Sidney Charles Sapsworth was born in Edgware Road, Paddington, in 1861, the son of boatbuilder Henry and his wife Mary Ann. As a child, the middle of three brothers, the family lived first in Richmond, and then Twickenham.
The 1891 Census evidenced that Charles had returned to Richmond at 16 New Road, where he lived with his wife Henrietta and their first child, two-year-old Lillian. His father had diversified into bookmaking joined in business by Sidney’s elder brother Henry, and Sidney was trading as a fruiterer and florist.
The original Richmond VFB fire station. Three stone firemen's faces still adorn the wall above where the engine doors once were.
In 1879 alongside his brother Henry, Sidney joined the Richmond Volunteer Fire Brigade which had been formed nine years earlier. Remarked upon in the Surrey Comet and other editions local to the area, Sidney performed well in brigade competitions gathering a haul of medals for his firefighting skills. As a fireman he attended some notable fires, including Hampton Court Palace in 1882. When he attended the infamous second blaze of the Star and Garter Hotel six years later, it was only weeks before appointment as Captain of the brigade, an unusual appointment for a man still in his twenties.
For the town and brigade of Richmond, Sidney’s resignation of 1895 was deeply felt. Sent on his way with their best wishes and a handsome gold watch and chain, Sidney, Henrietta, and their two daughters relocated to Ryde, where at 25 High Street they set up home above the family business - the sale and repair of bicycles. As far as Sidney was concerned his 15-years of firefighting was a closed book.
Earlier in the same year, Charles Langdon, Captain of Ryde Fire Brigade, had with the blessing and support of his contemporaries of other East Wight brigades, founded the Isle of Wight Fire Brigades Federation. As a consequence, Isle of Wight firefighting was enjoying a heyday, none more so than in Ryde where the brigade under Langdon’s direction had turned a corner after several years of decay. However, it wasn’t to last.
In June 1895 Langdon penned a letter of resignation on principle following his undermining by the Public Works Committee. In consequence the Corporation desperately sought a replacement. By early August they had appointed Herbert Vale Carter, a carriage builder, from a total of five applicants. Some substantial misgivings concerning his suitability compelled the Public Works Committee to appoint Carter on a strictly six-month trial basis with permanence confirmed if they were satisfied with his performance. Later the same month, the Public Works Committee claimed they had been unable to support the previous captain (Langdon) as their workload was too great with other matters – they recommended the forming of a dedicated Fire Brigade Committee. Following discussion and some dissention, the motion was carried, and six councillors were appointed to oversee the work of Captain Carter and the brigade.
In the meantime, the town was fitted with the Island’s first telephonic system for calling a fire brigade. Around a dozen units were fitted to lamp posts or other street furniture at strategic parts of the town. Those wishing to report a fire had only to open the cover and pull a handle. In turn this operated a bell at the Police Station indicating at which location the call had been placed, which would be passed to the fire brigade to give an approximate location of the fire. The system was used for the first time to call the brigade to a fire at 68 St John’s Road on 27 April 1896. The system proved effective, and a threatening roof fire was stopped at the source without major damage.
This, and the brigade’s initial membership of the National Fire Brigades Union, financially supported by the Fire Brigade Committee, were two strategic positives of Captain Carter’s era. Over the course of the following twelve months, under Carter’s command, the brigade attended a sprinkling of minor incidents including one small fire that occurred at the 24 Brunswick Street home of Fireman Williams. On 16 March 1897 the brigade, under Carter’s direction, dealt admirably with a blaze at 9 Anglesea Street. Carter had exceeded expectations, sailed through his six-month trial period and was made permanent.
Less than a month after the Anglesea Street fire, with no reason specified, Herbert Vale Carter, who by then was licensee of The Queens Hotel in Monkton Street, resigned from the fire brigade.
During Vale’s captaincy the district had welcomed a new and distinguished resident in the shape of George Howard Harrison. The arrival of Harrison, who purchased Thornton Manor for his home, was remarked on in a lengthy article of the IW Observer. The Observer was in possession of a copy of the Kingston and Surbiton News in which was described Harrison’s departure from the district, with additional details from which the Observer drew the following – Mr Harrison has been for some years the captain of the Kingston, Surbiton and District Fire Brigade, and so capable an officer was he that his retirement from the command of the Brigade is a matter of very great regret to the inhabitants of the district.
