It is a long post this week, however I hope you find it interesting as it tells some of my family history, the story of the first East Ham fire station and the local fire brigade. But first, some advertising. After all my walks sold out this summer, I have added a final few for the year.
The dates and links for booking are as follows:
The Lost Streets of the Barbican: Sunday, 2nd October
The South Bank – Marsh, Industry, Culture and the Festival of Britain: Sunday, 30th October
Bankside to Pickle Herring Street – History between the Bridges: Sunday, 9th October
I hope to see you on a walk. Now, to East Ham:
My Great Grandfather was born in 1854, and as a young man, he went to sea and travelled the world.
He became a fireman in 1881, joining the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) at Rotherhithe, south east London, later moving to West Ham in 1886 as a Fire Escape man, where he remained for ten and a half years. At the time the MFB recruited only ex seamen and naval personnel as the Brigade was run on Naval discipline with a requirement for familiarity of climbing rigging and working at heights.
In 1896 he became the Superintendent of the new East Ham Fire Station, and I recently completed one of the many tasks on my to-do list by visiting the site of the Fire Station in Wakefield Street, East Ham:
I cannot find the exact year when the fire station was demolished, it was at some point after 1917, and the location is now occupied by the flats shown in the above photo.
I have circled the location in the following map. East Ham station (District and Hammersmith & City lines) is at the top of the map (© OpenStreetMap contributors).
When the fire station was built, East Ham was growing over the fields that once covered this part of east London (although at the time it was part of Essex). In the following extract from the 1897 edition of the Ordnance Survey map, I have circled the fire station in a developing Wakefield Street. The upper part of the map showing that the whole area would soon be covered by terrace housing (‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland“).
Growth of East Ham, and Pressure for a Fire Brigade
In 1861, the number of houses in East Ham had risen to 497 and the population to 2,858. Fire protection for the village would have been provided by a Fire Insurance Brigade, and there is some evidence that the Hand-in-Hand Insurance Company operated in the area. This was the time when insurance companies operated their own private fire fighting services.
The first meeting of the Board for the East Ham Local Government District was held on the 4th February 1879, at the Parochial Building, Wakefield Street.
The provision of fire fighting cover was exercising the minds of the Members of the Board at a very early stage. A letter was received from a Mr. Rowley asking the Board to pay for the attendance of two engines of the North West Fire Brigade from Walthamstow at a fire at Plashet. The sum of £6 was subsequently paid for this service.
Later on in the year a letter was sent to West Ham Local Board relative to the attendance of their Brigade at fires in East Ham. West Ham replied in the affirmative and it is recorded that they attended a fire at Beckton on the 13th January, 1880.
A letter was received from Mr. Angel of West Ham, regarding a fire in the East Ham Match Factory on the 10th February, 1880, and an account enclosed for the attendance of the Brigade. The Clerk to the Board was instructed to write to the insurance company for the payment of the amount paid to West Ham.
In December, 1880, the Board wrote to the famous Captain Sir Eyre Massey Shaw, KCB, Chief Fire Officer of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, asking for fire cover in the North Woolwich area. (See my post on the historic fire boat named after Massey Shaw). The Metropolitan Brigade had a small fire station in North Woolwich to protect the London County Council property in that area. Captain Shaw agreed to provide fire cover, and an agreement was signed the following month.
The population of East Ham had risen to 10,706 on 1881. it is interesting to note that the census was arrived at by counting the houses and estimating the number of people.
In 1882 the Clerk to the Board wrote to the Commissioners of Police asking for the establishment of a Police Station within the district. This was refused.
The first petroleum licence was issued to a Mr. Harding on the 14th of February, 1882.
The provision of fire hydrants exercised the minds of the Board members in 1884. The East London Water Works Company was asked to install a number of hydrants in North Woolwich and other places at a cost of £3 and 10 shillings each. The lack of pressure in the mains was the subject of much correspondence between the Board and the Water Company over the next few years.
A letter was received from the National Fire Escape Institution on the 12th of May, 1885, asking whether the Board would be prepared to accept a fire escape at a cost of £10 per annum. The Board refused to pay the price. The same year, North Metropolitan Tramway Company gave notice of their intention to commence the tramway in Romford Road. Reference is made to a Ratepayers Association who seemed determined to veto any proposal for improved fire cover, if the project was going to cost money.
