Although I have achieved my target of producing a written account of Isle of Wight firefighting from 1850-1950, available in the books on the IWFBF publications page, the hunt for new information never ends.
When I was in the final throes of researching material for Volume 1, local author Gareth Sprack, who researched and wrote a superb account of the Isle of Wight Rifles before, during, and after the First World War (At The Trail), gave me a piece of key advice - you have to stop somewhere.
Gareth's advice was spot-on. If you don't draw a line in the sand you'll never actually get around to writing a book. There will always be that hint of something else that could be the jewel in the crown of your publication that seems eternally out of reach but promises so much that it continually delays progress.
Literally, less than a week from placing Ready When Wanted to bed and despatching the final copy plan to the publishers, I was contacted by an Island resident who wished to lend me original documents relating to a local fire brigade that would have filled an informative and interesting chapter in its own right. But Gareth was correct, I could have waited an eternity and it might never have happened and the book would never have been published, with or without the latest gem.
Over the years since the IW County Press published a great article announcing my first publication and sharing my contact details through its pages, I have been inundated by two groups of contacts - those with something to share with me and those with questions about a family member.
Researching fire brigade history
Back in the early 2000's when I stopped dabbling and adopted a serious approach to research, I strode into service headquarters at Newport and politely requested permission to peruse the service's archive of records. I was somewhat taken aback at the response - we threw all that rubbish out years ago.
That reply sums up the situation with records of fire brigades nationwide. Even the firemen's records of the National Fire Service, a unique and incomparable component of the Home Front during the Second World War, were largely disposed of in subsequent decades, whereas the National Archives is swamped with military records covering the same period.
Sometimes I receive emails asking - where can I see my grandfathers brigade/AFS/NFS service records? The simple answer is nowhere, with the exception of London.
Concurrent to researching the Island's fire service history I've also researched my family's past. The latter was made so much simpler by the fact that every generation of my ancestors, right back to my third great-grandfather who fought at the Battle of Waterloo, served substantial periods in the Army, and their records are neatly archived and accessible. By contrast researching for an individual firefighter is a game of chance with occasional victories but more commonly defeat.
There are some individuals I've been able to assist, and in a few glorious cases even overwhelm with the amount of data I have pieced together regarding their ancestor, and I'm more than happy to spend time doing this when the call comes, but more commonly I disappoint, not only with a lack of information at hand, but also in the knowledge that finding anything at all is highly unlikely.
Sources that bore the most fruit have tended to be;
- Fire stations - generally there is one member of an operational station that has the interest to accumulate, care for, and display items and ephemera relating to their stations history. Sadly, in my opinion, this has suffered greatly from modern corporatisation of the fire service with items being removed by order causing them to be frittered away to who knows where.
- British Newspaper Archive and the IW County Press archive - online resources that are easy to access and research, but require substantial time and diligence, and come at a cost.
- IW County Records Office - they don't have a mass of brigade related information but the staff are extremely helpful and the environment is conducive to quiet study.
- IW Family History Society - they have little information relating directly to fire brigades but often what they do have helps to confirm or reveal a rounded story of the life of those who served in Isle of Wight brigades.
- Memories - informally speaking to those who have lived through certain events can be insightful. The passing of time blurs details but the feelings of experiences never leave and I have been privileged to speak to some individuals, some of who are sadly no longer with us, who willingly revealed their brigade and wartime activities and added much first-hand reality to my accumulated understanding. Most of these people contacted me without me having any knowledge of them beforehand.
- Artefacts - I try my hardest not to collect items as I respect my wife's desire to not live in a museum, but I cherish being loaned items for analysis, especially written documents. Much can also be learned or proven by cross-referencing from a single photograph or other random item.
If you have anything that may be of interest and relevance to the history of IW firefighting, please contact me using the form below. I never seek to obtain items for keeping but ask for the opportunity to photograph items or scan documents for cataloguing in the hope that they can form an element of the stories that appear in books or in the feature pages of this website.