History Of Weston-super-Mare
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Intro Early Years The Dave Squires Story Station Cat
This shortened and condensed history of the Fire Brigade in Weston-Super-Mare will be presented in sections that may not be in chronological order but that can be read as an item of interest. This, hopefully, will enable further information as received or researched, to be more easily inserted or added to, the appropriate section rather than to become a re-write. Anyone with knowledge or information (no item is too small) in any way related to the Fire Service in Weston-Super-Mare (who is willing to pass it on), I would be grateful to be contacted initially on tel: 01934 625994 - asking for G.E.P.
Weston Fire Brigade - A Brief History
including some notable fires
While neighbouring Banwell is reported as having its own fire engine as far back as 1810 the early history of Weston’s fire brigade is somewhat obscure, although what was probably the first voluntary unit was formed about 1844 following a fire on Knightstone Island.
Weston’s need of a fire brigade and means of fighting fire was brought sharply into focus, when on the evening of Friday 12th April 1844; smoke was seen to be issuing from the centre lodging house on Knightstone Island. Soon bright orange flames began to light up the evening sky, for despite the gathering crowd, nobody appeared to know what to do, this being the first serious fire the town had witnessed in many a long year. Some people stood in total awe of the spectacle, whilst others attempted to remove the contents of the house, no doubt causing as much damage as the progressing fire in their ignorant eagerness. Delicate furniture and ornaments were reported as being thrown from upper windows!
The occupier, Lord Lonsborough, a guest of Dr. Fox owner of Knightstone and a specialist in the treatment of lunatics, had already removed himself to a place of safety as the fire, which appears to have been caused by a wooden beam extending into a chimney flue, preceded unabated to consume the whole of the property. At one time it was feared the fire would spread to Arthur’s Tower next door and other buildings but luckily, as they had been constructed at different times, each had a solid exterior. Although by nine o’clock the one lodging house was in a very sorry state, as were its marble fireplaces and other elaborate fittings and fine furniture within. The loss, covered by the Phoenix Fire Office, was estimated at £2,000.
By coincidence issues of ‘The Westonian’ local newspaper over previous months had included letters from reader James Shrowl, prompted by a much smaller fire in Worthy Lane, urging the residents of Weston to consider the purchase of a fire engine. Advertisements by a Bristol manufacturer, Bacon & Co. of Redcliffe Street, offered a powerful manual machine that could be operated by just four men – previous designs needed up to twelve – for only £20.
Following the Knightstone fire Mr. Whereat owner of the library, printing office and retail emporium in Regent Street, persuaded the Sun Fire Office, for which he was agent, to invest £150 in the purchase of a fire engine and a rudimentary volunteer fire brigade was formed to operate it. Unfortunately, due mainly to the thankful lack of serious fires in Weston, their enthusiasm soon faded and when the pump was next needed no one knew where it was.
Serious fires were luckily a rare event in Weston-super-Mare, so it came as something of a shock to the residents to be woken in the early hours of Tuesday 2nd October 1855 by a commotion caused by an outbreak of fire in a block of three new properties at the top of High Street. One of them was occupied by a broker and furniture dealer named Cox and initially it was assumed that he and his sister were in the building. The other two were as yet unoccupied.
The first people to arrive on the scene could do little, as flames were already spreading throughout Cox’s property and into the roof of the adjoining building. Efforts were made to remove some of the furniture stock from the premises and when Police Superintendent Lapham arrived there was further confusion as he and others appeared to be totally unaware that the town possessed a fire engine. Consequently Lapham sent a horseback rider to summon the brigade from Bristol (the telegraph office being unmanned at night). As more people arrived it was established that the owner Cox and his sister had been seen leaving by train for Bristol the previous evening and were therefore assumed to be safe. It was also pointed out by some of the gathering crowd that Weston did indeed possess a fire pump, held in the custody of Mr. Printer one of the Commissioners. Soon he was brought from his bed and with the aid of Sup. Lapham and P.C. Reed the engine was brought from its storage at the gas works. Next problem was getting it to work, it was about ten years since it was last used and no one could quite remember how to operate it. Weston’s rather transient volunteer fire brigade was currently non-existent.
Fire unfortunately doesn’t wait for the failings of mankind to be rectified and by the time the pump was in use, reportedly giving a good steady jet of water, there was little left of the contents of Mr. Cox’s shop and the building itself was threatening to topple into the road. A certain Thomas Upham was praised for his bravery in ascending a ladder with the hose to direct water into the burning property while Mr. Locock of the Victoria Inn, Mr. Hunter superintendent of the water works and a Mr. Maurice Gregory were all commended for their endeavours, in the following week’s newspaper.
Those who had slept through the events of the night may have been woken at nine o’clock that Tuesday morning by the hearty cheers that signalled the arrival of the Sun Insurance Company’s fire pump from Bristol. With its crew led by engineer Evans it had travelled at great speed to the emergency only to witness the smouldering remains. Nevertheless they were congratulated on the promptness of their response and given refreshments before returning to the city.
On Cox’s return it was established that a domestic fire had been burning in the shop the previous day and some neighbours reported seeing sparks emerging from the chimney when they retired that night, so it was assumed that faulty hearth construction had caused the outbreak. The stock was insured for £200 and the block of three new building (one almost totally destroyed, one badly damaged and the other slightly damaged) was insured for £1,600.
Following the regrettable deficiencies uncovered by this fire a new attempt was made in reforming Weston’s fire brigade but it was little more successful than the previous.
Amazingly almost a year later, during the evening of Thursday 25th September 1856, another fire was discovered in the same High Street building. Causing little damage on this occasion it was blamed on carpenters, who had been the only people in the building that day, repairing damage caused by the earlier blaze.
Between 1860 and 1865 the Rev Pigott, a member of the town commissioners, took a personal interest in the lack of the provision for fire fighting in the town, with most of his suggestions unfortunately falling on deaf ears among his fellow commissioners. Not surprising when you consider their apathy towards the subject and the likely cost of his recommendation that they should purchase two Shand Mason fire engines of the London Fire Brigade pattern and employ twenty part-time firemen. During this period the town did purchase an old second-hand machine from Bath but it proved to be somewhat less than adequate - "just about fine for watering the garden" was one remark.
Eventually a sub-committee, the Fire Extinction and Water Supply Committee, was formed and spent some time discussing what equipment should be purchased and how the estimated £300 cost would be financed – a public subscription was the favourite. It was suggested that firemen should be paid £1 a year with extra payment (not specified) when they attended a fire. The water company was approached and assured an adequate free supply of water would always be available for fighting fires.
All the above was commendable but there was little action to back up the talk – public meetings were called but few people attended them and some rivalry must have existed, for a report of December 1866 indicates there were two separate fire-committees in existence, both soliciting funds for the purchase of a new fire engine.
A year later and despite the fact that Weston currently had no fire brigade, volunteer or otherwise, the town did possess a shinny new escape ladder, the generous gift of the Rev. E. W. Caulfield one of the Town Commissioners. Within that body the Water and Fire Extinguishing sub-committee constantly discussed the need for a brigade, but they did little to promote one. And, as was pointed out at one of their meetings, because water was available no more than a few hours each day and then only at low pressure, there was little they would be able to do anyway. Not that there was much support from residents; at a public meeting to examine the problem, called by the committee at the Railway Hotel in December 1866, only two people turned up.
It was with the hope of overcoming this atmosphere of indifference that the reverent gentleman made his charitable gift to the town of an escape ladder. Manufactured by Clark of London at a cost of £98.3s.0d the ladder arrived in Weston on Wednesday 13th November 1867 courtesy of the Bristol and Exeter Railway. Consisting of a main 35 ft. ladder, it had two extensions operated by levers that would extend it to seventy feet, much higher than any building in Weston. Accompanying the ladder was a member of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, who was to instruct the local committee how to operate the appliance. On Thursday morning, despite heavy rain, the ladder was wheeled around town by a number of the commissioners and pitched against several prominent buildings, the first being the Royal Hotel where it had been stored overnight. Moving on the event drew a large crowd wherever it stopped, with many ascending the ladder and sliding down the canvas chute attached to the back of the main section.
With this new incentive, there was a renewed interest in the formation of a fire brigade for the town; William Mable, founder of the Albert Memorial Hall night-school for wayward boys, offered his lads for the task, but a similar offer from the local volunteer rifle corps appears to have been the more practical option. The only problem now was where to keep the new escape ladder? Amazingly the suggestion from the fire committee was to have it available for use at the town hall during the day and employ a man, at a cost of £45 a year, to wheel it every night along to the Royal Hotel for safe keeping and bring it back each morning. Eventually a shed was erected at the rear of the town hall at a cost of £53-10s. Unfortunately it had to be partly rebuilt when it was discovered the doorway was too low for the escape to go in. That Building later became not only home to the ladder, but also the towns first fire station, still in use until 1901.
Problems over the inadequate water supply continued to cause some friction between the Commissioners and the Water Company, with the latter insisting that a supply to meet any fire fighting needs was always available. Consequently on Tuesday 11th February 1868 Colonel Rawlings, Captain Townsend and several other Commissioners accompanied by Mr. Hunter the manager of the water works, Mr Gaskell the town surveyor and several men from the town yard proceeded to wheel the new escape ladder around the town with the intention of checking the available water pressure. First stop was at the hydrant in Ellenborough Park where it is stated "the pressure was capable of filling a water cart, which holds five hogsheads, in three minutes – indicating a supply of about 90 gallons a minute". The escape ladder was then erected against the residence of Mr. Hill at the corner of the park and Mr Gaskell ascended with a hose that was fixed to the hydrant and when the water was turned on it was able to produce a jet 20 feet above the roof of the house. From here they moved on to another hydrant, near the new Baptist chapel in Bristol Road, where the exercise was repeated with even better results – an estimated supply of 108 gallons per minute. The third hydrant in South Road produced results much the same as the first. The fourth and final hydrant – in 1868 Weston only had four, plug type, hydrants available for fighting fires – was in Knightstone Road opposite Beaufort Villa, where the supply was found to be poor – about 60 gallons per minute. Currently a hand pumped engine was capable of delivering around 200 gallons per minute and the latest steam pumps as used by the London Fire Brigade would deliver up to 700 gallons per minute.
Whilst these tests were going on some of the commissioners, workmen and other members of the public were entertaining themselves by pitching the new ladder against various buildings. On one such pitch in Walliscote Road, one of the wheels dipped into a hollow and the escape toppled over, striking a wall on its descent, causing some considerable damage. No doubt there were red faces all round when the ladder had to be returned to London for repairs costing eighteen guineas, amid further calls for a fully trained fire brigade to be formed. At the time the commissioners were refusing to contribute any money towards the attempt by the Rifle Corps volunteers to act as a rudimentary brigade and that arrangement, like the others before it, fell through. Back then some members of Weston’s governing body simply tolerated, rather than welcomed the efforts of volunteer firemen, believing fire-fighting to be solely the responsibility of the insurance companies. Many larger towns did have brigades, run and financed by insurers and it was not unknown for one of these units to arrive at a fire, discover the property was insured by a rival company and go away again leaving the fire to continue its destruction.
