The race to be the first steam-powered IW fire brigade

Colonel A.C. Smith was formerly an officer of Royal Engineers who retained the countenance of his military service when he stepped into Sandown Town Hall on 16 January 1907. On that date his role was not of military command, but as an inspector appointed to the Local Government Board despatched to the Island to conduct an official inquiry into the District Council’s application for loans totalling almost £2,000.

The Board was created following the constitution of the Local Government Board Act of 1871. Inheriting most of its key functions from previous Acts concerned with public health and sanitation, it was also encumbered with overseeing the governance and finance of local authorities across the nation. Colonel Smith was answerable to President of the Board the Right Hon. John Burns, Liberal Member of Parliament for Battersea, with whom he endured a tepid relationship – Burns being a fervent opposer to the Second Boer War in opposition to Smith’s unquestioning service to the Crown. Smith was despatched to begin an inquiry into the District Council’s financial proposition as the Isle of Wight sat within his geographical sphere of responsibility. He was no stranger to the Island but was intrigued by the nature of the plans he arrived to scrutinise.

Chairman of the District Council’s Works Committee was James Dore (Fig.1), Chief Officer of Sandown Fire Brigade who was emphatic concerning all aspects of social improvement within the town. Sitting to one side casting occasional glances at the Colonel, Dore listened intently while the Clerk, Mr R. Jones, substituting for the unwell W.H. Wooldridge, described the street improvement plan, for which the lion’s share of the cash was required, in addition to £170 for alterations to the Town Hall and that a further £300 was required for the procurement of a steam fire-engine, turning to James Dore for details.

Dore, progressive, determined and prepared, launched into his rehearsed rhetoric.

I have been Chief Officer of the Brigade since 1879 and our very good manual engine has been in use during that time. The time has come when a district like ours should have better fire protection. We have large risks owing to big terraces of houses and the town is thickly populated, especially in the summertime. If a fire of large proportions occurred very little could be done with a manual engine, and I consider that a steam engine is absolutely necessary in order that we might make some

provision for the Lake part of the district where it is proposed to remove the manual engine if a steam pumper is sanctioned at Sandown.

Our district extends to the confines of Shanklin and at present there is no protection for the houses in that neighbourhood nearer than Sandown except that provided by Shanklin District Council. It is not fair that the inhabitants of Lake should have to send to Shanklin in case of fire for the engine. It is known that if an engine and brigade came out of its own district it had to be paid for. I believe the time has come when we should place some fire appliances at that end of the district. We have a certain understanding between Sandown and St Helen’s district including Nettlestone and Seaview. The Sandown Council has also agreed with Bembridge to render what services we can in case of fire. Then there are the parishes of Brading and Newchurch, which are more or less under our supervision. The rateable value of the districts I have mentioned amount to £88,000. I urge that the steam engine should be stationed at Sandown because it is a central town, and we are near the most populous parts of the district. Even if help were required in case of fire at Shanklin or Ventnor, Sandown would be easier to get at than the other places mentioned. On two occasions Sandown has had to help at Shanklin fires – of course we are always glad to help each other in times of necessity. If there is to be only one steam fire engine in the Island, I contend that Sandown is the town in which it should be provided. I desire to make it clear that if the steam engine went outside the district in case of fire, it would have to be paid for. We have secured a very special estimate for the supply of a steam engine, everything has been done to provide a suitable engine at a reasonable price.

Under the steely gaze of Colonel Smith, Dore was subjected to interrogation by those of his own Council.

Mr Jolliffe stated that at the occasion of Sandown’s previous fire there was insufficient water to suffice the needs of the manual engine, alluding that the steamer would provide no benefit. A question from Mr Young was quickly dispelled by Dore when it became apparent that he was under the misapprehension that a steam fire engine was a self-propelled vehicle. Nevertheless, Young had a point to make - neither of the two important boroughs, nor either the important urban districts – Cowes, Ventnor, St Helen’s, and Shanklin – had gone any further than a manual engine. I don’t think Mr Dore can honestly say that during the last 10 years there has been any occasion for an engine of the description now proposed. It has been one of the things Mr Dore has prided himself, that within a few minutes of a fire being discovered the Brigade were on the spot and subdued the fire before any great damage had been sustained.

Young’s view was supported by Mr Gould - during the past year or so there have been two fires. One had been a fire of haystacks and the other of a wasp’s nest. If a steam fire-engine could be got for nothing well and good but it’s different when we know the money has to come out of the ratepayers’ pockets.

Richard Pitt, a wizened former fireman of 25-years’ service under Dore, spoke in defence of his former captain’s proposal - it is to the credit of the Brigade that there have been so few fires and that those that have taken place had not been very serious. If the Brigade can get on the scene of a fire quickly and with good gear, they shall be able to prevent serious damage being done. It all depended on what was done during the first five or ten minutes at a fire. The manual can do no more work that it is constructed to do and would be of little value with a large fire.

