The Battle of East Cowes

These buildings were examined, and it was decided that they were inadequate, wrongly sited, and altogether unsuitable for continued use as a Fire Station – summarised the report of the County Council Fire Brigade Committee in respect of the rudimentary hut-like qualities off upper York Avenue that comprised East Cowes Fire Station when considering the needs of the 1950-54 service building plan.

East Cowes established its first station in a modest building at Pump House Lane. After decades of internal wrangling between the town’s councillors, worthy of a protracted story in itself, a plot of land on the site of the waterworks was earmarked for the structure in the summer of 1906.

In the October an invite for tenders to build the station was placed in the IW County Press with funding to come from the rates. Later in the month East Cowes Council received a loan in principle from the Local Government Board to fund the town’s first fire engine with £170. On the same day the tender of builder Mr E. Sibbick, the cheapest at £42 10s, was accepted. 

By then Archibald Farrow (Fig.1), fireman of the Cowes brigade, was hired to instruct the men of the East Cowes brigade and take care of the station, when built, for £6 per annum.

During discussion some councillors felt it would be beneficial to offer Farrow the captaincy of East Cowes inaugural brigade, whilst opposers were split between those who were horrified at the thought of the role being offered to a man from the other side of the Medina, and those who felt it inappropriate to poach from their neighbouring brigade. By New Year 1908 Farrow’s reputation had won the day and, poached from the other side, he was appointed as the first Captain of East Cowes Fire Brigade.

Compared to the other principal East Wight towns East Cowes were late starters, but they wasted no time to evolve from the era of the manual engine and before the end of 1908 were making plans to procure what would become the Island’s fourth steam fire engine.

Consultations and visits were arranged with Captain James Dore at Sandown, Captain Oscar Rayner at Shanklin and Captain Sidney Sapsworth at Ryde to discuss the merits of and see their steam engines in action. The decision was made to copy the pattern of the two latter brigades and purchase a Merryweather Gem engine.

Farrow and his men first drilled with the Gem on Saturday 27 March 1909. Performing for the delight of the ratepayers ECFB got up steam on the road outside the Prince of Wales public house and threw powerful jets of water up and over the trees at the entrance to Osborne. Ironically, twenty days later, a fire that started in the kitchen of the Prince of Wales afforded the brigade an opportunity to use the Gem in anger for the first time. 

The blaze that wrecked the rear of the premises was celebrated for the brigade’s rapid response from the new station and timely firefighting that prevented destruction of the entire building. Such was the meteoric rise of ECFB as a major firefighting force on the Island that two months later they were elected as full members of the IWFBF. Four years later they also joined the National Fire Brigades Union.

It had all been going so well until the 1920's when continued lack of maintenance of the Gem resulted in the appliance becoming unsafe to use. The cost of replacement was too high, the cost of repair little less. By 1925 East Cowes firemen suffered the indignation of having to result to no more than a hand cart loaded with equipment to enable working direct from a hydrant.

The benevolence and vested interest of a local engineer ensured that the Gem was reinstated as cheaply as possible. At the end of the 1920’s ECFB were still relying wholly on steam whereas all the other East Wight brigades had by then made the major evolutionary step into the era of motor fire engines, starting with Ventnor in 1923.  

Steam, once seen as the solution to the firemen’s frustration, was a short-lived affair and with the knowledge of brigades in Newport, Ryde, Sandown, Shanklin and Ventnor performing previously unachievable miracles at fires, it was with some consternation that a fire broke out at JS Whites on 28 August 1929 at a time when the steamer was again out of service. It was the swift arrival of motor fire engines from Cowes, Newport, and Shanklin that saved the day.   

When the General Purposes Committee reported to East Cowes Town Council thirty-one days later, Mr Sibbick was quick to ensure no blame was apportioned on the ECFB firemen who faced a major conflagration equipped with a mid-Victorian period hand cart. – The Fire Brigade turned out very promptly and worked like Trojans under great difficulties.

The principle of procuring a motor fire engine was agreed, the cost and model was subject to much disagreement. Finally an amendment to the proposal to buy a Morris fire engine for £803 was adopted based on its British heritage, rather than Messrs Sibbick and Mortlock’s recommendation of a Ford model for £715 who emphasised that they were built by British workers in Manchester - which was later accepted.

In the fortnight that followed Fowlers of Newport placed an advertisement in the County Press that included a Morris fire engine for £700.

When the Ford Stanley AF Model (Fig.2) arrived at East Cowes isn’t known, but evidence that it was on the run by October 1931 has been located. The 2-tonne appliance carried up to 300 gallons of water, 2,000’ of hose, a range of extinguishers and up to ten men with a maximum speed of 50mph.

Research hasn't unearthed details of the date at which the brigade moved from Pump House Lane to the premises adjacent to Osborne Cottage in York Avenue. It seems likely that the modest accommodation on the waterworks site, which can be viewed today as a holiday rental (Fig.4), was insufficient to house a motor engine, and that the need to relocate would have happened in readiness for, or shortly after, arrival of the town’s first motor fire engine.

It was this station (Fig.3) that the post-war Fire Brigade Committee of the County Council described as inadequate, wrongly sited, and altogether unsuitable for continued use as a Fire Station.

If East Cowes firemen hoped they may acquire new premises as a result, the opinion of the County Council in response to the FB Committee report would have shattered them – It was agreed that the Fire Brigade Committee should consider the closing of this station in due course, as the same cover as at present could be provided by Newport, thereby obviating the necessity for building a new station on a fresh site at East Cowes. It was pointed out that the main fire risk at East Cowes was covered by works fire brigades maintained by Saunders Roe Ltd. and J.S. White & Co. Ltd. Further, in the event of a bridge being erected across the Medina, the existing station at West Cowes would give adequate cover to both East and West Cowes.

