Chief Officer Henry Bertrum Hill passed away on 4 June 1955.

Considerable ambiguity exists concerning Henry’s date of birth and origin. For sure he was born on the Isle of Wight but discrepancies between contemporary Press reports and various documents suggest that he could have been born in either Ventnor or Newtown, probably on 8 January of either 1877 or 1887.

Henry was acknowledged as a man of the highest business acumen and as such served for many years as chairman of the All-Island Advertising Committee in addition to membership of Ryde Town Council and founder member of Ryde Rotary Club. In his endeavour to bring Ryde the holidaying status he felt it deserved he actively encouraged and arranged visits for overseas students, organising their accommodation and itineraries.

Being the son of Arthur Hill, from whom he acquired his business-like mind, Henry grew up in the retail industry with the opening of the original Hills Stores Ltd. by his father in Ventnor before moving the business and family home to Ryde. There Henry was raised and continued to work in the family business and was married to Florence Ethel Osborne on 30 April 1903. Records show that they had a daughter Joan in the following year.

At some point before or shortly after the declaration of the First World War, Henry added the duties of Special Constable to his substantial list of undertakings. At that stage, and somewhat in defiance of opinion outside of the borough, Ryde maintained its own Borough Constabulary, have wrestled their way out of the clutches of Hampshire County Constabulary, which covered the remainder of the Island, when Ryde was granted Borough status by Queen Victoria in 1868 (see Greenstreet’s Empire for more details). Henry was by all accounts a good, conscientious, and honourable man, but his entry into the Borough Police at this stage in the force’s history was to compel him into an unfavourable spotlight in the next few years.

During the Great War, unlike the second worldwide conflict three decades later, the role of the fireman was not protected from the needs of the armed forces. Although the Act that compelled conscription didn’t arrive until March 1916, by summer 1915 all brigades across the Island were struggling to maintain adequate numbers as droves of their firemen heeded the call to arms. With the brigades being severely depleted of manpower and in the knowledge of a likely conscription in the offing, local authorities, including that of Ryde, had to rethink how to staff the brigades which for so long they’d taken for granted due to being oversubscribed. This was despite since February 1912, following some underhand political shenanigans, Ryde was the only town in the Island to field a Police-Fire Brigade, ostensibly under the command of Chief Constable Greenstreet.

The reappointment of firemen who had previously retired alleviated some concerns. It also represented new ones. It was acknowledged that the sudden rise in average age of the fire brigade corresponded to valued experience but little youthful agility for the rigours of fighting fires. Coupled to the Press’s exaggerated threat likely to materialise in the form of German airships and the hair-raising proclamation of what to do in the event of aerial attack published by the IW’s combined authorities, the Council were determined to inject some youth into the service whilst also not being seen to aid and abet those who were to claim exemption from military duty at the conscription tribunals.

Assuming that all policemen would be exempt from the call-up, the Council’s Watch Committee placed pressure on the Specials of the Constabulary, emphasising how wise it would be for them to cover as many bases as were possible to substantiate their position before the Military Tribunals. In July 1915 Henry was among seven Ryde Specials who volunteered to add firefighting to their police work.

By September of that year, amid a wretched atmosphere within the brigade with bad feeling running rife between the die-hard veteran firemen and the co-opted regular and special constables, Henry was identified for his organisational acumen and appointed the new Chief Officer of the Brigade. He was thrust into the limelight during the most unsavoury period of Ryde Fire Brigade history to suit the personal machinations of Chief Constable Greenstreet and the misguided political preferences of Greenstreet’s allies in Town Hall. Being appointed to such a lofty post just three months into the brigade ahead of town firemen, several of whom had served since Victoria was on the throne, he was doomed to suffer. Not least of all because unlike the firemen, who occasionally got a few shillings for attending fires, Henry was to receive an annual salary of just over £22 for his part-time role.

When March 1916 came and the Military Service Act was effective, more of the dwindling young men were called away. By an ironic twist of fate Henry’s resources were temporarily bolstered by soldiers of the 1st (Reserve) Garrison Battalion of the Worcestershire Regiment, some of whom were billeted at Ryde, whose commanding officer considered that his men needed something to keep them active. With the brigade comprised of paid constables, unpaid special constables, sporadically paid veteran firemen, disinterested soldiers, and a generously salaried officer, there was little cohesion or esprit de corps at drills or fires.

