The Encyclopaedia of Plymouth History

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Updated:  03 November 2011 

The first reference to any fire-fighting apparatus in Plymouth was in 1673, when it was said that a fire engine with buckets, etc., was brought to the Town.  It was primitive, of course, and probably drew its water from the many wells and conduits dotted around.

A further item in the Town accounts for 1728/29 indicates that two new fire engines were purchased at a cost of 66 7s.   Luckily, the Corporation managed to extract 50 8s 9d out of the local inhabitants towards the cost.  It was the practice in those days to ask the public to contribute towards the cost of things such as hoses and repairing the equipment.

Another practice from those days was for the fire alarm to be given from military establishments.  A gun would be fired at the Royal Citadel or drums would be sounded at the Royal Dockyard and other barracks.   The servicemen would turn out promptly, both to help extinguish the fire and prevent looting.

The ancient Borough of Plympton first had a fire engine in 1765 but it was only used to fight fires within the parishes of Plympton St Maurice and Plympton St Mary.  It was horse-drawn and manned by 12 firemen under a Captain.  It would appear that horses were not kept on stand-by and had to be commandeered from elsewhere before the engine could set off for a fire.  The firemen usually made their own way to the fire in advance of the engine.  This engine was still in use in 1925.

A form of fire hydrant was installed in 1827 when "fire plugs" were fitted to all main water pipes.  A wooden plug would hold back the water until it was pulled out for the insertion -- sometimes with great difficulty -- of the hose.

The first really effective fire brigade in Plymouth was formed in 1838 by the West of England Fire and Life Assurance Company.  Under its Chief Officer were one foreman, 14 firemen and 2 torch boys.  Quite how they coped is a mystery given that it is alleged their manual fire engine took thirty men to operate it.   Their first fire was on September 13th 1838.  The following March (1839) they gave a demonstration of their engine in the presence of Mr W Marshall, solicitor, who was the Company's agent in Plymouth.  The building selected for the experiment was the Royal Union Baths, 'over which the engine continued to throw with great force immense quantities of water issuing from two hoses which were playing at the same time', as Woolmer's Exeter and Plymouth Gazette reported.  So there was no shortage of water in those days!

On Saturday December 22nd 1860 the capabilities of the new fire engine belonging to the West of England Fire and Life Assurance Company was tested on the Sugar Refinery building in Mill Street.  The engine was manufactured by Messrs Shand & Mason, and could deliver 134 gallons of water per minute and throw it to a height of 130 feet.  During the trial a large column of water was thrown over the highest buildings on the site.  "The Plymouth, Devonport & Stonehouse Herald" were only too pleased to report the event 'as the Company - no doubt primarily regarding the protection of a large amount of property insured with them - have always given to the public free of charge the service of their very efficient fire brigade and engine'.  [1] 

Plymouth's own civilian fire brigade was started in 1863.  The Chief Officer was Mr W Lethbridge and under him were two Engine Directors, 14 Firemen and a Foreman of Fire Escapes.  The fire station was in Tavistock Road.  It is said that the door of the station was always open and the scarlet machine, with its steam pump, brass boiler and copper funnel, always visible.

A volunteer fire brigade was formed at Stonehouse in 1875.  The Chief Officer was Mr F Taylor.  It was reorganised and its equipment modernised in 1881.

Shortly before Christmas 1887, the Mayor of Plymouth was astonished to receive a letter from Major Walford, secretary of the Western Insurance Company, offering to donate a steam fire engine to the Town.  The offer was accepted in January 1888 and on Wednesday February 29th of that year the Corporation and people of Plymouth gathered to accept the delivery of this fine, new vehicle.

Manufactured by Messrs Merryweather & Sons, the engine was one of their "Metropolitan" type.  A steel frame carried the engine, to which it was secured by belts.  This in turn was carried on springs and high wooden spoked wheels, which formed a secure foundation for preventing accidents caused by uneven roads.  The pump section was fitted with gunmetal valve sealings and there was one piston rod, which carried both steam and water pistons.   The vehicle carried a wide selection of suction and delivery hoses and it was capable of being connected to high pressure water mains in the street.

