IW Firefighting - a potted history

The Island's first formal fire brigade was formed at Ryde in 1829, at the behest of the members of the Town Board. They elected Cross Street ironmonger George Woods as brigade superintendent. But organised firefighting of a very different type existed almost two millennia before.

Circa AD300 Brading Villa was sacked by pirates, pillaged and put to the torch. It is the first recorded instance of a fire involving a man-made structure on the Island. Given the circumstances of the fire it is unlikely that the Roman occupiers had the opportunity to put into place the lessons learned centuries earlier during the AD64 Great Fire of Rome, but it is equally likely that it was the colonists that first brought formal methods of firefighting to the island they knew as Vecta. In the early part of the fifth century the Romans departed Britannia, taking with them their many advances and technologies and firefighting was abandoned as a considered undertaking for more than a thousand years. 

The next recorded fire affecting an Isle of Wight property occurred in the summer of 1641. We know this because Sir John Oglander, Deputy Governor of the Isle of Wight, wrote of a fire that destroyed the home and possessions of Brading fisherman John Gryme in a form of certificate allowing the married father to go about the Island pleading for alms, an early form of social care - albeit that those presented with the certificate could deny assistance as they saw fit. The circumstances detailed by Oglander suggest that no means of fighting the fire were available or deployed.

However a major fire event was to strike at the heart of the nation a quarter of a century later - the Great Fire of London. From the ashes blossomed the first fire insurance companies.

Seventeenth century Isle of Wight offered modest fruits for the rapidly expanding offices of the fire insurers and there was insufficient need to employ insurance brigades present in the cities and more prosperous towns. However some insurers did have an interest in key Island properties. As such Newport became the beneficiary of an unknown office that supplied, or assisted with funding the towns first fire engine circa 1687. Stowed in the west end of the north aisle of St Thomas's, the engine was under the supervision of the overseers of the poor - the poor being those who were rallied to operate the engine and engage in the firefighting when required. Provision of the engine was only part of the operation. The town possessed no mains water system, water had to be brought to and poured into the body of the engine by bucket chains formed by more volunteers.

Almost certainly this basic appliance would have had volunteers pulling feverishly at the pumping handles when the Great Fire of Newport occurred on 13 November 1785.

On that occasion seventeen houses were destroyed, six others were badly damaged and two lives were lost including that of 'eminent brewer' Mr. I.Haddon. So severe was the loss from fire that the event was included in the Gazetteer of English Urban Fire Disasters 1500-1900.

In the late eighteenth century Cowes acquired its first engine . An historical article that appeared in an edition of the Isle of Wight County Press in 1962 suggested that the engine was donated by the Sun Fire Office in 1787. 

However in 2023 I was advised by an expert of the Sun, who had transcribed the company records held at the London Metropolitan Archives, that this was not the case. The records unearthed by her indicated that in 1765 the Sun Committee of Management, granted £5 5s to 'The town of West Cowes in the Isle of Wight... when they have purchased a fire engine pursuant to their request'. Is it coincidental that two months earlier, March 1765, the Salisbury and Winchester Journal carried an advertisement of 'all the stock in trade of of East Cowes shipbuilder Isaac Mitchell', including 'a very good fire engine and buckets'. It would be true to say that there was not a plethora of second-hand fire engines on the market in the late eighteenth century, the balance of probability suggests that the money granted to West Cowes in May, was in lieu of the purchase of the fire engine sold at East Cowes in March. 

The engine, estimated to have been a Newsham type, was to serve the town for over one-hundred years. When it was finally decommissioned, in 1905, it was photographed (Fig.1)) and after initially being considered scrap, was instead kept as an antiquity. Sadly Luftwaffe bombing in May 1942 reduced the relic to matchwood.

As mentioned above, 1829 witnessed the formation of Ryde Fire Brigade - the first formally organised body of Isle of Wight men dedicated to the art of firefighting. One source suggests it was another eight years before RFB was provided with its first fire engine, at a cost of £43 17s. However a verifiable source at the London Metropolitan Archives evidence that on 23 July 1829 the Sun Fire Office Committee of Management recorded the following minute - Resolved that £10 be subscribed towards the purchase of an Engine at Ryde provided arrangements are made by the Town for keeping it in repair at their expense. Not only is this reference more reliable, it's logical that if the brigade was formed in 1829, that would be the year in which an engine was purchased. Unfortunately unlike the earlier Cowes engine there is no reference from which to learn which manufacturer or model. 

