In 1894 teenaged Wilfred Harry Brown was elected by the men, as was the protocol of the time under Captain James Dore, to serve as a new fireman with the Sandown Fire Brigade having previously been one of its messenger boys (or ‘knocker up’). He wasn’t to walk out again for fifty years, five decades in which he faithfully served his town, spent two periods overseas serving his country and was guiding his station through the rigour of his third war when the vagaries of the newly nationalised fire service unceremoniously robbed him of his command.
Wilfred was born on 1 April 1875, son of bricklayer William and his wife Annie. His father had been one of the original members of the Brigade when founded in 1879. William retired from the service in the same year that Wilfred was appointed.
One of the earliest mentions of Wilfred that appeared in print referred to his part in the Sandown team of firemen who participated in the Isle of Wight Fire Brigades Federation annual drill competition which featured as an element of Ventnor’s carnival week in 1898. He represented his brigade in the two-man drill alongside Fireman Dennett (third place), in the three-man drill with Dennett and Phillips and the four-man-and-officer drill with Dennett, Dennis, Punch and Newbury.
Eighteen months later the horizons of his world suddenly widened when the call of the Second Boer War resonated in his ears and he boarded the vessel that took him, Sergeant W.H. Brown of the British Red Cross Society, many thousands of miles south to serve with the Yeomanry Ambulance Corps in the area of the Great Karoo in the Northern Cape, at a hospital known by the location of the junction of the Cape Town to Pretoria railway it neighboured; Deelfontein.
In December 1899 the British Army suffered a humiliating series of defeats in South Africa at the hands of an army comprising surprisingly well organised farmers, the Boers. Bodies of British soldiers laid scattered across the dust strewn battlefields of Stormberg, Magersfontein and Colenso. The increasing efficiency of telegraphy enabled correspondents to paint a grim picture with words that soon appeared in the press for the consumption of eager families, friends, and compatriots at home under the banner of Black Week. The matter was worsened by the shipping of film reels back home, this being the first conflict in history to have been captured in moving images.
Black Week was to compel the middle class to consider that finally, after decades of trouncing foreigners on their own soil, the working-class men of the Army weren’t up to the task.
Throughout the clubs and societies that Tommy Atkins would never be permitted to enter, was raised a class of self-proclaimed soldier that considered themselves a cut above the regulars, the Yeomanry. Of that class were a band of hand-picked doctors, financed through the high society fund raising efforts of Lady Georgiana Curzon and Lady Beatrice Chesham that set off for South Africa with the tools, materials, supplies and will to establish a hospital dedicated to the care of inevitable Yeoman casualties. The location at Deelfontein was selected for its transport link, a ready water supply and its proximity to the thick of the action amid a semi-desert many times the surface area of Great Britain, known as the Great Karoo.
The Isle of Wight County Press of 3 February acknowledged that, Wilfred; left Sandown on Thursday morning for embarkation for active service in South Africa. Research carried out in South Africa shows that Brown, along with the other members of the NFBU, sailed with the appointed Principal Medical Officer, Lieutenant Colonel (later Sir) Arthur Thomas Sloggett, onboard the Norman from Southampton on 10 February.
Wilfred disembarked his voyage of many weeks at Cape Town, the sole member of the Southern District of the National Fire Brigades Union to respond to the call (out of an eventual total of 47 men). On arrival the firemen were welcomed by Captain Hayes of Cape Town Fire Brigade. A puffing locomotive conveyed Wilfred and his colleagues along with 1,700 tons of equipment, north from Table Bay, between Paarl and Stellenbosch, through Worcester and over the Groote River and on into the heart of Cape Colony. For a young Islander of the late Victorian era the sights, sounds and smells of this foreign land may have been overwhelming; the awesome vastness either side of the carriage, low dry Karoo bushes dotted across the barren dust for as far as the eye could see and in the distance the table-shaped koppies shimmering beneath a baking sun against a backdrop of the bluest sky.
470 miles later the train squealed to a halt, Colonel Sloggett stepped from his carriage and declared ‘this spot is in the very heart of the Karoo. It has a bracing climate and an excellent never-failing water supply. Speaking from experience I consider the place ideal.’ Sloggett was also considered ideal, as a leader of men, treating his staff as friends and always getting the best out of them having instilled in them the desire to do their very best for their Colonel.
