History of the IWFBF

Charles Langdon (Fig.1) was a well known 29-year-old builder of Ryde when he was voted to the position of Captain of the Borough Fire Brigade on 28 January 1889. 

Although considered a young man to be appointed to the role of Captain, and by far the youngest on the Island at that time, his acumen soon proved that faith in him was well placed. 

Taking over the reigns at short notice due to the failing health of his predecessor he was quick to earn the respect of his men, the borough authorities, and the public, for his capabilities at emergencies and the way he commanded his firemen both at fires, in training and at the station. 

Improvement through Competition

Before winning over his firemen Charles had to overcome the lasting effect of his predecessor. That man, Henry Buckett, was a barrel-chested giant of a man in both size and character, a formidable act to follow and one for which the comparatively modest Charles was not equipped to emulate on an equal footing. As the brigade had become a lacklustre and undermotivated band during Buckett's ailing last months, Charles pinned his hopes on reinvigorating the men through the application of drill competition.

On 3 May 1890 the Isle of Wight County Press carried an advertisement for the annual Ryde Horse and Carriage Show, and promised that for the first time the event on the Esplanade would include a Fire Brigade Drill Competition. Sadly the reluctance of Ryde's disinterested firemen resulted in cancellation of the competition. 

Charles turned to external factors to inspire his men. Over the course of the next two years he hosted collaborative visits of firemen from Shanklin, Ventnor and Littlehampton, and in some cases drills were held on an ad-hoc non-competitive basis. Progressively smiles and willingness returned to the faces of Ryde's firemen as their Captain won them over, such that by April 1893 the imposition of a new set of brigade disciplinary procedures and standard rules, drafted by Charles, was adopted without argument. 

Throughout this period Ryde Fire Brigade was stationed in ad-hoc space at the rear of the Town Hall off Market Street, and the wide thoroughfare of Lind Street (Fig.2) was nominally considered the brigade's drill-yard. As the refreshed brigade practised their skills in the town's principal street, many would gather to watch their exploits, promoting pride in the firemen's work and the esteem in which they were held by townsfolk.

Charles invited the captain's of the Island's other brigades, Newport, Cowes, Sandown, Shanklin and Ventnor, to attend a special meeting at Ryde Town Hall. On that day, 31 March 1894, Charles achieved a major milestone in Isle of Wight firefighting - the launch of the Isle of Wight Fire Brigades Federation. 

At the same meeting plans were laid for the completion of the first IWFBF drill competition (Fig.3), which continued, with some breaks, until the final event held at Shanklin in 1939 (click here to see all drill competition results 1894-1939).

Above, a colourised image of a photograph taken at Simeon Street Recreation Ground, Ryde, during a drill competition and camp held on the dates 25-27 April 1903. A funnel of a steam fire-engine can be seen among the firemen. No steam fire-engine was operational on the Isle of Wight until 1907 so it is assumed that as this competition was both an IWFBF and National Fire Brigades Union Southern District event, this engine must have been brought to the Island by a mainland team.

The Battenburg Cup

Prince Henry of Battenburg (Fig.4) became a member of the Royal Family by marriage to Queen Victoria's youngest child Princess Beatrice.

Victoria appointed her son-in-law to Governor of the Isle of Wight in 1889. Being a young man with an interest in adventure, he became aware of the IWFBF by acquaintance with Captain Charles Langdon, and was enthralled by the spectacle of the first IWFBF competition held at Simeon Street Recreation Ground in Ryde, in 1894.

Accordingly he donated a cup (Fig.5), formally entitled the IWFBA Challenge Cup (the Federation was known as an Association for the first two years) generally referred to as the Battenburg Cup. As the most esteemed prize on offer to IWFBF teams, it was to be awarded to the winners of the officer and four-man drill, which was always held as the grand finale to all drill competitions.

