By far the most difficult areas of research concerning Isle of Wight firefighting has been the various private and works brigades that have existed at one time or another, some for decades, some for just a few years. I have unearthed quite a lot of information about some, but others that I know existed don't appear in the paragraphs below as I have discovered no details about them at all.
I'd encourage anyone with any information to please contact me here.
The Grubber Brigade - Newport House of Industry
In 1774 the second workhouse in Britain was founded at Newport. Formally known as the House of Industry, less formally as The Grubber, the elderly, infirm, disabled, unemployed, widows, unmarried parents, their bastard children (known locally as Wuzbuds), and young were incarcerated in conditions no better than gaols.
The buildings where the stigmatised were treated as slaves are today Grade II listed buildings still in use, albeit with a great deal more compassion, at St Mary’s Hospital.
The effect of the Poor Law Act of 1601 encumbered parishes to care for their poor by taxing the working and wealthy within the same parish. Parishes established houses for the poor funded by the taxation.
As the number of poor steadily increased, so too did the taxes, to the annoyance of those most wealthy, notably Sir John Barrington of Swainston Manor, Sir Richard Worsley of Appuldurcombe House, and Sir William Oglander of Nunwell House. Convinced that the poor were only poor due to idleness and a refusal to work, these three spearheaded a campaign to close the parish houses and establish the House of Industry, where charity was no longer the objective – creating a financial profit for the rich was the plan.
Britain's first workhouse was the House of Industry at Nacton in Suffolk, which had been founded in 1758, established to look after the parish of Sandford. Ten years later, in 1768, an Act of George III made provision for the establishment of a much larger House for all the Isle of Wight's poor, not just the poor of one parish. In 1771 a second Act of Parliament For establishing a House or House of Industry in the Isle of Wight, for the Reception, Maintenance, and Employment of the Poor belonging to the several Parishes and Places within the said Island united the poor responsibilities of the Island's boroughs and parishes into the House of Industry's corporate body. Sir John Barrington, Sir Richard Worsley, and Sir William Oglander were made trustees. The poorhouses belonging to the Island's parishes were sold off to help fund the new site, many of which were sold to Barrington, Worsley and Oglander (credit www.h2g2.com).
Most alarmingly, the Guardians of the Workhouse were at liberty, under the auspices of the Isle of Wight Guardians Act, to arbitrarily apprehend and incarcerate any person that, in the Guardians opinion, was unable or unwilling to support themselves or their families, including abduction of their children. The 1881 Census revealed the Grubber as home for 377 adults and 110 children. These numbers increased substantially from 1907 when it was decreed that prisoners released from incarceration, if evidencing nowhere else to go, were marched across the road straight into the Grubber. At its peak 700 persons were confined within its walls.
It became evident that the House of Industry retained its own firefighting capability when researching the history of fires in and around the Newport district. The first confirmed Press report of a House of Industry firefighting capability was revealed in the Illustrated London News (Fig.1). The report focussed on a substantial fire that destroyed the C Ward Dormitory of the Lower Prison at Parkhurst Juvenile Reformatory. The building, home to 200 incarcerated 15- to 19-year-olds, was destroyed, incredibly without loss of life. The firefighting response came from the Garrison, the town, and – shortly afterwards the engine from the House of Industry, under the superintendence of the Governor, Mr Clark, with some of the able-bodied paupers.
This first reference to The Grubber Fire Brigade made up of paupers capable of the task, is followed by many more. In the following years they assisted at a large rickyard fire at Little Pan Farm, another fire at the Reformatory that began in the tailors workshop, followed by a blaze that spread across a range of buildings occupied by the 45th (Sherwood Foresters) Regiment of Foot.
In respect of equipment, a report in the IW County Press of May 1886 detailed the acquisition of two fire extincteurs and a dozen Harden Star fire grenades. A further report of 1890 listed the equipment available at that time as stated by the Borough Works Committee to an inspector of the Local Government Board – fire buckets and grenades on all landings; one fire engine with a complete set of hose, one extincteur in dining-hall and at Infirmary always charged. No fire ladders or escapes. When asked for details of the water supply, the Committee responded – A large pond (one acre in extent) about 55 yards from the main entrance. When questioned concerning the efficiency of the engine and the men to work it, the reply comprised – It takes 25 men to work the engine to throw water on the top of the house from the pond. They clean the engine and see that it is all right, and oil the hose once a quarter.
We have 325 feet of hose. There are four hydrants, but with these we can only get the water to the middle of the roof when the high pressure is on. We have forced the water over the House from the pond with the engine, but it takes an immense power. It is an old engine, and its barrels are too large, but it is in thoroughly good repair. There was no question asked, or information provided, to suggest that The Grubber firemen were equipped with protective clothing, gloves, boots or helmet.
Almost one-hundred years earlier, the 1792 House of Industry Rule Book includes a reference to the Grubber brigade drills.
That the Governor shall… frequently exercise the paupers in playing the fire-engine, given by Mr Hesse, that they may be expert in the use of it, in case of fire. This was followed in 30 August 1800 by - That the fire engine be exercised once a month by the people of this house and that the governor send for one of Mr WILKINS men once a quarter so that the engine is good condition.
The tenacity with which the rudimentarily equipped paupers attacked some of the districts largest fires, is in stark contrast to the idle and workshy described by Barrington, Worsley and Oglander. These most unlikely, unnamed, and unsung heroes among Isle of Wight emergency responders deserve their place and to be remembered in our firefighting history.
Osborne House Fire Brigade
Sadly very little is known of the Osborne House Fire Brigade. English Heritage, current custodians of the estate, have been unable to shed any light. However, a few tangible sources have helped create something of the story, including Prince Bertie, Prince of Wales (Fig.2), second child and eldest son of Queen Victoria destined to serve as the monarch Edward VII from 1901 to 1910.
Prince Bertie wished for a military career but his mother vetoed his opportunity for active service. Regardless he sought thrills where he could. After the appointment of Eyre Massey Shaw as superintendent of the London Fire Engine Establishment, forerunner of the London Fire Brigade, in 1861, the Prince made his acquaintance and an unusual relationship developed between them.
The Prince had witnessed the fire of Windsor Palace’s Prince of Wales Tower when he was a boy, and twelve years later had hastened to the spot to witness the destruction by fire of Saville House in Leicester Square, and watched with fascination the activity of the London firemen clothed, as noted by an observer – partly in the dress of a fireman. Less than four months later a fire in his home at Marlborough House compelled him into more direct action.
With fire roaring in a ventilation shaft beneath the nursery, he organised the staff into a bucket chain while furiously hacking at the floorboards with an axe. So determined was he to extinguish the fire before the firemen arrived, he flooded the place before misplacing a foot and crashing one leg through the ceiling of the room below. On arrival at the scene, observing the substantial water run-off, shattered ceiling and plaster debris, Captain Shaw’s opening address was ‘What’s all this mess?’
