Home » People » Frank Padgham
Tags: Alverstone Road, Auxillary Fire Service, Campions bakery, Eastfield Road, Havant Street, Junior Technical School, Kent Street Baptist Church, Naval Boy Artificers Club, Portsea, Portsmouth City Fire Brigade, Portsmouth Town School, Queen Street, Salvation army, Somers Road Fire Station, Taswell Road
Extracts and information taken from the autobiography of Station Officer Frank Padgham, entitled ‘Roses in December’
“My Grandfather Skinner I did not know very well except that I recall he had a beard and always seemed to me to be very contrary. I remember Grannie saying she had often given Grandad a shilling to go to the ‘Beehive’ Public House to keep him happy. He was a first class bricklayer but unfortunately died a very painful death with gangrene in his legs, some time before the First World War (1913) I believe. I shall never forget the very sad experience of being taken to his bedroom a short time before his death to say ‘Goodbye Grandad’ which was the custom in those days. I certainly don’t recommend it as it made such a lasting depressing memory. I would add that in those days also, a quite macabre practice was to gather the whole family and for all to walk past the coffin which was always on the trestle in the best room and, to use the words of the undertaker, who stood by, ‘To see the dear relative before we screw down the lid’.”
I was now 12 years old and, living so close to the Dockyard, I found that life was more exciting with the movement of warships, large and small, in and out of the harbour, and I began to enjoy it very much.
I was found a place in what was then called Portsmouth Town School, an elementary school next to the small Portsmouth Electric Light Station at the Gunwharf. This was quite a good school and I really began to take an interest in the lessons. Although I cannot remember many of the boys at this school, two did impress me very much. They were two Jewish boys, Sotnick and Levison. I sat next to them at school and was always intrigued to hear them having long private conversations with each other in Yiddish. They both grew up to become prominent businessmen and served Portsmouth well. The discipline at this school was very strict and for an elementary school the standard of education was quite high. One day the teacher took me aside and suggested that I should sit for the Secondary School examination and rather reluctantly I agreed, although I didn’t consider myself to be that brilliant. Imagine my surprise when the Headmaster came in one afternoon and announced that I was one of the boys who had passed and was offered a place in the Junior Technical School.
Financially things were very difficult at home as my Father was only a grocer’s warehouseman and for long hours and very hard work his wages were very low. In fact I suppose we were living in what is now called the poverty trap.
I began to settle to two years at the New Junior Technical School. I felt quite a sense of pleasure to wear a school cap with the J.T.S. badge but the going was pretty tough. I found the mysteries of Geometry and Trigonometry very difficult to master and the large amount of homework I had to do in my spare time quite a burden as is natural for a young lad. Also I was not all that keen on sport at which we were expected to take part, including Boxing which I hated.
Anyhow, when I had completed the two years we had to wait some time after leaving to get the result of the Civil Service Examination I took before I left to get a place as a Boy Artificer in the R.N. I must confess I was surprised to receive the result by post to say I had passed the Examination quite well. Unfortunately we were being governed by the First Labour Government under Ramsay MacDonald. His great plank in his policies was reducing our Armed Forces, his idea being that it would be a gesture of goodwill to the Warlike Nations of Japan and Germany who were re-arming at an alarming rate. How disastrous was that policy we eventually learnt to our bitter cost in 1939. Because of this they only took the first few and I was very disappointed indeed as I had set my sights on the R.N. as a career.
So here was I without a job to start my working life. A schoolmate of mine had joined H.M.S. Ganges as a Boy Seaman and when he came home with his hair well shaven and rather lurid (and perhaps a little exaggerated) account of the very tough discipline which included climbing to the mast the slowest getting the rope end on his behind it certainly put me off.
Anyway my Father who had become Caretaker at the Kent Street Baptist Church got to know a Mr Boyce, a member of the Church. Consequently he offered to take me as an apprentice in his building firm in Union Street, Portsea, close to where we were living. My first year was mainly being available to help (and learn) general building work but mainly painting and decorating and doing all the dirty jobs. What experiences I had in this the first year of working as the following stories will tell.
