LEIGH VOLUNTEER FIRE BRIGADE 1882-1948
The Leigh Fire Brigade was formed in 1882 by Samuel Morley (of Hall Place) and was maintained by voluntary subscription until 1937, when it was taken over by Sevenoaks Rural District Council. Its role in village life eventually came to an end on 31 March 1948[i] after sixty-six years of service to the village and district. After this date, fire calls from Leigh in future were dealt with by the Fire Service from Tonbridge.
The Leigh Fire Brigade was set up to deal with local fires. Many of these fires were caused by spontaneous combustion in overheated haystacks and the Brigade would pump water into the seat of the fire while cutting away good hay and would attempt to contain the fire when it threatened nearby stacks. This was exhausting work as at least eight men were required on the pump at a time and they could keep it up only for limited periods. Firemen and helpers would be paid once the farmer received insurance money. Other fires recalled by villagers include a fire at Ramshurst in 1934, but by the time the Brigade got there, the Tonbridge Brigade had been there and put it out. There would also be local chimney fires. And the one major fire with which it was involved was the fire at Hall Place in 1940. But it had other uses! In 1919 John Knock[ii] recalls the fire brigade being used to water the cricket pitch during a very dry summer. And Dick Wood[iii] recalls that in 1921 it helped to water the allotments in another dry summer.
Although set up put out fires – which it did to the best of its ability – the most memorable achievements of the Leigh Fire Brigade appear to have been in the various competitions it entered against other local fire brigades – and in 1926 it won first prize in the National Competition at Blackpool for the operation of manual fire pumps.
At the time of its demise, in 1948, it still included three ‘old timers’ – Fireman A. Stubbings (Bert) and L/Fireman C. Ingram (Charlie), both of The Green, who had served 45 years and 35 years respectively and L/Fireman B. Pankhurst has served for 27 years.
The Leigh Fire Brigade operated on a subscription system – it was one of several organizations in the village in the 19th century, serving the community, which was operated in this way – other such societies included the Leigh Good Intent Benefit Society, the Leigh Coal Fund, and even the Leigh Prosecuting Society. All operated on subscriptions to the subscribers’ benefit.
The Leigh Historical Society has some of the Annual Reports between 1889 and 1918 which details some of the activities of the Leigh Volunteer Fire Brigade . These Reports give details of the fires that happened, although fortunately there were not that many.
Those who subscribed to the support of the fire service included individuals plus two insurance companies, two local firms – Dukes (cricket ball makers) and Curtis & Harvey (of Leigh Powder Mills) – and the Hildenborough Village Players. The subscriptions ranged from £25 to £50 with the occasional larger amount. The main subscribers were the local nobility such as Lord De L’Isle and Dudley, Lord Hollenden, Lady Harriet Warde or the middle classes, in part to safeguard their houses but also to help the community (as has been seen in other societies set up in the village mentioned above. There was a minimum amount of subscription to receive a free service – to help outside the parish, however, required a minimum subscription of 10 shillings. The Annual Reports show that the Brigade did go to fires in other villages.
The names of some of the villagers who were involved in the Fire Brigade Committee during its existence included Lord Hollenden as President, plus Dr Fraser, Mr A Sales, Mr G Boby, Mr J Randerson, Mr H Russell, Mr T H Richards, Mr H Faircloth and his sons, Mr W Baldwin, Bert Stubbings, G Simmonds and Charlies Ingram – others will be mentioned further on in this article.
Chris Rowley’s book “We Had Everything …” has several memories from villagers who remember the Leigh Fire Brigade – its system of summoning the Brigade, the fires, but more so for its achievements in competitions and its annual dinner.
Harry Lucas, born in 1918 and his brother, Jack[iv], have memories from the 1920s and 1930s, who said that the headquarters of the Leigh Fire Brigade was at Hall Place drive on the left until the War, after that they built the Fire Station in Lower Green. They speak of the sign, lit up by a gas light, saying ‘FIRE’ which was situated in the middle of The Square, outside the house of Ike Kneller and there was also a big hand bell outside. It was quite a performance to call out the Fire Brigade – if there was a fire, you had to rush down to the Square and get the bell and then run around ringing the bell to summon the crew – sometimes Charlie Ingram would stand on the corner by the School and ring it. Then, of course, it was a horse-drawn fire engine and the horse had to be caught. Bert Stubbins[v], who lived at Ivy Cottage on the Green, was another member of the Leigh Fire Brigade in the 1930s and he also talks about the problems of trying to catch the horse – which he had to do – and this could take ages if the horse was “feeling unco-operative”.
