than those possessed by Captain Hutt. Hutt even offered to recruit, train and command the brigade in an honorary capacity were the UDC to form one. What experience he had of fighting fires is unproven, but his enthusiasm is irrefutable.

However his motivation may be questionable. In respect of his successful and extremely influential family, George, a reserve Captain, was of mediocre comparison. He had achieved nothing of note, his army service was unremarkable and his personal business associations of no importance. At the same time Prince Bertie, later Edward VII, was at the pinnacle of those in high society who'd made firefighting fashionable. The Prince was a personal friend of London's chief officer Sir Eyre Massey Shaw and had made arrangements that secured him his own firefighting uniform at the city's Watling Street headquarters. On occasion, when it suited, Prince Bertie would arrive ad-hoc, unnannounced and anonymous at fires in the unfestooned uniform of a normal fireman, and assuage his thrill seeking nature with a spat of firefighting. It was one of high society's most poorly kept secrets and one that spread throughout the nobility like wildfire. Prince Bertie was recognised as a dishonourable man of low integrity, a man who though destined to be King, achieved nothing. 

Some of those who followed the Prince's example, not fettered by Royal protocol, were more overt in their manner and of them several assured self-importance by taking command of brigades, typically private brigades established by themselves. By the late Victorian period firemen in general, from the lowest to the brigade chiefs, were lauded celebrities and with the medal decorations bestowed on them by the fledgling National Fire Brigades Union, firemen were able to match their military counterparts in the eyes of the public. This appealed greatly to that class of men whom high society expected to be commanders of greatness but whom possessed no personal preference for the heat and danger of empire service overseas. The nickel-plated helmets gave them status over their working class firemen and the NFBU medals suggested gallantry whilst the concealed truth was that cravenness could easily hide behind a strategically sooted face.

This doesn't suggest cowardice or concealment on the part of George Hutt, but the appeal for firefighting is questionable given the circumstances. 

At the time of the 1901 Census, George was completing an obligation to the army reserve at Warley Barracks in Brentwood. It is known that he acquired his captaincy during this period with the Royal Scots (Lothian Regiment) and the 1st Battalion were deployed to South Africa to fight in the Second Boer War. However they were still in South Africa at the time of the 1901 Census and no evidence has been located to confirm George served in the War.

Soon after he was back at Appley Towers drilling his firemen. Throughout this period the UDC remained impassive in the face of offers of mutual assistance from Ryde and the pressure of those within their own district to provide for fire protection. Then came an incident, pertinent to George Hutt, that added emphasis.

The fire at Appley Towers, 22 March 1904.

Around two-thirty in the afternoon of Tuesday 22 March 1904, George's wife Caroline set off for a drive with the horses and noticed a smell of smoke but continued on her way assuming it to be a bonfire in the district.

Meanwhile behind her, in the Towers, one of the domestics also smelled smoke but went to investigate and discovered a fire raging in the western gable of the house. A call was placed to Ryde Fire Brigade, but not before George donned his personal fire officers uniform and assembled his Appley Towers Volunteer Fire Brigade. Evidence of George's ability to pull off the role of Chief Officer is captured in a publication of five decades later.

In 1956 the Isle of Wight Women's Institute Federation published Isle of Wight Within Living Memory. This fascinating insight of the everyday life of Islanders in the first half of the twentieth century was reissued in 1994 and at pages 34-35 of the newer edition is a remarkable description of the Appley Towers fire.

Written by a sadly unnamed women, young at the time of the fire, it begins; Those who remember the year 1904 will also remember the fire at Appley Towers; how the smoke hung like a black pall, how the local baker made dozens of buns, and the pails of hot tea that were taken out to the tired firemen.

Most notable in the context of George Hutt's status, her mistaken belief was that; William Hutt was captain of the Ryde Fire Brigade. He walked about immaculate in his blue uniform with silver epaulettes, cigar in mouth, slightly over-dined, which caused some titters from the ill-mannered. I am told he was responsible for Ryde having such a fine brigade. 

She was told incorrectly, the fire was commanded by Captain Sidney Charles Sapsworth of Ryde Fire Brigade; it's remarkable to think that while his ancestral home was burning with such ferocity George's priority was to be seen uniformed. He evidently wished to cast the illusion that the young lady witness so eagerly absorbed.

