Our series tracing the history of the fire service in Uckfield, written by watch manager Ian Ritchie for UckfieldNews.com, reflects on landmark events from1974 to 1985 and includes a time when the Ashdown Forest was truly alight.
Local government was totally reorganised across the country in 1974 and in Sussex it saw a re-drawing of the county boundaries.
Station Officer Dave Drew-Bear took charge as Uckfield Fire Station inherited, and still has, the largest station “ground” in the county, providing fire and rescue cover for the town and numerous surrounding villages.
By 1976 Station Officer Richard Rooke was in charge as the hottest spring and summer for many years saw Uckfield’s firemen spend many hours tackling huge blazes on the Ashdown Forest.
Such was the ferocity and extent of these fires, driven by warm winds, that fire crews spent the entire Easter weekend on the forest.
Temperatures were so high that the roads across the forest were melting and instead of acting as a firebreak, road surfaces were actually alight as the fires spread rapidly with firemen struggling to contain them.
It should be noted that no dwellings in the forest were damaged by fire and still have not been damaged to this day by the fires that regularly ravage huge swathes of the largest area of natural lowland heath in the region.
Uckfield Fire Station 1977 in Keld Avenue (above)
The cottage to the western side of the station had long been converted into offices while the eastern one remained as a fireman’s house until the late 80s. Firemen now carried ‘alerters’ which summoned them to the station although the siren, seen on the roof above, remained operative for years to come.
While little local historical information exits for this period, 1977 was famous nationally for the first ever firemen’s strike. With a large number of firemen having to take on additional jobs to earn a living, Uckfield’s firemen joined the walk out in their fight for decent pay and conditions.
This action strained relationships between the wholetime and part time staff who, at this time, had no representation and continued to attend incidents.
A serious house fire at ‘Stroods’ in Herons Ghyll was attended by firemen from Uckfield and Crowborough despite the strike.
In 1979, Ron Fuller replaced Rooke as Station Officer in what continued to be turbulent times as the union called for a ‘work to rule’ on several occasions during the most militant period of fire service history.
The Halland Forge was all but destroyed in 1981 as fire ripped through the roof of the restaurant. The motel part of the business was unaffected and the building was re-constructed as a replica of the original.
Halland Forge 1981: rose from the ashes and survived this disaster
In the early hours of 25th April 1983, flames were seen coming from the roof of Highcross House at Palehouse Common. Part of the building dated back to the 17th century and a severe fire in the roof and upper floors led to a structural collapse.
Uckfield’s crews were supported by colleagues from Heathfield and Lewes with water being pumped a quarter of a mile across fields from a lake as the nearest fire hydrant was unable to supply the six firefighting jets being used to fight the fire.
Highcross House 1983: now the site of the unfinished Hamilton Palace
1984 saw the arrival of a new purpose built rescue vehicle to replace the old Ford Transit. This was a peculiar looking six wheeled Jeep and came equipped with an array of equipment including and an on-board compressor to power air operated rescue tools. Hydraulic cutting and spreading tools, which greatly enhanced rescues from road accidents across the north of the county, were provided soon after.
1984 Cllr Tunwell hands over the keys to the new Rescue Tender to Station Officer Ron Fuller watched by firemen Steve Lowry and Dave Keating.
12th October 1984. The IRA bombing of Brighton’s Grand Hotel saw the new rescue tender attend with its crew being heavily involved in the rescues of several prominent Conservative party members.
In 1985 Peter Elkes took charge as the lack of facilities at the now cramped Keld Avenue site meant the hunt began for a new location and several sites were considered and dismissed as unsuitable.
The year got off to a bad start when on 5th February, 1985, the driver of one of Uckfield’s fire appliances lost control on the icy road and crashed through a wall and into the cottages at the half built Budletts roundabout whilst en route to a chimney fire in Maresfield. (It was revealed on Ian Ritchie’s retirement that he was the driver of this fire engine. See Uckfield firefighter Ian Ritchie retires after 36 years)
Fortunately for the crew, the only injury was a cut finger. The fire appliance and the cottage however, sustained considerably more damage.
1985 accident at Budletts roundabout
Watch out for the next part of this story
Previously on UckfieldNews.com: