In variance with most of the inclusions in the Leaders feature pages, the protagonist of this page has not been included for a single or handful of remarkable occurrences. Henry is included for living a life in the extraordinary. He was as reckless and irreverent as he was heroic and compassionate. I can imagine that in his lifetime there would have been some that found him incorrigible, but having discovered him by research it is through the medium of recorded exploits he emerged as my all-time favourite Isle of Wight firefighting character.
Ladies and gentlemen, I take great pride in presenting to you, the life and service of Captain Henry Buckett.
Henry Buckett was born in Brixton (Brighstone) in 1840.
Henry was the third child of a total of six that appeared in the Census of 1851, living at an address recorded as Townsend Cottage which appears to have a postal address of No.13 Rectory Lane.
His father, James Buckett is recorded as a fisherman. As a young man of the seas, James was notorious for shoreline skullduggery before serving as the first coxswain of the lifeboat when the RNLI established the Brighstone Grange lifeboat station in 1860. The vessel, aptly named The Rescue, was donated to the Institution by the Royal Victoria Yacht Club. Coxswain Buckett his crew and The Rescue was credited with saving 138 lives before it was replaced by a vessel of the same name in 1866. The second version of The Rescue is credited with saving a further 49 lives until both it, and James Buckett, were retired from service in August 1880.
Among those heroic acts was the 1873 rescue of 20 men from the Norwegian iron-screw steamer Woodham. The Master and Mate of the Woodham refused to leave the vessel, and the 18 crew were brought ashore in two trips. The lifeboat was rehoused, and the crew were on their way home, when the Master and Mate signalled that they had changed their minds and wanted to be taken off. The lifeboat launched for a third time and successfully brought the two men ashore. For his part James Buckett was awarded the RNLI Silver medal, the criteria for which was - humane and intrepid exertions in saving life from shipwrecks on our coasts, deemed sufficiently conspicuous to merit honourable distinction.
RNLI Silver Medal
The Rescue, 1860-1866.
The RNLI of today is an organisation of which I am in awe and am proud to support as an official Shoreline member. As a firefighter I am well aware that we are not placing ourselves at undue risk at the majority of our callouts, but to my mind putting to sea in all weather places the coxswains and volunteer rescuers of the Institution in far more hazardous situations. Today they have superior equipment with which to do so, in the late nineteenth century the undertaking must have been even more dangerous.
James Buckett on the far left, in his retirement when he remained as a member of the 'Ceremonial Crew'.
Clearly a spirit of adventure was anchored in the genetic make-up of the Buckett family. In the above photo two other members of the Ceremonial Crew go by the same family name. Henry had turned 20 by the time his father became coxswain, suggesting it incorrect that he grew up in the rescue environment, but his father was clearly a man, a rogue turned hero, that would have influenced an impressionable son.
In the year following James’s appointment to the Institution, Henry was identified in the 1861 Census as a bricklayer residing in St John’s Road, Ryde, then within the parish of Newchurch, with his 22-year-old wife Ellen.
No doubt bricklaying was well within the capability of the sturdy barrel-chested young man, but his drive to do more was evident later the same year when he applied for the role of Town Crier. A contemporary report noted that the position was filled by the judging of a shout-off at the top of Union Street. The five participants were formed up and each asked to holler a prescribed notification. According to the Press of the day, Henry Buckett’s vocal boom was of such outstanding volume that it rattled shop windows all the way down to the long since demolished Pier Street.
Such was his prowess that in the following October, the IW Observer reported – On Tuesday evening last Mrs Young of Appley Towers, lost a valuable bracelet in or near Union Street. Our friend Buckett’s services were called into requisition, and on Wednesday morning he cried so energetically that in two hours the bracelet was produced, proving that he is a most valuable functionary. The report closed with a remark that the event inspired Henry to consider establishing a lost and found office at the Town Hall which he achieved, confirmed by way of brief editorial in the late November edition of the same publication.
In January 1864 Ryde Fire Brigade, by then in its 35th year of operation, was, according to the IW Observer entirely remodelled. The remodelling was driven by the outcome of a meeting of the Ryde Commissioners in the second week of December 1863 when discussing the sudden and imminent resignation of Superintendent Stannard set for 31 December. In addition to appointing builder John Langdon to the post, many considered the membership of the brigade to be inadequate, both in number (to be increased to 20) and the quality of man.
Matters were satisfied rapidly, enabling Superintendent John Langdon to field and drill his new brigade in the first week of January. Among them was Henry Buckett, specifically appointed as conductor of the escape ladder, in association with its jumping sheet.
