Arguably the oldest trace of fire damage in Dover is at the Roman Painted House in New Street, where there are charred timbers and baked loom weights. These came from a large wooden hut dated about AD 800, which the Saxons used for weaving and it contained nearly 200 loom weights! Dover’s earliest documented fire occurred in 1066 when the Normans set the town alight. Luckily, William I saw the error of such destruction and ordered the town and the famous monastery of St Martin-le-Grand, to be rebuilt.
Over the next few hundred years’ fires were a common problem as most buildings were built of wood and thatch and Dover was also subject to many attacks from the sea by the French. The town was divided into Ward and each ward had a watchman who was to ensure that precautions were taken to prevent and put out fires. Each householder, under the penalty of a fine of 1shilling 9pence was compelled to have a tub full of water outside their door every night. Bells were also placed strategically around the town and when one was rung, the Watch organised ‘bucket chains’ – lines of people passing buckets from the nearest water to the fire. Empty buckets were, at the same time, passed in the opposite direction for refilling. To deal with burning thatch the council bought fire hooks to pull off the burning straw in order to prevent it spreading. The richer members of Dover’s society had their homes built of stone, roofed with tiles and with gardens, which all made for fire prevention. Over time, in poorer areas ‘fire alleys’ were left between properties to enable water to be brought quickly from the river or the harbour.
About 1700 insurance companies started to organise fire brigades in large cities but they only dealt with the fires of those who had paid insurance premiums to them – such houses displayed insurance plaques. In Dover the reliance was still on bucket chains, but that year the Mayor, Edward Wivell presented the town with a fire engine. Probably this cart carried manual pumps, ladders, ropes and fire hooks. Four porters were given the job of dealing with fires and were paid every time the fire engine was used.
The 1778, Dover Paving Act the Corporation created an embryonic fire service under auspices of a chief Watchman called Constable. Besides undertaking basic police duties, their job was to raise the ‘Alert’ and deal with fires. Ten years later the town purchased another fire engine but according to the minutes that year, men were paid 2s (10p), by the council to carry buckets of water to douse fires following bonfire night – 5 November. The money set aside for such events was called ‘Bucket Money’ and on 15 September 1800 a new fire-engine, mounted on a set of spokes was paid for out of the Bucket Money.
Attacks on Dover during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) caused much devastation especially as French privateers fired red-hot shot into heavily populated areas of the town. On 8 May 1808, a massive fire destroyed the Fector warehouses on the sea side of the harbour. Construction, following the Wars caused the Paving Commission rethink the strategy of dealing with fires. In 1824 they appointed porters, under the auspices of the Town Sergeant, to practice once a month to use the town’s fire appliances. The porters were encouraged to turn up by the Town Sergeant being authorised to spend 10s (50p) on beer!
The town purchased another fire engine in 1830 and on 20 January 1836, the Municipal Corporations Act of the previous year, introduced Dover’s Police Force whose job included fire fighting. A purpose built police station opened in Queen Street/Gaol Lane in 1838 and the Superintendent was also the Captain of the Fire Brigade. Two constables were detailed for permanent fire brigade duties and they lived over the fire station.
The new regime was put to the test on 11 May 1837 when fire swept through Snargate Street. Helped by the soldiers of the 2nd Battalion of the Rifle Brigade, stationed on Western Heights, the blaze was quickly brought under control. A fire of similar major proportions broke out in the Pier District in 1850, near to Archcliffe Fort with its large store of powder magazines. The fire service was quick on the scene but looting was also a problem until the arrival of military personnel. Afterwards, an amnesty was given to those who returned the stolen goods.
To help with tackling major fires a volunteer fire brigade was formed in 1862 under the auspices of the police. On 3 March the following year they were called out to help with a fire that destroyed the Alhambra Music Hall and Burrows’ pork butchers, on the west side of Market Square. Leonard and William Burrows aged nine and seven, along with a seventeen-year-old servant girl were killed. This time the police dealt with looters immediately and severely.
