In the immediate aftermath much mockery was made of Newport’s firemen – some of it personal and unkind, calling into question the efficiency of men so corpulent to be of no use, whilst celebrating the alacrity of the men of the Kings Royal Rifles under the command of a Pioneer Sergeant.
One wonders if it was devilish reaction by the town’s authority that inspired the outcomes of the firemen’s pay review just four months later. Charles Osborne, a committed and honourable captain, was to be granted a pay rise of a percentage incomparable to that offered to his firemen.
Jacob Peach was a diligent townsman and businessman – popular on many fronts and for none more so than his skill as engineer in charge of the operation and maintenance of the Shand Mason. He, in concert with firemen Obediah Jackman and John H. Stubbs, backed by their firefighting colleagues but without referring to Captain Osborne, submitted a formal letter of protest to the Mayor and Corporation of the Borough of Newport. Citing the firemen’s raise of just five shillings in comparison to Osborne’s £3 3s increase, the dissenting trio played a bold, and what they considered a trump card – asking for a further five shillings and sixpence for the firemen or their mass resignation effective 23 February 1893.
The reaction in Newport’s chambers of power was anything but acquiescent.
While the firemen enjoyed Christmas in the expectation of a New Year pay rise to their satisfaction, the Corporation wheels went into overdrive to recruit, and train, a brigade of unpaid volunteer firemen. Public opinion was steered by a clever campaign, with the County Press pressured to deliver the Corporation’s message on 4 February that the firemen cannot be congratulated on the attitude they have assumed and that their resignation was to be accepted. As the volunteers began their training in preparation to take over, the Corporation decided to follow the policy used successfully at Sandown Fire Brigade, and allow the men to vote for those among them they wished to be their captain, deputy and engineer. What the Corporation didn’t consider was the position of Captain Charles Osborne. Stuck in the middle through no fault of his own, Osborne was left in the cold when the volunteers voted Percy Shepard to be their leader. Out of a belated sense of shame the Corporation advised Osborne that his services would not be required after 23 February and offered him a substantial pay-off – to his credit he advised them where to stick it!
The most awkward of situations developed on the evening of 23 February. As the outgoing paid firemen arrived at the Guildhall to surrender their equipment and effects to the volunteers, as fate would have it, a message was received of a fire in a wool shop at 63 Pyle Street. A struggle ensued over the Shand Mason between paid and volunteer firemen. When the arguing mass arrived at Pyle Street, still wrestling over lengths of hose and branches, both Captain’s Osborne and Shepard were in attendance – one having three decades of firefighting experience, the other on his first shout. Acknowledging the needs of the fire above all else, the opposing captains settled on the middle ground and a calming effect enabled the task to be undertaken successfully – but flared up again as the flames were suppressed when the outgoing men began to bustle equipment from the volunteers, packed the hose cart and returned it to the station – throwing the remains of their issued gear to the floor and departing for the last time.
The Shand Mason, battered by the many years of use and the recent battle of possession, was returned to the Guildhall by the volunteers – blooded by their first action.
On 4 April the engine was reported thoroughly overhauled and repainted. The volunteer brigade, not one of them having had previous experience other than the madness of the Pyle Street shout, struggled to become experts. Initially a retired officer from London was sub-contracted to carry out drills and by the end of the year the brigade were joined by Ernest Hayles, an experienced fireman from Brighton who established a business in the town with his wife and was appointed Voluntary Second Engineer. Hayles was to become a Newport household name in a time where celebrity status was dependent on printed publications. His committed, and at time reckless endeavours in the uniform of Newport Volunteer Fire Brigade were to earn him much admiration, and some scorn – twice surviving falls from the roofs of stricken properties during fires substantially added to his reputation.
Hayles cared for the Shand Mason far better than he cared for himself, and the machine was remarked upon at shows and competitions for its excellence in appearance and operation. So admired was Hayles work that the Corporation retained his services for £25 per year to act as caretaker of the fire station and equipment.
Hayles’s judiciously greased axles of the Shand Mason thundered through Cowes in the spring of 1894 and ended with the driver, Kemp Mearman, being hauled before the County Petty Sessions on a charge of furious driving! The event almost certainly represents the first occasion at which an Island fireman was called to account for his inappropriate speed – a matter worsened by the fact that there was no fire – the Newport driver, with a crew all-up gripping frantically to anything and everything on the engine, including Hayles, conjectured that their rip-roaring course from Newport to Cowes, through the towns central streets and back to the Guildhall, was a training exercise. So aggressive was their storm through Cowes that a woman was said to have fainted and carts of produce were upturned by startled barrow boys.