We regularly either see a fire engine on our roads or read stories in the press about their current use, but what about their history here in Bognor Regis?
The town’s fire brigade had their initial engine in February, 1865, and it was housed in temporary premises in Sudley Mews. The Local Board of Commissioners had looked through catalogues to find the most suitable engine, which was to be a County Brigade Engine costing £75.
It would need 16 men and they also had to purchase some scaling ladders costing a further 45 shillings (£20.25p). They advertised for persons to work on the engine stating that they ‘wanted 8 to 10 useful and intelligent artisans or mechanics of the town to form a volunteer fire brigade’.
Apparently, on one of their early turnouts it was reported that ‘the fire engine turned out one evening last week, and was, being a novelty, attended by a staff of excitable persons who really seemed ripe for active service’. In 1874, the brigade moved into its permanent premises in Waterloo Square where it was to lease the site for 21 years at £23 10s (£23.50) per year.
Eventually, premises were both inadequate and needing serious repairs and a view was taken to find other premises. Interest was shown in Market Street and Ockley Road but eventually it was decided to purchase land in the High Street, near to The Sussex Hotel (today’s William Hardwicke) which was built in 1899 costing £322 for the new station and the brigade moved from Waterloo Square to this site, where it stayed for more than 40 years.
A large alarm was fitted in a tower, which doubled as a drying area for the hose. Another £274 had to be invested in a steam engine, which required a pair of horses. However, if no horse was available, any passing horse-drawn vehicle was robbed of its horse for the benefit of the brigade.
A motorised vehicle was purchased in 1921. In the early days. it was recorded by one of the early firemen that he worked a 12-hour shift and usually worked a seven-day week earning in the region of £1. It was not until 1902 discussions took place about linking some of the firemen with telephones. Hard to imagine in today’s instant communications world.
The station in the High Street remained in active use until the 1930s when there were numerous discussions on its continued use. By the start of the Second World War in 1939 the brigade was moved into their next location, a purpose-built construction in Clarence Road, by the side of the Town Hall.
However, with the start of the war, the construction was not fully completed and no drill tower or second floor was ever built. The roof was covered, and a temporary tower built. I often wondered about the fire station as it seemed not to look finished, and indeed it was not. By the 1960s it was thought that a new station was required with a full drill tower and also more on the outskirts of the town to enable the engines to more easily reach destinations. Eventually, a site in West Meads Drive was chosen, and by August, 1975, the move was made and it is here the firefighters remain today.
There have been many significant occasions for the fire service over the years. Not least was the major fire in the railway station on Saturday, October 29, 1899. A glow was seen from the centre of the town and the volunteers were all contacted. It took more than eight minutes for them to reach the station, which was totally destroyed.
There have been other fires over the years., who remembers the Woolworths fire on August 31, 1978? This £2million fire was attended by 200 firemen and five fire appliances which arrived from over a 50 mile distance. In 1993 there was the catastrophic fire at Sainsbury’s in Chichester where engines were called from around the district.
Other events have been the hurricane in October 1987, when the brigade helped out around the area including a house in Linden Road which lost one complete exterior wall. Fifty calls were made to the brigade for assistance in relation to damage and injuries received in less than an hour.
What about the fire at the Marine Bar and Restaurant in August, 1994? This fire involved more than 120 firemen from around the area. Eventually, this area was rebuilt and today is known as The Waverley.
I can recall, when I worked at Butlin’s, fire drills would be carried out. Occasionally, it would be a full exercise, both for the centre and also the brigades. The ‘test’ alarm would be activated and, because of the nature of the site, it would automatically engage with stations across the district.
All these engines and cars would descend on to the centre. Butlin’s managers would be deployed to direct the engines. More recently was the major fire on the seafront when the Beach Hotel fish and chip shop was burned to the ground.
I am sure you can all remember major events in the town where it has been necessary to call out the fire service. Its operation today is, of course, very different from the early days but it still has volunteer firefighters, alongside the regular staff.
The service engages with its local community especially with open days where we can have a look around the station and see how it operates.
Groups can have an evening visit on training days to watch the exercises carried out weekly for our benefit. The men and their engine can be seen at local events to raise awareness of safety within the home, in a bid to reduce the number of smaller dangerous fires in homes and offices. These firefighters are our unsung heroes keeping us safe. Thank you.