Memories of
Twenty-Two Years in the Fire Brigade
1939 - 1961

by Jack Moore

 

At London Fire Stations (1939-43)

          I had been working on Teignmouth beach doing punch and judy shows during the summer of 1939 and when war was declared my wife Win and I, with our baby son Alan, left Teignmouth straightaway. We lived in a flat in Brixton, London, and the general opinion was that the bombing of London would start straight away, but instead there was a period that became known as 'the phoney war' during which no actual hostilities took place. We could have taken more time but we were not to know that, and did what we thought was necessary, which was to move to Redhill. It had been arranged that we would go to stay with my brother, Sid, and his wife Hilda, who lived in Somerset Road, Meadvale, but in the event we went first to the flat we took at a house called Sillwood, at 4 (now 10), Upper Bridge Road, Redhill, Surrey, and then Win stayed witha friend's family for a short time while floor coverings were laid at the flat and Laurie helped me move our things from Brixton in a hired lorry.

         There was another reason to get sorted out fairly quickly, and that was that the year before, in 1938, I had joined the Auxiliary Fire Service. I had gone to Hamleys toy shop in Regent Street, London, because they had a small section that sold conjuring tricks. There I had met a man called Jack Wase who was visiting Hamleys for the same reason as myself. We had got chatting and he had told me that he knew how a lot of the conjuring tricks were accomplished, and that for a pastime he also made some magic items. We eventually became good friends and I learned a lot from Jack. He was so keenly interested in conjuring that he belonged to two magic societies which were similar to the Magic Circle, even though he was not a practising magician. It was Jack who suggested to me that we should join the AFS, I forget why, so we joined in 1938. During the war Jack served at a station in Paddington. I joined a fire station in Clapham North.

          So, a few days after getting more or less straight at Redhill I reported for duty and was posted to a station at Brixton. The station was situated in an empty school. We got an issue of a couple of blankets and slept on the hard floor for a couple of days until the mattresses arrived. We had commandeered taxis to tow our mobile pumps, and were split into three watches, each doing forty-eight hours on and twenty-four off. I found it very irksome being confined to that school for so many hours. We were paid three pounds a week, and within weeks got a rise to three pounds five shillings. I remember that an open backed van loaded with soldiers passed me as I was leaving for home one day. One of the soldiers shouted out; "Three pounds a week darts players!" I quickly shouted back; "No, three pounds five shillings a week darts players - we got a rise."
          We seldom got outside the gates. We did watch room duties and night time gate guard duties. Occasionally we got night-time turn-outs, mostly at one or two a.m. The bells would sound and we would man our allotted taxis and pumps and drive out and around the block, donning our uniforms as we went, reporting back to the station fully dressed. I travelled back and forth by bus and tram, there were lots in those days. I went by bus from Redhill to Purley, near the station, and the rest of the way by tram. You could ride all the way by tram for tuppence. (Less than a penny of today's money). We played rough ball games on the rough surfaced school playground, several of our chaps were bandaged up and looked like walking casualties. A nearby resident asked me if they had been injured at fires.

          When I had spent about six months in the AFS the Germans had still made no move against Britain, and that seemed a sensible way to run a war. I asked if I could resign and the AFS agreed. I then got a job sorting mail at Redhill sorting office. It was a big regional sorting office and I became a civil servant. Some few months later the war began to get under way, so I applied to join the RAF. I went before a medical board and a panel of doctors looked at different parts of me. They found me okay until one came to my feet, he found that they were partially flat and told me so. He also told me that as I had a wife and child and was 34 or 35 years old they didn't really need me yet. I think he was saving me for when things really got rough.
          So I made up my mind to join the Auxiliary Fire Service again, only this time north of the river Thames in A division as a new recruit. I spent three weeks at a training centre at Parsons Green, Fulham. I got to handling the fire escapes carried on the London fire appliances; I enjoyed that. I was then posted to an AFS station, a satellite of Paddington London Fire Brigade station. It was a very good posting near St Johns Wood; the food was very good. I forget the name of the place. We had a lot more personnel than a regular fire station had, we could man eight fire appliances. We had a water supply unit which carried metal tubes that formed a structure holding square shaped canvas bags that would hold a few thousand gallons of water.

          The first bomb dropped in London was on a building in Fore Street, near Liverpool Street station. Our water tender was required and I went along and we supplied some water. When the full scale bombing got under way we used to have a couple of hours sleep in our beds in the afternoons as we knew we'd be out all night, mostly down the East End of London. The first big raids were around the dockland area. In the afternoon we were ordered out to relieve the regular fire brigade, they were all-in. Us four, in our taxi with a Sulzer pump in tow, were travelling at around 40mph when a policeman on point duty directed us to pull into the kerb. He said he had a good mind to arrest us for speeding. Of course, we all roared with laughter. He said that if he caught us driving like that again he would arrest us, and let us go. If we had known what we were going to perhaps we wouldn't have laughed so much.
          We were on our way to Bromley-by-Bow, not far from the East India docks. When we arrived the bombers had left. Two or three London Fire Brigade appliances were parked idle at the side of the road. I have looked at a map recently and see that at Bromley-by-Bow where these appliances were standing there was a fire station across the road. I should think their crews were tired out, probably overcome with fatigue; they must have had a gruelling time. We were alongside the river Lea, close to a small bridge. Houses on one side of the road were burnt out, a factory was gutted, and the canal was choked with the Lloyd Loom company's bundles of willow for making wickerwork baskets and furniture. A nearby school had been bombed and was still burning; also nearby was a very big gas works. Something else there was also aflame, and I came to the conclusion that the whole of London would burn down. Some more of our fire crews arrived, then back came the German bombers. We set our big Sulzer pump into the canal water, the pump man swung the handle but couldn't get it to go, so I swung it and away she roared. We relayed water to another pump by the school and put the school out as well as other bits and pieces of fires. Incendiary bombs were whistling through the air, then Jerry dropped a bomb on a house and road near the school pump. In the reddish light of the flash I saw one of our men go down. The pump I was near was half buried in house bricks. I went to the chap who had been blown off his feet and helped him up, he was shocked but otherwise alright. Some-one was buried inside the rubbled house, some of our lads went to work on the house and recovered a person, I don't know if they were alive or not. The bomb had set the school alight again so we put it out once more. Then a bomb landed in front of the gas works and severed a big main gas pipe, we now had a forty foot high gas flame. I tried to put the damned thing out with a water jet but in vain. It was really safer to let it burn but it gave Jerry a prime target. Our pump drawing water from the canal was at one end of a three or four storey block of flats. A bomb blew the end furthest away from us (about 40yds) off, then another landed on the Silvertown flour mill on the opposite side of the river. By now it was well into night-time and there were only firemen and two drunks about. Came the dawn and we could pack our gear up and go back to our station, have a wash and a cup of tea. We had been lucky, the bombs had missed us.