One morning I was detailed to assist the Bricklayer who was to put a new chimney pot on the existing chimney stack on the roof of a very old building / shop in Queen Street. The tenant and his wife looked pretty tough and complained that it was early and they were having their breakfast, anyhow we got the ladder in position and up we went with the new chimney pot. The Bricky found that the whole chimney stack was very unsafe but his orders were to put on a new new pot so he started. Very carefully he began to work and he had hardly finished telling me how careful he had to be as some of the bricks were quite loose when it happened’. I heard a big rumbling sound as some bricks began to fall down inside the chimney. After a few moments we heard terrific shouting and much swearing and as we looked down in the backyard we saw the tenant and his wife covered in soot. Apparently they were having their breakfast in the kitchen close to the fireplace when the bricks and loads of soot came down and filled the kitchen and them with soot. We just stayed up there until the Bricky thought they had cooled down a little and telling me to stay where I was he went down to try to explain. To be honest I was scared stiff but a short time of shouting and I suppose explanations that it was an accident I was told to come down and the guv’nor was sent for to straighten it all out.
Later on that first year I was sent out with the Electrician as the firm had secured the big contract to completely rewire the Naval Boy Artificer’s Club, which was a large building at the bottom of Queen Street. The Electrician was a very cheerful youngish man but I always remember he wore a red tie and claimed he was a strong Labour man. He was good to work with and I got on well with him. This large contract meant that we had to spend a lot of time in the very big roof space. In those early days all the wiring, red and black had to be pulled through conduit which was very heavy work and in some cases 6 or 8 wires had to be pulled through and working in the roof was very hot and tiring. The only light we had was a number of candles which he set up in several parts of the roof on the joists. At the end of the day we came down really tired and as far as I know he blew out all the candles before we left. Where we lived in Havant Street, Portsea was quite close to the Naval Home and in the early hours of the morning my Mother woke me to say there was a big fire near us. I looked out of the window and sure enough I could see that the roof of the building was well alight. Next day we soon discovered that our Electrical Contract was no more. I have many times pondered as to whether he put out all the candles before we left the night before’. No one will ever know.
My first year as an apprentice was certainly eventful. I was detailed to start learning the Painting and Decorating Trade. This meant pushing the truck with all the ladders and paints to the different jobs while the Painters went on their bikes’.`. One job we started was to paint the outside of a house in Alverstone Road. As usual I got all the dirty jobs and I was detailed to clean out the guttering and paint the inside with what we called ‘Smudge’ which was all the bits of paint left in the pots together. A horrible colour: Anyhow up the ladder I went and felt a little shaky and began my job, this was the first time I had worked on a ladder. I was wearing my painter’s apron tied in the front and unfortunately for me my foreman was talking to the lady of the house right under the ladder. I was very inexperienced on ladders and in reaching out my apron strings must have got caught in the hook holding the paint pot. Imagine my horror to watch the paint pot falling to the ground. There was a yell from the foreman and the horrible brown Smudge splashed all over the lady’s dress. I was petrified and scared to come down the ladder to “face the music”. To my surprise the lady was just marvellous and it seemed she was more sorry for me than the paint all over her dress. I thought “well that’s it I will get the Sack for sure!”. Anyhow everything passed smoothly and I said how terribly sorry I was but all was well. Fortunately the lady said it was only a working dress and I wasn’t to worry about it. It shows there are really nice folk around.
What different times are for workmen in the-present days to conditions in the 1920′s. Tea-breaks morning and afternoon were not allowed. One day however, we were working in a large empty house in Rowlands Castle and the last thing we expected was a visit from the Boss. The Foreman gave me his Billy Can and told me during the morning to go out and find some firewood and light a fire and make a can of tea. I was well away with the tea making when who should walk in but the Boss. I thought I had committed a serious crime:’. I received a long tirade on how we were wasting time which he was paying for.