An interesting entry appears on the 9th of February, 1886, from a Mr. Palmer, enclosing a list of fires attended by Mr. Clamp of the Royal Standard Hostelry in North Woolwich and claiming payment for these. The sum of £95 was paid for this service. In view of the agreement with the Metropolitan Fire Brigade to attend fires in North Woolwich, it is remarkable that payment should have been made to an individual in this case.
The Board turned down a request by the Liberal Club, Manor Park, for a fire engine to cover the district. The Board replied “No, not necessary”.
On the 21st of July 1891, a letter was received from a Mr. Drury enquiring whether the Board had anything to do with the South West Essex Fire Brigade. The Clerk replied that the Board had an arrangement with the West Ham Corporation to attend all fires in the district but have nothing to do with the private brigade mentioned. About this time many private brigades were in operation in the London area. One enterprising man, a Mr. Cook, wrote to the Board from Lewisham about this time offering to provide a fire engine and two men at a cost of £250 per annum. His offer was turned down.
By the end of 1892 the Ratepayers Association excelled themselves; they decided that a Fire Brigade was required for East Ham and asked the board to receive a deputation “to urge the necessity”.
The following year the Board purchased fire appliances from the Lewisham Fire Brigade at a cost of £140 and appointed Mr. Tom Willard as Superintendent. The Fire Station was located in Wakefield Street, opposite the Hartley Avenue School. The Brigade was what is today called a part-time retained unit with a total establishment of twenty firemen. The men who formed the Brigade consisted mainly of Council employees, such as the Town Hall Porter, the Parks’ Superintendent, the Foreman of Dustmen, and the Roads Foreman who lived in Bernards Avenue and drove the Council’s steam roller.
To call the firemen to attend a fire a man ran around the streets and lanes of the Borough shouting for members of the Brigade. Then it was touch and go whether the old horse drawn, manually operated pump reached the scene of the fire without mishap.
The names of only a few of these Auxiliary firemen are known, Ted Lukas, Parks’ Superintendent, Mr. Flowers, the Turncock, Charlie Hare, Jimmy Ward, Mr. Richards, Mr. Redmond, Edwin Roberts and George Cook who both joined the regular brigade and served for many years. The firemen received a payment of two shillings and six pence for each fire attended.
About this time, the Board were considering the installation of a fire alarm system to cover the district. This shows that electricity was becoming a commercial proposition.
One Sunday morning the Brigade were called to a fire at No. 2, High Street South. Owing to an oversight the regular coachman was not called, so one of the firemen drove the two horses to the fire. Unfortunately, the fireman was unused to such restive horses and, as he threw down the reins before getting out the hose to fight the fire, the horses bolted. They made their way to their home in North Woolwich and reached Manor Way when they capsized the engine into a ditch at a sharp bend by Beckton School. The Board reprimanded the Superintendent for not “properly calling the firemen”.
The poor Superintendent continued to be in hot water over many small incidents, so that on the 20th of October 1896, the Board resolved “Having regards to constant complaints, the Brigade Town Committee recommend that steps be taken at once putting an end to the present arrangements of the Fire Brigade pending the establishment of a permanent brigade”.
The following painting titled “Top Speed” by Savile Lumley shows horses pulling firefighters through the streets at speed:
A Full Time Fire Brigade for East Ham
The Committee wasted no time and immediately advertised for a Superintendent (Engineer Fireman) at £2 and 2 shillings a week, with free house, fire, light and uniform, and three firemen at £1 and 10 shillings a week.
Twenty one applications were received for the Superintendent’s post, and thirty one for the post of firemen. The interviews were held on the 17th of November 1896, and my Great Grandfather was appointed to be Superintendent. Three firemen were also appointed. A new Steam Fire Engine and Curricle (a two wheeled carriage drawn by two horses abreast) were purchased at a cost of £400.
My Great Grandfather’s First Annual report makes interesting reading:
“I have the honour to present my first Annual report of fires for the year commencing 1st January 1897 to 25th December 1897. Total number of calls received for fires during the year were 54, of these 14 were F.A. (false alarms), 3 chimney fires, 37 actual fires – 6 were serious in damage and 31 slight damage, 4 were beyond East Ham boundary, viz., West Ham.
In addition to ordinary fires, there have been 3 chimney fires requiring the attendance of firemen with hand pumps.
Of 37 fires, 17 were extinguished by means of steamers, hydrants and standpipes and firemen; 6 were by hand pumps and firemen; and 14 were by buckets and firemen.