To fill the void and appease local residents the town commissioners decided to provide fire cover on a ‘paid for’ basis. A Mr. Read, who already held the positions of Town Hall keeper, bellmen, market keeper, collector of hawking tolls and inspector of hackney carriages, was given the task of recruiting men who, when called upon on the outbreak of fire, would transport the towns fire fighting apparatus to the scene and tackle the outbreak. They would be paid 1/6 (7½p) for the first hour and 1/- thereafter, with the cost being charged to the owner of the property involved. Initially six men were recruited, later increased to 15.
Unfortunately this scheme too, seems to have faltered when several residents refused to pay including a Mrs. Moggridge of Ellenborough Crescent who, following a fire at her property, stated she was not paying for "that miserable ‘squirt’ they called a fire engine, that was worse than useless". A report stated that despite the outbreak being in the roof of her property, the town’s fire pump was only able to propel water half the height of the building. It appears the main problem had again been lack of water, with the scavenger’s road watering cart eventually being called upon to convey water to the scene.
At a subsequent meeting of the Fire and Water Sub-Committee it was agreed that the sum of £16 – 14s – 11d be invested on instillation of a further four hydrants and that a storage water tank be provided in South Road. While this may appear to be a concession towards an improvement in tackling outbreaks of fire, it had as much to do with the provision of water for the carts that sprayed the roads to keep down dust. Weston’s water was provided from low pressure mains by a private company taking its supply from a spring located in Draw Way Lane (now Milton Road) at the bottom of today’s Ashcombe Park. There was continued friction between the commissioners and the water company over the reliability of supply and in 1871 they considered purchasing the company for £32,000 but backed off following adverse public opinion at spending this amount, although they did buy it ten years later for twice that sum.
Other fires of the mid-1800’s, although few, included the timber workshop and stables at the rear of Brown Brothers grocery store in High Street on Friday 27th August 1869. Whilst being spectacular insomuch as it caused £250 worth of damage, killed one horse and one dog and threatened a hardware store’s gunpowder stocks in an adjacent building, its main interest is in the fact that subsequently 57 members of the public claimed payment of 3/6 (17½p) each for their assistance in tackling the outbreak. Deciding to only pay the 12 men officially summoned by Mr. Read the fire superintendent, did cause resentment among some townsfolk and gave the commissioners cause to rethink their policy on fire fighting in the town. Consequently, during September 1869, an attempt was made to reform a new volunteer brigade and notices were placed around the town calling on property owners and tradesmen to come forward and enrol their names as "being willing, without payment, to assist in preserving order if at any time a fire should break out". On the designated evening for enrolment, Monday 27th September, just three names were collected and so Weston continued to be without a reliable fire brigade.
Following two fires in one week, both in St. James Street, during October 1870, further calls were made for a new engine to replace the town’s "little squirt" and the formation of a new brigade. First fire, on Wednesday 12th, was at the Globe Hotel where the bar was totally gutted, partly fuelled by the pipes supplying spirit on draught melting, allowing the spirit to feed the fire. Discovered at 2am by a post office worker on his way to work, soon over a hundred spectators were in attendance with buckets of water in use to quell the blaze. Although the town’s fire engine attended it was reported that it would have been useless without the bucket chain support. On the following Friday another fire destroyed the shop premises of shoemaker Mr. Pavey just down the street. In both cases the cause was unknown.
When the subject was raised at the next commissioners meeting it was claimed by those opposed to any further expenditure that the engine was very efficient and Mr. Read the fire superintendent still had the names of fifteen men he could call on – although since the previous problem over payment this was an option that had been avoided. Nevertheless it was decided to invest £180 in a new fire appliance and this was delivered early 1871. Sixteen firemen were still on call with the payment of 1/6 for first hour and 1/- per hour after as before. It was agreed that these men should have training sessions every fortnight to ensure their efficiency. This latter decision didn’t meet with full approval, several commissioners questioning the cost and the practice ended within a few months.
After several further years of virtually no fire cover, the town commissioners were eventually successful in reviving a volunteer brigade and a photograph of 1878 (possibly the first photo of members of Weston’s fire brigade) shows a line up of ten smartly uniformed men with high neck tunics, leather belts and brass helmets. Led by a Captain Green, these were dedicated unpaid men who drilled regularly in their own time and even had to buy their own uniform! Interestingly all but two also wore bushy beards, a fire hazard not permitted today. Green resigned in May 1882, replaced for a time by Weston’s postmaster Tim Smith. He in turn gave way in June 1883 to local bank manager Fred Soars. Soars a practical man immediately set about attempting to restructure the brigade in a more logical form with brigade members having more say in its operation. It was his suggestion that the appliance shed behind the Town Hall should become the town’s fire station and his men should have control of it. But these proposals were not welcomed by some members of the board – in particular the chairman Edwin Knight - who inferred the volunteer firemen were incompetent and the commissioners collectively decided to give control of the fire escape to the police. When, in August 1883, these remarks were reported in the press the whole brigade resigned. This action was only compounded when at a subsequent meeting several (somewhat arrogant) commissioners refused to rescind their decision or admit it may have been an error.
For two years another paid fire brigade was employed by the town, but this again proved costly and in August 1885 Mr Fred Soars the previous captain was asked to reform the volunteer brigade for Weston. This date can probably be taken as the beginning of Weston’s permanent fire brigade, which remained voluntary until the outbreak of World War Two. Most of the original members came back and the Town Commissioners promised a £25 annual grant towards brigade costs. They also bought a new £200 state-of-the-art Shand Mason horse drawn engine, which was supplied with its own bugle to clear the way. The brigade laid down its own set of rules stating that each man should be strong, fit and of good character; drills were held every Wednesday evening and non attendance, without good excuse, attracted a fine of 6d; all members were banned from wearing their uniform other than on duty and any disorderly conduct could result in a fine of 5/-.
Captain Soars died in March 1886 and was succeeded by his Superintendent Mr. W. Ham, who continued to modernise the brigade, despite an ongoing problem with finances. Local resident Mr. J. Jackson Barstow promised the brigade a guinea a year and other donors were being sought. Even the current Town Commissioners were more inclined towards supporting the volunteers than many of their predecessors. Turn-out efficiency certainly improved after an electric bell call-out system, that cost £66, was installed during 1887. This linked the station to the following locations: Mr Ham’s residence at 20 Regent Street; H. Horstmann (brigade secretary) at 9 Meadow Villas; G. Blackmoor (brigade engineer) 36 George Street; C. Andow (fireman) 41 Orchard Street; Mr. Stacey at the Town Hall; the police station and a public alarm in West Street. As before, fires in Weston were still relativity few and Mr. Horstmann’s report indicates the brigade attended just five during 1887 and only three during 1888.
In May 1889 the town purchased a new wheeled escape ladder and its first outing was a Saturday afternoon demonstration pitch on the Town Hall, witnessed by the Town Commissioners and a crowd of interested onlookers who watched the firemen ascend the ladder onto the roof and then slide down canvas chutes. The new escape was a Shand Mason ‘Plymouth’ patent, constructed of Oregon pine and extended to 60 feet. The old escape, donated by the now deceased Rev. Caulfield, was intended to be sited at the water tower on the new Shrubbery estate, along with one of the older engines. There had always been difficulties negotiating the steep hills of that district. With a hand drawn machine it was almost impossible and even horse drawn appliances struggled. The supply of horses was always another problem for the brigade, the town commissioners still refusing to provide any. So each time there was a fire-call horses had to be borrowed from local cabmen.
By the 1890’s the brigade captain was Dr. G. B. Frazer and for a short time during the closing years of the 19th century local businessman Henry Butt took on the role and it was he that was instrumental in the purchase of a new horse drawn steam pump, a Merryweather ‘Gem’, that in an acceptance ceremony during July 1898 was christened ‘Pride of the West’ by Henry’s daughter Blanche.
After much badgering by brigade personnel and even more so by the effort of Henry Butt, Weston Urban District Council finally relented and provided the town with its first purpose built fire station, a far cry from the old shed behind the council house that had for many years been home to the gallant band of volunteers.
A two storey building of local limestone, it proudly stood in Oxford Street at the entrance to the town yard roughly where Somerset House is today. At street level there was a 30 ft. by 27 ft. glazed tiled engine room with two wide automatic doors that "sprang open on the pull of a cord", a watch room, lavatory and a cleaning shed. Above were offices for the brigade captain and superintendent, stores and a comfortable 27ft. by 18 ft. wood panelled recreation room. The station, designed by town surveyor Mr. H. Nettleton, cost £1,140 to build.
The official opening, by Councillor Norman, was celebrated with a dinner, hosted by Henry Butt, held on the station Wednesday 27th March 1901. This was also the occasion to welcome the brigades new Captain, Mr Walter Wake a local solicitor. Captain of the Fire Brigade over recent years had been very much a figure-head position; in effect the brigade was run by its Superintendent George Rossiter and Secretary Ernest Clarke.
Over the 1903 Easter period Mr. H. D. Roberts manager of Victoria Hall in the Boulevard was advertising his big holiday attraction, Edison’s Animated Pictures. A special attraction "at enormous expense" was the film ‘Fire Fire Fire’ that depicted an actual turn-out by Weston’s fire brigade. "Witness a phantom ride across town" it urged; "see Superintendent Rossiter and his brave boys in action" it promised. Viewers were invited to "Travel the whole journey, passing hundreds of people and the electric trams". In the early days of moving pictures people were amazed and delighted to see themselves and their friends up on the screen, so films of local crowd scenes were always the most popular.
In December 1903 Mr. Wake resigned, due to business interests in Wales keeping him out of town and Dr. G. H. Temple became Captain of the brigade, a post he held until the outbreak of the Second World War. Dr. Temple as chief was a true fireman and not just a figurehead, always leading his men from the front. He also seemed to be in constant conflict with town councillors over the equipment requirements of the brigade and their reluctance to provide the necessary finance. A new horse drawn Merryweather light escape was purchased for £75 in September 1905 and whilst it was greatly received it did little to pacify Cpt. Temple’s desire for a motor driven steam pump.
This dawn of the 20th century brought with it one of Weston-super-Mare’s most tragic peace-time fires. Just after midnight on the morning of Wednesday 25th May 1904 a calamity took hold in High Street and by daybreak a gloom had settled on the whole population. The town had experienced fires before, but nothing as disastrous as this and never causing loss of life.
The Priory Restaurant, a four storey building at 72 High Street, was a long established business run by Ernest Huntley and his family. On the fateful night the household all retired to bed as usual, 44 year old Ernest, his 42 year old wife Ada Jane, their 10 month old infant daughter Gwendoline, Winifred their 14 year old daughter and 16 year old Albert, their son. Also on the premises were two live-in assistants 19 year old Sylvia Maggs from Devizes and 16 year old Emma Chipp from St. Alban’s.
