The Dover fire service technically became independent of the police in 1939. All the officers involved belonged to Dover’s police for ce and they were supported by the volunteer Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS). The AFS was formed in 1938 and locals, throughout the country queued to signed up. This caused resentment from the professionals and the ensuing antagonism eventually led to local fire services coming under government control in 1941. At Dover in 1939, the AFS was strategically located at Finnis Hill, in one of the caves, at Southern Autos Garage, Castle Place, the Woodlands Air Raid Wardens Depot on Bridge Street and at Slip Passage close to the harbour.
War was declared on 3 September 1939 and Dover’s siren sounded shortly after. Joe Harman, an auxiliary fireman, in his book – My Dover, (Riverdale Publications 2001) – tells us that he was at a service in SS Peter and Paul church, Charlton, when the alarm sounded. He quickly left, ran across the churchyard, leapt over the wall and raced back to his home in St Radigunds Road. There he put on his uniform, thumbed a lift on a milk float and, with others, reported to Finnis Hill sub station off Limekiln Street. Only to be told that it was a false alarm!
For two years, up until May 1940, Dover’s Fire Service policemen had been preparing for possible war as well as dealing with routine work. That month the situation changed with the Dunkirk Evacuation (26 May-4 June 1940) and the subsequent Battle of Britain (10 July-31 October 1940). At 07.15hrs on the morning of 29 July*, dive-bombers attacked the harbour wrecking the Naval Auxiliary ship Gulzar and other vessels in the Camber, Eastern Dockyard. The Codrington nearby was hit setting on fire the 10,000-ton naval supply ship Sandhurst which was full of torpedoes, ammunition and fuel oil.
Dover’s firemen, under Ernie Harmer, his deputy, Cyril Brown, together with Section Leader Alec Campbell, in four fire engines, left for the Eastern Dockyard. The Sandhurst was surrounded by burning oil while nearby, on the wharf, were some 200,000 tons of coal and the oil installations. The pipeline to the latter had been severed feeding the already burning fuel. Alec Campbell and his team immediately helped the naval personnel to unload ammunition from the Sandhurst, the rest fought the inferno but winning the battle was slow. Harmer persuaded the authorities to allow them continue and by 15.00hrs, the fires were under control. Throughout this time the harbour was under constant attack from the air.
The George Medal was first issued that year and on the 30 September it was announced that Ernest Herbert Harmer, Cyril William Arthur Brown and Alexander Edmund Campbell were to be recipients. The King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct was awarded to: Dover Fire Brigade, Dover Auxiliary Fire Service, Harold Thomas Bookings – Station Officer, Fire Officers Ernest Alfred Foord, Edward Jesse Gore and Arthur Thomas Cunnington, Auxiliary Fireman, Lionel Rupert Hudsmith and John McDermott. The citation reads:
In a recent large-scale attack by enemy bombers on Dover Harbour, fires were started
in ships and oil stores. Air raids continued throughout the day. During the attacks, all members of the Dover Fire Brigade and Auxiliary Fire Service engaged at the fires did excellent work in difficult and dangerous circumstances and the fires were eventually
extinguished. The individuals named above volunteered to return to a blazing ship containing explosives, in which they fought fires while enemy aircraft were still in the neighbourhood.
The investiture took place on 27 May 1941 at Buckingham Palace.
On 11 June 1966 DC Thomson & Co Ltd, publishers of the British Boys’ comic Hornet (1963-1976), on its front and back page detailed the story of the Dover firemen and their fight in quelling the Sandhurst inferno, this is their take on what happened. (Thanks to Ken Weston for bringing this to our attention)
Besides enemy attacks creating fires there were domestic ones. In February 1941, Kearsney Manor was very badly damaged when fire broke out in the roof. The Fire service received the call at 01.27hrs and the Morris and the Leyland engines turned out, together with units of the AFS. When they arrived, the roof of the building was well alight but they successfully brought it under control within two hours.
On 18 August 1941, all local fire services were brought under central government and the National Fire Service (NFS) was formed. As Dover was under almost constant attack, the new service in the town was quickly stretched to their limits. On 30 October William Benn, aged 4, died from carbon monoxide poisoning while sleeping in one of the cave/shelters in Snargate Street. A coal fire in a bucket had been placed by the cave entrance to keep William and the other children warm. Fireman Howell had attempted first aid to revive William. Saturday 8 November Arthur Skelton, 39, had just left home at Aycliffe, for fire watching duties, when he was killed by a bomb. Fireman Ernest Carberry, on 19 December, was between the fire engine and the trailer carrying a pump when he was hit by the trailer and run over. He died two days later. His comrades also acted as bearers and officers and men of the Fire Service formed a guard of honour at the graveside.