When Henry was called up for military service, his claim for exemption was heard before a Military Tribunal at the Town Hall on Monday 5 June 1916. While many received temporary exemptions and were to report back for a second hearing in September, Henry was one of those that received a conditional exemption from war service not because he was by then a partner in the business established by his father, but because of his officership within the brigade. He was one of very few men to receive exemption based on fire brigade duties and I imagine it was only because of his rank in the service. This opinion is reinforced by the record that shows three days after Henry’s exemption, Percy Snellgrove, a Newport fireman of vast experience but no rank, was ordered to report for military service. Others that were exempted but served as firemen were generally those that the Tribunals wished to wash their hands of and were ordered to the fire brigades for what the Tribunal, and in some cases the individual, perceived as a form of punishment.

No matter that Henry had been dealt a tricky hand, it is evident that he dealt with some major blazes during his tenure with the hotch-potch resources at his disposal, including one caused by an alarming gas explosion at Lind Court. The On Dits columnist of the IW Observer, verbally scathing on occasion, was uncharacteristically complimentary in the edition of 2 July 1918, publishing - The new Auxiliary Firemen were put to the test on Tuesday afternoon – and passed with honours. They worked hard and efficiently, and Captain Bertram Hill seems to be pretty well satisfied with the way they shaped up. What they lacked in trained efficiency they made up in zeal and hard work. But for Henry his time in the fire brigade was moving close to an unsavoury ending.

With mounting pressure on the Borough to accede to the notion of an island wide constabulary, and Chief Officer Greenstreet doing all in his power, assisted by the Town Hall, to deceive the ratepayer and hang on to his position and status, the decision was taken to appoint inexperienced Police Constable Swann as Henry’s brigade deputy in late winter 1919. Knowing there would be a backlash from the veteran firemen, especially those returning home after service overseas, the clerk of the Watch Committee assured local Press that Chief Officer Hill was fully supportive, if not active, in the selection and appointment of PC Swann.

Within a week of the news being made public, eight of Ryde’s veteran firefighters with a combined service of 137 years, submitted a letter to the Council, published by the IW Observer, making a heartfelt plea to the authorities based on their collective desire to serve the town of Ryde as best a fire brigade is able – by appointing experienced firemen to positions where experience counts.

It was to be the start of the end for Chief Constable Greenstreet. It was the very end for Henry. In a letter which he also submitted for publication in the Observer, Henry described the matter of PC Swann’s appointment, and suggested that his role had become untenable. He stood down from the position immediately. It was a sad end for a man who stepped up when asked but was propelled into a situation he could never have perceived, yet by all accounts served admirably when called upon to protect the town.

Shortly after this, the failed police-fire brigade scheme was dropped, and firefighting duties were returned to the men dedicated to it. From thereon Henry continued to serve the town with vigour, serving on the Pier, Parks, Water and Publicity committees. The fact that his personality was not the root cause of conflict with the veteran firemen becomes apparent in the records of his time serving as chairman of the Fire Brigade Committee, formed in the 1920’s. As the brigade aspired to modernise with self-propelled engines and new equipment, it was Henry, who controlled the committee that allowed progressive change to happen, including improved pay and conditions for the firemen and their families.

As the clouds of war gathered in the late 1930’s, Henry made plans to retire from the family business, but he was not to sit back and relax. He became an active member of the local Air Raid Precautions, preparing for the imminent war, and when war came, he volunteered to serve once again as a special constable. In addition, he founded the Ryde Round Table and was a founding member of Ryde Buccaneers.

He passed away at the Royal I.W. County Hospital on that Monday, precisely one month after the death of his beloved wife Florence.

I think it fair to say that Henry’s service as a fireman was brief, eventful, and despite the difficulties he faced he emerged from it an honourable man and one to whom the town of Ryde owed a great deal for his activities both within and without the fire brigade.

Rest in peace Chief Officer Hill.