The engine was capable of raising steam from cold water in about six or seven minutes and as it weighed only 20 hundredweight, it could be drawn in Town by a small number of men or by a pair of horses if it needed to go a long or arduous way.  It was capable of throwing 360 gallons per minute up to a height of 150 feet.

It was stated at the time that the cost of providing such an engine, complete with a thousand feet of hose and other accessories was between 600 and 700 so the donation was very welcome.

At a ceremony outside the Guildhall, the engine was christened "The Western" by Mrs Achilles Perossi, wife of the chairman of the Western Insurance Company and it was then handed over to Superintendent Wreford of the Plymouth Fire Brigade, who put it through its paces by getting steam up and shooting several streams of water over the roof of the Guildhall.

Mr Peter Hinchcliffe, a former policeman and keen follower of police and fire brigade history, has put forward an interesting and plausible reason for this sudden donation from the West of England Fire & Life Insurance Company.  He reveals that after the famous fire at the Exeter Theatre on September 5th 1887, during which 188 people died, the Coroner, assisted by the Chief of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, was highly critical of the West of England's fire brigade.  One of the outcomes of this incident was that Exeter Corporation formed their own fire brigade, independent of the police, Watch Committee or any insurance company.  Perhaps Major Walford decided to abandon his fire brigade and disposed of his fire engine to the Mayor of Plymouth because it was not saleable in the circumstances.  [2] 

The fire brigades from Stonehouse, Falmouth, Newton Abbot and the Newton branch of the West of England Fire Brigade were also present and took part in some competitions and all were judged equal and the prize money was evenly distributed.  A banquet finished off the day -- naturally.

Devonport had not been represented at the above event because the Town did not form its fire brigade until that very same year.   Until then they had relied on the Royal Dockyard to send its Merryweather engine "Sutherland" to any fire in the area.  In 1888 they formed their own volunteer fire brigade, with the former Borough Engineer and Surveyor, Mr J F Burns, as its Chief Officer, and s Second Officer plus 20 firemen.  At first they were equipped with two manual engines but this was later replaced with a Merryweather steam engine.

One might imagine that providing facilities for fire-fighting or escape was easily done and welcome but that was not always the case, it would seem.  The Compton Local Board at Compton Gifford, to the north of the Town, caused a bit of an upset in 1882 when they decided it was necessary to provide a fire-escape ladder on Mannamead Hill.  Naturally its location involved a committee.

The only suitable site they could find was adjacent to the Western College.  The management of the College agreed, subject to the reserving the right to place a flagstaff on top of the shed the fire-escape would be stored in.  Quite why they wanted to do this is not recorded.  Anyway, the committee agreed; the Board's surveyor agreed and the Board's clerk agreed.   Unfortunately the Board itself did not agree and the suggestion was thrown out for one very simple reason: the position chosen was at the rear of the College while the Board, full of their own self-importance, wanted it at the front of the building.

When the College refused to accept that proposal, the Board appointed a surveyor from London to inspect and report on the two sites.  He reported in favour of the one at the front because it was more conspicuous and easier to access but just to place safe recommended that the Board accept the site at the rear, which he considered just as good.

The Board were not happy with this diplomatic reply (one hopes they paid the surveyor before he left for home) and took the case to Court.  After protracted litigation, the Court said that the Board 'had no right to insist on a front position, however desirable the object, if a site at the back, where it would not disfigure or annoy, was to be had and was all that was needed.'  So they had pay heavy legal costs and still ended up with the site at the rear.   Apparently, so it was reported, the Plymouth Town Council unanimously said 'Serve them right'.   

In Plymouth, the fire brigade was put under the control of the Police in 1890 but in  Devonport and Stonehouse the fire brigades remained as separate bodies. In 1893 the Stonehouse Brigade was given a new fire station adjoining the Town Hall.  The following year a prominent local resident gave them a brand new Shand Mason Steam Fire Engine plus 1,000 feet of hose.   In 1900 a Mr F W Thuell was appointed to take charge of the Stonehouse Brigade and he remained until it was disbanded in 1916.