Mr Young; then the Isle of Wight is in a very bad way for the want of this steam fire-engine?

Mr Pitt; that is my idea.

Mr Young; could we not have a combined effort for the whole Island for providing this appliance?

Mr Pitt; to be effective a fire engine must be close at hand; it would never do to have to send to Newport or Shanklin if the engine were required in Sandown.

Mr Young; why would one-sixteenth part of the Island be asked to provide a steam engine when every other part of the Island is satisfied with its manual engine?

Mr Pitt; Sandown has always set a precedent with regard to fire appliances.

Mr Pittis joined Mr Pitt’s camp and spoke of the speed at which a steam pumper could be brought to bear, invoking Mr Tutton to question; a steam pumper would be unable to get to a fire any quicker than the manual as it would be drawn by horses as was the manual engine.

Mr Way joined in; what was the use of having a steam pumper, which would require four or five times the amount of water required by the manual, if we have not the necessary supply of water? There have only been two serious fires in the district during my recollection of 21 years and in neither case had the ordinary water supply been sufficient to work the manual engine.

If Dore was exasperated by his antagonists stealing the opportunity to question the need for the steamer in the presence of the Colonel, he was entitled to feel aggrieved considering that he had raised the motion, as per Council protocol, at a meeting held in the previous October, where it was put to the vote and carried favourably by 9 to 3. So monumental was the decision in the history of IW firefighting that it was reported in several local newspapers. George Harrison, President of the IWFBF and former Chief Officer of Kingston and Surbiton Fire Brigade, penned a letter to Dore congratulating his achievement and emphasising his frustration that the Borough authority in Ryde continually thwarted attempts by Chief Officer Sapsworth to obtain the same.

The Colonel was as adept at perceiving the insurrection as he was aware that the decision had been made by due process. His visit was to assess the economics of the loan application, not to question the reasons for it.

When the outcome of the discussion and visit of the Colonel was published in the press, Shanklin’s Chief Officer Oscar Rayner (Fig.2) submitted his reaction in a barbed public letter which appeared in the County Press of 26 January.

Sir, - In the report of the recent inquiry as to the provision of a steam fire engine I notice a remark was made that other brigades took their tip from Sandown. I protest against this, at any rate as far as this Brigade is concerned. Did we take the tip from them as to electric calls, smoke helmets, lifelines, pompier ladders, instantaneous hose, the keeping of our own harness, &c.? Then again in the case of a steamer, so convinced was I some years since that such a machine was needed here that I arranged for one to be brought and to give a demonstration in this matter. In this matter Sandown was not copied. If the number of fires, property at stake, and the easy access to other towns is to be taken into account, then Sandown is not the most central place. However, I hope soon to see our friends in the happy possession of their steamer, especially as they appear to be responsible for the guarding of such a large part of the Island. Thanking you in anticipation, I am Sir yours truly, Oscar H. Rayner, Chief Officer Fire Brigade, Shanklin.

James Dore, a tall broad chested man who had achieved many firsts for, and with, Sandown Fire Brigade, not to mention the town itself, was a firm advocate of the Shand Mason steamer. Oscar Rayner of Shanklin, of comparably diminutive stature, was equally determined and had scored a few firsts for Shanklin, notably being the first Isle of Wight fireman to wear breathing apparatus in the previous year. He favoured the Merryweather Gem, pitting not only Chief Officer against Chief Officer, but the nations two leading fire engine manufacturers against each other for a first foot in the Isle of Wight’s steam future, knowing that other Island brigades would be ripe for the picking when steam became the standard.

The race was on!

Above - a crew of Shanklin firemen aboard the brigades 1890 manual fire engine, photographed on 18 July 1904.

In the first week of February, as was the custom in Shanklin’s council chamber, Chief Officer Rayner furnished a report regarding the brigade’s activities over the previous month. He wasted no opportunity to emphasise how a fire at the top of Arthur’s Hill, involving ricks of hay and straw belonging to Walter Woodford, would have benefitted from the volumes of water that only a steam fire engine was capable of delivering.

His report opened the door for the membership of the Fire Brigade Committee to make representations to the Council regarding the need to equip the district with such a machine. Faced with the decision the Council requested that Rayner and members vacate the chamber while the Council discussed the issue in Committee. As the wiry moustachioed Chief of the Shanklin brigade shuffled listlessly the time ticked broken by occasional visits by the Clerk of the Council requesting clarity on specific issues.

After a painfully long wait, all were recalled to the chamber where, music to Rayner’s ears, the Council announced that a vote for the steamer had been unanimous. On Rayner’s recommendation the Clerk was to open communications with Merryweather and Sons.