It appears that it was Albert, sleeping on the top floor, who first noticed the smoke and he immediately went to his sister Winifred’s room next to his and woke her. Telling her to stay by the window in her room he wrapped a wet towel around his face and began making his way downstairs to alert the others. It was the last time Winifred saw her brother. By now the sound and smell of the fire was apparent to other residents of High Street and one Mr. Salisbury, a tailor across the road at No.36, telephoned the fire brigade. Mr. Reed, who had a drapery business next to the restaurant, was also awakened by the fire and went into the street and attempted to arouse his neighbours by ringing the bell, before running to the fire station in Oxford Street for assistance.
Very soon Superintendent Rossiter and Fireman Croft arrived with a pumping appliance and a hose was quickly got to work, aided by the gathering crowd. Two police constables who heard the shouting joined them and broke in the door but were unable to enter. Then aided by Fm. Croft they brought the escape ladder that was raised to the third floor window, whereupon Winifred was able to make her escape raising a cheer from the otherwise sombre crowd. Not so lucky were the other members of the household, as by now fire had taken hold of most of the building and despite the gallant efforts of the firemen the heat was so intense that it was impossible to enter.
The source of the fire appeared to be the bake house at the rear of the shop, but by now flames had spread to the remainder of the ground floor. Other members of the brigade arrived and under the command of Captain Temple seven jets of water were being applied, but with little effect on the raging inferno. Such was its intensity that residents of other properties situated in the Arcade at the rear began removing valuable items from their own premises, fearing the fire should spread. Mr. Reed’s rear millinery showroom ignited, as did Mr. Perrett’s jewellery shop on the other side. In less than two hours the restaurant was reduced to little more than a shell, but it was the cold light of day before the grizzly search for bodies began.
Winifred, comforted by neighbours, told all she knew and quickly the heroic efforts of her brother Albert to save the others spread throughout the town, deeply shocked by news of the tragedy. Many were aware of the family’s great sadness of only a year before, when two other children Myra 18, and Herbert 10, had died from fever.
Saturday 28th May 1904 was a day of mourning for the whole community, the day the six tragic victims of the fire were laid to rest in Weston’s cemetery. At 10.30 that morning three coffins (the remains of baby Gwendoline being enclosed with her mother) were brought from the home of George Huntley (the deceased father) in Ellenborough Park and placed on three horse-drawn open coaches. Followed by family mourners they proceeded to the Town Hall where they were joined by two more bearing the coffins of Sylvia Maggs and Emma Chipp. The cortege then made its way along High Street and on to the Parish Church through roads thronged with people. It seemed as if the whole town had turned out to pay their last respects and many were in tears.
One striking aspect of the sad spectacle was apparent to all, four of the coffins were covered with floral tributes but one was bare, that containing the remains of Miss Maggs. The reason was later explained as being the result of the last minute decision by her family that she should be included in the group funeral; initially they intended to take her body back to Devizes. But surely a few flowers could have been spared for her.
On arrival at the church the path to the door was lined by members of the ‘St. Kew’ lodge of Freemasons, of which Ernest Huntley had been a member, and at the door was the church choir to which both deceased males had belonged. The rector Preb. DeSalis led the coffins into the church as the organ played ‘O rest in the Lord’. After the service, the whole congregation made their way up Bristol Road to the cemetery, where the remains of the four members of the Huntley family were laid together in one grave and those of their two assistants together in another. So ended one of the saddest weeks in the history of Weston-super-Mare.
16 year old Albert Huntley - one of six persons to lose their life in the inferno - was hailed a hero for his attempts to rouse his parents rather than save himself, and there were calls for some kind of memorial to his memory.
Eventually it was agreed to erect a new pulpit in the parish church as a joint memorial to Albert and his father Ernest, a long time member of the choir who also perished. Constructed of Caen stone and Welsh marble the octagonal pulpit standing over eight feet tall was handcrafted by Harry Hems & Sons, sculptors of Exeter. A dedication service at the church was led by the Bishop of Bath and Wells on the evening of Tuesday 1st November 1904
A year on from the disastrous Priory Restaurant fire a headstone was finally erected over the burial place of the two young lady assistants, Sylvia Maggs and Emma Chipp, who lost their lives in the blaze. It had been noted by some that this grave had remained unmarked since the tragedy and a public subscription was raised to rectify the omission.
October 1906 saw the installation of eight break-glass street fire alarm pillars in the town at the following locations 1) Church Road at the bottom of Highbury Hill 2) All Saints Road at the junction of St. Joseph’s Road 3) Arundell Road at its junction with Bristol Road 4) Alfred Street opposite Meadow Street 5) Milton Road on the corner of Hill Road 6) Locking Road opposite Ashcombe Road 7) Beach Road at the Sanatorium tramway terminus 8) Clevedon Road junction with Walliscote Road. Users needed to break a glass panel and pull a handle found inside the box, which would ring a bell in the telephone exchange indicating the box in use. It was then up to the telephone operator to call the brigade.
Hired on a seven year agreement from the National Telephone Company, the alarms cost the town £42 a year. Initially, despite a £20 penalty for improper use, they proved to be something of a novelty with some local youths causing havoc by repeatedly sounding the alarm and at one stage the brigade would send a man on a bike to check if the call was genuine before turning out!
Street alarms survived until the early thirties, by which time the adequate provision of public telephone boxes made them unnecessary.
In October 1907 a relatively small fire caused the death, from smoke inhalation, of an elderly spinster known only as Miss Madge. The unfortunate woman, employed as a charlady, was one of nine occupants of 5 Palmer Street when the fire broke out during the early hours of Wednesday 2nd October 1907. The other residents of the house were a Mrs Browning and her three children - all sleeping in the ground floor rear room, a Mrs Major (Mrs. Browning’s mother) was bedridden in the ground floor front room, with Miss Madge’s room immediately above her. In the first floor rear were three male lodgers, Edward Major, William Tranter and Bob Rawlings.
The fire began in Miss Madge’s room, probably a lamp or candle, and the first to notice was Mrs Major, when the ceiling of her room fell on her. Her cries woke her daughter, who discovering the smoke ran upstairs to investigate and wake the others who then carried Mrs Major to safety. It appears Miss Madge’s door was locked and attempts to alert her were unsuccessful. A near neighbour and ex-fireman W.J. Brewer gave help but by the time the brigade arrived, called by John Cox of the St. John Ambulance who also lived in Palmer Street, there were little more than her charred remains, found near the window.
Whilst taking their responsibility seriously, drilling regularly, the members of the brigade also enjoyed the comradeship and social contact it brought. Each August they put on display their speed and skills in a day of action and fun with the annual brigade competition held in Grove Park. In February 1909 Albert Rossiter, brigade superintendent for 24 years, retired and brigade secretary Ernest Clarke took on both roles.
Never seemingly overworked in those days, during 1908 the brigade received 12 fire calls but none of a serious nature. It was 12 again in 1909, but in 1910 it was just five. Things remained much the same for most of the remaining decade, except for the year 1914, a year which not only saw the beginning of Britain’s involvement in a ghastly conflict in Europe, but also a series of unusually bad fires in Weston-super-Mare. The brigade had been called out only eight times during 1913 and with none of them being very much, the last fire of any size in Weston was the tragic Priory Restaurant blaze of ten years previous. So it came as something of a shock when the early months of 1914 brought a series of outbreaks causing serious damage and inconvenience to several local businesses and although all the fires were totally unconnected, there was the odd coincidence that two of the fires involved properties formally used as nonconformist chapels and a third, a newer building, was regularly used as a mission hall.
The first outbreak was discovered, during the early hours of Tuesday 27th January, at Macfarlane & Son’s beer bottling plant in York Street behind the Regent Cinema. The fire was discovered by George Williams, one of Macfarlane’s barmen who lived nearby, when he spotted smoke coming from the windows of the building, which had ironically, originally been the Temperance Hall. Raising the alarm, several other members of staff arrived and the front double doors were opened, but the smoke and heat was such that it was impossible to enter and the doors were closed again until the brigade arrived. Soon on the scene, firemen, led by Dr. Temple, used hose from a hydrant to deliver water onto the apparent seat of the fire, a wooden staircase leading to the gallery that still encircled three walls. One of the main hazards for fire-fighters was exploding bottles caused by the contents boiling in the heat. Cause of the blaze was assumed to be a spark from a solid fuel heater that was kept burning in an attempt to maintain an even temperature within the building, although the staircase, that was demolished, was fifteen feet from the stove. Most of the loss, estimated at £60 (close to £5,000 at today’s value), was in damaged stock.
Later the same day a more serious fire broke out at the workshops of furnisher George Cooksley. These were situated behind Mr. Cooksley’s residence, ‘The Chestnuts’ in Locking Road and access could only be made down a narrow lane off Ashcombe Road. Employees of the firm said everything was OK when they left for lunch at one o’clock, but before their return a passer by noticed smoke issuing from the building and raised the alarm using the fire alarm box situated at the Ashcombe Road - Locking Road junction. As there was some delay in the brigade responding, one of Cooksley’s workers set off on his bike to make doubly sure they were on their way and eventually several firemen arrived in taxis, bringing with them lengths of hose that was quickly connected to a hydrant at the corner of Locking Road. Unfortunately, by this time the fire had escalated and flames were now visible from end to end of the mainly timber building. Being a cabinet maker’s workshop there was certainly much flammable material around to feed the blaze. Luckily horses and bales of hay stored in the adjacent stable were removed before they became involved and Cooksley’s delivery vans were also rolled out of danger, but it was obvious to the large crowd that had gathered that there was no hope of saving the building, despite a second hydrant at the corner of Clarendon Road having been brought into use. Only an hour after the fire had been discovered there was little left but charred remains. Gone were the tradesmen’s tools, stocks of seasoned timber, the upholstery plant, new furniture and other cherished pieces left by customers for repair. The cause of the fire was never established and although Cooksley was insured, no insurance can compensate for such loss. Despite that, over the years the firm continued to grow and prosper, eventually giving up the furniture shops to concentrate on its undertaking business.
It was little more than a month before another two fires, again in quick succession, brought chaos and destruction to two prominent High Street businesses. First was at the premises of ironmonger J.P. Curtis - formally a Congregational chapel and now Woolworths – where an outbreak was discovered at half past nine on the evening of Tuesday 3rd March by a Miss Addicott who was passing by. She noticed that smoke was discolouring the inside of the plate glass windows and on peering through could see flames within. She immediately ran to the near-by post office, where postmen were still working, to raise the alarm. Mimicking the earlier York Street fire, the seat of this outbreak also appeared to involve a staircase, albeit this one was a more elaborate affair that dominated the centre of the shop, which still featured much of the vaulted roof of the original chapel. Firemen were quickly on the scene and made entry by breaking windows at the side of the building in Cambridge Place. Once inside they soon had the blaze under control, but not before it had destroyed much of the staircase and a number of display cases, one having contained an elaborate display of Mappin & Webb silver plate, for whom Curtis was the local agent. Fortunately the spread of fire was halted before it reached a cupboard containing several thousand shotgun cartridges. By midnight most of the brigade had left leaving just fireman Tom Davey and Jack Brewer behind to keep an eye on things.