The inhabitants of St Budeaux had to manage on their own until 1901, when they were supplied with some fire appliances by the Devonport brigade.  However, as the St Budeaux Ratepayers' Association complained at their first annual meeting on Thursday January 31st 1901: 'their hydrants were of two different threads and in case of fire the work of connecting them with the hoses would be largely dependent on the efficiency of the person using them.'  It is interesting that this problem of different threads was not understood until the Blitz of March 1941.

Following two serious fires in 1902, at the premises of Messrs Spooner & Company opposite St Andrew's Church and at Messrs Brendon's Printing Works in West Hoe, a report was compiled and published in the Western Morning News about the capability of the Plymouth Fire Brigade.  They had two out-of-date manual fire engines, which were turned out if the fire was not thought to be serious.  It was thought that they would be better placed on the outskirts of the Town, for example at Prince Rock and Mannamead.

In addition there were five fire escapes, although it curiously reflected that the population might not be aware of that fact.   The two smallest reached to a height of 35 feet and were rarely used.  Another could rise to 50 feet and a third to 60 feet but it was so cumbersome that it, too, was rarely sent to an incident.  The fifth appliance could rise to 45 feet and was the one that was kept in a state of readiness and often arrived at a fire before the steam fire engine.  It could be manipulated and controlled by a single fireman and it was expected to used in future as a prop for a water tower that the Town's Watch Committee had recently ordered.

The length of hose available at the central and eleven district stations was about 9,000 feet and this would be increased.  Every subsidiary station had a reel of at least 300 feet in length.  After every fire, these hoses were overhauled, washed, brushed and dried in the open-air before being rolled-up and replaced in the escapes and the engine.

Lastly, there was the big steam fire engine, "The Western".  It could pump 360 gallons of water, which was 100 gallons more than the engines operated at Devonport or Stonehouse.  It could supply eight jets of water at one time but it did have one drawback -- the length of time it took to get steam up.  At the time of the fire at Spooner's it took 11 minutes and this was much too long.

The Watch Committee had already ordered a new water tower and were proposing to order a new fire engine, the cost of the two items coming to around 500.  The new engine would be equipped with an atmospheric burner that would keep the boiler at a sufficient temperature to allow for steam to be available in 3 minutes.

A motor fire engine had been considered but ruled out because the motor vehicle was still considered as "experimental".   Only two motor fire engines had apparently been constructed during the previous 25 years and both ended up in South America.  This meant that a horse-drawn engine was still the most efficient type of vehicle.  The report commented that the horses need not be owned by the Corporation but could be hired from a livery stable on eight-hour shifts.  An early form of out sourcing!  It envisaged that the horses would be trained to place themselves in the shafts of the fire engine the moment the alarm bell rang and that the thirty policemen who were trained as firemen would slide down a central pole in to the fire station from their accommodation above the stables.

As previously stated, the fire brigade at this time was under the control of the Chief Constable.  His duties to the Fire Brigade were included in his Police pay.  Under him came an Inspector, who was paid 15 annually plus 2s 6d per hour when attending a fire.  There were three Sergeants, who received an annual salary of 2 plus an additional 2 shillings for the first hour at a fire and 1s 6d per hour thereafter.  The 27 Constables employed by the Fire Brigade received 1 10s annually plus 1s 6d for the first hour attending a fire and 1 shilling per hour thereafter.  The Engine Driver received 1 1s per week.

Interestingly, the strength of the Fire Brigade was exactly the same as it was in 1896 and they had received no increase in pay during that ten years.  It is not clear whether or not these 27 Constables were in addition to the 123 already employed in the Police Department or were men taken off Police duties when required to attend a fire.

Devonport Corporation purchased a new motor fire engine and escape during 1914 at a cost of 1,150.

Following the amalgamation of the Three Towns in 1914, both the Devonport and Stonehouse volunteer fire brigades were disbanded in 1916 and control handed over to the Plymouth Borough Police & Fire Brigade, under Chief Constable J D Sowerby.  There were stations at Catherine Street in Plymouth, and at the rear of the Devonport Town Hall in Ker Street.