By the time County Press of 9 February published details of the Shanklin meeting, in all likelihood jungle drums would have ensured James Dore’s awareness of the decision in the south of the bay. He would not have been inordinately concerned – on the same day that Rayner got the vote, Dore flouted Council protocol and telegraphed Shand Mason and Co. confirming that Colonel Smith and the Local Government Board were satisfied with the loan application, and that the only outstanding impediment was mere administration of the finance - A meeting will be held of the Council on Tues the 19th when this question can be included. I fear however that Shanklin will get their steamer before that.

Realising that there were limits even to his capacity to bypass monotonous bureaucracy, Dore suggested a scheme. He did so knowing full well that the rivalry between Shand Mason and Merryweather was as fervent as that between Sandown and Shanklin, or more acutely between himself and Rayner, and that in this race he needed powerful allies; he must have been assured that Shand Mason would accept the challenge.

Now I have no authority for ordering an engine but if any way could be devised of getting it here first I should be delighted. I am a member of the UDC as well as Chief Officer of Brigade and believe there will be no further difficulty. Our friends of Shanklin mean to steal a march on us if possible. All I can say is that if you have an engine ready as per estimate £300 in case to send it down ‘on approval’. I can house it for the few intervening days before the Council meeting.

Dore was gambling his reputation both at home and on the mainland by his manoeuvre. What he had on his side was a reputation of an affability and success. He networked prolifically and his positivity and capability to get things done had been proven at home, on the mainland in Europe and the United States where he never failed to make new friends - he wasn’t awarded honours from his counterparts in France, Belgium, and Luxembourg for being a fool. Dore’s getting things done was by no means limited to the advancement of the fire brigade. Much of the finer parts of Sandown’s heritage that remain today have the name James Dore running through their core; it’s inescapable that the only negative comments recorded regarding James Dore came from rival Sandown councillors; those with whom he had the closest contact and whose repressive views were consistently overridden in Dore’s indefatigable campaign for town improvement.

Above - Sandown Fire Brigade and their manual engine, circa 1906.

Six days later, in the evening of Friday 15 February, Shanklin Fire Brigade was occupied fighting a fire at the rear of Mr W. Prior’s Regent Street premises. Prior’s children were awoken by the sound of crackling which turned out to be the rafters close to the ineffective chimney breast. Chief Officer Rayner and the firemen, riding the crest of a firefighting wave of prowess, wasted no time with the manual engine, to enter the smoke-logged building using breathing apparatus, oilskins, and patent branch to knock-down the fire before any substantial damage occurred. It had become so commonplace for the brigade to have their eye keenly on the ball that the Press report barely makes mention of their remarkable performance in comparison to most other Island brigades of the period.

The one ball they couldn’t keep an eye on was gaining momentum right under their noses. Whilst Rayner’s men were getting in a sweat at Regent Street, Shand Mason had that day despatched the following communiqué to James Dore.

Dear Sir. We beg to inform you that we have this day forwarded per L&SWR goods train, carriage paid; 1 Steam Fire Engine with appurtenances as per enclosed list which we trust will arrive safely and meet with approval. We are yours truly, Shand Mason and Co.

In the late afternoon of the following day, Saturday 16 February, a ferry came along side Ryde pier from which was unloaded the Isle of Wight’s first steam fire-engine. The County Press report of the following week describes the events of that momentous day, one of historic nature to Island firefighting, and of significant evolution for Sandown Fire Brigade, not to mention a masterful piece of one-upmanship by James Dore.

A good deal of interest was manifested in Sandown on Saturday evening by the arrival of the steam fire-engine which had been brought from Ryde by Chief Officer Dore. The engine was driven up through the High Street, with the Chief Officer on board, and the repeated signals given by the shrill whistle attracted considerable attention to the new fire chariot.

It appears that when official intimation had been received that the Local Government Board had sanctioned the raising of a loan for the purchase of a steam fire-engine, Mr Dore telegraphed to Messrs. Shand Mason and Co., saying they could send an engine down on approval in order that the members of the Council might see the engine and witness a demonstration by it before actually voting on the purchase of the article.

Above - Sandown Fire Brigade, photographed at the Grafton Street Fire Station on 20 February 1907, flanked by their complete inventory of appliances. On the left the Shand Mason steam fire engine, in the centre the hose-cart and escape ladder, and to the right the manual engine.

A special meeting of Sandown UDC was held on the evening of Tuesday 19th February. The agenda was three-fold. First there was the matter of paying tribute to the Clerk Mr W.H. Wooldridge who had just passed away. Secondly there was the matter of appointing his replacement, and third, the matter of the steam fire-engine, which by then was safely ensconced in the fire station next to the Council chamber.

