Fireman Leonard Perkis died as a result of a terrible accident during drills in Aldershot on 18 January 1911 which also claimed the life of one of his colleagues.

 

Leonard was born circa 1879 in Ryde. The 1881 Census located two-year old Leonard living at 24 Prince Street, Ryde, with his parents Elizabeth from Southampton and his father Charles whose occupation was that of brewer. Leonard was the second-youngest of eight children.

By 1891 he was listed as the eldest child still living at home, the family having moved a short distance to 31 Prince Street. The 1901 record remains elusive but it is known that he left the Island for Aldershot around 1897.

By trade Leonard was an artist and signwriter and was said to have possessed a remarkably good voice and as such was a welcome addition to the St George's Garrison Church. A few years later he moved to Farnborough but returned to Aldershot in 1904. Three years later he made a brief return to the Island but only to to marry Gertrude Ellen Martin on 3 August 1907. They had a son shortly after.

On his return to the garrison town he made a return to singing, this time at the Holy Trinity and around the same time joined the Aldershot Fire Brigade. According to the County Press; The work of firefighting appealed to him very strongly, and he took it up with the utmost zeal. Of steady habits, cool temperament, and possessing great intelligence, he quickly mastered the details of the work and became one of the most reliable and trusted members of the Brigade. 

Leonard's passion for firefighting must almost certainly have had its roots in Perkis family life. Several Perkis's were named in reports of Ryde Fire Brigade before and after Leonard's death and for many decades to come. When I joined the fire service in 1996 the first Leading Firefighter to whom I reported was a descendant of Leonard's such was the depth of the family's more than one-hundred year association with the town's firefighting services.

 

Sadly Leonard's life and brigade career was to end suddenly and shockingly during a drill period on Wednesday 18 January 1911 when the ladder he had mounted to the head, tipped and collapsed killing both him and one of his colleagues who was located at ground level in the yard.

London firemen displaying a typical wheeled-escape of the period, pictured in 1910.

The inquest carried out two days later at Aldershot's Council Chamber, spent four hours deliberating how and why the fatal accident occurred.

With one of Leonard's brothers present, the proceedings began with several statements of condolence from many of those attending until the Coroner Mr W.E. Foster summarised; I am sure we are all voicing the sentiments of the whole town. We all truly sympathise with the relatives of these two young men who lost their lives while training to protect us from fire.

Mr H.G. Marshallsay, Superintendent of Aldershot Fire Brigade was the first to give evidence; The Brigade turned out for drill on my orders and it took place in the yard of the Fire Brigade Station at 7pm. The object was to try the new twin branch recently acquired. The engine was just within the yard, and the water for it was taken partially from the hydrant in the yard and partially from the hydrant at Potter's Corner. Fireman Hughes was in charge of the hydrant in the yard. 

The twin branch pipe was secured at the head of the fire escape for the purpose of allowing it to work from the top. I secured the twin branch to the head of the escape by lashing it to rungs before the escape was run-up, and connected a double line of hose to the branch, one hose being secured on each side of the ladder by straps and hooks. Sufficient hose was ranged down.

A wheeled escape with two firemen aloft (circa 1910).

The hose was fixed after the escape was run-up. When the hose was secured four men were placed on the bottom levers of the escape, Firemen Pryke, Jacobs, Attfield and Dallas. Fireman Hughes was one of those who went up to connect the dry hose to the twin branch. All these men had been trained in such work. All being in readiness for the drill Fireman Tebbutt went up. The ladder which is 45 feet long, was then extended for 30 feet. I ordered the engine to be started, and, finding that the jet was playing too low, stopped the engine and ordered Tebbutt down.  He had been at the top of the ladder seven or eight minutes. I directed the escape to be extended about two feet higher.

Tebbutt went up again, but before doing so put on his Pompier belt with which all firemen are provided.  Before he went up again I questioned him as to how the escape was, and he replied it was quite safe and he felt quite at home. After putting his belt on he went up again. There is a strong snap hook on the front of the belt with which to fasten the man to the ladder and allow him to have both hands free. I gave orders for the engine to be started again and Tebbutt remained up for about a quarter of an hour. When Tebbutt came down I ordered Fireman Dallas to go up, but Perkis, who was all ready, jumped forward and went up. He would have followed Dallas but being ready first took his place.  

When I could see that Perkis was ready and in position I gave the order for the engine to be started again and Perkis was at the top of the ladder for six or seven minutes. I then walked to where Hughes was standing in charge of the hydrant, and explained that I would signal to him by whistle when I wanted the water turned off. I went straight to the engine and gave the signal and Hughes commenced to turn the water off and the engine was stopped. At that moment one of the men ran up to report that the escape had fallen over. I did not see it fall, nor did I hear it, the oil bast (sic) of the engine drowning all other sounds.

I went back to the spot at once and saw someone being lifted up. It was Perkis, and he was taken to the station and the doctor sent for. It was then it was reported that Hughes had been struck by the falling escape and his body was brought into the station. 

The ladder, photographed after the accident.

Under questioning by one of his own officers Mr Clinton, Superintendent Marshallsay responded; I personally saw the wheels of the escape scotched up before the men went up. A double precaution was taken in this matter by fixing another scotch behind. A rope was passed out of the station window and fastened to the head of the escape to prevent it pitching forward. 