Two of the horse-drawn fire engines were sold to the War Office in November 1916 for 195.  In April the following year the Council approved the purchase of a 70/75bhp Merryweather Motor Fire Engine with a telescopic escape ladder at a cost of 1,452.  It could deliver 450 gallons of water per minute.  Also in 1917, in November, one of the old fire escapes was sold to Messrs J H Curno & Sons for 5.

Whether there was a "buy one get one free" offer on at the time is unlikely but somehow the Council bought not one but two new Merryweathers in March 1918 and they were to be named "Plym" and "Tamar".  The latter was lost in an accident in 1932.

During the Great War, DORA seized the fire engine belonging to Stonehouse and it was said that it was taken to France for use as a pumping engine.  To fill the gap, Mr J C Wills, an old resident of the Town and a Justice of the Peace, presented the Stonehouse Brigade with a brand new fire engine at a cost of several hundreds of pounds.  But what happened to the old engine?  As 'Citizen' commented in the Western Evening Herald in September 1939:  'It may appear incredible, but the fact remains that the engine was never paid for or even returned'.  [3]

Towards the end of 1924 the Plympton Rural District Council applied for permission to borrow money to purchase a new 48 horse power motor fire engine to replace the ancient horse-drawn one that had been in use since 1765 and to extend their fire cover to the 19 parishes that made up their Rural District.   The Council argued that there were now many hazardous premises in the District now: creosote works, furniture factories, flour mills, clay works and paper mills.  Also, there were some 5,150 dwellings in the District with some 800 more planned for 1925 alone.

A public inquiry was held at Underwood House, chaired by the Ministry of Health's appointed inspector, Mr H R Hooper MInstCE.  He was told about the current fire engine, which was said to be the oldest in the country.   Mr Percy T Loosemore, the clerk of the Council, introduced the Captain of the Fire Brigade, Mr William Henry Hoskin, with the immortal phrase: 'The captain of the fire brigade is here and harmonises with the engine', which caused much laughter.  He was, after all, 72 years of age at the time and as well as being a plumber was also the Rural District's water bailiff.

The outcome was that the power to raise a loan of 2,700 was agreed, 1,300 towards the cost of a new fire station to be built on land between Underwood House and the British Legion hut in Market Road.  The remainder was for the engine and accessories, including some extra lengths of hose.  The inspector made it clear that the cost of uniforms must be paid for out of revenue, to which the Captain of the Brigade remarked that his uniform had been in existence for 31 years and was still good.  This brought the response from the Inspector: 'It won't last so long when you get on a fast-running engine.'

Plympton's new Merryweather engine had a turbine pump which could deliver water at 300-400 gallons per minute, a chemical extinguisher, a first-aid apparatus, and a 35 feet extension ladder.  Sub-stations were opened at Turnchapel, Hooe, Oreston, Crownhill and Eggbuckland, which were in addition to the existing ones at Plymstock and Yealmpton.

The former Plymouth fire station in Old Laira Road was closed and reopened on Tuesday March 10th 1925 as a branch library.

In February 1928 the old steam fire engine was sold to Messrs Willoughby Brothers Ltd of Millbay Docks, presumably for breaking up.

When the new Police Headquarters was opened at Greenbank on Thursday February 29th 1935, the Fire Brigade also got a new fire station adjacent to the site.  It was capable of housing five fire engines and the mere pulling of one lever opened all the doors on to Greenbank Road.

Mr J W Spencer of St Lawrence Yard, St Lawrence Road, Plymouth, was the contractor but the architect is not known.  Messrs Penrose & Son, of Mutley Plain, Plymouth, installed the heating and plumbing; Messrs Vincent J Pope & Company dealt with the electrical work; Messrs Harris & Sons, of George Street, were responsible for the decorating; the Western Counties Brick Company Ltd did the brickwork; the West of England Joinery Company carried out the joinery work; Messrs Fouracre & Son, of Chapel Street, Stonehouse, supplied the kiln burnt glass and coats-of-arms; and other materials were supplied by Messrs Henry Ede & Son and Messrs J F Moore Ltd.

