Throughout the second half of his sadly hastened life, George William Hutt represented one of the most interesting characters associated with the pre-WW1 history of Isle of Wight firefighting, a fact all the more surprising because in truth he was never a fireman.
Hutt family crest
George heralded from an esteemed family. His father, Major General Sir George Hutt, K.C.B., was a distinguished officer of the Bombay Artillery serving with credit through the Scinde and Afghan campaigns of 1839-1844, and later during the Persian War of 1857. Post-service he became registrar and secretary to the commissioners of the Chelsea Hospital, before retiring to the family seat at Appley Towers and passing away in 1889.
The Major's brother, Sir William Hutt, a former pupil of Ryde School, was commissioner of the foundation of South Australia and instrumental in the colonisation of New Zealand.
The Wellington regional city of Lower Hutt, the Hutt Valley and the river that runs through it each carry the family name. Another uncle, John Hutt, became Governor of Western Australia where he was noted for implementing policies to protect the rights of Aboriginal people, in addition to offering them education - a stance that made him highly unpopular with white settlers whose only demand was protection from what they perceived to be savages. Suffice it to say, young George William was raised in a family of high achievement and comparable expectation.
Differing sources claim that George William was born in Kensington on 9 December 1863, or 25 February 1864. The 1871 Census located the family at the Chelsea Royal Hospital for Pensioners, their quartering being associated with his fathers work. The same document evidences that his father was born at St Helens, IW, and that his mother Adela, daughter of General Sir John Scott, originated from Bombay. George William's younger siblings, Francis and William, were both born in Chelsea.
Ten years later, as a 17-year old, George William was a boarder at a school in Stoke near Guildford. By then his father had retired from Chelsea and settled at Appley Towers. Following completion of his education at Eton and Sandhurst, George William was appointed as Lieutenant of the Army Service Corps, resident at Portland Street in the Landport area of Portsmouth, residing with his wife Caroline Edith, a native of County Cork whom he married in 3 June 1980. It appears that George William's military service was not extensive. By no later than 1894 George William and Caroline had relocated to Appley Towers. He remained a reserve Captain of the Royal Scots.
Today Appley is accepted as part of Ryde. During George William's tenure it was within St Helens Urban District Council. The first published connection between George William and the art of firefighting appeared in an April 1894 edition of the IW County Press, citing that he had incurred the wrath of the Council for allowing his staff to tap in to a UDC hydrant and deploy water for fire drills.
This strongly suggests that he was in possession of firefighting equipment of a type capable of receiving and delivering mains water, and that he had staff to partake in the activity. The article reveals the roots of what became known as the Appley Towers Volunteer Fire Brigade, staffed by those employed on the estate. St Helens UDC covered a wide swathe of land, capturing St Helens proper, Seaview and St Johns, but possessed no fire brigade. During the period it was not uncommon for a large country mansion to possess its own fire brigade, of sorts, a matter promoted by James Compton Merryweather of the famous fire engine manufacturing company in his 1886 treatise Fire Protection of Mansions, following the loss of several noble seats to fire. Whether or not George William possessed a copy is unknown - that he embraced the subject with great eagerness becomes obvious in his undertakings.
Subsequently George William won a seat on the UDC, where he tirelessly campaigned for establishment of a District fire brigade, whilst maintaining and improving the estate brigade which he commanded, repurposing his military rank of Captain for such use. In 1898 he whipped up a strong contingent of notable ratepayers, including General Sir James Browne (of Browne belt fame) that undersigned and despatched a letter to the Clerk of the UDC. They claimed that within the District, fire protection - falls very short of efficient means for the saving of life and property.
The ratepayers acknowledged Ryde Fire Brigade's capability and willingness to respond to the District, whilst underscoring the slow response time of the horse drawn manual engine. Furthermore, in what would have been a first for the Isle of Wight, they recommended crewing and training a St Helens brigade on the basis of deploying a steam fire engine.
At the subsequent UDC meeting, George William reiterated his support for the recommendation and that he had much to lose to fire, despite being in the more fortunate position of possessing his own brigade. By this stage his brigade practices were placed on a formal footing to allow them access to and water from the mains supply when drilling. His determination to compel the UDC to do something positive, coupled to his frustration at their resistance, was emphasised by his decision to allow his firefighting apparatus to be used by any persons in need of it. During the meeting he stated - on Tuesday there shall be a notice put up directing the public to where it is.
A County Press article published later the same year suggested that the equipment made available at the public access point was basic, comprising a standpipe to connect to the hydrants, several lengths of hose and a selection of branches. In providing this equipment freely at his own cost, George William may have unwittingly undermined his case for a formal brigade, albeit that his Appley equipment was some distance from St Helens itself. Not wishing to let the matter drop he later offered to recruit, train and command a UDC brigade at his own expense as honorary chief officer - but still the UDC wouldn't budge. What experience he had of firefighting, other than that of drilling his Volunteers, is unproven, but his enthusiasm to do so was undeniable.