The Chairman Mr T.A. Wright announced that a vote had been taken that the Council would be allowed to talk more freely on the subject if they sat in Committee. Mr Board questioned the decision, but the Chairman replied that the appropriate protocol had been followed; at that stage the Press and officials were ordered to retire from the room. When the Press were permitted to return to open Council, they heard a formal tribute paid to the deceased Clerk and the announcement that Mr R. Jones would be temporarily appointed to the role until the April meeting... but, nothing was revealed regarding the Council’s stance with regard to the renegade fire engine tucked away in the same building.

Undiminished by the controversy, Chief Officer Dore pressed ahead with his campaign. The demonstration of the steam fire-engine occurred during the afternoon of Wednesday 20 February (Fig 3 & 4); An interesting series of trials with the steam fire-engine were made... in the large open space in front of the Sandown Hotel. Mr B.T. Whitehead attended as the agent for the firm and an engineer from the firm had charge of the engine. The Fire Brigade were under command of Chief Officer Dore. The first demonstration was with the manual engine, water being thrown through a 5/8 nozzle. This was to show the best the engine would do with a score of more of pumpers. The Chairman of the District Council (Mr T.A. Wright) then lighted the fire underneath the steamer, and from the time smoke was seen issuing from the funnel to the time the gauge registered 100lb of steam, when the engine was started, was exactly 5min 16 sec. For the first half of the time the engineer made use of the patent forced draught arrangement; by turning a handle a fan is operated inside the funnel. The first trial was made using a 1in. delivery, the normal size, with which the engine pumps from 250 to 300 gallons per minute. Of course, there was comparison between the steamer and the manual. The engine was doing the work, throwing the water to a great height, combined with tremendous pressure (which is perhaps of greater value in case of fire than the quantity of water itself), and only one man was required at the engine.


The tests were then made with two 5/8in. branches, then with four ½ in. nozzles, and, to finish, up, a single 5/8in. branch was put on to show the great difference between the delivery by the manual and by the steamer. The demonstration was in every respect a success and was witnessed by several hundreds of people.

Several photographs were taken that day and thankfully many of them survive to evidence the location, the strength and interest of the crowd, and the demonstrations in action. Further images were captured at the front of the fire station in Grafton Street. In one the brigade is posing with all appliances, the manual, the hose-cart, escape ladder, and the steam fire-engine. Chief Officer Dore stands adjacent to the forward axle of the latter, a reserved expression on his face. His reputation remained in the balance, the Council’s decision of whether or not to spend £300 on the machine was delayed until Friday. The offside panel of the Shand Mason appliance behind James Dore’s back is noticeable for its blankness... not yet could the Sandown title be applied to it.

Chief Officer Dore knew full well what would be painted upon its unblemished flank if, and when, the time came. Two days earlier he’d received a letter from one J. Newton Moore, presumably a fire service contact within the Southern District of the NFBU who wrote on headed paper of the Royal Talbot Hotel, Bristol.

After congratulating Dore on his courage, Newton Moore had an idea; if you take my advice have a brass nameplate on front with the following on it; PRIMUS IN VECTIS

The correspondent emphasised how the idea had come to him from the motto Primus in Indus bestowed on the 35th Dorsetshire Regiment. Research revealed this to have been a motto, complementing a Battle Honour, awarded to the 35th retrospectively in 1853 by Queen Victoria for the regiment’s actions at the Battle of Plassey in West Bengal in 1757. The action at Plassey, a follow-up to the notorious Black Hole of Calcutta incident, was the first undertaken in India by a Crown Regiment (as opposed to a regiment of the East India Company).

As time was to prove, Chief Officer Dore wholly approved of this title. Of interest is that the unidentified correspondent summarises his letter with; I am writing this ‘unofficially’ but know you quite well enough to do so without apology.

No doubt knowing of the success of the Sandown demonstration in the afternoon, Chief Officer Oscar Rayner may have felt less than enthusiastic to be attending a reunion of the Shanklin Fire Brigade original volunteers later the same evening.

After the dinner at the Clarendon Hotel a smoking concert was held featuring a number of speeches. The first paid tribute to the Old Brigade to which former Second Officer Mr P. Pionchon responded with the confession that they worked well but had not the equipment available to the new brigade in whose efficiency and smartness he rejoiced.

Chief Officer Rayner’s turn came to speak; in October next I shall complete 18 years’ service with the Brigade, and I thank the Old Brigade for their invitation and the pleasant gathering.

Without making any reference to the events in Sandown of just a few hours earlier, he continued; We are proud of our present manual and I challenge a statement made recently that it could not be kept at work; at the Heasley fire we pumped through 850ft of hose. I thank the District Council for doing so much for the Brigade and when our new steamer arrives there will be no town of its size in the South of England better equipped in regard to fire appliances than Shanklin shall be.