          We used to get ordered onto various fire stations, usually ending up in the east end of London. We were in crews of four firemen and took it in turns to be in charge. In those days quite a few of the regular London Fire Brigade personnel were ex-navy men, most probably on the naval reserve list, many would have already been called up at the outbreak of the war. Now the Fire Service had been expanded by twenty-fold or more, and as a result officers of any rank at auxiliary fire stations were very few, therefore we had to use our own initiative when at the scene of a fire. At our station, so far as I can recall, we had one London Fire Brigade Station Officer, Taffy Davies, and two auxiliary leading firemen. I expect LFB officers were used sparingly so as to cover the very important risks plus the day-to-day usual fire calls.
          One night I was in charge of a four man pump crew when we were ordered to a fire at Norfolk Square, London W2, near Paddington station and Sussex Gardens. It was a posh house in a block of houses, there was a glass roof section over part of it and you could see there was something alight inside. The Germans were overhead, slinging down incendiary bombs etc, and of course the search-lights were seeking them and the guns were having a go. I did not want to smash that glass roofing and do water damage but the front door of the house was below street level, with 4 or 5 steps down to it, and the windows at this level had very thick iron grills covering them. I had read the fire brigade handbook detailing how to deal with stout doors so I got the large axe, pushed the blade between the door and the jamb on the hinged side and gave the long handle a big pull. To my surprise the hinges came right away with the door in one piece. I felt cheated as there was another stout door behind the first one, I'd never heard of such a thing. I gave that the axe treatment too and away it came. Inside a timber ceiling beam was burning. We gave it a splash and out it went. The glass roofing was over toilet facilities with three or four hand basins, the taps of which were too hot to touch as a result of the fire. Two policemen arrived to take over the security of the place. They commented on the heat and said we must have been well trained as there was so little damage; we were well pleased. The house belonged to someone who owned a small shipping company.

          Another night we were ordered to either Shaftsbury Avenue or Charing Cross Road fire station. We came along Oxford Street and turned down Regent Street, near Piccadilly Circus. There were bricks in the road and the air was full of brick dust; a bomb had fallen on Oddinonino's restaurant a short time before. We carried on to the fire station (the one much later involved in the Kings Cross underground fire) and from there were ordered on to another one where the station officer had just been killed in the Langham Hotel fire in Upper Regent Street, near to the BBC HQ building. On another occasion we went to Bethnal Green station where five men had been killed. Some of our crews went to fires at the Isle of Dogs. A canning factory there was among the buildings bombed and set on fire. They came back with Christmas puddings and cans of fruit.

          One time we were on our way back to our home station from a night spent on incidents in the East End when the fireman driving said he knew of a cafe where we could stop and get a cup of tea. We agreed to stop, and while there he said his son's family lived nearby and he would pop round to see that everyone was alright. He came back very shaken; a huge land mine had blown all the buildings down and everyone was dead. He was absent for the next three or four days.

          The Germans were bombing night and day and we were out every night. The Auxiliary Fire service turned the new recruits out of training establishments whether they were fully trained or not. By this time we had some proper towing vehicles, and one night I went out with a crew of five, one of whom was a new recruit. Jerry was overhead with the search-lights scouring the sky; the guns were banging away; we were driving along in darkness with our headlights covered over except for a crossed slit that let out a glimmer of light, occasionally driving by or over a burning incendiary bomb. Our new recruit kept on saying; "I don't know." After a while I suggested to the others that this chap was going to be of no use to us, he'd merely be getting in our way, and that we'd best take him to St Mary's hospital, Paddington. We went there, took him in and explained that this man was on his first night's duty and had only just left training school, and was having a nervous breakdown. They kept him in and I never heard of him again.

          Fireman King and another fireman whose name I can't recall - I'll call him fireman X - were both on the same watch as me and we shared the same sleeping quarters. Fireman X had a widowed mother and he used to worry about what would happen to her if he got killed. He was a very conscientious man. Fireman King went absent without leave for a couple of days, and on the next rota duty we fell in for role call in our respective crews when in comes fireman King a little late (he had been worried about his wife and kiddie). The station officer took me out of that crew and replaced me with King. That crew were sent to St Katherine's dock, which is by the side of Tower Bridge. Fireman King and Fireman X were both killed by bomb splinters, I remember seeing the towing vehicle and pump come into the station's grounds the next day, both holed by bomb fragments. A surviving member of the crew told me that even when the bombing was at its very worst fireman X would still not leave the pump and take cover.

