Many are the firefighters of past and present that can recount tales of incidents involving animals. Many have a humorous twist, some are sad, but few, very few, in fact probably only one, caused a rift between a town's firemen and policemen that was the catalyst for almost a decade of bad feeling, quarrels and ill-advised competitiveness to be the first to a fire.

And it began with a cat!

Ryde Borough Constabulary of 1882 was under the command of Superintendent George Hinks, appointed two years earlier having been one of the Constabulary's first officers when inaugurated in 1869. 

Some of his modest collection of constables had already gone some way to antagonise the town's firemen by the summer of 1882.

Given their night-time beat it was always the on duty constables who were the first to be alerted to a fire during the hours of darkness. It had become the norm for the first alerted constable to go to, or otherwise pass the details to the Police Station in Brunswick Street (now Station Street), waken Superintendent Hinks and begin assembling the Force.

It was expected that concurrently the earliest notice would be passed by the Police to the Fire Brigade. The difference between the two organisations was that the Police were full-time paid men on duty, whereas the firemen were tucked up in their beds having earned their keep through other undertakings during the working day. 

Accordingly it was common for nocturnal fires to see the arrival of the Police long before the arrival of the Fire Brigade.

Officers of the law would arrive en-masse and attempt firefighting with buckets or fire squirts if available.

Sometimes, if attending a fire in its incipient stage, the Police were able to extinguish the matter before the brigade had arrived. This led to a certain cockiness among the constables, which over time, was worsened by an eagerness to get to the fire that was occasioned by the accidental, or perhaps deliberate omission of summoning the brigade.

Often it took a member of the public to actually think to alert the brigade resulting in their arrival at the scene to one of two outcomes - smiling policemen who'd suppressed a small fire, or a fire beyond the capacity of the Police which by the time the brigade arrived was fully developed with flames leaping from shattered windows. 

Relations between the brigade and the police were strained, to say the least.

Above - John Street, Ryde. Lansdowne House was, and still is, the building in the distance beyond the row of four chimney pots.

In 1882 Ryde's John Street was an exclusive and desirable residence at the heart of the town. Ninety degrees off and within a short walk of the busy High Street its wide thoroughfare opening at its western end to the impressive edifice of All Saints Church. Just a few hundred metres in length, John Street's residents were a select crop of the professional and successful of the era.

One those properties was Lansdowne House where, on the night of 28 August 1882, resided the venerable Dr Hastings, his wife, their servants, a female house guest, and a cat.

It was approximately thirty minutes after midnight that the doctor's wife coughed herself awake and was immediately concerned by a palpable smell of smoke in the bedroom. She eased herself off the bed and placed her bare feet on the floor, and promptly jumped back in when she felt a substantial heat emanating from the floorboards. 

Her jump startled her husband, Dr Hastings, into wakefulness, and the pair shared a panicked moment of discussion before donning footwear and gowns and making their way out to the landing. Here the smoke was at its most dense and with admirable determination the pair woke their guest and servants and began to evacuate.

The party stumbled down through the broiling smoke, past the blaze in the ground floor library and out of the front door into John Street and the relief of cool fresh air. En route the Doctor had the presence of mind to snatch an Oriental gong that decorated the entrance hall, hauled it outside to the street and struck it repeatedly with the hammer to summon assistance.

Neighbouring residents of John Street sprang up in alarm at the din from outside their windows and those who peered from between parted curtains were horrified to see smoke billowing from Lansdowne House and its sooted occupants coughing in the street.

A short distance away Constable Watson of Ryde Borough Constabulary, who had been ambling listlessly along his nocturnal beat, registered the noise and ran in the direction his ears took him, noticing a ripening smell of smoke with every stride towards the source.

In his formal written report Watson stated that he first caught sight of the Doctor thrashing at the gong as a gushing torrent of smoke poured from the front of Lansdowne House. Watson claimed that he ran down the High Street and hammered at the Fire Brigade captain's door at the rear of the Town Hall in Market Street (later the veracity of Watson's report was questioned when the Hasting's house guest remarked to the press that it was she who had first alerted the fire brigade).

In 1882 Ryde Fire Brigade had been under the command of Captain Henry Buckett for twelve years. 

The stout and indomitable 41-year-old held various roles in the function of the Borough in addition to that of Captain of the Brigade, including Town Crier, Town Sergeant, lost property officer and caretaker of the Town Hall, where he lived in modest accommodation joined to the fire station by an internal door with his wife Ellen and six children.

Buckett was an uncompromising man. Reckless with his own safety, fearless to the point that he actively dominated those under whose authority he was employed, and driven by a deeply held conviction to come to the aid of those in danger no matter the risk to himself.

Woken by the bashing at their door, whether by Constable Watson or the Hastings guest, the Buckett family adopted their routine - for the Buckett's the fire brigade was a family affair.