At this stage in Isle of Wight local political history, East Cowes Town Council was no more, the town fell under the responsibility of Cowes Urban District Council. Incredibly the County Council made their decision to close the fire station without reference to the District Council, and continued discussing the matter at County Hall where, on 6 May 1949, in a sitting of the Fire Brigade Committee, Commander Rees Millington moved, and was seconded by Mr King – That the provisional date for the closing of the East Cowes Fire Station be fixed as 30th September, 1949, and that in the meantime the Home Office Fire Service Department be requested to state informally whether or not they would raise any objection to a revision of the Establishment Scheme to provide for the closing of this Station and the release from service of the retained men involved.

The County Press spilled the beans in the first edition of June. With less than three months before Millington’s proposed station closure, the Press added a little detail. The County Council had stated that a wholetime fire engine dispatched from Newport could reach any location in East Cowes more rapidly than the retained firemen who resided in the town. The cause of the local delay was adjudged as the location of the current station in the upper part of York Avenue – the Press claimed that the town’s firefighting unit might be saved if the station was relocated to the lower town closer to where the majority of the firemen lived. In the meantime, Chief Fire Officer Sullivan convinced the Fire Brigade Committee that J.S. White’s fireboat might be of benefit to Island firefighting. The committee sanctioned Sullivan’s opening negotiations with the firm. 

Inarguably obtaining access to the fireboat would benefit the County Fire Brigade but it is questionable that Sullivan’s broader intent was to establish closer links with industrial firefighting forces in East Cowes. When discussions with the directors of the firm began it became apparent that the fireboat was a part, but not the whole. Arrangements could be made for the works brigade of J.S. White & Co. Ltd., to be available to support the Council’s service should the necessity arise, particularly in connection with the use of the fireboat – recorded the Committee secretary of a meeting of 10 June, continuing – The Committee expressed themselves in favour of arrangements being made with the Company and it was left to the Chairman and the Chief Fire Officer to confer with representatives of the Company.

The following weeks County Press featured a letter to the Editor from ALL PERSONNEL (EAST COWES FIRE STATION)Having read the report of the Fire Brigade Committee to the County Council meeting in the last issue of the “County Press”, and the proposal to close East Cowes Fire Station, we feel it our duty to state our case so that the ratepayers may not be misled, or our part-time colleagues on other stations deceived. Since the reversion of the fire services from national to County Council control repeated promises have been made by responsible officials to provide a larger siren or remove the existing one to a more central site, less vulnerable to adverse winds; an efficient house-bell fire alarm system (at present non-existent in any form); a heated appliance and equipment room; and last, but by no means least, a new station, centrally situated with all services combined under one roof. In spite of the lack of these things we have endeavoured to serve the community to the best of our ability. The fire risks in this area are rapidly increasing owing to additional housing, factory extensions, etc., and we question very much the wisdom of relying on a fire-fighting service from Newport.

Five days later the East Cowes firemen rescued a cat from the roof of the Post Office but as no Newport crew were dispatched no response time comparison could be made. That didn’t prevent One of the Old Brigade, an otherwise anonymous writer, from submitting a letter of support to the County Press. Being keen to express matters he claimed had been overlooked in the proposal to close the station he elaborated – The Island’s electricity supply is generated at East Cowes, all the largest industries – shipbuilding, aircraft works, plywood factory, and yacht and boat yards – are all there, employing thousands of men and women from all parts of the Island. In these factories thousands of gallons of petrol and oil are stored, making the risk here 100 per cent. We know that the present station is in the wrong place but there is plenty of suitable ground for a new station more central.

After picking out a handful of supporting factors he concluded – The ratepayers of East Cowes should protest to the Home Office against the spending of £10,000 to build a new fire station at Shanklin, while East Cowes is in dire need of one which could be provided at less than a quarter of that sum.

Three days later an infuriated Mr A.J. Johnson raised the matter at the Cowes Urban District Council monthly meeting at Northwood House – The County Council’s decision has caused deep concern among the residents. We have had a sub-station at East Cowes for 40 or 50 years and now it is to be done away with! I notice that it is intended to spend money on improving and rebuilding other fire stations in the Island. There is a petition going around the town that is very well supported. I move that we send a strong protest to the Home Office!

Under presiding chairman Mr J.F. Sinclair, debate began. Mr F.J. Petty responded to claims that Newport could reach any part of East Cowes within ten minutes by referring to winter ice or fog, before adding – why do away with something that has been in existence for years and given the town a very good service. The majority of people in East Cowes agree that the present fire station is in a bad position, members have a long way to go and the fire siren cannot be heard very well when the wind is in the west, but to do away with the brigade altogether is criminal!

Mr S.L. Glossop supported the recommendation, adding, without specifying the incident, that a recent fire had proven the claims that Newport could reach East Cowes before the town’s own firemen as inaccurate. Alderman Warrior was sympathetic to the cause, expressing fears for the districts vital industries, but cautioned the Council should refer in the first instance to the County Council before considering reference to the Home Office, asking for clarification from the clerk, Mr F.W. Hefford. Hefford replied that Warrior’s approach would be considered the appropriate course of action but added that the County Council hadn’t consulted with the District Council concerning their decision – local councillors and the firemen had discovered it from the County Press. Johnson and Petty snatched readily at the ammunition. The decision was made to treat the County Council with reciprocal contempt and protest direct to the Home Office.

When the Fire Brigade Committee next met at County Hall on 8 July, the Secretary of State had already replied to the County Council concerning their wish to amend the Island’s Establishment Scheme by the closure of East Cowes Fire Station. The Right Hon. Lord Chuter Ede (Fig.5) had no personal interest whether or not East Cowes possessed a fire station, but he was eager to point out to the County Council they should not have come to him with a proposed amendment to the Establishment Scheme without first consulting with the affected District Council – in accord with Section 19(4) (of an unspecified Act) and the First Schedule to the Fire Services Act 1947. Additionally, he required the opportunity to scrutinise the response from the District Council alongside the County Council proposal.