It was a little after three, on the Wednesday morning, that the two firemen became aware of shouting round the back in North Street. Venturing out to investigate they were met by Palmer Street resident Bill Brewer, himself an ex-fireman, who was on his way to fetch them and the hose they still had with them, to tackle another outbreak, this time at the rear of Brown Brothers café. He had also alerted a man named Woolmington, a Brown Bros. employee who lived near the premises and together they made attempts to tackle the blaze.
This was to turn out to be the most damaging of this series of fires, its origin apparently within the shop’s bakery containing four relatively new ovens and much other equipment. This alone would have presented the arrival of the fire brigade with some task, but above the bakery was Brown’s North Street hall and a service lift that connected the two provided to be an effective chimney, increasing the intensity of the fire below while spreading it to the floors above. Six hoses were brought into use, attacking the fire from all sides and with a strong wind blowing; much effort was put into protecting the adjoining premises of printers Lawrence Brothers. As a precaution the horses were removed from Lance & Lance stables on the opposite side of North Street. Despite the courageous efforts of the brigade, led by Captain Temple, the building was severely damaged with much of the pitched roof having collapsed leaving little more than the walls standing. The bakery and hall was a recent addition to Brown Bros. premises, having been built about eight years before. The hall, used for numerous private and public functions, was known locally as the mission hall because of its regular use by the North Street Mission. Damage was estimated to be over £3,000 (£250,000 today), but Browns rebuilt the hall and it reopened in September.
After the upheaval of 1914, activity within the brigade returned much to as it was before; Captain Temple continued to badger the council over his insistence that the brigade needed a motorised pumping engine, without success, while some of the younger members left town to fight for their country, possibly never to return. The year 1918 finally brought an end to the conflict in Europe, but it also brought another challenge for Weston’s fire brigade.
It was already quite dark, when on the evening of Monday the 14th of January 1918 a rosy glow could be seen illuminating the sky above the slopes of Worlebury Hill and soon the rumour that Ashcombe House Hospital was on fire had scores of people, either on bikes or on foot, moving in that direction to witness the event. Ashcombe House, once the home of the Capell family, had stood empty for several years prior to the First World War, when it had been adapted by the Red Cross for use as a convalescent hospital for servicemen wounded in action.
The local fire brigade, at their station in Oxford Street, were alerted to the fire but were unable to find a horse to pull the engine – councillors still refused to purchase a motor fire engine and even a horse had to be supplied by a third party, usually a local trader or cabman; but many horses had been commandeered for war work – so in desperation the brigade chief, Captain Temple, contacted the local office of the Bristol Tramways & Carriage Company, who sent several motor taxis. A hose cart was attached to one and used with the others to convey firemen to Milton Road, where by now a considerable crowd had gathered, many of them muttering about the late arrival of the brigade for it was now well after six o’clock and Mr. Marsh, hall porter at Ashcombe House, alleged he had operated the break-glass fire alarm pillar in Hill Road around five-thirty, soon after the fire had been discovered.
The fire, that was later decided to have been caused by a faulty chimney flue, had been discovered on the top floor of the three storey building by one of the patients. By the time the brigade arrived much of that floor had been destroyed and flames were licking from windows on the floor below. Luckily during the intervening time hospital staff, led by Sister White, had moved the patients, all servicemen, to safety in the hospital annexe or other buildings and there were no casualties. Despite their, blameless, late arrival the Weston brigade were quickly at work, some members overcoming the lack of ladders by climbing adjacent trees and aiming their water hoses from the lofty branches. Eventually the blaze was brought under control, but not before considerable damage had been done; the top floor, which had been contained within the roof space, was totally gone with only the stonework of the dormer windows remaining. The lower floors had not suffered serious fire damage, but little had escaped either falling debris or the gallons of water poured onto the inferno, although firemen, police, hospital staff and onlookers had managed to bring out much of the lighter contents to a place of safety.
Captain Temple’s later report on the fire indicated that the first alarm had been received at the station at 5.55pm and the first four men arrived at Ashcombe House in a taxicab at 6.10pm. The roof was already well alight. A second cab arrived at the fire at 6.12pm and two lines of hose were got to work from hydrants in Manor Road, but only at low pressure, high pressure water not becoming available until 6.25pm when pumps were switched on at the waterworks. The fire escape arrived at 7.15pm having been manually pushed from the station. The fire was brought under control by 8.00pm and extinguished by 11.00pm, with firemen remaining on the scene until 10.00am the following morning.
Some patients were temporary cared for at the General Hospital, the West of England Sanatorium and the Grand Atlantic Hotel before being transferred to other Red Cross hospitals in the region, although about ninety men remained at Ashcombe House in the annexe.
Over the years the brigade had many long serving members, as shown by a medal presentation ceremony of February 1921 when engineer Gilbert Hillman received, on his retirement, a medal for 35 years service (Gilbert had been the last man still serving from the original brigade formed in 1885). Albert Hillman was also presented with a medal for 20 years service, Frank Evans 15 years and firemen C. Fry, F. Day, F. Pottenger and G. Boulton all 10 years. Superintendent - Secretary Clarke had also by then served 25 years.
1921 was also the year that Captain Temple finally got his motorised fire engine, a Leyland (reg. YA 72) with solid tyres and a 60 horse power engine that also powered the Rees-Roturbo water pump capable of delivering 800 gallons per minute. Purchased at a cost of £2,000 it was later fitted with an ‘Ajax’ 50 ft. escape ladder. Demonstration drills were held at the end of Oxford Street with four powerful jets of water being propelled over the old gas works.
In these somewhat enlightened days of liberalisation of the sexes it may be interesting to note that as far back as the 1920’s Weston had a female fire brigade. Consisting of ten nurses at the Sanatorium, they had been trained by Mr. F. C. Froest, superintendent at the hospital and an ex-London policeman, not only to use the portable extinguishers but also to run out fire hose, connect to a hydrant and direct jets of water where needed. So proficient did they become they were more than happy to demonstrate their skills to patients and visitors on their drill days. The Sanatorium, with its location well away from the centre of town, was one of the first buildings in Weston to have a rising water main with outlets serving every ward.
An interesting innovation in fire rescue during the 1920’s was the positioning of ‘Fire Ladders’ at strategic locations around town including Bristol Road, Ellenborough Park and Lower Church Road. These were considered to be areas with high buildings having difficult access. The idea whilst sound in principal proved less so in practice, the ladders often going missing, being ‘borrowed’ by builders and local residents.
Following further badgering by brigade members, in 1925 the council allocated £125 for the purchase of a small motor vehicle to transport men and equipment to small fires. Previously Dr. Temple and brigade secretary Clark had been using their own cars for this purpose.
In 1928 control of call-out alarms fitted in the homes of brigade members was transferred from the Town Hall to the police station in Oxford Street, ensuring there was a 24 hour service, seven days a week. This followed some criticism from Weston’s Trade Protection Society over the delay in the brigade attending a weekend fire in a packing case and stationery store at the rear of Walker & Ling’s premises in High Street.
The twenties was another decade of relative calm for the brigade. There were plenty of call-outs and enough fires to keep them active, but the only serious event came on a Thursday evening in February 1927 when the shops of two adjacent businesses, drapers E. J. Steel and outfitters Wm. Burrow, at the corner of Meadow Street and Orchard Place were both totally reduced to a shell. The fire that was believed to have started in the pinafore department of Steel’s shop was well out of control by the time the brigade arrived and they appeared to concentrate much of their effort on saving the Spread Eagle pub next door.
Weston’s next big blaze, while being probably the most spectacular sight the town had ever witnessed, it was to most residents a great personal disaster. The loss of their magnificent pier pavilion, so quickly, by fire on the evening of Monday 13th January 1930 was an event many found hard to believe. There were reports in some national newspapers of screaming women throwing themselves at the pier gates in despair – all nonsense of course but it did reflect the shock felt by many onlookers.
First signs of the fire were noticed not long after 6.00pm by people strolling along the prom who saw flames beneath the pavilion. William Andrews a retired police constable and a Mr. McIlveen climbed over the gates – being winter the pier was closed to visitors – and ran along the decking, closely followed by a Weston Gazette reporter. Reaching the pavilion the smell of burning paint was quite strong and peering through windows they could see flames within what was a storeroom. Shortly police and firemen were on the scene, but with many windows already shattered by the heat the strong south-westerly wind was already driving the fire deeper into the building. Hoses were laid out but water had to travel the full length of the pier and by the time it reached the fire it had little effect with much being blown back over the firemen themselves. It was obvious that they were fighting a loosing battle as the mainly timber built pavilion gave way to the encroaching flames. That’s not to deter from the heroic skill and effort made by the town’s firemen ably led by Mr. E. C. Clarke and every length of hose at the brigade’s disposal – two miles in all – was in use. Police and St. John ambulance men gave assistance, but luckily there were no casualties other than from exhaustion.
As the fire progressed the flames lit up the evening sky while a huge cloud of smoke drifted over the northern part of town and all the time more and more people arrived to line the sea front and just stare in awe and amazement. The more adventurous took advantage of a receding tide to get a closer look and the sands soon became as busy as a bank holiday Monday. Visible as far as the Mendips and South Wales, despite the devastation, it was certainly the most spectacular event ever seen in Weston. Even so there were still many in the town who, when tuning in their wireless to the 9.00pm BBC news broadcast from Cardiff, were shocked to hear the reader inform them that Weston’s Grand Pier pavilion had been totally destroyed by fire. One person oblivious to the event was pier general manager Mr. H. A. Broomfield. He was on a train returning from London, where he had been booking shows for the coming season.
Within an hour of the outbreak being spotted the whole building was engulfed in flames and soon the main dome of the once superb theatre had collapsed with a roar like thunder, sending a blaze of sparks into the sky that seemed to light up the whole town. With it went twenty five years of memorabilia of the wonderful shows and stars who had appeared there. The firemen knew now they were only providing a supporting role and concentrated on saving the remainder of the pier from destruction. Two hours later little remained of the pavilion, but the pier itself was intact, even the bandstand, although at the seaward end thousands of pounds worth of mechanical amusements – most the property of Mr. Leonard Guy – and 20 lock-up shops had been destroyed.
Morning light revealed the only recognisable structure remaining standing to be the pavilion boiler house and its chimney. Little of the pavilion’s iron framework remained; most, distorted by the heat, had fallen through onto the mud below. The early morning tide had washed much debris and charred wood up the beach and that was now being searched through by souvenir hunters. Two safes were among the debris, one belonging to the pier company had burst open, the other belonging to Leonard Guy was still intact.