The years passed and I must have improved considerably as no more major accidents happened. Those 4 years were really happy as I got on so well with the men, especially the Foreman. During this period I was very happily enjoying the Meetings of the Salvation Army and when I reached 20 years old I made a great decision. I asked and was accepted as a Cadet in the Salvation Army Training College to become a full-time Commissioned Officer to engage in Evangelical work. This was a big step to take but I felt convinced that this is what I should do and I gave in my notice and left home to enter the College in London for a 9 month period and was duly commissioned to serve in the Nottingham area. So, as I thought at the time, that’s the end of the building trade for me but life doesn’t always follow the pattern we may choose.
At age 20 Frank joined the Salvation Army and served 5 ½ years as a commissioned officer, when Frank left the Salvation army to marry Florrie they both moved to London to become a tradesman in in a building firm. Due to unforeseen circumstances Frank was never taken on at this building firm. And with no expectations asked his old employers in Portsmouth; whom he had left 6 years before if there was “any possibility of giving me my old job back in the trade?”
“Two days later a letter was on the mat, and, I guess, opening it was a trembling action as i had very little faith of a favourable reply. Out dropped a £1.00 note and a short letter saying – get a bus back to Portsmouth next Monday and I think I can get you fixed up with work.”
“I went back to my trade at 1/= per hour and i felt we at least had reason for confidence in the future. I would point out that the 1/= per hour was for hours worked, andwith bad weather, when we could not work outside, and times when trade was bad, our income every week was very unpredictable and there was no government aid however difficult things were.”
In the 1930′s Frank and Florrie moved into a house in Eastfield Rd.
“We really were on our own in our very sparsely furnished house but fortunately work seemed to improve and my guv’nor secured a very large contract with the firm of Bakers ‘ Campions’ which entailed decorating all their shops inside and out (and they had at least a dozen) and a large bakery in Kent Street, Portsea and as much of this was inside work wages every week, although small, were at least more regular. I must confess that i was not at all happy as a painter and I felt sure that there must be better ways of earning a living.”
Fire Service during WWII
“About 1937 my friend joined the the newly formed Auxillery Fire Service who were asking for volunteers for weekly drills as war clouds were begginig to appear. He finally persuaded me to join but i must confess i was not really enthusiastic. Little did i know that subsequent events were to change my life completely and this was the best thing i ever did.”
On Saturday 2nd September the day after Hitler had invaded Poland “the boss came round to the flats to tell us to pack up our tools and the 3 of us were instructed to go to Campions Cake Shop, Cosham and dig a large hole and erect an Anderson Shelter, hundreds of which had been held in store for such a day.” … “Unknown to me mobilisation of all Auxiliary Firemen had been put into operation and I learnt that I was to report to the fire station in Guildhall Square at 2.00 pm that Saturday afternoon. All excited I put aside my pick and shovel and set off on my cycle to the fire station in the Guildhall Square and with the minimum of fuss became a Full-Time Auxiliary Fireman and was ordered to report to a large garage in Clarendon Road, which had been commandeered, at 10.00 pm that night, (Saturday, September 2nd).
I went immediately to my employer and told him that I would not be reporting for work on Monday morning as I had been “Called Up”, so to speak, into the Fire Brigade. He paid the small amount of wages due with quite good will. Although fifty years have passed I still remember clearly how excited I was. I hurried home to Florrie with the news that I was now on the pay roll of the Government and my “wages” were to be £3.00 per week less 1/10 insurance which to me was quite a fortune. Although I realised that I was to be on “nights” that night I was too excited to rest. I set off about 9.30 pm to the place I was instructed to report to and found about 20 other fellows all as uncertain as me as to our future. The garage had been cleared and some fire pumps and towing cars were already in position and we were told to relax in the large office above and await further instructions. War with Germany had not yet been declared and the Prime Minister was to make an announcement the next day (Sunday 3rd September) at 11.00 am. Would there be a war? If so were the towns to be suddenly bombed as in Poland already? If war was not declared would we all be disbanded and go back hopefully to our previous employment? All these things were discussed over and over again by all the lads interspersed by many cups of tea from a makeshift little canteen. It all seemed very much like the “Keystone Kops” if there wasn’t the underlining concern of what could be terrible consequences if war actually came. We were relieved after a long night when another lot of newly conscripted and bewildered fellows arrived and I set off for home on my cycle to a breakfast and an anxious wait to hear the 11.00 am new from the Prime minister. At last the wireless prepared us all for the worst news and very gravely the Prime Minister said that we were now at war with Germany and World War II had started. I set off to report for duty at 10.00 pm and to my surprise a great deal of organising had taken place. Several of the fellows who had apparently shown leadership qualities when it was a Voluntary Service before the war were made officers and we were detailed to a new commandeered temporary Fire Station. I, with about ten others, were moved to a garage of a house in Craneswater Park with the householders’ back room for our rest room with a newly promoted leading fireman in charge. This was obviously a very temporary arrangement as it must have been very unsatisfactory for the lady of the house. Anyhow this worked quite well for about a week while a permanent station was being prepared. Frantic organisation had been going on over the whole city and we learnt that there were now six other auxiliary Fire Stations in the city. All was now ready for our final move to a large garage in Granada Road, Southsea.
