History of The Brigade

    The following history of Oldham County Borough Fire Brigade is taken from the last Chief Officers Report by Harold Garlick to the Watch Commitee in December 1973 just prior to amalgamation in April 1974.
 
 
 
    The history of fire extinction is considerably older than is generally realised, records having been found which indicate that as long ago as 150BC a 2-cylinder fire pump was in existence and that during the Roman occupation of Britain, fire fighting was carried out by the military in much the same was as our forces of occupation did in conquered countries. Little else is known until the Great Fire Of London in 1666, except that in the reign of Alfred the Great, a curfew was introduced as a precaution against fires (curfew being a word derived from the French and meaning “the covering of Fire”) although in the modern sense this interpretation has been altered. The total inadequacy of fire-fighting equipment in this country was revealed by the Great Fire Of London, where small hand squirts were the only form of attack available against this conflagration, which raged amongst the half-timbered and closely built dwellings for many days and which practically destroyed what then was London.
 
    It is interesting to note that this fire was instrumental in bringing about in 1684 the first Insurance Company. No Fire Brigade was introduced however for a further 50 years, it apparently being thought better to insure against, rather than to extinguish the fires. It was soon realised by the insurance companies that started to spring up in abundance that methods of fighting fires were required and in 1734 Fire Brigades were formed by the Principal Companies. Fire marks were issued by these companies to their clients, who fixed them over the front door to their premises and in the event of a fire occurring the appropriate Brigade dealt with the fire. They would however, deal only with the fires at premises insured by them and the weakness of this is at once apparent.
 
    Feeble local legislation was enacted in the reign of Queen Anne to provide fire protection for parishes, the parish council being required to provide buckets of water and hand squirts in the event of fire. There can be little doubt that this regulation was frequently ignored.
 
    About this time, many municipal authorities sought measures of fire protection and in 1703, Edinburgh formed the first Municipal Fire Brigade. This Fire Brigade was operated on their behalf by an Insurance Company from which they purchased the equipment etc in 1824. London followed with a Brigade of their own in 1832.
 
    Oldham was not behind in this awakening and early records prove that in 1807, a Fire Brigade was in operative at Mumps Brook. The fire station built by public subscription was in the vicinity of Buckley & Proctors, Mumps and six men were employed. The erection stone of this station was later built into the hose tower at Townfield, where I can be seen today.
 
    The firemen also performed other duty as lamplighters and were paid at the rate of 6d per hour plus beer allowance when on duty at a fire.
 
    In 1849, the year of incorporation of the Borough, a new fire station was opened in Clegg St and two manually operated fire pumps were stationed there. The Brigade was placed under the control of the Commissioner of Police and a demonstration was staged to mark the occasion. It is reported that with these crude machines and lack of organization among the men, loss by fire was considerable.
 
    Later in the year 1849, control passed to a Committee of the Borough and lamplighters together with artisans were enrolled as firemen. Casual labourers were also employed to work the manual pumps at fires and it is said that they frequently went on strike for more liberal treatment in the way of liquid refreshment.
 
    From 1856 to 1864 the mechanical strength of the Brigade consisted of two manual fire engines at Clegg St in charge of Superintendent Moses Mills and Superintendent Robert Holt, and two other appliances at Townfield.
 
    In 1864 the Brigade was again placed under the control of the Police and from this time forward the Fire Brigade became recognized as an important public service. Mr William Holt, who had been associated with the Brigade for many years and who had distinguished himself as a gallant fireman, was enrolled in the Police force and placed in charge of the Townfield contingent. In the same year two additional machines were supplied to Clegg St fire station and another station was opened at John St, Werneth.
 
    In addition to the Corporation Brigade, there existed in Oldham at this time and for many years, a Brigade having a manual pump stationed in Union St, in charge of Mr Joseph Hall, the founder of the firm J & J Hall, Fire Engineers, Oldham. This Brigade attended all fires at which the West Of England Insurance Company were interested, the last being the Broadway Lane Mill, Chamber Rd, Oldham which was burned down in 35 minutes.
 