George William's desire to command a pioneering brigade may have owed as much to his personality and family background as to his sincere commitment to fire protection and safety of life. In comparison to the military and colonial achievements of his father and uncles, George William's service was modest and his business interests unremarkable.
At the same time Prince Bertie (later Edward VII), regularly turned out from London's Chandos Street fire station in his allocated uniform and accoutrements. In doing so he promoted firefighting as a honourable and glorious pastime for a robust gentleman in the City. Prince Bertie was generally considered a playboy character of low integrity, who, though destined to be King, achieved nothing - except perhaps his occasional glorious bursts into the scene of a major conflagration.
Some of those that followed the Prince's example, unfettered by Royal protocol, were more overt in their manner and both sought and achieved self-importance by taking command of brigades - nominally private brigades established at their own hands. By the late Victorian period firemen, in general, were lauded celebrities, decorated with medals issued by the National Fire Brigades Union and able to match their military counterparts in the eyes of the public.
Sir William Hutt
Crowds gathering to witness the action at Birmingham's General Electric Company offices in Victoria Street in 1902.
In some respects they exceeded them. The empire's military crusades were written of, read of, and spoken of, but the public spectacle of the military was limited to rank after rank of spotless troops in sparkling attire during formal processions at home.
The scene of a fire, the sight, sound and smell, the firemen dashing about the fireground, ascending ladders, hauling hose, silhouetted by flame and occasionally carrying stricken souls from smoke to safety, could be witnessed by an almost unimpeded crowd.
The gasps and cheers of the onlookers, the bearing of NFBU decorations, the shine of the brass helmets and accoutrements amid the soot and grime of the fireground, had promoted the working class men of the brigades to that of celebrated heroes. On the Island, IWFBF competitions were attended by thousands, according to one local reporter. Individual firemen became noted in reports for their heroic, and sometimes reckless endeavours. In Newport, fireman and engineer Ernest Hayles achieved a status far beyond that of proprietor of a modest general store - most notably after tumbling from a Scarrott's Lane roof during an incident and returning to firefighting shortly after.
Perceived as obtainable glory, this appealed to a class of men from society families for whom the disease, dust, heat and conflict of overseas service to the Crown was unavailable, or unappealing.
By October 1902 George William resigned his commission with the Royal Scots. This permitted him limitless time to spend drilling the Volunteers at Appley Towers, and continue to apply pressure on the UDC to form a brigade. Ironically it was a major fire at Appley Towers itself that proved to be the catalyst for change.
Around 14:30 in the afternoon of Tuesday 22 March 1904, George William's wife Caroline set off from Appley for a drive with the horses, noticing a smell of smoke, continuing on her way under the assumption there was a bonfire nearby.
Within the Towers one of the domestic servants also smelled smoke. Investigation discovered a substantial fire raging in the western gable. A messenger was despatched to Ryde to call the brigade. George William immediately reverted to Captain Hutt. Fearless of the blaze developing on the first floor, he went to his dressing room and donned his firefighting uniform. Outside those of his staff trained as the Volunteer Fire Brigade did the same, and began assembling their firefighting apparatus.
Isle of Wight Within Living Memory, was published by the IW Women's Institute Federation in 1956. Within its pages were the recollection of the Appley Towers fire of sadly unnamed lady recalling the events of 52-years earlier - Those who remember the year 1904 will also remember the fire at Appley Towers; how the smoke hung like a black pall, how the local baker made dozens of buns, and the pails of hot tea that were taken out to the tired firemen. Both her words, and a photograph taken of the frontage of the house from Appley Road, suggest a strong crowd gathered to enjoy the performance.
Such was Captain Hutt's bearing, regardless of the gradual devouring of his home and possessions, that the witness believed him to be the Captain of the Ryde brigade - William Hutt was captain of Ryde Fire Brigade. He walked about immaculate in his blue uniform with silver epaulettes, cigar in mouth, slightly over-dined, which caused some titters from the ill-mannered. I am told he was responsible for Ryde having such a fine brigade.
Sidney Charles Sapsworth, the actual captain of Ryde Fire Brigade, was indeed the man responsible for his brigade's accomplishments.
Captain George William Hutt yielded to Sapsworth's greater knowledge and experience, allowing him to take command of the fire and those battling against it, including the willing Appley Towers volunteers who were later joined by firemen from Sandown, Shanklin and Newport, all of which were assembled and put to work by 16:40.
The fire was devastating to almost the entire structure from first floor level upwards. A substantial concrete slab separating ground and first floor, prevented collapse and fire spread to beneath the seat of origin.
To the gasps and eventual relief and cheers of the excited onlookers, several domestic servants trapped on the upper floors were rescued by ladder, for which Ryde's Fireman Williams was later commended.