The War Years
Living accommodation at our new ‘Fire Station’ was almost non-existent. We were in two shifts, 9 am to 6 pm day shift and 6 pm to 9 am night shift. We fixed up some rudimentary cooking facilities then scrounged some deckchairs and camp beds. As our station was near South Parade Pier, I suppose the deck chair attendant wondered what was happening to his chairs. The day shift was organised for Fire Drills and the maintenance of the fire pumps. The night shift was engaged in the patrol and oversight of the emergency water supplies, getting a little ‘shut eye’ whenever that was possible: We had difficulty in getting used to this life and many of us were bored and felt rather useless. In desperation I rang up the Naval Recruiting Officer to see if I could get a transfer into the Navy, and when this failed I tried the Royal Marine Bands, but in each case the reply was that I was already in a “service” and if they wanted me they knew where I was. From September 3rd to April 1940, the air raid warning was heard only rarely and, apart from the daily battles of the Royal Navy, in which they often suffered heavy casualties, most people thought the war was a ‘phoney’. By this time we had achieved a fair amount of skill in Fire Fighting Procedures and we felt that should the raids begin we would quickly have things under control. We were in for a rude awakening when it really started’.
April 1940 opened with the German attack on Norway and every service was put on full alert. This was the beginning of the air raids on ports and military targets and, with the dramatic invasion of Holland and Belgium, the Battle of Britain began in earnest. In some ways it was a thrilling sight to watch daily the aerial battles taking place in the clear sky as Spitfires and Hurricanes chased the German bombers across the country. Unfortunately many of the great armada of enemy planes managed to get through to their targets and drop their bombs.
The aerodromes at Gosport, Tangmere and Thorney Island were severely mauled, and the South Coast towns did not escape. At least we came into our own as the mainly daylight raids kept us fully extended. Even in the most desperate times of life there is always some humour. During one heavy daylight raid we found ourselves tackling a roof blaze near Governor’s Green in Old Portsmouth. The large building in question was an Officer’s Club and had been the scene of a luncheon for some high ranking officers of the armed forces, and they left the table in something of a hurry. We quickly contained the blaze in the roof then descended to the dining room. We were very hungry and thirsty after our efforts and it was surprising how quickly the abandoned food on the table disappeared. May we be forgiven!
One Sunday a very cheeky German fighter swept very low over the City and systematically shot down most of the Barrage Balloons and spent cartridge cases and bullets fell around us in the streets.
Until the September, most of the raids were carried out in daylight, then one night the Germans passed over the City and dropped a number of incendiary bombs on Paulsgrove and Old Portsmouth. The large mansion type house, known as Government House, near King’s Terrace, became well alight. This was our first major night-time fire and we tackled it with enthusiasm. We had no long ladders to cope with the upper floors, so we had to do the best we could from the lower level. So it was that the fire creeping down from above met the water we were pumping in from the bottom: At least it was first-class experience for the Auxiliary Fire Service.