From there the relationship blossomed with Prince Bertie showing a keen interest in the role of the fireman, no doubt a distraction from the orthodoxy of his Royal appointments. Accompanied by his friend George Sutherland Leveson Gower, 3rd Duke of Sutherland, of whom the Queen disapproved due to his unruly and anarchic undertakings, the pair were afforded fireman’s uniforms hanging from pegs at Chandos Street Fire Station in Marylebone (Fig.3). Subsequently Sutherland and the Prince would often attend the station to use the billiards table in the hope of getting a shout while playing. A letter retained by the Shaw family, written by the Prince’s personal secretary, evidenced his delight at receiving a new brigade helmet in 1879, that fits capitally.
The Prince attended many fires alongside the firemen of the capital, never taking charge, performing duties associated with the fireman’s rank before breaking out the cigars at the conclusion of the firefighting. For several years his attendance at fires was so regular that it ceased to be remarked on by press or public, and, when the Hankey Committee asked an insurance company witness what his office thought of the efficiency of the brigade, he replied – I could not give you an opinion, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, would give you a better opinion on that point.
In 1883, Captain Shaw, was invited to the Isle of Wight by Queen Victoria to advise on fire precautions at Osborne. No doubt she was influenced by her son, who attended with Shaw. In more recent times I was required to attend Osborne for fire service inspection of firefighting water supplies, and was able to study at close hand, the measures introduced by Shaw. These comprised the installation of an enclosed system of water supply from the estate reservoir to a pump house which applied pressure to feed 16-private hydrants on the circuit, some within the structure and some outside of it. The pump house carried, and still carries, the signage ‘Fire Station’ and was once the home of the Estate Fire Brigade where an engine, equipment and uniforms was stored. One cannot help but wonder if, being a keen unofficial fireman, it was Prince Bertie that was behind the inspiration for a formal in-house brigade, possibly cajoling Captain Shaw to convince the Queen it would be an appropriate precaution. In any case Her Majesty was pleased with Shaw’s recommendations and despatched him a clock in appreciation.
Above - Osborne House Fire Station photographed during a visit in my professional capacity in 2017.
Documents appertaining to the structure of the Brigade have presumably gone astray or been destroyed, but a few of the individuals that served in it have been unearthed from various sources.
(Fig.4) shows the operating procedure for the fixed pump located within the fire station - the pump to which these procedures applied has long since been replaced by a modern version, but this notice and a variety of ageing standpipes and other ancillaries remain in place.
Charles Groves was born at Whippingham circa 1834. His father was both a thatcher and district postmaster and it was to the former trade that Charles was listed in the Census of 1851. In 1860 he married Kate Lowe, who grew up two doors away from Charles’ childhood home. The 1861 Census located them at the Shamblers, a title derived from the far older title of East Shamlord, and the correct address for the Osborne House stable block. This accounts for his change of trade to one of blacksmith at the stable forge, where he was to lose an eye to a shard of molten metal.
His service on the estate, both in the stables and as a member of the Estate Fire Brigade, lasted until at least 1881. However, things changed dramatically by the time of the 1891 Census when he and Kate were located at 20 Page Street, Westminster. In addition to continuing work as a smith, Charles was organ blower at Westminster Abbey for 24 years. By 1911 they had retired and relocated to Gosport, followed by a return to the Island in Alfred Street, East Cowes. It was there, early in the morning of Christmas Day 1913, that Charles went downstairs to light the fire. When Kate emerged a little later she found Charles dead by the fireplace. He had suffered a heart condition for some time.
William Gilbert Knight
William Gilbert Knight came from the mainland to the Isle of Wight in 1923, residing at Ambrose, Grange Road, East Cowes. Previously he’d served in the Army since 1896 achieving the rank of Sergeant in the Royal Garrison Artillery, mainly in India. In 1913 he returned to home service, married Minnie in Portsmouth, and served overseas throughout the entirety of the First World War.
After the war he gave up the military life and took up groundskeeping and was taken on as park keeper of the Osborne Estate staff. Here he found comradeship akin to the military life in the ranks of the Estate Fire Brigade. When he passed away in 1938, at his funeral held four days later, his coffin was borne by firemen Atkins, Purnell, Johnson, and Foss of the Estate Fire Brigade. In reflection of his military service Bugler Tutton of the British Legion played The Last Post and Reveille at the graveside. The funeral was attended by a large contingent of officers and men of the Isle of Wight Fire Brigades Federation.
Little is known of the life of James Sanger other than his dual service at Osborne House as gatekeeper and fireman, and his previous service with the Army Fire Service, as deduced from the photo below. The medals on his chest in the image of him standing at the gate suggest military service overseas.
Read about the fixed steam fire-engine installed at Osborne here - The Osborne Steam Fire Engine.
James Compton Merryweather's 1884 treatise 'Fire Protection of Mansions', suggests that Osborne was furnished with more than just the fixed steam fire engine mentioned above. Beginning on Page 57 of the first edition, Merryweather, who at the time was in charge of the well known firefighting supplies business of the same name, refers to the practicality of utilising manual fire engines for firefighting purposes at mansions - This kind of engine is made in eight or nine sizes, the largest being capable of pumping 220 gallons of water to a height of 150 feet; it requires 46 men to work at its full power, but as so many will scarcely ever be available for the work upon a gentlemen's estate, I may set it down as too large for the protection of private residences.
The engine of this class usually found at mansions, throws 115 gallons to a height of 125 feet when worked by 26 men. I have several times seen these engines worked at a considerable distance from the water supply; they were served by buckets passed from hand to hand along a line of people formed from the engine to the water, the empty buckets being returned to the water along another line.
Occasionally, when there are two or more engines, and but a few people present, one engine stationed at the water has been made to pump into the cistern of another, placed as close as possible to the fire. Engines of this class are to be found at Osborne and Sandringham...
This suggests that the system installed at Osborne, beginning with the Shand Mason fixed steam fire engine, may have been afforded the addition of a second engine, at Merryweather's suggestion one requiring manual operation, to form a crude water relay. However, given the statistical information revealed in an edition of The Engineer, of August 1884, this seems unnecessary.
Appley Towers Volunteer Fire Brigade
The Appley Towers Volunteer Fire Brigade was the culmination of the estate owners desire to be a Chief Officer of a fire brigade.
Captain George William Hutt is one of Isle of Wight firefighting history’s most interesting of characters, but he was never truly a fireman. Heralding from an esteemed family, his father Major General Sir George Hutt was a distinguished decorated officer of the Scinde and Afghan campaigns and his uncle Sir William Hutt (Fig.5) was commissioner for the foundation of South Australia, and instrumental in the colonisation of New Zealand, where a city, valley and river still carry his surname.