    Of this period it may be said that the fire-fighting methods were both crude and ineffective. The engines were heavy, cumbersome and hand operated. The horses were obtained from the Cleansing Department and if the occasion arose, horses which had been working all day with the Department had to stir their limbs again at night to pull the fire engines. If the usual horse could not be obtained then “recruits” had to be borrowed from the neighbouring cab yard and this, together with the consequent delay in changing harnesses, indicate what liberties the flames enjoyed as compared to the present day.
 
    The firemen too were rarely where required and whenever an alarm was given. a large bell outside the building called them to the fire, which they attended by whatever transport they could secure. Sixty men were required for a large fire. Thirty pumped whilst thirty rested, the pay having risen by this time to one shilling per hour plus the usual liquid refreshment. The former practice of intimidating the Officer in Charge of the fire with “Give us a drink or we quit” still continued.
 
    Obviously in a town such as Oldham, this state of affairs could not be allowed to continue and the wheels to bring about change were set in motion in the year 1875. Following a number of disastrous fires, mill owners urged the Corporation to take more effective measures to meet the needs of the situation. This they did by purchasing in November 1875 their first steam fire engine. The cost of the appliance was £560, and it was capable of pumping 150 gallons per minute.

   On the day of its arrival, coincidence gave the engine a most appropriate welcome. Before it had been accepted a large fire broke out at the Park Mill, Hollinwood and happily, the authorities acting in conjunction with the Watch Committee, decided to despatch the new engine to the fire. Subsequently they must have been convinced of the wisdom of their decision by the fact that the machine arrived at the scene just in time to take the sting out of a strike by pumpers, who, as was their habit were lolling out their tongues in the hope of liquid reward. Had the latest acquisition not turned up when it did, that hope would no doubt, have become a reality. Reports show that the engine did its duty extremely well and one may surmise that the then Fire Chief went into something like rapture over having at his service a pumper which could not coerce him with “No drink – no pump!” Correspondingly there could be equally little doubt as to what the former pumpers thought of the change.
 
    In 1876, two more engines of the same capacity were purchased. These however had certain improvements upon the first and emphasis how quickly the local authority acted when they realised the advantages of the new appliances.
 
    In 1877, a further important advance towards the efficiency of the Brigade was brought about when re-organisation took place. Ten men were placed on the permanent staff, with fire duties only. These men were stationed a t Clegg St with Sgt Adamson in charge. The advance to better things continued and in 1878 an agreement was entered into between the Tariff Fire Officers Committee and the Oldham Corporation Watch Committee, whereby payment was made by the Insurance Companies for the attendance of the Fire Brigade, the only stipulation being that the Fire Service was made more efficient.

    The frequency of calls for the Brigade from out of townships caused the Watch Committee to enter into agreement with them, whereby they paid an annual retaining fee based on the rateable value of for the services of the Fire Brigade. Lees however retained fire-fighting independence until 1884, its Brigade having been formed in 1819 with two manual pumps and fourteen men. The end of the Brigade was hastened when in 1880 one of the fire engines caught fire at the Old Goat Mill and four years later the Brigade was disbanded and Lees came into line with the other out-townships. About this time sprinkler installations were rapidly gaining popularity in cotton mills and their introduction, together with the increased inefficiency of the Brigade, caused disastrous fires to become less frequent.

    The development of the Fire Brigade now proceeded apace and in 1886, the building of a new fire station was commenced in Ascroft St – Peter St, and in August of that year the old Clegg St Station, which had been in use for over forty years, gave way to the present Fire Brigade Headquarters.
    The first Officer in Charge of the Brigade in their new premises was Inspector Thomas Adamson, who, after his appointment in 1877, served until 1892, when he was succeeded by Inspector Harrison. Inspector Harrison later rose to the rank of Superintendent and in 1905 was appointed Deputy Chief Constable, relinquishing command of the Fire Brigade to Superintendent Boardman.