Ryde had been in possession of a manual fire engine since 1829 and had renewed it for a more efficient version incorporating air chamber technology (refer to the Newsham Engine) in 1852. The addition of the escape ladder came at the same time as the purchase of a hose-reel cart in the summer of 1863. Unlike many brigades of the era, that received donated fire escape ladders from the Royal Society of Protection of Life from Fire, for undisclosed reason Ryde chose to purchase their own. Reading between the lines of the minutes of a meeting of November 1863, it is evident that Supt. Stannard was dissatisfied with the operation of the escape ladder. The Chairman of the Commissioners stated that Stannard had never been appointed to the management of the ladder, and therefore his grievance was not upheld, compelling his resignation.
The specific nature of Stannard’s dissatisfaction is not known. I suspect that the point the Chairman made has turned the matter on its head. Stating that Stannard had no responsibility for the ladder in such a way suggested that he had been expected to do something he didn’t wish to, but I estimate the reverse – that he wanted control of the ladder and to integrate it fully into his command of the brigade but was not permitted to do so.
I base this theory on the history of the issue of escape ladders by the RSPLF.
Beginning in London, the Society arranged finance for the manufacture and distribution of escape ladders. They believed there was a disconnect between the fire brigades and the saving of life. Prior to the formation of Edinburgh’s Fire Engine Establishment (the world’s first municipal fire service) it was largely the insurance brigades, or volunteers financially assisted by insurance offices, that responded to property fires. The policies under which they responded related to the insurance of buildings and property, not persons. This led to developing improvements in the art of fighting fires with little regard to the saving of life. With the increasing formation of borough, town and parish fire brigades, this stance was unchanged. With there being no Act of parliament enforcing the provision of firefighting services, and with life saving not even on the agenda, local authorities that voted funds for the financing of fire brigades did so to protect buildings and properties. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that as all Boards of Commissioners comprised the wealthy and influential of a given district, it was primarily protection of their own properties and assets that were at the forefront of their minds.
The Society’s objective was, as the title suggests, the saving of life. This was driven by upsetting incidents of persons dying of smoke inhalation in upper floors of buildings, while firemen remained at ground level battling the flames to save the building.
Most commonly the highest floors of the capitals most eminent residences were the modest accommodation afforded to servants – those most at risk of entrapment by fire and smoke. The Society was a philanthropic non-judgemental movement, untouched by insurance policy or financial inducement, and as such the exponents of its devices were distinct from the brigades. There are many examples where operators of a district escape ladder arrived at fires and rescued persons from upper floors prior to the arrival of the fire brigade.
Ryde’s Commissioners elected to spend 53 guineas on an escape ladder. When it arrived, they followed the example emanating across the country from London to operate it as a distinct element from firefighting. Although the matter was discussed in context of brigade matters, the fact that in January 1864 the IW Observer reported that – the town crier has been appointed conductor of the fire escape – reinforces the theory of non-integration, as exampled in the extract from an index of local services below - at least initially.
Henry, Town Crier, and Conductor of the Escape Ladder was making a name for himself in the town. Appointment to the latter role enabled him to raise his reputation to unparalleled heights, figuratively and literally. The same Observer report cited above, continued with – a jumping sheet has been procured, to enable persons, in case of emergency, to jump from windows or elsewhere. A little practice will, it seems, probably get the men into a high state of efficiency. Henry was to take this practice to the extreme.
Despite the Commissioners view, in practical terms Henry’s escape ladder crew worked closely with John Langdon’s fire brigade. The latter being a builder, would no doubt have not been phased by the notion of working at height, but may have been relieved that Henry’s training methods applied to the ladder crew only. The efficiency of the ladder and crew under its conductor was unquestioned, but the manner in which he led and instructed his men raised eyebrows.
Since 1856 Ryde had been blessed with a state-of-the-art mains water supply due largely to the efforts of then Mayor Benjamin Barrow. A year later the Water Committee announced the production of a map indicating the supplies of water for firefighting; effectively the Island’s first hydrant map. One of the most regularly used fire plugs (a crude form of hydrant), was located in Lind Street, to the front of the Town Hall.
In the 1860’s Lind Street was a wide thoroughfare bearing a modest volume of horse drawn and hand wheeled traffic. Given that the fire station was at the rear of the Town Hall, off Market Street, and the escape ladder that was too large for the station was stowed under canvas in the passage between the Hall and St James’s Church, Lind Street was the convenient and obvious solution for training. Its intermittent use as the town’s first drill yard inevitably attracted a host of onlookers to witness their brigade in action.