          One time we were dispatched to a large railway goods station, I think it was Broad Street, set alight by bombs. Many big cart-horses were stabled there. I remember civilians leading the horses out past something that was aflame; such lovely horses. In 1940-41 there was still a lot of horse-drawn traffic, motor traffic was nowhere near as heavy as now, in 1989. We had to knock out some flames but the station had a huge glass roof, some of which was dangling in chunks on melted strips, some falling down. Two of us were holding a jet and clearing away these dangling chunks with it before going further in when a London Fire Brigade officer walked by and said; "No pot shots." I said that I didn't want any of those chunks falling on me.
          Debris wasn't the only danger; we wore those awful steel helmets, and the brim of one could give a person a nasty hurt. Several fireman were injured by use of their own axes in breaking glass, forgetting that glass flies outwards when broken by a blow. Others were hurt when standing too close to someone else using an axe and forgetting to look behind them when swinging it backwards in readiness for striking something. I once fell through a hole burnt in a floor during fire fighting, I forget where. Days later there were several of us gathered together with a doctor, I was complaining of boils under my arms when one of the other fireman said; "He fell through a floor the other night. There's no pills for that."

          There was a fire station near to Victoria Park, Bethnal Green that we got moved to one night. We gathered in a large room with about twenty others and rested on chairs and floor awaiting orders. We decided to have the lights out and get a bit of shut-eye. There was an air raid in progress so I took up a position close to the light switch as I thought that if a bomb came down we'd all be rushing about in the dark trying to find it. After a while there was the loud crunch of a bomb nearby, and shortly after that the bells went down. Men began scrambling amongst the chairs until I switched the lights on. As we turned out into the road I saw the remains of a burning house, flattened by the recent bomb, half a dozen women standing by the remains. As we drove away the women were calling us a lot of names. We couldn't stop to help them, were had to go to the West Ham as ordered.
         We drove through Victoria Park and crossed over the river Lea, where a big paint store, or factory, had been set alight, among other places. While at work a big tile fell down and cut the knuckle of my right hand open, so I went to St Mary's hospital, West Ham,, and got it stitched, the air raid still on. I was given sick leave. A few days later my hand became swollen and painful so I saw my own doctor in Redhill; he said the hand was poisoned. I can't recall what he did for it, except that my arm was put in a sling. I was in Fireman's uniform in Redhill when I was stopped by a man who wanted to know about my arm; I never did know who he was. During our chat he said that Reigate wanted fireman and suggested that I put in for a transfer and told me who to see there. I went to Reigate and they agreed to apply to London for my transfer. I later returned to duty in London and after three weeks my transfer came through. No more travelling up and down to Paddington.

At Reigate and Redhill Fire Stations (1943-1945)

          Reigate was nice and quiet after London, even though the war continued. I'd not been there long before some London AFS lads were sent down for a rest from Bethnal Green and Bromley-by-Bow. While at Reigate I got sent to stand-by training centres for a month at a time, twice to Tandridge and once to Linton, near Maidstone in Kent. We were a stand-by mobile column complete with own pumps and motor-cycle outriders. I also did weekly or fortnightly stand-by duties at a place near Portsmouth and another in Hampshire. I went by coach with others to Bath and Plymouth. I stayed in the Plummer army barracks at Plymouth for three days after the town was raided. When Portsmouth was under heavy raid, we were sent there with pumps from Reigate. It was night-time in winter and there was dense fog and the roads were iced up. At midnight we were halfway there when we ran into the back of the water tender being driven by Ted Moore (no relation). I was asleep inside the towing vehicle, I had a couple of blankets wrapped around me, when bang! down came the short ladder on top of me, and other gear shot about inside the vehicle. Due to the damage caused we were unable to proceed any further. Reigate control was informed and said they would send a vehicle to collect us. We waited about two hours for our pick-up, and when it arrived it was an open fire escape. The chaps who were on the sides of the vehicle had to be helped off when we arrived at Reigate they were stiff with cold. I sat on the tail end of the vehicle, my two blankets wrapped around me.

          We didn't always have to go that far to see the effects of war, sometimes the war came to us. I was off duty near Reffells Bridge, Redhill when I heard to sound of a plane in the air. Looking up I saw it, a low flying noisy thing. I ran up to the bridge and saw it fly northwards along the railway line. When it was out of view the engine cut, to be followed shortly after by a big bang. I had just seen my first Doodlebug. Launched from France by Jerry and also called V1's, these pilotless flying bombs carried fuel in amounts measured to get them fairly precisely to their targets in London. Sometimes they fell within yards of their destinations. This one was short but the weapon could do a great deal of damage if falling on populated areas.
          Later on in the war the V1 was superseded by the V2. This was a rocket, wingless and travelling faster than sound. This meant there was no warning of its arrival as with the doodlebug. There would be an explosion followed by a roaring, whooshing sound immediately after - the sound of the missile rushing to ground. I remember going up to Paddington in London two or three times on off duty days, I went to see my friend, Jack Wase. On each occasion I heard the explosion of a V2 followed by the rumble of its engine. I think now that I was an idiot to spend half a day in London then. A large bomb or a doodlebug fell in Earlswood, doing a lot of damage to house property. I remember seeing a man trapped in bed. Fortunately he was alright, the rafters had come down long-ways across his bed, from foot-rail to head-rail. The chimney stack had also come down and was resting on the rafters. I never knew how he was gotten out, perhaps they cut the bed springs away and got him out through the bottom.
          One day I was in the garden at Sillwood, Upper Bridge Road, when I heard machine gun fire. I looked across towards Earlswood from my hilly position and saw a plane with three or four falling bombs. The plane was fairly low. I rushed indoors and shouted a warning to Win and her sister, Margie, who was staying with us. There was the crunch of a bomb in the roadway, it blew part of the front of the next but one house down, and some more of it fell down later. It broke a window in Sillwood and left a small crater in the roadway outside. The gas main was fractured, which I reported immediately, and later we found that the sewer had also been damaged.It also brought down plaster from the bedroom ceiling on my baby son, Alan, who was in his cot. Fortunately he was unharmed. Either the plane had simply been dumping its bombs on the way home or it had been trying to locate the main railway lines. The damaged house had to be demolished, it had basements and the brickwork had cracked all around. The site eventually became an allotment. It is built on now.