In order to stay one step ahead of James Dore he made the audacious announcement; we have decided to enter for the steam-engine competitions at the Crystal Palace in July.

In the meantime, Sandown’s Council had evidently received a letter from Merryweather and Sons. On the following day the Chairman of Sandown District Council Mr T.A. Wright sent his reply.

I have duly received your letter (or may I presume to call it your lecture) of the 19th instant. Our late Clerk, to whom your letter of the 24th January was addressed, was at that time on his death bed, and is now in his grave, so that your censure will not be likely to reach him. The Sandown Council has not yet decided whether it will, or will not purchase a new engine, and I am unable to predict what decision will be arrived in the matter. I expect however that if one is purchased it will be the one now here for inspection.

While Knight’s letter quashed Merryweather’s eleventh hour attempt to usurp their rivals, the tone of the letter regarding the matter of the steam engine per se wasn’t entirely encouraging. Dore could take some solace from the final line but his reputation remained in a vulnerable position.

A tense twenty-four hours lay ahead for James Dore before he, and all members of the Sandown UDC with the exception of Mr Snudden, formed up for the special meeting and ultimate decision regarding the steam fire-engine at the Town Hall on the evening of Friday 22 February.

Dr Langston opened, moving that; Sandown is fully equipped with the best manual engine in the Island, efficient to extinguish fires in the town. To Dore’s exasperation he then revealed the feeling of the Council in committee discussion of the Tuesday evening; the Council deem it inadvisable at present to take up the loan for £300 for the purchase of a steam fire-engine. Mr Sibley seconded.

Major Arnell spoke next; I move as an amendment that the steam fire-engine now on the premises be purchased for £300 and that the Finance Committee be instructed to take the necessary steps to negotiate the loan. The Major reinforced his amendment with several technical and moral references.

Colonel Clayton seconded the amendment. What he added next must have convinced Dore that his scheme to get the engine to Sandown for demonstration on approval was a gamble worth playing. Referencing the demonstration of the steamer Clayton stated - I acknowledge that I have seen reason to alter the opinion I had previously held on the subject.

Former fireman Richard Pitt spoke in support followed by James Dore who spoke at great length, the poignant parts being; I further urge the superiority of the steam fire-engine over the manual. The town cannot afford to go without the steam fire-engine.

Dr Langston argued Dore’s points before the amendment was taken to the vote. Major Arnell, Colonel Clayton, James Dore, Richard Pitt and Messrs Board, Bailey and Butcher voted for; seven in total.

Voting against were Dr Langston and Messrs Masters, Mew, Sibley, Gibbon and New; six in total. It hung on the Chairman Mr T.A. Wright; if he voted nay, the matter was drawn and as chairman he would have the casting decision, which would likewise be nay. Given the tone of Wright’s letter to Merryweather, James Dore may have seen the ground beginning to open up before him. None would have been more surprised than he when the Chairman made a decision that was to have consequences far beyond the walls of Sandown Town Hall; Wright voted yes, Sandown were to field the Island’s first steam fire-engine.

In his victory speech James Dore nonchalantly stated that the engine shall be named Primus in Vectis; none complained.

Why Mr T.A. Wright felt compelled to explain the situation to Messrs Merryweather and Co., isn’t clear. But on the following day he drafted a letter to them and again copied Chief Officer Dore.

Gentlemen, the question of obtaining a steam fire-engine has been under discussion by the Sandown UDC for several months past. Specifications were obtained of a type of engine recommended by the Capt. of our brigade (with price &c.) and they were approved by the Council on the 8th October last. The necessary steps were taken to obtain the sanction of the L.G. Board for a loan for £300. A public enquiry was held, after which the sanction asked for was given. The only question we have had under discussion since then was whether we would purchase the particular engine that was specified, or whether we would have none at all.

An engine (as per specifications) was sent to Sandown and arrived on the 16th inst. It was publicly tested on the 20th inst. and last night the Council decided to make the purchase. You are very much mistaken in supposing that what we have done was “in consequence of” anything that has been done by the Shanklin Council. On the contrary, I believe that the hurried action of the Shanklin Council was “in consequence” of what we did last October. Of course there is a friendly rivalry between the sister towns, and I think I can truly say that when our Shanklin friends knew what we were doing they tried to get ahead of us – and they have not succeeded.

Probably Shanklin would not have had a steamer for ten years to come if it had not been for our action. Hoping that our Shanklin friends will obtain as good a machine as we have already obtained, I am, yours truly. T.A. Knight, Chairman, Sandown UDC.