With no obvious reason – no flames or burning equipment had been used the previous day – the cause of the misfortune was assumed to be a carelessly discarded cigarette by one of the maintenance staff.
Despite being described as having one of the finest pavilions in England, Weston’s Grand Pier had not been a commercial success, with little dividend having been paid to its shareholders during its twenty five year existence. Now, underinsured, it was to become another burden on its owners.
Amazingly some seventy eight years later history virtually repeated itself, when on Monday 21st July 2008 whilst most residents were having their breakfast, Weston Grand Pier’s rebuilt pavilion was once again totally destroyed by fire in just a couple of hours.
The newspaper headlines said it all "Victoria Methodist Church Burnt out within an Hour" and "Fire Brigade Powerless To Save Handsome Edifice".
Thought to have possibly been caused by a fault in the electrics of the organ consul, the fire was noticed by a passer by at about 9.40am on Monday 5th February 1934. He alerted the church caretaker, Mr. Thomas Hayter, who entered the building to find the west transept organ gallery already well alight with flames spreading rapidly throughout the pitch pine wood panelling. In what seemed only minutes the intense heat brought leaded glass windows crashing to the ground releasing clouds of dense smoke into the morning sky. By the time the fire brigade arrived flames were visible on every side of the building, with smouldering debris being carried by the up draught over adjacent buildings.
Station Officer Day was working in the town yard next to the Fire Station when the call came about 9.45am and by the time he had the engine started three more firemen had arrived. A short drive took them to Station Road where hoses were laid out and an attempt made to enter the church by the main front doors, but just as they did so the large north window above them came crashing down and a hasty withdraw was made. The wood panelled roof lining was also on fire and slates were beginning to fall onto the pews below. It was soon obvious the best the firemen could do would be to prevent the fire spreading to other buildings. Water was played onto the walls of the adjacent caretaker’s house and Lalonde’s warehouse next door. Luckily the wind was blowing the smoke and flames away from that building; otherwise the consequence of the fire may have been much worse. At one point firemen were called away to deal with a fire in the roof of a property in Beaconsfield Road, some 100 yards away, caused by smouldering debris carried on the wind. By mid-day it was just a case of damping down the charred timber that littered the floor of the once magnificent building. The stone walls and 120 foot tall spire survived the blaze remarkably well and in the days following the fire it was assumed the church would be restored, but the council used the incident as an opportunity to widen Station Road and the old Victoria church was completely demolished, a new one rising in its place only a year later.
The Victoria church fire of February 1934 indicated several deficiencies of equipment within the brigade, not least the need for a second appliance. At the time fire fighting still came within the control of the council’s Water and Lighting Committee – a body that rarely considered or even discussed the requirement of the brigade – and it took some persuading from chief officer Dr. Temple and his deputy Ernest Clarke before they agreed to purchase a new pump.
This was to be the swansong of Clarke’s 38 years with the brigade, for he died in June that year at his home ‘Malaya Lodge’, Montpelier, aged 63. A native of Weston he was a painter and d Thursday evening drill nights. One added his displeasure at the fact he had lost his excellent view of Weston woods.
During the night of Friday 21st August 1964 one of Weston-super-Mare’s worst peacetime fires destroyed the Playhouse Theatre. Discovered by patrolling police constable Herbert Poole he raised the alarm and possibly saved the lives of the sleeping occupants of four flats above the foyer of the theatre.
In no time the building was ablaze from end to end and the fire brigade’s main task was to prevent the fire spreading to adjacent buildings. Fire Appliances from Bridgewater, Winscombe and Yatton were brought in to back up the Weston units. By the morning all that was left of the old market hall cum theatre was a pile of rubble and smouldering remains.
Currently appearing at the Playhouse, the Charles Vance Repertory Company lost all their scenery, costumes and personal possessions. But, in true theatre tradition, by the Wednesday evening they were back in business at the Town Hall Assembly Room, playing to a packed house.
Insured for £100,000 rebuilding was a priority and although other sites were considered the decision was eventually made to rebuild on the same site. Messrs. W.S. Hattrell of Coventry was appointed as architects. Designing a new modern theatre to fit within the constraint of the existing buildings was not an easy task and two properties at the rear were purchased to extend the stage. Building began in 1967 and the new Playhouse opened in July 1969.
During September 1966 the national conference of the British Fire Services Association was held at Pontin’s Holiday Camp, Sand Bay and a year later the International Fire Service Conference and Tournament was held there, with firemen attending from all over the U.K. and Europe. Much new equipment was on display and during the week teams from 38 brigades, many industrial, completed in various drills.
D.O. Dennis Harris, who joined the Hampshire brigade in 1921 and during WW2 was a Column Officer on the Isle of Wight, retired in September 1967. His job at Weston, as officer in charge of ‘A’ Division, was taken over by his deputy Divisional Officer R. C. F. Hayman. William Ballard became A.D.O. at ‘A’ Division. Harris died in 1976 aged 71.
Despite the war having been ended over a decade, a small core of A.F.S. members at Weston and Banwell continued to regularly train in their fire fighting skills, under the leadership of Station Sgt. Leech. Despite occasionally being called upon to attend fires, it was no doubt the social element and comradeship of the brigade that kept them going, but this was all about to come to an end when, in March 1968, the government announced the end of funding and the winding up of remaining units. The 17 local A.F.S. members included some female control operators.
It was fun for all when Weston fire station held its first public Gala Open Day on Monday 2nd September 1968. On display were vintage machines from the county museum, plus donkey rides, skittles, side shows and demonstrations by station personnel including the reducing of a saloon car to an open top. A total of £240 was raised in aid of the Benevolent Fund. The open day was such a success it became an annual event, opened in later years by celebrities like comedian Dickie Henderson and singer Barry Kent.
Six full time control operators at Weston station lost their jobs when the receipt of fire calls and appliance turn out was transferred to a central control room at Taunton during June 1969. The first Weston call handled by the new system was a false alarm – mechanical defect, to Fairfax House department store on Wednesday 18th June.
In February 1970 Station Officer T. V. Clapp who for the past five years had been working in fire prevention, moved across to become operation officer in charge of Weston station.
Peggy Nisbet Dolls was a unique business that flourished in Weston for around thirty years, but it almost came to an end when a disastrous fire in May 1970 not only gutted their factory but also destroyed all the design data and patterns for the hundreds of different costumes that dressed the period dolls Peggy and her team produced. It was a little after 5.30pm on Thursday 14th May and most of the staff at the company’s Whitecross Road factory had gone home, only three remaining on the premises. 24 year old John Perry was waiting outside the building for his mother Mabel, production manageress at the factory and usually one of the last to leave, when he noticed his mother and another worker Maureen Sharpe come bursting through the door followed by clouds of acrid smoke. After helping Miss Sharpe, who had collapsed on the floor, and his mother to safety Mr Perry set about alerting the brigade, in the knowledge that another woman Sylvia Hooper was still inside the building. Soon on hand was Alan Morgan a Bristol policeman who was visiting relatives nearby and he quickly brought a builders ladder and climbed to a second floor window where Miss Hooper was visibly in distress. By now the brigade had arrived and Stn. Officer Terry Clapp with Sub Officer Dave Roberts assisted Mr. Morgan in bringing Miss Hooper to safety. All three women and Mr. Morgan who had badly cut his hand on the window glass were conveyed to hospital, the two younger women being detained overnight. Despite the brigade’s efforts the building, much of it hidden behind other properties, became virtually a total loss. Peggy Nisbet estimated she had lost about £50,000 worth of stock including a £7,500 American order ready for dispatch. Luckily Peggy and Mrs Perry were able to recreate most of their costume patterns from memory.
Many residents of Weston were no doubt relieved to learn, in October 1971, that the retained firemen call-out siren was to be silenced, replaced by small personal bleepers issued to each man. The sirens had formally been the war-time air raid warning alarms.
Anticipating an increase in road traffic accidents – the M5 motorway link between Portbury and Edithmead was due to open early 1973 – Weston station, in November 1972, took delivery of an Emergency Tender. Based on a Ford Transit van it contained a selection of hand tools, jacking and cutting gear along with generator and spotlights.
Despite Somerset having voted no to Avon, the government went ahead and abandoned hundreds of years of tradition redefining county boundaries, creating the unwanted and unloved County of Avon. In so doing, overnight on 31st March 1974 Weston ceased to be in Somerset gobbled up by the monster that was Avon. The effect on Weston fire station and its staff was that instead of being H.Q. station of Somerset’s ‘A’ Division they became H.Q. station of Avon’s ‘C’ Division. It is claimed that Somerset had the last laugh by transferring all its oldest appliances to Weston just before the transfer, something Avon didn’t see the funny side of. Soon after the change Avon upgraded Weston to two whole time pumps, backed up by a single retained crew. Chief Officer of Avon was Tom Lister who had been chief of the old Bristol brigade which made up most of Avon’s strength. Divisional Officer in charge of Avon’s ‘C’ Division was initially Clifford Cooper but in September 1975 he moved to ‘B’ Division replaced at Weston by D.O. Graham Iles.
With much added legislation and more effective application of it, the Fire Prevention department at Weston had by 1975 outgrown its office in the fire station, so a large prefabricated building – locally known as ‘The Shed’ - was erected within the station ground to accommodate them.
The year 1977 was to begin and end with disputes within the fire service. January saw the end of Avon firemen’s two month work-to-rule over the threat by the brigade management to save money by closing three stations - Banwell, Wrington (both under threat since the early sixties) and Severnside. The action resulted in a rethink and an assurance any cuts would only be in non-operational activities.
The later dispute was much more serious and arose over a national refusal by employers to meet the firemen’s pay claim. Due to be paid in November it was quite clear by the end of September that the employers were sticking their heels in. The men were balloted nationally and voted to take strike action. Consequently from Monday 14th November the residents of Weston as in many other towns across Britain witnessed some odd looking fire engines on the streets. These were part of a fleet of emergency Green Goddesses brought out of moth balls and locally put on stand-by at Locking camp, manned by R.A.F. personnel. The strike, which was expected to be over within a week or so, dragged on until mid-January 1978 ensuring a pretty bleak Christmas for the men and their families.
During this time fire calls in the town were answered by a Green Goddess manned by servicemen and one has to admit they did a creditable job considering they were mostly young lads with virtually no fire fighting experience. One of their first challenges was a £30.000 blaze in the bake house of Channing’s Bakery in Alfred Street. Throughout the dispute the firemen on strike made it clear they were willing to attend any incident where life was at risk, but the authority seemed to ignore this offer.
One long lasting reminder of the strike was ‘Picket’ a small kitten that during the action joined the men huddled around a brazier on 24 hour picketing at the end of Milton Avenue. On return to work she followed them into the station and, even though her owner was traced, refused to leave becoming the station’s, somewhat spoiled, mascot remaining until she died.