The Plymouth Police remained in charge of the Fire Brigade until, on August 18th 1941, the National Fire Service was formed.  It took over the running of all the country's fire services.  The local area was commanded by Mr George Dury.  On April 1st 1948 the new City of Plymouth Fire Brigade was formed, with Mr Dury continuing as its Chief Fire Officer.  He was awarded the OBE for his services during the Second World War.

One of the innovations of the Second World War was the introduction of a fire boat.   This happened in 1942, after the Plymouth Blitz.  She was built by Messrs Taylor of Chertsey in Surrey and later named the "Cissie Brock" after one of Plymouth's councillors.

Tuesday March 3rd 1942 was a very special day for a number of fire officers who, on that day, attended an investiture at Buckingham Palace when HM King George VI presented them with the British Empire Medals (BEM) for their bravery and gallant conduct during the heavy bombing raids of March and April 1941.  They were: Mr William Edgecombe; Mr Arthur Larson; and Private Leslie Stephens, who had been a Messenger in the Fire Brigade and was the youngest person at that time to have received an award at an investiture.

The oldest vehicle to be taken over when the City of Plymouth Fire Brigade was formed was DR 7555, a Dennis 50hp with a 35 feet escape ladder.  It had cost 1,350 when new in 1930 and it was disposed of in 1951 to Mr C A Nobbs of Plymouth.

In 1953 the City of Plymouth Fire Brigade's headquarters were at Greenbank Fire Station, Greenbank Road, where a first floor had been added to the building.  The telephone number for administrative matters was Plymouth 60331.  There were three fire stations: Greenbank, Plymouth; Molesworth Road, Stoke; and The Drive, Torr, Hartley.  In case of emergency, private residents had dial "2222" while from Public Call Offices it was "999".

A new fire station was opened at Crownhill on Thursday April 23rd 1959.  The opening ceremony was performed by Sir Charles Cunningham, Permanent Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office, in the presence of the Lord Mayor of Plymouth, Alderman G J Wingett, the Lady Mayoress and the Chief Fire Officer, Mr G Drury.  The new Station cost 70,000 and was designed jointly by the City Architect, Mr H J W Stirling, and Mr H F Walls, of Messrs Walls & Pearn.  The contractors were Messrs J W Spencer Ltd.  The Fire Station could accommodate five fire appliances and had a covered wash area.  On the ground floor were the watch room, station office, lecture room, equipment room, cleaning room, a breathing apparatus room, a drying room, a hose-repair shop and toilets.  The sub-officers' room, dormitory, locker room, recreation room, which had a small dining area, and kitchen were on the first floor.  Outside were a four-bay workshop, a drill tower, a smoke chamber and a drill yard.  [4]

In 1964 the one in Molesworth Road, Stoke, was replaced with a new station at Camel's Head.

Plymouth took over responsibility for Plympton and Plymstock from the Devon Fire Brigade in 1967, when those areas were taken within the City boundary.

The City of Plymouth Fire Brigade and the City of Exeter Fire Brigade were amalgamated with the Devon Fire Brigade in 1973.  This became the Devon Fire and Rescue Service from January 1st 1987.

During 2004 the Greenbank Fire Station was relocated to the approach road to Mast House, Sutton Road, Coxside, while the old Station was demolished and a new one built.  It was reopened in June 2006.

Sources (incomplete):

[1]  "The West of England Company's New Fire Engine", Plymouth, Devon & Stonehouse Herald, Plymouth, December 29th 1860.

[2]  Email correspondence from Mr Peter Hinchcliffe, Plymouth, 2010.

[3]  "Talk of the City: What Became of Stonehouse Fire Engine?", Western Evening Herald, Plymouth, September 3rd 1939.

[4]  "70,000 New Fire Station Opened at Crownhill: Appeal for AFS Recruits at Plymouth Ceremony", Western Evening Herald, Plymouth, April 24th 1959.

  Brian Moseley, Plymouth, UK

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