To Drive A Red Engine

The following is an article I wrote for a magazine called ‘OFF THE RUN’ which is the journal of the Fire Service Preservation Group. (IE they conserve and preserve old fire engines).
OFF THE RUN is quite a small magazine, and I had intended merely to write a short article for inclusion, but I got somewhat carried away.
I joined the fire service on the 23rd October 1961, serving for 28 years before retiring. It was quite some years ago that I started seeing some of the earlier models of fire engines that I had driven and operated appearing in veteran rallies and even museums. I then thought to myself that it was about time, that I wrote down some notes about my own recollections of these machines operationally on and proceeding to the fire ground. Inner city firemen tend not to have the same narcisstic feelings about their fire engines as the lads in the shires, they do not tend to give them pet names although when referring to them will often use the prefix ‘the bloody’. All that is required of the machines, is that they do the job in pumping water, drive well, and are comfortable and warm for the crew. Driving furiously to fires is only a fraction of the time that we spend on them. Strangely enough the fire engines that in the main that met all these demanding criteria, tended to be called Dennis.
I was posted from training school to Camden Town fire station in North West London and had been operational for only twelve months, when a Brigade Order was promulgated asking for any fireman with a full driving licence to apply for a brigade motor driving course, it seemed there was a great shortage of appliance drivers within the brigade. Holding a full driving licence I was tempted by this, and discussed it with the senior firemen. Their advice was emphatic don’t do it! learn to put out fires first, but I was twenty one years old, what man of that age could resist the temptation, of driving the big red dashing fire engine’s around London, so I duly applied and was accepted.
The brigade motor driving school at that time was situated at Southwark training school, a rambling collection of buildings dating back to the 1850’s. The motor training school fleet comprised, one ancient diesel powered Merryweather, one diesel Dennis F101, one petrol powered Dennis F7 and a general purpose personnel type vehicle, all these plus some staff cars squeezed into a three bay appliance room.
Three other prospective brigade motor drivers and myself reported for two weeks instruction one cold November Monday morning. Four trainee’s and four vehicles so far so good, the problem arose that there were only two sub officer instructors, and one of these was instructing another course of prospective motor drivers that were already into their second week of the course. So there it was, one instructor four trainee’s and since the instructor could only sit in one fire engine at a time, and only one trainee be at the wheel, things did not look promising. So it turned out, with frequent stops at café’s for cups of tea, a one hour dinner break, taken at Lambeth HQ canteen. Then washing down the fire engine every night (whether it needed it or not). Some classroom lectures (virtually no instruction whatsoever on pumps and pumping). Then every Friday afternoon at training school (Saturday mornings on the fire stations) the time honoured ritual of scrubbing out the appliance room. So if we were lucky we actually sat behind the wheel of a fire engine, for about one and a half hours of each day. (Note at this period of time 1962 to drive a heavy goods vehicle on the public roads, all one needed was a full motor car licence and to have attained the age of twenty one years).
Our first tentative drives to assess our skill levels were taken in the personnel carrier, this was not to much of a problem to us has it had a syncromesh gear box. Then came the AEC Merryweather fire engine, this machine remains imprinted in my mind over all the years, as the most unsuitable fire engine (for inner city work) I ever came across. A great big lumbering ponderous beast, built on a chassis that was originally designed and intended for London buses. The chassis (so I was told) was actually lower at the nearside than the offside, to facilitate boarding of passengers at the kerbside. It had something called reduced steering, which made it easier to turn the steering wheel (an early form of power steering). Although this system made the steering wheel easier to turn, it took many more turns of the wheel to negotiate a corner. The gear box was of course non syncromesh which meant double de-clutching at every gear change. This was a skill that the other three trainee’s were all having to learn, I had learned to drive on army vehicles and had acquired this skill already, never-the-less the Merryweather’s gearbox was something of a challenge. As a point of pure technical interest this gearbox had something called (I believe) a damper fitted. When the clutch pedal was fully depressed to the floor a damper reduced the clutch/engine? revolutions. This was then claimed to give a quicker smoother gear change, although I myself could never quite get the hang of it. The Merryweather chassis and engine may have been a superb innovation for a pre-war London bus, trundling sedately down the carriageways of the Metropolis, but as a fire engine it was a load of old crap in my humble opinion.
Although I went on to take and past my brigade driving test in a Merryweather machine, I did not drive them much operationally. Occasionally at Camden Town fire station, we would have one on the run as a spare appliance, usually as a pump, then the pump escape (a Dennis F101) would screech off into the blue leaving the Merryweather trundling sedately miles behind. This would be esspecially annoying to myself should I be driving the pump, for me being a relatively new driver did not have the intimate knowledge of the fire ground that the senior drivers had. On the odd occasion I had been know to say desperately to the officer in charge of the appliance We are the FUCKAREWE (an old rugby song) thankfully him being an old hand he usually knew and directed me on to the fire.