On 28 August 1895, Prince Henry was present at Shanklin's County Ground when the cup was awarded by him to its first winners from Cowes Fire Brigade, comprising Foreman Thomas Richardson with firemen Harvey, Ford, Varney and Moore. Sadly it was the first and last time that the Prince was able to congratulate the winners personally. By the time of the next competition Henry had persuaded Queen Victoria to allow him to serve in the Ashanti War as secretary to the commander-in-chief of British forces. He contracted malaria and died aboard the cruiser HMS Blenheim off the coast of Sierra Leone on 20 January 1896. His body was repatriated and buried at St Mildred's Church, Whippingham.

Cowes Fire Brigade, photographed in celebration of their Battenburg Cup victory (Fig.6). The cup itself appears in the centre in the hands of Captain Ernest Willsteed.

The varied uniform styles, and rank markings are typical of a provincial fire brigade of the era.

In the front, three helmets are displayed, which appear to be of the brass issue featuring the standard Merryweather's front piece carrying the generic emblem. Very few brigades could afford their own emblem to be recreated in brass for fixing to the helmets. 

It is assumed that the gentlemen in civilian attire are members of the town's council, most probably the chairman and the head of the fire brigade committee.

Winner takes all

When Prince Henry graced the Federation with his Challenge Cup, he made one stipulation - that any brigade winning the cup for a third time were to keep it in perpetuity. Throughout the course of the decade following his death, competition to be the team to lay permanent claim to the Battenburg Cup added an edge to IWFBF competition events. By the time of the 1906 competition, scheduled to be held at Newport's Trafalgar Road cricket field on 6 September, three brigades were in contention for a third win - Cowes, Newport and Ventnor. 

In the intervening period, IWFBF drill competitions had become a phenomenon of mass public interest, invoking one local journalist to claim in 1899 that it was becoming 'more popular than football'. Many of the leading characters among Isle of Wight brigades had become household names, thanks partly to the competitions but more so due to the avid reporting of their activities in the local press, often including the names of firemen who had been seen to perform exemplary or heroic actions.

The Newport event of 1906 was, accordingly, accompanied by much pomp, ceremony and press attention. The Federation paraded at Quay Street before a band led the procession (Fig.7) through the town to the competition field in gladiatorial style.

After a solid afternoon of enthusiastically contested drills, the hotly awaited final drills for the Battenburg Cup launched into life. The hosts representing Newport Fire Brigade slumped badly with one of their slowest times recorded, putting them out of the running. They were bettered by teams from both Shanklin and Ryde, but it was the performances of Cowes and Ventnor for which all waited eagerly. Cowes completed the drill in a smart time, putting pressure on Ventnor. Ventnor's time was one second slower, but they achieved a clean-drill without added penalties whereas the quicker time by Cowes was inflated by the addition of three penalty seconds and Ventnor's crew comprising of Foreman G.Pearson, with firemen W.Pearson, R.Spencer, H.Gray and S.Harber, became the five men to claim the Prince's trophy for the third and final time - on this occasion it being presented to them by his widow, Princess Beatrice.

Ventnor Fire Brigade with the Battenburg Cup (Fig.8) following their third win in 1906, preceded by wins in 1901 and 1905, which, in accordance with Prince Henry's wishes, afforded them the cup in perpetuity.

However, things didn't remain that way. During research of the Island's fire brigade history in 2017, I was rummaging in the back of a cabinet at Newport Fire Station, where completely by chance I located the Battenburg Cup - dusty, filthy and black with sulphide deposits, hidden behind a range of less illustrious modern paraphernalia. Following an ample application of Silvo I brought the Cup back to its gleaming glory of the past, and received permission from the Chief Fire Officer to use it during presentations and talks to promote awareness of its history and raise funds for the Firefighters Charity.

