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Me And The Lads Going To Museums


It was the year 1964 I was six months out of training school and at my first fire station posting Camden Town. Following our first night duty, the blue watch was seated around the mess table for breakfast. The watch on this occasion comprised ten firemen, three of which were junior single young men, with no heavy financial commitments (they did not yet have part time jobs). The conversation was, what should they do with ourselves in the daytime before coming back on duty that night. Several ventures had been suggested, but then vetoed as being to boring or too expensive. Then one of the older more senior fireman entered the conversation by saying “why don’t you go sailing, in Regents park”. First he had to explain to us, that there was a lake in Regents Park, upon which there were sailing boats that could be hired by the hour. This was at first dismissed because none of us youngsters had ever been sailing before. Upon hearing this, “nothing to it” said our senior fireman, and proceeded to give us sailing lessons there and then, over the mess table. After around fifteen minutes of this Add Hoc instruction involving many drawings made on the back of a brigade message pad, we were deemed now proficient at this sailing lark, by our senior fireman.

At around eleven o’clock that day four of us duly presented ourselves at the Regents Park boating lake. There after noting the hire charges decided that if two of us shared one sailing boat we could afford one hours sailing. Then and only then, if we actually enjoyed it, pay for a second hour. When we approached the boat hire man and asked about hiring the sailing boats, he looked at us a bit suspiciously, we not being his usual boating types, and queried had we any sailing experience. We assured him we had, and adding we had been taught by a very experienced man, but then omitting to explain it was just a couple of hours ago, over the breakfast table. He did not press us to closely on this subject, possibly because it was a bit of a slack period, they’re being only on other sailing boat out on the lake. We paid our monies were allocated our boat, and duly cast off. This sailing lark was brilliant, with the wind directly behind us, we went screeching down the lake at a rate of knots very narrowly missing the only other boat on the lake. Upon being chided by the helmsman of the said other boat on the near miss, my crewmate shouted “don’t worry sport we will get you on the way back”. Now this is where some of the fun went out of sailing ‘the way back’ on the way back the wind was dead against us, and we had to perform something called tacking. Now the layman perhaps doesn’t appreciate what is involved with tacking, it means that you proceed at a speed, which appears to be around nought miles an hour, backward and forwards across the bloody lake it’s totally boring! That you will have actually have travelled for around ten miles just to achieve a forward distance of half a mile.

So there it was, we had ten minutes of exhilarating sailing down the lake, and another fifty minutes struggling to get back to where we started out from, having been blown backwards once or twice on the way. So not surprisingly we did not take up the option of hiring the bloody boats again for the second hour. This problem would not have arisen anyway, because the boatman had been watching our antics closely for the past hour, and I am sure the other boat the one we had a close encounter with, had grassed us up to the boatman, so I don’t think he would have given us the option of a second hours hiring even if we had wanted it.


So it must have nearly twenty years later I was now a Station Officer at Hammersmith fire station, and seated at the breakfast table after our first night duty. Low and behold the younger firemen there where discussing what could they do on the day in between night duties. I suggested to them why not visits the museums at South Kensington, they are only a fifteen minute tube journey away. There first comments where that museums where considered a bit naff, only kids academics and geriatrics went to those things. Now I had been going to these same museums as a very young boy, my parents giving me six old pence, three pence each way on a number thirty bus on Sunday afternoons. It was only much later that I realized that this expenditure of six pence each Sunday, was not to expand my knowledge or education whatever, but to leave their afternoons undisturbed for other reasons.
Then in later years whilst stationed at A27 Chelsea, on whose fire ground these museums were, I had been on a behind the scenes fire visit to the Natural History Museum. What a wonderful experience, I was told that only ten percent of their exhibits were ever on view to the public, and so it proved. In slide out wooden drawers they had apparently an example of every pelt/skin of virtually every animal/beastie known to exist. They had preserved in spirit jars an example again, of virtually every small beastie known to mankind. This itself could be a bit of a worry fire wise, for it seemed they had has, much flammable spirit stored on the premises as the average distillery. Then finally my curiosity was aroused by what appeared to be just the lower jawbones of a blue whale leaning up against a wall. They appeared to be brown and dusty and uncared for, attached to them was a very small label with words written on them by a small mapping pen. When I read these words, I was astounded these were the largest; the world record sized tusks from an African elephant in existence, stored out of sight, and seemingly uncared for.