The strength of the brigade is as follows: 1 Station; 1 Steamer; 1 Manual; 1 Curricle Fire Escape; 1 Telephone (2 more to be provided); 7 F.A. Points; 4 Bells leading to Firemen’s Houses; 1,800 feet of Canvas Hose – all in good condition; 4 Firemen (including Superintendent; 1 Coachman; 2 Horses.
The number of firemen employed on watch are 1 by day and 2 by night. The members of the brigade keep in a smart and proper condition. The men have been regularly drilled in their various duties and their conduct has been very satisfactory. Summary of how fires were reported to the F.B. for 1897:
Fire Alarm 17; Telephone 7; Police 1; Strangers 10
During the year there have been only 10 mischievous false alarms by fire alarms and 4 have been caused by wires in contact.
The brigade have pumped out 1 cellar (after a storm) with the steamer during the year.
Details of lives endangered:
- In this case which occurred at an oil shop on the 12th of April 1897. David Hollingsworth, a member of the brigade, was cut on hand by broken glass and had to be attended to by a doctor.
- In this case which occurred at a private house on the 13th of June 1897, Thomas West age 25 was burnt on left arm and hand and Mrs. L.N. West aged 18 years was severely burnt on face, neck, both arms and shoulder caused by the explosion of a mineral oil stove. Both have since recovered.
- In this case which occurred at a general shop on the 7th of December 1897, Mr. Robert Baker aged 54 was burnt on both hands caused by an explosion of a mineral oil lamp. He has since recovered.
In conclusion, I take this opportunity of thanking you for your valuable co-operation with me in all matters tending to the success of the brigade.”
The incident where David Hollingsworth was injured was reported in the Barking, East Ham & Ilford Advertiser:
“FIRE – At a few minutes before two o’clock on Monday afternoon a fire broke out at an oilshop, 101, Plashet-grove, occupied by Mr. C. Maitland Dods, and owned by Mr. W.A. Lee. Alarm was at once given at the East Ham Fire Station, and within a few minutes the Superintendent and his men were on the spot and vigorously combating the flames, which they managed to subdue after an-hour’s hard work. They were heartily congratulated by the crowd of bystanders who watched the operations. Fireman Hollingsworth was badly cut on the left hand. the shop was completely gutted, and the contents of nine rooms were severely damaged.“
I found the following photo in a book published by West Ham County Borough Council in 1936 to celebrate fifty years as a Borough. It shows an early horse drawn steam engine.
Although it is from a book about West Ham, the sign on the side of the appliance shows the E of East Ham. I suspect it is a promotional photo by the Merryweather company who built fire engines in their factories in south London.
Unfortunately the firemen in the photo are not named, although they may be Merryweather staff rather than firemen from East Ham fire brigade, however it must have been a fire engine that my Great Grandfather would have used.
The main fire risk in the Borough was represented by the Royal Albert Dock, at the time the largest and finest dock in the world. The Beckton Gas Works was also one of, if not the largest in the world and represented another severe fire risk. Until closure both the Docks and the Gas Works continued to form the main fire risk covered by the brigade.
There was an agreement in 1897 between East and West Ham that border fires be attended without charge. A few years later a similar arrangement was agreed between East Ham and Barking.
On the 7th of June, 1898, it was reported to the Board that two firemen attended the launching of H.M. Battleship “Albion” (in company with four members of the late volunteer brigade) at Blackwall to form a guard of honour to the Duchess of York and a sad incident occurred by the collapse of a jetty which caused several deaths. The firemen were praised for their work of rescue. This really deserves a dedicated post. The following is a still from the launch of the Albion which you can watch on the BFI Player here.
A serious fire on the 6th of July, 1898 on the S.S. Manitoba at shed 22, Royal Albert Dock, caused an explosion amongst cartridges which killed 5 persons and injured 6 others.
The cost of fodder for Fire Brigade horses is recorded as being 11 shillings per week. The animals must have been well fed because a fireman had to keep his wife and usually large family on 30 shillings a week.
The leave enjoyed by professional firemen in these early days was just 24 hours a month – if he could be spared.
In December 1898, the Council purchased the horses and contents of the stable of the Hand in Hand Insurance Company for £250.
Fireman Atkinson was appointed as Assistant Officer “to take charge in his (Superintendent’s) absence”, at a weekly rate of 35 shillings.
A severe fire occurred on the S.S. Magnetic involving heavy damage to engine room, store and cabins.
Fire alarms were being installed throughout the Borough by 1898 and many references are made to Malicious False Alarms.