Henry was by then emerging as uncompromising man, evidenced in his escape ladder activities. Pitching the ladder to the roof of the front of the Town Hall, he set the example he expected of his men by climbing the ladder first. Aloft the roof he would hail the next largest man in the crew to the head of the ladder, to dismount, and then be carried by Henry back down to street level.
Not satisfied that his leadership style had been suitably emphasised, he then instructed his crew to deploy the jumping sheet. With white knuckles gripping the handles of the reinforced canvas circle, the men would position themselves close to the front face of the Hall. Meanwhile Henry would skip back to the top of the ladder, barely using his hands, and fling himself down into the sheet. Photography of the man suggests he was not light, yet contemporary references suggest an agility improbable for his frame. The same was then expected by each man, one after the other. For many years this stood as a simple pass-fail selection test for those aspiring to join Henry’s crew.
Contemporary reports suggest that Ryde’s escape ladder was also equipped with an escape chute, and this too was exhibited in use by Henry Buckett followed by his men. The peculiar origin of the chute’s design was not primarily to save life per se, but to provide a manner that allowed ladies in their night attire a degree of modesty.
If you were sufficiently strong to catch your freefalling weighty commander, fearless enough to fling yourself off the roof of the Town Hall into a sheet and then barrel down a canvas chute, you were in, if not, you were out. There were no grey areas in Henry Buckett’s selection policy.
In less than four weeks from the formation of the remodelled brigade and escape ladder crew, the organisations were put to the test by the Commissioners with a surprise exercise. John Langdon and Henry Buckett were tipped off, but their respective crews were not. With a false call placed at 19:20 suggesting a fire at a location recorded only as beyond the Infirmary, the Commissioners were satisfied that within 25-minutes the brigade were producing water and the escape ladder was in position to save lives.
Under Supt. John Langdon the fire brigade was called to a range of incidents. With means of communication limited to the verbal, information received was patchy and not wholly relied upon, inducing the deployment of the escape ladder in concert with the fire brigade regardless of the content of communication concerning the incident. Henry Buckett was not a man to turn about and depart with his men if it turned out there was no need to pitch the ladder. John Langdon would no doubt have been appreciative of the additional manpower. Consequently, Henry’s escape crew pitched in with tasks that supported the firefighting. Ryde Commissioners may have satisfied themselves that they had adopted the norm by insisting the organisations remained distinct, but by process of evolution the two gradually developed to become one.
On Boxing Day 1864 a chimney fire occurred at the property of Mr Edgar James in the High Street. With the usual grate mounted efforts failing to overcome the heat in the flu, Supt. Langdon called for Henry Buckett to pitch his ladder to the roof. The combined efforts of the escape crew and firemen enabled a stream of water to be deployed from hose attached to the ladder, and be poured down into the burning mass, with positive, if not messy, results.
Notwithstanding the working relationship with the firemen, Henry was keen to conduct some practices with the ladder and crew alone. This enabled him to identify, by practice, how, and from what pitch, the ladder could best reach the highest parts of the largest buildings in the town. His men were able to reach beyond the clock face of Holy Trinity Church, among others. Fortuitously as it turned out, Henry also learned that he could easily get men onto the roof of the Congregational Church in George Street, and that of the buildings that flanked it.
By the late 1860’s deteriorating health compelled John Langdon to regretfully rescind his role as brigade superintendent. In March 1869 one J.H. Burt was appointed to replace him. In the following month both he, and Henry Buckett, attended a serious fire in the roof of the Pier Hotel, which was successfully extinguished. From then on Supt. Burt disappears from the records without explanation. The next time Ryde Fire Brigade attended a serious blaze Henry Buckett was in charge and the firemen and ladder crew were formally one Brigade.
A fire that erupted inside the George Street Congregational Church in the small hours of Friday 29 April 1870, had fully developed before smoke roused the interest of Police Sergeant Breary, who slid the escutcheon to one side and peeked through the keyhole. The glare that met his gaze from within astounded the sergeant who made all haste to Henry Buckett’s abode.
In 1870 Henry and Ellen, with four children aged under-10 plus Ellen’s 23-year-old brother John Eldridge, resided at the Town Hall Cottage. The ‘cottage’ wasn’t as might be suggested by the title – it was actually a modest home located in the extreme north-west corner of the Hall where Market Street meets the lane between the Hall and St James’s Church. The reason for the family moving there from St John’s Road was in connection with a new responsibility Henry had acquired – as Town Hall caretaker. By this stage his various responsibilities to the town were many – Town Hall caretaker, Lost and Found office manager, Town Crier, Town Sergeant, and of course superintendent of the Fire Brigade.