So with all my knowledge of the museums gained as youngster and latterly, it was quite easy for me to convince the younger firemen, that museums were actually very interesting places. The last resistance being swept away when in reply to their question “well how much does it cost to get into these museums then Guvnor” I answered “nothing at all they all free”. So it was decided that as the entry to the museums was free, all they stood to lose was the train fare in actually getting there they would give it a go. Then to further encourage them I agreed to go with them. Our first museum visit was to be the Natural History Museum, at South Kensington, and we duly arrived there at around eleven o’clock. Now as museums go this one is somewhat special, even the museum is a museum, an architectural delight both inside and out. I think the average visitor must spend five minutes outside admiring the grand Victorian building itself, before even entering into the museum proper.
I am not even going to try and describe the wonders of the exhibits at this museum, you could spend days there and still not see everything, suffice to say that our happy band spent five hours there. They even had a restaurant where we had tea and toast for our routine morning stand easy break. Later that day back at the fire station, around the mess table at supper, the youngsters were trying now to enthuse the rest of the watch with the delights of museum going.

The very next tour of duty on the day in between nights, it was decided it was going to be the Science Museum, also part of the South Kensington museum group. Once again words cannot describe the contents of this museum, and again we spent the best part of the day there. One particular note of interest was that had a section on the history of the fire service in the United Kingdom, and there in all it’s fully restored glory was a Metz/Maguirus hundred foot mechanical turntable ladder dating from around the pre second world war nineteen thirties period. Now this really did make me feel like an old Dinosaur, although I had not driven this particular make of ladder the Metz/Maguirus, I had driven and operated one of similar vintage circa early 1930’s, a Merryweather make 100ft mechanical turntable ladders around the streets of London in the past. Then whilst telling this tale to the young firemen, one of them came out with the remark “Jeez Guvnor didn’t think you were that old, you ought to be in a museum yourself”. So later that night around the mess table at supper the day was judged to have been a success, and the question arose “what’s next then Guvnor”. Well next, would have to the Victoria and Albert museum, again part of the South Kensington museum complex.

I did not have the same intimate knowledge of the Victoria and Albert museum, as I had with the two previous ones, for I had only ever visited them twice before. The first time was as a young boy on my Sunday afternoon trips. Just a brief foray into the V&A convinced me that this was a posh museum full of boring naff objects, such as ancient ladies frocks and ancient oldie worldie costumes, boring statues and such like. The second visit occurred whilst stationed at Chelsea fire station, on whose fire ground the V&A is situated. It was in the early hours of the morning when a fire call was received to the Victoria and Albert museum, to smoke issuing from the roof. On arrival there was indeed a large amount of smoke, and a deep orange glow at the roof level. Now the V&A with all its precious and priceless exhibits, is a bit like Fort Knox to get into. Luckily on the first attendance was a hundred foot turntable ladder, so all the men and equipment went up the turntable ladder, to gain access to the roof itself. This was in fact quite a lucky move, for the fire was confined to a internal roofless opening within the main building measuring ten yards by twenty yards and two floors deep. This space was being used to store building contractors materials, and it was these that were well alight. This fire quickly succumbed to a three quarter inch jet of water, with extra care being taken regarding water damage, to any adjacent or underneath museum galleries. There had been an extra element of good fortune with this fire, for this area to store building materials, from a security aspect only, had been totally separated from the main museum by secure and as it turned out fire proof separation. Without this security separation, even today I shudder to think of the possible damaged to the museum building and its exhibits. One of the most prestige’s building and contents, in the land, the world even, easily on a par with Buckingham Palace Westminster Abbey and suchlike, saved because more importance was placed on security than fire protection. I think this fire then subsequently only rated a line or two in the local newspapers, as opposed to what could have been front-page national/international news.

