Fire service publications

Whether technical manuals, histories, government productions, industry magazines, or novels, there are dozens of fire service publications I've become aware of and sourced to learn more about wider fire service history and relate that to the effect of firefighting on the Isle of Wight. 

I have far too many to detail them all on this page, but I have selected a special collection of publications, from small pamphlets to the vast tomes that had the greatest impact when writing the history of Isle of Wight firefighting. 

Fighting the Flames, A Tale of the London Fire Brigade

Fighting the Flames is an uncomplicated but touching romp through the lives of a collection of wholetime firemen in 1860's London.

Written much in the style of a Boy's Own yarn (persons of a certain age will make the connection) the story by children's author Robert Michael Ballantyne describes an archetypal battle between good and evil. 

Ballantyne drafted the novel following a protracted period spent with firemen at London stations with the enthusiastic consent of Captain Eyre Massey Shaw, superintendent of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade from 1861 to 1891. 

Protagonist Frank Wilders is portrayed as the classic Victorian brass-helmeted hero admired by his colleagues and idolised by his young brother Willie. Heroism and tragedy prevail.

Authenticating the detail of the firemen's lives and situations required the use of specific terminology and reference to tasks which even a modern firefighter, and particularly a non-fire service reader, would struggle to comprehend. Ballantyne bridges that gap of knowledge by occasional interruption of the storyline to communicate direct with the reader and offer explanation to ensure understanding. His description of The Stop is of paramount interest given that it's use remains a constant in the fire service of the 21st century. 

The diaries of Chief Officer Wilfred Harry Brown

Wilfred Harry Brown was the Chief Officer of Sandown Fire Brigade at the point of its absorption into the National Fire Service in August 1941.

He had served with the brigade since 1894, rising through the ranks despite two substantial sojourns to serve overseas in the Second Boer War and First World War. After imposition of the NFS he was treated poorly, but remained in service until 1943.

Perhaps he had kept diaries all of his life, we may never know, but for sure he kept a journal concerning almost every day of his life as a fireman throughout 1940 and 1941. The diaries were loaned to me for scanning and were the golden thread running through both Volumes 4 and 5 of IW firefighting history. 

Technically they are not publications as they have never been published, excepting the extracts cited in the volumes above, but I am compelled to reflect on them as one of the most bountiful elements when researching the life of Isle of Wight firemen during those critical stages of the war.

Thankfully Sandown wasn't subject to the ferocity of attacks suffered elsewhere on the Island, but Wilfred's day to day reflections give an impression of the early-war life of a fireman and his station, and in particular how much was asked of a brigade Chief Officer in the pre-NFS period - all of which is accompanied by repeated wails of the air raid warning siren with such regularity that Wilfred's detailing of the time from warning to all clear are often given the status of an afterthought. 

A fascinating, and, to the researcher, a priceless treasure trove of first-hand accounts.

The Fire Brigade Handbook by James Compton Merryweather

James Compton Merryweather was the fifth generation of his family to manage the business that for so long was inextricably linked to the development and equipment supply to United Kingdom fire brigades and many of those far beyond our borders. Gaining a full appreciation of the company, and in particular the direction it took under the guidance of James, would be a worthy feature in its own right.

Whether or not James was a fireman himself is not proven, although a contemporary portrait evidencing him in brigade officers attire strongly suggests he was. James, son of Moses, was born into the trade and elected into the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 1875, he was to lead in many areas and was contracted for several important assignments, including visiting and reorganising the Madrid Fire Brigade on English lines in 1886.

By then he had already written and published Fire Protection of Mansions in 1884, of which I have a first edition. Inspired by the catastrophic loss by fire of several vast properties, James opened the Preface with - This little book is intended for the owners and occupiers of large country seats, and for their principal servants entrusted with the management of the mansions or estates. 

 James's little book comprised 111 pages covering Common Causes of Fire, Water Supply, Defective Fire Apparatus, Fire Apparatus, Well Protected Mansions, Mansion Fire Brigades, Firefighting and Saving Life. Mansion or estate fire brigades were not uncommon and were a feature of Isle of Wight life at Osborne and Appley Towers to whom the book may have been of great interest. 