          I think the fire brigade ceased to be separated into regional and auxiliary bodies at about this time and became simply the National Fire Service (NFS). It was still organised in regions however, there were twelve in England and Wales. We were part of the south-east region, consisting of Surrey, Sussex and Kent

          When the bombing was very bad around St Paul’s cathedral a coach load of us were sent to relieve the London men, and we took over a section of Ludgate Hill. It was day-time and the all clear had sounded, but the metal covers of what I believe was an electrical trunk system were flying off at intervals with a hefty bang, they could cause damage and injury. I was working near to Ludgate Circus, close to Straker's sports equipment shop. We were damping down smouldering ruins, and there was a pub almost next to the shop that I went into. Inside the ground floor were four feet high piles of glowing ashes that I had to spray water over. During a work break I went across to Fleet Street to a Red Cross mobile canteen that had two ladies attending it. I looked underneath to see if they'd parked over one of those manholes and sure enough they had. I informed them about the manholes occasionally blowing up, they reacted so fast the urn full of boiling water nearly overturned onto the floor as they moved to a safer spot. Anyway, I got my tea and bun.
          The pub I mentioned was alongside a railway bridge. I found a cricket stump somewhere outside Straker's sports shop and kept it as a souvenir, I still have it. When we returned to Reigate fire station I was the first one out of the coach and to my surprise there was a crowd of spectators. A newspaper photographer snapped us and the picture appeared in the Surrey Mirror, it showed me holding the cricket stump and my kit bag.

Returning to Reigate with my cricket stump

          I was transferred to Redhill fire station, and later promoted to leading fireman. It was while there that there were explosions and fires at a very large ammunition dump on Ranmore common near Dorking. I was sent there in charge of the pump escape unit on the second day of the incident. Someone gave us the job of cooling down a stack of red hot glowing mortar shells stored inside a small metal shed. I contacted an army officer to find out if it was safe to douse them with cold water; he said it was so we cooled them right down, there was quite a heap of them. We had parked our vehicle - the escape unit - on the roadway close to where we were working and after we had cooled these shells some soldiers started moving them and making a pile close to our vehicle. I asked what there were about and they replied they were going to blow the shells up. I said; "Well, hold fire a minute or two while I get our vehicle moved!" I'd have been in dead trouble taking a wrecked vehicle back to the station.
          We once had a big exercise on Ranmore common and we had to relay water over a distance. To feed us a large mobile Fire Service canteen van from divisional HQ was used. In charge of it was a big woman fire officer with three red stripes on her shoulders. The apple pie pastry they served up was spotty with mouse droppings. I wouldn't eat it but most of the men picked out the droppings and ate the pastry. I asked the three stripe officer what the black bits were. She replied; "Oh, we have mice at Divisional HQ." I retorted, "It's a good job you haven't got elephants!"

          Percy Barnes and Eddy Abbot were stationed at Redhill with me. Percy was a smallish man who liked a drink, Eddy was a big fellow. There was always much banter between the two of them. On one occasion Percy gave Eddy a railling so Eddy got two others to help him and they tied Percy up with a rope and hung him on a hook on a wall in the fire station near the pump escape. There were plenty of such characters about in those days. One was a fireman dispatch rider whose job it was to relay messages between scenes of fires and the home station or anywhere else that messages had to be got to. We had answered a call to a large house standing in its own grounds at the top of Redstone Hill, Redhill. The house was empty and in a bad state of repair, and probably used by tramps or drunks for sleeping in. We could see that the place was on fire as we drove up its own piece of rough private road but were halted by a newly erected chestnut paling and wire fence around the property. Percy Wilkinson, the driver asked what we were to do and pointed out that we had no bolt croppers. I told him to run the fence down, which we did, and soon our hose reel was out and working. Then up came this dispatch rider. Not only did the fire have to be put out but it was desirable that it was done swiftly before the Germans came over, so I said to him; "Make pumps four," the fire service way of saying that a total of four pumps were required. He said; "Oh, make it pumps five, I've never had a five pump job."  I said, more to humour him than from conviction; "Okay, make it pumps five." In the event it was just as well, the building was in a dangerous condition and they were all needed. We even used our 75ft turntable ladder there as well.

          During on-duty quiet periods we would either clean and service our equipment or, when most of that was done, relax about the station. One man at least was always in the watch room, ready to alert the station in case a call to a fire was phoned in. He would set off the bells in the station and everyone would rush by the quickest route to their allotted place, usually on one of the fire engines, putting on fire fighting clothes as they went. Once the address we were to go to was known the fire engines would set their own bells going and drive out onto the road and head for the scene of the fire. There was another way that the bells could be activated to call us out, and that was from a large brass plate with a bell push in the centre of it on the front wall of Redhill fire station. It was polished every day. I was on duty one nice sunny day when Winnie and my son Alan, aged about five or six, came to visit me. The entrance door to the station was around the far side of the building, which meant they had to pass the brass bell push. Alan presses the button. Everyone turns out. Curly Outram was on duty in the watch room at the time; he lifted the window, looked out and called out; "Okay, stand down, it's only young Moore!"

