A history of the Jersey Fire Brigade

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Lord St Helier fire engine

This article, by the former chief reporter of the Evening Post, Charlie Perry, was first published in Jersey Life magazine in 1967

The States of Jersey Fire Service, under that name, first came into being in 1938 when the States, faced with the threat of war, took over the St Helier Fire Brigade.

It was a telephone manager from the National Telephone Company in England, Mr Eady, who had come here in the telephone service, who started the St Helier Brigade in September 1901.

Insurance companies

Up to that time there had, as far as parish records go, been no official fire fighting body in the town. For many years from the early 1800s insurance companies established in the Island had provided their own fire fighting equipment; but each company only attended fires at premises which they had insured and which bore the company's plaque.

One of these is preserved at the museum, having been taken from premises in Museum Street which were demolished some years ago. Prior to the insurance companies’ 'fire brigades', in ancient times it was the duty of the Seigneurs of the various fiefs to protect their vassals and tenants, and to that end they are believed to have provided men-at-arms with buckets to attend to fires.

Later this became a parochial responsibility but it must have been a somewhat haphazard service, to say the least, until the insurance companies provided manual pumps, hoses and escape ladders. The garrison troops had their own fire fighting equipment and doubtless lent a hand if requested to do so.

I remember a serious fire in the early 1920s when the fire picquet from Fort Regent, then garrisoned by the 2nd East Surreys, turned out and helped to keep the crowd back. I remember that very clearly for I had a slight argument with an enthusiastic youngster who nearly stuck his bayonet in my eye.

But to come back to 1901. Mr Eady had been connected with the Fire Brigade in Bournemouth and, when he came here as manager of the National Telephone Company, he felt that he could make a valuable contribution to the well-being of his new home by establishing a fire brigade; the St Helier authorities were very co-operative and in September of that year the Brigade was duly formed and trained.

It consisted of the Chief Officer, a Second Officer, foreman and 12 firemen, all volunteers. Their equipment consisted of a horse cart, a hand wheeled, manually operated escape, and two hose manuals which, provided water was available, could throw a jet of water 50 feet with ten men a side operating the handles of the pump. The 20 men operated the pump for 20 minutes and were then replaced by another 20 volunteers, while the firemen manned the hoses and escape.

Firemen were paid 2s 6d for the first hour and one shilling an hour for subsequent hours they attended a fire. These sums were paid by the parish. The volunteer pumpers got the same rate of pay, and it is stated that the insurance companies provided beer for their men when they were in operation.

A demonstration outside the Town Hall

Town Hall

On 1 January 1902 the St Helier Fire Brigade was housed at the Town Hall and remained there until after World War I. The engine was housed in part of the building next to what is now a jewellers' shop. The first appliance was a horse-drawn manual and during the first year 23 fire calls were dealt with.

In July 1905 the manual was replaced by a Shand Mason steamer named Lord St Helier and bought by the parish. In 1912 a contract was signed between the parish and F J Laurens, a carting contractor of the time, whose premises were known as the Don Stables, for the hire of horses for the use of the fire brigade.

If used in St Helier the contractor was paid 15s per run for his horses, but if anywhere else in the Island the fee was £2. If horses were called out but not hitched up by reason of a stop call, a fee of 5s was payable.

The steamer's working pressure was 120 lb per square inch and this pressure was raised in seven to 20 minutes. It was usual to light the boiler fire 12 miles from the scene of the fire and the engine was capable of delivering 250 gallons of water per minute.

That was if water was readly available. In the country districts this was not always the case and many a time, right up to very recent years, the unfortunate men had to use liquid manure cisterns. The results can be imagined.

The steamer made a gallant sight as the horses cantered along, the brass of the engine's funnel and the firemen's helmets gleaming and, as often as not, sparks streaming from the funnel and from the horses' hooves as they clattered over the paving stones of the town streets.

Mr Eady continued as Chief Officer until 1915 when he was succeeded by Mr Gale, who was in charge until 1924, being succeeded by Joe Remphry.

Greve de Lecq

One of the very early calls of the 1901 brigade was to a hotel fire at Greve de Lecq. The firemen arrived at the bay, which is 7½ miles from the Royal Square, within 45 minutes. The following quote from the Evening Post is preserved in fire service records.

”This morning's turn-out was practically the first that the newly formed St Helier Fire Brigade has had to respond to and the smartness with which they mustered and performed their duties make it evident that we have at least in St Helier an efficient fire brigade”.