Christmas Day, 1898 saw “Firemen acting disorderly at Wakefield Arms – Superintendent was there and found Fireman Dunn intoxicated. Told Dunn to go home whereupon assaulted; got him to station, assaulted once more. Dunn dismissed – approved by Committee.” Two other firemen were given a week’s notice.
On the 25th September 1899 there was a false alarm call. A small boy aged 12 years was detected pulling the alarm bell at the corner of St Stephen’s Road. The father was told that the next time he would be prosecuted. In September 1958, another small boy, the grandson of the original boy was found pulling the alarm bell again.
On the 11th of July 1900, a new sub-station was opened at Manor Park. The station was situated at the corner of Manor Park Road and Station Road and cost £118 to build. It contained a 50ft Bayley Escape – and was manned by two firemen, who had to drag it to the fires on its two wheeled cart. The cost of telephones to Wakefield Street from one fire alarm point and from the sub-station at Manor Park was £16, 5 shillings per annum.
The Waiting Room and Porters Room at East Ham Railway Station was severely damaged by fire on the 25th of April 1901.
An unusual accident occurred on the 16th of July 1901, whilst proceeding to a fire, when the wheel of the old manual engine caught in the tram lines and was wrenched off. The North Metropolitan Tramway paid £5 compensation. The fire engines and the trams seem to have been in conflict from time to time because it is reported that the new motor engine was in collision with a tram at Savage Gardens whilst returning from a fire at the docks. The lovely new machine finished up in a rhubarb field belonging to a Mr. Northfield the Farmer. It was ignominiously chained to the tram and towed home to the station.
The Superintendent asked for the authority to summon the assistance of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade in case of an emergency at big Dock fires, but the Committee refused to recommend the Council to incur liability for charges for this purpose.
The annual report for 1900 shows the following equipment held by the Brigade – 1 Station; 1 Sub-Station; 1 Steamer; 1 Manual; 1 Hose Tender and 50ft Escape with sliding carriage. 1 Curricle Escape, 40ft; 6 scaling ladders; 2,500 feet of canvas hose; 5 leather branches, 5 metal branches’ 44ft of rubber suction hose; 3 jumping sheets; 4 horses.
The establishment now had – 1 Superintendent; 1 assistant Superintendent; 7 Firemen and 2 Coachmen.
It was also reported that Fireman J. Mandell fell from the first floor to ground at a fire and was subsequently retired due to his injuries. Fireman E.L. Roberts was badly injured when part of a roof fell in and smashed his helmet. Fireman H. Gear sustained a severely cut wrist from a falling slate and H. Chittock, Turncock, received a broken leg when he was thrown off the steamer.
East Ham Fire Station had increased by 1904 with the addition of two firemen. My Great Grandfather, the Superintendent, had his salary increased to £597 per annum. The salaries of other officials at this time make an interesting comparison:
Town Clerk £300; Assistant Town Clerk £200; Librarian £150; Medical Officer £200; General Clerk £120. A council steamroller driver was paid £2 a week and a foreman Bricklayer was paid £2 5 shillings a week. The Superintendent’s role appears to have been very well paid.
On the 20th of June, 1905, a surprise trial call was given to the fire brigade. The Committee members expressed their satisfaction that the time taken for the firemen to arrive at the Town Hall was only 3 minutes 20 seconds from the time of the call. Perhaps the firemen were not so surprised by the call as the Committee imagined.
In 1905 the brigade had 1 Steam Fire Engine; 1 Manual Fire Engine; 1 Hose Tender and 50 feet sliding carriage escape and two 40 feet Curricule Escapes.
An incident occurred on the 28th of February, 1906 involving 50 feet of electrical cable which fused under the pavement. Six persons were removed to hospital suffering from partial suffocation.
In July 1906, the Superintendent reported that the clothing contractor who supplied uniforms, had failed to carry out his work satisfactorily, and the contractor would go on to loose the brigade contract. In 1906, a new smoke helmet cost £2, 5 shillings.
About this time, Council Minutes appear relating to the totally inadequate surroundings and arrangements of the present fire station in Wakefield Street. The Committee were in favour of building a new station and instructed the Surveyor to prepare plans to incorporate the building into the area surrounding the new Town Hall.
A Mr. Kennersly made application to the Council to be allowed to explain his “patent for facilitating the life saving capacity of the Council’s fire escapes”. The apparatus consisted of a canvas chute attached to the head of the escape and down which persons were passed after rescue from upper floors. these chutes were in common use in the Metropolitan area from about 1850 onwards. There is no record that this method was adopted in East Ham.