    1894 saw the scrapping of the old telegraph system and the introduction of telephones at Central, Werneth and Townfield Fire Stations. The first fire alarm was erected at Mumps Bridge in the same year, to be followed in 1896 by eighteen others in various parts of the Borough. These alarms rendered yeoman service until March 31st 1946 when, due to their age and the increased number of GPO telephones, their continued use was considered unnecessary.

    Improved stations and appliances were the order of the day. The foundation stone of the present Werneth Fire Station was laid in 1897 and the station was opened the following year. With the building of these stations, ambulance work was introduced as a responsibility of the Fire Brigade.
    By 1899 the strength of the Brigade had risen to forty seven men under the control of the Chief Constable. Twelve men were on the permanent staff and the remainder were auxiliaries. Their equipment consisted of five steam fire engines, six horse tenders, three hose carts and three fire escapes.

    Townfield Fire Station was opened in the year 1901, and about this time a Pompier Ladder team was formed on the recommendation of Superintendent Harrison, who in 1902 had seen them used in a demonstration in America. The Pompier Ladder consisted of a light ladder with a large hook or bill at the head. The bill was driven through a window and large teeth gripped the wooden window sill, the ladder hanging vertically from it. A fireman was thus able to scale a building higher than an escape could reach but, the present day use of 100’ Turntable Ladders and Hydraulic Platforms has rendered them obsolete.

    The next great advance was the introduction towards the end of 1904, of mechanically driven vehicles, and in 1908 Oldham took the initiative in Lancashire by purchasing the first motor tender, following this up with another in 1910 and a 600 gallons per minute motor pump and a 60’ escape in 1914.
    In 1915 a further appliance was bought and in the succeeding years, motor ambulances were presented to the Borough by various public spirited persons, as follows :-
1918             Sir John Leigh
1920             T. H. Chadwick Esq. (For the Oldham Royal Infirmary)
1927             Dame Lees
These gifts were originated by Alderman Thomas Bolton JP, who in 1898 presented the first horse ambulance to the town.

    The age of motor vehicles had now arrived to stay and regular additions and replacements were made to the equipment of the Brigade, the last horse being dispensed with in 1922. In 1928 an appliance was purchased with “hose reel” apparatus mounted. This apparatus consisted of a 40 gallon tank and 120 feet of rubber hose piping on a reel, and is responsible for extinguishing some 80% - 90% of fires, even today. Foam producing units for dealing with oil fires were also carried on appliances and proved their usefulness on many occasions. The next important development in the way of equipment was in 1936, when delivery was taken of a Leyland-Metz, all steel, power operated Turntable Ladder, capable of extending to 100 ft, and being used as either a water tower or for rescue purposes.

    Personnel enrolled as firemen continued to be tradesmen, who, when not attending fires maintained the property in which they lived near to the Fire Station. Mechanics and motor drivers were appointed to handle and repair the vehicles and pumps.
    Following the successful use of underground water tanks installed in 1916, others were installed in various parts of the Borough for Fire Brigade use. Further progress towards improved water supplies for fire- fighting has been made in more recent years, with the standardisation of fire hydrants.

    Immediately prior to 1938, the Brigade with the Chief Constable as Director and Superintendent Needham as Officer in Charge, consisted of 32 permanent police firemen and twenty one policemen as auxiliary firemen, but in this year an Act of Parliament was passed which was to have a far reaching effect on Fire Brigades throughout the country. The threat of war was upon us and following the recommendation of a Royal Commission, and experience in the Spanish War it was decided that the Fire brigades must be strengthened and organised in such a way that they could readily assist each other. Police auxiliary firemen, who in the event of emergency would be fully occupied with Police duty had to be replaced with volunteers, to be known as the Auxiliary Fire Service. Training standards were to be improved and the general level of efficiency had to be raised.