The County Council chastised the Fire Brigade Committee for placing them in an untenable position (albeit knowingly) and insisted they sort the mess out. In response the Committee resolved to invite members of Cowes Urban District Council to a meeting, not to discuss the matter but to advise them of the rationale behind the decision. Six members of the Committee were selected for the task, including former Sandown Chief Officer Wilfred Brown.

The following days County Press carried another letter, this time from Unbiased, who claimed to have no connection to the fire service – I recently witnessed with interest the arrival of the East Cowes Brigade to a fire at the Kingston Power Station within five minutes of the alarm being sounded, while the Newport Brigade, arriving later, found that their services were not required. Where, then, is the justification for claims that the Newport Brigade can reach any part of East Cowes as soon as the local brigade?

While Chuter Ede awaited the County Council and District Councils formal response, a petition of protest arrived on the desk of the Home Secretary signed by 75% of the East Cowes electorate.

We, the undersigned, desire that you give the following facts your sympathetic and wise consideration. A pre-amble of facts now known was followed by an impassioned passage – In the past this station has been manned by part-time and voluntary workers who have always been highly appreciated by the townspeople for the efficient way they have carried out their duties. Those of us who have lived in the town over a long period of years have witnessed fires in all the industrial works here, and realised the danger there has always been to those living in close proximity to the works. While we acknowledge that your time is valuable, we do earnestly ask that you consider this question, and give it your good wisdom and wise judgment and so allay the fears of all the people in this town who have put their signatures to the petition enclosed.

As public and District Council pressure mounted on the County Council, CFO Sullivan (Fig.6) was compelled to publish his rationale for the station closure – REPORT ON RECOMMENDATIONS FOR THE CLOSING OF EAST COWES FIRE STATION – which began with – My recommendations on closing the above Station were in no way based on existing conditions.

Sullivan continued – The present arrangements for calling out the retained personnel are not all that is desired but any expenditure involved in making improvements would not increase the efficiency owing to the distance that the men have to travel to the Station. The position of receiving fire calls both at East and West Cowes presents a problem inasmuch as there can only be one fire telephone number for the two districts. This entails the responsibility for someone sorting the call and turning out the correct Station. The only solution to overcome this difficulty is to accept all calls for both districts at Newport Station, where the switchboard is manned at all times, and who will, in turn, operate the siren and call bells. This procedure has already been approved for West Cowes.

East Cowes being a one appliance Station, can only provide part of the normal first attendance which is two appliances, the other one being sent from Newport. The industrial risks necessitate the attendance of three or four appliances – in this case, one responds from East Cowes and the remainder again from Newport, so that in the event of any fire, with the exception of known chimney or rubbish fires, an attendance at all times is made from Newport.

If it is decided to re-site East Cowes Fire Station, the procedure will be for Newport to accept all fire calls, turn out with one or more appliances and operate East Cowes call bells and siren. Under normal conditions, Newport will be arriving at East Cowes at the same time as the local Brigade turns out. Should it be agreed to close the Station, then Newport will respond to every call and provide the full attendance which I feel would be satisfactory.

The question of what may happen should Newport be already attending a fire must be left to circumstances prevailing at the time. Normally, one machine will be available. If not, then this Station will be covered from the next nearest Station. Such conditions can arise on every Station at any time, for example: Ryde may be attending a fire at Seaview. A fire can occur at Ryde during this period. In this case Newport or Bembridge will be ordered to the fire at Ryde if not previously sent to Ryde to provide cover.

I would add that East Cowes is at present up to strength as far as personnel are concerned and that the appliance and Station have always been kept in an excellent condition, but it would not be fair to allow sentiment to over-rule my judgment in viewing this matter for the future.

Seven days later Cowes Urban District Council met again. Some of those present wished to refuse the invite to meet with a sub-committee of the Fire Brigade Committee, scheduled for the following day, and preferred to deal directly with the Home Office, before the Chairman pulled them into line, explaining that the protocol being adopted by the County Council was at the insistence of the Secretary of State, and the District Council must fall in line. Nevertheless, a partisan majority rattled their sabres in the direction of the Chief Fire Officer.

Messrs. A.A. Guttridge, F.J. Petty, F. Smart, B.W. Webb, F.W. Hefford and J.H. Veale, district councillors and ardent supporters of East Cowes Fire Station, were appointed to meet the sub-committee for which purpose they attended County Hall at 10:30 the next morning and were ushered into a meeting room where the half-dozen representing the Fire Brigade Committee were perched in readiness – Messrs. G.F.A. Wilson, A.J. Sharpe, R. Acheson-Webb, G. Norman, Commander W.O. Rees Millington and former Chief Officer Wilfred Brown.

Mr Wilson, the chairman, opened the meeting with confirmation that the members of Cowes Urban District Council were there at the invite of the committee to discuss informally the suggested closing of East Cowes Fire Station – a significant shift in emphasis from the former attitude of no discussion. Cordiality threaded the opening passage from the Clerk, who described how the condition and situation of the East Cowes Fire Station was not to the committee’s satisfaction, with which the Cowes element agreed, and that – the Fire Brigade Committee had so far only come to the preliminary conclusion that there might be a case for the closing of the East Cowes Station. As placatory as the introductory passage may have been the Clerk was fooling no-one when he stated that the committee deemed it advisable to confer informally with the party across the table. If the Secretary of State hadn’t intervened Cowes Urban District Council may have remained isolated from discussion.

Chief Fire Officer Sullivan entered the room and verbally delivered his written report, verbatim, before handing paper copies to the Cowes contingent. The group were quick to remind the sub-committee that having not been consulted before information was released to the Press, they were concerned to hear of the proposal to close the Station. They stressed the risk to industry, life, and property if the town were to lose its fire station and advised the sub-committee, as if they didn’t know, that 2,500 inhabitants had, of their own doing, submitted a petition to the Home Office. Mr Hefford expressed his opinion that the Chief Fire Officer’s report evidenced no quantifiable reason for closing the fire station.