Dick Wood[vi] describes what happened when there was a fire, which he says “never quite matched up to the silver Cups and Bowls from the competitions, nor to the display of photographs and certificates that covered the walls of the Institute billiard room.” Of course, the problem was really the equipment, transport and communications which existed – or did not exist – in the 1920s and 1930s. His description reads like an Ealing Comedy. “… should you have a fire in the 1920s, you had to go to Ike Kneller’s house in The Square where over the front door was a gas lamp with the word” FIRE CALL”. You knocked on the door and told Ike (if he was in – if not find him) – Ike would then get on his bike and with a big brass hand-bell cycle around the village calling out Mr Russell and such firemen he could find, but first summoning Fred Fautly. Fred would get on his bike and cycle to Penshurst Station to get the horses which he normally drove in the shafts of Hills Bros coal trolley. Then back to Hall Place stable where the engine was. The engine would be ready to start with as many men as possible sitting back to back on the box. Horses were hitched to the engine and were away with hand bell ringing. Those firemen who had no place on the engine followed on their bikes. Of course a fire could burn itself out before you arrived.”
Over time, improvements were made such as the use of a coal lorry to haul the engine in place of horses. Fortunately, no serious fire occurred in Leigh as a result of inadequate equipment in the 1920s and 1930s. But probably the most serious fire that did occur in Leigh was the fire at Hall Place in 1940 – when the sirens went off at 6.15pm – Leigh Fire Brigade, however, turned up by 8pm to try and located the fire (probably not hard to miss!). But the Leigh Fire Brigade was unable to cope due to the lack of both hose and engine power – and the fountain pond it used soon ran out of water – and so in the end they had to call the district fire brigade, which on arrival drew water from the 13 acre lake. Eventually eight engines were in action, but none could stop the spread of the fire. By 4am it was more or less out – and the salvaging process began.
The Lucases also refer to the fact that the fire brigade eventually got a converted lorry to use, rather than the horse-drawn equipment. They also name the local doctor, Dr Berkley who was Leigh’s doctor in the 1930s, living at Applegarth, as being second-in-command at some point, and name others in the crew, who had been involved for a long time: Bert Stubbins, Fred Faircloth, Ike Kneller, Charlie Ingram and both the Fred Fautlys.
Dick Wood, already mentioned above,[vii] gives further memories of the Fire Brigade. He recalls there was a fire brigade in the latter part of the 19th century, when Alfred Sales was Superintendent and William Baldwin was Engineer – and it would have been closely linked with the needs of Hall Place. Dick also remembers a part of a rhyme, written by Miss Daisy Walton for a stage performance by local children around 1912. It appears that a chimney fire had recently occurred at Rose Cottage – where Charlotte Bungalows now stands. It was the home of ‘Nimble’ Hounsome and his family, which included his daughter Dolly. In the sketch, the house was supposed to be well alight when the Leigh Fire Brigade arrived – and the bit of the rhyme he remembers goes like this:
Anderson, our captain’s here
He’s the first one to appear
Here comes Baldwin bold and brave;
He our Dolly’s life will save.
Next comes Simmonds from the Green
Ne’er a braver man was seen
Here comes Stubbings, young and old
Both are worth their weight tin gold
Harry ‘Potty’ Faircloth, the village wheelwright, played a leading part of the Fire Brigade and after the war, his sons – Fred, George, Cecil and Ray – joined along with Bert Humphrey. According to Dick Wood, many of the firemen were allotment holders – and in the drought of the summer of 1921, they used the manual fire engine to pump water from the Brickyard ponds to water the allotments. Also in about 1921, Hubert Russell took over as Chief Officer, and Fred Faircloth as Second Officer. When Abner Parker died in August 1922, Bernard Pankhurst replaced him as Engineer.