Air and shell attacks continued on the town and in September 1942 all men between 18-60 years and women aged 20-45, had to register for Fire Prevention duties. At times, the Control Centre incident board, in the basement of the Maison Dieu and manned by female fire officers, was so full it jammed. The number of casualties in the town continued to rise, which included fire officers Alexander Bocutt who died on 14 December 1943 and Herbert Dowdell on 12 September 1944. Yet it was the fire officers, along with the police and ambulance men, that helped to keep up the town’s moral. On Christmas Eve 1943 about 130 children, whose fathers were either prisoners of war or missing in action, were entertained by these officers.
Children, however, were becoming an increasing menace. In 1940, most had been evacuated but then they slowly started to drift back. Schools opened for limited times but many children were left their own devices. Possibly out of boredom they were prone to acts of vandalism. Safety equipment, particularly stirrup pumps kept at Street Fire Equipment Points, and children would either steal them or, more often, cut the nozzles off.
On 15 February 1944, a ‘Fire Guard’ plan was put into force in the town, requiring both men and women to undertake compulsory duties in what was considered the danger areas in Dover. A number of women protested and in June the Regional Commissioner agreed to relaxation but many of the women continued to undertake ‘dangerous areas’ duty voluntary. Once the bombardment of Dover from across the Channel ceased, on Tuesday 26 September 1944, the number of volunteer fire personnel was reduced, temporary stations closed and Fire Guard duties ceased. In October 1944, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited the town and escorted by Assistant Group Fire Officer Elizabeth Favell, inspected the Dover Firewomen.
The Dover fire service became part of the newly formed Kent Fire Service on 1 April 1948. The new Brigade covered an area of 975,960 acres and a population of approximately 1,500,000. The eight-pointed cross of St John emblem, embellished with the Kent white horse and the word Invicta – meaning unconquered and attributed to William the Conqueror’s description of the tribes of Kent – was introduced at that time.
On 27 May that year, crews from out of Dover were called to help local firemen deal with the Clan Maclaren, (5,000-tons) whose cargo of jute had caught alight in Boulogne. Still fighting the fire, the ship was brought across Channel and into the harbour. It took three days and some 200 fire-fighters and appliances to bring the blaze under control. The ship sailed, with the residue of its cargo on 31 May and the ship’s owners presented the Kent Fire Service with a model of a sister ship as a memento of the good work.
That year, the Dover force had to deal with fires at Bracqs in the High Street on 2 February; on the ship Invicta on 18 March; Sugar Loaf Cafe, 44, Biggin Street, 10 September and Scott’s Dye Works, Snargate Street on 5 November. Part of the new Act that had created the Kent Fire Service included basic responsibility for fire prevention – fire officers could provide advice if someone requested it. In Dover, the Service made businesses aware of this.
The following year, on 5 September, the first fireman of the new force was killed. He was St Margaret’s Albert Young age 44 and father of three. Albert was thrown from the appliance on the way to a fire and died of his injuries the same day. He was given a Fire Service funeral, the cortege being led by an appliance with the County Fire Officer and escorted by a contingent of fire-fighters from all over the county.
Just before midnight of 1 May 1950, the tower of the Old James’s Church collapsed. Residents of houses in the immediate vicinity said that they heard screams. Fire-fighters were quickly on the scene and, working by headlights, raked through the debris for two hours, often almost choking with dust but no one was discovered. Afterwards, it was believed that the screaming came from disturbed seagulls!
In the early hours of 27 June 1955 Dover’s biggest fire, since the end of the War, broke out in the early hours. It gutted the premises of the Folkestone Motor Company subsidiary, Kennex Coachwork Ltd, in Castle Street. In 1958, the ‘old lady’ of Dover’s fire appliances, Rosetta was sold for £105. Although limited fire prevention was being put into operation, fires continued both in buildings and on ships. While berthed at the Prince of Wales Pier on 28 July 1960, the 3,265-ton Clarita Schroder, carrying a general cargo of cars, crated foodstuffs and machinery, suffered a serious fire. The fire was controlled within four hours by five foam branches and nine water jets but altogether the Service attended for over nineteen hours.