    The task in Oldham, although a formidable one, did not compare with many whose Fire Service had been neglected in preceding years, and consisted in the main of recruiting, training and equipping this new Auxiliary Fire Service.
    One important provision in the Act was concerned arrangements for assisting neighbouring brigades and it is interesting to note that the Watch Committee of Oldham had been fully co-operative in this respect.
    Outstanding evidence of this spirit is revealed in a letter dated the 18th April 1883 from the Town Clerk of Rochdale to his counterpart in Oldham, asking that the Oldham Fire Brigade be thanked for their services at a fire at Rochdale Town Hall on the 10th April 1883. By coincidence, history repeated itself when on 8th December 1937, Oldham attended a large fire at the Rochdale Market Hall. It is interesting to note that in the first instance the time taken by the horse drawn fire engine was 26 minutes, whilst in the second case, Oldham were at work 9 ½ minutes after the call was received.

    Between March 1938 and September 1939, some eight hundred volunteers were trained as firemen at Central Fire Station, Oldham by officers of Oldham Fire Brigade. These men, drawn from the Borough and out-townships of Chadderton, Royton, Crompton, Failsworth, Lees and Limehurst, formed the nucleus of the force responsible for fire-fighting in those districts when war was declared with Germany in September 1939 and sixteen additional stations were opened in Oldham and district to house them and their 120 emergency fire pumps and towing vehicles. In addition Oldham became responsible for adjacent brigades in the event of heavy raiding.

    For nearly twelve months the enemy was quiet and the Auxiliary Fire Service attended only normal fire calls with the regular Fire Brigade, but commencing in August 1940 when bombs were dropped on Belgium Mill, Royton until August 1941 the Auxiliary Fire Service, led by officers of the regular Fire Brigade saw service in serious air raids on Manchester, Liverpool, Coventry, Leeds, Birmingham and Sheffield. Whilst at Stretford in December 1940, five Oldham auxiliary firemen were killed by bombs.

    Problems of organisation arising out of heavy air raids brought about the introduction of an Act of Parliament in 1941, which welded together the 1400 Fire Brigades of the country into one National Fire Service. Fire Force Areas formed the basis of administration and Oldham Fire Brigade lost its identity as such, and became ‘H’ Division of Number 27 Fire Force Area. Control of the Fire Brigade passed from the Local Authority and Chief Constable to the Home Office and the Fire Force Commander of No. 27 Area. Superintendent Bellamy, in charge of the Brigade at that time, became a Divisional Officer in the NFS responsible for the same territory as before.

    Preparations for heavy raiding continued with the laying of pipe lines and the increasing of emergency water supplies. Faster methods of mobilising appliances and crews were devised and training was intensified. The long awaited attacks however, never materialized except on a small scale and as the methods of war changed and the country passed from defence to attack, the role of the NFS changed. During January 1944, 143 NFS Officers and men and 30 firewomen left the Oldham Area for the South Coast to man appliances, providing fire protection for the masses of military equipment accumulated for the invasion of the Continent. In other places, particularly London, the resources of the National Fire Service were used to deal with flying bombs and rocket projectiles. Little thought was given to this in Oldham, although Fire Service personnel were taught light rescue work against the contingency.

    It was at Christmas 1944 that the Oldham Division of the National Fire Service probably rendered its greatest service to the town, at a time when war was almost over, and many of the ARP services disbanded, their appliances attended the tragic flying bomb incident at Abbeyhills. And there rendered every assistance until the rescue services could continue.
    On the conclusion of the war in Europe in May 1945, the Fire Service was above its peacetime strength in terms of manpower and general demobilization started without delay. Soon afterwards recruiting for a peace time force of men who had served in the Fire Service throughout the war and demobilised servicemen was commenced, and so the Brigade was reformed from ex-regular members of Oldham Fire Brigade, ex-AFS and ex-servicemen as recruits.