In comparison George’s somewhat brief and inglorious military career with the Army Service Corps petered out at the rank of Captain. By 1894 George relocated to the family seat at Appley Towers with his wife Caroline but remained as a reserve officer of the Royal Scots.
Soon after his arrival on the Island evidence exists of his attempt to establish a firefighting crew at Appley. On 16 April 1894 St Helens Urban District Council were unhappy that, without permission or payment, George had conducted a series of fire drills using water from a UDC hydrant adjacent to his estate. A few years later George achieved a seat on the UDC and argued that given the large area covered by the Council, a fire brigade should be formed on the lines of that provided at Ryde – which he willingly offered to recruit, train, and command at no additional cost. Being knocked back by his fellow councillors George was undeterred and placed notices around the Appley area advising persons that he had his own facilities for fighting fire should they be needed – which amounted to standpipes, lengths of hose and branches, for working direct from the UDC water mains. What experience Captain Hutt had of fighting fires is debatable, but his enthusiasm and willingness is undeniable.
Little more is known of the Appley Towers Volunteer Fire Brigade, except that its membership were all staff from the Appley Estate and how free they were to opt in as volunteers, or opt out, is debatable. However they were to have their day of action when Appley Towers itself suffered a severe fire causing the collapse of almost the entire second storey and above on 22 March 1904 (pictured below).
Remarked on by a young woman who was in the crowd that gathered to watch the spectacle was the incredulity that Captain Hutt, on seeing his home ablaze, dashed back inside, donned his personal set of firefighting uniform, and re-emerged looking immaculate and unflustered. So good a performance did he deliver that several witnesses were convinced he must have been the captain of Ryde Fire Brigade, although according to contemporary observers, a little too portly for the buttons of his tunic.
Ironically it was the near total destruction of his own home that eventually convinced other councillors of the UDC that the threat from fire was real. Subsequently the St Helens UDC Fire Brigade was formed on the basis of three geographically distinct sub-brigades at St Helens Green, Seaview, and St Johns. Captain Hutt finally achieved his dream and was appointed officer in charge of the St Johns unit at which point he disbanded the Appley Towers brigade to concentrate on his new role. It is notable that the St Johns unit was envied by other brigades as Captain Hutt ensured his firemen wore the best clothing and were equipped with the best apparatus from his personal finances.
Unfortunately for Captain Hutt, Chief Officer of the St Johns Brigade of the St Helens UDC, he suffered declining health in 1908 and was compelled to resign from the position he had coveted. He was thanked by the UDC for the substantial investment he had made in the brigade. Sadly aged just 45, he passed away at Appley Towers on 4 January 1910. His legacy is that it appears he is the only resident in Isle of Wight history to have created, funded and commanded his own fire brigade.
Railway Fire Brigades
In 1953 British Railways published a natty little book (Fig.7), of deliberately diminutive dimensions suitable for stowing in the pocket, that provided guidance for railway staff under the simple title Fire Manual.
In addition to describing risks of fire, by no means restricted to those related solely to the operation of locomotives, the manual describes the nature of a railway fire brigade and that its strength and resourcing depended upon – the fire risk and the availability of the Local Authority Fire Service.
Whilst the steam-age represented an ever-present risk of fires in grassed embankments during the warmer dry months, the Isle of Wight possessed a specific risk – Ryde Pier. The Pier, an economically vital interface between the sea and the Island’s rail network. Holidaymakers, vital services, all manner of goods were offloaded from cross-Solent ferries and distributed across the Island, all having begun their journey at Ryde Pier Head. The Pier Head had to be protected from disruption and destruction by fire.
A grainy black and white image of the Pier Head firefighting crew of the London Southwestern and London, Brighton and South Coast Railway (Fig.8) can be dated as no later than 1922, when Southern Railway was formed from amalgamation under the auspices of the Railways Act 1921, otherwise known as the Grouping Act, which took 120 rail companies and merged them into four giants, the Big Four, of which Southern Railway was one. The Act became effective on 1 January 1923.
The first mention in the Press of a fire involving an Island line occurred on 15 December 1874 when one of the Newport buildings of the Cowes-Newport line, including the covered walkway, was destroyed in a blaze. No mention is made of a railway fire brigade, the sole response seems to have come from the Borough brigade, too late to make any positive impact. Five years later, 4 April 1879, at the other end of the same line the Mill Hill station suffered a similar blaze that levelled the building of origin, although the Cowes Fire Brigade were credited with saving – the adjoining shed which the company dignify by the name of a waiting room (IW Observer). A huge crowd flocked to Newport station on 15 May 1904 when a store, containing an estimated 500 gallons of oils and tallow, leapt into flames that reached high into the Sunday morning sky billowing about its volumes of thick black smoke. The Borough brigade attended and contained the fire, but still no mention of a railway fire brigade.
The need for railway companies to focus their attention on fire precautions may have become more acute with the establishment of the Railway Fires Act 1905, that provided for compensation payments to farmers that lost land or crops to fires caused by sparks or cinders from locomotives. However, the next occasion of fire involving a railway structure at St Johns on 2 September 1911, still attracted the attention of Ryde Fire Brigade with no suggestion of firefighting undertakings by railway company men. It was the same story when the same thing happened at the same location eighteen months later, 8 March 1913, and again on 6 March 1922.
Returning to 16 May 1875 a report concerning a smouldering of the boards beneath the roundhouse on the pier, was dealt with under the supervision of Mr Lewis, the watchman – the later British Railways manual states categorically that station watchmen – must, where possible, be members of the Fire Brigade. However when the crane house was discovered ablaze by an anonymous visitor who contributed his thoughts in a letter to the IW Observer in August 1881, the watchman, who couldn’t be found for some time, came in for substantial criticism for his lack of vigilance. As late as June 1908 a report appeared of a fire in the Pier Pavilion being tackled in its early stages by a constable, a coastguard and one Mr Ford who lent buckets. Further on, in May 1920, a fire in the Porter’s Room at the Pier Head was attended by men of the Borough Brigade.
And then, four hours after sunrise on Sunday 18 June 1922 two customs officials became aware of smoke percolating, followed by a small flame, from beneath the boards at the Pier Head. Buckets were secured and boards prised up, revealing the extent of the fire below and that it was beyond the capability of those present to subdue. Ryde Fire Brigade was summoned. Under Chief Officer Henry Jolliffe the brigade exposed more of the area and were shocked to find that flames were present in approximately 100 square yards of the structure. While the firemen above revealed the burning matter and directed water, a boat was sent beneath the pier to attempt the same from below. In several places joists had already burned through.