In reply, Hefford’s County Council counterpart stated that it would be wise for the sub-committee to refer to the Fire Brigade Committee recommendation that a detailed report should be compiled and shared with the District Council.

According to the minutes – The Chairman then announced that the sub-committee would give very careful consideration to the representations which had been made by the representatives of the Cowes Council and their report, with any recommendations, to the Fire Brigade Committee would also be forwarded for the consideration of the Cowes Council.

For the Cowes councillors Mr Webb thanked the sub-committee for their time and the Cowes contingent departed County Hall. The consultation was concluded, but the sub-committee remained in the meeting room to discuss what had been raised by the Cowes councillors. One of the first to speak was Chief Fire Officer Sullivan who was clearly galled by Mr Hefford questioning the veracity of his report. Rather than elaborate and reveal the reasoning for closing the station he turned the table and stated – Nothing I have heard from the Cowes representatives convinces me of the necessity for the retention of a Fire Station at East Cowes, even if a new site for the Station is found, as I remain satisfied that cover shall be no less efficient if operated from Newport.

At the suggestion of the Clerk the sub-committee were each asked to submit their individual feelings on the matter, recorded in detail within the minutes.

Acheson-Webb felt that there may be a case for maintaining a single appliance at East Cowes if a central site for a new station were obtained but wished to support the CFO’s desire to close the Station. Commander Rees Millington proved unquestionably supportive of the CFO’s proposal, as was Mr Sharpe whilst Mr Norman – was firmly convinced of the necessity for the retention of a fire station with at least one appliance in a more central part of town. Perhaps most surprisingly is that Wilfred Brown (Fig.7), a long-term member, and former Chief Officer of the pre-war Sandown Fire Brigade, who had fought for the growth and improvement of firemen, their appliances and stations for decades, willingly submitted to the CFO’s proposal and – was satisfied that adequate cover could be given from Newport and was in favour of closing the Station.

Despite the balance of opinion siding with the CFO, the Chairman was recorded – after hearing the considerations of the representatives of the Cowes Council and the members of the sub-committee expressed the opinion that at least one appliance should be retained in East Cowes, although he was, of course, satisfied as to the unsuitability of the present site.

Ten days after the meeting the County Press recorded that by the end of that week the Island had gone sixty days without rain. The Island was parched, the countryside a tinder box and all stations, East Cowes included, were dashing back and forth to protracted rural fires both within and without their own districts. This included a grass and shrub fire at Barton Lodge where East Cowes arrived first under Leading Fireman Brooke - ahead of the Newport appliance under Leading Fireman Kersley. Even Sullivan was forced to confess to the County Press in mid-August that all retained firemen have been working day and night over a six-week period peppered by 174 fires – with the County Fire Brigade stretched to the limit experiencing substantial periods when all fire appliances were in attendance at incidents.

Sullivan’s monthly report dated 1 September advised the Fire Brigade Committee that the brigade had attended 412 fire calls since 1 January – 113 more fire calls than in the entire previous year and with no sign of the drought abating. Sullivan remarked in the report – I am unable to speak too highly of the work done by the personnel, especially the part-time men who, in some cases, have their own businesses to supervise, but nevertheless, fire fighting took priority.

Sullivan’s report made no direct reference to East Cowes.

On the following day, the Fire Brigade Committee convened at County Hall. The half-dozen who had met with Cowes’s representatives brought the remainder of the committee up to date with the discussions held and the Clerk furnished all with a copy of the minutes. The sub-committee had hoped to conclude the issue that day but those who were at that moment being furnished with information expressed the desire for   themselves and the committee members not present, time to consider all submissions. The resolution being – That consideration of the report of the Special Sub-committee and the observations of the Cowes Urban District Council be deferred until the next meeting of the Committee and that in the meantime a copy of the Cowes Council’s observations should be sent to those members of the Committee who were not present at this meeting.

In a throw-back to the pre-1920’s era in West Wight, the County Fire Brigade were so stretched with rural fires two days after the committee meeting that soldiers based at Golden Hill Fort assisted local farm labourers to beat out a fire at the junction of Golden Hill and Yarmouth Road with sacks and kit bags before a brigade appliance could be spared.

On 20 September Cowes UDC meeting was dominated by the fire station issue. Having received a copy of the Fire Brigade Committee’s response to its sub-committee, which included the considerations of each individual member, the UDC were incensed. Mr Holmes stated that the UDC should maintain a firm policy of objection – those members of the County Council in favour of it don’t live in the place! Mr Smart, picking up on the issue that his colleague Mr Hefford tried to squeeze from the CFO thrust forward his point – I was one who put up a strong case for the retention of the fire station – I think finance is at the bottom of the proposal.

Obtaining a response with a quantified and evidenced reason from the Chief Fire Officer proved impossible and his next report to the Fire Brigade Committee of 13 October again paid no regard to East Cowes. When the Fire Brigade Committee met the following day it was resolved that since the East Cowes issue– was first before the Committee, in view of the proposal of the Government to recruit volunteers for Civil Defence purposes including the introduction of the Auxiliary Fire Service – the decision to close the station should be deferred for six months. The resolution was agreed.

Cowes received the decision which was read to the UDC by the Clerk on 18 October. Raucous cheers erupted around the chamber as those present claimed a victory, albeit temporarily. The combination of hot weather and Cold War ensured East Cowes a viable component of the County Fire Brigade, albeit under the command of a Chief Fire Officer who, for reasons he failed to elucidate, wished it gone.

As often occurs, after the drought came the downpour. By the end of October, the Island was awash. The brigade was as busy as during the long hot summer, this time moving water not to, but from, the location of incidents. 1949 ended with a County Fire Brigade total turnout to 497 incidents; 198 more than the previous year - a figure that blasted apart the financial estimate for fire brigade expenditure on retained firemen’s pay.