George Street Congregational Church
Sergeant Breary apprised Supt. Buckett of the situation in George Street. At the scene, one Mr Woods opened the doors of the church allowing an inrush of air that flared an already substantial conflagration. That moment was described by a Ryde correspondent of the IW Observer – a scene such has never before been witnessed in the town of Ryde presented itself. The whole of the interior of the chapel was one mass of flame, great tongues of which were bursting up all over the building and speedily rose to the roof.
Alderman Dashwood and Councillors Hands and White, joined by town surveyor Mr Newman, were among the first onlookers at the scene. They were aghast, fearing the fate of the entire block encompassing the church. On arrival Henry Buckett immediately accepted that the church was lost, and all efforts were to be turned to the surrounding properties. Knowing, from previous drills, that his men could easily access roofs of adjacent properties, he had them pitch the ladder to scale that of Mr Debenhams house. With the church roof collapsed, his men were able haul hose aloft and direct streams of water to the inside of the stricken structure at the points that threatened break-through to neighbouring buildings. It was a protracted, difficult, and bitter firefight conducted in the dark and at height, but ultimately successful, due not only to Henry’s decisiveness, but also to the intensity of the working at height drills he had exposed them to for many years.
Henry completed a succinct report for the Commissioners – Fire at Congregational Chapel, George Street. Called this morning at 12.30 to attend the above fire; turned on water and proceeded to the spot; found the whole of the roof and interior of the building in flames; directed our attention to the adjoining property, and succeeded in saving the vestry and school room, also the adjoining house. The organ (value 300 guineas) and the whole contents of the chapel completely destroyed; nothing but the four walls remain; cause of fire unknown; estimated damage, £1,500; insured for £1,000.
When the IW Observer published its report in the following edition, Henry was compelled to correct them on several misrepresentations by letter, also published in a later edition. First, as to the gear: we had one engine, not two, as stated; one hose reel (not carts) and fire escape. As to water, your contemporary states we had that which remained in the pipes* - I suppose he means from the previous evening. Such was not the case, as I myself turned on the water within three minutes after the alarm, and when I reached the chapel I had sufficient water from the low pressure to play over the parapet of the building; and soon after that the high pressure, and EIGHTY-FOUR THOUSAND gallons of water was used, not four hundred, as stated.
*Water was turned off at night to save potential wastage.
Henry’s reputation was furthered by the outcome of the Congregational Church fire. The fact that his helmet bore the scar of a direct strike from a falling slate only added to his mystique. For a Brighstone bricklayer, son of an erstwhile smuggler, of limited education, his force of nature elevated his status in the Borough far beyond his humble roots. Addressing the Commissioners in the presence of the Press on 14 May, the Mayor announced – The firemen behaved in a cool, collected, and efficient manner, and attended to their business in the most prudent and proper way possible for saving the adjoining property. With great satisfaction I commend their conduct for the consideration not only of the Council, but of the inhabitants of the town generally. Which was followed by enthusiastic applause.
As surprising as it may seem, it was perfectly acceptable during the Victorian era, to submit a letter for publication in a local newspaper and request that it be published under a pseudonym. Provided the editor knew who the writer was, this was standard practice. In effect this produced several examples of the manner of textual sparring commonly seen today in social media – the only notable difference being the length of time from one submission to the next.
On 8 March 1874 a fire broke out at the residence of Mr Mills, stationer, and bookseller of Union Street. A blaze emerged in his wife’s bedroom. She, being unwell, was attended by a nurse, both of whom must have been asleep when a candle flame contacted the bed in which she lay. The women, clutching a baby, managed to escape as the fire took hold. Mr Mills, who had been asleep in the room above, was woken by the commotion. By the time he descended the staircase the room was fully involved. The IW Observer included in its report – An alarm was made, but no assistance, other than that which was in the house was forthcoming – before turning its wrath on the Town Council for turning off the water supply at night and melodramatically suggesting that not only could Mr Mills’ property have been destroyed, but that the entire block of Union Street buildings, or even the whole town may have burned to a cinder.
This compelled an unknown writer, using the alias Oginus, to submit a lengthy response for publication in the following edition of the same publication. Oginus embarked on the Observer’s sensational claim, adding - the absurdity of waiting for a better supply of water until the beautiful town of Ryde is reduced to a ruinous heap…
In response to the Observer’s claim that Mr Mills had despatched his maidservant to seek assistance, and received none, Oginus posed the questions – Where were the police? Where were the firemen? Neither could be found, and neither can be found when wanted.
If there’s one thing Henry Buckett cannot be accused of, it is shying away from a challenge. One can estimate that being ignorant to the identity of Oginus, and unable to deal with the matter face-to-face, would have been of great frustration to the commander of the Brigade. His only avenue was to respond likewise. His letter, in his own name, appeared in the next edition of the Observer – Any thinking man would naturally suppose that the firemen would be found at their homes and in bed at 1 o’clock on a Monday morning, or do ‘Oginus’ imagine that the 20 men who are paid £1 1s per annum, as firemen, should deny themselves the privilege of going to bed and place themselves at so many corners of the street waiting for a fire? ‘Oginus’ further states neither could be found, and never can be when wanted. I challenge him to name any time when the Ryde Fire Brigade have been wanted and called to attend a fire or otherwise that they have not answered to the call, and that promptly. ‘Oginus’ should make himself acquainted with the facts of a case before he rushes to print. Mr Mills has told me himself that he never sent his servant girl to the Fire Brigade Station, but simply told her to go for a policeman or a fireman, and the girl, not knowing where to go, wandered about the town to no effect; when the alarm might have been given at the engine-house, and the water turned into Union Street at high pressure in 10 minutes. Sir, as proof of our readiness, at all times we are open to be called at any hour of the day or night, and pledge ourselves to be at any part of the borough in 20 minutes from the time of the alarm.
Oginus followed a week later with his begrudging response to Supt. Buckett – Although the chief of the Fire Brigade appears rather a surly fellow, I am not above expressing regret if I have inadvertently attributed to his men a want of that zeal for which he assures us they are so celebrated. He then reinforced his ire towards the Town Council concerning the lack of water, slipping in a sarcastic use of reference to a great many Buckets to quench it – and utilising a quote from Shakespeare’s Coriolanus – Can you think to blow out the intended fire your city is ready to flame in with such weak breath as this.
Whether or not Henry Buckett discovered the identity of Oginus and settled the matter in a more personal, and as was his nature uncompromising manner, we will never know, but there were no further published responses from either party.
By the mid 1870’s Henry, akin to all Isle of Wight heads of fire brigades, began to use the rank of captain. There is no evidence to suggest a formal adoption of the title by local authority decision, it just seemed to evolve. Nationally, this began when former military officer Captain Eyre Massey Shaw, was appointed as superintendent of the London Fire Engine Establishment in 1861. Shaw’s appointment, and insistence that his military rank was recognised, was followed by the creation of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, combining the LFEE and the ladder parties established by the Society for the Protection of Life from Fire. These two factors, the rank, and the integration of brigades with escape ladder crews, took some time to filter down to the Isle of Wight, but once in place became the norm.
So it was that in July 1874 the IW Observer reported on the attendance of Captain Buckett – in glistening armour – and a contingent of his men, at a Grand Ball at the Royal Victoria Yacht Club, to provide fire protection assurance to patrons.
In January 1878 the Town Council met. Agenda items included the matter of raising Henry Buckett’s pay for his role as keeper of the Hall, from 26s to 30s per week. Under scrutiny those present, some in support of Buckett, and others not so, estimated that Henry was receiving a little under £6 per week for his many responsibilities to the town. The pay arrangements were a complex affair as certain expenses incurred as factors of his various employments were to come from his own wages. Additionally, uniform the Town Council insisted he wear, was at his own cost. Nevertheless, some of the great and the good were shocked that a man of his background should be earning so much, regardless of his costs. Even when Alderman Dashwood, in Buckett’s defence, claimed that Henry worked nine days a week, others refuted that he ever worked after four o’clock in the afternoon. Ultimately the inexplicable resentment proved greater than the support and the pay award was denied.
This did little to discourage Henry’s energies. On 23 December 1878 a young girl was shocked but incredibly unhurt when lighting a lamp in the presence of vapours that were later assumed to have leaked from a tin of benzoline in the Weeks district of the town. As she fled the general store, flaming benzoline spread in all directions, assisted by the misguided and ineffective discharge of buckets of water upon the blaze. Thankfully the firemen who attended were directed by Henry who had the presence of mind to fill buckets with earth and the fire was suppressed soon after.
In the middle of February, the Mayor of Ryde received a communique from Captain Eyre Massey Shaw, superintendent of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade. Enclosed with Shaw’s letter was written communication he’d received stating that Ryde Fire Brigade were slow to respond and act at the Weeks fire. Shaw, correctly, expressed to the Mayor of Ryde that he had no power to act and had been surprised at receipt of the letter. The Mayor took steps to locate the name attributed to the writer. The fact that he could not be located in the district led all involved to consider the letter an anonymous and scurrilous attempt to besmirch the brigade to the loftiest appointment in the land - for reasons not known.