Drilled by years of practice Henry was joined by Ellen and the elder children in preparing the equipment and hauling it into Market Street ready for collection by the firemen, in addition to stripping the tarpaulin from the wheeled escape ladder kept in the passage between the Town Hall and St James's Church. 

As the bell was feverishly tolled to alert the firemen, young boys, the knockers-up, dashed about their designated areas hammering their juvenile fists on doors that sported a 'Fireman' sign above, to emphasise the need and urgency. In time, all the brigade attended with the exception of two who were away at camp with the Rifle Volunteers.

According to his report, Constable Watson departed the fire station and headed back up the High Street to Brunswick Street to alert Superintendent Hinks who despatched a call for members of the Constabulary to converge on John Street.

With the combination of the Doctor's gong and the Town Hall bell, the entire town was alerted that something was happening. A thickening pall of smoke extending into the starry sky provided a reference point to which many onlookers flocked. Among them was a correspondent of the IW Observer who, as was his habit, noted the time that he was woken by the bell and with his pocket watch maintained a chronology of events from thereon. 

From this we know that Ryde's firemen first entered the smoke of Lansdowne House eighteen minutes after the sounding of the bell. 

What we can't be certain of, and not detailed in any reports, is precisely what equipment the men of Ryde's brigade deployed to the fire. During the command of Buckett's predecessor John Langdon, the success of Mayor Benjamin Barrow's nationally acclaimed mains water system, with its source being the Ashey reservoir, had enabled fighting fires in the centre of the town to be achievable without the use of the manual fire engine. The firemen would tap into the nearest trunk main, quite literally constructed of hollowed tree-trunks, by utilising an existing fire-plug or hacking through the timber to create a new one. One method employed a collapsible canvass dam with a round hole at its base being used to collect water to be drawn into the manual fire engine, but John Langdon had discovered that the head of water from Ashey was so great that a jet of water could be thrown onto the roof of the Town Hall by direct application of a hose to a fire-plug. Since then it was not uncommon for the Brigade to attend a fire in close proximity to a trunk main without the engine. Whichever method was employed on this occasion, the IW Observer reported - there was a splendid pressure of water.


Above - Ryde's Market Street fire station. The station doors are now filled with concrete blocks with rusting door hinges the only reminder of its former use. The Buckett's abode was accessed via the single door to the left hand side of the image. Horses, if needed to haul the fire engine, had to be obtained from elsewhere. 

By then flames were reaching out of the shattered windows of the library. 

Dutifully, and with little protection from the smoke save for a knotted neckerchief pulled up over nose and mouth, the firemen at the sharp end pressed inside the broiling hallway. Hauling the weighty leather or canvass hose, their crouching entry into the oblivion of smoke was occasioned by the pardonable knocking over and smashing of furniture and ornaments. Unable to see the fire but for a diffused orange glow spied through stinging eyes, they directed their jet of water into the library from a prone position on the floor.

From there, beneath the inverted river of smoke passing overhead and out of the door, one of the firemen spotted a forlorn bundle of fur inert and barely breathing - the Hastings' cat! 

With the difference between life and death just a few yards away in clean air, one of the firemen reached out, scooped up the cat and scuttled outside to give the stricken moggy its best chance of survival in the front garden, before returning to the inside to assist his colleagues with hauling the serpent like hose further into the building.

In the street Superintendent Hinks had been ordering his constables to hold back the crowd of onlookers when he spotted the fireman deposit the cat on the grass. He dashed to the garden, raised the reviving cat, and delivered the sooty feline into the grateful arms of Mrs Hastings. Amid the terrible madness of seeing their home and possessions in peril, the saving of her much loved cat represented substantial solace.

With the booming encouragement of Captain Buckett's orders to get stuck into the job, the firemen pushed inwards until flushing the last vestige of flame out of the window. Rapidly thinning smoke permitted increased visibility allowing them the opportunity to wet glowing embers and douse the last flickers at the seat of the blaze.  

Perhaps the most serious fire which has occurred in Ryde since the destruction of George Street Chapel - began the report in the following weeks edition of the IW Observer which praised the actions of the town's firemen who had managed to prevent the fire developing beyond the room of origin.

Heat conduction had caused blistering of paint, the curling up of paintings and the cracking of glassware on the other side of the wall in the Drawing Room, but not one flicker of flame erupted beyond the Library.

In the aftermath the Mayor heaped praise on Captain Buckett and his men. Mr Pollard, a leading townsmen of the period, argued that it was time the authority equipped the firemen with patent respirators, such was the exposure the entry team endured and the inhalation of smoke. The press reflected these concerns in several articles over the following weeks all of which added to the mystique and esteem Ryde's public felt for their modestly compensated firemen.