Following the opening of the waterworks on Connaught Hill in 1854 fire hydrants were installed around the town. A favourite target of children, they were later removed and small cast iron manhole covers placed over mains access and can still be seen. However, problems with leaking pipes meant that the water pressure was unreliable and water was frequently turned off at night. In 1870, the council discussed the possibility of installing a telegraph link between the police station and the waterworks. As this would cost £78, the idea was abandoned. Instead, when a fire was reported a police officer had to go to the waterworks and asked them to recharge the mains!
On the night of Monday 24 June 1872 there were about a dozen lodgers staying at the Lord Nelson pub on St James Lane. At about 01.00hrs the niece of the landlord woke up and realised the place was on fire and ran into the Lane screaming. Joseph Parks, a solicitor’s clerk who lived in Church Street, was passing and quickly took control. People were hanging out of upstairs windows, shouting for help, so he sent the girl to the police station to get assistance. Then Joseph managed to get a ladder from next door but it was too short to reach the first floor windows. Therefore, he balanced it on his shoulders and eight of the residents managed to clamber down. As the last of the residents was being rescued the fire extinguishing apparatus arrived and using two fire hydrants and water from the nearby river Dour, the fire was soon put out. At the subsequent inquest on two residents who died that night, John Parks was commended by the coroner.
The problem with the lack of water pressure from the town’s waterworks, came to a-head in 1880 following a fire at Scott’s dry-cleaners in Snargate Street. Over 1,000-feet of hosepipe was used to fight the blaze but there was not enough pressure to reach the flames and the premises were devastated. Royal Insurance Company paid out £627 16s to John Scott then started legal action against the council.
In 1881, the police station moved from Queen Street to the Maison Dieu and the old police station became a formal fire station with a residence for the officer in charge. The fire wagon and the portable fire escape were housed inside the Market Hall but the collector of tolls, Mr W H Wright, demanded £2 a month rent. Whether the council paid this is unclear.
Disastrous fires including fatalities remained a major problem due to open fires, gas lighting, thatch and in public buildings, a general lack of fire awareness. Buckland Paper Mill was destroyed by fire on 25 September 1887 and on 5 January 1888, fire devastated Hills Carriage factory and the Dover Proprietary Library, which was in the same building, in Castle Street. The incident was exacerbated by the defective state of the town hydrants and led to a committee of enquiry and effective reform. Possibly because of these problems Chitty whose mill was at Charlton, had a water tower built to feed a sprinkler system.
In 1895, electric street lighting was installed in Snargate Street. The lamps were carried across the road on arches that looked very pretty. However, the arches were too low to allow the fire engine to pass under without hauling down the ladder. This took the crew several minutes. Councillors had to decide which was cheapest to change the fire engine or adapt the existing one!
Edward Lukey of Bench Street wine merchants, upset by the deaths of two people in a fire in St James Street voiciferously argued for a new fire engine. He started a fund and in 1899, the council purchased a ‘state of the arts’ – statements at the time were words to that effect – horse-drawn Merryweather fire engine with a pump for attaching to the fire hydrants. However, there was a problem over the horses as they came from funeral parlours so burials took precedence! The fire engine remained in operation until 1922.
It was well used from dealing especially during the building of Admiralty Harbour. However, the fire that devastated Crabble Paper Mill on 10 July 1906 was well alight before the fire brigade was called. As was often the case, when they did arrived the water pressure was poor. Following that fire, time and money was invested to increase the water pressure. However, this was not in time to save former Mayor, Matthew Pepper’s warehouse, on the High Street, when it was razed to the ground on 17 September 1907.
By World War I, Dover boasted of three fire engines, the Merryweather that was kept at Queen Street plus one at Maxton and another at River. During the war, Special police constables manned them and every man had to come on duty at once when the warning is given. The first moonlight raid on the country occurred on Sunday 23 January 1916, just after midnight. A seaplane dropped nine bombs and one of which caused a fire at Leney’s malthouse off Russell Street. Although, successfully dealt with by the fire brigade a steam fire engine was purchased to supplement the other appliances if the water mains was cut. This occurred following a raid on 25 May 1918 that caused fires on Priory Hill.