The post-fire inquiry ascertained that the cause was most likely a discarded cigarette having smouldered overnight before leaping into flames on the morning breeze. The incident was considered a close shave for it could have caused far more damage had the smouldering broken into open flame during the night.
This may have been the reason that the Pier Head’s first fire party was formed, equipped, and photographed later the same year. But, with the effect of the Act mentioned above, Southern Railway took responsibility for the rail link on New Years Day 1923. Its interesting to note that on 14 February 1928, the Borough Pier Committee met to discuss the fire protection arrangements for the Pier. During the discussion Alderman Mears pointed out that a letter had been received from Southern Railway stating that under the terms of their lease it was the Borough Council that were responsible for fire safety on the Pier, not the railway operator. One assumes that as a consequence the LSW & LBSC Pier Head fire brigade enjoyed a very brief existence before absorption into Southern Railway whose directors felt no such compunction to provide the same.
However, it appears that by 1932, Southern Railway’s attitude had changed. A report stated that the railway company were willing for their Pier Head staff to become involved in the Borough’s scheme of fire protection for the structure and specified – regular fire drills to be held by the pier staff… given instructions for them to practice and test the fire appliances each quarter, and for a written record to be kept of such practices.
After that, no more is known of the subject until the Second World War. I was once shown a black Tommy helmet bearing RPH in white painted letters and told it was issued to the Ryde Pier Head fire party. I remain open-minded, considering that black helmets were common in the ARP, not the brigades, AFS or NFS.
After the war the watchroom log kept at Ryde Fire Station evidence frequent visits to the Pier Head by members of the station, to inspect firefighting facilities, which on 10 November 1954 included – new pumps and house. In March 1957 the same firemen of Ryde conducted a large scale exercise involving an assumed fire affecting the Round House Café, attracting the attention of four main jets supplied with water pumped from the sea.
Then in the 1960’s a series of irrefutable facts begin to emerge concerning a dedicated – Ryde Pier Head team of part-time firemen (IWCP), men who were employed on the Pier in other roles and both trained and responded to the call when needed. In the middle of May 1960 Firemen Yeo, Forrester, Heath, Thrower and Eklund, travelled to Reigate and won the railways Southern Region five-man trailer pump competition. On the last day of the same month their status as Southern Region champions promoted them into the Inter-Regional (national) competition held at Marylebone where they came fourth. Just over a year later, the same five men having again been crowned Southern champions, they attended the Inter-Regional competition at the Lambeth headquarters of the London Fire Brigade, where, up against 45-teams from around the country, they placed Isle of Wight firefighting firmly on the map with a record-breaking winning display, completing their drill over 13 seconds faster than their nearest rivals, an incredible triumph of preparation, dedication, and skill.
Above - the Inter-regional (national) railways firefighting team of Ryde Pier Head, celebrating victory at LFB Headquarters, Lambeth.
Below - the Ryde Pier Head team in action at Lambeth.
Returning to Reigate in May 1962 they were knocked into second place in the five-man drill, but Eklund, Eldridge and Ingleton won the three-man event while Firemen Moore and White of St John’s motive power depot No.1, were triumphant in the two-man extinguisher drill class.
Public interest in the success of the elite Pier Head firemen was such that in May 1963 they staged a display and competition of their own at the Pier Head. The event was most noted for the fact that the two-man extinguisher class was very nearly won by two women, 19-year-old Miss Janice Ethridge (Fig.9), office assistant at Newport Railway Station, paired with Mrs Elizabeth Bennett, one of the staff at the Pier, who came second ahead of several male teams. The Pier Head five-man team, the centre of the attraction for most of the crowd that attended, were probably miffed to have been beaten into second place by four-fifths of a second by a team from Ryde Fire Station
When the event was next held, in May 1965, Ryde Fire Station’s team of five were again the victors, with the Pier Head dropping to third place. Their fortunes improved six days later. The team comprising Firemen Yeo, Forrester, Heath, Eldridge, and Elms and reserve Hopkins, again won the Southern Regional competition at Reigate.
The report of this event described the drill they had to conduct – Run pump to dam, feed dam from hydrant, run two lines of hose to attack fire, passing over railings and under railway track, the course had been arranged so that the teams had to lose some 30ft of hose during the run.
After 1965 either the competitions were stopped, or they were no longer reported in the press. The former seeming more likely. But firefighting provisions certainly continued to some degree.
When I first joined IWFRS in 1996 there was a small shed at the Pier Head containing a trailer-pump, several lengths of hard suction and rolled hose, plus four sets of breathing apparatus owned by the fire service. It was part of our regular checks to attend the Pier, open up the shed and check on these items. In the event of a fire, it was incumbent on staff at the Pier Head to open up the shed, position the trailer-pump, start the engine, and get everything prepared for our arrival. With the size and weight of fire appliances increasing steadily over the decades, it had been a very long time since any firefighting appliance was able to traverse to the Pier Head, reliability of the trailer-pump was paramount. Whilst there had been arrangements for a light support vehicle, a van, or Land Rover, to respond to the Esplanade to transport firefighters to the Pier Head, it was often the case in my own experience that this arrived too late, and on many occasions we thumbed a lift from a willing member of the public.
The trailer pump was decommissioned several years ago and it is not my place to comment on the current precautions in the context of the history of the Island’s railway firefighters. It only remains to be said that the era of the railway firefighter on the Isle of Wight, like those of nearly all of his private sector contemporaries, is over.
Saunders Roe Fire Brigade
The information I have relating to firemen of Saunders Roe is limited to their activities during the Second World War. Before or beyond that I know nothing and would welcome contact from anyone who does.
Most of the wartime activities of SARO firemen is courtesy of Kier Foss who shared with me a wide range of documents, photographs and memories belonging to his late father Herbert. Herbert Arthur Hedley Foss (Fig.10) was born in Newtown in 1902. In 1923 he moved to Freshwater having secured employment at Orchard Brothers grocery and four years later married and settled with his wife at Camp Road. In 1938 he was of the first local men to volunteer for the AFS.
All I have read by and of Herbert convinces me that despite evidence of a harsh upbringing, he was a fair man not afraid to put his head above the parapet in the pursuit of better conditions for others, exhibited in his endeavours as a staunch trade unionist. Whilst this wouldn’t normally endear a man to new employers, he must have created a positive early impression in the AFS - in 1939 he was offered the position of Fire Training Officer at Saunders Roe, initially in East Cowes and subsequently at Somerton Airfield, Solent Works and Vittelfields hangars. His success in the role is evidenced by two principal factors – the triumph of various SARO fire crews in drill competitions, and the skill and courage shown
by SARO firemen under war conditions, some of whom were formally recognised. Former Newport fireman Arthur Pointer was SAROs Chief Officer, but there is little doubt that it was Herbert’s training that moulded the accomplished teams of firefighters the company possessed.