    The new post war service was larger than before, because although improvements in equipment had taken place throughout the years, the improvement in conditions of service for firemen had not been so pronounced. The new service however, was to see better things and a 60 hour week, performed by two watches, took the place of the old continuous duty system whereby men were on call for fires at all times except during a short spell each week.
    The number of appliances attending fires was larger than before the war and some of the older ones had been replaced with faster more modern machines giving rate payers an improved service.

    Ambulances taken away from the Fire Service during the war continued to be a separate department.
    The National Fire Service had been formed at a time of great stress in the country’s war effort and the then Home Secretary, Mr. Herbert Morrison had promised Local Authorities that their Fire Service would be returned to them when the need for nationalization was over. Local Authorities, proud of their achievements in Fire Brigade organisation in previous years , pressed for this pledge to be honoured. Oldham was no exception in this respect and after much discussion a Bill was passed through Parliament for another re-organisation of the Fire Brigades. This Act, known as the Fire Service Act 1947, gave responsibility for fire-fighting to County Boroughs and County Councils, of which there were some 150.
    Thus on the 1st April 1948, Oldham Fire Brigade, under the command of Chief Officer B. Bellamy was reborn, its resources having risen from one humble manually operated fire pump and six men in 1807 to the following appliances :-
Turntable Ladders 2
Pump Escapes 2
Large Capacity Pumps 3
Small Capacity Pumps 3
Water Tenders 1
Emergency Tenders 1
Salvage Tenders 2
Motor Cycles 2
Personnel - Officers and other ranks 89
Since 1948 many changes in establishment have been to cater, in the main, for a reduction in the hours worked by the various ranks and the following summary illustrates the changes : -


ESTABLISHMENT


Apr 1948


Dec 1952


Dec 1956


Dec 1958


May 1960


Jan 1962


Apr 1965


Oct 1969


June 1971



Chief Officer


1


1


1


1


1


1


1


1


1



Dep Ch Officer


1


1


1


1


1


1


1


1


1



Assist Div Officer


1


1


1


2


2


2


3


3


3



Station Officer


4


4


4


4


4


4


5


6


6



Sub Officer


6


6


7


7


7


9


9


8


9



Leading Fireman


6


6


7


7


7


7


7


7


8



Firemen


70


69


72


72


72


78


78


78


73



Firemen (Stn Duty)


-


-


-


-


2


2


2


2


2



Firemen (Control)


-


1


1


1


-


-


-


-


-



Sen. L. Firewoman


-


-


-


-


-


1


1


1


1



Leading Firewoman


-


-


-


-


-


1


1


1


2



Firewomen (Control)


2


2


2


2


2


7


7


7


7



TOTAL


91


93


96


97


98


113


116


115


113



 

 
    In 1948 the duty system for operational Station Officers averaged basically 84 hours per week and for Junior officers and firemen 60 hours per week.
 
The intervening years since 1948 have seen a big reduction in the hours worked in all walks of life and this, together with an increasing workload in the Fire Service has resulted in a reduction in the Fire Service working hours.
 
At the present time operational personnel in the Brigade are available for duty as follows :-
 
Senior Officers - 96 hours per week
 
Station Officers - 56 hours per week
 
Sub Officers, Leading Firemen & Firemen - 48 hours per week
 
    Appliances have also been vastly improved and the present fleet detailed later in this report , reflect great credit on the authority for providing first class equipment to cater for the increasing and varied fire risks with which the modern Fire Service is confronted.
 
    The Brigade workshop is equipped to handle all repairs to appliances.
 
    It is not possible to say what the future might hold in the way of improvements in the equipment and technique of fire-fighting, but whatever the developments, the British Fire Service will, it is hoped, continue to show the same desire to provide and operate the very best equipment in the most efficient manner, for the good of it’s people.