In the following February the Brigade held its first annual dinner of celebration. Henry Buckett and the firemen were joined by a substantial cast of local dignitaries, plus his father, RNLI coxswain James Buckett. Set in a lavishly decorated Justice’s Room of the Town Hall, displaying brilliantly polished helmets and axes, above which was suspended a large scarlet banner bearing the words Ready When Wanted, many toasts followed a fine repast and closed with the singing of songs.The protracted press article doesn’t mention it, but one assumes the event was accompanied by a steady stream of beers. Thankfully the evening, the night, and the morning after, was a quiet one for the firemen.
Captain Eyre Massey Shaw, Superintendent of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade.
Quarr Wood mansion suffered a major blaze on 25 November 1879. Men offshore aboard a Quarantine ship spotted smoke and flames at 23:30, but didn’t put a craft ashore and report it, assuming a fire of such size would have attracted attention on land. Approximately thirty minutes later two men, Ratcliffe and Halsted, on traversing up Union Street, identified a glare in the sky.
Henry was advised and he set off, alone, to investigate if there was any water available before having his firemen woken. On arrival he found Ratcliffe, Halsted and Constable Flaherty at the scene of what was by then a major fire. After sending a messenger to rouse the firemen, Henry and those gathered began entering the structure to salvage possessions, the Observer reported – Mr Buckett, with his usual fearlessness, exposed himself in a manner that drew forth cautions from the spectators, and it is doubtless owing to his energy and courage that so much was saved. Attempting to draw water from a 30’ deep well, Buckett and his men struggled to combat the blaze, knocking down the final flame at 07:00 the next morning.
In the aftermath it became apparent that E.S. Ratcliffe had previously served for four years under Captain Shaw in the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, 48-months which qualified him to submit his thoughts in a letter to the IW Observer that appeared in the edition of 1 December, including the following – Without in any way wishing to detract from the credit due to Supt. Buckett, to whose courage and energy I can testify… I think he is decidedly wanting in judgment, as I saw him expose himself to danger most unnecessarily on two or three occasions during the night, which could only have been justified in an attempt to save life. Ratcliffe continued with aspersions concerning the efficiency of the brigade and in particular their manual fire engine.
The incident, and Ratcliffe’s letter, was raised in Council the on 9 December where the Mayor raised the question of Captain Buckett’s judgement, adding – I believe the majority of the Council and the public generally would support the Fire Brigade and their captain in the onerous duty they had to perform. At conclusion the Mayor, seconded by Alderman Dashwood, requested that it be formally recorded in the minutes that – The Fire Brigade attended the fire in Quarr Wood, on Tuesday morning, November 25th 1879, and that the Council fully recognise the activity of the brigade upon all occasions when their services are required, and desire to especially commend the skill and judgment displayed on many occasions by the captain of the Brigade, Buckett, in whom the Council place the greatest confidence. The amount of property saved at Quarr testifies to the Captain’s activity and promptitude of action, which has been commended by the officer of the insurance companies who have since visited the locality.
Ryde Fire Brigade and their equipment and appliances (Fig.1), photographed approximately 15 years following Henry Buckett's retirement, but still using the same manual engine and hose cart on which he served.
The second image (Fig.2) was taken during the Appley Towers fire in March 1904, showing Ryde firemen working off the original escape ladder of the 1860's upon which Henry conducted his notorious drills.
In reverence to Henry Buckett's legacy, on this occasion Fireman Williams saved the lives of several of the Appley Towers staff trapped above the fire via the ladder, for which he was later commended.
Clearly Henry had an ally in Alderman Dashwood, who, in Council on 13 April 1880, spoke in favour of improving the accommodation provided to the Buckett family as an element of proposed modifications to the Town Hall. Alterations to the Justices Room allowed for extension of the expanding Buckett family’s accommodation by the addition of two rooms – it is cruelty to keep a man with such a family as Buckett has, in such narrow quarters as those they at present occupy. At the time the family comprised at least four daughters, and two sons, and were shortly after to be joined by a grandson. The motion was unanimously agreed.
The original Ryde Fire Station, photographed in 2017. The station doorways, long since bricked up, still bear the hinges in silent testament to the doors that once hung upon them. Further to the left, the single width door between the barred windows provided access to the Buckett family accommodation.