Throughout this period Sullivan remained resolute in his desire to close East Cowes Fire Station. Whereas his nominal monthly reports included a breakdown of fire calls across the Island, for reasons known only to himself, in the report of 9 March 1950 Sullivan provided specifics concerning East Cowes including statements such as – two calls received no attendance from East Cowes and were dealt with by Newport – on twelve occasions both Newport and East Cowes attended, five of these calls to which Newport arrived first. He also submitted a damning report on the state of firefighting water supply in East Cowes, for discussion at the Fire Brigade Committee meeting of 10 March – totally inadequate for firefighting purposes – a pressure reading was not obtainable and the flow of water was not great enough to flow through the standpipe. Inarguably a water supply of 15lbs pressure is wholly inadequate, but the angle of Sullivan’s attack is perhaps evidenced in his advising the Fire Brigade Committee that he had brought the matter to the Surveyor and Water Engineer of Cowes UDC who had failed to act and that their indifference was contrary to their responsibilities under the Water Act 1945. 

Sullivan dropped further references to East Cowes in his April report. Six months had passed, and the matter of the fire station returned to the agenda when the Fire Brigade Committee met at County Hall on 14 April in the presence of three Nigerian students who were spending three-months with the County Council learning the British art of local government by committee.

The Clerk reintroduced the issue, reminding all that the decision to defer for six-months had been passed on 14 October and that the matter originally arose on a report from the Chief Fire Officer in July 1949 that in his opinion it would be possible, without loss of efficiency, to close the East Cowes Fire Station and for the cover for East Cowes to be given from Newport Fire Station. Being present at the meeting Sullivan emphasised that he had seen no evidence to modify his opinion of summer 1949.

The Clerk revealed that since the matter was last discussed in committee, he had received details of four suitable sites for station relocation from Cowes UDC.

Considerable discussion, to the bewilderment of the African students, terminated when Messrs. Webb and Mills moved – That the Committee follow the advice of the Chief Fire Officer and close the East Cowes Station.

King and Norman suggested the matter be deferred for a further three months to allow the Committee the opportunity to explore the alternative sites suggested by Cowes UDC. The King-Norman amendment was defeated at the vote by 7 to 5. When the original Webb-Mills move was put to the vote the opinion was split 6-6. Chairman Mr Wilson brandished his power to swing the vote 7-6 in favour of dismissing the CFO’s proposal. With the committee utterly divided and progress in either direction inhibited, Norman and Sutton suggested that the committee search for vacant accommodation in central East Cowes, which would negate the need to purchase land and construct a new station. Again, the committee was evenly split and again Wilson cast his vote in favour of pursuing the option, with no time limit imposed.

Chief Fire Officer Sullivan refrained from further comment in his early May report, but he was active in the intervening period. The Committee convened on 12 May; Mr Wilson was re-elected as chairman with Wilfred Brown as his Vice-chairman.

After plans for the celebrated opening of the new Yarmouth Fire Station were completed, East Cowes was next on the agenda. Sitting in for this part of the meeting Sullivan revealed that, in company with a member of the County Architect’s staff, he had visited all four sites suggested by Cowes UDC – for various reasons (not given) all of such sites were found to be unsuitable for the purpose. They had inspected two additional sites, one of which being a vacant plot of land he considered convenient at the corner of Yarborough Road and Victoria Road (Kings Road today). Chairman Mr Wilson stated that he’d returned to the sites with the CFO and concurred with his findings.

Mr Norman was quick to remind all present, including the Nigerian students, that at the previous meeting he had raised a motion that was agreed, to obtain an existing structure for fire service purposes and not to build new – I am definitely not in favour of spending money on the erection of a new Fire Station.

The issue, which had already carved a clean split between the committee members, was the subject of a lengthy discussion before Commander Rees Millington suggested a further deferral of one month – agreed.

In the meantime, the Newport Borough Council representative Mr W. Blake, left the committee and was replaced by Mr H. Whitehead. He attended his first committee meeting on 9 June where the Clerk decided to begin the East Cowes matter, the third on the agenda, by reiterating the progress to date. In doing so he allowed Mr B.W. Webb, the representative of Cowes UDC, the opportunity to speak – I repeat the deep concern of my Council and of the residents at East Cowes against any suggestion to close the Station, particularly in view of the large industrial risk. It would also be a deterrent to the recruiting of volunteers to the Civil Defence Corps if it becomes known that the Council intend to close this Station. I understand that the retained men (of East Cowes) have expressed their willingness to assist in the erection of a new station if one is to be built.

The Clerk reminded the Committee that if the decision was made to close the station, the Establishment Scheme (Fig.8) would require amendment and all District Councils must be given the opportunity to examine and submit their observations to the Secretary of State who would approve, or not, the proposal. Despite B.W. Webb’s plea and the implications emphasised by the Clerk, Mr F.G. Webb (to confuse matters there were by now three Webb’s in attendance), seconded by Mr King, moved to close the station in accordance with the CFO’s proposal of summer 1949. What changed a significant number of minds isn’t detailed in the minutes. The fact remains that on this occasion with a majority of 9-4 the decision was made – That the East Cowes Fire Station be closed in accordance with the recommendation of the Chief Fire Officer and that the Establishment Scheme be amended accordingly.

The next meeting was scheduled for 14 July – East Cowes was omitted from the agenda, but elsewhere the matter was elevating on all fronts.

At Cowes UDC on 18 July, on hearing of the Fire Brigade Committee’s decision, Mr Johnson uttered – I thought this matter had been settled months ago! We have a keen and efficient service at East Cowes and it’s ridiculous to say that the Newport brigade can get to a fire at East Cowes first. At the most recent fire our local brigade were there at least 8 minutes before Newport and that was on a fine day. What would have happened if there had been snow about? He added a warning – West Cowes is about the same distance from Newport as East Cowes, their turn will come if they don’t look out. The best thing we can do is to buy Mr Sullivan a ticket back to the mainland!