          During an air raid one night we got a call to a house in Church Hill, Merstham. As we were making our way there we were confronted by a column of tanks. They were difficult to see in the darkness and were almost upon us before we spotted them. They took up most of the road and I told Fireman Millam, our driver, to drive on the pavement until we were past them. When we arrived at the scene of the fire we saw that the house was well alight in the roof and attic. We moved out of harms way a car that was parked in the drive, connected our hose reel to a hydrant via our pump and soon had a jet going. There were two other fires in the road, one in a detached house next door and the other in a large house further down the road. No doubt all had been caused by incendiary bombs dropped in the air raid. We were hard pressed, I had no dispatch rider and could not send a message back. Other fire crews had been sent however; we had our fire almost under control when a part-time station officer came up to me and asked if his crew could take water from the fire hydrant up the road to tackle the fire in the large house. I agreed they could, but when they did we totally lost our water and had to hurriedly ask them to ease up so we could finish putting our fire out. While we were waiting for the supply to be restored we were able to use our standby 20 gallon tank. Our fire was eventually extinguished and the large house was also saved. The house next door burned almost to the ground.

          Redhill Aerodrome was taken over by the military during the war. If their fire tender was out of service for any reason we would take one of our appliances there and stand by for a day; it was a dismal duty with nothing to do all day. One day, even more dismal than usual with the rain coming down in torrents, six American Dakota aircraft were forced to land there because of the weather. I think they were on their way back to their base in England after ferrying supplies to the forces in Europe. One of the Americans came up to me and asked; "What's the name of this place?"

          While I was still at Redhill, Reigate station received a visit from the Home Office Fire Service inspectors. A fire appliance and crew were turned out for drill and questioning; in charge of the crew a newly promoted leading fireman. They made a bit of a botch of things, the leading fireman was demoted and all the stations in B division were ordered to do extra drills by Divisional Officer Cox, who had only just taken over our division. There was nothing really wrong with the division, what was wrong was the man they had promoted to leading fireman. A couple of months later the inspectors dropped into Redhill and turned out the pump escape with me, a leading fireman, in charge. We went across the road to the sports ground and pitched the escape ladder to a point on the football grandstand and got a hose reel jet to work off the escape, everything going smoothly. The inspectors then left us to clear up while they walked back to the station. Divisional Officer Cox came over to me, slapped me on the back and said; "Moore, let them take it out of that!" He was well pleased. Sometime after the war Divisional Officer Cox became Chief Fire Officer of Hong Kong.
         I caught the fire inspectors once again later on, only this time with our 75ft turntable ladder. This time we had to get a main hose jet to work at St Ann's building. We did alright, I had done many drills with the thing.

          The fire brigade union became active during the war, and set about recruiting members all over the country. Before the war it had existed mainly in London and was a rather tame and docile organisation, now it became vigorous in its recruitment. Fireman Terry was the organiser for Reigate and Redhill, he was outspoken and seemed to be non-political, at least I'd never heard him discuss politics. Before the war discipline in the fire service had been pretty strict, now it was easing a little. Fireman Terry got sent to the National Fire Service divisional HQ at Betchworth for a single day's duties, as a dogsbody I suppose, and one of the officers gave him his leather fire boots to clean and polish. Terry was reported to have told him; "Now you have to clean your own boots!" I was the Redhill representative. I had recruited nearly all the National Fire Service men but the pre-war borough-retained firemen turned it down. I was in the fire station discussing with several of them what our aims and employment conditions should be when one asked; "What is the union going to do for us?" I replied; "Nothing, as you are not members. Any improvements you require you'll have to fight for yourselves. The next day nearly all of them joined.

After the War (1945-1961)

            I was later promoted to Sub-officer and transferred  back to Reigate. With the end of the war our hours were cut to 24hrs on and 24 off, plus every 13 weeks we missed two 24hr duty periods. This meant that we averaged 72 hours of duty per week. Of course, some personnel resigned and returned to their peace-time occupations. I passed a physical examination and a short written test and was accepted as a full-time member of what was still the National Fire Service. We used to have to do 'out' duties occasionally, which were spells of duty at other stations when they were short handed. I did a month at Horley and a week at Dorking, and also worked at Leatherhead and Guildford.
            Even in peacetime fire fighting was, and continues to be, a dangerous business, with fireman losing their lives, not always at fires. Guildford had a fireman named Randall, a short man who could literally run up a fire escape ladder. He fell off an appliance going to a fire and was killed. I remember a new young fireman at Reigate about whom I received a complaint regarding a discharge from his ear. The ear was infected and I sent him for a medical report, but before any more happened he was transferred to Watford. I heard some years later that he had fallen from an open ended fire appliance en-route to a fire and also been killed.

At Reigate Fire Station 1947. I’m seated right. Seated next to me is Assistant Divisional Officer Cook

           There was the lighter side to life in the fire brigade. Anyone doing out duty at Horley usually found upon returning to their home station that they had a brand new heavy brick in their kit bag. They were the bricks used to place over electric cables in the ground to prevent damage by anyone drilling or digging. Our kit bags were almost the same as GPO mail bags, only green. They took our fire boots, leggings, belt, axe and two blankets. With one of these dense bricks inside they were very heavy. Fireman Jock McCutcheon brought back one of these bricks one day. Instead of disposing of it he left it on the floor of the locker room and went off duty. The brick remained there for a few days and then fireman Phillips took to placing it in one of Jock's fire boots. When Jock came on duty he would take it out and place it back on the floor, and when he went off fireman Phillips would put it back in again. I was in the fire station office after a few days of this when there was a knock on the door. Fireman Joe Howick said; "You'd better come quick, Phillips and McCutcheon are fighting. I asked him what they were fighting with and he told me it was their fists. I said; "That's okay, if they get fighting with axes let me know."