Water pressure, or lack of, however, continued to be a problem and in January 1920 a fire at Noah’s Ark Farm, Tower Hamlets demonstrated this need when several horses burnt to death. In 1922, the council bought a second-hand American Peerless chassis motorised fire engine converted by Merryweather & Sons. A Hatfield reciprocating pump was installed at the rear that, it was hoped, would make up for the lack of water pressure. The new appliance was named Margaret after the wife of the Mayor, Richard Barwick.
In 1926 Police Constable Bill Griggs, 36, and colleagues, answered a call to a fire on the motor yacht Quo Vadis in the Granville Dock. Shortly after arrival, the yacht blew up killing P C Griggs. On 7 September 1926 Dover’s Chief Constable, Alex Bond, as head of the fire brigade reported that in the six years from 1920 there had been 38 fires but the Peerless fire engine was often too heavy for use and requested a replacement.
Chief Constable Bond again made the request in 1930, saying that in the intervening time there had been 80 fires. Further, during the previous twelve months, his fire officers had attended major fires at Castle Concrete works, in Castle Street; the warehouse of Palmer and Sons in London Road; a tobacconist in Northampton Street and a fire in the stores at Dover Engineering works. In all cases, because of the nearness of residential property and their limited resources, the fire brigade had concentrated on saving neighbouring dwellings.
The Corporation responded by purchasing Ellen a Morris standard fire engine with 250/400-gallon pump but without first aid equipment. They paid £748 and was named after the wife of Mayor Alderman Russell. The new fire engine was almost immediately put into service dealing with a fire in Tower Hamlets. On that evening, the firemen were taking part as minstrel show at the Maison Dieu and turned up to the fire in costume!
The Corporation also decided that a purpose built fire station was needed and on 24 June 1931, the foundation stone was laid for a new station in Ladywell. It was built under the auspices of Town Surveyor William E Boulton Smith and the Ministry of Health sanctioned the borrowing of £6,240 repayable over 30 years. The foundation stone was laid on 24 June 1931 by the Mayor, Captain Frederick Powell, and opened by him on 2 December. It cost £6,014 and housed two motor fire engines – Margaret and Ellen, a motor ambulance and a police car.
The 1936 Public Health Act included fire prevention and precaution rules but many local authorities, including Dover, did not implement it. However, with the possibility of war and Dover’s vulnerable geographic position, the Council voted to extend the rear of the fire station and purchased for £1,500 fourteen cottages in Victoria Row, which were demolished. In May 1937, a new fire engine, costing £3,650 was purchased. It was Leyland with a Tiger engine of 8.84 litres, a 104-foot (31.7 metres) Metz turntable telescopic ladder and a water tower. It was named Rosetta after Mayor George Norman’s wife.
On Wednesday 29 December 1937, Rosetta, the new engine, was put into good use when a fire destroyed the King’s Hall, Biggin Street. The alarm was raised at 05.45hrs and two police officers were sent to investigate. All seemed well until they reached an inner door leading to the auditorium. Seeing smoke coming from underneath, they opened the door and ‘the building burst into flames.’ Luckily, both police officers managed to escape. The easterly wind carried the flames and showers of sparks that started fires on nearby roofs. One of the fire/police officers, PC Punter, was very tall and it was he who operated the hose to shoot water into the heart of the fire. Following the catastrophe work to make the ruins safe was carried out by the firm of Richard Barwick with the proscenium wall was demolished under the supervision of the Chief Constable, Marshall Bolt.
The Fire Brigades Act of 1938 placed the duty of providing fire protection on councils. With the possibility of war, the Auxiliary Fire Service was formed that year by which time Dover had four Coventry Climax trailer pumps and one larger pump on a four-wheel trailer. The council appointed Captain R Papillon, from Lee-on-Solent, as Air Raid Precaution (ARP) Officer in May 1938 and a store in Bridge Street was bought for ARP equipment. In July towns folk were invited to the fire station to be measured for gas masks.
- Dover Mercury: 12 & 19 January 2012