Mr Petty added – I am disgusted with the whole affair. They keep putting forward the excuse that firemen from Newport can get to East Cowes quicker than the local firemen, but this is not always the case and if the station was in the town the local firemen would be on the job in about five minutes. The Newport service can’t do that! I despise the County Council’s so-called economy in the fire service, cheeseparing, they waste enough money in other directions but when it comes to a matter of life and death, they want to stint things. In East Cowes we have one of the biggest flying machines in the world under construction; we have six members on the County Council, why aren’t they doing something to stop this!

It is a disgraceful set of affairs – stated Mr Holmes – I cannot find any other place in the Island which is to lose its fire station. About £5000 has been spent on a new fire station at Shanklin and there’s also a new station at Yarmouth, which I don’t believe compares in importance to East Cowes, the fire risk there is so much smaller. I do not understand the present proposal. It seems to me that there must be some antagonism to East Cowes?

Given CFO Sullivan’s reluctance to divulge the detail behind his decision, and the Fire Brigade Committee’s disinclination to request it, Holmes’s closing remark is hardly surprising.

Isle of Wight political heavyweight Sir Godfrey Baring (Fig.9), by then in his eighties, weighed in – I consider that we have an overwhelming case for retention of the station at East Cowes and at the next meeting of the County Council I shall do my utmost to support this.

Mr Smart who had fought for adequate firefighting services in the district since before the war, added – I am shocked to think that one side of the river would be left without any fire appliances while the County Council console themselves with having saved a little expense. They appear to have forgotten the service of the local brigade during the war, despite the station and the conditions under which they worked. Regarding the siren not being heard, it is up to the County Fire Brigade Committee to ensure that it is located in the appropriate place, it’s their siren! It’s white washing the matter to say that Newport firemen can be on the scene first.

Mr A.A. Guttridge, presiding vice-chairman in the absence of Mr Sinclair – We do not intend to let the matter drop. One thing that sticks in my gills is the report that the Newport firemen arrive on the scene first. Of 36 recent fire calls at East Cowes four were to fires out of the area, six for firemen to stand by at the station, and the other 26 were calls to fires which they were at before the Newport brigade. I believe there’s a good chance of the station being retained if we push the matter.

At the suggestion of Mr Warrior, the Cowes UDC clerk was tasked with organising a meeting between a UDC representation and the Secretary of State.

Motivated to react quickly the Rural District Council had taken steps to reach a considered opinion. A letter sent by RDC clerk Mr R.F. Buckley, to the County Council, dated 19 July 1950, proved the most skilfully expressed essay produced on the matter to date and included the following – My Council felt it was their duty to look at the proposed closing of East Cowes Fire Station from the broadest possible aspect rather than confine their consideration to the effects, if any, on the Rural Districts only, and on this basis they took into full account the industrial importance of East Cowes and the employment it offers to the population not only of the Urban District of Cowes but of the whole Island, and the potentially disastrous effects of any serious fire which might occur in the industrial area.

The Council note that as only one appliance has been kept at East Cowes, another has always been sent from Newport on a fire call, and whilst this has provided evidence as to the length of time each takes to arrive at the scene of a fire, my Council believe that there is no particular consistency of earlier arrival by either Station. My Council suggest, therefore, that it is a matter of conjecture whether the Newport Fire Station can guarantee an equivalent service to that now provided with the support of the East Cowes volunteers, and this point appears to be borne out by the fact that was it not for the present national economic conditions the County Fire Brigade Committee would have been disposed to build a new Station in East Cowes. This in itself suggests that your Committee are satisfied that there is really a need for a local fire station in this area.

Three days later Cowes UDC clerk Mr Hefford drafted, received approval, and dispatched a lengthy deposition to the Secretary of State. He began by advising the recipient that during the pre-April 1948 period when Chief Officer-elect Sullivan was drafting the Establishment Scheme for the Isle of Wight, of all the District Councils, Cowes UDC, were the sole authority to support Sullivan’s scheme while all others opposed it on the grounds of cost. Now the saving is to fall on the Cowes Fire Service although the Cowes Council has noted that a new station can be built for the comparatively sparsely populated district of Yarmouth (Risk Category E) at a cost of between £4000 and £5000.

Hefford went to great lengths to spell out, as if the Secretary of State didn’t know, the lack of proper protocol adopted by the Fire Brigade Committee in the early stages of the process, before turning the page back to late 1947/New Year 1948, when Chief Fire Officer Sullivan both wrote and published a series of documents to support his Establishment Scheme, including the line – The Cowes UDC is divided by the River Medina and each part must be separately covered for at least a part of the first attendance.

Referring to the fire risk categorisation arrived at by Sullivan, Hefford indicated that East Cowes had been categorised fire risk ‘C’ whereas towns with stations not under threat, such as Newport and Ryde were  category ‘D’, Sandown, Shanklin, Ventnor, Freshwater and Yarmouth were category ‘E’, and Niton and Bembridge both ‘F’ – Since the scheme was prepared in 1947 the flying boat industry at East Cowes has developed so that the classification ‘C’ may now be inadequate and the risk category is approaching Class ‘B’.

For risk category ‘C’, Home Office Circular of the 1st October 1949, N.F.S. No.7/1949, states that the first attendance of one or more major pumps should be five minutes for the first pump and 8 minutes for the second. A map produced by the Fire Authority (Fig.10) in conjunction with their Establishment Scheme shows Newport as giving a five minute cover within an approximate radius of one mile; and eight minute cover within an approximate radius of 2 miles; and the time required to reach East Cowes is shown as between fifteen and twenty minutes.

Hefford continued with logical explanations why East Cowes would suffer poor Cold War preparations and struggle to recruit Civil Defence Corps and AFS volunteers without its own fire station before turning to statistical evidence, obtained by the UDC from Newport fire control centre. This proved that of 27 occasions when a Newport appliance was dispatched to a two-pump incident in East Cowes, they were first in attendance five times – This information hardly bears out the Fire Authority’s assertion that “In the majority of cases the first Newport appliance has been at the scene of the fire before the arrival of the appliance from the East Cowes station”.