Upon return from driving school to Camden Town fire station we had on the run there at the time two Dennis F101s. Rolls Royce diesel engined machines these were at the time, probably the most up to date appliances in the London fire brigade. Once one got use to the arse about faced gearbox, they would go like the clappers of hell, compared to the Merryweathers, and a few long nosed (bonnets) petrol Leylands still in service. Initially I had a bit of a problem with the Dennis’s, not in making them go, but go in operating the stop pedal the brake!. These machines I think had the very first servo assisted vacuum? Braking systems in the brigade. They were a bit on the over sensitive side and needed but the slightest touch on the brake peddle to bring them screeching to a halt, in clouds of burning rubber smoke.
To anyone like myself being used to the simple hydraulic braking systems used on previous heavy vehicles. Where in emergency braking one had to grasp the steering wheel rigidly with both hands to give additional leverage to the right braking foot, at the same time as keeping your fingers crossed in order to stop the vehicle. Well it seemed that the tiniest dab of your big heavy fire booted foot on the brake pedal, would produce clouds of rubber smoke from the rear wheels, and a loud chorus of complaints from the buffeted about crew members.
I drove these Dennis F101 machines for about 18 months whilst stationed at Camden Town fire station, attended a lot of both big and small fires with them, and really thinking back cannot fault them. The road engine and fire pump were both up to the job, the gear box was a bit sticky, but one got used to that. There was only one minor drawback that I can think of, and that was the brigades fault not Dennis’s, they only had a 100 gallon water tank which was the norm in the London fire brigade at the time.
In was in around the year 1962 whilst I was still at Camden Town fire station that two new innovative features came into the London fire brigade, rotating blue lights and air horns. I had arrived early for the night shift at Camden and relieved the red watch driver on the pump escape. He handed over the appliance a Dennis F101 to me as all correct no problems, but he forgot to mentioned one small but quite important detail. Ten minutes or so later the bells went down for a shout. I jumped up into the cab of the pump escape, turned the master switch that brings on the road lights and blue’s etc, then started up the big diesel road engine. I sat there waiting patiently occasionally gunning the engine, waiting for the duty man to bring out the call slip. His voice called out loud and clear “fire at 19 Smith Street” I nodded to the station officer sitting next to me, indicating that yes I knew the address. He called out through the open cab window “DOORS” I engaged first gear in anticipation. The dutyman pulled down on the braided line hanging from the ceiling, and the big wooden appliance room doors folded back inwards. I let the clutch out and pressed the accelerator the machine moved forwards about two feet. Then suddenly just inches above my head was an horrendously loud hissing noise, something was deffinatly seriously amiss. I stamped on the brakes exclaiming at the same time “what the f*ck was that”. The station officer replied rather irately for I had just thrown him forward with the unexpected violent braking “what the bloody hell was what”. “That loud hissing noise coming from up here” indicating the cab roof above my head. “I never heard nothing” he snapped back “get moving we are going to a fire”. I let out the clutch and moved forward warily another two feet or so, when it happened again, a loud demonic hissing directly above my head. This time I knew that I had deffinatly heard it I was not dreaming, there was something seriously wrong with this fire engine, and was not going anywhere till I found out what it was. The appliance room doors were wide open, the members of the public had got fed up with waiting for us to leave, and were now meandering across the forecourt. The station officer was getting a bit terse as I gently moved the fire engine another couple of feet experimentally forward, nothing happened. Before the station officer could do or say anything, I had the cab door open and was standing on the driving seat and peering at the cab roof whence this ominous noise came from. There I saw something that was definitely not there, went I went off duty at nine o’clock that morning, a pair of big shiny air horns. It seemed that these early air horns relied on the compressor building up pressure before actually going DA DA, I wish some bugger had told me that! Or even that they were up there just above my head. Eventually as we set out heading for the fire, I had to admit those new fangled air horns were far more efficient at clearing traffic than the old electric bell. Although one or two motorists encountered on the way did brake to a sudden halt, no doubt saying to themselves what I had said earlier “what the f*cks that” upon hearing the new two toned air horns.
Now as a result of a shortage of motor drivers at A8 Brompton fire station in South West London, and a surplus of drivers at Camden Town, I was about to be transferred to Brompton fire station against my will. Although Brompton was much nearer to my home in Fulham, I had been very happy at Camden, and was not a happy bunny at the enforced transfer.
