The Museum is closed now until 27 April.

The History of Harpenden Fire Brigade

1800 to 1992 when the new Fire Station was opened

The Brigade outside the Fire Station, early 1900s, with an old manually operated fire pump and standpipes, branches, hose-reels and ropes. Left to right: Arthur King, Charles Latter, Robert Archer, William Read, William Bigg, Herbert Fells, Frank Bonfield, Arthur Harris, William Rogers, David Ward, James Dellar, William Slough, Fred Hodges and Frank Bentley. Credit: LHS archives – HC 182, caption from Harpenden Free Press, 20 Jan 1961

Harpenden’s Fire Brigade has had a wide and varied history since it was formed in 1800. It was in this year that Phoenix Life Insurance Company donated 5 guineas to the Churchwardens so that firefighting equipment could be purchased. It was also in 1800 that £5-5-0 was spent on fire appliances. At this time, if a fire was reported, a policeman would fire a maroon on waste ground behind the police station. This was the signal for firemen to jump into action.

There was no official fire station in Harpenden until 1900. Before this all training of firemen was carried out in Mardall’s Brewery Yard. In order to make sure that training was adhered to, Captain Lydekker called out the Brigade without warning on 9 December 1887. Nine men turned up in full uniform and had a hose connected up and ready for use within 14 minutes. In respect of this, Captain Lydekker praised his men very highly for their effort.

in 1900, the Harpenden Voluntary Fire Brigade (HVFB) set up an engine station at 2 Southdown Road. This station was under the command of William Henry ANSCOMBE. at the same time a sub station was set up in Cravells Road and had Frederick LOVETT in charge.

On 15 February 1901, the new fire engine, which had been on order for some time, arrived. It took the form of a Greenwich pattern manual engine. Applications were also requested for firemen to crew the new appliance. The appliance was horse drawn and required 16 men to pump 50 gallons per minute.

During 1901, the Fire Brigade changed from a voluntary to a statutory organisation after pressure from Councillor GIBBON. As a sign of how important this was, an inaugural dinner was held at the Public Hall in July, where it was announced that W H ANSCOMBE would be Captain and Edgar SALISBURY would be Second Officer. The opportunity was also taken to name the ‘Call Boys’. They were: R ARCHER, E ADAMS, F BONFIELD, B GOODWIN, R HALL, H HARRIS, H GARDNER, F HODGE, A KING, F TIMSON, T DUNEBLY and B FELLS. It was the responsibility of the ‘Call Boy’ to alert a specific fireman when they heard a maroon explode. Some of these Call Boys were later to become firemen.

It was also in 1901 that the Fire Brigade got a ‘purpose built’ building in Leyton Road. It was actually a conversion of the Infant area of the school which was later to become Park Hall. This building was first built in 1859.

In 1902, a public notice was issued stating that “the Brigade would attend all fires in the district. As a result of this a pay structure was formed. Officers received 3/- for the first hour and 2/- thereafter. Firemen received 2/- for the first hour and 1/- thereafter. Pumpers received 1/- for the first hour and 6d thereafter. However should a fireman refuse to attend a call he would be fined 10/- and dismissed after a second such offence. Crews also had to know the district extremely well as the Hydrant Location List gave only details such as “opposite Mr WILLMOTT’S garden gate.” Now they require your house number and road name.

For some years, the Fire brigade looked for a suitable 50’ pole so that the 100’ hose could be hung up to dry. It was not until April 1905 that a company in Watford offered them one for £12. It was hurriedly purchased and erected.

In May 1906, Captain ANSCOMBE resigned and moved to Kingston on Thames where it was his wish to carry on with fire service duties. His Deputy, H E SALISBURY took over temporarily but he too resigned on June 28 1906 after the Captain’s position was advertised and not offered to him. It was his opinion that he should not apply for the job the same way as an outsider would. So on August 10 1906, C V LATTER took over the position of Captain in Harpenden. In October, Frank BENTLEY, one of the old Call Boys who had moved away, returned to the District and was reappointed to the service as a fireman (he was to die later in June 1935 aged 64).

In October 1908, Call Boy William ROGERS resigned. This position was rapidly filled by William HOWE of Amenbury Lane.

The Brigade, posing with the new steam engine in Leyton Road, outside the Fire Station. 1912. Credit: LHS archives – HC 183

By means of public subscription, a new steam pump was purchased in 1912 to replace the manual engine. This appliance was also horse drawn. The horses were stabled in Station Road. At the same time a new floor was laid at the station in Leyton Road.

During the 1920s the Call Out scheme was changed. The new Call Out was three long blasts on a siren which was mounted on Abbot Anderson’s factory.

The Brigade with its equipment in1925. Left to right, standing: Capt. R A Hassard, Lt F Bonfield and Engineers H Batchelor; on the engines, left to right: Firemen F Holland, B Hale,, H Pearman, Engineers W Bigg, W Read, Foreman A King, Firemen F Timson (Secretary), D Ward and H Coburn. The appliances, left to right: a steamer pump (see Comment below, and a photo of a model at the foot of the page), a Dennis motor engine and the Brigade’s first pump, operated manually. Credit: LHS archives – B 2.1, caption from Harpenden Free Press, 20 Jan 1961

September 1922 saw a real piece of the future’s technology come to Harpenden. A demonstration took place of the Dennis Turbine fire engine on Harpenden Common. Water was pumped from the pond at the Silver Cup to show how effective the new unit was. A further demonstration was later held at the St Nicholas Estate.

