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Monday, 04 July 2022
A HISTORY of Wargrave fire station was the topic of Rodney Annetts’s presentation to the May meeting of Wargrave Local History Society.
Rodney and several members of his family had been firemen there, so he provided a personal insight as well as an historical account.
The fire service in Wargrave began in 1905 when Lance Hannen provided a hand-operated fire pump.
It was operated on a volunteer basis by the scout group. Within a few years, however, the pump was worked by men from the village (still volunteers).
The appliance was replaced by a horse-drawn one. This attended the Wargrave church fire in 1914. It needed four men on each side to work the pump, with others filling it with water.
In 1930 a house-to-house collection raised £430 (about £24,500 today) towards the cost of Wargrave’s first motorised fire engine, a Morris Commercial.
The parish council provided a plot of land for a fire station, which was built by the volunteer fire crew and W H Easterlings, village builders.
In fact, the Easterlings’ workforce were the backbone of the village brigade for decades, most of the firemen having served an apprenticeship with the firm.
This could create difficulties as if six or eight men from a building project were called away to a firefighting incident, the building work came to a standstill.
An agreement was reached that, if possible, two of the builders would not attend the incident.
This practice came to an end, however, in the Seventies, when the firemen needed to attend a fire at Wargrave Manor.
In 1941, the National Fire Service was formed, when many local brigades were taken over, and this continued until 1948, when county fire services were established. Wargrave became part of the Berkshire and Reading Fire Brigade and was known as “station 9”.
By the early Fifties, the fire engine had been replaced by one on a Commer-Karrier Gamecock chassis. It was about this time that bells were installed in the houses of local firemen and a siren would also be sounded to call the volunteers to the station.
There was also a bell at Woodclyffe Working Men’s Club in case the men were in the bar there when an alarm was raised.
The crew at that time included Bill Collyer, John Goddard, Dan Weston, Reg Annetts, Ron Holloway, John Smart, Bill Green and Jack Annetts. By the Sixties Alan Hatch, Geoff Briggs, Alvin George and Ron Hayward had joined.
A record was kept of the fire station’s work, whether that was routine, such as testing the house bells, or an incident that was attended.
Entries in the “occurrence book were written in blue for everyday events, but if someone was injured, or there was a fatality, it was in red ink and the chief fire officer had to be notified.
Rodney recalled one job, a fire at Cape Farewell, where his father, also a fireman, rescued a fur coat thinking it was a cat.
Being located by the River Loddon, there was certainly no trouble with a water supply to fight the fire.
Rodney’s brother Tony joined the Wargrave fire brigade in 1971 and two years later the house bells were replaced by a system of bleepers or pagers.
The first incident to which the Wargrave firemen were called using these was when a car rolled over at Crazies Hill — it belonged to Tony’s then girlfriend!
In the same year, the Wargrave fire engine was replaced by one on a Dodge chassis, which made it much more comfortable.
re-organisation in 1974 resulted in boundary changes to the brigade area and the formation of the Royal Berkshire Fire Brigade.
It lost the Didcot and Faringdon areas, which had new fire engines, and gained the Slough area, which had rather poorer Bedford TK types.
This was also the year that Rodney joined Wargrave fire station.
Under the new regime, part-time fire officers were not allowed to continue in the service so some were unable to remain part of the Wargrave crew. In 1977, the service was renamed the Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service.
Wargrave had long supported its firemen. There were just two who were drivers and when it looked likely that one of them would soon be homeless, the village rallied round.
Similarly, the firemen looked after each other. When the crew attended a fire at DES, a domestic appliance shop in Reading, in 1972, Tony’s life was saved by fellow Wargrave crewman Bob Goddard.
The heatwave of 1976 created different challenges (even ground peat catching fire) so ex-army Green Goddess fire engines were brought out of mothballs.
They had very good pumps, able to move 12,000 litres of water per minute, but were horrid to drive.
Another major incident around this time was a fire at Clark’s builder’s merchants, in Elgar Road, Reading, where two firemen lost their lives.
By this time, volunteers were no longer allowed to be firemen, so a retainer fee was paid to the local crew. Some former volunteers, however, decided to donate their fee to the Fire Service Benevolent Fund.
Wargrave received a new fire engine in 1979. This was another Dodge and Sonning receiving a similar engine at the same time.
The vehicles were a little smaller than standard in order to fit into their fire stations.
The Wargrave crew were proud of their engine so it was well polished. One sunny day, being called to stand by at Caversham Road fire station, it was followed by a police car.
The police complained to Geoff Briggs, who was in charge, that the bodywork was too shiny, and “blinding everybody”! In the Eighties, many of the Wargrave firemen still also worked for Easterlings, including Tony Annetts, Robert Perry, Ian Simpson, Chris Brooks, Les Piercy, Wayne Nash, Gerald Botting, Jim Hawkins, Howard McDonald and Melvyn Hunt.
In the Nineties all the administration was still done as paperwork in triplicate. Eventually computers were introduced, although some of the older men found it was not easy to adapt.
A notable event in 1992 was the fire at Windsor Castle, when the smaller size of the Wargrave fire engine meant it could get through archways to areas inaccessible to the standard appliances.
Rodney was called in to work even though he was officially off duty.
Tony Annetts, by then in charge at Wargrave, left the fire service in 2012 and for the first time in 78 years there was not an Annetts serving at the fire station. Five years later, it was announced that the station would close. Various petitions etc managed to keep it alive for three more years.
There were times when even for an incident in the village a fire engine would be sent from Reading rather than using the local crew.
As a result, the nearest fire station to the village now is at Wokingham Road, Reading, from where it would take 12 minutes to reach the village.
The Wargrave crew had always been a big part of the community, holding open days in aid of the Benevolent Fund, providing demonstrations for local schools etc.
There was clearly a great camaraderie among those who served and pride in what they did.
The society’s next event will be an historic Wargrave exhibition in Woodclyffe Hall on June 11.
For more information about the society, email email@example.com or visit www.wargravehistory.
30 May 2022
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