Ryde's Town Hall had been completed and opened in 1831 and it was at the rear of the Hall, off Market Street, that the town's first fire station was located, which can still be seen despite the openings having been bricked up . So modest was the accommodation afforded the fire brigade that the eventual addition of a wheeled escape ladder had to be kept outdoors in the passageway between the Town Hall and St James's Church.

The establishment of Newport's first formal brigade wasn't far behind. The minutes of the Borough of Newport quarterly meeting held on 6 February 1838 indicate the appointment of William Atkey as superintendent with seven firemen, the first of an anticipated nominal roll of eleven. 

Ventnor formed its first fire brigade in the 1840's following a devastating fire at the town Mill. Their basic original provision of 30 buckets and two ladders was augmented by an engine, evidenced in a letter from Merryweather's of February 1894 offering terms for a new engine based on part-exchange of an engine the company had sold to Ventnor in 1848. 

It is important to appreciate that in the nineteenth century provision of fire engines wasn't a sole preserve of the fire brigades. A proliferation of manually operated fire engines is evidenced in the Illustrated London News which described a fire at Parkhurst Juvenile Reformatory of 30 July 1850. C-Ward Dormitory, accommodating approximately two-hundred 15-19 years olds, was evacuated before fire ripped through the structure leaving only the external walls and chimney stacks standing and a molten mass of metal from two-hundred bedsteads. While soldiers from the garrison guarded the relieved teenagers, others troops were directing firefighting branches from a garrison engine in support of the town engine which in addition was augmented by another supplied and operated by inmates of the House of Industry, the Grubber Brigade

Above - an artists impression of the Parkhurst fire, as it appeared in the Illustrated London News. Note the firefighters directing jets of water from the roof of adjacent blocks and the evacuated inmates corralled in the field to the left. 

In 1852 the Isle of Wight Observer published an article reporting a fire at Kingston Farm to which Newport refused to send its engine as it would have left the town unprotected. In a rare and historically early act of perception, a columnist in The Observer remarked on it being high time the authorities across the Island established a joint scheme to position publicly owned fire engines at each point of the compass, plus one centrally located at Newport, so that all, whether living on one part of the Island, or the other, may feel that, if at any time a fire should overtake them, they would have, at no great distance, that which nobody could deny - an engine - to assist in extinguishing it. It took almost a hundred years and the experience of organised war firefighting before anything like the columnists suggestion was achieved. 

Around the same time Cowes Fire Brigade materialised in press reports without a fixed launch date being identifiable. Next to be clearly identified was that of Shanklin.

Displayed on the wall of Shanklin Fire Station today is one of a series of china plates produced in 1986 celebrating the 100th anniversary of Shanklin Fire Brigade. It is true to state that the towns authorities formally launched its brigade in late 1886, but eager Shanklin townsmen had created their own brigade, complete with an engine named Nil Desperandum by no later than 1866. Details of a drill session was published in the IW Observer in November of that year, citing Messrs Buckell and Middleton as the officers in charge.

Despite the original Shanklin brigade being an unofficial undertaking, in 1881 the Town Board had a 25lbs bell installed on the roof of the civic offices to call the firemen when required, a system backed up by a team of call-boys, or knockers-up, including one 13-year old Oscar Rayner. Reliance on the ad-hoc formation came under scrutiny in the middle of the decade and compelled the launch of the formal Shanklin Fire Brigade under the control of the town authority in 1886. By 1889 young Oscar had joined as a probationary fireman, in which he excelled, and by 1893 he was brigade captain. Long before then, the Island's firefighting fraternity had been joined by that of Sandown Fire Brigade.

Sandown FB, formed in 1879 (Fig.2), and experienced an uncertain opening year from its modest accommodation in Wilkes Road. Original Captain Frank Cantelo quit inside a year, but he was to be followed by one James Dore.

Dore was a man with many skills and talents - businessman, photographer, inventor, entrepreneur, townsman, a master of networking and one who was soon to become a leading light in Isle of Wight firefighting circles, eventually becoming internationally renowned and appointed as both full and honorary member of firefighting federations across Europe. Despite his wide and varied interests, his commitment to the increasing professionalism of Sandown Fire Brigade benefitted not only the men of his own brigade, but inspired greater efforts from neighbouring brigades keen to emulate his success. Sandown achieved many firsts among Island brigades, but perhaps most notably they were the first to step out of the age of the manual fire engine and into the world of steam power, in 1907.

Above - Sandown Fire Brigade at the front of their Grafton Street Fire Station proudly displaying their Shand Mason steam fire engine, 20 February 1907. Captain James Dore is stood at the front of the steamer.

