The birth of a modern Fire Service

Our modern Fire Brigade was formed in 1939 with an aim to end a random and inefficient service. Historian Paul Birbeck explains.

The Bridport Fire Service in action in 1906 image – © The Barry Cuff Collection

While leading a group around Yetminster, someone stated that Mallow’s House, a wooden fronted building in Church Road, used to be the village fire station. It was an assertion that led me to reveal some interesting facts about the history of fire management in rural areas. C19th reports in local newspapers suggest serious fires were actually uncommon. Fires in hayricks, thatched roofs, and barns in villages are recorded; often being ignited by natural events like lightening, sparks from chimney fires and surprise changes in wind direction. Loss of human life was rare, but as the following report of a farm fire in 1911 shows, loss of livestock and property was not unheard of.

“Shortly after midnight some straw thatched buildings, in which were a considerable number of farm stock, were found to be alight, and very quickly an alarm was raised. While heroic efforts were being made by the farm bands and villagers generally ‘ for the suppression of the outbreak’ a message was despatched for the Fire Brigade from Dorchester. The Brigade turned out promptly, and with four horses supplied from the Antelope Hotel stables the steam fire engine was quickly on its way to Bere Regis. But this was just over a ten mile journey, and although the best possible pace was made under the circumstances a considerable time necessarily went before the arrival of the Brigade at the scene the fire. The buildings were then practically doomed, and what is a still more regrettable phase of the occurrence is the fact that it was found impossible to save a considerable number of farm animals that were quartered in the premise.”

Extract from The Western Gazette, April 1911

In October 1874 a fire broke out in the kitchen chimney of the Great Western Temperance Hotel in Yetminster. This was interesting because once the cry of fire was raised, many able-bodied villagers were on the spot helping. Females were reported transferring buckets of water from all parts of the village and the owner Mr Wynne and his family were able to escape unharmed. Records show that the property was insured, as were the family possessions. Clearly, before 1938 no village fire stations existed, although Dorchester, Sherborne, Shaftsbury, Sturminster and Maiden Newton had small municipal fire brigades run by local councils.

Our modern fire brigade

The Fire Service we know today was created in 1939 when a National Fire Service ensured uniformity in the basic equipment used by fire-fighters during the war.
This was a busy time. Firefighters assisted in rescues following the Sherborne bombing in September 1940; were on the beaches on the D-Day landings detailed to extinguish any fires caused by the soldiers fighting and to protect the villages. Interestingly, in 1941, the question of providing extra protection for villages in case of fire, was considered by Sherborne Rural Council.

The idea was to locate basic fire equipment in the villages which had pressure water supply. These were to include
a long reel of corrugated hose with the standpipe adjustment and a dual purpose nozzle, as used on a stirrup pump. This equipment, with three fire buckets, would enable the village fire-fighting party to carry out first-aid action on the fires until the fire brigade arrived. The cost was about £5 for each unit (worth £265 today). The Council declared that if villagers desired this extra protection they might be prepared to raise the necessary money by voluntary subscriptions.

In response to a pamphlet distributed into the villages, and at a public meeting in Yetminster, local people expressed a keen interest in learning how to fire-fight. The Council confirmed a mutual assistance arrangement after which time the evidence trail stops.

Also in the Spring of 1941 Sherborne Rural Council purchased 12 hydrant stand pipes – but only four had operating hydrant keys! Each village was allocated a stand pipe to be kept in the village Wardens Post for use by the fire brigade when they arrived with a hydrant key. The Council did order additional keys.

Following the end of the war the National Fire Service was taken over by local County Authorities, and by 1974 many brigades were amalgamated, losing many City and County Borough Fire Brigades.

Since the 1990s firefighting has needed to deal with new and challenging issues from engaging with the community in fire safety to new equipment and techniques to meet a changing new world.
Thankfully, today, we have well-trained and better teams equipped who quickly respond the fire hazards and problems in the countryside.

I would be interested to hear from anyone who has a copy of the pamphlet or evidence of a village brigade. Please get in touch on paul@sherbornewalks.co.uk.

by Paul Birbeck

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