It was at Brompton that I was to meet my all time favourite over all the years that I served fire engine. In my time I have driven many makes and models of fire engines with various automatic gear boxes and power steering systems all sorts of all singing and dancing models. I have in the main always favoured Dennis machines they seemed to have been purpose built from start to finish, and with much previous experience put into their design. Then as an additional bonus, the locker doors tended NOT to jam or fall off.
Now Brompton fire station had been built in around the mid 1800s, it was quite a small station by London standards, and blended harmoniously into a tree lined back street. Its ground floor accommodation had been designed and intended for horse drawn fire engines, and it’s arched framed appliance room doorways were adequate for these, but not for large modern appliances. I had been a bit despondent at leaving Camden so had not made many enquiries about my new station posting. As I struggled to heave my motorcycle with two kitbags full of uniform and fire gear up onto its back stand outside Brompton station, I glanced through open appliance room doors. There framed in the Gothic door arches stood a matching pair of gleaming red and chromium Dennis F 7 fire engines. Note the terminology ‘matching pair’ an equestrian usage dating back to the days of horse drawn fire engines. Now to say that my heart beat with delight at the sight these beautiful gleaming machines, would be a gross untruth. I had encountered these Dennis’s at motor training school, and all I could remember of them right now, was that they had a sod of a difficult crash gear box, which merely added to my gloom at the transfer.
On my first duty day I found that I had been put down to drive the pump, so as soon as we had checked the appliances and gear then had a quick cup of tea, I asked to take the pump out on a familiarisation drive. So off we set out around the back doubles of Chelsea, the venerable long serving Sub Officer seated alongside me. He was not most impressed with the ringing and dinging and clanging as I endeavoured to get used to the non syncro crash gearbox once again. After about a one hour drive I had more or less re-mastered the art again, and was duly booked back on the run for fire calls. As time went by, I actually grew to love these little (by fire brigade standards) machines with their Rolls Royce petrol engines, we would have them screeching around the congested fire ground like a pair of freshly unleashed whippets. The change down from 3rd to 2nd gear at speed, needed the road speed and engine revolutions to be exactly right, to effect a clean change, once this skill had been mastered, the world was your oyster, and we couldn’t be seen for exhaust smoke.
The follow is an extract from my first book ‘To Ride a Red Engine’ and is at Brompton fire station, before I had fully mastered the Dennis fire engines.
On the next day duty I was down to drive the pump escape to fires for the first time. I carried out the routine checks on the machine at 9am on the change of watch, but it was not until about 11.30am that the first fire call came in. The bells went down and I jumped up into the driving seat of the pump escape, the duty man came out with the call slip, and shouted out the address of the fire. The call was to neighbouring Battersea fire station's fire ground as take machine. The appliance room doors opened and I drove out of the station. After making the right hand turn out of the station, I attempted to change into second gear. The gear lever first of all refused to come out of first gear, and then for a while would not go into second gear. All this being accompanied by a horrendous clashing and ringing noise from the gearbox. I found this a bit embarrassing and disconcerting on my very first fire drive at Brompton. The venerable sub officer sitting alongside me in the number one seat was visibly not impressed either. I kept the fire engine roaring along in second gear for a time, whilst I plucked up courage to try for the change to third gear. This time the gear stick totally refused to come out of second gear, even after several tries it was still stuck solid. By this time we had arrived at a T junction in the road, and turned right into the busy Kings Road. I kept the engine revolutions down a bit and tried for third gear once again. This time it came out of second gear easy enough, but totally and absolutely refused to go into third gear. Each time I pushed the gear lever forward, it gave a loud ringing noise like the ringing of a giant bench saw. Thus we proceeded down the busy and fashionable Kings Road, slipping into second gear occasionally to gain a bit of momentum, and then grinding and crunching away at the old third gear without success. The venerable sub officer had by now given up ringing the appliance fire bell, whether out of sheer embarrassment, or the fact that I was making more noise with the gearbox than he with the bell I know not. Whether he did or not was academic, because from the position he had now adopted, lying almost flat in his seat, out of site of the public, he would not have been able to reach the hand bell, which was mounted on the cab roof, even if he had wanted to do so. We turned left at a set of traffic lights heading towards the river Thames and Battersea. With the road speed and engine revolutions very low, I tried one more time for third gear. Then with a little clanging of gears only, she went into third gear. What a relief! In third gear we should be able to get up to thirty miles per hour and at least arrive at the fire. Ahead of me at about 400 yards distance, I could see one more major hazard to be surmounted. The busy Thames Embankment traffic crossed over the road we were travelling along. I could see the three lanes of traffic in each direction, thundering across the junction in the distance ahead of me. Having got into third gear only with great difficulty, I most certainly did not want to have to come out of it again. So I was planning my approach to the junction with this object in mind, to arrive at the traffic lights when they were green, and thus in my favour. This of course is easier said than done, for at any busy road junction there will be cars turning left and right and