Keep the home fires burning


The Fire Brigade were clearly the pride of the town (or village). More pictures survive of this group of men than any other single subject, and I find that interesting. A fabulous period image from ‘Memories of Brownhills Past’ by Clarice Mayo and Geoff Harrington.

This weekend, it’s my pleasure to welcome back to the Brownhills Blog new contributors  Gregory and Bill Challis. Bill was formerly a Brownhills Man, and together he and his son Greg wrote the excellent and well-recieved ‘King of Norton Canes’ article I pushed here a couple of weeks ago.

We continue this thread of beautifully recorded recollection with Bill’s memories of the Brownhills Fire Brigade, which was initially funded by Brownhills’ very own philanthropist, big cheese and brewer, William Roberts.

Oakparkrunner has some great stuff on the local firefighters, too.

I know the lads are working on a publication of these memories, and when I have more details, I’ll let you know how you can get hold of a copy.

In the meantime, thanks to Bill and Greg for a lovely piece for a summer weekend. I really love these articles. All comments welcome, as usual, or mail me at BrownhillsBob at Googlemail dot com.

Keep the home fires burning

The village was served by a horse drawn fire engine, a magnificent contraption with gleaming brass fittings. It had its own special shed with glass doors in the yard behind the Council offices.

In times past we had been governed by what was called a Local Board and although it was now an Urban District, in defiance, the Village Elders still referred to it as the Local Board.

I misunderstood this and heard it as the ‘Local Bald’, which did not strike me as incongruous as most of its members were incredibly ancient and many of them without hair.

The Bald had a number of full time employees, amongst them Mr Speake who, besides his other duties, held the title of Fire Brigade Chief. This post entitled him to a uniform with a braided cap, which set him far above any other employee. The firemen were all part-timers and not that well trained. Furthermore, at any fire a large part of their time and energy went into operating the pump, which inevitably was manual.

The Bald owned two huge cart horses which did the Council’s dray work but by far their most important task, in my opinion, was to haul the fire engine. The horses also knew this, for if they heard the fire bell sound, wherever they might be working in the village during the day, they would set off at a trot for the Council yard. Here they would be harnessed to the fire engine and, with crew aboard, whipped up to gallop to the fire.

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Another fine photo of a proud, well turned-out brigade and their appliance. I’m sure this will bring back memories for Bill. Image from ‘Memories of Brownhills Past’ by Clarice Mayo and Geoff Harrington.

This was all very well during the day but in the evening the horses considered they had done their day’s work and were put out to graze in a field which the Council owned. If the fire bell rang, the horses ignored it and the firemen had to catch them and lead them back to the yard. Sometimes, on a summer evening, the horses would be frisky and the entire village would turn out to watch the performance of the brigade trying to catch its transport.

A further complication of an evening fire alarm was that the local telephone exchange was in the front bedroom of the local wool shop owned by Miss Bagnall who, with two girls as assistants, ran the shop and operated the switchboard. All was well during shop hours, but when the girls went home Miss Bagnall was on her own. Unfortunately she was rather deaf and did not always hear the ringing of the switchboard, so someone had to go and hammer on her parlour window and shout that a subscriber wanted a connection.

Clearly the best policy was not to have a fire, or at least to have it during certain hours of the day.

 One fine summer evening there was a haystack fire in Walsall Wood, the horses were particularly mettlesome and Miss Bagnall perhaps more deaf than usual.  After much effort and delay, the horses were caught and harnessed. In the meantime, a helpful volunteer had donned his cycle clips, mounted his bike and pedalled to the fire to announce that there was no cause for anxiety. The alarm had been received and in due course the fire brigade would arrive.

This was known by one local wit as ‘asking for the fire to be kept alight until the brigade could arrive to put it out’.

Whether this particular debacle sound the knell of the old brigade I do not know but shortly afterwards a sparkling new motorised fire engine arrived, so impressive that it required a new building to house it. That it did not result in quite the improvement in ‘turn-out’ time to fires first anticipated was, in part, due to the firemen still being geared by habit to horse traction.