            A couple of years after the war the Fire Service was discontinued as a national body and run by county councils or major county towns. Reigate came under Surrey County Council, but a large part of the Surrey area, including Croydon, came under the control of the London Fire Brigade. I was posted to Oxted Fire Station as officer in charge but only with the rank of sub-officer. So far as I can recall I had ten or twelve full-time personnel plus ten retained (part-time) firemen. The retained men were on call via siren and fire bells in their homes. They had their own sub-officer and leading fireman, also their own towing vehicle and pump. They came to the fire station once a week for drill or lecture. Our main fire appliance was a Pump Escape Vehicle, with a fifty foot Merryweather ladder, a light, easy to use escape. Oxted is a lovely country town with a fair part of its property being middle class. The captain of the Surrey cricket team lived at Tandridge Hall. Field Marshall Slim also lived there for a while, as well as a Rear Admiral, a General and a noted scientist. It was a nice, quiet posting. My first task was to get acquainted with its topography, the locations of its fire hydrants and other water sources, and any fire risks. I got to know the area very well.

            One winter afternoon there was a sudden three-to-four inch fall of snow and we were called out to two persons trapped in a laundry van at the bottom of a fairly steep hill. As we approached the foot of this hill our driver said that he could not stop our vehicle. The road ahead was blocked by stranded cars on the off side and a lorry with eleven tons of tiles on board on our near side, so I said; "Run it into the back of the tile lorry." I stood up and watched the front of our appliance crumple in. Our appliance was one of those roofless vehicles where the firemen stand on a running board on either side and hold on to a hand rail. As we stepped off we all slipped up and landed in the snow. The people in the laundry van were alright so I sent two fireman to the top of the hill to prevent any more vehicles coming down. The laundry van's bonnet was jammed into two hefty tree trunks, the tile lorry was rammed into its rear and we were rammed into the back of the tile lorry. On the other side of the road were three cars, stuck in the snow, with their drivers inside them. I sent a message reporting the situation and requesting a Fire Brigade breakdown vehicle.
            Another fire engine and the breakdown vehicle soon arrived, both had difficulty negotiating the snow covered hill safely. All the vehicles were winched back onto the road and, although damaged, most were able to move away under their own power. Due to a wrecked radiator our vehicle had lost its coolant so the chief breakdown officer decided to tow us but it was a very slow process, made no better by adding the other fire engine as extra pulling power. He eventually said that if our engine would run we were to get back to the station under our own power as we would be needing a new engine anyway, and that's how we limped home. We got a war-time pump escape vehicle while ours was away for repair.

            Woolworths was across the road from the fire station and one day we got a call there. I found a woman laying on the shop floor in a pool of congealed blood that had issued from her mouth. I spoke to her and came to the conclusion that it was safe to sit her up, but first sent an urgent message for the immediate attendance of a doctor. If I had called an ambulance it would not have arrived sooner than 15-20 minutes. I sat her on a chair. Within a few minutes a doctor arrived and took her immediately to the hospital just up the street. I cleaned up the bloody mess myself. Some months later the lady and her husband called at the fire station and thanked me.

            Having just come off duty one morning I was walking up the hill to the bus stop when I noticed a car running backwards across the road. I shouted a warning as the car mounted the pavement, hit an old lady, rolled over her and was then stopped by iron fencing protecting a shop front or pavement opening. I ran back to the fire station and pressed the bell, the duty crew and I turned out in a towing vehicle. We arrived just as two men had pushed the car off the old lady. The fire crew splinted her up for back or pelvis injuries and put her on a long, cushioned seat removed from a vehicle. I spoke to the woman who told me her daughter's address, nearby. We didn't wait for the ambulance but took her straight to the hospital just a few minutes drive away. I contacted the daughter who visited and spoke to her mother. Unfortunately the old lady died a few hours later. My divisional officer rang me at home later that day, requesting a written statement about the incident. No doubt the car either had a faulty handbrake or the handbrake had not been properly applied.
            There was another incident involving an elderly lady, this one with a happier ending. We were called to a house where we found that an old lady had fallen out of bed onto the floor. She appeared to be unhurt so we put her back into bed and called for the attendance of a doctor. At any incident we were required to send 'Assistance' or 'Stop' messages. Our stop message must have raised a laugh. "Old lady fell out of bed, attending fire crew put her back."

            Botley Hill is eight hundred and eighty feet above sea level, and one day we were called to a plane crash there. We were the first fire appliance on the scene, an ambulance was already in attendance. Visibility was poor due to mist and rain and a small military aircraft flying to Biggin Hill had hit the treetops and crashed on open grassland alongside the main road. The pilot had a broken leg which was trapped by cables. I think two military personnel were dead, and a naval officer carrying dispatches had walked uninjured from the crash and phoned for transport. An ambulance man was inside the plane with the pilot. Aircraft fuel smelling like paraffin had been spilt all about and I ordered my crew to run hose from hydrant to pump and to set out hose for our foam equipment. The body of the plane was on the ground and there was a section of it ripped away, so I could walk straight inside. I propped up the plane opening with a six inch diameter tree branch so it wouldn't topple over, ordered onlookers back and told them to extinguish cigarettes. As we had no cutting equipment we could not free the pilot, but another fire appliance soon arrived from Sanderstead and they were able to free him to be taken to hospital. That plane crash made the front page of one of the national pictorials.
            The opposite watch to mine was called to a fighter plane crash, with a big hole in the ground and a broken up pilot.

Note: In July 2011 Mr John Hale from Lancaster saw the above and wrote; 'I have just found your most interesting website whilst doing some research into my family history, in particular, my father, John Hale, who was killed in a plane crash on Botley Hill on the night of 29th April 1947.  (In fact 400 yds SW of Botley Hill crossroads.) Could it be the same incident about which you have written? The plane was an Airpeed Consul, registration number G - AIOZ, travelling from Le Bourget to Croydon.  My father was the wireless operator, the pilot a Mr Milburn.  Both were killed. Six months after his death I was born so I am anxious to find out as much as possible.'
          It is quite possible that this was the same incident. Mr Hale will get more details from the national archive.