As the news broke through the Southern District of the National Fire Brigades Union, Chief Officer Dore received a letter from Chief Officer E.L. Lane of Bournemouth Volunteer Fire Brigade; My hearty congratulations and according to my challenge thrown down at Shanklin I shall have to declare that Sandown is the premier town of the Island.

On 4 March James Dore received another letter including congratulations (from an unidentified correspondent of London) and the temporary Clerk Mr R. Jones communicated with those of Shand Mason tasked with the titling of the appliance. The decision was made to apply a mahogany mounted brass plate bearing the words Primus in Vectis on the offside with the words Sandown UDC on the other (for many years this brass plate was displayed and kept brightly polished in the lecture room at the current Sandown Fire Station and remained there until removed to conform to the corporate image required by combination of the Isle of Wight Fire and Rescue Service with that of Hampshire in 2022) (Fig.5).

On 5 March Shanklin Fire Brigade’s Merryweather Greenwich Gem steam fire-engine (Fig.6) arrived and on the following afternoon they carried out; a series of interesting tests on the Esplanade against the side of the cliffs to the north of the lift (Fig.7). The interest of the County Press to the arrival of the Island’s second steamer amounted to four lines of text.

The Observer report of nine lines described a second demonstration on 9 March for the benefit of the Shanklin Councillor’s; a great pressure as 100lbs was raised in less than six minutes from the time of lighting the fire, and the demonstration was a highly successful one, despite the water pressure being at its lowest point.

Over the coming weeks James Dore received a further two letters from Chief Officer E.L. Lane in which he included such remarks as;

Why Rayner let his people go with Merryweather I can’t think but I suppose he caught on to that rotten rear-stoking idea which spoils the construction of the engine. And of course Merryweather’s can ‘gas’ about their engines.

Last Thursday I went to Swanage to test their 250-gallon Greenwich Gem; they took 11 ¼ minutes to get 100lbs! Stoking with wood like mad all the time! It is absurd to take as long as that. Why 23 years ago when we had our first 350-gallon Shand the test time was 9 min 55 secs and our new one 5 years ago the same size was only 7 min 13 secs.

At the end of March Sandown’s local elections took place. Shockingly James Dore, at the pinnacle of his success and influence, lost his seat on the Council. The County Press Sandown correspondent wrote in eulogistic tones; the ‘passing’ of Mr James Dore, C.A. – from the local governing body is an incident demanding more than mention in the result of the election which took place on Monday. The loss to the town will be felt more and more as the months and the years go by.

Mr Dore has been associated with the Local Board and District Council for about a quarter of a century. Since the District Council superseded the Local Board in 1894, he has continuously retained a seat, attaining to the highest honour in the gift of the members, that of chairman. Nearly all the schemes for the advancement and prosperity of Sandown have been carried through to success during Mr Dore’s tenure of office, and it would be difficult to tell of the varied schemes he has initiated for the good of Sandown. He it was that proposed a loan should be taken up for the paving of the streets...the fire brigade station and the local board offices owed a great deal to Mr Dore’s energy...the Esplanade scheme was doubtless the biggest job he took in hand...his foresight was also responsible for the extensive works and improvements in the Lake later years the Free Library scheme found in Mr Dore a ready worker.

The correspondent reflected; Mr Dore has had lots of enemies in the town – who amongst our public men, who are worth their salt, have not some enemies?

Mr Dore will not resign his position as Chief Officer of the Fire Brigade. He will consequently be retiring from the public life of Sandown almost completely, and it is more than probable that the public, now that they have lost his valuable aid, will appreciate, as they have not hitherto done, the extent of their indebtedness to him as a strenuous worker in the sphere of local government.

Chief Officer E.L. Lane’s next correspondence to Dore, dated 13 April remarks; it was shabby of your townsfolk… after so long a term of service but it is the usual penalty for honest work and independence; before returning to the subject of the steam fire-engine and Dore’s satisfaction with the model purchased; you could hardly be otherwise as you have one of the best types made. You have certainly done better than Rayner. The more I see of the two makers the more satisfied I am with Shand’s.

Less than three months since becoming, by a whisker and the game play of Chief Officer Dore, the first Island brigade to field a steamer, Sandown Fire Brigade again bettered Shanklin by entering the steamer competition at the National Fire Brigades Union Southern District drills at Winchester on Whit Monday.

The County Press ran a modest article of eight lines in which they emphasised that Shanklin’s Chief Officer Oscar Rayner was officiating as one of the judges and that Chief Officer Dore’s Sandown team took a creditable third place with a time of 31 3/5 seconds; placing them well ahead of eight mainland brigades that had been running steamers for many years.