For a town looking for a new captain Harrison’s arrival appeared a blessing of fate. Harrison had moved to Thornton with his wife Margaret Annie, and two daughters. They shared their home with half-a-dozen servants. How Harrison made his money is unclear, the 1901 Census states that he lived off private means - a euphemism for substantial earnings not gained through employment or toil. Despite still being in his early 40’s, Harrison, who was awarded a fancy set of golf clubs when he left the mainland, was keen to spend his time enjoying such endeavours and aside from accepting the position of President of the IWFBF, and as honorary member of Sandown Fire Brigade, he appears to have had no interest or intention to reengage in the grimy side of firefighting.
Given Harrison’s home address, its distance from the town and that Thornton was in the parish of St Helens, it is unlikely that he was offered the position. However, as President of the IWFBF he would have known of Captain Carter’s resignation and that there was a need to fill the vacancy. It is evidenced that someone tipped off Ryde’s Fire Brigade Committee that a former brigade commander was discreetly operating a cycle shop in the High Street. It cannot be proven that Harrison knew Sidney Charles Sapsworth prior to them both moving to the Isle of Wight but knowing that for several years the two men captained volunteer brigades stationed a little under six miles apart, it seems highly likely that they were acquainted, probably quite well, and that it was Harrison that made the Committee aware of Sapsworth’s background.
Captain Sidney Charles Sapsworth
The Fire Brigade Committee reported to Council on 13 April that they had invited applications, but without further detail confirmed only that Sidney Charles Sapsworth had been appointed and they had allocated £6 to afford him a new uniform and helmet, at which some councillors were heard to laugh. At the same meeting the Fire Brigade Committee raised the issue of the replacement hose refused by the Public Works Committee in summer 1895 leading to Charles Langdon’s resignation. Although the chamber groaned at the new Committee resurrecting the issue, Captain Sweetman supported the Committee in opposition to the Chairman and most of the others around the table, stating that Mr Langdon, one of the best superintendents we ever had, gave up over a question of 300ft of hose. As we now have a committee to look after the brigade, it should be properly equipped. Sweetman’s timely reminder of how good men are so easily lost was sufficient for the motion to be carried and an order for new hose was to be placed.
Sidney’s capacity to get things done for the benefit of both the ratepayer and the firemen was immediate. In early 1898, less than a year since his appointment, the telephonic call system installed during Carter’s brief tenure was to be expanded – to allow the Police, on receiving an alert, to depress a button in the Town Hall that was connected by cable to bells installed in the homes of every member of the brigade. At a cost of £30 the work was completed by Mr Bird of Union Street. One wonders why the button was located at the Town Hall and not the Police Station, but nevertheless the installation represented a substantial improvement in turnout time. It also spelled the end of a protracted era for Ryde’s many generations of callboys, the knockers-up, who since 1829 had been the vital link between receipt of call and turnout of the firemen.
From the off Captain Sapsworth established a strict regimen of monthly training. The evening of Monday 18 April was scheduled for drills as per his calendar. However, Sapsworth identified the opportunity to test the recently completed callout system, operating it a little earlier than the firemen were due to leave their homes and assemble at the fire station. The local press reported on the test call favourably, it is also suggestive of how close to the station all of the firemen lived that in three minutes the entire entourage were attired and assembled in Market Street, and that it was – a stirring sight to see the firemen running from all parts of the town simultaneously.
On the 15th and 24th June, two bands of happy firemen joined with groups of the Borough Constabulary with their respective commanders, Captain Sapsworth and Superintendent George Hinks, for the annual outings. Two large horse drawn coaches were loaded at Ryde and proceeded to Shanklin via Brading and Sandown, for refreshment at the Crab Inn. After a brisk walk from there to Cowlease the party re-embarked the coaches and proceeded to Ventnor’s Commercial Hotel for dinner. Another opportunity was taken to walk off the excess of their repast along the seafront before proceeding to the time-honoured finale of the drinking session, discreetly reported as tea, at the Eight Bells in Carisbrooke.