Brown with the orderlies and nurses worked feverishly to establish the hospital along Sloggett’s prescribed lines. Two surgical divisions were established, a medical division and three specialist divisions in X-ray, dentistry and ophthalmic. For a field hospital to appear in close proximity to the scene of conflict was not original, what made the IYH stand out in history was what it was to become throughout the course of a largely, in modern times, forgotten war. Sloggett’s capacity to integrate both military and civilian specialists and to place them unconventionally but to his personal satisfaction earned him critics, but those who favoured him pointed only to the results of that hospital in the desert. Among those under his command was Florence Shore, a nurse with a formidable pedigree being niece and god-child of Florence Nightingale.
The encampment was quickly established, originally a tented village with neatly laid out pathways lined with painted stones. The orderlies, perhaps Brown being one, spent what spare time they had painting hundreds of larger rocks and hauling them in to position on the adjacent hillside to spell ‘IYH’ in huge letters (the letters remain there to this day). But spare time would have rapidly diminished as the sick and injured began pouring in despite the Boer commando’s persistent destruction of the single-track railway, countered at every attempt by the swift remedial action of the dogged Royal Engineers. By 1 April the hospital neared capacity, at the time around 500 beds, with Nurse Gertrude Fletcher recording of her own ward in her diary; it is only a fortnight since we arrived and all our beds our full. The men are running up fresh huts and tents as fast as they can.
Another nurse made a poignant comment in her journal; When a romantic girl in my teens I used to dream of myself kneeling on the field of battle with a wounded soldier’s head in my lap as shot and shell hurtled around my heroic head. Needless to say, the reality of war is different. War is ghastly grim. One needs to see it to realise the horror and cruelty.
As the hospital broadened its services through compassionate need to the regulars and volunteer soldiers of the Regular Army in addition to those of the Yeomanry, funding through public subscription remained the lifeblood of the hospital. The War Department were indifferent to Sloggett’s non-conforming doctrine but still held the cards to allow permission to travel to the war zone. A specialist dentist so desperately needed given the decaying state of the Tommies teeth was advised by the WD that he had to pay his own travel, buy his own food, supply his own equipment for which he would receive no salary. To his credit he agreed and soon arrived at Deelfontein.
The level of patriotic commitment and compassion shown by so many was remarked upon by Colonel Sloggett repeatedly in his memoirs. He had particular praise for the men of the NFBU; these men; he said, had rendered most valuable assistance and worked with the greatest energy. Sloggett’s compassion, and subsequently that of his medical staff, stretched further than the War Department were happy with when he also began accepting enemy casualties in addition to increasing numbers of enteric sufferers and even a few cases of scarlet fever.
Sloggett tasked the firemen not with putting out fires, at least not at first, but with keeping them burning continuously in order that a constant supply of hot water was available twenty-four hours a day. Whilst such routine duties were typical of the firemen’s lot, for ten of them a far more exposed entry was made to the war zone. It became necessary to form a Bearer Company, a total of 178 men, formed from various contingents from the camp staff including the NFBU. Whether or not Wilfred Brown was one of this number is not known but for those that formed it the endeavour required them to venture out from the comparative safety of the hospital grounds, and approach the front to sweep up the casualties where they fell.
The efforts of the Bearer Company compelled Major Stonham of the forward Field Hospital to remark; Before leaving England I heard it asserted more than once that although civilians would prove of inestimable benefit in supplying the needs of stationary and base hospitals, they could not succeed in the more arduous and hazardous duties of caring for the wounded on the field, nor would they themselves be fitted to withstand the fatigues and hardships necessarily entailed by marching with an army to the front. The career of our Field Hospital and Bearer Company has abundantly proved that doubts such as these are unfounded and I venture to express the opinion that when the final verdict is passed upon our work even the most cautious must admit that the Field Hospital and Bearer Company fully justified the most sanguine hopes of those who equipped them and sent them out.
The men of the Field Hospital and Bearer Company, on stumbling across the wounded of a previous skirmish, were rounded up and captured alongside the soldiers of the Derby Militia by the army of Boer commander Christiaan Rudolph de Wet and imprisoned. Major Stonham negotiated matters direct with de Wet which allowed the prisoners a remarkable freedom of movement to continue their medical duties until five days later they were rescued from capture by Lord Methuen’s column.