partially blocking the junction. This was inevitably what occurred. Not daring to drop below ten miles per hour, the stalling speed in third gear, and with the lights in my favour, the traffic in front of me snarled up. The only clear route through the junction was onto the offside of the road against the oncoming traffic flow. Then back onto the nearside again, threading my way through the traffic in doing so. All to be achieved with a minimum speed of not less than ten miles per hour lest I stalled the engine. The comparative calm of the last twenty seconds or so had meant that the sub officer had just regained the seated upright position. As we entered into the first bend of the Embankment chicane, with the traffic scurrying in all directions around us, his sudden furious burst of renewed frantic bell ringing didn't help matters at all. Merely serving to confuse the poor motorists who were now busily engaged looking all around them, wondering no doubt where the devil did that fire engine come from, instead of proceeding forward out of my way. We made it through the junction without mishap, more by good luck than judgement, leaving the tangled up motorists behind us to sort themselves out in their own good time. Then up and over the brow of Battersea Bridge, and we could see Battersea's two machines pulled up at the side of the road, we had arrived. The sub officer dismounted from the machine and slammed the door behind him without comment, and stalked off to find the officer in charge of the incident. All on my own in the cab I tried to find out why the road gears would not engage properly and cleanly. The vehicle clutch certainly seemed to be okay. Whilst the vehicle was stationary it was possible to engage all four road gears, it appeared that only while the vehicle was moving did the trouble arise. Then I spotted the problem, the power take off that engaged the fire pump to enable it to work off the appliance road engine was in the operating position. In theory it is almost impossible to change gear with the power take off engaged. Although I should have spotted the power take off was engaged as soon as I moved off on the call, because I was driving a new, or unfamiliar, fire engine I did not do so. But despite all the upsets, what pleased me was that even with the power take off engaged, I had still managed to engage not only second, but third gear also, quite a considerable achievement, of which I was quite proud. It was this that was on my mind when the sub officer returned. I said to him, "Do you know what I have just done Sub?" To which he immediately replied, "Yes you have just knocked ten years off of my life, and if I'm not wrong, just about every tooth off every cog, off every gear, in that bloody fire engine." I tried to explain to him about the power take off being engaged, and how difficult it was to engage even second gear with it so engaged, yet I had still managed to obtain third gear, but he was obviously in no mood for a discussion on technical matters, so I let it pass. I did learn from this incident, and in the future never drove more than a few yards with the power take off engaged, without recognising the fact immediately. In future years whilst riding as officer in charge of appliances in the nearside front seat, I would invariably know before even the driver of the appliance knew, that the power take off was engaged. I have startled many a driver by informing him before we had even left the appliance room that his PTO was engaged, so fully did I learn my lesson.
A year or so after my arrival at Brompton fire station the old station was closed and we moved about a quarter of a mile away to a newly built fire station now to be called Chelsea. Our two old Dennis F 7’s were taken away from us to be replaced with two brand new machines, which even now I cannot remember the make. Only that they had the most crappiest automatic gearboxes I ever came across, I think they must have been designed for hearse’s not fire engines. They were a total embarrassment, one driver on the other watch swore that he was overtaken by an electric milk float. Only after we challenged him did he say by way of excuse and qualify it “OK so it was an unladen milk float, and it was going down hill at the time”.
At around this time I had applied for a turntable ladder course and duly been accepted. This would have been around the years 1963/4 at this time the old mechanical turntables were being replaced by the then new hydraulically operated ladders. So I duly reported to Lambeth headquarters for a course of three weeks duration, to be trained both on Merryweather mechanical, and Merryweather hydraulic turntable ladders. I had previously applied for a posting to Soho fire station in the West End of London, a far busier and interesting station. Now as a result of my turntable ladder qualification I was duly posted to the blue watch at Soho. Soho was a three appliance bay fire station, situated in Shaftsbury Avenue by Cambridge Circus. The appliances there were Dennis F 101 pump escape, and pump, and a set of Maguirus turntable ladders, which of course I was not qualified to operate. Subsequently most of the time I would be driving the pump or pump escape of which I was very familiar with. What I was not familiar with were the traffic conditions in London’s West End at the time. It is one thing driving bloody great big fire engines down the broad lengths of Piccadilly and Oxford street, but when you have to negotiate the narrow back doubles of Soho with PE, P, and Turntable ladders it can get quite frustrating. This was all back in 1965ish before traffic wardens even I believe. After six o’clock at night parking was totally out of control, you seemingly parked your car where you liked, as long as there was enough room for another car to pass. Of course fire engines are a bit wider than your average motor car, therein lay the problem. Soho firemen at the time would have been the worlds experts at breaking and entering, moving, and bumping up onto pavements of stationary vehicles. For your information, on the rare occasions when the machines could not proceed for parking obstructions, a party would proceed on foot carrying stand-pipe key and bar, hose and branches and attempt to fight the fire with water direct from a street fire hydrant.