As interesting as his book was, it was not aimed at those on the front line of parish, town, borough or metropolitan brigades.

The Fire Brigade Handbook, first published in 1888 began with - In presenting this Handbook of Elementary Instructions for the use of firemen belonging to Volunteer and Private Brigades, I must disclaim any intention of attempting to instruct professional firemen in the performance of their duty. However he continued - There are always in this country, under our present unsatisfactory fire arrangements, gentlemen who, having voluntarily undertaken the protection of their town from fire, are desirous of acquiring the knowledge which will enable them to take command of their Brigade and to direct its operations with efficiency.

James's second line is born of two important factors. Firstly the frustration that he, and many others, felt at the Governments apathy towards firefighting and its deflection of pressure to incorporate a nationwide firefighting service on similar lines to that of the armed forces. Secondly, given the House of Common's disinterest in firefighting as a national service, no supporting mechanism was put in place to standardise the education and training of firemen or their commanders. 

James Compton Merryweather saw both a need and a commercial opportunity to plug that gap by producing and publishing his 330 page treatise The Fire Brigade Handbook. I am fortunate to possess the 1911 revised second edition and found it to be the most comprehensive work of its nature for the period in question. Although the great James Braidwood, founding father and superintendent of both the Edinburgh and London Fire Engine Establishment's, produced some fascinating books on firefighting and fire protection, and across the Atlantic Chief Edward F. Croker of New York produced similar at a later time, neither of them matched James Compton Merryweather's work which, as far as I am aware, is the very first all-encompassing fire brigade manual in world history.

Shand Mason - pocket guides

James Compton Merryweather exploited a gap in the market, an undeniably vital one, with his large volume as described above. James Shand and Samuel Mason, saw an opportunity to expand on Merryweather's idea but with a new and inarguably perceptive concept - books that would comfortably slide into the breast pocket of a fireman's tunic.

I have no idea how many Shand Mason and Co. produced, but I possess the three shown above 'Rules and Regulations for Partly Paid & Volunteer Fire Brigades', 'Steam Fire Engines - Working and Maintenance' and 'Fire Brigade Drills with Hints on Management'. 

These diminutively produced publications were designed to appeal to front line use, and they worked brilliantly. Drills, which formed a comparatively minor element of Merryweather's book (just two pages out of 330), featured heavily, accompanied by diagrammatical explanations, produced in simple quick reference format. Where Merryweather explored to the depths of understanding, Shand Mason focussed on what was needed in the immediate. These late-Victorian booklets also stand as the earliest printed example of number drills executed in the same manner in which recruit firefighters still learn the basics today. 

By the turn of the century the National Fire Brigades Association were the main organisation co-ordinating the integration of disparate brigades from across vast swathes of the country. Inspired by Shand Mason's pocket books, they too invested in small guides for practical use on the drill ground or fireground. A novelty of their publications is the application of fold-out diagrams and tables, such as the example in the photo on the left - Friction Loss in Pounds for each 100ft length of 2 1/2" rubber hose. 

One of the most interesting facts concerning the books by Merryweather, Shand Mason and the NFBA, was that they were for the most part complementary rather than in opposition, suggesting a collective understanding that while the Government may not have agreed a need for nationwide standardisation of fire brigade training and operations, those at the sharp end did. 

Shown below are just a few examples from Shand Mason and NFBA pocket books published between 1886-1902.

Second World War pamphlets - National Fire Service and Civil Defence

In preparation for the Second World War and throughout the years of the conflict, the Ministry for Home Security and the Home Office Fire Service Department, regularly published, revised and updated pamphlets issued to civil defence stations and personnel.

Fortunately at Ryde, where I spent most of my operational service, there exists an original National Fire Service binder, with Company Officer Max Heller's name handwritten on the front, which contains every one of the many instructions issued to his district in addition to several Civil Defence pamphlets. 

This includes the example on the left. Practical use of this document was revived in 2004 and 2005 when I was contracted to organise the aviation fire and rescue response for the D-Day 60th and End of the War Air Shows at the IW Airport.