Henry’s uncompromising boldness was best evidenced in a satirical poem of June 1882, attached to a report of an unsavoury occurrence in the council chamber of which the IW Observer stated – had such conduct taken place in a public house the proprietor would have run the risk of losing his licence.
It was not Henry’s conduct that triggered the incident, but that of a number of councillors. The poem, titled The Blue-Ribbon Fight by a writer who addressed himself only as A Member, was presumably a member of the council, and from the perspective his stanza poses, witnessed the events that he wittily recounted. Opening with an allegation that some nefarious devils laced the councillor’s pre-meeting tea with a liberal dose of an undisclosed spirit, A Member continued – We swilled it with delight as they poured it from the pot but noticed that we very soon intoxicated got!
We cleared away the tea things, and then to business turned,
When we found what horrid passions in every bosom burned.
I am ready to confess that the same got over me,
And stirred me up in dreadful style, it must have been the tea!
The poem continues with a colourful explanation of how the meeting descended into chaos, until the point at which the Chairman attempted to intervene.
And when the Chairman ‘Order’ cried, and tried to still the rout,
Some put their thumbs up to the nose and spread their fingers out.
What was it all about? Well now, I cannot recollect,
But I think it was the members of committee we elect.
Though ‘tis truly my impression that the cause of all the fight,
Was the tea which we had drank with such gusto and delight.
But when the fight was thickest, and I for my whiskers feared,
Some tall and stalwart figures at either door appeared.
‘Twas Captain Buckett’s fire brigade, who had the reel and hose,
And very soon a jet of cool refreshing water rose!
It fell upon the noisy crew who were the room within;
And very soon there was an end to all the fight and din.
We left the room much cooler, and they all agree with me,
Some traitor must have come and put gunpowder in the tea!
The back story was that a disagreement between councillors boiled over into fisticuffs which was disingenuously blamed on their alleged involuntary consumption of alcohol. Meanwhile in Lind Street Henry and his firemen were conducting hose drills and it was to them the stricken Clerk appealed after bursting from the Town Hall doors to the street. The mode Henry selected to quell the disturbance says a lot about the man himself. It also says something of his dominant spirit that in the aftermath he was not called to account for his extreme solution.
Lansdowne House, John Street, Ryde, scene of the fire at the centre of the controversy of Dr Hastings cat, photographed in 2017.
Later the same year Henry was centrepiece at a fire in John Street, which led to the infamous Controversy of Dr Hastings Cat. The full story of that episode can be read in the linked page. Suffice it to say that the resentment it caused between Ryde Fire Brigade and Ryde Borough Constabulary was long lasting and seemed to be to Henry’s enjoyment.
I don’t think unfair to suggest that Henry enjoyed his reputation and missed no opportunity to be centre stage. When Alfred Parry, manager of the Theatre Royal, was looking for cast members to fulfil his proposed series of plays in Easter week 1883, Henry was quick to take notice.
The final presentation set for the Saturday evening was The Streets of London, which features a spectacular fire scene at its conclusion. Somehow Henry cajoled Mr Parry to entrust his firemen and he to both create the scene and fulfil the uniformed parts. As was Henry’s want the scene was conducted with such breathtaking reality and risk that some among the audience were preparing to evacuate.
Two years later Henry was caught up in potential controversy for a remark he made, in the presence of the press, at the brigade’s annual dinner and celebrations. Bemoaning the lack of shouts of late, he stated that he would like to see some of the old shanties about the place alight. The continuation of the report firmly aligned the IW Observer correspondent with Henry’s misguided comment – we are disposed to agree with Captain Buckett that a fire would be a good thing if it dealt with the right sort of premises. Not only the remnants of old Ryde, which antiquarians respect, but which Captain Buckett irreverently denominates ‘shanties’, might be advantageously removed, but also certain specimens of the jerry builders’ art. There are a few specimens of jerry buildings in Ryde and its neighbourhood, and if a good fire cleared some of this rubbish away it would hardly deserve to have the prowess of the Ryde Brigade wasted upon it.
It seemed that no matter how outrageous Henry’s actions or words, he was never to account for it.
One place in which Henry’s loyalties was never questioned was within the ranks his firemen. So loyal was he to them that he retained their services long after they were of reasonable use as firemen. Even long-time ally Alderman Dashwood was compelled to question the matter in Council on 16 January 1886. He wished to gain control by formalising the somewhat loose instruction placed on the Public Works Committee to oversee the welfare of the Fire Brigade in conjunction with Captain Buckett. Dashwood insisted that the Committee’s role be clarified and that it placed them above, not alongside the captain.