I kept up my turntable ladder operating experience in the main, by standing by for shifts at other fire stations when they were short of ladder drivers. Then one great day as I was entering Soho station for a night shift, I saw there sitting in the appliance room a magnificent set of Merryweather mechanical ladders. It appeared that the day shift had quite seriously broken the Maguirus ladders, and the Merryweathers were a spare re-placement set of ladders. The other ladder drivers on my watch although trained to use Merryweathers, were not that keen on using them, therefore although far junior in service to them, I was now deemed the number one Soho ladder driver.
The duty board for that night had been amended, and my name was now down to drive the turntable ladders. After roll call, and as soon as we had finished our tea, I asked to have the ladders out in the drill yard. I felt my ladder operating skills were a bit rusty, and wanted to get in a bit of practice, and for an hour I practiced to my heart's content. At around eight thirty the bells went down and the yellow indicator light in the appliance room came on, denoting a turntable ladder shout. When I jumped up into the cab, I saw a piece of paper stuck with sellotape onto the windscreen, and on it were written the words `Palace canopy'. The Palace Theatre was directly opposite the fire station, on the other side of Shaftsbury Avenue. It had along the side of it a canopy which overhung the pavement, provided I believe, to keep the public dry as they queued to go into the theatre. This piece of paper had been stuck on the windscreen by the other ladder drivers to remind me, tongue in cheek, not to make the same mistake that so many other turntable ladder drivers not used to Soho had made. That is, as I pulled out of the station and across Shaftsbury Avenue to then turn right, not allowing for the canopy's overhang. Remember that the actual ladders stick out four feet in front of the appliance. Failing this, I would join the long list of Brigade ladder drivers that had all at some time demolished the overhanging canopy outside the Palace Theatre. At one thirty in the morning, a special service call was received at the station. The call was as follows, `To assist police, man threatening to jump, Charing Cross Road. Silent approach, Soho's pump and turntable ladders to attend'. Silent approach meant to approach the incident without sounding the bells or horns. On arrival, the address was a row of shops six storeys in height, with residential accommodation above. We were met by the police, who told us they had been attempting to arrest a man in a fifth floor flat over the shops. He had locked himself into the flat and threatened that if the police attempted to break in he would throw himself out of the fifth floor window. The police asked if it would be possible for us to put a ladder up and block the window opening, so that the man would then be unable to get out of it. They stressed it must be achieved at the first try, and done quietly. The only ladder which would reach the fifth floor was of course the turntable ladder, which I was driving for the very first time. I positioned the ladders into place in front of the building and very carefully sited them on the road to reach the fifth floor window. A man in a white shirt occasionally appeared at the window and shouted out of it. This was the alleged villain, and this was the window to be blocked. The turntable ladder's ground jacks and axle locks were lowered into place, and with the power take off to drive the mechanical ladders engaged, all was ready. At this point the station officer, with George Phillips by his side, came over to me and said, "Now look here Wilson, we are only going to get one shot at this, now if you think you can't do it, George here will do it," indicating George at his side. That was exactly what I needed, just as I was facing my first real test of my ladder operating skills on the fire ground and under stress to know that the guvnor had no confidence in me. He was in fact telling me that although he did not really have the power to prevent me working the ladders he would be far happier if George, the more experienced ladder operator, did so. I quietly replied, "Thank you, but I think I can manage, Guvnor." The plan had been agreed with the police; they would keep the man talking at the door of the flat, then give me the signal to proceed. I would quickly and quietly block the window with the head of the ladders and when I had done so, they would break into the flat and grab the man. I was standing up high on the operating platform waiting for the start signal. When the signal came the big searchlight clicked on, illuminating the window. I engaged the elevating clutch and the big ladder began to lift up off of its gantry. As soon as the ladder was clear of the gantry, I engaged the training lever and the ladder began to turn across the chassis to face the building. The ladder was now directly across the chassis, and the ladder elevated and aimed for the window above the fifth floor. I moved the big speed lever into high speed, and began extending the ladder up into the air. The ladder increased in length, its ladder pawls clicking loudly away as it did so. I felt sure that even if the man could not hear the noise of the engine, he must surely hear the noise of these loudly clicking ladder pawls, but he apparently did not. The ladder was still extending upwards, and I made some small adjustments to the training across the chassis. I now noticed that there was a policeman leaning out of the window directly above