The bleak period

It was evident in the build-up to the 1906 IWFBF drill competition, that the Federation was in danger of suffering irrepairable fracture. The absence of Sandown Fire Brigade from the line-up at Trafalgar Road that September is significant. So too is the fact that Sandown's Captain James Dore, IWFBF chairman in the months leading up to the competition, didn't appear in the minutes of the final meeting before the competition, held on 1 September, during which Newport's Captain Mursell was hastily elected to the position. Added to that the fact that the Federation's most prestigious award was no longer available for competition, it seems that the organisation faltered. 

Between September 1906 and March 1920, there were only two meetings of the IWFBF committee. A major contributory factor in the middle of that period was the First World War which robbed the Island of most of its young firemen. During the conflict the role of the firemen was not a reserved occupation, as scheduled in the Second World War, and accordingly the imposition of the March 1916 Military Service Act was to see all Island brigades stripped of its men in their prime. Brigade captains, who by then were increasingly being retitled Chief Officer, struggled to maintain a sufficient firefighting force. Across the Island many men who had long since retired from the fire services returned to the call, bringing with them heaps of experience but little of the agility they once possessed, and less enthusiastic to engage in drills for sport. 

The First Resurrection

The IWFBF meeting of March 1920 was of little consequence other than being the first meeting for six years. Newport's Chief Officer Nicholas Mursell (Fig.9), the long time landlord of the Castle Inn on Newport's High Street, was voted to the chair and a church parade was arranged - the first massed gathering of the Federation since before the war.

But it took another four years before the next meeting, hosted by Sandown Fire Brigade at their Grafton Street fire station on 15 June. The Island's most progressive brigade, and the only one to win a national competition, had returned to the fold of the Federation under the leadership of their Chief Officer, Dr Howard Barclay Billups. 

With Mursell still at the helm, the Federation made meaningful steps to reinvigorate itself and its membership, and without doubt having Sandown Fire Brigade back in the mix made a difference - they had long been the Island's most successful service. Sandown offered to host the first IWFBF drill competition for eighteen years, held at their Broadway Ground on 9 June. Wisely the decision was taken to integrate the Federation's competitions with those of the National Fire Brigades Association Southern District, creating a wide and varied camp and competition to the delight of the visiting crowds. 

The Battenburg Cup may not have been on offer, but a list of esteemed dignitaries submitted cups, trophies and prize money to enable competition to restart with a boost. 

The Sandown competition was a huge success and evolved in 1926 to reflect the advancing technology present in Island fire brigades by the addition of the Federation's first motor-pump drill category. There were still some breaks without an annual drill competition from then on, but by 1934 the Federation, which by then had the strength and confidence to lobby local authorities with well considered schemes for improving fire protection across the island, was on a solid footing, growing in strength, and increasingly professional events were held every year until the last, at Shanklin's Big Meade on 12 July 1939.

Two months later, world events were to transpire that changed the direction of United Kingdom firefighting with such impact that it still affects and influences the way we operate today. 

History has proven that the needs of firefighting in war compelled the creation of the National Fire Service in August 1941, effectively swallowing up all metropolitan and provincial fire brigades in addition to the Auxiliary Fire Service. When after five long years Victory in Europe was celebrated, the members of the Federation, which had remained in the background during the conflict, accepted the reality that post-war reorganisation of UK fire services would leave no space for borough, town and parish brigades. Without separate brigades there was no need for a Federation. The final act of the Federation of the 1940's was a celebratory dinner, held at an unknown location in the late winter of 1945. 

The Second Resurrection

Resurrecting the Federation for a second time is a consequence of discovering the IWFBF through researching the history of Isle of Wight firefighting and deciding to take the story to the public in books and public presentations. In its modern form the Federation is not a federation at all, but the title IWFBF I use as the platform from which to promote awareness of our Island's firefighting history, and true to the original Federation which raised funds for the Widows and Orphans Fund, todays IWFBF events, and the sales of associated books, generates funds which are sent directly to the Firefighters Charity (formerly known as the Fire Service National Benevolent Fund). 

For further information please visit The IWFBF Today.

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