After indicating that the Fire Authority’s same logic could be applied to serve Bembridge from Ryde, and Sandown and Ventnor from Shanklin, Hefford added – The District Council appeal for consistency – and concluded – It would be a retrograde and dangerous step to remove firefighting appliances from this industrial and highly vulnerable area.

G.J. Mason of 6 St David’s Road added his thought to the County Press of 5 August – I read with regret and disgust the proposed closing of the East Cowes Fire Station. The closing of the station would be disastrous. The inhabitants should have protection against fire by the quickest method.

To add to the mix one Mrs Grieve, owner of the land and buildings that comprised the unsuitable East Cowes Fire Station at York Avenue, wrote to the County Council in early September insisting that the brigade vacate the premises as soon as possible in order that she may arrange for storage of her stock. On receipt of her demand the Fire Brigade Committee suspected this to be part of a local strategy to unhinge the proposal – while the current Establishment Scheme remained in force - if the brigade was forced from its current premises the County Council would be compelled to obtain alternative accommodation in the town.

The minutes of the Committee meeting of 7 September stated their position clearly – The Committee were informed of the arrangements under which the Council held the land, and while they appreciated Mrs Grieve’s needs there could be no question of vacating the premises until the future of the East Cowes Station had been settled. The Committee ordered CFO Sullivan to meet with Mrs Grieve and explain the situation.

Nine days later, 16 September, the County Council finally submitted to the Home Office their application to amend the Establishment Scheme by closure of East Cowes Fire Station.

The army of opposition to CFO Sullivan’s proposal steadily grew in numbers and strength, intensified by the knowledge that the proposal was now a formal application. East Cowes Ratepayers Association, revived in May for the first time since before the war, raised the closure as its primary contest. The RDC formally contacted Cowes UDC to form an alliance. By then Cowes UDC were brought to boiling point on 19 September when Mr Hefford read the reply to his letter from the Secretary of State. His protracted essay had been ignored as protocol dictated. Chuter Ede insisted that in the first instance the UDC should have submitted their considerations to the County Council and that authority would therefore have been compelled to include the District Council’s submission in their application to amend the Establishment Scheme. After eighteen months of wrangling, Cowes UDC had missed the boat.

But such protocols did not apply outside the chambers of local council, the people of East Cowes were mobilised like they hadn’t been since the darkest days of the war. By October the Secretary of State had received opposition to the proposal from Groves and Gutteridge – We would take this opportunity of registering our complete disapproval, from East Cowes Parents Association – We deplore the County Council’s action, East Cowes Ratepayers Association – Committee strongly object, and from Isle of Wight Conservative MP Peter Macdonald, who insisted on a reply – I would be grateful if you could see your way to reconsidering this matter in the light of public safety as well as that of these valuable industries.

On the same day Macdonald mailed his opinion the Fire Brigade Committee agreed to spend up to £2500 for the purchase of Clovelly, Fairlee Road, to provide family accommodation for Newport’s Station Officer. Public reaction, particularly in East Cowes, was predictable. It had previously been ascertained that the cost of a new station at East Cowes was of a similar figure.

More pressure was brought to bear from Cowes Trades Council who sent a letter to London on 16 October – to protest in the strongest terms, and on the same day from the Southern Division of the British Electricity Authority – The British Electricity Authority have an electric generating station at East Cowes. This is the only generating station in the Island and is about to be considerably extended. I am very concerned – wrote Divisional Controller R.H. Coats – at the possibility that, in the event of fire at the Generating Station, there would be no assistance available locally. In view of the facts stated, I shall be glad to learn that you have not approved any revision of the Establishment Scheme which involves the closing of East Cowes Fire Station.

By 19 October Conservative MP Peter Macdonald was perturbed that he hadn’t received a reply from Secretary of State, Labour MP James Chuter Ede, and wrote again, this time including a copy of a submission he’d received from the Ratepayers Association and again insisting on a reply. By now all guns were firing indirectly at the Fire Brigade Committee by way of Chuter Ede. On October 27 the Cowes Professional and Businessmen’s Association joined the battle – It is the unanimous opinion of this Association that undertakings such as these should not have to rely upon a fire brigade stationed 5 miles away at Newport. J.S. White’s took an innovative direction on 7 November, directing their concerns to the Admiralty Regional Officer at Marlborough House in Reading. Managing Director J.W. Milne (Fig.11) brought the recipient up to speed with progress of the East Cowes issue, emphasising the fire risk to Admiralty assets,  before summarising – May I ask, therefore, that you will, on behalf of the Admiralty, protest as strongly as possible against the recommendation to close the East Cowes Fire Station, at the same time suggesting that a new Station should be provided on a site near the centre of the town. In undersigning the letter, Milne added that the Admiralty’s local interest was not restricted to J.S. White’s but included several other East Cowes works.

Milne’s novel approach was to load a powerful gun as the Admiralty Officer, Captain Jack Tuthill Borrett R.N. (Retd.), immediately telephoned Henry Martin Smith, His Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Fire Services, following up with a letter dated 10 November which included a copy of Milne’s letter from J.S. White’s and stated – The application for retention of this fire station is supported by the Admiralty.

Cowes UDC, having missed the opportunity to include their formal opposition in the County Council’s amendment application, considered their options and dispatched a request to Chuter Ede intended to stall the process.

At the Home Office, the East Cowes issue was one of several similar station closure campaigns with which they were dealing. However, it was one of few, if not the only, that had backing for the opposition from the Admiralty and for that it was not the Urban District Council, but Sir James ‘Jimmy’ Milne of J.S. White’s that the opposition had to thank. He loaded the guns and the Navy fired the salvo.

It was a tense wait for the County Council, the Fire Brigade Committee, CFO Sullivan, the residents, and firemen of East Cowes and all concerned from 16 September. Continually the guns of the opposition were fired at Chuter Ede until he had taken enough and in his name Mr A. Tudor of the Home Office replied to the County Council on 13 November.