I was back again on duty. After the usual parade, our Senior Officer said that orders had been received that we were now to commence continuous duty with a day’s leave every 5th day. Our Complement had been increased in numbers so we were detailed into shifts so that we would be fully manned at all times and allow one Fire Crew to have a day off every 5th day. It is the same with all the Services, a group of lads who had never met before became very close in comradeship and friends were made that lasted over the years. There were NO beds provided at that time and those free at night time had makeshift camp beds. Two or three of the Firemen volunteered to be Cooks in our very primitive kitchens and one who was experienced was appointed as Caterer and each week he assessed how much we were to pay into a “kitty” to provide with sufficient money to feed us. During the first few days of the major raids it was arranged for us to go to Hilsea Barracks where a hot meal was provided every day. We were never quite sure what the Army Cooks served up for us but it was always hot and I guess very nourishing and we were very grateful. Once we were properly organised to feed ourselves this daily visit stopped. The Fire Stations of which there were several in the Portsmouth area were now fully manned 24 hours every day.
In addition to the almost nightly raids and warnings I can recall several major day and night raids. Three in particular were during March and April 1941. On March 10th when quite a number of large warships were in the Dockyard they came over in force and for two nights we were subjected to very serious raids causing much damage in the Dockyard and many fires in the City including the almost destruction of the Harbour Railway Station. One Fire Engine and complete crew from a reinforcement which came in from many miles around received a direct hit as it had just entered the Dockyard. As they were a reinforcing crew from somewhere up country we did not know them personally but it was very saddening. We also lost several of our own lads during these raids. One night in April ’41 the bombers came over Portsmouth and for the first and I believe the last time, they saturated us with Parachute Bombs which was very-frightening as you couldn’t hear the whistle of the normal bombs. We were very distressed when we returned one night to find one of our own lads missing. His body was found at daylight under a demolished building. He was a very nice lad and he hadn’t been married long. He was a member of the Pentecostal Church and everyone admired him and it was so sad to think he was gone for ever.
To add to everyone’s trials it was an exceptionally cold winter and one night fighting a fire in Southsea we found when we went to roll up the hose it had frozen solid and we had to put the lengths back on the Fire Engine in long frozen lengths.
One night the sirens had gone and we were sent to Taswell Road and as we arrived we heard in addition to the drone of a German Bomber overhead the tell-tale whistle of a bomb coming down, causing us to hold our breath and wait for the explosion. There was a loud crash and we heard a woman shouting for help just a few houses up. We rushed to her and she was a little hysterical and pointed to her front door which she had left open. We went inside with our torches and there in the front room was a large hole in the floor and when we looked down it by the light of our lamps we saw the fins of a very large bomb that had failed to explode. We made a very hasty retreat after we made sure there were no people left in the surrounding houses and waited for those marvellous Bomb Disposal Squad from the Army. We learnt later that it was a 500 lb bomb which, if it had gone off would have caused considerable damage and casualties including us.
One evening at the back of Charlotte Street there was a terrific explosion causing very severe damage to the little streets as they were then. No one really knew what had happened but it was later thought that a Bomber on its way north possibly had engine trouble and had come down with a full load of bombs. Two or three of the little streets were completely devastated. So much so that it was not possible to really find out what exactly had happened. Following a night raid, the Bomb Disposal Squad from the Army (what brave chaps they were) were called to an unexploded bomb which had caused a huge crater in the road but had failed to explode. They set to work and after a time the Publican of a nearby Public House asked the Sergeant if the lads could rest for a while and come in and have some refreshment. He readily agreed and leaving two men on guard the remainder went in to have a coffee (or drink), and a quick game of darts. After a short time the Sergeant said “back to work lads” leaving two to throw their last darts. Within minutes, I understand, the bomb suddenly exploded killing all the Squad except the two in the Pub. There are NO winners in the War and how terrible is the suffering. I shall never forget after one daylight raid we were clearing up after a small house had been demolished when our Leading Fireman saw an elderly couple standing across the street, both in tears. He went over and they said with choked voices that this was their house and home and everything was now destroyed for them. There is always a little humour mixed up with the tragedy. Driving down Elm Grove during one night raid we were stopped by a Special Constable. He asked if we could help him and what did we find? Just around the corner one of the large houses had been hit and seemed in danger of total collapse. In the basement was a very defiant old lady whom the Constable had been unable to persuade to leave the building. He didn’t want to use force and asked if we could do our best to talk to her and help him get her out. She stood up and defiantly said she wasn’t going to let that “Bloody Hitler” drive her out of her own home. Eventually we persuaded her to come outside to see how dangerous it was and the Police Constable very gently took her to a Rest Centre and away we went.