the one I was aiming for. He was frantically signalling with his hands that the ladder was already high enough. I knew more about this subject than he did, and kept the ladder extending directly towards the agitated policeman. The policeman had given up his signalling in despair to him the ladder was already far too high to effect the window block. Only now did I start to depress, or lower, the ladder into the building. What the policeman did not know was that as the ladder was lowered to the building, it would lose most of this seemingly excessive height as it crossed the pavement and basement area. I had in fact deliberately kept the ladder slightly short in length, so that as it entered the window opening I could increase the length, and thus completely block the window. I pushed down on the depressing lever to lower the ladder into the building. This was where I faced the moment of truth!. The ladder dropped beautifully and neatly into the window opening, with only inches to spare below the top sill. As the ladder came to rest, behind it in the room appeared the man in a white shirt. The man was now desperately attempting to squeeze out of the window, around the sides of the ladder. I pushed down on the depressing clutch lever and the big ladder tightened up firm against the bottom window sill and was now immovable in the window opening the man was trapped. After the ladders were all made up, and I was waiting to return to the station, George Phillips came over and said to me, "Dave, was I relieved when you said that you would do it. I haven't used Merryweather ladders for years, you did a fine job, far better than I could have done." Such praise from the master! Considering that this was the first time I had operated turntable ladders in anger on the fire ground, I was quite pleased with myself. This my very first operational ladder job, was to remain the most exacting one of my whole career. Some were to follow that were more dangerous or exciting, but none that ever required such precision operating, with only one attempt.
When riding the ladders you didn't get any rubbish fires, or lift jobs, you only got calls to real fires. If, when you got there, the ladders were not likely to be required, i.e. a basement fire, you could join in the fire fighting. Then at make up fires one of the first indicators that most of the fire fighting and excitement were over would be the loud request, "Ladders away, Guv," which invariably meant that the ladder driver was fed up, and wanted to go home. Most of the property in central London was four stories high or more, and the ladders received a great deal of use. Smoke issuing from a roof, put the ladders up to have a look; person locked out of fifth floor, send for the ladders; difficult chimney, request attendance of turntable ladders. The Brigade's policy was that the ladders were there to be used, so use them. Of course every pitch on the fire ground, i.e. person locked out, was worth a dozen simulated pitches on the drill ground. Driving the mechanical Merryweathers was a pleasure and skill of its own. The open cab, the long bonnet sticking out six feet in front, the ladders themselves resting on the gantry above the driver's head, and then protruding out and over the bonnet, the big steering wheel which was not power assisted and at slow speeds took all one's strength to turn. The gear change lever, big and solid, like the top sawn off a bofors gun. The crash (no synchromesh) gearbox, which required at times a wait of almost five seconds in the neutral position before the next gear could be engaged. Lastly the pedals. The brake pedal was a big six inch oval shaped rubber covered disc, set on the right. The clutch pedal was again a big six inch oval disk set to the left. Hidden away in between the two of them was a tiny little accelerator pedal.
Driving them was like driving a ship. With the big, solid chassis she swayed and rolled with every camber in the road. With the helmsman (driver) seated so far back from the front of the ship, the wheel had to be turned long before the turning was reached. Stopping them on wet roads was exactly like a ship. Great distances had to be allowed to bring the thirteen tons of metal to a halt without locking the wheels, or she would glide on unstoppable, until the momentum ran out, or she struck something even more solid than herself. They even had a ship's bell, a great big upturned silver bucket of a fire bell, suspended on the nearside and rung by hand by the officer in charge. With the mechanical ladders of German design, the Metz and Maguirus, the driver operated them standing on the ground at the rear of the ladders. But with the Merryweather ladder, the driver stood up on high, on the actual turntable itself, where he could be better seen and admired by his public. He was provided with great big levers, like railway signal box levers, to push and to pull for fast and slow speeds. Separate levers for each movement of training, elevating, and plumbing. The Merryweather mechanical turntable ladder driver was, and could be seen by his public to be, a true artisan. The mechanical turntable ladders were the last of an era, and were now being replaced by hydraulically operated ladders. These new ladders included such luxuries as fully enclosed and heated driving and crew cabs; power steering; power brakes; hydraulically operated ground jacks and axle locking devices. Though these new ladders were indeed far superior to the old mechanical ones, for myself and many other ladder drivers, it was similar to the passing of the age of steam a sad, nostalgic time.
