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Chiswick Tales


On being promoted from the rank of Sub Officer to Stn Officer in 1971 I was then posted away from the ‘A’ division to Chiswick fire station, a station that had originally been part of the now defunct Middlesex fire brigade. The man I was replacing at Chiswick was very much of the old school, and very much the netherlandal old school. He had spent the last couple of years quietly counting his days before retirement, the watch was in the main run by his sub officer, also a man of mature years. I was told that this old station officer used turn up for night duties, with a case of Worthington white shield (a strong beer) in his car boot, and his window cleaning ladders on the top, then imedietly retire to his room only to come out at mealtimes and fire calls. The watch at that time comprised quite a lot of younger firemen, who were bored with this dull routine. So that the arrival of a newly promoted station officer, full of beans bounce and vigour, suited them admirably. It did though put the incumbent sub officers nose out a bit to start with, but we soon settled down together.

The station itself was one of a standard pattern construction and interior layout devised by the then forward thinking Middlesex brigade. It was possible for a man to go from station to station, and immediately be at home with the layout. The basic design usually comprised a two-story building containing offices, accommodation, and appliance room, then a very large drill yard and drill tower. Chiswick’s fire ground was very large by inner London’s standards, and had a varied mixture of properties, and industrial uses. Its fire ground included the elevated section of the M4 motorway, and on the southern boundary the river Thames frontage. So that as I settled in to the station I began to arranged visits to some of these places to assess fire risks etc. I think that one of the most interesting of these visits was the huge London Transport repair and maintenance depot. On this huge sprawling complex, not only did they train bus drivers, and conductors, but in the vast workshops, a bus would enter at one end, then be totally broken down to its component parts, all to be repaired and rejuvenated, then exit the other end as what was in effect a brand new bus. They even had something called an acetylene house, so much of this acetylene gas did they use in the works, that instead of buying it in cylinder form, they produced their own and pumped it around the works. I could never quite make my mind up, from a fire risk point of view whether it was preferable to have this highly flammable explosive gas lying around in penny packet cylinder form, or to place it all together in one place where it could explode in one great gigantic bang. Another of these visits, which on the face of it seemed quite mundane, was to Dukes Meadows. This was a great open parkland space, extending over many acres, and went right down to the banks of the River Thames. As will be seen from a later story this was in fact the only visit that was later to be of any practical operational use to me.

Back at my home in Berkshire I was amongst my friends considered a veggie man that was that I had my own council allotment, and liked to grow my own vegetables etc. At Chiswick fire station I had noticed that between the main building and a boundary wall was a piece of spare land approximately three yards by fifteen yards long, just the right size for a small vegetable plot. All I had to do now was interest, enthuse, and then involve the watch into home produced vegetables. At first I found it very difficult to enthuse them at all, some of the younger bachelor firemen even believing that carrots grew on trees. Then being told carrots were root vegetables and grew in the ground commented “Yuk, won’t that make them all dirty then Guv” they may of course just been pulling my leg, with this professed lack of knowledge. Gradually I had a small core of men interested in the project. I began giving talks on digging manuring and hoeing the soil in the plot, then on the rotation of plants sowing of seeds etc. I had the outline of the plot down on graph paper and with them was planning the position of each crop on the plot. I was encouraging further telling them that in a couple of months time we would have tomato plants and a row of runner beans with enough produce to feed the watch for months on end. This last statement I think was my undoing, for at the far end of the table was a grizzled old taciturn fireman who simply said. “OK Guvnor let’s get this right, we sweat our bollocks off digging and tilling, sowing and planting, not to mention constant watering” “Then in a couple of months time there will be pounds and pounds of delicious ripe runner beans and tomato’s etc, all ready for picking” Then with great deliberation adding “and then Guvnor, we go off duty for two days, do you really think that when we come back all these delicious fresh veggies will still be there” Saying with great vehemence “of course not, the other two watches will have nicked the bloody lot”. So there it was this one mans blighted outlook on life and lack of faith in his fellow man, put the kibosh on the whole idea, for all the other firemen were nodding their heads vigorously in agreement.

It was on a night duty at Chiswick somewhere around the end of the month of November at about eleven o’clock at night we received a fire call to Dukes Meadows. No precise address just to a fire at Dukes Meadows, as mentioned previously this covers a very large area. On the way to the address I was wondering whether to get back to control on the radio, to ask if they had a more precise address for the fire. Then as we left the streetlights behind us and entered inky blackness of the meadows, I could see exactly where the fire was, for it was lighting up the night sky. The fire engine surged forward for the driver also could see the glow in the sky, then guided by our main beam headlights made our way towards it, down the winding road. We arrived at the banks of the River Thames itself, were it could be seen that the fire involved a large boathouse and club building. Right from the outset it was obvious that there was not going to be much saving of much property tonight, for the whole timber building was well alight. Despite being on the banks of the Thames there was a water supply problem at this location just one three inch water main, which at this distance from main supply would be at low pressure. So I sent a priority assistance message ‘make pumps six hose layers one’. There was a fire hydrant just a hundred yards away from this building, no doubt put there just in case an event like this should occur. Then shortly after sending my radio message the driver reported back to me that this hydrant was broken. I queried this asking would it be possible to get it to work he told me “no chance Guvnor, the hydrant spindle itself is missing”. So the fire burned merrily away, we emptied our 400-gallon tanks onto it, which made not the slightest bit of difference, and awaited the arrival of the reinforcements. Eventually the hose layer laid out a quarter of a mile of three and a half inch hose, and we got some water, but since this was only feeding off of a four inch main, not a lot. During the course of all this big white hat in attendance asked me could we not have set in and lifted water from the river Thames itself. This in theory is a very good idea, but in practise a bit difficult. Except from the light of the now diminishing fire, it was as black as pitch, the banks of the Thames here were sloping and made of mud and earth and eight feet high. Then since the tide was out, we would need to negotiate down these banks then across the two feet deep mud, just to gain access to the water, never mind carry all our equipment over it all. So when I told the big white hat all this and then added we could possibly lose two or three firemen drowned, that settled the matter. I think it was the dead fireman bit that made up his mind for him, for he certainly did not want to blight his career getting involved with dead firemen and suchlike on his CV. After many hours the fire finally went out, I think burnt itself out applied equally with we put it out, would be a good description of this particular fire.

An interesting little postscript to this story was that many many years later, I was talking to a lady in a public house in my home Pangbourne. We discovered we had something in common, she had lived in Chiswick, and I for a while had worked there. Then during the conversation, she said that she had belonged to a rowing club on the river Thames at Duke’s Meadows. I then told her I had attended the fire when the club had burnt down. Oh yes she countered, following that fire, the subsequently had a brand new superior clubhouse built. I cannot remember whether or not I told her about the doubtful origin of the fire or the broken hydrant spindle, but I rather think I did!

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