Watch manager at Uckfield Fire Station, Ian Ritchie, tells how the town’s fire service developed in the years after the Second World War and until 1974 as he continues his series on the history of firefighting in Uckfield.
Ian’s feature highlights the arrival of new equipment and momentous events, ranging from a major fire in Newtown in 1956, to health and safety regulations ending a nine-year run of wins in an Escape Ladder and Rescue competition.
Ian Ritchie writes: The Fire Services Act 1947 placed a statutory requirement on county and borough councils to provide a fully trained fire brigade.
‘Cutting edge’ technology
Uckfield Fire Brigade was brought into the newly formed East Sussex Fire Brigade along with other local towns and villages in 1948.
Uckfield was staffed by a mixture of whole-time and auxiliary firemen (ladies came later) and was allocated a selection of second-hand fire engines under the command of Station Officer DW (Dougie) Spence.
The picture below shows firemen with their early East Sussex fire appliances. The Commer, second from left, would have been deemed to be at the ‘cutting edge’ of technology of the era, having been issued brand new to the station in 1950.
The picture was taken circa 1952 and shows from the left: GGN 802 Light Ford Pump Escape (1941), Commer Water Tender FPM 520 (Issued new in 1950), Unknown AAP 344, Land Rover FNJ 703 (1950).
Pay for ‘part time’ firemen
The auxiliary fire service was disbanded in favour of the Retained Duty System which allowed ‘part-time’ firemen to be paid a modest retaining fee with additional payments being made for attending fire calls and training sessions.
These firemen were on call from work or home and were fully integrated into the service and station life, crewing a second appliance in support of their wholetime colleagues by day, and forming a mixed crew by night or at the weekend.
Tucked away in the rear of the station behind a blast-proof wall was a small control room where operators would mobilise fire appliances to incidents from fire stations across the north of the county via a telephone switchboard.
House bell in the Alma Arms
From here, by day, station bells would alert wholetime firemen to an incident while a roof mounted siren would be activated to alert the retained firemen.
By night, house bells were operated to rouse firemen who would then attend the fire station to crew fire appliances.
Many a call was missed by individuals who, in an attempt to prevent waking the entire household ‘may’ have stuffed a sock in the bell to muffle it.
An historical link with public houses continued when a ‘house bell’ was fitted in the Alma Arms to alert firemen to the station from the local hostelry as they relaxed in the evening.
Severe damage to Newtown warehouse
Station Officer Spence retired in 1953 and was succeeded by Station Officer D.Tutt who witnessed major changes to the provision of fire cover in the town following one serious incident.
On April 21,1956, fire severely damaged Bannisters Store furniture warehouse in Newtown (now Applegate dentist).
Uckfield’s fire engines were busy dealing with a fire on the Ashdown Forest and by the time engines from neighbouring stations arrived the building was all but lost.
As a result of this incident and the ensuing public uproar, a standby system to cover key stations was introduced to ensure fire cover in the larger towns.
Increase in whole-time personnel
In 1958 Station Officer Eric Lulham took charge of the station and in June 1959 the Chief Officer sought approval to increase the number of whole-time personnel at a number of stations including Uckfield.
This increase saw the introduction of a day-crewed duty system that would last for nearly 50 years.
In 1963 Station Officer Lulham was replaced by Station Officer Gordon Kyberd who can be seen below proudly posing with his staff and their trophies for competition drills and efficiency.
In the picture are, back from left: D.Paine L.Frampton J.Bishop A.Gilham P.Winder W.Davy H.Turvey B.Peirce; middle, from left: Mrs Johnson P.Dubber G.Kyberd Mrs Turvey T.Smith M.Powis D.Smith, and front, from left: D.Sheppard G.Gale A.Brooker J.Spence K.Stevens Vera (cook)
The large shield was the trophy awarded for station efficiency. This was based upon inspections of all aspects of station life from administration to technical knowledge and equipment cleanliness to training drills.
Uckfield won the trophy numerous times in the 50s, 60s and 70s. The shield was rediscovered when headquarters moved from Lewes to Eastbourne and was given to the fire station as the most regular winners. It is now proudly mounted in the station lecture room.
Health and Safety hits escape ladder contest
Uckfield won the Parsons Cup for the Escape Ladder and Rescue competition drill for nine consecutive years until the introduction of Health and Safety regulations in 1974.
The story goes that for nine years, fireman Bill Davy would run up the escape ladder before it was fully extended and leap into the drill tower before it hit the sill.
He would pick up a training dummy and get back onto the ladder before it was fully against the sill.
However, the introduction of the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 meant that a judge was positioned in the training tower to prevent such ‘dangerous acts’ and he did indeed stop Bill from getting back onto the ladder in his usual fashion.
Bill promptly threw the dummy at the judge, a brigade officer, climbed down the ladder and never took part in competition drills again.
Road accident specialism
Uckfield was one of just three strategically selected stations in 1966 to be equipped with an air powered saw and zip gun together with an EPCO hydraulic rescue kit.
This started a 40 year specialism for the station’s crews providing superior equipment and skills at road traffic accidents across the northern half of the county.
Station Officer Peter Ritchie took charge in 1970 and saw the introduction of a new breed of fire engine when a new Dennis appliance powered by a huge Jaguar petrol engine arrived in 1971. The Dennis BNJ 872K, now preserved, can be seen below.
To compliment the station’s work at road accidents, 1974 saw the arrival of a purpose-built rescue tender in the form of a fluorescent pink Ford Transit.
This vehicle was fitted with an on board compressor to power the cutting tools, an electric winch and an array of lifting and lighting equipment.
The Ford Transit Rescue Tender HPM 965L can be seen below.
1974 also saw a restructure of county boundaries and the borough brigades were incorporated into the East Sussex Fire Brigade.
This major national reorganisation saw the county council take full responsibility for all fire stations within its boundary and yet another era began.
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