Now was a time of great change in my life (around 1966) I had recently got married and we were unable to buy or rent property in London. So chivvied by my new wife I applied and was accepted for a transfer to the (then) Reading and Berkshire brigade, and my new workplace was to be Caversham road fire station in Reading. Caversham road station was by London standards a new building (built I think in 1939) the appliance room had three bays, but room for six appliances, three turning out through the rear doors via the station drill yard. The machines on the run there were Merryweather 100ft hydraulic ladders, Dennis F 12 pump escape, a Commer water tender ladder, a breakdown lorry with a crane on the back which also did service as an emergency tender. On my first day on duty they decided to evaluate my driving skills, and I was duly despatched with the turntable ladders and a sub officer sitting alongside me, to negotiate Reading town centre. Silly old them, after the back doubles of Soho it was a doddle. What worried me was the thought of them big winding wide open A class roads in the county, and doing seventy miles an hour, astride fifteen tons of metal and rubber, with a ton and a half of iron ladders perched on the top. Very seldom in the west end of London did we attain speeds above 40 miles per hour.
The water tender ladder BBL as it was known (after the first three letters of its number plate) was I think a one off, or little produced Commer machine. It carried 400 gallons of water, and to me at the time had a startlingly new innovation, high pressure hose reels with which I was most impressed. I was not impressed with the ladder it carried a 45ft (I think Merryweather make) three extension metal ladder with side props, known to all as the gut-busters, by virtue of their weight and difficulty in manoeuvring them.
BY contrast FMO as she was affectionally called (again after the first three number plate digits) was a lady of good breeding. FMO was a Dennis F 12 in exceptionally good condition and low mileage, her paintwork was immaculate. On her back she proudly carried a fifty foot wooden, wheeled escape ladder. I had on one occasion driven this machine on a fire call, seated alongside me was the very senior, bucolic, not given for over enthusiasm, station officer from another watch. I myself at the time had acquired the reputation of being a bit of a cockney rebel. We had had a good speedy ride with patchy traffic conditions, and I had been up and down the gearbox a dozen or so times all done sweetly and smoothly. On return to the station he said to me quietly almost grudgingly “I’ll say one thing for you young Wilson, you can certainly handle that machine”. Praise indeed, I almost asked him to repeat it, write it down and sign it even, but of course I knew better than to do that.
I like to tell the above story in conjunction with the following one, for obvious reasons. The allegedly reprobate blue watch at Caversham road fire station had just been allocated a brand new, newly promoted station officer. The theory being that this gentleman full of bounce and vigour, would alter our wayward ways. Soon after his arrival it was observed that he was inordinately proud of his new status and uniform. Indeed he had been seen in his office admiring himself in the mirror wearing his new station officers hat, altering the tilt and angle, endeavouring to find the most stylish pose. Firemen are like this! the new station officer had not been with us a day yet and we were looking for chinks in his armour, and already we had found one, he was a bit of a vain b**tard!. This was to be demonstrated fully to me personally in the early afternoon of that day. He announced “pump escape and crew mount up, book mobile, we are going out for a bit of topography”. This was a bit of a surprise for he had previously served at Caversham road, and knew the fire ground well enough. I was the driver and he directed me to take a route through the town centre. After a short while it dawned on me that we seemed merely to be driving up and down the busy main streets. He was seated alongside me in the number one seat wearing his new station officers hat, by now the sides of the hat had been bent down in the casual style the old hands favoured. He was sitting upright in his seat, the cab window wound down, occasionally he would gracefully raise his hand in acknowledgment of someone he knew. I was now getting a bit peeved, thinking to myself who did he think he was, the f****ing queen mother. It was patently obvious that we were doing laps of honour around the town centre so his admiring public could see him in his new station officers kit. The cockney rebel in me surfaced, I muttered under my breath “I’ll soon bloody well sort him out”. Again softly I apologised to FMO (the Dennis fire engine) “sorry old girl, I’ve got no choice, I have to do this to you”. Then whilst we waited at the very next set of traffic lights, I quietly moved the power take off lever back, and engaged the main fire pump. Now if you had read one of my previous stories at Brompton fire station, you would already know that having the main fire pump engaged whilst moving along the road, causes much loud clanging, ringing, and grinding in the gear box at every change of gear. On the previous occasion when this had inadvertently happened to me, I must admit I myself felt acutely embarrassed, but not this time, I left all that stuff to his majesty God sitting next to me. We had not gone two hundred yards down the road before he had closed his cab window. Another couple of hundred yards of ringing and clanging, and me cursing loudly at the old gear box, soon had him sliding down in his seat. Some more hundreds of yards passed bye still ringing and clanging and grinding away at the old gearbox, he had by now slunk right down in his seat. Then unfortunately, him being such a tall chappie he could not slide far enough forward to make his head disappear completely below the window. He solved this little problem by moving his best’est new station officers hat over to one side, so that his face could not be seen by the public. I think it was about then, that I blithely informed him “I think the old clutch is knackered guv, I think we had best go back to the station”. Thus we proceeded by the quickest route back to Caversham road fire station, chugging along in second gear to avoid further clanging and ringing. The icing on the cake to this tale was, that once I had reversed back into the station, and there when I pretendedly discovered that the cause of all our problems was that the pump was in gear. I then blamed him for unknowingly having knocked the PTO lever back, and got away with it.