Firemen had their Call Out system changed once again in September 1930, when a call bell system linked to their homes from the Post Office was installed.

1932 saw the purchase of a new Leyland fire engine. This was capable of pumping 400 gallons per minute and was self propelling. This was in comparison with the 1912 steamer at 200 gallons per minute, and the manual at 50 gallons per minute.

On 1 June 1934, an official photograph was published in the Herts Advertiser newspaper showing the engine and crew at Vaughan Road, which was accompanied by an article explaining the work of the Fire Service.

Another fire engine was purchased in 1936. This again was a Leyland and was collected in person by Captain J C DAVIES on Thursday June 11 1936. The other major change which took place in 1936 was concerned with the helmets. The old, heavy brass ones went and in came a newer, lighter, more comfy version which was made (and still is made) in Wheathampstead by Helmets.

Due to his departure from the District, Captain J C DAVIES tendered his resignation on October 11 1937 after 5 years as Chief Officer in Harpenden. On 1 November 1937, his replacement, George HERRING was appointed. Captain Herring was formerly of the Luton Hoo Estate Fire Brigade.

Photo of G H Herring, architect and Chief Officer of Harpenden Fire Brigade by F Thurston. Credit: LHS archives, Herring news cuttings album

In 1939, Call Boy F Bonfield retired after 38 years’ service. Sadly he died just after the war.

During June 1940, new wooden signs were erected showing the locations of fire hydrants. This was especially important due to the increased fire risk brought on by World War II.

Denationalisation of the National Fire Service

On 31 March 1948, the National Fire Service (NFS) was denationalised. Due to this George HERRING resigned.

In 1955 a rebellion took place. Plans were put forward to provide one engine only in Harpenden, and to scrap the old Leyland. 14 firemen were outraged and handed in their notice on April 30 as a mark of protest. However, some relented in their protest and continued with their firefighting duties.

Thoughts were now moving onto the need for a new fire station. On 2 August 1964, a ¾ acre plot of land was auctioned. It failed, however, to reach the reserve price and was withdrawn. The Fire Brigade were to buy this plot of land later in 1966 for the proposed new fire station.

The next Call Out system change occurred in October 1970 when all firefighters were issued with bleepers instead of any siren. This practice is still in operation today.

For 3 weeks during February 1984, the fire engine moved to a temporary home at Vaughan Road using the library van garage, while renovations were carried out on the 125 year old building in Leyton Road.

Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service

The next major change to affect Harpenden occurred on 1 May 1989 when the National Fire Service (NFS) changed its name to the Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service.

In 1991, Harpenden finally got its new fire station, 25 years after the land had been purchased. The station, which is 100 yards South of the old one in Leyton Road, took 2 years to build, but has greatly improved the facilities available to the crews in Harpenden.

The new fire station on the site of Harpenden Garden Centre, formerly Abbott and Anderson’s. Credit: Rosemary Ross, 2011

The official opening took place on Saturday 5 September 1992.

After a couple of months standing empty, the old fire station was demolished as part of the Park Hall upgrading scheme. The area once occupied by the fire station now forms part of the road access to James Marshall House residential home. The only part of the fire station which survived was the old ‘FIRE STATION’ lintel which has been erected beside the entrance to the new station.

Ed. The Society’s archives contain albums of cuttings collected by G H Herring, donated by his daughter, with details of the many fires attended during his time as Chief Fire Officer, as well as earlier and later cuttings, correspondence and extracts from the Brigades Rules and Regulations.

Auxiliary brigade prepared for WWI. Credit: LHS archives – HC110

The Brigade, with the steam pump, 1912. Credit: LHS archives – HC 177

4 of the 8 small pages listing Fire Hydrants in the 1902 Rule book. Credit: LHS archives – BF 52

Accounts and subscribers to the Steamer Fund, 1913. Credit: LHS archives – BF 52

Some of the subscribers to the Steamer Fund, including the biggest donor, Henry Tylston Hodgson. Credit: LHS archives – BF 52

Parade of Harpenden Fire Brigade and members of the Auxilliary Fire Service, at a Civic Parade, May 1940. Credit: LHS archives, G. Herring news cuttings album

Scale model of Harpenden’s Shand Mason double-vertical fire engine, made by Mr R A Briggs c 1907. (One third of full size). Credit: LHS archives – Scanned from copy of p.190 in The Model Engineer, 8 February 1951

Comments about this page

  • In commenting on Brauer’s of Grove Road, Ron Gray mentioned that his father, who worked for H E Websters, builders, fitted an air raid siren on the roof, which was used as call signal for the local fire brigade. This was just a booster for the firemen, fitted after the war. He understands that there were sirens at Batford and north Harpenden as well as one at the fire station and adds that “you would have seen Glyn Erasmus (painter at Cummins) Gordon Sweetland (plumber at Claridges) and various others cycling through the High St to the fire station” in response to the call. 

    In 1970 the sirens were replaced by bleepers.

    By Rosemary Ross (07/02/2018)
  • In 2004 Les Casey was sent a cutting from a 1951 issue of The Model Engineer, with a photo of a model of the Harpenden Shand Mason double vertical fire engine which had been sent to the magazine by 82 year-old Mr R A Briggs. He had made the model, which was still working, some 44 years previously. In his letter to The Model Engineer, Mr Briggs mentioned that he had been to Shand Mason on behalf of Harpenden Council to buy a re-conditioned fire engine for them. It would appear to be the engine in the photograph of the the brigade with its engines in 1925. A photo of Mr Briggs’s model has been added to the page. 

    By Rosemary Ross (12/03/2017)

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