In 1908 the Council looked into the question of hiring horses instead of keeping their own. An advertisement was placed in the Daily Telegraph inviting tenders from firms willing to hire horses. The offer from Messrs. C. Webster Ltd was accepted at a cost of £65 per horse, per annum and £150 for purchase of the brigade’s live stock.
Throughout the years of the development of the fire brigade, East Ham was also expanding, and Wakefield Street, the street with the fire station had been fully developed as a street lined with terrace houses. There were some exceptions. A large school almost opposite the fire station, and also a Salvation Army Hall:
The plaque on the hall dates the opening to 1908:
Wakefield Street’s eastern end was at a junction with High Street North, however Ron Leighton Way (named after the MP for Newham North East. he won the seat in 1979) now slices through Wakefield Street as it nears High Street north. Where Wakefield Street now ends is this row of shops – essential additions to any London development of rows of terrace streets.
In earlier years, there would have been a number of pubs along the streets of developing East Ham. There were, and are, very few in the vicinity of Wakefield Street, and I suspect it was the late Victorian approach to alcohol for the masses, and that so many of the people who lived in the area, worked in the docks, where employers would not have wanted their employees under the influence of alcohol.
Back to the East Ham fire brigade, and there were some remarkable turn out times achieved by firemen in the days of horses. The record held by a London station being 11 seconds during a test turnout, but it is likely that much of the work for the callout had already been anticipated.
Under normal conditions, times of 30 seconds for a turn out were quiet common and this included attaching the horses to the shafts and securing the necessary harness.
Permission was given at regular intervals for the fire brigade to attend Carnivals in neighbouring Boroughs. The attendances of the brigade at such functions appeared to be an essential feature of the carnival. no doubt the fire engine with its brass work gleaming, drawn by proud horses and carrying its load of brass helmeted firemen would make a brave sight as it galloped round the park. From past records it is evident that the engines were “got to work” and demonstrated the skill of the men and the efficiencies of the pumps.
The Second East Ham Fire Station
Plans and estimates were submitted to the Council on the 21st of November 1911, for the building of a new fire station in High Street South. the cost of the project amounted to £8,628 including quarters for the Superintendent and 11 men. This was approved, along with approval to borrow the amount for a period of 30 years.
The new station was urgently required as the original in Wakefield Street was designed and built to accommodate horses, with the result that the doorways were only 8 ft., 10 inches wide. The appliance room was not deep enough to house the turntable ladders which were soon to be made available for the fire services.
On the 28th of May 1914, the new Fire Station was opened by Mayor, Alderman O.R. Anstead, and at the opening he said that “Great praise is due to the Borough Engineer and his Deputy for the way in which they have constructed the building which is one of the best anywhere around London”.
Little did he know that within three months the appliance room of the new fire station would be considered out of date for the latest fire fighting equipment. Little foresight was shown by the designers of the Station because many Fire Brigades in different parts of the country were at that time purchasing motor fire appliances and it should have been obvious that the day of the horse was numbered.
The opening of the new fire station, the transition from horse to motorised equipment was followed within three years by the death of my Great Grandfather. The West Ham and South Essex Mail included this obituary in April 1917, which included that:
“In early life he had been a petty officer in the mercantile marine. On leaving the sea he joined the Metropolitan Fire Brigade in 1861, and saw service in Norwood, Battersea, Rotherhithe and other districts, coming to West Ham in 1886 as fireman and steam man. He was for eleven years in West Ham where his good work was recognised by all grades of the service.
On leaving that centre when he received the appointment of the East Ham Fire Brigade he was presented by his colleagues with a clock, ornaments, tea service and a purse of gold. The excellence of his work in East Ham was also recognised both by the authorities and those who served under him. He had had a wide and varied experience and had attended some of the biggest fires in the London district.
Unfortunately, about two years ago he was in the somewhat serious motor accident which resulted in one of two members of the Brigade receiving injuries. Deceased himself was so badly shaken that he was never again quite the same, and had to relinquish his more arduous duties on a small pension, though he filled up his spare time as consulting engineer and inspector of hydrants. He had been ailing for some time before his death, and his illness took a turn for the worse about a week ago, He leaves a widow and three children.”
The fire station that took over from the one in Wakefield Street is still there, however now converted into flats. What is, as far as I know, the third version of East Ham Fire Station is at 210 High Street South, towards the Newham Way – equipped with fire fighting equipment that would have amazed my Great Grandfather.