Christmas Day 1980 came to an end with something of a bang for Weston’s firemen, when, following a fairly leisurely day, around 6 o’clock in the evening they received a call to Fairfax House the Coop’s department store in the High Street. As soon as they left the station they could see this was a big one, smoke already filling the darkened sky. On arrival their first priority was the report of people trapped in the two top floor flats. A young man, Phillip Northcliffe and his dog were rescued from one, while it was established the occupiers of the other were away over the holiday. Mr. Northcliffe told his rescuers that he had attempted to escape down the side stairs but had been forced back by dense smoke and so returned to his flat and waited. While this was taking place water jets were being brought to work with B.A. teams entering the building from both High Street and St. James Street, where heat from the blaze was already causing the plate glass windows to crack. By now further appliances were arriving from across the county including the control unit from Temple and brigade chief officer Fred Ponsford attended and guided operations. Both streets were closed and local residents evacuated, while an even larger area was affected by power cuts due to the blaze. It took about three hours to bring the fire under control, with brigade personnel remaining on site several days.
Believed to have been caused by an electrical fault, the damage was estimated as over half a million pounds. Most fire damage was confined to the ground floor with the seat of the fire on the St. James Street side, although the remainder of the building was badly affected by heat, smoke and water.
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Dave Squires first appeared outside the Station in June 1983 (then aged 29 Years). He would walk up and down, looking at the Fire Station but would suddenly disappear and return another day. The Firemen then had no knowledge that Dave was un-employed and had Learning Difficulties. After several weeks Jack Bell went out and invited Dave in.
Dave appeared to be very nervous and shy but was shown around the Appliance Room before he made an excuse that he had to go home, and he was gone.
Dave, however, continued to visit the Station and the Firemen of White Watch warmed to this visitor.
Dave appeared to have little confidence and it took some persuasion on the part of White Watch to get him to join them for a cup of tea in the Mess Room on the 1st Floor. Whilst in the Mess Room there was a two-pump and TL shout leaving just two of us on the Station with Dave. A problem was apparent Dave could not face going down the stairs and he froze and began to panic. Dave had shown no outward problem when he climbed the stairs but he was clearly not going to descend without help. It took the two of us - fifteen minutes to coax Dave down the stairs, sat on his backside one step at a time. Later we found out that Dave lived in a Ground Floor Flat with his parents and an Auntie. Dave continued his visits and was welcomed by all the Watches on the Station. Dave never had a problem with the stairs again!
As time went on, Dave was given an old Lancer Fire Tunic, Yellow Leggings, a Helmet and would be allowed to Man the Land Rover! Eventually, he was given (all donated left-offs) shirts, trousers and cap. Dave gradually became less shy, and his confidence building was not only apparent to the Firemen but also to his family. So much so, that on the first Christmas, Daves parents opened their home and invited all Station Personnel to join them in a drink. Daves family were so grateful to the Firemen at Weston for all their interest shown in Dave and for their encouragement in boosting Daves confidence.
Early Spring 1984, (some eight or nine months after Daves first visit to the Station) a Fireman by the nickname of Scooter came on duty one day clutching a local newspaper. Scooter announced that there was a job in the situations vacant column which would be ideal for young Dave. The situation vacant was for a trolley attendant at Leos Supermarket. The, then, Manager, of Leos was known to the Firemen. He had kindly given his permission for our Christmas Carol Float to be in attendance outside the Supermarket. The Firemen, with their knowledge of Dave, were able to recommend that Dave be given a chance to fill the vacancy, as they knew Dave to be reliable. Dave is still at the Supermarket today!
For all the difficulties Dave has endured he has a wonderful memory (which is more than can be said for a large majority of us Firemen). Dave could remember where every piece of equipment belonged in the Appliance Lockers and would, quite often, find items that we had mislaid.
Daves memory was put to the test. Watching a Fireman taking a Drill in preparation for his Leading Firemans Exam, a fellow Fireman enquired "do you want to have a go Dave"? Dave responded quickly and recited the Drill instructions word for word.
Dave was working throughout the week but on Saturday and Sunday evenings (Stand-down time) Dave was encouraged to take Parade and make out the Duty Board this he did efficiently and still does it today!
Daves presence on the Station was accepted by Senior Officers throughout the Brigade!
Daves help was never taken for granted and the Firemen wanted to reward Dave for his outstanding achievements. So, off to HQ we went and Dave witnessed a Recruits Passing Out Parade. This, Dave, thought to be a great honour and he enjoyed himself immensely.
The years went on and Daves enthusiasm for the Fire Station never failed.
In 1987, Daves mother passed away but Dave appeared to treat his loss as a a fact of Life. Dave remained at home with his father and his Auntie. Around 1999 Daves Auntie died and in January 2001 Daves father died.
Dave, who was once introverted and protected by his loving and supportive family now lives an independent life and is self-sufficient. Indeed Dave copes with all his washing, ironing, cooking, cleaning as well as holding down the same job. He finds time for recreation amidst all of the aforesaid mentioned - he plays Skittles with the William Knowles Centre, he attends the Winter Gardens (when Wrestling is taking place) and travels on Public Transport. He even travels on Public Transport to places such as Bodmin in Cornwall where he stays at a specially chosen Centre for his annual Holiday.
This is an encouraging story and shows that we are not put on this earth to see through each other BUT TO SEE EACH OTHER THROUGH.
Very best wishes for now and the future to Dave!
There had never been a "Strike" in the history of the Fire Brigade and there has never been one since!
It was the evening of the 8th November 1977, at the rear picket line, the second night of the "Strike". Trying to warm ourselves, sitting by the lighted brazier, surrounded by frozen puddles, I recall how Graham Darlington and myself were joined by a little tabby kitten. I have to admit that the new arrival restored my faith in human nature amidst the miserable existence we were otherwise experiencing.
Around midnight, we retired to the galvanised shed, followed closely by the feline. Needless to say, this bundle of fluff spent the night cuddled up inside the top of my fire tunic! Firemen are renowned for TLC in such a situation!
Although enquiries were made and the rightful owners found, on several occasions this feline was returned 'home', BUT alas - each time she made her way back to the Station.
In mid December, it was no longer felt necessary to maintain the Picket duty at the rear of the Station and we moved around to the front into the luxury of an old caravan, followed closely by you know who - yes, by now, realising that she would not go, we had christened her with the name "PICKET"!
9th January 1978, the "Strike" being over, we returned to the Station. "Picket" was not losing out and she followed... Soon "Picket" learned that life was somewhat more luxurious at 'C' Division HQ amongst the females; the girls would spoil her with tins of salmon and the like.
When Office hours were over, "Picket" would return to the Station and make her presence known to the night-shift.
This feline was intelligent. The weekends were no problem to her as she quickly realised that she would vacate HQ on a Friday afternoon and make home at the Station until Monday morning. However, in her 18 plus years she never quite got to grips with Bank Holidays!
Her intellect was such that whenever there was 'turnout' she would hide under a chair or table until such time as all appliances were gone and the Station doors were closed. Quite a priceless possession was "Picket" and she knew how to 'turn heads' in order to be noticed. During all social occasions (dances, retirements, open days, "Picket" could be seen strutting around as though she owned the place, giving her approval before retiring to bed.
Over the last couple of years "Picket" lost weight; she spent most of her time sleeping. Visits to the Vets would cause no alarm - she was eating, in no pain, but was getting old...
Sadly on 7th March 1996, through age and illness, "Picket" was put to rest.
ecorator by trade and had been a partner in the Boulevard building business of Clarke and Vowles. During the first war he was put in charge of the fire fighting arrangements at Dunball one of the countries largest ammunition stores, near Bridgewater. Clark’s family donated a trophy known as the ‘Clark Memorial Shield’ to be awarded to the winner of the Escape Drill in the brigade’s annual competitions. Ernie Clarke’s place as second officer was taken by Charles Croft.
Weston’s new motorised fire engine (reg. AYA 584) was delivered in October 1934. Slightly smaller than the older one it was also a Leyland but now had pneumatic tyres, plus a 26 hp six cylinder engine that propelled it faster than its 15 year old big brother. New also was its onboard 40 gallon water tank and 120 ft hose-reel that certainly speeded up the application of water onto a fire.
The brigade currently had about twenty members, still under the lead of their long serving and very capable captain and chief officer, Dr. George Henry Temple, who still maintained his other role as honorary surgeon at the local hospital. These men were all volunteers, many of them in the employ of the council and during the week readily available, but questions were being asked within the pages of the local press as to the possible lack of cover at weekends.
In 1935 a full time officer with the Exeter Fire Brigade was invited to examine Weston’s set-up and suggest improvements. One of his suggestions was that three full time ‘caretaker’ firemen be employed to live in the station during the weekends to take calls and operate the call-out system. This procedure was still currently being carried out at the police station just down the road, but with the imminent move of the police from Oxford Street to their new station in Walliscote Road it would likely be transferred to the fire station.
At the brigade’s annual supper, held at Brown’s Restaurant during March 1936, these things were no doubt discussed, in the knowledge that any recommendation for full time firemen had already been thrown out by the council. Dr. Temple remarked in his speech that in 1935 the fire brigade cost Weston ratepayers about £200 whilst similar towns like Bexhill-on-sea spent £1,000 and Lytham St. Annes £1,500. The gathering celebrated the promotion of Fred Day to the rank of second officer following the resignation of Charlie Croft after 33 years service. Day was another long serving brigade member; at 27 years currently only second to Dr. Temple.
Late 1936 the call out system was moved to the fire station and despite the council’s refusal to make any payment, brigade members organised a voluntary rota to ensure that two men were always on duty there day and night.
Brigades across the country in 1937 began to see changes in the lead up towards a possible war, including the introduction of the Fire Services Act which set certain standards that local brigades needed to attain with a requirement to provide "over-the-border" support for local areas. Government proposals indicated the need of a further 12 to 16 auxiliary firemen locally, which would virtually double the brigade’s strength.
The existing men could do little when, on Saturday 29th May 1937, an R.A.F. Handley Page ‘Heyford’ bomber burnt to a shell at Weston Airport. There to give a display as part of ‘Empire Air Day’, a back-fire in one of the Rolls Royce engines during start-up caused a fire that soon spread to the bi-plane’s fabric covered body. A call to the town’s fire station had the brigade’s tender speeding towards Locking within minutes, but the build up of traffic on Locking Moor Road, caused by people on their way to the show, soon brought them to a halt. The continuous ringing of the appliance bell had little effect and when they eventually arrived there was nothing left but a smouldering carcass. The airport staff, with their trailer pump, had poured foam onto the fuel tanks and probably prevented an explosion, the only casualty being one of the aircrew who burnt his hands while trying to remove the wireless equipment. A few months later, in August, the brigade was proudly demonstrating its recently acquired foam equipment for fighting petrol and oil fires. Despite that, the brigade was now desperately in need of a new appliance, the old solid wheeled Leyland having been taken out of service leaving them with just the one.