Under Sidney’s direction the water main, that ceased at the bottom of Union Street near the junction with Castle Street, was extended to Pier Street and along the Esplanade in September the same year. But even Sidney couldn’t win all the battles.
When Sidney resigned from the Richmond brigade, he left them better for his influence by the acquisition of two steam fire engines in addition to the original manual engine, plus two escape ladders. Commanding Ryde’s brigade that possessed just one manual engine, a hose-cart and one ladder was operational regression. In October 1898 Mr Hansford, Chairman of the Fire Brigade Committee, reported to Council the desirability of procuring for the town a steam fire engine and requested authority to proceed with sourcing estimates.
Hansford explained – Our superintendent (Sapsworth) reports that the means at his disposal for quelling a fire at some establishments are totally inadequate. True, we have a good supply of water, but that is of little use if we cannot put it onto the flames. His continued plea, broken by sarcastic remarks from Capt. Sweetman, revealed that the Committee had already received communication from Merryweather’s.
With the exception of a handful of supporters, the motion was thrown out. Capt. Sweetman summarised the feeling among the majority – There seems to be a mania lately for obtaining steam fire engines. I am greatly against the town spending money on this toy. When Hansford stated that Sapsworth had told him that only in a few places could he get more than one hose to deliver full force, Capt. Sweetman clearly believed his knowledge of hydraulics and flowrates required for successful firefighting was better than Sapsworths by alleging that the brigade was at fault as – they don’t properly concentrate the water.
Ryde's Pier Street, erased from the map when all the buildings were demolished to create wide access to the Esplanade.
Less than a month later, 5 November 1898, a damaging blaze broke out at the timber yard of the Dashwood family, accessed off East Street and stretching as far Simeon Street and Cornwall Street to the north. Due to the callout apparatus Captain Sapsworth and the brigade made good time in attendance but were thwarted due to the poor flow of water to the mains in East Street – the precise point Hansford made on the captain’s behalf at the previous meeting of the council. Sapsworth had to distribute his men and appliances to draw water from the stream at Monkton Street and East Street, and by placing the manual engine to draw from the sluice gate where a greater depth was available. Ultimately the brigade won the battle, but the initial lack of water had enabled the fire to take a greater hold than it otherwise would have and an uninsured damage to the value of £500 occurred.
The incident compelled Commander Douglas Methuen Forsyth, R.N., of Leavington House, East Hill Road, to submit a letter to the IW Observer suggesting that St Helens Urban District Council’s trust being placed in the capability of Ryde Fire Brigade to protect the St John’s area, was folly. The Observer’s On Dits columnist offered his dry wit on the matter – That the fire which took place in Messrs. Dashwood’s timber yard was the grandest celebration of the 5th of November ever yet witnessed in Ryde, because even during the Jubilee year £500 would have been considered too much to pay for a flare-up. That it was a long time before the Brigade could get to play on the fire, and that when they did there did not seem much pressure.
Unfortunately, from Sidney’s perspective, the events of the Dashwood fire led to the brigade attracting misguided criticism. Among the critics was the Association for Promoting the Interests of Ryde, who, under Dr Harland, submitted a letter of complaint to the Town Hall that included – We think the time has arrived when the state of Ryde Fire Brigade should receive the attention of the Town Council. Council passed the letter to the Fire Brigade Committee for their consideration.
This preceded a period in which it seemed that the Brigade, and its Captain, couldn’t win no matter what they did. When a fire occurred at Temple House, George Street, on Thursday 16 February 1889, the IW Observer report alleged that – Considerable damage was done, more by water than the fire. Twelve days later a fire in a Union Street workshop attracted a similar press opinion – Considerable damage was done, chiefly by the water thrown on to the burning material.
In mid-March the Fire Brigade Committee responded in Council to the receipt of Dr Harland’s letter. Taking a defensive stance, they reminded the Council proper that it was they, not the committee, that refused to consider the procurement of a steam fire engine. Committee Chairman Mr Hansford added – The committee are not to blame.
