by John Clancy

Alan Abbey’s letter about fire insurance plaques, published in last month’s Archive set me thinking about how fire brigades evolved. Can you imagine how galling it must have been when if, for example, your house caught fire, the brigade turned up but refused to douse the flames because you were not insured by them? While your house burned merrily away, you and the chief officer stood arguing about the whys and wherefores of why his men could not help you.   

Despite now being basically one town, Sittingbourne and Milton Regis each once had separate fire brigades. Throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries this service came under the control of individual insurance firms and when summoned, the firemen’s first concern was not to save life and limb, but to ensure the person whose house was on fire was a member of their company, proven by the building displaying a metal plaque. Many of these plaques can still be seen on old buildings and have rapidly become collectable.

This situation was far from satisfactory, least of all to those who were not insured, so in 1875 the Sittingbourne Local Board of Guardians, the forerunners of today’s council, decided to form a fire brigade to deal with all fires in Sittingbourne no matter whether the building was insured or not. It became practical in part, due to a piped water supply system having been installed in 1870. For a number of years to come, it ran in conjunction with the private insurance company brigades but there were a number of problems with this uncoordinated ad hoc service. One commonly recurring problem, for example, in 1872 the hose of the fire engine that arrived to deal with a fire did not fit the hydrant. The new service was manned by volunteers and George Payne Jnr was offered the position of Chief Fire Officer. He thought that plenty of young men would step forward and volunteer for this new service which as he put it, “… offered a chance for honour and distinction”. Unfortunately, whilst many were keen to join, their employers were reluctant to give their men time off to attend fires.

The initial brigade consisted of six men who were paid 2/6d (13p) for each practice session they attended, 5/- (25p) for each call-out and a £13 allocation for their uniform and equipment. A hose and reel house was built behind Park Road police station for £10; you can still see the hooks from which the leather hoses were hung to dry at the side of the building. By today’s standards the brigade was poorly equipped, having only a handcart, hose pipe and a ladder; it didn’t even have a pump; that was supplied in 1898. When a fire was reported, a maroon was fired over the town to summon the volunteers but by 1900 bells had been fitted in the firemen’s homes and the maroons were fired only between 6am and 10pm.

In 1897 Hedley Peters was appointed Chief Officer of the fire brigade, a position he held with some distinction for 34 years. It was he who started a public subscription to raise money for a proper fire engine, a steam operated Shand Mason machine. Sittingbourne town council said it could not afford the £220 cost so the responsibility fell to the people of the town. The new appliance, formerly owned by the Kent Fire Office, was bought in June 1898 and christened The Victoria by the Chairman of the Council who broke a bottle of champagne over it. After demonstrating the new machine’s capabilities the brigade and its supporters sat down to a celebratory dinner in the Town Hall. The Shand Mason pump was horse-drawn and the horses were stabled at the rear of the Fountain Hotel in Station Street. In its first year The Victoria was called out fourteen times. It remained in service for over 30 years.

The Sittingbourne Fire Brigade was by all accounts quite a successful and competitive bunch of volunteers. In 1901 they won their first drill competition held at Tonbridge. 1903 saw them winning the Steamer Drill section of the NFBU South-East District competition, the first of three such wins in four years. By 1907 they had become champions in the three sections of steamer drill, hose cart and ambulance. All these competitions and training had one purpose in the firemen’s minds – to improve their efficiency in fire fighting.

By 1909 the brigade had increased to thirteen volunteers and the records for 1913 show it was called out eight times, three incidents in town and five in the outlying district. When war loomed in 1914 the horses were requisitioned so the time seemed right to buy a motor vehicle to tow The Victoria. This proved to be a better arrangement so in 1923 a new Vulcan tractor was bought as a tender to tow the steam pump. It was not until 1930 that a fully motorised appliance was purchased for £1,200. It was a great improvement, having a 50 horsepower, 400 gallons per minute pump and could travel at 45 mph. It was named Hedley after the brigade’s long serving Chief Officer, Hedley Peters who retired the following year and handed over the reins to his son, Hedley Jnr.

In August 1917 Captain Hedley Peters organized a flag day to raise money for the orphans and widows of firemen killed whilst driving ambulances in France during the war and whilst on duty at home. In those early years the fire brigade and the ambulance service was a combined service and the volunteer firemen received regular first aid training; in support of this they wore a Red Cross badge. All the local brigades took part in this initiative which raised £171 for the Widows and Orphans Fund of the NFBU.

Ever since its inception, the fire brigade had been manned by volunteers and in 1921 Chief Fire Officer Captain Hedley Peters spoke out in favour of retaining this system, rather than employing professionals.

For many years Sittingbourne fire station was in Crescent Street where the entrance to the Forum now is. Its premises were taken over by BRS freight delivery services at an unknown date and the fire brigade moved to a new station beside the Baptist Church in the High Street where the shop QS now stands. After St Michael’s Road was built in the early 1970s a new purpose-built fire station was constructed near the corner of Crown Quay Lane and Sittingbourne Fire Brigade moved to its new station in 1981.

Nine years after Sittingbourne’s fire brigade was set up, Milton inaugurated theirs in 1884. It too was manned entirely by volunteers, led by the vicar, Rev R. Payne Smith. Milton had a fire engine of sorts in 1863 as it is recorded that in that year, it attended a fire at the Chalkwell tannery together with private fire insurance company brigades from the Kent and the Phoenix Insurance Companies. Milton fire station stood in Crown Road between nos. 25 and 29, opposite Beechwood Avenue.

Their first ‘fire engine’ was a Shand Mason horse-drawn hand-operated pump made in 1829. It was replaced in 1901 with a Merryweather 300 gallon steam appliance, the horses for which were stabled at the George Inn in the High Street. When the fire brigade was needed a maroon was fired over the town to summon the firemen. The first man to arrive at the station went to fetch the horses, whilst the next one would light the engine’s fire to get steam up for the pump. It was a lengthy procedure but necessary before the engine could get underway.

The Milton Fire Brigade purchased a new motorised Dennis tender and pump with an extending ladder in 1927 which they named Mary after Mary Maundrell JP, a local councillor, magistrate and wife of the town’s chemist. Upon delivery of the new tender however, it was found to be too large for the fire station which then had to be enlarged to accommodate it.

Sittingbourne and Milton town councils amalgamated in 1929 and the two fire brigades became one in 1938. As Milton’s fire station was too small for the newer appliances, Sittingbourne became the central fire station. The old Milton fire station remained empty for many years but was later put to good use as a store by the Civil Defence Corps. Like Milton, Murston, Teynham and Lynsted also once had their own fire brigades but in 1938 they too came under the control of Sittingbourne.