Apart from the £200 a year the brigade received from the council for uniforms, small items and expenses, all other income came from donations and ex-gratia payments made to the men by insurance companies. During 1938 the insurance industry ended this practice and so from 1st April 1939 the council introduced a new system of payment. Gone was the £200, but each man would now receive an annual retaining fee and an hourly rate whilst on duty. For firemen the retaining fee was £5 per year, plus an hourly payment of 5/- (25p) for the first hour, 2/6 (12½p) per hour for the next four hours and 2/- (10p) per hour thereafter. Payment for night cover on the station was 3/- per night. Officer’s payment was about 50% higher.
During 1939, with war imminent but not yet declared, the Home Office supplemented Weston’s fire defence armour with the issue of two large trailer pumps and ten light pumps, plus all the necessary hose and equipment to operate them. More were promised, if needed. By June an additional 76 auxiliary firemen had been enrolled and training drills were being held four days a week. Their uniform was blue boiler suits bearing an A.F.S. badge in red and rubber boots.
Despite the increase the brigade had lost one loyal soul; second officer Fred Day. Fred, a waterworks plumber, was laid to rest Friday 16th June 1939, with all the pomp and ceremony the brigade could muster for such a popular man. His coffin, covered by a union jack with his silver helmet on top, was carried by the brigade’s tender on his last journey through the town flanked by brigade personnel in their shiny brass helmets and best uniform. Just about every organisation in town and from miles around was represented at the funeral. His colleague George Warren took over his duties as second officer.
A further consequence of the new Fire Service act was the introduction of a full time professional chief officer and so when Dr. Temple, the brigade’s chief for the past 35 years, announced his resignation in September it was like the end of an era. He died less than a year later. Replacing him was forty year old Mr. Albert V. Layton a senior sub-officer with Dagenham Fire Brigade. Mr. Leyton had attended Lewisham School in Weston for three years during the First War and began his career with Birmingham Fire Brigade.
By now war was a reality and the town’s volunteer brigade had been supplemented by a whole time and part time Auxiliary Fire Service, comprising firemen, firewomen and messengers, although it was never really envisaged they would be needed in Weston; their role was expected to be as back up to their colleagues in Bristol and Bath. On Sunday 10th March 1940 over one hundred of Weston’s A.F.S. men with fifteen pumps took part in an exercise in the Chesham Road area that appears to have caused quite a lot of confusion and some anger among local residents.
During 1940 a new Leyland appliance, capable of carrying the existing escape ladder, was purchased at a cost of £1,695. Also on order was the brigade’s first turntable ladder, but due to war-time restrictions this didn’t materialise until hostilities were over. A steel tower costing £70 was erected on the site of the old Oxford Street police station, to be used for hook ladder drills and hose drying and a 5,000 gallon water tank on Bleadon Hill was the first of several to be erected for fire fighting purposes. By August the combined strength of the town’s regular and auxiliary fire fighters was over 200, with about 20 fire pumps – mostly trailer and light portable – readily available. Local owners of larger cars were being requested to offer their vehicles for use in towing the grey A.F.S. trailer pumps and telephone subscribers their homes as emergency call points.
Pre-war telephone callers in Weston wishing to report a fire would have dialled 60, the telephone number of the fire station, but during wartime a new number was introduced for reporting any fires occurring directly from enemy action, this was 2751 the number of Fire Brigade HQ. The 999 emergency number that we use today had not yet become nationally recognised. First introduced in the London area only, on 30th June 1937, replacing the famous Whitehall 1212, it was slowly rolled out across the country as telephone exchanges were adapted to cope. For many ordinary folk the use of a telephone at all was still something of a mystery.
To meet wartime demands the brigade was divided into four sections, with satellite stations established to house the appliances. ‘B’ Section, under the command of Section Officer H. D. Bailey, had pumps at Cole’s Garage in Manilla Crescent, Old Post Office Lane and 69 Bristol Road; ‘C’ Section led by Section Officer Tom Thorne was housed at 22 Beach Road, the Plough Hotel Garage in Regent Street, the rear of 62 Jubilee Road and Iven’s Garage in Milton Road; ‘E’ Section commanded by Section Officer J. Lennox was established in Milton Road (between Hughenden and Holland Streets), at Salisbury Road Milton, Mac’s Garage on the Locking Road and the Golden Lion at Worle; ‘H’ Section, controlled by Section Officer S. C. Biggs, was at Harbottle’s Garage in Moorland Road, Payne’s Garage at Clifton Road, 4 Kensington Road and Westfield Road Uphill. Some of these locations changed during the war and ‘E’ Section, for some reason, became ‘Y’. Brigade H.Q. and control was maintained at the old fire station in Oxford Street throughout.
One of the largest of these additional emergency fire stations was the one at 22/23 Beach Road, where two houses were taken over as A.F.S. accommodation, along with the old tram sheds behind them. Formerly the sea front tram garage, the buildings were currently being used by the council’s entertainment department as offices and a deck chair store. After the war this became the town’s regular fire station, until a new one was built at Milton Avenue. Still in place at the time were the original tram lines and old ex-firemen can recall sliding about on these when running to the engines following another shout. Many of the volunteer A.F.S. men had now become full time A.F.S. with about forty recruited during 1940, although the A.F.S. generally in the town was still considered to be about 100 below strength. Members of the former regular brigade still employed as volunteers seemed to be losing out in the current structure, even to the extent that while A.F.S. members on night duty were provided with free refreshments the regulars weren’t.
Early 1940 Weston’s first whole time professional fireman was appointed to maintain equipment and appliances and ensure constant manning of the watch room. Mechanic Priddle was given a sub-officer rank and paid £3.10s a week. Married later in the year the couple occupied a council provided flat at 12 Oxford Street. In April 1941 three further whole time firemen were appointed at the same rate and Sub-officer Priddle’s wage was increased to £4.15s. Mr. A. W. Price (a former town hall clerk) the A.F.S. commander was paid £5 a week, although this doubled when he was appointed National Fire Service Regional Staff Officer in October 1941, replaced by his deputy Mr. R.J. Crowe.
The first big ‘war time’ call on the brigade came on the night of Sunday 24th November 1940 when Bristol experienced a sustained fire bomb raid. The glow from fires in the city was already visible when thirteen fully manned light trailer pumps, towed by private cars, left Weston to give assistance. For many of these men, who had barely held a branch in their life, it was to be a true baptism of fire. It was to be the first of many visits to Bristol by Weston firemen, who also saw action as far afield as Exeter, Plymouth, Southampton, London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Cardiff.
Contrary to official predictions, Weston did become the target for Luftwaffe bombs. During the latter months of 1940 air raid sirens had continuously sent Weston residents scurrying for cover, but so far damage and casualties had been relatively low. These raids had only been the by-product of bigger things with Weston not the main target. This was all set to change when in the early hours of Saturday 4th January 1941 surrounding areas were showered with hundreds of incendiary bombs. Throughout the day Weston’s sirens continued to warn of imminent danger followed by the "all clear" with nothing happening in between. The local Civil Defence were told to expect a heavy attack on Bristol and fire pumps were sent there to stand by.
Just before 9.30 in the evening a single plane flying up the channel dropped two bombs just off Brean Down. It all went quiet and then just about on the stroke of ten a raid began over Sand Bay, but instead of continuing up the Severn towards Bristol the bombers turned inland over Worlebury Hill and launched a heavy attack across the town running parallel with the beach. Ambulance station No.1 in Wadham Street was hit causing some damage to ambulances. Nine houses were demolished in Rectors Way and a further twelve on the Bournville Estate. Grove Park Pavilion and the east window of the Parish church were severely damaged and St. Paul’s church and Whitecross Hall near Clarence Park were both on fire. Oxford Street fire control room was taking calls at the rate of one a minute. Civil Defence and Fire Service reinforcements poured in, first from Banwell, Cheddar and Axbridge and later from Taunton, Shepton Mallet, Wells, Minehead and Exeter.
One of the first machines to turn out in the raid was the town’s own red engine that narrowly missed being blown up in Locking Road by a bomb that exploded just ahead of it, demolishing a fish and chip shop in Mendip Road.
This was the first time Weston’s local street fire parties had gone into action, proving their worth. Forty groups had been organised, somewhat reluctantly – few thought they would be necessary - issued with stirrup-pumps and trained to tackle small fires.
It was estimated that during the raid 3,000 incendiary and many high explosive bombs were dropped. 34 people were killed including several evacuee children and over 80 injured. 430 buildings were damaged, 130 of them seriously.
Weston’s shopping centre suffered little damage during this raid and so, mindful of the poor water supply within the town centre, further static water tanks were quickly located at strategic points.
From August 1941 local fire brigades and the Auxiliary Fire Service were merged into the National Fire Service, with Weston becoming part of ‘B’ (Axbridge – Long Ashton) sub-Division of No. 17 Fire Force Division (Bristol and Somerset), under the control of Column Officer J. W. Hasted. Weston’s previous chief Mr. A. V. Layton became a Company Officer and Halstead’s local chief-of-staff (he later transferred to Bristol). Frank Sloman became Chief Officer of Weston’s former regular brigade that still operated as a unit within the N.F.S.
Almost eighteen months had passed since the severe air raid on Weston of January 1941, eighteen relatively quiet months, although the occasional bomber had paid the town a visit, one Heinkel being shot down near the White Hart Inn at Hewish. In December an R.A.F Whitley bomber had crash landed behind the electric works in Locking Road, but luckily the crew escaped unhurt.
Why Weston-super-Mare was chosen by the Luftwaffe for special attention has never been totally explained, during 1942 many English towns that appeared in the Baedeker guide books were targets – leading to the term Baedeker Raids – but Weston wasn’t in that list. Some say it was because of a recent big military parade on the seafront that had been reported in national papers, but whatever the reason there is no doubt that on the bright moonlit night of Sunday 28th June 1942 the Luftwaffe’s target was certainly Weston-super-Mare.
The sirens sounded about 01:22 in the early hours of Monday morning and right away all hell was let loose. Over fifty German bombers from bases in northern France made a concentrated attack on the town. At the Civil Defence Incident Room calls were coming in faster than officers could deal with them - several houses demolished in Moorland Road – another in Montpelier East – more in Arundell Road – and another in Southside – in Hazeldean Road six houses destroyed - Silver Sails Taxi garage in High St on fire – the New Inn and Laundry at Worle badly damaged – Moorland Laundry in Devonshire Road is also on fire – so is the Tivoli Cinema in the Boulevard – at Oldmixon the woods alongside the railway are well alight and out of control – the Library, the Pier, Kings Hall and Uphill Church have all been hit – and so it went on well into the morning with the list of dead and injured rising all the time.
Daylight came and with it the chance to survey the damage and check on friends and loved ones in other parts of the town. Many streets were impassable, Civil Defence personnel from all over Somerset were still searching through rubble for survivors and the fire brigade damping down smouldering ruins.