Hubert Russell, who lived at South View was, according to Dick Wood a great showman and it was under his leadership during 1920s that the Leigh Fire Brigade became the model for the locality. Fire drill competitions were introduced between Leigh and neighbouring brigades. “The equipment available at that time consisted of a handcart with hand pump and hose for use with local chimney fires, and a Shad Mason Manual Engine, drawn by one or two horses for larger fires. There were competitions for both hose cart and engine, consisting of a drill to get the hose run out and water on a target in the shortest possible space of time. Mr Russell, an electrical engineer, himself devised the timing apparatus to record to one fifth of a second. The competition standard eventually became so high that Leigh Brigade were taking part (and often winning) events in Southern Counties Competitions at places such as Oxford, Basingstoke, Bournemouth and Deal (1925)”. During this period members of the Leigh Fire Brigade included the four Faircloth brothers, Bernard Pankhurst, Charlie Ingram, Bert Stubbings, Bert Humphrey, Ike Kneller, Fred Fautly and Arthur Davis. They were all volunteers and had to be prepared to leave their workplace, home or bed, at a moment’s notice if the call came. The administrative officers of the Brigade – Joseph Randerson and Bill Sturt – were not required to attend fires.
Hubert Russell also organized the Brigade’s great social event, a dinner at the Village Institute Hall and he “invited all members of the Brigade and anyone remotely connected with it – such as officers of neighbouring brigades, who all turned up in smartest uniform, though none could outshine Mr Russell in his gleaming silver helmet and epaulets.” Dress uniform included a polished brass helmet with comb – a flat blue cap was worn for general duties. Other guests included in the dinner invites were the village grocer for use of his stable, Mr Burr, the Hall Place Agent, for use of a building to house fire-engine, Harry Hitchcock, the church organist to provide music. Dick Wood also attended as Assistant Scoutmaster – for Mr Russell was Scoutmaster. The only lady would be Miss Daisy Walton who was the other assistant Scoutmaster. The evening included speeches and entertainment as well as a “sumptuous” meal.
In 1929 Harry ‘Potty’ Faircloth died. He had been one of the original members of the Leigh Fire Brigade and had been Second Officer for some forty years, only resigning in 1925. As a senior member, therefore, he was given a Fireman’s funeral. His death is reported in the Kent & Sussex Courier of 11 January 1929 and the paper, and on our website, gives a photograph of his coffin surrounded by members of the Leigh Fire Brigade – all in uniform – Harry was 73 years old.
Another original member was Alfred Sales, who first acted as Engineer (which was his profession anyway) and he later became Captain. Even after he retired, he retained his connection with the Brigade as Vice President. He was also accorded a Fireman’s funeral in 1928 attended by members of the Brigade, with Second Officer Fred Faircloth being in attendance and four firemen acted as bearers.
During the 1930s Mr Randerson, secretary of the brigade, had a new motor car and donated his old Rover to the brigade. Ray Faircloth, now succeeding his father as village wheelwright, converted the car into a fire tender to carry equipment and seat half-a-dozen firemen. A trailer motor pump was purchased and the manual engine was no longer required. (See photo below)
Towards the end of 1930s, one begins to see the beginning of the end of the Leigh Volunteer Fire Brigade. It had until then been maintained by voluntary subscription but in 1937 was taken over by the Sevenoaks Rural District Council which built a fire station at the junction of Lower Green – and with the threat of World War II more and more local fire brigades came under the authority of local and national government. Men (and women) were recruited into an Auxiliary Fire Service, and at Leigh a professional Fire Officer from London, George Hanson, was appointed to be in charge. With all these changes, it is inevitable that at some point its services would no longer be required and that we read in the Courier in March 1948 of the loss of its services to Leigh.
Joyce Field (December 2017)
Kent & Sussex Courier 26 March 1948 – Leigh Fire Brigade 1882-1948 = sixty-six years of service
“We Had Everything…” by Chris Rowley: p. 45-46, p. 126-130, p. 237, p.307
Kent & Sussex Courier 2 March 1929 – Death of Harry Faircloth
Kent & Sussex Courier 2 March 1928 – Death of Alfred Sales