Fire and Gillingham
Michael Handy on Gillingham’s engines that could
Published in January ’17
The history of fire-fighting in this country’s major cities starts off as one of the protection of the rich – through the insurance mark and private fire services – before the altogether more recognisable idea of the enlightened self-interest of municipal fire-fighting.
The crux of the latter’s philosophy is two simple truths, firstly that fires in cities are always bad and secondly that if your neighbour’s house was on fire and they couldn’t afford fire insurance, it didn’t make your house any less likely to burn down if your neighbour’s house did.
In rural areas, communities by necessity were much more likely to help one another in the event of fire, but one only has to type in ‘the great fire of…’ and the name of a Dorset town into an internet search engine to see that pretty much all towns and large villages have been ravaged by flame at some point or other.
For villages like Sixpenny Handley, this meant a national appeal and money coming in to rebuild the town, for Blandford it meant creating a largely Georgian brick town that was thereafter more resistant to flame.
Although Gillingham has had human occupation since 2500BC, even up until the beginning of the 17th century, Gillingham was still a small village. Rapid growth followed and there were riots pre and post the Civil War when the forest was enclosed. In 1694 a major fire destroyed much of the town.
With Gillingham’s expansion in the Victorian age after the arrival of the railway in 1859, and the town’s plentiful clay supplies, brick-built buildings dominated. But owing to the fact that houses were heated and lit by burning things, fires were far from unknown.
Towards the end of the 18th century, the parish was overseen by the Vestry Committee – before the Parish and later the Town Council – and it was this committee which decided that it needed more than buckets and brawn to keep the threat of a spreading fire to a minimum.
Therefore in 1790, it authorised the purchase, direct from the pump’s makers, Bristowe of Whitechapel, London, an eight-man powered, horse-drawn see-saw pump. It was the only fire engine until 1836, and it was kept in working order as a back-up machine until 1904. It is believed to be the only surviving example of its type in the country and has pride of place at the centre of the Gillingham Museum’s Fire exhibition.
The 1790 engine was pulled by a horse, but the shafts which were fastened to the front axle, are now missing. It took at least eight strong men to pump, four standing each side, while other people would be fetching buckets of water to fill the tank incorporated in the body of the fire engine. Another man would stand on the engine and direct the metal ‘branch’ – a copper and brass nozzle – towards the fire in the manner of a modern firehose and nozzle.
The engine would certainly have attended the fire in 1825 at Pernes Mill, the building shown in four paintings by John Constable, copies of which are shown in Gillingham Museum.
Nearly half a century after the first pump was bought, an improved horse-drawn manual fire engine pump was obtained from the same makers – Bristowes of Whitechapel – in 1836.
The operation was similar to the 1790 engine, with four men each side working the two manual pump handles. It was used until 1904, but it was not until 1920 that both old manual fire engines were sold to Mr George Edwards. The fate of the 1836 engine is not recorded, but the 1790 engine was kept at Purns (formerly Pernes), and used in carnival processions, until eventually it was given to the Museum in 1958.
Tentative steps towards the modern age came just over a century ago when the two manual pump engines were retired in favour of a steam-powered pump engine made by Shand Mason. On its purchase in 1904 it cost £250 and was one of the first of its type in the area.
Although it was still horse drawn, it was converted during World War 1 to be towed by a lorry. The steam-powered pump was very powerful and – when compared with the old manual engines – efficient, and gave sterling service for over 25 years attending fires at Marnhull, Shaftesbury, Wincanton, as well as locally. Unfortunately, the greater speed provided by being towed by a lorry led to its downfall, or more accurately its overthrow.
In 1930 the steam fire engine was badly damaged when it overturned in an accident on Spring Corner in Gillingham, luckily when it was answering a practice call. The Steam Engine sold for £11 scrap to Mrs Court at her King’s Court scrapyard where it lay until the late 1940’s when it was eventually broken up.
A Dennis trailer pump was purchased, shortly after the steam fire engine crashed. This internal-combustion-engine-powered type of pump was very successful, being much lighter and less cumbersome than the steam engine. Trailer pumps were used until the late 1950s when integrated fire engines and pumps were introduced.
The Gillingham Fire Station is little changed over the last 40 years, but it now has just one engine and an Environmental Support Unit. It is an on-call station, so its firefighters have other jobs and obligations when not saving lives fighting fires.