Once again we made the trip to South Kensington, and the Victoria and Albert museum this time we ventured beyond the ground floor oldie worldie frocks etc sections. There we found gallery after gallery of the most interesting subjects, the V&A must be one of the most comprehensive museums in the world regarding the mix of it’s exhibits. I particularly like the subjects of arms and armour, English silver and metalwork, and suchlike and spent hours admiring the objects, and digesting the information given on them. If I remember correctly we made two or three visits to the V&A. So after this we were really spoilt for choice, and there could only be one museum, of equal or greater status, the British Museum itself. Thus it was decided that this would be the venue of our next foray between night duties.

Now once again, I had also visited the British Museum in an official capacity, whilst at Soho fire station on whose fire ground the museum was. This was on an information-gathering visit, so we would have some idea of the layout of the premises in the event of fire. It was whilst down in the large sparsely lit basement, that I notice a large number of apparently abandoned dusty paving slabs or blocks of stone. When I asked our guide why were all these lumps of grotty old lumps of stone just dumped in the basement, his reply totally amazed me. These were some of the lesser important pieces of the Elgin Marbles, good grief, even I had heard about the famed Elgin Marbles, yet they were seemingly just lying there uncared for.

On our night duty before the visit to the British Museum, a most unusual event happened, we did not receive a single fire call during the entire shift. On most fire stations to go a whole shift with no call outs, would be called a dull boring shift. At Hammersmith fire station, which ranked around the fourth busiest in the whole of the London brigade at the time, to go a complete night shift without a call out, was a most remarkable and notable event and seldom ever accomplished. If during the course of one such shift, we had received no calls at breakfast time, everyone was on edge, will we, wont we make it till nine o’clock without a shout, then to be able to announce to the oncoming watch, brilliant we never turned a wheel all night. There was one small consolation to this, if we received a fire call close to nine o’clock, and it was a half decent fire or event, we would probably get an hours overtime pay out of it.

So duly refreshed after a full nights unexpected rest, we set off for the British Museum, via London Transport underground system. This was going to be quite an interesting visit for me, whilst I had done the fire visit many years ago, I had never been able to go around all the galleries. Once again being a bit of an intrepid museum fan I found it totally interesting and absorbing. Virtually everything on display interested me, especially the famous exhibits I had so far only read about. The Sutton Hoo treasure hoard, Tutenkamen, golden death mask, I know it was just a replica, but I was still impressed, to this day I still cannot remember whether I saw the Elgin Marbles the second time around or not. From memory I think we made two enjoyable visits to the British Museum, and still saw only a fraction of the exhibits.

Our final museum visit was to be to the Imperial War Museum at Lambeth. Back in those far off days when I was at Southwark training school, we used to travel from the training school to Lambeth fire headquarters, and use their canteen for out lunch break. Each day on the journey we would pass the war museum, with its two huge fifteen inch naval guns on display outside, and each time I resolved that I was going to visit that museum, well it took twenty years but I finally got around to it. It was a more difficult journey this time by tube and bus, going over to the other side, as crossing the river Thames was known. Myself being a war baby, born in the year 1940, I think all things military interested me, so once again it was a very enjoyable visit.

Around this time back at Hammersmith fire station, I think us group of intrepid museum goer’s were regarded by the other watches as being bits of Nerds, they not getting the feed back of the wonderful things these museums contained. They could not believe that the irascible white watch would waste good time and money traipsing around dusty old relics and bygones. It was even suggested that we did not actually visit all these places, but instead implying that we had nefarious illicit hot dogs concessions just outside of them.