Many weeks later, in possession of a generous insurance pay-out, Dr Hastings sent five pounds to Captain Buckett in appreciation of the work done that night. That sum would be around £600 today, a considerable sum for firemen who received a few pence from the Borough for their efforts. Buckett didn't hesitate in dividing that sum equally between his men.

A few months later on 25 November, Dr and Mrs Hastings hosted a gathering at their lavishly refurbished home.

Among the gathering of the good and the great of the town, the Doctor had invited Superintendent Hinks, a reporter from the IW Observer, Major Bethune, and representatives from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. 

From the latter, a smiling Superintendent Hinks was applauded as he received a diploma citing his bravery in the rescue of the Hastings' cat during the fire of three months earlier. 

From the Hastings', Hinks received a handsome marble fourteen-day clock to the value of five pounds, as requested by him in lieu of the money the Doctor had offered for the work of the Police at the same occasion. The clock bore the inscription - Presented to Superintendent George Hinks of the Ryde Borough Police by admirers of his having saved the life of a cat during the night of the fire. 

Captain Buckett and the firemen were galled by the Doctor's well intentioned but misguided apportioning of appreciation, no doubt based on Hinks being the individual who actually handed the cat to his wife. Even more so, the firemen, and no doubt some of the constables, were astounded that Hinks had taken the five pounds for himself and had it converted into an ornamental clock, not to mention the wording of the inscription! 

In New Year 1893 the matter emerged publicly in a series of letters to the IW Observer following a spate of incidents where the Police were slow to summon the Fire Brigade, the aftermath of which caused the public and Corporation to question the efficiency of the firemen, not the Police. Fireman Robert Mundell, a High Street carpenter contested - Our captain is not the man to screen any person shirking his duty, and it is hurtful to us who risk our lives to save others, to have this slur cast upon us,. So let the Police do their duty and we will do ours.

Reflecting on a fire in Pier Street, an anonymous writer submitted - I think the Police and their Superintendent deserve a rap on the knuckles. In the case of the fire at the Eagle Hotel the alarm was given to Mr Buckett by a policeman who, instead of helping Buckett to get out the hose and reel, or Mrs Buckett (who dressed herself and went out directly) to call up the other firemen, ran to the Police station to rouse the Superintendent and the other policemen on duty. These too did not go to Buckett's assistance but flocked to the hotel and when Buckett and his men got there, no less than seven policemen (including the Superintendent) had taken possession of the place.

I can not help thinking that the Superintendent of the Police acted at this and at the previous fire in John Street in complete misapprehension of his duty, and with a mean desire to take credit at the expense of the men who legitimately earned it - the firemen! Let the Police remember that they are not to act in opposition to, but in concert with, the firemen. If the Police are so well able to leave their respective beats, as it seems they are, the least they could have done would be to have given Buckett a helping hand in getting out the hose or rousing his men, and not rush off and then utter the silly taunt - 'Oh we got there first'.

Like a great many others who have suddenly risen from a subordinate position, and stimulated, doubtless by a few silly people who made a ridiculous fuss about his saving (!) a cats life, the Superintendent of Police now manifests a great deal more zeal than discretion, and it is mainly his fault that a feeling exists between the members of the Police force and the members of the Fire Brigade, decidedly inimical to the efficient action of either in case of fire.

When a writer who published under the initials GLW followed up with support for the actions of the Police, the writer of the original letter was close on his heels - With regard to making mountains out of molehills, the molehill consisted, I may inform GLW, in saving a cats life, and the mountain was the ridiculous diploma and presentation of a clock. How many men have risked their lives for others, and lived lives of self-denial, without one-tenth of the praise which was lavished on this trumpery cat incident? Sir, if when five pounds was given me for this wonderful act of bravery, I had given it up and received instead a clock for my own special delectation, I should have preferred to share the money as the Captain of the Fire Brigade did his amongst the men.

For many years previous Ryde's Police and Fire Brigade shared an annual celebratory dinner. This changed in 1883. Captain Buckett chaired the event attended only by his firemen and in speaking, commented on the unfortunate situation that existed between the organisations.

Buckett may have spoken of regret, but in many ways his actions perpetuated the problem. Given his notorious reputation and character it's not beyond the realms of reason to judge that Captain Henry Buckett actually enjoyed jousting with the Constabulary.

Little improved in relations between the Brigade and Police until 1889, when due to ill health Captain Buckett tendered his early resignation from the service and handed the reins to Charles Langdon. 

Langdon, the expert networker and founder of the IWFBF, wasted no time in repairing the eight years of animosity caused by the controversy of the rescue of Dr Hastings cat.

Unfortunately no source has been located to provide us with the name of the pet.



Lansdowne House, as it appears today.

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Above - Lansdowne House as it appears today.

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