The Observer’s report carried substantially more detail of the composition of the drill; the steamer drill consisted of four men with coachman, pair of horses, and engineer, drive to tank, and get to work three lengths of hose and branch. Time taken from when the engine crosses the line to when water strikes the target. Only the brigades of Gosport and Aldershot kept the newcomers at bay; Sandown’s team comprising Third Officer W. Dennett with Firemen W. Brown, S. Jolliffe, S. Brown and C. Clark were but a single second behind the winning time.

The Observer emphasised how close Sandown were to an outright victory at the first attempt; but for a slight accident by which one of the lengths of hose slipped a coil, causing it to be dropped, making a delay of several seconds, the team would have been an easy first. It speaks well for their coolness that notwithstanding this mishap such a good time was made.

The correspondent then added mitigating factors; The Brigades who drilled towards the end were handicapped by the state of the ground. By the time Sandown, the eleventh on the list, came on the ground, all around the dam was simply a mud pond, the team at the close of the drill were literally covered in mud from the waist downwards. The two Brigades who made less time drilled earlier and are well known as some of the most efficient in the country.

The battle to be the first was conclusively won by Dore and Sandown, but the real test would be under conditions of fire, and 1907 proved the quietest of years for both brigades, neither receiving a call to incidents requiring a steamer.

Ironically it was not in Sandown Bay that the first fire-fighting use of a steamer was recorded.

On the morning of Sunday 12 April 1908, the well-known wholesale and retail grocers of Messrs. Jordan and Stanley in Newport’s Upper St James’s Street suffered; one of the most destructive and alarming fires ever known at Newport (County Press).

When the fire was first noticed at 06:30 by the Corporation road sweeper, it was already fully developed. Within minutes the large plate glass frontage was shattered by the heat and the fire fed hungrily on the unrestricted flow of air. By then the road sweeper was reporting the matter to PC Collins at the Police station who sounded the alarm and called a handful of constables to attend the scene. They were closely followed by the properties dismayed owners Mr J.W. Stanley and Mr Leonard Jordan while Newport’s call boys swept about the town raising the firemen.

Chief Officer Mursell and the first of the firemen arrived at 06:55 to the structure that was 120ft in depth and three storeys in height. On one side the premises were separated from that of its neighbour by a narrow passage that gave its business owner and occupier Mr F.E. Whitcher, The Wight Man’s Clothier, little cause for comfort. Joined on the other side was a vacant butchers shop and to the rear the offices of James Eldridge and Sons, solicitors.

Mursell directed the cart mounted hose-reel be brought to bear from a standpipe being shipped to the hydrant located immediately to the fore of the store entrance. One delivery was run along the passageway to the rear whilst the other was hauled aloft the head of the escape ladder enabling water to be poured down on to the burning mass. All attempt at salvage of stock was lost but Mursell determined that fire not be allowed to communicate with neighbouring structures and that water be concentrated on the area indicated by the proprietors wherein was located two safes containing the business books and other valuables. A third safe was located in Mr Stanley’s office to the rear.

Escaping gas intensified the conflagration and a valiant effort was made by two firemen accompanied by Mr Stanley, to enter the property and locate the gas meter where the valve could be operated. Within moments all three came staggering and blackened from the heat and smoke and soon the meter itself succumbed to the heat.

Newport’s resources were stretched, and no tangible improvement existed. Slates slid from the wilting roof structure and sliced down through the smoke-filled air to smash in the street. Police were compelled to tussle with the growing crowd eager for a better view. The thought of a steam fire-engine occurred to the Chief Officer; who would he call, who would come quickest? He made the request to a constable who scurried off to the station to make the call.

The fire had been raging for an hour when Chief Officer Oscar Rayner and the Shanklin firemen assembled at the station in response to their bell. Four horses acquired from Mr Bartlett were harnessed. Rayner with Foreman Spencer and Firemen C. Downer, Cecil Matthews, W. Phillips, J. Phillips, C. Henstridge, A. Richardson and Harry Newton Bull, clambered aboard the Merryweather Greenwich Gem and hurtled towards Newport.

The structure of Jordan and Stanley’s was distorting. The large girders that supported the floors above the store began to weaken and lengthen, expanding in proportion to the absorption of heat. The shop frontage eased outwards, unseen, where two girders met at right angles. Shanklin’s steamer, horses frothing at the mouths, crashed through Shide, each man gripping resolutely. Engineer Harry Newton Bull, precariously leaned over the rear and for the first time in Island fire-fighting history lit the firebox.

In Upper St James’s Street Chief Officer Mursell permitted Mr Jordan to scale the escape ladder and enter his third-floor office to make good his valuables. The heat and smoke proved too great and Fireman Jones dragged the disoriented proprietor back to the window and heaved him on to the ladder. Jones followed him down, retrieved his hose and returned to his position to direct water on the fire. The ladder having been repositioned to accommodate Mr Jordan’s need, Jones found he was unable to work effectively, and he returned to the heel to move the ladder to its original location.