During the Summer of 1941, the Government decided to nationalise the Police and Fire Brigades. The latter became the National Fire Service and we were now in a region covering a large part of the South Coast. I was promoted to Leading Fireman and during the remaining years of the N.F.S., until 1944 I was moved frequently and served in Gosport, Fareham and Aldershot before returning to Portsmouth prior to D Day Invasion. In preparation for the Normandy landings a large number of firemen from other parts of the country were drafted to the South Coast, as it was expected that with the massive build-up of the Armed Forces we could expect very heavy air raids. Strangely enough it was not until after the invasion that the attacks with V1 and V2 rockets began in earnest. It is one of the mysteries of the war because the Germans must have known of the huge concentration of men and equipment in all the surrounding villages of Portsmouth and Gosport, and yet no attempt was made to attack them prior to the invasion. Spithead and Stokes Bay were solid with ships of all descriptions, in fact it looked as if you could walk across to the Isle of Wight. On the morning of June 6th 1944, Spithead was empty, not a ship to be seen, the great invasion had started. By lunch time that day a large convoy of ambulances arrived near our Fire Station direct from the fighting and wounded soldiers were carried or walked into a School Assembly Hall near ‘ us. The lads on the station had a quick whip round and bought cigarettes and fruit. These we took to the School where several hundred lads, bandaged and tired, but amazingly cheerful, were lying on the floor. We had long chats with them and posted their postcards and letters to their sweethearts and wives to tell them they were safe.
Fire service after the War
With the war over everyone began to have uneasy thoughts about returning to civilian life and not the least, what jobs we were likely to get – if any. Circulars were issued saying that with the complete reorganisation of the Fire Services in the country, recruits were required to give each local authority an efficient professional Fire Brigade of its own. I was a bit shaken when I read of the physical and educational standards required. Obviously they intended to be very selective: The physical requirements were the most worrying as, apart from strength tests, such as picking up and carrying persons over specified distances, it was also necessary to meet the requirements of height, chest expansion etc. If successful an interview was arranged and you were either accepted as a professional Fireman, or summarily rejected. I applied, with many misgivings, as rumour had it that they were rejecting applicants out of hand. The day came for my physical, educational and interview. I shall never forget the pleasure it gave me to go home and tell Florrie that I had been accepted, with the happy prospect of a career until I was 55, and a pension at the end.
After brief periods at Gosport Fire station, Fareham Fire Station and Aldershot Fire station
I was delighted to be finally posted to Portsmouth City Fire Brigade at the main Fire Station in Somers Road. A far more exciting time lay ahead as we covered a large area of the City including the Naval Dockyard. The Station Officer was, to put it mildly, a real character. He was formerly a Drill Sergeant in the Grenadier Guards before joining the London Fire Brigade. He had been posted to Portsmouth with the reorganisation of Fire Brigades during the latter part of the war.
At a busy city Fire Station there are many incidents some very serious, others humorous and semi-tragic. Before I record the major fire incidents I must mention a few of the daily small calls on the Fire Service.
One afternoon we were called to a house at the rear of Commercial Road to what was frantically called a ‘child trapped’. We arrived with the emergency tender and met by a very excitable Italian lady in a highly hysterical state as she took us into a back room where we could hear a child screaming. The people were the old fashioned Italian ice cream sellers so common on the streets in those days. We found a girl in great distress actually inside the freezer which was used to make the ice cream. She really was stuck and we had to use cutters to remove the sides before we could get her out. It seems she had been playing hide and seek with her brother and climbed in but couldn’t get out.