Above - SAROs highly successful fire crew of the Laminated Wood Products site who scooped several awards in the Southern Industrial Fire Brigades and ARP competition at Tipnor, Portsmouth, on 11 July 1943. Herbert Foss is third from right. Note the helmets bear the letters SAR FB.
What is perhaps surprising is that available evidence indicates that unlike JS White’s and many other similar companies across the nation, SARO didn’t affiliate its works fire brigade to the National Fire Service when it was formed in August 1941. This is not to suggest that the company limited its firemen’s actions to the perimeter of its work locations, far from it. SARO deployed its fire crews far beyond its boundaries when enemy action threatened to overwhelm the Island’s fire services. Four of its men, William Leonard Bolt, Sydney Walter Chorley, Harry Wallace Hall, and Arthur Arnold Hodges, had details of their endeavours forwarded to the Interdepartmental Committee on Civil Defence Gallantry Awards, and subsequently were commended in the London Gazette.
Post-war the sole reference I have is a photograph of a Bedford SLHZ appliance (Fig.12), and the knowledge that it was the SARO brigade that first tackled a devastating fire in the Seaholme building at East Cowes on 21 January 1963 (Fig.13), perhaps this may jog someone’s memory?
J. Samuel White's Fire Brigade
Sadly, even less is known of JS White’s Fire Brigade than that of SARO. Below is an image (Fig.14) of the Engine Works No.1 Fire Crew that won the Interdepartmental Challenge Cup in 1942, Sir James Milne, Managing Director is in the dark suit.
That JS White’s affiliated the works brigade to the National Fire Service was proven when Carisbrooke Castle Museum made me aware of a wartime Tommy helmet in their possession (Fig.15), bearing both the company title, the NFS badge, and the number ‘14’ indicating Fire Force 14 (Isle of Wight).
Wartime Chief Officer of the works brigade was Alfred John Carpenter (Fig.16) who received a certificate from Winston Churchill and was later awarded the British Empire Medal for his actions during the Cowes blitz.
Britten Norman Rescue and Firefighting Service
First I need to explain the term ‘rescue and firefighting service’. This term seems to be unique to the aviation sector, commonly abbreviated to RFFS and applied to all firefighting units at CAA licensed aerodromes across the country.
Aircraft began operating from a field that formed part of Bembridge Farm in 1920. One year later the field earned the right to operate as a licensed aerodrome having achieved the rudimentary requirements of the era. By 1929 the Automobile Association had taken the initiative to provide services to pilots and the aviation world; the first air-route maps, a weather information service broadcasted hourly, and the authority to conduct landing ground surveys. When gentlemen of the AAs Aviation Service inspected the 600-yard Bembridge runway in 1933, they were sufficiently pleased to award the aerodrome an AA approval.
In the years before the outbreak of the Second World War aviation enjoyed halcyon days. General aviation and chartered transports were many and varied and Bembridge enjoyed its share of the spoils.
The advent of the war and the vulnerability of the Island to invasion rendered the aerodrome a threat to home security. Trenches were dug across the once carefully manicured landing ground rendering them useless. I well recall that early one morning in the early 2000’s I was at the extreme western boundary of the field carrying out morning safety checks as the first rays of the sun peeked above the eastern horizon. I encountered John Taylor of Bembridge Farm, the landowner, as he walked with his dog. We got chatting and he pointed out a peculiar aspect highlighted by the near horizontal emanations of the sun. Following his finger, I looked eastward along the length of the field and saw dark streaks bisecting the field highlighted by the golden rays in the wet grass. These, Mr Taylor advised me, were natures evidence, like fingerprints, of the existence of the wartime trenches – and extensive they were too.
Following the war, the airfield was reinstated. Amateur pilots resumed their pleasures, but the pre-war pioneering spirit was gone and never again were passenger air services to operate from Bembridge.
Air travel to and from the Island had stalled but aviation per se remained an area of development and investment. By the mid-1950’s a modified factory in Ventnor was occupied by two men developing crop spraying equipment for aircraft to be operated in Sudan.
Desmond Norman and John Britten, both graduates of De Havilland, succeeded and expanded their aviation crop spraying operations. Ultimately this success funded their ultimate target – to design and build an aeroplane.
They succeeded by designing and constructing an aircraft of such rugged utility that it remains a viable proposition to operators of the type until this very day. But in the 1960’s, Britten-Norman, needed room to allow for the expansion.
An early image of BN Hangar 2, the 'new hangar' the north of the airfield. Hangar 1, the original building which also accommodates the Propeller Inn, can be see near the top of the image.
I have unearthed no evidence that Bembridge aerodrome featured a firefighting capability in the years prior to the advent of Britten-Norman, it may have, but I have no knowledge of it. The underused aerodrome became the home for the growing business. As the business grew so did the number of flights and in accordance with the requirements of the expanding regulation connected to the industry, so did the need to provide for safety – including provisions for firefighting and lifesaving of persons in aircraft incidents.
The earliest verifiable evidence that remains of an established RFFS at the airport is found in a handwritten log completed by one George Urry on 5 May 1969. Whether as Station Officer or Chief Officer (he was annotated as both), George was unmistakably the man in charge of the BN fire brigade of the late 1960’s and for some years thereon.
In that first log entry, George Urry remarked on the arrival of a new crash-tender, but with no further detail. Over the course of the following four weeks George drilled his airfield firemen on six occasions encompassing both practice drills and full airfield response exercises and was disappointed to note on 4 June that all this activity resulted in a sheared pump driveshaft. Notwithstanding the inconvenience, the redoubtable firefighters hauled a Coventry Climax portable pump onto the roof of the tender, lashed it securely to the coachwork, from which a length of 4” hard suction hose was lowered into the appliance water tank.
At that time the standards required were both stated and put to the test by the inspectorate of the Board of Transport. On Friday 6 June 1969, their adapted appliance and drills were put to the test before the scrutiny of a team of inspectors from the BoT. At 12:50 an inspector activated the crash alarm. 30 seconds later the tender and crew departed from the standby position at the side of Hangar 1 (where the Propeller Inn is today) and within one minute were at the allocated site of the fire with media produced within another 30 seconds. Station Officer Urry noted that the BoT inspectors were – very impressed with crew and equipment improvements on last year – revealing that lashing a portable pump to the roof was acceptable, but also that there must have been an airfield fire crew in 1968 and perhaps long before.
During this period what is derived from the Station Officers log is that there were two factions to the aerodrome fire service. The AP Crew (Airport Crew) was staffed by men employed in Hangar 1, whilst the NF Crew (New Factory) was made up of men working in the expansive hangar to the northeast corner of the field (Hangar 2). This also suggests that more than one appliance was in service.
Later the same month a crash-rescue drill carried out on a Monday evening was noted by Chief Officer Urry complete with the names of those taking part.
AP Crew - S/O Urry, L/F Cook, Fm Young, Fm Budden
NF Crew - L/F Linnington, Fm Pearce, Fm Lockhart, Fm Soden, Fm Arnold
Just after 16:30 on the afternoon of Friday 17 October 1969 a fire broke out on the second floor of Hangar 2 affecting both the jig store and drawing office. The NF Crew, LF A. Linnington, B. Lockhart, W. Pearce, R. Soden and J. Arnold worked rapidly to deploy two hose reels to attack the fire in a pincer-movement from the stairwells that served either side of the south of the hangar. At 16:37 the AP Crew, LF D. Williams, T. Budden, J. Mayley, G. Young and D. Topley, were alerted and raced around the road to attend the incident.
The AP Crew augmented the attack pitching a ladder to the south elevation of the hangar and hauling a main jet aloft in addition to supplying a second jet which was run up one of the stairwells alongside a hose reel. Amid the apparent deluge a casualty was recovered and brought out by a stretcher party to receive medical aid.
So dramatic were the events as described in the Station Officer’s log that I wondered if it were a training exercise. However, in 2007, former Leading Fireman Dave Williams, by then long since retired and paying one of his frequent visits to the airport to reminisce and share his humour, provided me with an insight to the event and confirmed it was a real incident. In his opinion the fire wouldn’t have reached such staggering proportions if the Station Officer hadn’t taken the decision to instruct the man at the head of the ladder to smash a window and direct his jet inside. Dave’s recollection, overseeing the crew operating the main jet from the second-floor landing, was that the broken window created an air-track upon which the fire fed greedily and expanded in all directions. He alleged that the person requiring evacuation was one of the firemen overcome by the smoke and heat – at that time the airport fire service didn’t possess any breathing apparatus! Dave chuckled with irony at the memory of the men of Bembridge Fire Station, under the command of former wartime Ryde firemen, then Station Officer Bill Barnett, arriving soon after and telling the airport firemen to sling your hook!
Circa 1985 - airfield services vehicles, on the second right is RIV Commando Brit 1 alongside Brit 2 which towed a Perren unit.
Land Rover CDL 84L to the left in the background at what was for many years the RFFS standby position at the front of Hangar 3 (date unknown but the aircraft in the foreground was built in 1989).
Following institution of the Civil Aviation Act 1971, a year later the Civil Aviation Authority was formed for the purpose of regulating and overseeing aviation standards. The first reference to the new authority appeared in the RFFS log of Wednesday 8 May 1974. CAA Southern Divisional Office at Heston Aerodrome despatched an aerodrome licensing renewal inspector to liaise with LF Linington and carry out an audit and inspection of all things relating to the rescue and firefighting facilities. A letter, sent to confirm the inspectors’ findings, mentioned that your newly acquired Land Rover is a first-class vehicle and is a worthy supplement to the Commer appliance.
This Land Rover Series II was a long wheelbase single cab with canvas tilt design, registration CDL 84L. I remember it well as I was the person driving it, decades later, when the engine which had been powered by waste AVGAS produced from daily fuel testing for many years, finally succumbed and suffered a crack in both head and block. By then the vehicle was used as an airfield run-around and had no purposeful role in the fire service so it was scrapped.
Above - Brit1 and crew, names and date unknown.
Throughout the 1970’s the RFFS attended several aircraft incidents and responded to many alarms involving the company buildings. Operational capacity increased with the addition of new equipment, as indicated in the revised Standing Orders in Case of an Airfield Emergency, produced by Safety Officer Mr D.A. Cover in April 1978. In one part Cover refers to dedicated fire crew personnel donning flame-suits on route to an incident. These suits, Bristol Uniform supplied Fire Protection Suits, were lined with asbestos, complete with helmet featuring a flared asbestos collar, and gloves.
The 1978 standing order concluded with a list of the current crew.
H.Townend (Airfield Manager), Fred Bryant (Fire Crew Chief), Lionel Frampton (2 i/c Fire Crew), Dave Buttle (Fireman), Stan Matthews (Fireman), Wilf Pearce (Fireman – flame suit wearer), K.Winter (Fireman), Richard Bishop (Fireman – flame suit wearer), M.L’Hours (Fireman), P.Ray (Fireman – i/c communications)
At that time there existed a complementary unit composed of those equipped and able to respond to emergency first aid requirements.
- Reeves (Officer in Charge), 2. Urry, 3. Humphries, 4. Lloyd.
In the same month with news of asbestos related health conditions emerging across the nation, BN’s firemen expressed their concerns about continued use of the Fire Protection Suits. Safety Officer Mr Cover despatched a letter to Bristol Uniforms who responded dated 12 December 1978. Bristol’s response included a copy of a letter dated two years before from TRA Industrial Products Ltd., of Rochdale. TRAs six bullet-pointed statements made in April 1976 began with a barely reassuring opinion that the type of material used was less dangerous than other types and concluded with point (6) below.
In New Year 1979, Chief Officer Fred Bryant was clearly dissatisfied with the Bristol Uniform response and wrote to the Chief Fire Officer of London Fire Brigade, P.H. Darby, CBE, QSFM, FI Fire E, requesting his opinion. The reply came from the CSO of the Greater London Council’s Technical Services, stating that LFB had never used asbestos lined suits but had previously used helmets, gloves and blankets containing asbestos. The CSO revealed that based on advice from the Home Office in consultation with the Health and Safety Executive these items were withdrawn from service and replaced with safer alternatives. One may presume this would have been sufficient to see the suits withdrawn from service with the RFFS, but as evidenced by later references, this was not the case.
On 2 February, with the airfield sodden following persistent heavy rain, the RFFS were summoned by crash alarm at 14:00. The concerned flight crew of Islander G-BEKY was inbound on a single engine. The crew’s response was rapid and as the aircraft landed safely but became mud-bound, Land Rover CDL 84L, arrived first in 1 minute 4 seconds from the alarm. 2 i/c Lionel Frampton quickly identified no risk of fire. Unfortunate it was that the crew of the main pump, a Commer appliance, weren’t aware of the anti-climatic arrival of G-BEKY as the appliance, with a crew of five, soon became bogged in the waterlogged grass at the end of the STOL strip. A drama turned to a crisis when Flight Shed chargehand Mr Hasketh deployed a fuel bower onto the field to offload aircraft ballast which also became stuck in the mud.