Then there was old Mr Tabener who lived in Lichfield Road, which was over a quarter of a mile from the fire station. He had some problem with his legs and could not walk very fast which had not mattered when  the rest of the crew had to catch and harness the horses. But with turn out time reducing on one occasion the fire engine and its crew stood waiting in the High Street at the junction with Lichfield Road whilst Mr Tabener struggled to reach it, urged on by a crowd of spectators. This could not last and he was forced to retire.

Proud of their new engine ‘The Bald’ decided upon a grand Fire Display to which the other local brigades were invited. Most exciting of all, a competition between brigades of speed and efficiency in the execution of a series of fire drills. Almost the entire population of the village gathered at Hussey Field. Clouds of coloured smoke billowed from a mocked-up house, ladders were erected and two large and hairy firemen, dressed in late Victorian underwear, were ‘rescued’ from a blaze. There was much hilarity at this and other displays, but beneath it all was the wish that come the competition the Brownhills men should do well against their rivals. Particularly feared were the Pelsall team, as they had been ‘motorised’ much longer than our brigade.

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All I’ll say is I was quite pleased to find this. Again, a great image from the wonderful resource that is ‘Memories of Brownhills Past’ by Clarice Mayo and Geoff Harrington.

There were six teams and stand-pipes were erected, hoses run out and nozzles connected. With quite a number of different types of drill, and the inexperience and pressure for speed, there was some fumbling, particularly by our team.

Then came the complicated final drill. A stand-pipe was set up and a length of hose connected. To the other end of this, a Y-shaped coupling was fitted and to the two ends of the ‘Y’, a length of hose  and a nozzle attached. The water was turned on and the two jets were directed at individual targets which revolved under the pressure of the water. That was the theory. None of the teams got this completely right but Brownhills, which was the last to attempt it, failed badly and the water was turned on before one of the men had firm control of the nozzle.The hose writhed like a giant snake and water was sprayed everywhere and a ‘big’ girl (who must have been at least 10 or 11) standing on the edge of the crowd got a soaking. Naturally she became the centre of attention and one of the firemen gave her sixpence in compensation. I later learned the Latin phrase ‘Sic transit gloria mundae’ but for now I realised how quickly chance could bring fame and fortune. On this note the display ended.

Not long after sudden riches were poured upon the village and Brownhills received a second fire engine. There was an influx of young men and equipment such as mobile pumps that could be towed behind a car and, in an echo of the old days, hand operated stirrup pumps. There were female telephone operators, even new uniforms and then the night sky glowed red over Birmingham and,  inadequately equipped and untrained for the magnitude of the task before them, our entire brigade went out to fight Hitler’s blitz.

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6 Responses to Keep the home fires burning

  1. Pedro says:

    From the comments on the William Roberts article…and in 1898 gave a steam fire engine to the District Council…”

    July 1899…

    A fire broke out in the rickyard of the Swingbridge Farm, in the occupation of Mr Howdle. The Fire Brigade attended with their steam fire engine and found four ricks of straw ablaze in close proximity to the farm buildings. The canal being close at hand, an ample supply of water was obtained, but it was impossible to save the ricks.
    The fire was however prevented from reaching the buildings…The cause of the outbreak is unknown, but it is a curious fact that though several rick fires have occurred since the fire engine was presented by Mr Roberts, nearly twelve months ago, no fires had occurred previously in the district for years.

    …and at the Brownhills UDC meeting of February 1899 the Inspector of Nuisances reported that the Steam Fire Engine went into a hole 6ft 6in long, and 3ft wide in Highbridge Road. This hole had been there for some days, and the engine was damaged. The engine has now been put in repair.

  2. Pedro says:

    Sep 1913….Captain of the Fire Brigade, Mr Broadway, resigns and there is only one other man that can work the Engine. It seemed that Mr Bradbury would not teach anyone unless he received enumeration, saying that it was inconvenient for him to get off during the daytime as he was working at Aldridge Colliery.

    Nov 1940…Councillor Sadler said he was glad they were at last to get an extension to the Fire Station, and have facilities more in keeping with the service. At the present moment they were under great difficulties, and the men were sleeping on the floor.

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