Dore was highly supportive of Charles Langdon's aspiration to form the Isle of Wight Fire Brigades Federation in 1894 (click here for IWFBF history). By the end of the Victorian era, the Federation was the focal point for the collaboration of Newport, Cowes, Ryde, Sandown, Shanklin and Ventnor fire brigades.

As the twentieth century dawned, brigades continued to develop in Central and East Wight, but to the west, nothing had been done. Both property and structure were often left to burn to ruins unless fortunate enough to receive the attentions of the engine and troops garrisoned at Fort Victoria or Golden Hill - motivating one army officer to contact the rural authorities complaining that it was inappropriate for them to rely on the military to provide a civil service to the local population. 

In the early stages of the 20th century prior to the First World War, the need and benefit of possessing a local brigade extended into smaller conurbations with parish brigades forming in Wroxall, Northwood, Binstead and Newchurch. Few of them lasted long and were eventually subsumed, by financial agreement, into the response area of one of the larger brigades. One of the oddities that did enjoy a notable if brief existence was the Appley Towers Volunteer Fire Brigade.

ATVFB were the brainchild of the owner of Appley Towers, Captain George William Hutt. Captain Hutt earned his captaincy through service with the Army Service Corps before reverting to the reserves with the Royal Scots and returning home to his estate on the Isle of Wight. At that stage Appley was within the control of St Helens Urban District Council, and plenty of evidence exists to show George persistently pestered the UDC to form a fire brigade. Frustrated at the lack of progress he formed his own Volunteer Fire Brigade from the staff on his estate, appointing himself as brigade commander and investing substantially in equipment and smart uniforms for him and his men. So well did he carry the part that when his Appley Towers home suffered a major conflagration in March 1904, many among the crowd who gathered to view the spectacle were convinced that he was Sidney Sapsworth, the captain of Ryde Fire Brigade. 


Above - the Appley Towers fire of 22 March 1904.

It was the Appley fire that caught the attention of the UDC councillors who returned to an idea submitted by Captain George Howard Harrison, former commander of Kingston and Surbiton District Fire Brigade, who had retired to the Island at nearby Thornton Manor. Whilst Harrison wasn't credited at the time, what the UDC put in place was precisely what Harrison had suggested two years earlier - the establishment of a district brigade composed of three sections, one in St Helens itself, one in Seaview and the other at St John's (today part of Ryde). When established this made the St Helens fire brigade the largest pre-war brigade to be fielded on the Island, comprising approximately sixty men. To the delight of Captain Hutt of Appley Towers, he was appointed officer in charge of the St John's Brigade, in which he revelled, albeit briefly as ill health took him off the run and ended his life aged just 45 in January 1910.

At the stage when Isle of Wight firefighting was at its strongest, the First World War undid the good by robbing the brigades of its youngest and most capable men. This caused the collapse of the smaller parish brigades and very nearly ended some of the larger established brigades too. All of them saw an average manpower reduction of around 60-75%, largely due to the impact of the Military Service Act which received Royal Assent in March 1916. The vacant positions either went unfilled, or were plugged by retired firemen who responded to the need, or those who had successfully appealed to the Military Tribunal against service in the armed forces, being granted on condition of service in their local brigade, with varying levels of enthusiasm. 

In the aftermath of the war several Isle of Wight firemen remained in graves, some known, some not, across Northern Europe and the Dardanelles. Others returned physically and/or mentally shattered and unable to return to firefighting duties. 

As post-war brigades slowly reconstructed, assisted by a resurgence of the IWFBF from the early 1920's, the next technical evolution took place in July 1923 when Ventnor Fire Brigade acquired the Island's first motor-driven fire engine, a gutsy Leyland Braidwood FE (Fig.3). Unsurprisingly the other major brigades were quick to follow suit with one exception - Newport Fire Brigade skipped the steam-powered era and in the mid-20's went straight from manual power to motor power - albeit that they were equipped with a comparably feeble Ford Stanley appliance which was the butt of many jokes when attending IWFBF events alongside their Island counterparts.

It should be noted that Shanklin acquired an adapted Mercedes car in 1913, but it was not a fire engine and proved highly inefficient in its desired role to transport men, equipment, and to tow the steam fire engine, and was worn out within a few years.

Finally in 1928 West Wight had its own fire brigade. However it wasn't the local authorities that took the initiative, it was the members of the Freshwater Rover Scouts under the command of Scoutmaster Wilfred Jeffrey (Fig.4).