The next year several thousand pounds worth of carpeting was destroyed in January in a store used by the Dover Carpet Weaving Company, at Finnis Hill. As 1961 progressed, there were more major fires, including one in November that gutted nearly the whole stock of motor cycles and bicycles at Tower Hamlets Motor Cycles in East Street. At sea, on 7 September, the Kayseri had broken down and fire was discovered in a cargo of sunflower seeds, cottonseed and oil cake. Eleven hours later the vessel was towed into Dover Harbour and tied alongside the Prince of Wales Pier. During further fire-fighting operations two explosions occurred so she was towed out and beached. The hold was flooded to extinguish the fire.
On 27 January 1962, Leading Fireman Maurice Young of Dover endeavoured to rescue a small boy who had fallen down a narrow, 38-inch (1 metre) across narrowing to 24-inches (0.6metres), disused 180-foot (54.8 metres) well at Oxney Court, on the Dover-Deal Road. Sadly, when the child was reached, at the bottom of the shaft, he was dead. Leading Fireman Young awarded the Queen’s Commendation for Gallantry and a Testimonial on Vellum from the Royal Humane Society.
Fire Prevention increasingly figured in discussions and in 1961, the Public Health Act replaced approximately 1400 sets of local bylaws. This was in order to create national building regulations that came into force in 1965. However, they were only applicable to new, altered or extended buildings and local authorities were not obliged to adopt them. On the 23 May that year the 90-year-old former Oil Mills, then known as Commercial Buildings, Limekiln Street, were destroyed. The cause of the fire was never ascertained but the inadequate fire prevention facilities were noted in reports. The damage was estimated at £1m and several factories were put out of action.
Three years later, in November 1968, a fire in Priory Road led to the deaths of two children and an elderly lodger. At the inquest, the Coroner rejected criticism from some witnesses that fire crews were insufficiently equipped to tackle the blaze. The following year there was a major fire in Saffron Walden, Essex, where eleven people died, which galvanised the Government in taking action to tighten up fire prevention laws. This led to Fire Precautions Act 1971 that came into force the following year. One aspect included minimum safety provisions for means of escape in case of fire. However, this did not apply for existing building unless they were altered or extended.
On 27 March 1977 Leading Fireman John Sharpe, three children and three women were killed when fire swept through the Crypt Restaurant in Bench Street in the early hours. The restaurant was part of a labyrinth of four storeys and a basement fronting Bench Street, and three storeys and a semi-basement facing York Street. These were linked, at the rear, by a range of single and two storey buildings of varying types of construction. The fire had started at ground level and quickly spread to the upper floors through a number of voids. It then spread laterally through the residential accommodation. The alarm was raised at 02.49hrs and by 04.00hrs, the fire-fighters had carried nine persons out of the burning building.
At the inquest, the Coroner, in recording a verdict of accidental death on Leading Fireman Sharp, paid tribute to the gallantry and devotion to duty shown by the members of the Fire Service. Leading Fireman John Sharp was given a Fire Service funeral that took place at St Stephen’s Church Canterbury on 7 April. Over 600 fire service personnel from the UK and France lined the route to the Church.
Ten years later on 6 March 1987 was the Herald of Free Enterprise tragedy, when the car ferry capsized just outside of the Belgium port of Zeebrugge causing the deaths of 193 people. As soon as the rescue operation was launched fire-fighters, heavy cutting and rescue equipment as well as portable lighting were flown from Manston to Liksijide Military airfield, Belgium. More fire officers with rescue equipment, including thermal imaging cameras, followed them. Of those who lost their lives on the Herald were Chief Engineer Bob Crone and Electrical Officer Graham Evans. Both were retained firemen at St Margaret’s Fire Station.
Later that year, in the early hours of the morning of 16 October, severe storm force winds hit the south coast that put a huge demand on the fire service across the county. Off duty officers helped with the emergency and many worked almost none stop for 50 hours. A week later, on 23 October, David Fitzgerald, started a fire in a disused confessional box at St Paul’s Church, Maison Dieu Road. It spread rapidly destroying the roof, organ and much of the interior. Fire-fighters came from all over Kent to tackle the blaze.
In 1987, the Fire Precautions Act 1971 was amended putting a greater onus on owners of business properties to provide means of escape, fire fighting equipment and training of staff. It also gave fire Service the authority to close down premises, except single private dwellings, if they were considered dangerous.