In his summary report Chief Officer Bryant stated that the surface of the affected area was badly damaged. He also stated arrangements had been made to install a Bendix radio in the Commer appliance, to ensure driver and crew were privy to vital information that would have prevented them continuing unnecessarily onto the sodden grass. A tractor successfully dragged everything back off the field, adding to the surface damage.
It was to be Chief Officer Bryant’s final act, other than to furnish the company with his resignation in a letter dated 7 March 1979, accompanied by his report of the state of the RFFS, concluding with – The general set-up is sound, and the crew members work well and efficiently together, with the advent of new equipment I feel that any emergency that occurs on the airfield will be dealt with swiftly and factory incidents will be under control in the shortest possible time.
After attending the CAA Officers Course at Stansted, Lionel Frampton was appointed to the role of Chief Officer, a position he maintained with a steady hand until 2007. A few months later the RFFS took a substantial tactical leap forward with the arrival of a Range Rover Carmichael appliance, MUY 150T, known as an RIV Commando (Rapid Intervention Vehicle). The appliance, a left-hand drive demonstrator, had been bought in nearly new condition direct from the Carmichael works in Worcester. The first modification necessary to meet CAA regulations was to apply a third live axle, converting it from 6x4 to 6x6.
The appliance, unpopular to some who didn’t adapt well to its left-hand drive and the critical series of tasks required, at speed, to operate the roof mounted foam monitor, was to out-stay its Chief Officer and gave more than three decades of service as the first responding appliance, originally known by its callsign Brit 1, later changed to Rescue 1. By this stage the RFFS was staffed from two primary groups – those employed direct in airport operations whose job was to engage in firefighting, and those who were similar to retained firefighters from other departments on the site who volunteered for the additional role.
In addition to meeting obligations of the civil authority, the RFFS’ capabilities required expansion when BN began engagement in tasks related to the Ministry of Defence. At civil level the RFFS operated at CAA Category 2, the required MoD Category 2A seems little different, but the reality of the disparity between the standards was a near 400% increase in foam on wheels for immediate deployment, plus the addition of several significant equipment specifics, including use of self-contained breathing apparatus.
In order to meet the enhanced requirement two former RAF TACR2a fire appliances were procured (Truck Airfield Crash Rescue) bearing the callsigns Rescue 2 and 3. The former Brit 2, a Land Rover Carmichael featuring a straight-six petrol engine, pump, and smaller water tank, was reduced to reserve status, and used more commonly as general airfield run-around. Eventually as its operational use to the RFFS waned, it was repainted in the colours of Fly BN.
In January 2002, during one of the most bitterly cold experiences of my life, I attended a course at the International Training Centre at Teesside Airport and qualified as a Junior Officer. As the sole member of the crew qualified to use breathing apparatus, I was sent on a BA Instructor course in the following April. By agreement with the IW Fire and Rescue Service sets of breathing apparatus, accompanied by a maintenance package, were hired, and installed on Rescue 2 and I developed the RFFS’ first BA training and assessment program.
A few years later when the MoD insisted that protecting its assets from fire was incumbent on BN in the hangars and offices as it was on the airfield, it became necessary to develop the airfield firefighters to make a first response to a structural incident.
Above - Firefighters Tony Patchett and Pete Dalby, integrating BA procedures into airfield fire and rescue training, January 2006.
Myself, then as Deputy Airport Fire Officer, hot and tired after the first trial run for instructors only of the FBT facility in late 2007.
In 2007, two of us, John Hook, and myself, were sent to Devon Fire and Rescue Service Training Centre and were fortunate to be allocated a course run by Nils Bergstrom of the Swedish Rescue Services Agency. Nils is a world-renowned pioneer and specialist in the art of interior fire attack. He taught us how to teach others in what was then termed fire behaviour training (FBT). This involved the deliberate, controlled, creation of flashover and backdraught. Some years before the same was possessed by the IWFRS, BN RFFS established its own FBT training facilities located off the car park to the east of Hangar 2. Through initial training and monthly exposure to the conditions of the crude but effective facility, bearing the tongue-in-cheek placard The Devils Steakhouse, the airfield firefighters became proficient in this very different aspect of the trade.
As the operational needs of MoD fire protection developed and required occasional operations at multiple sites, sometimes driving between them in the TACR’s became necessary, so the capability increased. One memorable trip to Cumbernauld Airport near Glasgow to inspect and procure another TACR will always go down in memory. At its zenith the RFFS fielded one RIV Commando, four TACR2a’s and one Land Rover, with a combined pre-mixed foam on wheels capacity of 5,500 litres.
Whilst an argument existed that the same, or greater, firefighting capacity could be more easily achieved by the acquisition of a single large capacity appliance, the ground conditions at Bembridge aerodrome favoured a fleet of comparatively light and highly mobile six-wheeled appliances.
Above - BN RFFS in front of the fire station, August 2008.
Providing fire protection of MoD aircraft required an additional procedure that could be a little discomfiting for those tasked with it. For every engine start a single crew had to be present. One of the crew had to endure the unpleasant task of standing close to and directly off the nose of the aircraft, maintaining eye-contact with the pilot, while the engines were fired up one after the other. Clutching the nozzle of a hose that extended to a large capacity wheeled Halon cylinder, the unfortunate firefighter was to be ready to react the instant a fire erupted from the engine. Standing so close to the blur of the propellers, ear buds jammed in to counter the deafening roar, and praying that the aircraft brakes were effective, we all took our turn at this unattractive proposition.
Around 2010 following an inability to reach agreement with the airport owner, BN began to pull its operations from Bembridge and relocated to HMS Daedalus, today known as Solent Airport, near Gosport. This process required relinquishing the civil aerodrome licence, coupled to relocation of all Ministry of Defence operations. The RFFS in its entirety was relocated to the mainland. The aerodromes first dedicated four-bay fire station, opened only a few years earlier, has remained empty ever since.
Since then, the field has been devoid of all commercial aviation operations and is overseen by the Vectis Gliding Club on behalf of the airfield owner on an unlicensed basis. No fire and rescue capability are required or available.
IW Airport (Sandown) Rescue and Firefighting Service
Credit for the image above to wight.hampshireairfields.co.uk
Today the airport off the A3056 Newport Road is formally known as Sandown Airport, which it was generally known as during the period it was officially publicised as the Isle of Wight Airport. However, when it opened in 1935 it was named after the farmland upon which it was established – Lea Farm Airport. For historical accuracy two other aerodromes had existed in the district prior to 1935, at Apse Manor Farm (known as Shanklin airport) and another near to Landguard Manor.
The launch of Lea Farm Airport was accompanied by installation of three grass runways, of which only 23-05 is in use today. In accord with all Island airports other than Somerton, Lea Farm’s runways were rendered unusable during the Second World War and when re-established afterwards, adopted the name Isle of Wight Airport.