On average calls great and small were approximately 1,000 a year all answered by the three stations in the Portsmouth City area:
I will mention just three of the major fires attended by my station during my duty shifts. At about 4 am one morning we were called to Palmerston Road to a large clothing store which we found to be well alight. I was a Leading Fireman at that time and was sent in-with a Fireman and a line of hose. We climbed up the wooden staircase to play the hose on the seat of the fire on the first floor which was very hot and smoke filled. Without warning the staircase collapsed, my colleague and I going down with it, much to our alarm. We landed on some burning timbers in thick smoke, then quickly found our way out through the front entrance, badly scared with a few small burns which made it difficult to sit down, but grateful that it was no worse. One night at about 11 pm we got a fire call to the Harbour Station. We arrived with two fire engines and were met by a very calm Station Foreman who informed us that the train standing at platform 4 had a fire on board. He then stated that we would have to wait until he got the 11.15 pm train away before we could tackle the fire, because only then could he switch off the electric current. When we did eventually reach platform 4 we found a 12 coach electric train standing with all its doors and windows open. It seemed that there was a fire in the kitchen of the buffet car, and all the train cleaners had left in something of a hurry! Unfortunately, before we could get a hose into position the fire spread along the full length of the train at an alarming rate, so by the time we did get the fire under control the train had been severely damaged. The rapid spread of the fire had been precipitated by the through draft provided by the open doors and windows. Of course ‘getting the 11.15 train away’ didn’t help!
It was during the latter part of the war that I was on duty in the control room when a lady came through on the telephone, reporting smoke in her kitchen. There was something very familiar about that voice and when she gave her address, I knew why – it was my own address: The fire engine was dispatched and, unable to leave my post, I waited anxiously for the first message back. Then it came, the ‘Stop’ message read, ‘False alarm with good intent’. It transpired that our next door neighbor had lit the fire under her copper in the outhouse, and some bricks in the chimney had become dislodged, allowing smoke to seep into our kitchen from the joint chimney stack. And that must have been pretty alarming’.
Another incident had a touch of humour which could have turned into a disaster, happened one Christmas night. I was the Sub Officer in charge of the Station as the Station Officer was on leave. We had reported for Christmas night duty at 6 pm, and, as is the custom in all Fire Stations, the officers help in the kitchen at Christmas. We had just had our evening meal and the watch had settled down for a relaxed tour of night duty, hoping that we would get no alarm calls. We were too optimistic, because at about 10.00 pm the bells `went down’ and off we went to a shop on the corner of Marmion Road and Grove Road, Southsea. The owner of the shop was waiting at the door and took us up to the first floor, pulled back the carpet near the dividing wall and there, to our surprise, we smoke coming from the-floor-boards, but no sign of a fire. After a bit of thought, we decided that the root of the problem was in the next door building, a book shop. A man answered our knock and asked us what we wanted. Tactfully we suggested that we should investigate the cause of the alarm call which appeared to be on his premises. Rather ungraciously he let us in and told us not to interfere in his family party. We went up to the first floor over the shop and found the large room full of ‘very happy’ people enjoying their Christmas party in front of a blazing fire. As the Officer in Charge I began to feel a little anxious about what I had to do. There was absolutely no sign of anything wrong, but if there was a problem it would be underthe hearth. One of the Firemen quietly mentioned that on his way up the stairs he had felt the ceiling which was quite hot. So the problem was confirmed. I had to advise the owner that in my opinion he had a fire under the hearth and we would have to put out his lovely fire and investigate it. with a little tact and gentle persuasion he agreed. We put out the coal fire in the grate, and with a well built Fireman and a crowbar, watched by a very anxious Sub Officer, the hearth was broken open. I cannot tell you how relieved I was to see that the timbers underneath were smouldering and burst into flames as soon as the air reached them. Imagine the tragedy if I had made the wrong decision and walked away from that roaring fire in the grate. The family were very shaken at what we had discovered and owner offered every hospitality to the firemen before we returned to the Station.