For the first event in June 2004, the organisers had, somehow, managed to obtain the service of more Spitfires and Hurricanes than even IWM Duxford over the same D-Day weekend. Although I was by then a fully conversant aviation FRS commander, the vintage aircraft of sixty years earlier presented their own particular hazards and rescue methods. Studying this pamphlet and other originals of a similar content, was the best preparation I could undertake for a weekend of aerial displays - although fortunately I could skip the section concerning armaments. More fortunate still was the fact that both events went well and we weren't required to put the new knowledge into practice.

One of these pamphlets also enabled me to understand what was going on in the photo on the right. Evidently the war did not cause Ryde's Esplanade photographers to cease trading and I have copies of many groups snapped as they strolled along near the railings that still exist above the entry to the railway tunnel.

All of these images show 6" steel surface pipes laid against the kerb. During the toughest days pre-NFS, the greatest threat to the firemen, notwithstanding continued bombardment, was losing water supply due to the shattering of sub-surface mains. The NFS solution was to provide surface mounted rigid pipe networks comprising short sections that could be easily connected. In the event of damage to a section, it would be a matter of a couple of minutes to detach the broken section and replace it with new. 

The pipework shown in the photograph connected Ryde's Canoe Lake to a large rigid dam placed at the Western Gardens. From there the pipes continued up through the town, into Garfield Road to another rigid dam, and from there up to its termination at a 20,000 gallon dam at Adelaide Place.

On 10 June 1942 the network was the subject of an exercise overseen by Divisional Officer H. Pearson and Company Officer Max Heller. For the purpose of the exercise all the dams on the network, which were normally kept full, had been emptied. With the town's NFS crews at their usual standby locations a call was placed by Mr Weeks, the Mayor. Within three minutes the men of the Simeon Street crew were in action at the Canoe Lake to begin the process, with other men and pumps arriving promptly at the Western Gardens, Garfield Road and Adelaide Place where preparations were made to extend a jet of firefighting water. It took 45-minutes for the water to be relayed along the system, fill all tanks to capacity and produce a jet of firefighting water at Adelaide Place, 160ft above sea level. The promptitude and efficiency of the men were warmly commended - reported the IW County Press.

This system was popular with the firemen and Fire Force Commanders but was little appreciated by those outside of the service. Cowes UDC met with the local NFS Commander to complain about the system in December 1943 and to request that it be placed under the surface. After explaining the concept and that sub-surface pipes would negate the purpose, the Fire Force Commander summarised by stating that if the UDC persisted he would have the network removed and leave the town to its peril. Coming only eighteen months after the infamous Cowes Blitz the UDC withdrew their complaint.

The photograph below shows men of London's NFS deploying the same system.

Red Watch

From the 1960's to the 1980's Gordon Honeycombe was a well known name. First he was a Shakespearian actor, but became more widely known for his role as presenter of ITN in a golden age of newscasting where he, and others, were trusted for presenting facts without bias (Tom Bradby take note). 

Something of his trustworthiness can be taken from the fact that in the wake of the terrible events of the fire that features in Red Watch, Honeycombe was positively received by the officers and men of A21 Paddington. They accepted him into the station, answered his questions, were frank and exhaustive and spared no detail of their actions or of thoughts that might normally have been revealed solely within the sanctity of the mess room table, if at all. 

What Honeycombe produced is a detailed and heartrending account of four days in the life of Paddington's Red Watch in December 1973, and in particular the events of the fire at the Worsley Hotel, Maida Vale, from which one of them did not return.

Often media meddling in such personal matters is unwelcome and when published, inaccurate. In the case of Red Watch, it stands in testament as a difficult task gently and thoughtfully done, capturing the essence of the watch, their actions at the Worsley, and the post-incident trauma.

Honeycombe closed the 300-page reflection with words spoken to him by A21's Station Officer Neil Wallington - I can't help remembering his last words - what he said before he died. He didn't want to die, did he? And he won't, because he'll always be remembered. Not only by us, but by everyone who reads the book. Harry would be pleased about that.