The following year, at 22.14hrs on 23 May 1988, the Service was called to the Seafreight Freeway off Ramsgate. Fifteen fire-fighters were airlifted from Manston and Dover Harbour Board, tug Deft sailed with a further 23 men, extra breathing apparatus sets and spare cylinders. The fire was eventually put out but one of the ship’s crew died and another received serious injuries. Four days later the P&O cargo ferry European Trader carrying 45 passengers and freight, 26 miles north east of Dover reported a fire in the starboard engine. Again, fire-fighters were airlifted and again a DHB tug transported more personnel and equipment. The fire was again put out but luckily, this time there were no fatalities.
On 22 September 1989, at 08.65hrs the Service was called to a fire and explosion at the Royal Marine Barracks, Deal. A two-storey accommodation block had been devastated in which there were sleeping personnel. It quickly became apparent that the building had been a target of an IRA bomb but it was many hours before all the casualties and bodies were recovered. Ten Royal Marines were killed and 12 were badly injured.
On 19 August 1992, much to amusement of the local media, a fire broke out on Dover fire station roof! Luckily, the station personnel were alerted by their own warning system and the blaze was quickly brought under control. It was about this time that the distinctive facade of Dover Fire Station was given conservation status. The following 2 April a fire in a Hovercraft under repair threatened a possible explosion of the on-board fuel tanks. Luckily, this did not happen but the craft was severely damaged. The cause was established as an electrical fault.
In the early hours of 17 March 1995, fire broke out in the labyrinth of tunnels that make up the oil caves on Limekiln Street. Back in the 1970s, fire officers John Walton and Allen (Sam) Cook undertook a survey of all the known underground sites in Dover and the maps, diagrams they made were on file and were put to good use. Nonetheless, access for fire fighting equipment was almost impossible at times and it took nearly 24 hours before the fire was brought under control.
On the evening of 16 November that year, at about 19.30hrs, the Service was called to the B&Q superstore on Charlton Green. The blaze was relatively confined but while five firemen were searching the building a flashover cause a fireball to envelop it. Of the five firemen who went in only three came out. Eventually the other two appeared, their uniforms smouldering. All five were taken to hospital with fire fighter Colin Cox, being admitted into the East Grinstead burns unit for injuries to his shoulder. The store was destroyed but later rebuilt and is, at the time of writing, Morrisons Supermarket.
In 2000, the Government set up a review of fire safety legislation that led to the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 that became law in October 2006. This consolidated past legislation and centred on ‘risk assessment ‘ rather than prescriptive codes and guides. The onus for fire safety became the ‘responsible person’, be it employer, person in control of the building, or the owner. They must ensure that a building is fit for the purposes it is being used for taking into account for the safety of their employees and anyone that may be lawfully on or near their premises. To enforce this, the Fire Service issues informal ‘action plans’ and ‘notice of fire safety deficiencies’ letters. Failure to comply can lead to a formal enforcement order being issued followed by Court action if ignored.
Regardless of the legislation destructive fires continue. On the weekend of 22 September 2007, the former United Reform Church on the High Street and the former Westmount College, Folkestone Road were devastated by fire. More than 70 fire-fighters fought the blazes. In 2009, a 68-year-old man deliberately started a fire at a Dover hotel and was later jailed for six years. In August 2011, a blaze broke out at PPR Wipag Limited, Winchelsea, enveloping much of the area with thick black smoke. It took seven hours for the Service to bring it under control.
However, due to budget cuts, the numbers of retained fire-fighters in the Dover district were reduced by 22.8% over four years from 2007 to September 2011. Then it was announced that from February 2012 the Kent fire service would share the Kent police headquarters at Maidstone. More recently, that St Margaret’s fire station has closed and was sold at auction. In Dover, our fire-fighters remain part of the community. Besides their wide-ranging duties, on the days leading up to Christmas they orchestrate carols in the shopping precinct at the same time as collecting for local charities. They also organise other fund raising events such as Yellow Helmet Day in August.
Finally, on 12 May 2013, a bronze plaque was unveiled, between the watchroom and first engine bay, at Dover Fire Station. This was in honour of the nine men who fought the Sandhurst, Codrington, Gulzar, Oil Installations and the other fires that occurred following enemy attack on the Eastern Dockyard in July 1940. Those who attended included six of the nine men whose names appear on the plaque. A black and white aluminium version of the plaque was presented the following day to Dover Harbour Board and is on display on the wall of the food outlet building near berths 8-9, Eastern Docks.
* There are a number of accounts of the Sandhurst raid, some give 27 July for the occurrence, others 29 July. In the citation, the 29 July is given and this has been repeated here.
- Dover Mercury: 26 January, 02 & 09 February 2012