Back in the camp the village atmosphere was complete with the inauguration of a series of extra-curricular activities designed to add a touch of normality. A cricket field was hewn from the rough ground across the opposite side of the track to which was added football, lawn tennis, golf, and horse racing. A library was established and some of the nurse’s created opportunities for both them and their inmates to participate in some arts and crafts. Concerts soon featured at the Theatre Royal as a regular break from the grim tasks of the day. The social calendar became so complex that a camp newspaper was developed. There being no printing press each copy had to be individually typed. Senior Surgeon Alfred Fripp commented; Our hospital staff is producing a newspaper... the first issue is out and is really very amusing. It caused quite some excitement in the camp and was in great demand.
By mid-1900 the camp had expanded exponentially both in bed capacity, treatment available and amenities to support those aims which included a fire station. No records have been located to positively identify those responsible for the maintenance or use of the station and equipment, but it seems very unlikely that with a contingent of NFBU members on the roll that it wouldn’t have been them.
In late 1900, at the beginning of South Africa’s summer, Wilfred Brown was going about his duties in one of the surgical division wards when he came across a familiar face; Charles Walker.
Charles, born at Yaverland in 1874, son of James and Emily, was a 17-year-old gunner of the militia artillery in residence at the Sandown Barrack Battery on the day of the 1891 census. Clearly a motivated young man of service by the mid-1890’s he joined Sandown Fire Brigade but left in 1899 and headed off to South Africa where, ditching his coastal artillery background in preference for a horse he volunteered as trooper 10800 of the Imperial Yeomanry, 10th battalion. What is known is that he was wounded in action on 6 December 1900 during the early stages of the British anti-guerrilla campaign after the conventional battles had been won and the Boers changed their tactics to a campaign of insurgency.
Whilst Wilfred may have heard of Walker’s dispatch to the southern hemisphere its unlikely Walker was aware that his former comrade had followed until that day, recovering in bed from combat wounds, when Wilfred appeared before him. One can only imagine the conversation and the comfort it may have brought the injured trooper to see a friendly face.
Ambulance brigade volunteer Staff Sergeant John Charles Davis recorded much of what occurred in the camp from his arrival until the middle of 1901 when he too was struck down by the typhoid. In his memoirs he wrote; there was a great deal of excitement on September 25 when a fire alarm went off at 20:15. We rushed to find the Jew’s store ablaze. We managed to put it out quickly and the Colonel mounted a guard on the store until we could barricade it up the next day. He remarked on another fire of 25 October; the native kraal and two huts were totally destroyed before we could put it out. Regardless of these losses he remarked how; everyone was delighted that Deelfontein had its own fire station and fire brigade.
Detail of the firemen’s activities is sparse. Whatever they did it was sufficient for Colonel Sloggett to mention in despatches the men of the National Fire Brigades Union collectively, indicating satisfaction that whatever duties they engaged were carried out as one would expect of a combination of firemen who cast aside the comforts of home to travel almost nine thousand miles and provide succour to wounded soldiers.
Deelfontein’s Imperial Yeomanry Hospital, after briefly being redesignated 21 General Hospital of the Army, closed in December 1901.
Wilfred would have returned to the Island soon after, decorated with the Queens South Africa and NFBU South Africa medals. Returning as a wiser and worldly experienced man of 27 years he slotted straight back into the ranks of Sandown Fire Brigade and regularly reappeared in local press reports of the brigade’s successes in drill competitions. In 1904 he won the one-man drill at the Federation competition in his home town and a year later he received, belatedly, his NFBU Long Service Medal (bronze) for ten years’ service.
In May 1907 he was one of the brigade’s team that gained a creditable third place in the steam fire engine drill at Winchester. This was all the more remarkable coming only three months since Sandown Fire Brigade became the first Island fire-force to evolve from manual to a steam engine. Individually he was to achieve great success as life-saver, winning the Poncerot Ambulance Shield at Tonbridge in 1909 and again in Southend twelve months later.
His standing as a reliable, courageous, and committed fireman to his town and Island was never doubted, but neither was his awareness of duty to nation and in October 1914 he again left for foreign shores, one of four Sandown firemen to do so, under the banner of the British Red Cross. The Isle of Wight Observer reported; Firemen W.H. Brown, Sidney Brown, Bert Holbrook and E.Draper of the Sandown Brigade, have left for Boulogne, for ambulance duties at the front. All four hold the necessary certificates of the Fire Brigade Division of the Red Cross.