Our final visit was to be to Kew Gardens, or to give it it’s posh name the Royal Botanic Gardens, why Kew Gardens? I don’t know, perhaps it was because it was a nice sunny day, and Kew Gardens would seem to be the place to go on a nice sunny day. None of us had ever been to Kew before and it seemed like a bit of an adventure, something different, to put on our curriculum vitas. After an hour or so wandering around the vast grounds, it was judged to be quite interesting, but different. The huge glass palm house was deemed to be excellent, and bit like being in the Amazon jungle without all the creepy crawlies. They had lakes with seemingly hundreds of huge carp goldfish type fishes swimming around, but apparently no fishing being allowed. There were literally hundreds of exotic tree’s and bushes around, but unfortunately, once you have seen one tree, you have seen them all, seemed to sum it up. I actually came across one tree that I thought I recognized, but when I read the small plaque beneath it, I wasn’t quite so sure for it read Aesculus Hipocastanum, now I was bloody convinced it was in fact a conker tree, the posh name for that, being the Horse Chestnut, but the others rejected this saying “It can’t be that Guvnor cos is definitely a Aesculus Hipocastanum, the Royal Gardens would not get that name wrong would they”.
Once again I was just a bit disappointed with our visit for the Royal Botanic Gardens were reputed to have examples of just about every plant seed whatever known to man. Now back home in Berkshire, I was a bit of a veggie man, in that I had a council allotment and grew a large proportion of my own vegetables. So I was a bit upset that the exalted Royal Botanic Gardens, extending to some hundreds of acres in area could not find room to include a few rows of runner beans, carrots, brussel sprouts etc, to cater for the more common mans taste.
Compared to some of our previous outings, this was judged to have been only a middling to fair success, but then latterly improved, because not to far from the entrance to Kew Gardens was to be found a most excellent hostelry called the Coach and Horses. Therein we rested our tired legs and feet, and exercised our right arms in the repeated lifting of heavy pints of ale.

Now whilst our little outings to museums and suchlike were considered by the rest of white watch to be a little naff, there was one kind of outing all were in favour of. It was decided that there was going to be an official watch outing to the coast, and the seaside town of Margate was to be the venue. Margate was chosen for it was one of those old raucous English seaside resorts, bracing sea air, crazy golf, ride’s on the dodgem cars, amusement arcades, ice creams, throw stones at the seagulls, thus providing the potential for a great days outing. It was decided the outing would take place when we came off our second night duty, thus all those who had to travel a distance to get to work would already be there. A mini bus was to be hired, and fireman from another watch not on duty found to collect and drive it. This fireman had to be of relatively sober in habits, would not have to pay his portion of the expenses, but was not to take part in any serious drinking activities that may by chance occur. Now for some reason, which I cannot remember, I was unable to go on this grand outing. So the story resumes on the first day of our next tour of duty, at eleven o’clock stand easy round the mess table I asked Lee Finnan “how did the outing go Lee” “great Guv we all had a great day” “what was Margate like” I asked. Lee in his usual laid-back manner simply shaking his head replied, “dunno Guv didn’t see much of it actually”. “Let me surmise” I replied “you went on a watch jolly, all the way to Margate by the sea but when you got there you did actually see much of Margate”. Lee shrugged his shoulders saying “yes it was something like that, but it’s a long story Guv let me tell it to you” he then went on to recount the tale.

On the morning of the jolly the pump had a late shout and did not get back till 9.45am, the blue watch driver had problems hiring the mini bus, and that never arrived until 10.00am, so we did not get to leave the station until ten thirty. We got lost once or twice on the way, so did not arrive at Margate until around two o’clock; we lost another twenty minutes or so in parking up. Now as the pubs shut at three o’clock, we found a nice little boozer for a couple of quick snifters. Then as the bloke behind the bar called out time, another man came into the pub, it turned out this was the pubs actual landlord. He then seeing all these potential customers spending loads of dosh, and upon being told we were all firemen, decided to keep the pub open, a lock in! Need I say more Guv. Then adding at least someone had the sense to make sure Pimple did not drink to much, so we sent him out to get a dozen sticks of Margate rock, just to prove we had actually been there, adding I’ve got one in my locker for you Guv. Now none of the above surprised me, white watch jollies frequently tended to go astray, so I just queried “who is Pimple?” “You know him Guv, it’s Smiffy on the blue watch the mini bus driver, Pimple is his nickname”. Lee went on to further explain “at first they dubbed him the Scarlet Pimpernel, but that was thought to far to grand, so they shortened it to Pimple”, “Yes Lee” I asked “but why the Scarlet Pimpernel” “Surely you can guess Guv, it’s obvious isn’t it”. “No Lee not to me it’s not obvious explain”. With a big grin on his face Lee explained. “They seek him here they seek him there, they seek that elusive Scarlet Pimpernel everywhere, you have heard of that saying Guv haven’t you”. I nodded my head “yes something to do with the French revolution and chopping peoples heads off” With a big smile Lee explained “well that’s Smiffy on the blue watch, an elusive bugger, any time there is some hard or dirty work to be done, he’s booked gone and can’t be found, just like the Scarlet Pimpernel”

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