Before the chamber erupted the Deputy Mayor stepped in – As there is no resolution before us, I cannot allow discussion. Mr Hansford continued – Well if the Council does not wish to hear my eloquence they must remain in ignorance. I was only going to say that in the letter received from Dr Harland…
“Do you dispute my ruling Mr Hansford?” opposed the Deputy Mayor, “I call on Alderman Fowler to move on to the next business.
Perhaps it was fortunate that Sidney and the firemen of Ryde experienced a fairly quiet remainder of the year. Sadly, just after the turn of the century long-serving Fireman Whittington, who was also a Pioneer of the Rifle Volunteers of 22-years’ service, suddenly passed away leaving a widow and six children aged 13-years and younger.
Coming three years into Sidney’s captaincy of the Brigade he already held the men’s respect for his leadership of their lot and command at fires, but there is no way to get deeper into men’s hearts than to show an equal understanding and compassion for them and their families outside of service life. Sidney did that when he established a scheme to financially support Fireman Whittington’s family, setting example by being the first to make a generous contribution from his private funds. Casting the net wide, he even received a substantial collective donation from the men of Shanklin Fire Brigade. When the IW Observer published a list of those who had made contributions, and the figures involved in the edition of 25 August, it compelled others to do the same, including the men of Newport Fire Brigade.
In late 1900 the Fire Brigade Committee was re-elected. The Mayor was elected to chair the committee, supported by eight others including former chairman and long-time brigade supporter Mr Hansford, and in particular one Arthur Teague. Teague was a Gloucestershire master baker with his own business in the town where he had lived for over 30-years. What motivated Arthur to become such a fervent supporter of the Fire Brigade is not known, but he and Sidney were to become firm friends and allies over the course of the next decade.
Under the Mayor’s leadership, in early 1901 the Clerk of the Council despatched a letter from the Committee to St Helens Urban District Council, inviting them to send a deputation to discuss the co-ownership of a steam fire engine. St Helens responded positively and created a sub-committee to attend the discussions including George Howard Harrison of Thornton Manor. As a consequence, a clutch of engine manufacturers vying for trade, and to open the moderately lucrative door to steam fire engine sales on the Isle of Wight, despatched their products, with engineers, for trials at Ryde. In order to provide a comparison Ryde Fire Brigade were to carry out a timed trial working from the mains water supply to emphasise the comparative weakness of its capacity. The result was inarguably poor in comparison to steam propulsion.
Letters of dissent appeared in the local press from some, including one behind the pseudonym Aquam Perdo (Latin: I lose water) who claimed to be a former member of the brigade and was convinced that deliberate manipulation of the mains system was the reason for the poor output during the public display. Sidney responded publicly and without quarter, explaining his rationale for recommending the acquisition of a steam fire engine and disputing Aquam Perdo’s claim of having been a former fireman.
The matter of a steam fire engine rattled on for almost two years, causing bad feeling across the Council chamber, between the Fire Brigade Committee and other committees, between ratepayers, and even dragging in both Shand Mason and Merryweather fire engine manufacturers as a result of poorly publicised intent and broken promises. Finally in November 1902 the Council dropped the Fire Brigade Committee’s proposal for it being too contentious. Sidney publicly expressed his exasperation by letter that appeared in the IW Observer in the December.
However, Sidney had other matters that he was charging through to conclusion. One included bringing the IWFBF drill competition back to Simeon Street recreation ground, where the inaugural event was held in 1895, and more strategically, driving forward the plan to afford the town its first built for purpose fire station.
In March 1903 he achieved the former, combining the IWFBF event with that of the NFBU Southern District, which included the display of a steam fire engine brought by a mainland brigade. The latter finally came to conclusion when the brand-new Ryde Fire Station opened its Brunswick Street doors in November 1904. The station was to serve the town for the next 90-years.
An iconic photograph of the pre-WW1 Ryde Fire Brigade, circa 1908-1911.This single image displays the milestone achievements of Captain Sidney Sapsworth who is partially hidden third from right - here we see the original frontage of the Brunswick Street Fire Station and the Merryweather Gem steam fire-engine, his greatest legacies before he was compelled to resign shortly after this photograph was taken.
