My first involvement with the Fire Brigade came as a ‘messenger’ at the age of fifteen. There were three of us and our job was to call the firemen during the ‘quiet hours’ between 11pm and 7am. We were called by someone from Fire Control which was then based at the home of the Chief Fire Officer, Charles Mant in Church Street. The messenger’s job was then to go by bicycle and each call two or three firemen who would then respond to the call.
The station was then in West Street opposite Greenfield’s grocery shop (now Bunce’s). It was of timber construction with a corrugated iron roof and was very cramped, both for the men and machines. On responding to a call, entry was gained through the front doors and then down a narrow passage to the kit room. It became quite chaotic after the first two or three arrivals because once you had obtained your fire kit, you then had to go back down the same passage to the appliance room, meeting the man still going in the opposite direction!
On reaching the age of eighteen, the Second World War having started, I joined the Royal Navy. After initial training at Portsmouth and further training as a Radar Operator in the Isle of Man, I was posted to HMS Newcastle (a Cruiser) which was despatched to the Far East to take part in the war against the Japanese. We returned after three years and at the end of the war I was demobilised, returned to the Isle of Man and got married.
My wife and I stayed in the island for almost six years and then together with the children returned to Storrington to live. One day soon after our return I met Mr. Mant, chatted for a while and was then persuaded to re-join the Fire Brigade as a fireman.
The station was still in West Street and the machines consisted off a wheeled escape and a Bedford towing vehicle with a trailer pump. On the escape, the cab was only big enough for the driver and officer in charge so that the remainder of the crew had to ride outside holding on to the escape. This wasn’t too bad in the summer but bitterly cold during the winter.
The fire siren was situated on top of the Chanctonbury RDC offices in Church Street. This operated between the hours of 7am and 11pm; for the quiet hours, each fireman had a large bell installed by the GPO – mine was situated in the bedroom.
One day we had a fire call when a minor disaster occurred. Joe Boxall was opening the appliance room doors, which folded back in concertina fashion and were partly glazed, when the hinges pulled away from the frame and the whole lot collapsed into West Street!
Many calls were quite mundane, but others, of course, were of a much more serious nature. The serious ones that spring to mind are the Rivoli Cinema, Worthing; Marringdean Manorhouse, Billingshurst; Woolworth’s at Bognor (these two were attended from the new station in School Hill); and the kitchens and dining-room at Barn’s Farm Camp.
Road traffic accidents were invariably serious and very stressful, particularly when children were involved. One of the worst was on a lovely summer evening when we responded to a call at Dial Post. There we found that the turntable ladder from Worthing, responding to a call from Gatwick airport (which turned out to be a false alarm) had lost control on a bend and crashed head-on with a small family saloon. Out of a family of four – husband and wife and two children – only one child survived.
Having to combine one’s job with being a retained fire-fighter could be quite stressful at times, particularly during late night or early hours of the morning calls. One had to adjust very quickly from a deep sleep, jumping out of bed, throwing on some clothes, driving to the fire station and dealing with a complexity of emergency calls.
However, some very good results were achieved and a great deal of satisfaction gained.
During my twenty-nine years service, I attended over three thousand calls and over those years was promoted to Leading Fireman, Sub-Officer and finally Station Officer in charge, a post I held for fourteen years until retirement.