So many incidents of all kinds fill a Fireman’s life, but one little job did give me some real pleasure. We were called to a chimney fire in a small terraced house one morning, a common enough occurrence in those days. The tenant was a very old lady living alone and we soon had the fire out, but the little living room was in a dreadful mess. Not only through the soot and smoke, the room was badly in need of a spring clean. A few whispered words and in a very short time the lads had dusted and cleaned all the pictures, sideboard and mantle piece so that the place looked like a new pin. The old lady was so grateful and I am sure felt real pleasure at their unsolicited good deed for the day. I don’t think the old lady had seen the pictures and photographs so clearly for a very long time’.
Reformation of the Auxillary Fire Service and a Portsmouth Fire Brigade Tattoo
In September 1956 I was promoted to Station Officer and, I must say a little sadly, posted to Headquarters in Copnor Road as assistant to the A/Divisional Officer, who was the Brigade’s Fire Prevention Officer. So that was the end to my excitement of fire calls and shift work.
It was at this time that the Government of the day decided to build up the Civil Defense organisation which included the reforming of the Auxiliary Fire Service with volunteers to be trained and equipped for any national emergency. The Chief Fire Officer, Mr Johnson, of the City Fire Brigade, added the responsibility for the forming of the Portsmouth Section on my plate in addition to my duties on Fire Prevention. So I had come full circle having joined before the war as an A.F.S. man I was now expected to take responsibility for the Unit, organise Drill and Parades and, together with my colleagues from the Hampshire County Fire Brigade ran a number of quite large weekend exercises at Portland Bill, the New Forest and other sites in Hampshire. We slept in Army Barracks and some weekends in tents in the New Forest. With the great help of Volunteer Section Officers and Leading Firemen we soon had a very effective unit operating and available.
Included in our equipment were green Fire Engines, known as Green Goddesses, and a Fire Boat Section which Station Officer Andrews from Cosham looked after, and trained the crews. We practiced all sorts of maneuvers and one week together with the Hampshire Section, we ran a convoy of some forty appliances from Portsmouth to Canterbury in Kent, travelling all night in convoy. Quite an exciting exercise.
I had six months left to serve in Portsmouth, and as a last fling I decided to organise a Fire Brigade Tattoo by the Auxiliary Fire Service, the profits to go to the Benevolent Fund. I didn’t realise what I was letting myself in for:
The Chief Fire Officer, Mr Johnson, agreed and I got permission from the Adjutant Royal Marines Eastney for it to be held at the R.M. Barracks Grass Field on Eastney Esplanade. The A.F.S, lads were thrilled and promised full support. Best of all the Chief gave permission for my brother Norman, who was at that time attached to H.Q., to help me. He is a marvellous organiser and we set to work to plan the event.
He very soon got donations from various firms and persuaded a scaffolding firm to provide a fire tower on the green free of charge. As the site was adjacent to Eastney Esplanade it was subject to winds from the sea and also open to public gaze and as we were planning to charge an entrance fee, it was necessary to screen it off. I saw the Adjutant R.M. and he willingly offered to provide and fix a canvas screen along the whole field on the Esplanade side.
I never realised the amount of organisation and work entailed in such a project, but everyone was so enthusiastic. Station Officer Minney agreed to put on a marvellous display of Rescue using the 100 ft Turntable Ladder. All the A.F.S. men spent hours preparing spectacular Drill Items, including a Humorous Rescue where a woman of the A.F.S. would fall into a large emergency water tank we had erected. We also secured a Band for display and entertainment and Norman helped to arrange ice cream stalls etc., generously ‘manned’ by the Fire Women of the Main Fire Brigade Control under Leading Firewoman Phil McGregor, in their off duty time. All was set for the big day (evening of course) and, as it drew near the awful thought was, would anyone come to see it?
On the evening of a very cold day it was a great relief to see a great crowd queuing up to attend: It went off without a hitch and everyone seemed to enjoy the show. Thanks to Norman and all the other helpers who had worked so magnificently we were able to hand a sizeable cheque to our Chief Fire Officer for the Benevolent Fund. Even now I feel cold shivers down my spine when I think of the Tattoo and how easily it could have been a disaster. But it wasn’t, so perhaps it was my finest hour.