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Fire brigade history

The story of the Isle of Man Fire Brigade can be traced back to 20 October 1803, with the arrival of 2 fire engines from England. They belonged to the Sun Insurance Office run by the Douglas agent James Moore. However there was still no organised brigade and the local agent of Sun Insurance relied heavily on local untrained volunteers to man the fire engines whenever they were called out. People living in the out of town areas were still no better off because of the time it would take for word to be sent to Douglas and then to drag the engine to the scene of the fire.

It appears from records that in February 1806 the management of the Sun Fire Office in London decided to send one of the engines to Ramsey, some 16 miles north of Douglas. However by 1808 records report that both engines were back in Douglas. These early engines were normally drawn by hand and could take water from a river or pond. If such a supply was unavailable the main body of the engine, which acted as a cistern could be filled with leather buckets passed by hand by a chain gang. The larger of the two engines at Douglas could be drawn by horse if required, and then the pump needed approximately 20 men to operate it when it arrived at the fire.

It should also be borne in mind that in those days insurance companies would not deal with a fire in a property if there was no insurance fire mark displayed on the outside of the property and it was quite common for an insurance company who realised that the property was not insured by them to stand outside the property and watch it burn down.

After some very serious fires in the mid 1800s, the first legislation giving power to a local authority to spend money on fire fighting apparatus was contained in the Douglas Town Act of 1860. In it the commissioners were given the necessary means to hire or purchase suitable premises to keep fire engines in, to purchase and support fire engines and all necessary appliances, to appoint a fire brigade and determine their pay and charges. The 3 other principal centres of population, Castletown, Ramsey and Peel would eventually follow suit. Legislation was also introduced to permit the formation of water supply companies. It required these companies to provide fire plugs (fire hydrants) and to permit water to be taken free of charge at all times for fire fighting purposes.

June 1884 saw Peel Commissioners purchase their first engine comprising a single hand cart with 2 stand pipes, 2 reels and 150 yards of leather hose. The cart was constructed and delivered by Wm Rose and Sons of Manchester.

Castletown Commissioners met for the first time in 1884 and believed, as far as fire fighting went, that the town was well covered and enjoyed the protection that the military barracks had provided. However after a serious fire in Malew Street the following year, Major Fritz-Herbert of the military wrote to the commissioners and complained that his infantry had considerable difficulty maintaining a supply of water which resulted in the townspeople of Castletown forming a bucket chain from a nearby well. Castletown Commissioners then called for the provision of a better and more efficient fire engine for the town and the insurance companies were asked to subscribe towards the cost, but the matter was dropped when no financial help was forthcoming.

Also in 1884 Ramsey Town Commissioners had opened negotiations with the insurance agents in the town and after long meetings the Isle of Man Insurance Company agreed to pay £20 towards the cost of a new engine which was estimated to cost approximately £50. Minutes of this meeting state that the matter was eventually resolved with the Isle of Man Insurance Company having free use of the engine and equipment.

In September 1895 there was a very serious fire in a boarding house in Sherwood Terrace, Douglas, in which two young servant girls who were sleeping in the attic quarters of the building died. At an inquest the court heard how the dividing wall between the two properties had been reduced to lath and plaster partition and had allowed the fire to spread to neighbouring properties. This fire was the turning point for legislation to be drawn up on 2 points, firstly on the design of buildings and secondly legislation was drawn up to govern habitable rooms.

Also at the inquest the efficiency of the fire brigade was also questioned. The civil engineer to the town commissioners indicated that plans were underway to move the town's fire brigade and incorporate them in the town's new municipal building, so bringing the brigade closer to the town centre. Another outcome of the inquest was that the wheeled escapes (wheeled ladders) should be moved to different parts of the town and therefore the tallest escape was relocated to Villiers Yard which was convenient for the highest buildings on Douglas Promenade. The 45 ft escape was put at the foot of Broadway and the smallest placed in Kensington Road to serve upper Douglas and the Buck's Road area of the town.

There were big changes after a fire in the Falcon's Nest Hotel in Port Erin. Following the fire, the commissioners purchased a 60 ft Metropolitan Escape which cost £91. By 1903 a brigade of 12 men was formed and, after further expansion of the town, the commissioners again agreed to purchase a 45 ft extending ladder and cart from Simmis at a cost of £72 9s.

Laxey were the last to follow and records of 1920 indicate that a fire brigade was formed under the leadership of Captain F.W Cowin. This cart was made by J Blakeborough & Sons Ltd and has been preserved to a very high standard to this day by Laxey Fire Station personnel.

By 1938 with the threat of war looming, a Central Air Raids Precautions Committee was appointed under the chairmanship of Deemster Farrant and the committee investigated all aspects of training for air raid wardens, police, fire and local authorities, and recommendations were made to increase the number of fire fighting personnel. By 1939 the recommendations were being implemented and provisions were being made for Douglas Fire Brigade to operate over the whole of the Island if required.

By February 1940 the Local Government (Fires) Act was implemented. The Act defined seven fire areas - Douglas, Laxey, Ramsey, Kirk Michael, Peel, Port Erin (Rushen) and Castletown. These fire areas are the same to this day.

In June of 1964 the newly formed Fire Services Committee met and the first task was to reorganise the full time staff at Douglas Fire Station in John Street. Within a short time a new establishment was formed to include the Chief Fire Service Officer Cyril Pearson and 9 other personnel. The policy of modernisation continued and by April 1965 a central fire control, manned on a 24 hr watch system was established and at the same time the 999 emergency telephone system was introduced into the fire service control room.

On 2 August 1973 at 7:40pm some boys accidentally set fire to a dismantled kiosk at the Summerland Leisure complex on Douglas promenade. At 8:01pm central fire control in John Street received a 999 call from Duggan's radio cabs informing the fire service that the Summerland Leisure Complex on Douglas Promenade was on fire. The sequence of events that followed this tragic fire have been well published in the past. Some 51 people perished in the disaster and it is the worst British peace time disaster involving fire since 1929.

On 3 September 1973 the Lieutenant Governor appointed a Commission of Enquiry into the Summerland disaster and the enquiry lasted until February 1974. The Commission urged the immediate revision of Theatre Regulations and drastically changed the whole approach to fire safety on the Isle of Man.

Early 1977 saw the fire service take delivery of the new Douglas Fire Station building on Peel Road and the formal opening took place on 30 June 1977. The building is still in use to this day.

In 1988 the Isle of Man Fire Service was renamed the Isle of Man Fire and Rescue Service to take into account the many and varied different types of rescue calls that this very modern and efficient fire service deal with today, such as hill search incidents, line (rope) rescue incidents, and the many road traffic accidents and special service calls that all fire crews from each of the 7 fire stations on the Isle of Man deal with each year.

Further information on the history of the Isle of Man Fire and Rescue Service can be obtained by reading Mann Ablaze by local author Stan Basnett. ISBN 0-948135-25-5.


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