In the following year, for no other reason than to mark their respect, Ryde’s firemen presented Sidney with a clock bearing an inscription that needs no further description (shown below).
As an aside, this clock, an example of the work of the Hamburg American Clock Company, now resides in the modern Ryde Fire Station mess room after a mysterious journey. In 2018 the Isle of Wight Fire and Rescue Service received communication from Bob and Beth Kandra of Fairview, North Carolina. They had been perusing items in a thrift-shop near their home when they came across the clock in question. Having read the inscription, they decided to find out more of the clock’s background. By internet search they located Ryde and the website of the IWFRS and sent an email. This was forwarded to me, and I replied to Bob and Beth with some information relating to Sidney Sapsworth and asking if they knew how the clock ended up in North Carolina.
Bob and Beth Kandra, of Fairview, North Carolina.
They were fascinated by the story of the Captain and his Brigade but knew nothing of how the clock arrived in the US. Despite having purchased the clock because they liked it and intended to display it in their home, they decided not only to return it to Ryde but to pay for its return journey across the Atlantic. On arrival it was a little tired and the mechanism didn’t work. An equally generous friend of one of Ryde’s firefighters, skilled in the craft of clockmaking, restored the device to its former glory at no cost – since when it has kept time to the passage of events at the station (if someone remembers to wind it up every few days).
By 1906 Sidney reinvigorated his belief that the town would benefit from a steam fire engine. The matter was assisted in 1907 when both Sandown and Shanklin brigades purchased the same. When Sidney invited Shanklin to attend Ryde and display their Merryweather Gem, the brigade was smitten. In the midst of the revived campaign, and for reasons unknown, Sidney was physically assaulted by Samuel Frank Nutman, licensee of the Granville Inn. When brought before the Magistrates in July 1907, Sidney requested the matter be withdrawn on the basis of building good neighbourly relations. The bench acceded to Sidney's request, charging Nutman with 10s costs of the court but no criminal charges.
After a less stressful campaign to obtain the steam fire engine compared to six years earlier, finally on 14 January 1908, Ryde’s councillors voted by 10 to 5 in favour of purchasing a Merryweather Gem, the same as Shanklin's.
In March 1908, Sidney Sapsworth suffered a damaging fire in his own home. His brigade was quick to respond and contain the matter but substantial damage was done. To add to the Captain’s humiliation the incident was reported in the national journal 'Fire and Water' in April 1908.
In the October, just yards from his own door and to the fore of the Theatre Royal, Ryde displayed their brand new Merryweather Gem. It was the pinnacle of Sidney’s many significant achievements as leader of the Borough Brigade.
9 October 1908, Ryde's Merryweather Gem displayed in St Thomas's Square.
Exactly one year later it was announced that Sidney and the firemen, without choice, had been sworn in as Special Constables of the Borough Constabulary. It was the start of the end of Sidney’s association with Ryde Fire Brigade, best described in Greenstreet’s Empire.
After leaving the brigade, and the Island, Sidney and his family relocated to Tonbridge where he established another business dealing not only with bicycles but also motorcycles and automobiles. He never returned to any firefighting capacity. Sidney made a brief return to Ryde to attend the funeral of his good friend and Fire Brigade Committee member Arthur Teague in May 1913.
On 30 November 1926 Sidney passed away at Knox House in Tonbridge, leaving behind his wife Henrietta, daughters Lillian and Marion, and a son Leslie. He was 66-years old.
The Ceremonial Axe
In late 2018, the same year in which the clock returned from America, I was also contacted by a gentleman from Yorkshire who was an avid collector of fire brigade memorabilia. He had acquired a ceremonial axe bearing Sidney’s details and wished to know more about the man behind the name. The collector estimated the axe to have been of a German design from the period 1910 – 1930. Given those dates, it is possible that this was a parting gift given to him on his departure from Ryde. Unfortunately, in this case the contact was unwilling to let the axe return to Ryde, but it is good to know that it is being cared for as part of a collection.
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