The year 1923 saw a reorganisation; the room at the Town Hall was required for other purposes and motor vehicles having been acquired, the brigade moved to what had been the Town Arsenal in Nelson Street, behind what is now the Odeon Cinema. Here under Joe Remphry the vehicle strength grew to a Dennis 20 hp 350-gallon-per-minute pump and a Chevrolet tender and trailer pump; a Merryweather pump, with wheeled escape, was added in 1933.

Between 1924 and 1936 there were several serious fires, notably Le Riches in Colomberie and Normans Commercial Buildings in the '20s and St Aubin's Railway Station in 1936. In 1938 the St Helier Brigade were called out to the first air disaster at the airport where a Jersey Airways plane crashed near the airfield with the loss of all its passengers and crew.

In 1938 the States of Jersey took over the service from the parish and the firemen were equipped with another Dennis 500-gallon-per-minute appliance and also six trailer pumps, and an auxilliary fire service was formed in view of the threat of war.

The brigade continued to function with Chief Officer Remphry in charge, with Toby Lock as his Second Officer. They had many tasks during the war years, many of them serious, such as the fire at St Ouen's Manor which destroyed one wing of the building, another in New Street which destroyed A de Gruchy's restaurant, that at the Palace Hotel, and many others in places occupied by German troops, whose carelessness, where fire risks were concerned, became proverbial.

A brigade call-out to Le Hocq

Post-war fires

After the war came two more really serious fires, in Le Gallais’ premises in Hilary Street and in Bath Street, and in 1950 there took place another re-organisation when Chief Officer Frank Edmonston, who only retired at the end of last year, took over. He had spent part of the war years in the thick of the blitz in the Manchester area, and came here with the duty of reforming the service and bringing it up to date. With the co-operation of the Defence Committee he set about building up the service; more appliances were obtained, a turntable escape was also brought over and in 1954 the Fire Station was moved to its location in Rouge Bouillon, where there was more room in the former ‘new’ Town Arsenal to house the bigger and better appliances which were rapidly being acquired.

Unfortunately, in this move the old steamer Lord St Helier became a victim and was sold for scrap as there was no room for it; a great pity but that, I suppose, is progress.

Mr Edmonston set about his task with a will and the tributes paid to him when he retired, both by his superiors and the men who served under him, show that his work was appreciated. During his time the strength was increased and vigorous training programmes were undertaken to make the service as efficient as is possible in the Island.

New services were added. First, a Zodiac inflatable rescue craft was obtained and men trained in sea rescue work, and later a similar type twin engined catamaran was also purchased. Both these craft have proved their worth since their acquisition.

Firemen were always trained in first aid, but now they have an efficient cliff rescue team and several difficult rescues have been effected by them in co-operation with the States Police, with which body there is complete harmony and co-operation.

Current strength

In January of this year Mr Mahoney took over as Chief Officer with D Carter as his Deputy, and the strength is now eight junior officers, 25 regular firemen, one maintenance engineer and one mechanic with the addition of two leading firemen and 18 firemen who are on the retained staff, and who may be called upon when necessary.

The service has five self-propelled fire appliances of various types, a water carrier, turntable escape ladder, an emergency tender and a towing vehicle, and two major trailer pumps and three smaller portable pumps as well as a car for the use of the Chief Officer. All are in radio contact with headquarters.

Of a total of 830 calls answered in 1965, 236 were fires, 147 chimney fires. 317 special services, such as pumping out premises, rescuing animals and getting folk into their homes from which they had locked themselves out, and other such happenings. There were 116 false alarms 'with good intent' and 14 malicious ones.

Apart from fires and rescues of one kind and another, another very important aspect of Fire Service work which is being developed in the Island is fire prevention, for undoubtedly prevention is better than cure.

The fire prevention department is doing a valuable job but, as Mr Mahoney told me, the service has no statutory power to enforce fire prevention. They can only advise. They are called in by various States departments and officers to inspect States premises, new buildings, hotels, restaurants, public houses, places of entertainment, and so on, to advise on fire precautions, and this duty is increasing so rapidly that two officers have had to be assigned to it. But it is a very worthwhile service.

At one time there were fire brigades at St Aubin and Gorey, but these vanished with the passing of the years and now, apart from the Airport Fire Service, which is mainly concerned with aircraft, the States Fire Service is alone and has to cope with every emergency.

As Mr. Mahoney remarked:

”We are on our own. On the mainland, appliances can be summoned from many towns in any given area and these can be on the scene comparatively quickly. Here we have no such help apart from the airport service, but we manage”.

So the work started all those years ago by Mr. Eady goes on and to borrow from the words of the Evening Post of 1901, 'it is evident that we have an efficient Fire Service in Jersey'.

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