            It was on a Saturday, when there were only four of us on duty, one in the watch-room and three to ride the pump-escape, when we received a call to a house in Beadles Lane. We regularly tested out hydrants and I knew that the water supply there was poor; it was a two-inch wash-out, which was the end of a water main where chalk or mud could be washed out of the pipes. When we arrived the house door was open, so I walked in. I was greeted by two women who told me there was a fire in a room adjoining the hallway in which we were standing; the door was closed. The women said they were the only ones there, the rest of the family having gone by car to the theatre in London. I told the women to evacuate the house immediately which they did, pausing only long enough to collect their handbags. Just as they got out a flame shot across the hallway at ceiling height.
            I knew I had a good fire on my hands and that I could not leave just one man attending the pump and have only two of us fighting a fire, which was now overhead, with a poor water supply. When I got outside I saw that the others had just finished pitching the fire escape ladder to the roof. I called for priority on our radio and advised; 'House well alight, make pumps three!' I turned around and saw flames coming from the roof near to the escape ladder. My two men were up there and already had removed tiles from the roof to give access into the roof space for a water jet. I immediately modified my radio message to; 'Flames through roof! Make pumps four; one for water relay.' Within fifteen minutes our retained crew arrived and I got sub officer Mortlock to relay water to us from the six inch water main down East Hill.
           Soon Caterham's crew were on site. I got them to connect a hose to our pump and I showed them the seat of the fire. By this time we had water from the six inch main and three men followed me with a hose. Their sub officer kicked open the door and a big jet of water hit the fire. Divisional Officer Wilcock arrived, plus a crew from Reigate. Two more ladders went up and two more jets hit the flames. The fire was soon out. The house roof was not too badly fire damaged, although there was also some water damage. The house belonged to some of the family of Costain, the international building firm. Within a couple of days the house had been scaffolded and the roof completely covered over by a flat, level, boarded roof cover.

            Not all fire calls were genuine. At about two a.m. one night we got a call to a house in Tatsfield, which is near to Biggin Hill at the extreme northern edge of our area. The water supply was poor there, property scattered, and it would take us about fifteen minutes to arrive if we got a good run at steep Titsey Hill; if we didn't it was a long slow drag up it. At the approach to the hill we were just getting a little speed up when a cat got sprinting right in front of us, its fur gleaming white in our headlights. Driver Fred Sawyers needed to get his double-de-clutch gear change just right to sail fairly comfortably up and over the hill and asked; "What do I do? Kill the cat?" I said; "Give him a minute, he might run off the road." As it happened the cat did just that in time for Fred to get his gear change in before we lost too much speed. On the way into Tatsfield we passed the Maclean house - Maclean was the spy who defected to Russia in the 1940's - and arrived at our destination, a house built on the top of a steep mound. There was no evidence of a fire. A young lady had made the call and it was the girl's parents who answered the door. They were unaware that any fire call had been made, and questioned their daughter. From what I saw and heard I would say the girl was mentally disturbed. I sent a message; "Stop for Tatsfield, call malicious, inform police." I felt sorry for the girl but was relieved that there was no fire at that awkward place.

            Just as not all calls were genuine so not all the genuine ones were for fires, nor were they always on warm, clear nights. It was just after midnight during a thunder storm that we were called to the Moorhouse Tile Works. 'Boiler house pump unable to cope with flood water! Explosion imminent!' There was torrential rain, thunder and lightening, and we were on our open pump-escape with no cover whatsoever. We had just had our radio equipment installed and were supposed to use it as we turned out, reporting that we were on our way to such and such an incident at the given address, spelling any difficult words using the Nato phonetic vocabulary. I was hooking my uniform up to try to stop the water going down my neck when the driver reminded me about the radio report. I said; "To hell with the radio, let's get to this boiler before it blows!"
            The private road to the tile works was four inches deep in water. The first thing that happened was that we got a hefty jolt from one those ramps made to slow traffic down. We had just found out how effective they were so slowed to a crawl. Naturally there were more ramps and a notice saying; 'Maximum Speed 8 MPH'. I hated those ramps, they were causing us to waste precious time.
            The base of the boiler was situated in a pit by the roadway. There was already eighteen inches of water in the pit and the electric pump control unit was nearly covered by water. The boiler fire-box was still above water and what needed doing quickly was the fire drawing out of the boiler and into the water. Big Bill Walker volunteered for the job. I told him to be careful, if he felt the heat or the fumes affecting him he was to withdraw immediately. He wasn't called 'Big Bill' for nothing, he weighed over sixteen stones and I didn't fancy having to drag him out of there.
            With me standing three feet from him Bill successfully completed the job. The others started pumping out the pit, and that was more or less that.
            This was in the mid-1950s, and there's a sequel to this story. In about 1987/8 I went to visit Horace Grey, he lived in one of the old person's flats in Ashdown Road, Reigate. By this time he must have been eighty-seven years of age. He was in the National Fire Service during the war and was once stationed at Reigate. Whilst talking to him I mentioned the boiler incident, and he said; "Oh! I put that call through to the Fire Brigade!" Apparently, after the war, he and other firemen were conscripted out of the fire brigade and into building repair squads, which were very poorly paid. He had been working at the tile works on nights; one of his duties was to look after the boiler. When he'd realised the danger the water might have caused he'd called us. It's a small world!

