Fire! Fire! Fire!, in Forest Gate

Friday 5 June 2015

Our recent feature on the shops and traders of Woodgrange Road at the turn of the last century (see here and here), has provoked a flurry of local interest in the fate of the Forest Gate fire sub-station. So, we dug around a little and owe considerable gratitude to local historian and fire service expert, Peter Williams, for what follows.

Peter is doubling up his contribution to this blog with a small display at CoffeE7, showing how things looked from their cafe window in 1900 - with the fire service in mind. So, pop along, have a coffee, and catch up on local heritage!

We've trawled through the excellent Newham Story website (see here), local photographs, maps, trade directories and Peter's detailed knowledge of the Fire Service, and put the following together.

The first record we can trace of a fire service presence in Forest Gate is in the 1890 Kelly's Street Directory, which simply states that there was a "Fire Engine Station" on Woodgrange Road.

This mention is confirmed by the 1893 Ordnance Survey Map (see below, for extract), which shows a "Fire Station" at the junction of Woodgrange and Sebert Roads - where it appears to be adjacent to a public toilet.

1893 Ordnance Survey Map detail,
 showing Fire Station at junction
 of Woodgrange and Sebert Roads.
The 1900-01 Kelly's Directory - used for the 'Woodgrange Road in 1900' blogs - confirms the location, as being in front of what is now the dentist, with the confusing "Market Place" carving on the (sadly neglected) building, at the Woodgrange/Sebert Road junction.

An early 20th century postcard (see below) shows a small wooden hut with a tall ladder in front of what is now the dentist. The detailed enlargement, immediately below this,  clearly shows what was then known as a "Street escape station" - effectively a local sub-station for the West Ham Fire Brigade. The borough service was then based adjacent to Stratford Old Town Hall, the outline of which can still be seen today.

Postcard of junction of Woodgrange
 and Sebert Roads c1900

Detail of the postcard, clearly showing
 'Fire escape station' in foreground
The "Street escape station" consisted of a man and a ladder, which would be rushed off to any local fire or emergency. Below is a close-up photograph of one, from Manchester. The escape weighed about half a ton, so having received notification of a local fire to be fought, the watchman's first task would have been to recruit passers-by to assist him in dragging the appliance to the incident! This, clearly, could only provide a limited and primitive service.

Street escape station, Manchester
 - how the local Forest Gate facility
 would have looked, c 1900
There is no indication of this Fire Service location and presence in the 1902-03 Kelly's Directory.

By 1908 a more effective local fire service sub-station had been built on the corner of what was then Forest Street, and is now occupied by the Lord Lister clinic, on Woodgrange Road. (see 1920 Ordnance Survey map, below for location). n.b. there has been some change in the layout of the streets in the years since this map was made.

1920 Ordnance Survey map detail,
 showing fire station at the end of Forest Street
The photo, below, shows a team of firemen at this location - some of whom would have been part-time or voluntary or auxiliary. Their vehicle was horse-drawn. The man in the centre of the front row of this photo was Henry Dyer, who was a local undertaker and mayor in 1914-15. He featured in our blogs on the local WW1 Hammers Battalion (see here, for details). It is likely that this photo was taken in or around the outbreak of the war.

Forest Gate Fire Station c 1914,
 with 1914-15 mayor,
Henry Dyer centre front row
We have few details of the local fire service over the next decade - including during World War 1, although we know that the station managers from 1908 - 1922 included Edward Smith, W Stringer and Alfred Braddick. 

Motorisation of the fire service fleet - particularly after the war - almost certainly sounded the death knell of the Forest Gate fire service presence.

We know that the Forest Gate depot replaced its horse-drawn vehicle with a motorised one in 1920, but it was not a hitch-free process. Prior to the introduction of the motorised fire engine, the Forest Gate station operated with one horsed fire escape, two horse carts and three firemen. The annual revenue cost of the service was a little under £630.

Although a motor vehicle was introduced to Forest Gate in 1920, by 1922 its big end had broken and the service was forced to acquire 2 horses from the council's stables - presumably to draw the pre-motorised fire vehicle to local incidents. A temporary backward step in the onward march of progress!

Motorisation, however, meant that vehicles could reach Forest Gate swiftly from the main West Ham station in Stratford, and so the pressure was on to rationalise services and close the Forest Gate sub-station. It was, in any event, a fairly quiet facility; having attended only 15 incidents in 1919, seven the following year and 18 in 1921.

A two-shift system - greatly resisted by strong trade unions at the time - was being introduced in Stratford in the early '20s, which would have meant a more comprehensive service for the borough generally.

The Forest Gate sub-station was finally closed on 31 May 1923 and the premises were taken over by the electricity department of West Ham council, which generated and supplied electricity in the borough, at the time.

1 comment:

  1. Being the last West Ham Fire Brigade member to retire, although it was the London Fire Brigade by that time, I am also reasonably well versed in Newham's history as well as fire service history, so I know the history of this location quite well.

    In the days of the street based Fire Escape Ladders, like the one pictured at the Woodgrange Road/Sebert Road junction, it required four people to operate them. Members of the public were often called on to render assistance operating the ladder, and I think they were rewarded with a payment for their services. Possible 6d sixpence or one shilling. In the old Home Office Fire Service Drill Book there was a command, 'Members of the public fall in'.

    There was a similar street Fire Escape Ladder and adjoining hut parked at Plaistow Broadway.

    Due to the rapid growth of the West Ham area, the main fire stations were either in the wrong locations or could not reach given areas of the Borough in a laid down time. As a consequence apart from the sub-station in Forest Gate, additional sub-Fire Stations were opened in Balaam Street near Plaistow Broadway and Freemasons Road in Custom House.

    The coming of motorised fire appliances which could cover much greater distances in a relatively short space of time, probably led to the closure of the Forest Gate sub-station. The other two sub-stations could only be closed when a new station in Plaistow in Prince Regent Lane was opened to replace the existing Canning Town Fire Station.

    The main fire station at Stratford Broadway in a building that originally occupied by Bonallacks covered the Forest Gate area.


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