How much the efforts of Hutt's volunteers made to the firefighting is uncertain, within minutes of arriving and assessing the scope of the blaze, Captain Sapsworth despatched persons to call for the assistance of Sandown, Shanklin and Newport brigades, all of whom were in attendance by 16:40 that afternoon. The fire was devastating where it had caught but in fact was a wonderful example of bravery, initiative and of fire protection in buildings, as the concrete between the first and ground floors was the key reason that downwards fire spread was avoided.

Contrary to the opinion of some today, the fire was not the reason why Appley Towers no longer stands. The house was successfully repaired in 1905 but demolished for other reasons fifty years later.

1905; the rebuild of Appley Towers.

Some time before, Captain George Howard Harrison of Thornton Manor, retired chief officer of the Kingston, Surbiton and District Fire Brigade and President of the IWFBF, had submitted a plan to St Helens UDC for fire protection. Given the scope of the District's area he suggested that the UDC form a brigade that comprised three-in-one working individually but mutually if required. This required the formation of brigades in St Helens, Seaview and St Johns. 

At the time the suggestion was rejected. In the wake of the Appley Towers fire a rethink was inevitable and Harrison's suggestion, whilst he wasn't credited with it, became the option of choice. 

On 23 April 1906 the UDC discussed receipt of a request from Captain Hutt for more hose. Further evidence states that; the newly-elected Superintendant of the Volunteer Fire Brigade. Hutt complained that the brigade had too few hoses to reach; Thornton, St John's House, Preston Farm, Westridge Farm, Highland Road, Surbiton Grove and the middle of Cross Street (Oakfield). Given the location of those places and in reference to a later communique it is evident that George had been handed the command of the St John's Fire Brigade, an element of the larger and lengthily named St Helens Urban District Council Volunteer Fire Brigade. He had finally achieved his aim, he was a chief officer of a real fire brigade.

In this context his altruism shines through and perhaps undoes some of the allegations emanating from his previous endeavours. His firemen needed boots, the UDC denied the cost. Regardless Hutt went to a well known bootmaker in Elmfield and commissioned the work but didn't tell anyone. The matter was raised with outrage in the Council chamber and people wanted to know who'd placed the order. Hutt was noted for silently drifting out of the chamber, disappearing for a half hour or so and then reappearing with a receipt to show that he'd paid the bill from his personal funds. He never confessed to having placed the order, but all were satisfied that the cost hadn't fallen on the ratepayers and there the matter ended.

He also dipped into his own funds to fully clothe the men of the St John's Volunteer Fire Brigade with the latest well-cut tunics, accoutrements and brass helmets. By all accounts their appearance, coupled to swift action earned through many drill sessions at a Mission Hall on Brading Road, contributed to a well respected brigade for which Captain Hutt was recognised as its committed commander.

Sadly George's health, despite his comparatively young age, began to fail him and on 21 December 1908, with regret, he tendered his resignation from the brigade.

In the following January his resignation was effective and he was thanked by the District Surveyor for handing over rescue ropes and lines that he'd paid for himself. He also insisted that his firemen retain the uniforms he had bought them.

In response to the UDC's expression of appreciation for his services he replied; Friends in the district have been most kind in allowing the Brigade to use their houses for practices. It has afforded me great pleasure to work with the fire brigade. 

On Tuesday 4 January 1910, George succumbed to an attack of pneumonia and died at Appley Towers aged 45.

Four days later he was interred at St Helens Church alongside his father. Among the attendees was retired Captain George Howard Harrison and the arrangements were made by Ryde's former Captain Charles Langdon.

Floral tributes were many and included one from his son and two daughters which simply read; To dear Dad from his loving children.

Whilst I have cast some aspersions regarding George's motivations, everything should be placed in context. No doubt being a member of such a family at such a time came with unsolicited pressures. George sought recognition in the art of fire command, established his own private brigade and furnished himself with a flourishing uniform to be seen as someone of importance. All of this may be mocked. But when the opportunity came for him to really take command of men at fires, he did so with unquestionable capability, references also impart an empathy for those who served under him, a care for their welfare and for the job they were collectively committed to doing and no-one can ask more of any firefighter than to do their best. George was clearly a colourful character and of all those I've researched, I like him a lot.

 

 

Rest in peace Captain George William Hutt.