            Injuries were commonplace due to the nature of the job, sometimes due to hazardous materials at sites. A fireman and a divisional officer were injured by the explosion of a dissolved-acetylene cylinder that had got hot in a fire at or near Wimbledon. The general order regarding these particular items said that where they became heated water jets could be lashed into place to cool them down, personnel then retiring to a safe distance.
            One day when I was at Oxted we were called out of area to Outwood Lane, Bletchingly, to a timber-built workshop set in a field near a pond. Near the workshop was an oil storage tank. A workman had run out of the workshop leaving some rags burning on an acetylene cylinder and adjacent timbers had caught alight. We quickly put out the fire using the twenty gallons carried in the tank built into our vehicle. I felt the cylinder, which was strapped to the work-bench, found it to be warm, and decided to move it. I undid the straps, grasped the top valve and rocked the cylinder towards myself. There was a sudden hiss from the cylinder and I jumped back, the cylinder rocking back onto its cradle.
            I thought that if the thing exploded I would be just as dead at two feet as if I were cuddling it, so I decided that the only thing to do was to carry it shoulder high and dump it in the pond. I beckoned the watching workman to help me; he shook his head, I didn't blame him, it was our job, we were getting paid for it. I opened the front door and called fireman Johnny Marshall to help, and we carried the cylinder the seventy-five yards to the pond where it bubbled away.

            Not everything was as we - or others - would have wished it to be. Oxted station shared ground occupied by the council offices and departments at the rear of the station, among them the  mortuary, where bodies could be taken at all times of day or night. A few yards to the rear of that were our off-duty living quarters. The body of an old lady who had lain dead on the common for two to three weeks before being found was brought in. The weather was warm and after a couple of days maggots appeared from under the mortuary door and soon covered the concrete walk-way. We complained to the mortuary attendant, Dick Chapman, and he came in and poured a strong disinfectant down the old lady's throat. That was okay but a post-mortem had been due and now it had been ruined. We were happy but the pathologist was not.

            Our pump-escape had already been damaged once as, I've described earlier in this chapter. On that occasion snow had led to the crunch, and on the next occasion the poor old vehicle got bent it was icy. It was about eight o'clock one winter's morning that we were called to an incident at Tatsfield that meant us climbing Titsey Hill. We approached the turning off Limpsfield High Street which was Titsey Hill and took a right turn well over to the left hand side of the road around a bus that had stopped to let us swing round. As we did this we skidded into the garden wall of a house. Fireman Almond, a skilful driver, attempted to move the vehicle away from the pavement and wall but headed straight for the bus. I asked him where he was off to and as we ran into the side of the bus he told me that the steering was locked and wouldn't respond. What had happened was that in hitting (and cracking) the wall we'd wrapped our bumper around one wheel.
            I reported that we were unable to proceed, requesting another appliance be sent and that we got breakdown attendance. That, unfortunately was the end of our lovely pump escape, they would not spend any more money on repairing it. I last saw it dumped in a back yard in Leatherhead somewhere. Once again we were back to one of the old heavy war-time vehicles.

            Snap inspections and tests to test the preparedness of stations and their crews continued on lines like those I've mentioned before, except they were even more stringent. The inspectorate would drop into the station unexpectedly, ring the station fire bell, turn us all out for drill, and question us all on the use of our equipment, then inspect the station for cleanliness. They would go through the office files, leave them in a big heap, go into the watch-room to quiz the fireman on duty there, and finally inspect the log book, one of the inspecting officers signing it. After they had gone we would tidy up again. The big difference now was that there was a divisional efficiency cup, and one year we won the B division cup, coming second in the Brigade cup.

            I've mentioned many of the people I was associated with by name. Others included Mrs Mabel Chapman, the station cook; she was splendid. Mr Root was our first B Divisional officer. He had at sometime previously been in the RAF and had been a part of the team that worked on flying boats and won the Schneider Trophy.

            Our next Divisional officer was Mr Wilcock, BEM; he was  Divisional Officer when we won the cup. He once said to me; "Moore, pass the Station Officer's exam and I'll promote you!" The trouble was that Station Officers seemed to get shifted around a lot, often ending up living with their families on station premises; that's like marrying the job. Besides, I only had a few more years to serve to my fifty-fifth birthday and retirement.
            I never knew what Mr Wilcock's BEM was awarded for but he was an excellent musician and played the clarinet and flute with the West London Symphony Orchestra. He retired to Torquay and continued with his music. I spoke to him by telephone in 1990 and he told me that he got the bands together for all Tommy Steele's shows in Torquay.

            A year and a half before my retirement Oxted Station ceased to be manned full-time and was handed over to the retained men. One of the full time firemen at Oxted, Bert Batchelor, lived at Edenbridge. He told me he had on occasions worked at 'Chartwell', Edenbridge, and had helped Sir Winston Churchill build a wall.
            We full time personnel were posted to other stations. I went to Banstead. I had only been there a couple of weeks when I heard that Pastens children's home in Oxted had been gutted by fire. Retained men take longer to respond to a call because they have to first get to the station from home or work. The timbers in the roof had recently been treated by a firm specialising in wood preservation. Such treatments usually use flammable liquids, so the premises are vulnerable to fire for a few days after.

            Banstead fire station lay alongside the main road leading to Sutton. Alongside us was the ambulance station. We had various call-outs, including car crashes with dead and injured. There was a night-time call to a house where a neighbour had already put a ladder up to a window, climbed in and dragged out an eighteen stone man, leaving him laying across the steps. When we arrived I took a quick look at him, tried his weight and found him very difficult to move, so we sent for an ambulance. The fire we quickly put out; it wasn't bad, just smokey due to an armchair and curtains being alight. The gent laid on the steps had been drinking and smoking. I think he'd got incapable and inadvertently set the armchair alight with a cigarette.

            After a year Banstead fire station was also closed. The Divisional Officer offered me a choice of Walton-on-Thames or Brigade HQ at Reigate; I chose the latter, training the army fire service. I had four or five months left and worked nine-to-five for the first time ever during my time with the service. I never had much to do. On the twenty-first of January 1961 I formally retired. I had served almost twenty-two years continuous service since joining in 1939, which didn't count the five months service in 1938. It had been a steady job, by far the steadiest I'd ever had, but although I'd retired from the Fire Service that didn't mean I was about to retire altogether. It was simply time to move elsewhere.

The End

 
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10th July 2011