Mr Perkis's brother was then invited to question the Superintendent but declined to do so, remarking that he was satisfied with the evidence given.

The Coroner followed with his mid-hearing understanding of the case so far; It was the first time that the Brigade had carried out the drill with the twin branch on this escape, but had used the single branch on the old escape, to which all were accustomed. The additional weight put on the escape by the double hose would amount roughly to the weight of another man distributed along its length. The weight of the twin branch would be from 18lbs to 20lbs. As many as six men had been placed on the escape at one time. I am quite satisfied that the hose was not more than the escape could bear. I am convinced that the escape could take three men in the position it was, and I am sure it was not unduly taxing its strength. You had had two men on the top with the escape fully extended. The escape was capable of being used for all purposes, and was a proper one for use as a water tower. I agree that the base of the wheels is very narrow, 4ft 6in., in comparison with its height, but you had counteracted that using hose as guys. The makers have thoroughly tested the escape and the wheel base was the usual standard. The escape would be less stable on uneven ground. If the machine canted to one side or the other, the four men on the levers would be powerless to prevent it going over. As an expert of considerable experience (a remark that suggests the Coroner was or had been a fireman) I am of the opinion that the way the escape was used at the time of the accident was safe.

On being asked for his opinion of the cause of the accident Superintendent Marshallsay replied; If the man at the top shifted one foot from the rung and turned his head, the act would tend to throw his weight on one side and so slew the top of the ladder out of its centre of gravity and also out of its base. 

The examination of Mr Marshallsay exceeded an hour and further expert witnesses remarked on the reliability of the ladder and system in use, the appropriateness of the ground conditions for the drill and the experience and capability of Fireman Perkis.

Dr Cohen, who attended when requested, stated that on his arrival Perkis was alive but suffering from severe shock and having a broken back, head injury, several internal injuries and no feeling in his legs. He was removed to hospital but died there by about ten o'clock that evening. 

Fireman Tebbutt, 18 years of service behind him, evidenced that during his two ascents of the ladder he found all to be safe and well. His testimony was followed by that of Fireman Jacobs with only eight months of time-served; I was on the levers with the others. When Perkis was up the ladder, and the water was shut-off, I noticed he shook his right foot over the side of the escape and was leaning towards the side that the escape fell. I was sitting on the levers and could feel it going - it was rising up - and I shouted out. I did my best to hold it back. All the other men were there and we did our best effort to keep it from going over. Perkis was moving about a good bit before the ladder fell. 

A juryman asked if the other firemen thought Perkis was playing a practical joke on his comrades by attempting to squirt water at them. Mr Marshallsay vehemently denied this as impossible given the direction that the branch was pointing. 

Fireman Attfield, also of eight months service, stated; I saw Perkis standing on his left foot on the right side of the ladder, and kicking out with his right foot as if in fun with the rest of the men. The engine was then running but as soon as the water stopped over went the escape. 

Mr G.E. Dwyer, Chief Officer of Alton Fire Brigade and vice-president of the National Fire Brigades Union stood as an expert witness and offered; Mr Marshallsay is considered to be the best judge among the whole of the 15,000 members of the National Fire Brigades Union and was the best known expert in fire brigade work. I consider that the hose could not have been placed in a better position. The drill in progress was on the most up to date principle, being done with the object of fighting a fire from above rather than below. 

Mr Clinton then remarked; I am of the opinion that anyone swaying on a ladder such as has been described by a witness was dangerous. 

The Coroner summarised all that had been said over the previous four hours. The jury retired but returned twenty minutes later with their verdict. The foreman spoke; The jury unanimously agrees that the affair was purely an accident but we wish to add the recommendation that the escape should not be used again for a water tower unless guy ropes were used. 


Fireman Hughes, the hydrant operator, killed when struck by the falling ladder was buried amid much ceremony at Aldershot on 23 January in the company of 270 firemen from across the region and hundreds of Aldershot's residents.

On the following day Fireman Leonard Perkis was brought home, arriving at Ryde pier a procession was formed to escort his body across the Esplanade, along Pier Street and up Union Street towards All Saints Church. 

The procession forming up at the Esplanade.

The procession turning towards St Thomas's Square at the top of Union Street.

Forming up at Ryde Esplanade to escort Fireman Perkis's body were firemen of brigades from East Cowes, West Cowes, Newport, Sandown, Shanklin, Ventnor, Havant, Alton, Winchester, Emsworth, Fareham, Guildford and Farnborough in addition to several officials and other members of the National Fire Brigades Union. The procession left the Pier Gates at 2.20 headed by the Sandown Prize Band playing the "Dead March in Saul". 

Town's streets were packed with onlookers who paid their respects with bowed heads and who maintained their presence all the way through town to Queens Road and the arrival at All Saints.

The arrival at All Saints Church.

Members of Ryde Fire Cadets pictured in 2004 with two further generations of Perkis's; instructor and fire officer Garry Perkis second from right, and at his side his son Cadet Dominic Perkis.

In 2004 members of Ryde Fire Cadets, a popular branch of the national Young Firefighters Association, having been told the story of Fireman Leonard Perkis, took it upon themselves to locate and clear his grave at Ryde's Parish Cemetery. Assisted by two adult instructors both of whom were serving fire officers of Ryde, the cadets set about their task with enthusiasm and remembrance.