When the Clerk received and opened the letter the Fire Brigade Committee weren’t due to meet again for over three weeks, but word was soon passed between them in order to form a response to Chuter Ede’s decision, which Tudor worded as follows.

With reference to your letter of 16th September requesting approval to an amendment of the Establishment Scheme involving the closing of the East Cowes Fire Station, I am directed by the Secretary of State to say that he has since received a number of representations opposing the proposal, including letters of which copies are enclosed from:-

Sir Peter Macdonald, K.B.R., M.P. (2 letters)

Cowes Professional & Business Men’s Association

Cowes District Trades Council

East Cowes Ratepayers Association

East Cowes Parents Association

Groves and Guttridge, Ltd.

Saunders-Roe, Ltd.

British Electricity Authority, Southern District Controller

Admiralty and J. Samuel White and Co., Ltd.

A request has also been received from the Cowes Urban District Council that the proposal shall not be approved unless a public inquiry is held, or a deputation is received from the Council.

The Secretary of State would be glad if the County Council would give the proposal further consideration in light of these representations and favour him with their observations in due course.

I am, Sir,

Your obedient Servant.


In the aftermath it was revealed that Sir Henry Martin Smith MBE*, the nation’s first Chief Inspector of Fire Services to whom the Admiralty had referred, was a pre-war Chief Fire Officer who during the war served as NFS Deputy Chief of Fire Staff and Deputy Inspector in Chief for Region 6 – Southern, within which the Isle of Wight was Fire Force 14d. Consequently, he was familiar with the Island, and in particular East Cowes due to his prominent role in the Cowes blitz NFS inquiry carried out in the summer of 1942 during which much admiration was expressed concerning the district firemen.

*The ‘MV Sir Henry’, the ship firefighting facility at the Fire Service College, is named after this man (Fig.12).

The Fire Brigade Committee, Chairman Mr F.G.A. Wilson, Vice-chairman Wilfred Brown, and the twelve members, met at County Hall on 8 December. The East Cowes issue had been elevated to primary status in the agenda. The minutes read as follows.

It was reported that the Secretary of State had written on the 13th November, 1950, asking the Council if they would give the proposal to close the East Cowes Fire Station further consideration in the light of the representations which had been made to him, copies of which were forwarded with his letter. The Secretary of State’s letter, together with the representations received by him had been circulated with the agenda.

The Clerk stated that at the request of the Home Office he had attended, with Mr Sullivan, an informal discussion at the Home Office on the whole subject (when they were informed of the representations which had been received) from which it was apparent that it was the views of the Chief Inspector of Fire Brigades, who was well acquainted with the position in the Island, were contrary to those of the Committee. Mr Sullivan had, however, maintained his belief that East Cowes could be served adequately from Newport.

After some discussion on the Home Office letter and the representations forwarded therewith, it was moved by Mr King, seconded by Mr B.W. Webb, and resolved, eight voting in favour and six against: -

That the representations made to the Home Office on the 16th September, 1950, for the revision of the Establishment Scheme to provide for the closing of the East Cowes Fire Station be withdrawn.

And it was all over in a flash.

CFO Sullivan was tasked with getting the siren relocated where it would be most effective and for arranging a scheme whereby firemen who lived at the bottom of the town gathered at one place and were driven to the fire station as one, in response to the call. In the end it was a commitment from Saunders-Roe to respond and provide the transportation that enabled this to work.

When Cowes Urban District Council convened their final meeting of the year on 18 December it was a festive spirit that greeted the news. Among them Mr F. Smart, the man who went to local industry for their support, recognised that it was their efforts and particularly that of Sir James Milne, that had mobilised the Admiralty to strike the deciding blow.

Within twelve months another controversy blew up concerning the state of the fire station. The unhappy Mrs Grieve, in frustration at not being able to gain possession of her premises, had allowed her labourers to stack hay bales near and even on the appliance. East Cowes Ratepayers Association led the charge and involved the Home Office who dispatched an inspection team to pursue the claims to the wrath of the CFO and Fire Brigade Committee who counter-claimed that the Ratepayers Association must have trespassed on Council property to make such claims. This is just one element of East Cowes Fire Station’s history of the 1950’s which was punctuated by the aftershocks of the battle over the CFO’s proposal, without Sullivan ever having formally revealed a tangible reason for it. His claim that Newport could reach any part of East Cowes before the local firemen was shot down by statistics drawn from Newport’s control centre which evidenced this to be true on just 18% of occasions during the period in question, not to mention Sullivan’s own submission to the Home Office in early 1948 in the pages of the Establishment Scheme contradicted by his claims made eighteen months later. Was the reason financial? In the middle of the battle the Committee agreed to spend £2500 to purchase a house to accommodate Newport’s Station Officer and his family – that decision was also reversed when the Secretary of State issued his opinion on the East Cowes matter.

The battle of East Cowes was won, but the matter of a new station festered for a decade before the new East Cowes Fire Station, still in use today, was opened by Chairman of the Fire Brigade Committee, Mr A.E. King Esq., on 27 February 1960.

Interestingly the County Press report of the station opening, which appeared in the first edition of March 1960, describes the event, the speeches, the station, and named the dignitaries that attended which included pre-war East Cowes Chief Officers Frank Goff and Bertie Knapp. 

The article referred to the Chairman of Cowes UDC being unable to attend due to illness. No reason was given for the absence of Chief Fire Officer Sullivan.

One wonders what was the true nature of Sullivan’s beef with East Cowes Fire Station? Was it connected to the desire to provide Newport's Station Officer with a family home at the ratepayers expense?

Within twelve months of the opening of the new station, East Cowes firemen under Sub Officer Ireson, were first in attendance at a fire in Osborne Road where the lives of an elderly blind lady and two children were saved.

There has been no question of the town’s need for a firefighting force since.

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