On 27 February 1915 the County Press published an article featuring a letter Brown wrote from the front to Captain Dore. Writing from the British Red Cross Service Base at Boulogne he reported that the Sandown men at Boulogne and Wimereux were keeping pretty well with the exception of his brother who’d taken to bed for a couple of days and had improved.
Brown continued; As far as I can gather, you will be having some of them back in the course of a week or so, as their contracts have expired, but I think that most of them are signing on again for a longer term of service. We are dealing with a great number of the wounded and sick. Every evening the trains arrive with their burdens, and it makes one feel very unkindly towards the Kaiser when one sees so many young men cut down and injured for life. Wilfred was again awarded a mention in despatches, this time in his own right for individual courage during the latter stage of the war.
It was to be another four years before Brown was in the news again, the Observer of 15 February 1919 stating; Sergt. W.H.Brown, Sandown, who has been on service in France with the British Red Cross for four years and three months, has been demobilised and has returned to civilian life. He served for fifteen months in the South African war, and went out each time under the auspices of the National Fire Brigades Union, he being a member of the Sandown Fire Brigade.
By October of 1919 Chief Officer Billups’ Annual Report cited Brown as his 1st Fireman and the report of a severe fire at Yaverland in 1923 details him as Second Officer W.Brown. In early December 1926 Billups announced his retirement at the end of the year and recommended that Brown be appointed his successor.
Sandown Fire Brigade, winners of the National Fire Brigades Association Manual Shield, won in competition at Eastbourne. Wilfred Harry Brown is seated to the far right of the front row.
At Council that week the town accepted Billups resignation with regret and gratefulness for the service he had rendered since 1910. On the motion of Mr F. White, a vote was to be taken on the matter of Billups’ recommendation, Brown being present he discreetly left the room. In his brief absence he was elected unanimously and in the County Press correspondents’ words; on returning Mr Brown was warmly congratulated by the Chairman, and in response said he would be pleased to take the office for a short time – until there was a younger man to step into the position.
No such man was found, or wanted, or needed, for Wilfred Brown led Sandown Fire Brigade with a steady hand until stripped of his position when the National Fire Service absorbed all brigades in to one in August 1941. Even after that he continued to serve in a lesser role until 1943.
The Isle of Wight Chronicle remarked on his retirement on 15 April; After close on fifty years’ service with the Sandown Fire Brigade, in the course of which he achieved the unique distinction of rising from the lowliest to the topmost rank - Mr Wilfred Brown has taken a reluctant farewell of the organisation which has occupied so prominent a place in his affections for the greater part of his busy life.
Wilfred remained interested in the welfare of the Island’s firemen and of the service they gave and in the post-war years served on the Fire Brigade Committee of the Isle of Wight County Council rising to position of Vice-chairman. It was in that position he had the pleasure of awarding a long service medal to one of his successors, Station Officer Jack Gray on 21 April 1951. Nine days later he and his wife Bessie celebrated their Golden Wedding Anniversary and were entertained by family and friends at the home of their daughter and son-in-law Mr and Mrs W.A.Old at Erin Lodge, Leed Street. The newspaper report stated that the couple enjoyed good health.
Sadly, time caught up with the valiant fireman on Easter Monday 1955. Wilfred enjoyed watching his local football club at Fairway Park and was doing so on that Bank Holiday when Sandown took on the visitors from De Havilland’s in the deciding match of the Hampshire League (East) Third Division Championship. As half-time approached, suddenly and with no apparent pre-cursor Wilfred collapsed to the ground and by the time an ambulance arrived he had passed away.
In eulogy a local newspaper describing his passing stated; At one time he was considered the best fireman in the district and he had been a familiar figure at many Southern District and national gatherings (of the NFBA) where as a team member or skipper, he played a great part in keeping the Sandown brigade’s name to the fore.
The funeral was held at the York Road Methodist Church, his coffin being borne by Station Officer Jack Gray with Leading Firemen F & H Lock and E.Healey all of whom served as firemen under Brown plus firemen R.Holbrook and R.Bravery who had served as messengers during his service.
Bessie passed away just over three months later. The couple were laid to rest together in one grave at the cemetery in Lake.
“He was not only a true son of Sandown but a devoted and able public servant and a true Christian gentleman.”