This modest band of gallant young men immediately drew acclaim for their early endeavours, including a magnificent display during a serious fire at Freshwater's Palace Theatre in May 1929. Their endeavour and skills were remarked upon with admiration by Newport Fire Brigade's Captain Percy Shields, who turned out with a crew from the county town to assist, only to find that the firemen in shorts had the major blaze under control.

As the Island's brigades entered and progressed through the 1930's unparalleled levels of professionalism were attained, boosted by the variety of motor powered appliances and modern equipment being made available. As such it wasn't a particular concern for the Island's major towns when the Fire Brigades Act received Royal Assent in 1938. However the clouds of war were gathering and by that year the Island was already teeming with new ranks of the Auxiliary Fire Service, attached to local brigades but distinctly different from them. They were also paid substantially better and there are many examples of Island firemen quitting their brigade roles to join the AFS. Chief Officers of Island brigades (the title 'captain' becoming outdated) found their workloads increase ten-fold as they became responsible for burgeoning numbers of auxiliaries. Max Heller, Chief Officer of Ryde Fire Brigade, went from commanding a nominal roll of eighteen brigade firemen to almost ten times that number within twelve months, and was refused a pay rise when raising the matter with the Borough Council.

Above - Chief Officer Max Heller of Ryde Fire Brigade, parades recently qualified Auxiliary Firemen down Union Street during a publicity and recruiting event on 16 April 1939.

Lessons learned during the early months of the war, most notably in London, compelled a Governmental rethink and in August 1941 all brigades, of which there were approximately 1600 across the country, were merged with the ranks of the AFS to form the National Fire Service. Whilst unpopular at the outset, hindsight has shown the NFS to have been a marvellous and unparalleled success. Organised within a stunningly brief period, the nationalised service settled on the Island in the form of Fire Force 14D of Region 6. Locally sub-divisions were created in accord with the Island's six Civil Defence districts, each with its own sub-divisional headquarters and sub-control room with the Division centrally controlled at The Grange on Staplers Road, Newport. 

Above - The Grange, Fire Force 14D headquarters, Staplers Road, Newport.

Formation of the NFS ended the history of borough, town and parish brigades. Some took the words of Herbert Morrison, Home Secretary, too literally when he stated in 1941 that after the cessation of hostilities responsibility for firefighting would be returned to local authority. Many assumed to mean a return to the pre-war arrangements. The reality is that the Fire Services Act 1947 compelled the creation of county brigades. Accordingly in April 1948 the National Fire Service was disbanded and the Isle of Wight Fire Brigade was launched - the old brigades were consigned to history and there was much bad feeling among the pre-war veterans.

In the County brigade a remnant remained (and still remains) of the days of the NFS. At its height the wartime service comprised primary stations in each town supported by several sub-stations, training centres and action stations. As the war neared its end the NFS was reduced, partly in response to a decreasing of Luftwaffe activity and partly to release men for the fighting forces. On the Island this meant the closure of all minor stations and the retention of just ten. This began at Newport with Station 14D1 which had opened as an NFS station in South Street in February 1942, then Cowes 14D2, and clockwise around the Island to Yarmouth 14D10. The clockwise numbers 1 to 10 remained as station designators within the County brigade, and continued in use when the Brigade was renamed as a Fire and Rescue Service in the mid-1980's. As with all change there was some disgruntlement concerning the removal of brigade, but the name change reflected the changing role of the service.

During the war the National Fire Service provided exactly what the title suggested - a firefighting service. Matters of technical rescues, such as from collapsed structures and the decontamination of personnel, was the preserve of the Air Raid Precautions squads, later referred to as Civil Defence. When the war ended and the NFS was disbanded, the County brigades formed in 1948 naturally, and legislatively, assumed the role of primacy in fighting fires. ARP/Civil Defence had already been disbanded in May 1945, but was resurrected as the Civil Defence Corps in 1949. Although the Cold War CDCs role shared comparisons with its wartime counterpart, they were to be deployed en masse during times of national emergency, i.e. in the event of a nuclear attack. As such they were not available for local deployment in the manner of wartime operations. This left something of a gap in the needs of emergency responses. There was nothing in the 1947 Act to compel fire brigades to respond to anything but fires - but with a can-do spirit and much application of improvise, adapt and overcome, it became normal for the fire brigades to take on virtually any challenge set before them. Any opportunity of a recourse to the CDC was dispelled when the organisation was disbanded in 1968. The role of the fire brigades evolved substantially from that of the NFS, and was recognised by the organisations themselves, evidenced by the fact that all but London dropped brigade and repackaged the brand as a fire and rescue service. Government failed to act on this until bringing into effect the Fire and Rescue Services Act of 2004. This legislation finally formalised the deployment, and hence funding, for incidents of a non-firefighting category. 