But it wasn’t over yet, that was just the first half, the second began the following night when again, not long after midnight, the raiders returned to finish the job. This time they appeared intent on ripping the heart out of the town and at one time the whole of High Street and surrounding area seemed to be ablaze. The huge Lance & Lance department store on the corner of Waterloo Street and High Street was totally destroyed, as was Marks & Spencer’s and many other shops, storerooms and offices. Over fifty shops were totally destroyed and countless others damaged. Two churches were burnt out, along with two pubs, a billiard hall, a large bakery, two garages, a printing works, two factories and numerous other homes and buildings. Over 100 pumping units were on duty in the town during the second night. A serious fire at Pruen’s Garage threatened the Oxford Street control room, just across the road, but the ladies who operated the system continued regardless. The bravery of these part-time control women equally matched their men folk, often making their way from home to the station during a raid and staying on duty while all around them seemed to be falling apart. Several stayed on permanent duty, sleeping in the recreation room that was fitted out with bunk beds, firemen on the top bunk and women on the lower deck. This night was possibly the most testing that the brigade ever encountered. With all of Weston’s men and pumps working to capacity, about 100 further units were brought in from surrounding areas, so numerous and extensive was the destruction. Not only required on the fire-ground, many were used to relay thousands of gallons of water from the Marine Lake and Open Air Pool. Hill View Farm in Locking Road was used as a holding point for incoming crews, before being despatched to where they were most needed.
In the morning there was a large bomb crater and an unexploded bomb at the railway station and for a time trains were suspended. This led to a proud boast on German radio that nothing was left of Weston and the railway had been closed so no one could enter the town to witness the devastation. Surprisingly, none of the bridges over the railway line was severely damaged.
The human toll of the two nights was 102 killed and 400 wounded, many were visitors on holiday. Several awards were later made for courage and determination shown in the rescue effort. On 15th July the Duke of Kent visited the town touring the badly damaged streets, giving comfort and encouragement.
By 1944 with the war in Europe entering its final phase, the threat of further air raids was more or less lifted, the last serious attack coming on the night of Monday 24th March. Many of the smaller stations were no longer manned each night as they had been over the previous three years. In May Axbridge Division got a new fire chief, Section Company Officer S. D. Hall, a pre-war member of the Bristol Police Fire Brigade, who replaced Column Officer Halsted. By January 1945 Area Fire Force Commander, Mr. J. Y. Kirkup, was drawing up plans for putting local brigades back on a peacetime footing. Small county stations like Banwell, Congresbury, Churchill, Wedmore and East Brent were to be closed. Others at Axbridge, Cheddar, Blagdon, Winscombe and Wrington would remain as retained stations, while Bristol, Weston-super-Mare and Clevedon were to be whole time stations. In Weston many of the N.F.S. auxiliary personnel were ‘stood down’ early 1945 and a ‘Stand Down’ dance, in aid of the Fire Service Benevolent Fund, was held at the Winter Gardens on Wednesday 21st March. Leading the Weston brigade back into a peacetime role, as its current chief, was Column Officer Frederick Revelle, holder of a George Medal.
Across Britain life was returning, as far as was possible, back to normal. In Weston there were still many part-time firemen and the N.F.S. who continued to control brigades was much in favour of using the now obsolete air raid siren as a means of calling these men to the station in the event of a fire call. Opposition, not least from the council itself, was much against the plan, but it nevertheless went ahead. An odd consequence of the scheme was the fact that Winscombe and Yatton, neither of which had an air-raid siren during the war, now had them fitted. In an attempt to bring Weston council and the public on board the N.F.S. promised to alter the tone of the siren to resemble less its air raid warning past – the reason for most objections – and give it a single note more like the gas-works hooter. It would also only be used during the day, when firemen were more likely to be away from their homes.
Having survived the war virtually unscathed Weston’s splendid Winter Gardens Pavilion was almost lost in an early morning blaze on Thursday 13th September 1945. The last dancers from the previous evenings "Grand NALGO Autumn Ball" had not long left when the outbreak was discovered by the night watchman James ‘Jock’ Warwick who saw smoke around the bandstand in the ballroom. After phoning the brigade he attempted to tackle the fire with an extinguisher but was driven back by the heat and smoke. Within minutes the N.F.S. were on the scene with a pump-escape, a major pump, salvage tender and a breathing apparatus van. Led by Column Officer Fred Revelle and Company Officer Priddle the first men in were driven back by dense smoke so four men rigged in B.A. entered with first aid jets, apparently bringing the fire, which seemed to be confined to the space under and around the bandstand, under control in about 10 minutes. Believing it a job well done the men returned to their station just along the sea front, but just after 5am they were out again when fire was discovered in the ballroom ceiling. It emerged that the BBC, who often used the Winter Gardens as a broadcast studio during the war, had packed quilted cloth between the timber and plaster ceiling and the concrete dome to improve acoustics and this had obviously been smouldering since the earlier blaze. Luckily little further damage was done and the Winter Gardens reopened within a few weeks.
Besides the town, a big loser in the fire was Oscar Rabin whose band had been playing the previous evening. He lost several instruments including a set of drums and a double bass, but his biggest loss was his library of sheet music which went up in smoke.
The inaugural dinner of W-s-M Fire Service Old Comrades Association was held on Saturday 9th February 1946 at Brown’s Café, with association president Cllr. George Wood presiding. Brigade chief Column Officer F. C. Revelle stated that it was still unclear how and when the N.F.S. would revert to local brigades.
When it was eventually announced that de-nationalisation of the fire service would take place on 30th April 1946 and that brigades would be returned to local control, it was assumed things in Weston would more or less return to how they were before the war. But it was not to be; as always on reading the small print it turned out that local control meant the county authority and not the town. Weston became part of Somerset Fire Brigade administered from County Hall at Taunton.
June 1947 saw the Fire Brigade’s Association national competitions held on Weston’s recreational ground, with over 300 firemen from all over the country living in tents pitched on the rugby ground next door. This was Britain’s first post-war national gathering of firemen and the events completed for included breathing apparatus endurance, pump and ladder drills, hose running and first aid.
On 1st April 1948 peace time manning returned to Weston’s brigade, now part of ‘A’ Division of Somerset Fire Brigade under the command of Divisional Officer Dennis A. Harris. The volunteers of old were replaced by one whole time crew backed up by retained firemen on call. Weston’s former chief, Albert Leyton, became Station Officer. Leyton retired in 1955 and died aged 64, in 1963.
In January 1950 the town’s pre-war request for a turntable ladder finally became reality with the delivery of a 100ft. model. Costing £8,000 it was the only one of its kind in the county. But it was a case of gain-one, lose-one, when just a few weeks later one of Weston’s other appliances, a war-time water tender towing a trailer pump, was totally wrecked as it rolled over outside the Borough Arms in Locking Road on Sunday 12th March, en-route to a grass fire at Banwell. Three members of the crew, Roy Gummer, Ken Norman and Victor Melhuish, were slightly hurt, with Ray Dunn the driver and Sub-Officer Taylor just shaken up.
With plans in hand to widen Oxford Street and re-develop the area between it and Carlton Street the town’s fire station was relocated to 22 Beach Road, one of the war-time N.F.S. stations. This was only to be a temporary measure as the council had already earmarked a 3 acre site on the growing Summerlands Estate to build a new fire station for Weston, but with post-war restrictions in place it was a while before it happened.
November 1951 saw industrial action within the fire service and 16 Weston firemen were suspended when they went on a 48 hour work-to-rule demonstration over pay. Several men were escorted off the station by police who had been called in by senior officers. Current basic pay was £6.18s.06d for a 60 hour week and the men were seeking a further 35 shillings to bring them into line with the police force. During their suspension the men paraded with placards up and down the beach lawns opposite the station. Following their action the men lost two days pay and were fined by their employer between 10/- and £2 before being reinstated. They didn’t get the 35 shillings.
In 1953 the senior officers of Somerset Fire Brigade voted themselves what was described by Cllr. Dodgson of Weston "a palace" when they took over Hestercombe House near Taunton, former country home of the Portman family, as Brigade H.Q. Dodgson and other Weston councillors were against the decision, remarking that before the war Weston’s brigade cost the town ½d on the rates, now it was 10d.
One of Weston’s oldest residents and the last living founder member of the town’s 1885 brigade, George Rossiter died in May 1953 just short of his 99th birthday. A plumber by trade, with a business in Oxford Street, his unique knowledge of the wells and water supplies of the district had proved quite useful during his service days.
In 1959 work finally began on Weston’s new fire station and divisional H.Q. being built on the Summerlands Estate at an estimated cost of £60,000. At the time a planned new main road into the town centre would have passed the station’s front door. Reality was, they never built the road, leaving the station somewhat isolated, surrounded by houses. Even today there are probably many residents who don’t have a clue where their fire station is.
The brigade was currently still operating from 22 Beach Road, with administration and fire prevention offices on the first floor of the old Oxford Street station. The ground floor was now occupied by the county Weights and Measures office. This department would also eventually move to the Summerlands site in a new building next to the fire station. Both the Beach Road and Oxford Street premises would become casualties in the 1960’s development of the area. Somewhat bizarrely, Weston council, who had given Somerset Fire Service the Oxford Street premises when the county brigade was formed after the war, had to buy them back at a cost of £5,750 when they wanted to develop Dolphin Square!
Somerset’s Chief Fire Officer Mr. William Barrett died on Christmas Eve 1959 aged only 59. He had been the county chief since the N.F.S. had been returned to local control. He was succeeded by Mr. A. L. Bullion.
Although operational from May, Weston’s new fire station was officially opened on Saturday 25th June 1960 by Mr. David Webster the town’s MP. Designed by Somerset County Architect Mr. R. O. Harris it comprised a 100 foot long six bay engine house with covered wash area behind, plus control room, offices, drying room, stores, showers, dormitories and adequate mess and recreational facilities. Weston’s firemen, who had always suffered from cramped locations, now had a fine modern station standing within a large drill area that also featured a 70 foot brick built hose drying and drill tower. Also on site were mechanical workshops where vehicle servicing and minor repairs would be carried out by the brigade’s own mechanics. Officer in charge was Divisional Officer D. A. Harris and his deputy Assistant Divisional Officer G. Bailey. In September 1960 A.D.O. Bailey moved to take charge of ‘B’ Division at Yeovil, replaced by A.D.O. Douglas Faulkner.
During the year Somerset also opened new fire stations at Shepton Mallet, Radstock and Wiveliscombe. Blagdon had also recently had a new station and there were plans for others at Frome, Ilminster, Pill, Porlock, Somerton and Wellington. Not such good news was the threat of closing the volunteer stations at Banwell and Wrington.
While Weston’s firemen were no doubt enjoying the comfort of their new home, it wasn’t long before several local residents were petitioning the council for a reduction in their rating assessment due to loss of privacy and annoyance and aggravation caused by the fire bells, sirens and other noise, especially