An onlooker suddenly cried out as the frontage of the premises perceptibly bulged, Jones staggered back from the ladder. A shower of slates suddenly descended, one caught Fireman Saunders with such a blow he was knocked over and righted himself to find his helmet torn apart. Fearing for the firemen to the rear who were unaware of what was happening at the front, Mr Stanley and Mr H.W. Morey ran up the passage to the rear to pass warning. Briefly the bulging brickwork took a pointed appearance until the upper brickwork tumbled inwards; the roof collapsing with it, pancaking down on what remained of the floors below, the lower brickwork flew outwards crashing into the escape ladder, sending it flying backwards until the head toppled back and slammed into the front of Mr Trenchard’s tobacconists across the street and enveloped the hose-cart in debris. A huge dust cloud billowed up and filled the street as a shower of bricks fell into the side passage.

Shanklin’s steamer and horses thundered past Church Litten, the funnel puffing rhythmically, rounded the corner by the library, navigated past those fleeing the area for their own safety and arrived at a scene of chaotic destruction. Chief Officer Mursell ran into the dust cloud and found Fireman Jones stood and staring in disbelief by the tobacconists, unhurt, the battered escape ladder leant at a shallow angle above his dust laden head. Airborne dust and debris drifted away on the breeze allowing a view of the passageway which was no more. Filled in its entirety with smashed bricks it was with relief that Mursell spotted Stanley, Morey and the firemen scrambling over the top back to the street, coughing and peering through sore bloodshot eyes.

Rayner’s men were quickly at work, shipping a second hydrant they connected the hose, the steamer already at working pressure. Press reports credit Shanklin with directing water on the fire within forty minutes of departing their Victoria Road fire station.

The collapse had the fortuitous effect of dropping the tip of the flames below that of the vulnerable neighbouring eaves. Chief Officer Rayner deployed two strong jets of water from his machine, one worked the rubble strewn frontage and the other his men dragged over the pile where the passage had once been and worked the rear where Mr C.A. Good permitted the firemen access to his premises. Dragging hose inside and up the stairwell, Shanklin’s firemen could more effectively attack the fire at the rear from Good’s windows.

By combination of the collapse and Shanklin’s superior fire-fighting apparatus the flames were soon reduced to nothing and the visitors from the Bay, who won many admirers for their actions and the performance of their steamer, bade Chief Officer Mursell farewell and returned home leaving Newport, with their ageing manual, smashed ladder and battered hose cart, to damp down the steaming mass.

The County Press correspondent remarked in his comprehensive report; It is noteworthy that this was the first time this new steamer had been used at a fire, and that this was the first fire in the Island at which the services of a steamer had been available. Generally speaking, the work of the steamer favourably impressed firemen and the general spectators, and suggestions were naturally offered that whilst the seaside towns are going in for steamers, Newport, as the capital and central town of the Island, should not lag behind in this respect (ultimately Newport were the one brigade of Central and East Wight that never invested in a steamer and remained operating the manual engine until leap frogging into the age of the combustion engine in the 1920’s).

In the weeks that followed a series of appreciative communications were received by Oscar Rayner, many of which remain in remarkably clean condition at today’s Shanklin Fire Station. Newport’s Mayor had a letter typed on 16 April in which he remarked on the smart manner in which you responded to the call; Six days later Mr Jordan and Mr Stanley, despite having lost their entire stock and business in the fire, felt compelled to write to Rayner; to take this further opportunity of again thanking you and the members of your Brigade for their services. On the same day the Newport Town Clerk sent a further letter as directed by the Town Council; to convey to you and the Members of the Shanklin Fire Brigade the best thanks of the Council for the valuable and efficient services rendered by you.

Finally on 7 May the Clerk of Rayner’s own Urban District Council of Shanklin was tasked to write to the Chief Officer in unabashed acclamation of the greatness performed by the firemen and their equipment.


Dore had won the race, but Rayner had been the first to use steam to fight fire.

Above - Shanklin's Merryweather Gem makes history, generating the powerful streams of water that prevented a serious fire from engulfing the entire block of buildings.

Above - Newport's hose-cart, battered and forlorn amid the debris thrown into the street by the collapse of the frontage of the Jordan and Stanley store.

Original technical drawings of Sandown's Shand Mason steam fire engine

Since writing this article I have discovered that whilst Sandown's Shand Mason engine stands as the first wheeled steamer on the Isle of Wight, the first steam powered firefighting pump was a fixed model, also constructed by Shand Mason, installed at Osborne House some 23 years earlier - read about it at The Osborne Steam Fire Engine.

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