Whether or not the operations conducted at the airport on either side of the war were afforded fire protection is currently not known, I’ve heard rumours of an appliance but discovered no concrete evidence.
The earliest evidence I have found is that IW Airport, being a licensed operation when the CAA took responsibility for aviation standards and regulation in 1972,
was the provision of a Series 1 Land Rover, 818 NYC, that towed a trailer. Neither the Land Rover or trailer featured a pump, discharge of firefighting foam was achieved by air pressure contained within a mounted cylinder. This had taken two different forms, as highlighted in the images below.
With barely enough foam to achieve the minimum standards of Category 1 RFFS requirements, the system was very much a one-shot-wonder leaving little margin for error but was nevertheless a simple and effective method of delivery via standard layflat hose flaked in a locker on the trailer. The earlier of the images also evidence a large capacity Halon extinguisher mounted on the trailer.
When the airfield came under new ownership in 2003, I was hired to attend, supervise, and record CAA compliant records based on a monthly training session for the members of the RFFS. CAA minimum requirement for a Cat 1 response is just two personnel and given the sparse staffing required to operate the airport this was the nominal expectation. This improved in 2005 when developments included in the opening of The Aviator restaurant and bar adjacent to the Control Tower. Coinciding with the procurement of a former RAF TACR2a appliance, which bore the callsign Crash 1, and retaining the Land Rover trailer as Crash 2, the need for more personnel above that required of the Cat 1 standard was enabled. Over the course of the following five years, I was to train several members of the restaurant and bar staff in addition to those directly employed on airfield ground operations.
Two of those I trained experienced the worst-case scenario when a single-engine aircraft crashed close to the airfield shortly after take-off in 2007. Making a minimum crewing response as rapidly as possible they were sadly faced with an irrecoverable blaze that took the lives of all four on board the aircraft. I was on holiday in the south of France when called concerning the incident and was quick to reassure those involved that they had performed their role without question when I returned home.
Above and below - combined airport and structural fire crew on standby during the 2005 End of the War Air Show.
Preparing personnel for Cat 1 operations appears simple due to the rudimentary nature of the equipment and resources. However, it also brings its own unique challenges as each person has to be trained to react in a manner appropriate to the minimum crewing of just two firefighters.
When the airport hosted two major displays in 2004, and 2005, the D-Day 60th Commemorative Display and the End of the War Air Show respectively, the need for a much greater level of fire protection was considered prudent. Under the direction of airport management, I was tasked with establishing and commanding a combined crew of aviation firefighters from both IW Airport and Britten-Norman RFFS, alongside a handful of IW Fire and Rescue Service firefighters, in order to provide a capable first response to both airside and landside fire incidents.
Never having dealt with wartime aircraft before, I was aided in my personal preparation as operational commander by original National Fire Service material retained at Ryde Fire Station. Wartime commander Company Officer Max Heller had neatly clipped each of the published pamphlets into a chronological folder. The pamphlets concerning aircraft were of great value in identifying specific hazards and methods of pilot rescue.
At the 2004 event the airfield had managed to attract more Supermarine Spitfire’s to Sandown than the Imperial War Museum Duxford had on display on the same D-Day weekend. Given the high historical and economic value of the range of aircraft on the flight line, the combined RFFS were tasked with carrying out a close proximity presence, armed with Halon, at every engine start.
It is when standing before the nose of a Spitfire as the propellers spin and the engine roars that you realise just how large, powerful, and dominating an aircraft they really are.
As evident in the photo from the 2005 show, alongside the two TACR2a appliances, one based at Sandown the other from Britten-Norman, the airside standby location also features a Bedford RLHZ, better known as a Green Goddess. This unlikely procurement by the airfield owner was initially disapproved of by the Fire Inspector of the CAA Safety Regulation Group. Citing the appliance as unsuitable and incapable of achieving the required response time, the airfield owner tasked me to prove him wrong.
Despite my own reservations the Sandown RFFS crew and I undertook the challenge. Reconfiguring pre-connected hose laid in a flaked pattern was essential, followed by an entire day of drills. Activating the crash alarm, donning firefighting PPE, charging back and forth to the furthest extremes of the aerodrome, deploying the flaked hose at speed, engaging the pump, and producing finished firefighting foam at 50% of the desired flowrate, aiming for that magical two-minute target, it was a full-on days’ work. With a few further configuration tweaks and an improved knowledge of how to get the best from the ancient labouring appliance, we did it. With some incredulity the CAA inspector attended, observed his stopwatch, and couldn’t deny that we had achieved the seemingly impossible. I don’t know which of us was more surprised, him or me.
However, the acquisition of a Pinzgauer appliance proved a total folly. When purchasing, the airport owner didn’t consider that hose couplings in Europe don’t match the British standard instantaneous coupling of the RFFS hose, and it was never properly solved. This rendered the appliance next to useless except for deploying water via the fixed hose reel featuring a branch that appeared to have been modelled on a German MP40 Schmeisser sub-machine gun from the Second World War. Notwithstanding its limited use to the RFFS, I spent substantial time enjoying the incredible articulation of the driven axles, all three of them, which could be selected in any configuration desired. With large mounts of sodden earth piled up at the western end of the aerodrome following building development, we pushed the Pinzgauer to the limits of its mobility in the most dire of conditions with its 1,000 litre water tank filled – and we could not get it stuck.
Sadly, after the success of the air shows The Aviator restaurant was destroyed by fire on 31 December 2007. I attended the incident as a member of Ryde Fire Station and had a personal reason for feeling deflation at the loss of such a unique venue for Isle of Wight aviation. Alongside destruction of the structure was the loss of many aviation artefacts of great interest and value.
With the restaurant gone so too went the staff and the strength of the RFFS was much reduced. Airport business declined, the CAA aerodrome licence was rescinded, and the airfield was sold to a London based development company who wished to re-purpose the area for housing. Fortunately, their plans were refused.
Under the new airfield leaseholder, the title of Sandown Airport has returned and so too has something of its halcyon days. A vast increase in aviation activity has been promoted by installation of artificial grass for the greater part of a runway previously renowned for having to shorten its available length, or close, following rain.
Although the airfield remains unlicensed and not under the scrutiny of the CAA, the leaseholder has invested in providing both a firefighting and medical response to emergencies on the site. Although not formally an RFFS unit under regulatory enforcement, the volunteer members of the airport’s emergency response crew stand today as the sole standing private fire and rescue service on the Isle of Wight.
There are many gaps in the history of the private and works brigades of the Isle of Wight. If you have any information and photographs that may assist, please contact me using the form below, thank you.