2012 saw the Island close its Fire Control service which had operated at Newport since the days of the National Fire Service, and agree a business arrangement with Surrey Fire and Rescue Service to provide the facility from their Control Centre for the following five years. At the time as a crew commander I was in regular contact with, and relied heavily, upon the professionalism combined with local knowledge and team spirit of the Isle of Wight Control Operators, and felt their demise to be a major loss to the service. To be fair to the Surrey operators, following some teething issues they proved an equally professional and friendly service - but they were never going to fully grasp local oddities such defining Niton from Knighton.

In 2016 the Isle of Wight relinquished autocratic control of its firefighting destiny by application of a strategic partnership with Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service which saw the Chief and senior officers of Hampshire bear responsibility to the Isle of Wight Council for the delivery of its legal obligations under the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004. From the start the stated intention had been a partnership only, not a takeover, or a merger or any other connotation. During the first inspection of the Isle of Wight's service by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary's and Fire and Rescue Services in 2018, I was among the few (and undeniably the most junior rank) sat in Committee Room 4 of County Hall on Monday 9 July during the service's introductory address, formally termed the strategic briefing, to the Inspectorate in which a senior Hampshire officer unambiguously emphasised that there was no plan to advance the arrangement beyond that of strategic partnership. Clearly things changed rapidly in the aftermath. In early 2019 we, the employees, were advised that in April 2020, IWFRS would be no more and was to be combined with our mainland neighbours to become Hampshire and Isle of Wight Fire and Rescue Service. A combination of Brexit and Covid delayed that plan until 2021, becoming effective on 1 April.

Station numbers of the NFS era still remain, prefixed with H7 as the Island's group identifier within the wider service. Newport is now H71, Cowes H72 and so on clockwise around the Island, with the exception being Yarmouth which has been re-designated Station H80.

Since then the Island's fire services have been controlled from Service Headquarters at Eastleigh. 

As an employee whose life is inextricably linked to the fire service, I have worked hard to override the emotional loss of the IWFRS and seek positives from the change. As a person who enjoyed working for the IW Fire and Rescue Service and wore the badge with pride, I confess to not being so keen. 

However, being objective, change is nothing new. 

From borough, town and parish brigades evolved a nationalised scheme created to manage the greatest threat to community safety in the history of the nation, from which was born the County brigades. County firefighting authorities lasted for seventy years without significant change before talk of merger and combination appeared on the political horizon, and we, the firefighters of the Isle of Wight, are just one of many groups of our brethren who have experienced our service enforced into combination with another.  

I wonder where the future lies?

Funding for fire and rescue services is being continually reduced and I can't foresee that trend reversing, suggesting that combination shall continue like the moving pieces on a draughts board, swallowing up the individual and stacking into the many, move by move. Perhaps, one day, when the remaining pieces on the board are few, the final move will invoke a return of a nationalised fire service, and should it happen, one wonders why the wartime version that proved so effective under extremes of duress that my generation cannot imagine, was ever disbanded in the first place?

Private fire brigades

Throughout most of the chronology described above, there have been many private fire brigades, commonly referred to as Works Brigades.

These have proven the most difficult to research as the commercial entities who employed them either retained no records, have been reluctant to release them for historical purposes, or no longer exist.. These include the below, and there may have been more as yet undiscovered, the last of which were the Civil Aviation Authority regulated airport fire crews which demised in the first decade of the 21st century when the Island's two airports at Bembridge and Sandown reverted to unlicensed operations (although it is known that a voluntary fire response of unregulated and unknown standard is maintained at Sandown airport).

  • Appley Towers Volunteer Fire Brigade
  • Northcourt Manor Fire Brigade
  • Osborne House Fire Brigade
  • London and South Western and London Brighton and South Coast Railway Fire Brigade
  • JS Whites Fire Brigade (fully affiliated as an NFS unit during the Second World War)
  • Saunders Roe Fire Brigade
  • Southern Railway Fire Brigade
  • Groves and Gutteridge Fire Brigade
  • Sandown Airport Rescue and Firefighting Service (CAA licensed)
  • Britten-Norman Rescue and Firefighting Service (CAA licensed)

If you have enjoyed this page, why not make a small donation to the Firefighters Charity.