Ryde's impressive Theatre Royal, lost to fire long after Henry Buckett's era in 1961.
This being agreed allowed Dashwood to emphasise the problem and offer solutions. He alleged that four members were between the ages of 60 and 70, suggesting to the mirth of others present that those gentlemen were often arriving at the scene of the fire as the younger men were packing up. Those younger men included several in their fifties. He expressed concern that of the valued members, one had moved to Haylands and the other to Springvale, so as to be of no use for speed of action. Dashwood and the Committee wasted no time and those identified as no longer required were given notice of termination effective 1 February.
On the same evening the old guard were forcibly exiled, Captain Buckett paraded his men in Lind Street for drill, most of the faces before him being new. Being selected by the Public Works Committee their service was fait accompli, not that this prevented their Captain subjecting them to his terrifying series of ladder carries, jumps, and chutes. It is a remarkable testament to Henry’s exacting standards that when a serious fire broke out at Stonepitts in Binstead just nine days later, the whole brigade was in attendance within 12 minutes, the manual engine being horse drawn, and by stripping the roof saved the greater part of the structure from what first appeared to onlookers as a total loss.
In 1887 and again in early 1888, the Esplanade played host to two displays by agents of the Harden Star and Lewis hand fire extinguishers respectively. The effectiveness of the former was so great that an IW Observer correspondent overheard an onlooker suggest that the fire brigade might as well be disbanded. Henry’s response to the displays was to cajole the council to invest in a selection of the devices for the brigade, but his unyielding approach to using them only furthered the belief that the brigade may no longer be required.
Early in the morning of 1 May 1888 Mr Thirkell’s office in St Thomas’s Street was seen to be ablaze. Being a short dash from his home in Market Street, Henry appeared promptly clutching a handful of devices. Assisted by two members of the constabulary, the locked door was compromised and Henry, alone, bustled inside, his bowling arm at the ready – one, two, three, grenades were tossed full pelt into the burning mass.
Returning to the outside in victorious indifference amid a cloud of steam his short journey home was coincident to the feverish rush of his firemen with the engine and equipment, whom he smartly ordered about and to return to the station.
Just over a month later, June 1888, Henry was up to his usual death-defying tricks with the escape ladder in Lind Street.
But over the course of the six-months leading up to Christmas, Henry, large, powerful and of an indomitable spirit, was struck down by unspecified illness. His symptoms were reported only as painful, his health deteriorated rapidly. His reluctant but absolutely necessary resignation as Captain of Ryde Fire Brigade was followed by the same in respect of his many other roles at the Town Hall.
Compelled to vacate the Town Hall rooms they had made their home for many decades, the Buckett’s relocated to 32 Surrey Street. The family remained as one - Henry and Ellen, four daughters, two sons, and a grandson. In all, Ellen and Henry had brought nine children into the world, seven daughters and two sons, not all of whom made it to adulthood.
Henry suffered almost seven further years of discomfort, deterioration, and inactivity – an almost unthinkable and horribly protracted ending for a man of such proven capability. He finally passed away at home, tended to by his beloved wife on 3 June 1896.
The IW Observer, which had made much copy of Henry’s life, did so with protracted and deserved reverence following his death, some of which follows. We have to record the death of Mr Henry Buckett, at one time a very popular and respected town servant. It is, however, in the capacity of Captain of the Fire Brigade that Henry Buckett deserves to be gratefully held in remembrance. He was captain of the Brigade for over 20 years, and during that time kept the Brigade up to a high standard of efficiency. His courage, activity, and strength particularly qualified him for the office.
When the Brigade went out for practice, a crowd would be certain to collect to witness some of Captain Buckett’s feats. To see him, after a pretended rescue from a supposed burning building, carry the biggest and heaviest member down the fire escape in his arm, as lightly as if he were a child, always inspired confidence.
Like many other big men, Mr Buckett was an extremely jovial and kind-hearted man, perhaps too much so. He has long been suffering from a painful illness which reduced him to a shadow of his former self, and he died on Wednesday, at the comparatively early age of 56.
It is indicative of Henry Buckett’s eccentric approach to life’s monotonies, that prior to his reluctant departure from the brigade, he had scrawled his will in chalk on the back of the fire station door.
Henry Buckett's lasting resting place, where he was joined by Ellen in 1915, can be visited at the south-east corner of grid RSHG 020, the 'old cemetery' of Ryde Parish Cemetery, within square 3D (maps credited to Ryde Social Heritage Group with appreciation).