How George William was able to compose himself, light a cigar, and peruse the fireground with a deportment alluded in the witness recollection while his abode was destroyed before his eyes is hard to reconcile. Perhaps in that brief moment he had attracted the acclamation which he had so long sought - albeit mistakenly.
What remained of Appley Towers, was repaired and rebuilt. However the events of that day, and the extent of the damage despite Appley being one of the closest parts of St Helens UDC to Ryde's brigade, compelled uneasiness among other UDC councillors who had for so long denied the need for a fire service.
In the meantime the district had become the home to Captain George Howard Harrison. The former commander of the Kingston, Surbiton and District Fire Brigade had chosen Thornton Manor as his place of retirement. Some time before the events of March 1904, Harrison, who had been appointed President of the IWFBF, had become aware of the discussion regarding the potential for a UDC fire brigade, to which he applied his experience.
Unlike towns and boroughs, where a single fire station was generally capable of covering an entire conurbation, such as was the case in Newport, Cowes, Ryde, Sandown, Shanklin and Ventnor - applying the same standard of cover across an entire UDC required lateral thinking. Harrison's mainland experience was similar, to which he applied a policy of developing several smaller stations in opposition to one central station.
Harrison developed and submitted to the UDC a plan based on a three-station arrangement, one adjacent to St Helens green, one in Seaview, and one in St Johns. The three factions would be equipped and capable of working independently or mutually as required. The plan had been vociferously rejected - councillors who would not entertain the notion of one fire brigade were beside themselves with the concept of three.
In the wake of the Appley Towers fire, the UDC backpedalled and, without acknowledging Harrison as its architect, announced the launching of precisely the scheme he'd previously recommended.
Each of the three stations were allocated a Captain. George William Hutt finally achieved his desire to become a Captain of a real fire brigade when he was appointed officer in charge of the St Johns faction of the St Helens UDC Volunteer Fire Brigade. During its brief existence St Helens 50-60-man brigade was the largest in IW firefighting history prior to the Second World War.
Captain Hutt clearly revelled in his role. One of his earliest self-motivated tasks was to ensure that the St Johns supply of hose was sufficient to reach every structure and place of value from the point of the nearest hydrant. In April 1906 he submitted a report to the UDC demanding more hose to reach - Thornton, St John's House, Preston Farm, Westridge Farm, Highland Road, Surbiton Grove and the middle of Cross Street (Oakfield).
George William's altruism shines through the many references to the activities of the St Johns firemen. His firemen required boots, the UDC denied the cost, so he visited an Elmfield shoemaker and commissioned the work without advising the UDC. At the next UDC meeting the rumour was raised and outrage ensued. George William vacated the building, much to the astonishment of Council, and returned thirty minutes later bearing a receipt to prove that he'd paid for the order on his own account.
His investment in his brigade didn't end there. Tunics, brass helmets, and accoutrements, more hose, rescue lines and ancillaries were all acquired for the St Johns firemen at their Captain's expense. The only trouble ensued when the men of the St Helens and Seaview factions realised they were being left behind and led by captains who, not unreasonably, were not willing to match Hutt's extravagance for items they felt should have been funded by the ratepayers.
By all accounts, the appearance of the St Johns firemen, their swift action enabled by regular drill sessions at a Mission Hall in Brading Road, and at other properties by invitation of the owners, contributed to a well respected brigade for which Captain Hutt was recognised as its capable and committed commander.
Sadly at the peak of his firefighting endeavours, ill health in his early 40's proved to be his toughest battle. Ultimately he had to face the sad fact that he was no longer capable of the rigours of firefighting, and announced on 21 December 1908 that he would be resigning in the following January. On departing he insisted that his St Johns firemen be permitted to retain the uniforms he had afforded them as their personal property.
Responding to the UDCs expression of appreciation for his services, George William remarked - Friends in the district have been most kind in allowing the Brigade to use their houses for practices. It has afforded me great pleasure to work with the Fire Brigade.
On Tuesday 4 January 1910, George William succumbed to an attack of pneumonia and died at Appley Towers aged 46.
Four days later he was interred at St Helens Church alongside his father. Among the attendees was Captain George Howard Harrison, the man that created the brigade scheme that enabled George William to achieve his dream for a brief three years before his enforced resignation. Ryde's former Captain Charles Langdon made the funeral arrangements. Floral tributes were many, including that of his surviving son and two daughters - To dear Dad from his loving children.
George William Hutt was the product of a family of empire. No doubt his position was associated with unsolicited pressures and expectations.
George sought recognition in the art of fire command, established his own fire brigade and furnished himself with a flourishing uniform that emanated importance. This may be mocked, but when the opportunity presented itself for him to really take command of men at fires, he did so with unquestionable capability and drive. In addition he exuded an empathy for those who served under him, a care for their welfare and for the tasks they were collectively committed to doing. No-one can ask more of a man than to do his best, and of a leader to lead.
George William was a colourful character, and of the dozens I have researched I regard him in the top ten for determination, execution, and humanity.