On a happier note, many years later when FMO was finally retired from active service, she was not stripped of her equipment and uncaringly disposed of to the knackers yard, the usual fate of redundant fire engines. She was instead, placed into honourable retirement and retained by the Berkshire fire service, with all her original bits and pieces and escape ladder intact, as a vintage/veteran machine. So now as such, she is probably one of the finest examples of a preserved Dennis fire engine.
The other appliance stationed at Caversham road was the breakdown lorry. This was exactly what it looked like, a sort of fire enginey type lorry with a great big crane and hook on the back. It served a dual purpose, first as a breakdown lorry to rescue broken down fire engines, and secondly as road traffic accident rescue vehicle. The hook could also be used for lifting all manner of beasties out of holes and rivers and suchlike, whence they had inadvertently fallen. It was kitted out with oxy-acetylene and portable oxy-propane cutting gear, and a large selection of lifting, pulling, and shoving tackle. I have two main memories of this machine, firstly that it was shadow manned. Early on in my days at Caversham road, I was put down as riding in the back of the pump escape for the shift. Around mid morning the fire bells rang on the station, dashing into the appliance room I saw the letters BL (Breakdown Lorry) lit up in red on the appliance indicator board. I immediately relaxed, had the call been for myself, the letters PE would have lit in the board. All around me was a flurry of activity, people were dashing about carrying fire kit in their arms, it seemed to me that all these silly buggers had forgotten to put their fire gear on the machine at the beginning of the shift. It was only when the sub officer shouted at me “Wilson don’t stand there like a prat get your gear on the breakdown lorry”, Then I politely tried to explain “not me sub I’m riding the pump escape” . He then screamed back at me “yes and your riding this bloody one as well” that I fully understood what shadow manning meant. My second memory; the breakdown lorries turnout area was the whole of the county of Berkshire. This could entail runs of up to 40 minutes or more screeching around the countryside, bells and horns going, sounds exciting but the novelty soon wears off. In fact on many of these long distance calls, we would be turned back via the radio before arriving, then if it was a nice day the fun bit began. The sub officer would say to the driver, “lets go back the pretty way” then pub opening hours permitting, we might even get a pint of beer at some secret, way out of the beaten path hostelry. Just as an afterthought though, it seemed that with this particular sub officer, it was always pub opening hours someplace somewhere, which only he seemed to know about.
In around 1969 I transferred back to the London Fire Brigade, after spending five weeks at the Southwark training school, to be re-programmed back into London ways, I was then posted to Paddington fire station, in west London. Paddington was a brand spanking new divisional station, having five bays, both front and rear. The appliances stationed here were PE. P. TL. ET (emergency tender) a huge bus like vehicle. Divisional vans, BA control units, and staff cars. The appliances there were all fairly modern, to fit in with a posh new divisional station, so I do not have many memories of them. I do have one little recollection from this station though. Whilst I was there it was announced that we were to get yet another two new appliances as PE and P. and that these new appliances were to have automatic gearboxes. This brought groans of dismay from the drivers, all previous (commercial type) automatic gearboxes having been deemed useless by them. It transpired that the London fire brigade was most keen to have automatic gearboxes on its appliances. The manual boxes apparently only lasted for around 3000 miles before expiring under the heavy fire boots of the firemen drivers. The new appliances duly arrived, two gleaming Dennis fire engines fitted with something called an Allison automatic gearbox (of USA manufacture I believe). We were giving a couple of hours instruction with the automatic boxes, before the machines were put on the run. The Allison gearbox has can also be used in a pre-select mode, myself and all the other old die-hards would use this method to manually change gear for quite some months, before finally realizing that the Allison box could change could change gear just as well if not better than we could. Although even in later years just for the cracque, on rare occasions when travelling at 50 miles per hour plus especially on wet roads I would push the select lever from automatic to 3rd gear and it never failed. I believe even at the present time this in my opinion superb gearbox is still in use in the modern fire appliances.

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