In the last two newsletters, we have explored the fire of Gaddesden Place and the accounts of the men working to save the building. Since then, we have looked through the Gazette to find out how funds were raised for a new steam engine to help improve the work of the volunteers of Hemel Hempstead Fire Brigade.
It was clear that the fire had an impact on the people of the town. An article the week after the fire addressed the ‘fire brigade efficiency’, and included a rather poetic call for action:
It was noted at the time that unlike St Albans and Watford, Hemel Hempstead had not been invited to take part in any of the various competitions for local fire brigades. This seemed like a great knock to the town’s pride, as it was felt that this was not due to the ‘lack of zeal’ of the firemen themselves but the antiquated engine and poor equipment that they possessed.
The money and the site for the new fire station were very quickly found, after the fire of Gaddesden Place. We can read in the Gazette that the designs and builders were soon employed before the full amount needed to build was even raised. The total cost of the new building was about £500 and in today’s money this was close to £40,000.
After many discussions about the location for the new building, land was donated on either side of its original site. The land was donated by two well-known names in Hemel Hempstead. The first was Mr Walter Grover, who was in residence at The Bury, the old registry office which overlooks Gadebridge Park. The second donor was Lt.-Col. Lionel Paston-Cooper, who also went by the name Lt.-Col. Lionel Hervey-Bathurst. Lt.-Col. Paston-Cooper was married to Mary Ethel Paston-Cooper, the daughter of the famous surgeon Sir Astley Paston-Cooper.
The site for the new building meant that the fire brigade could keep their central location and made good use of the frontage to the main road. The Boxmoor Trust donated all the funds needed for the building from their surplus taken from inhabitant householders of the parish of Hemel Hempstead. During their annual surplus distribution meeting, we learn from the minutes that Mr Hodgson presented a statement in connection with the new fire station building account:
Hemel Hempstead Fire Station in Queens Street, opposite the junction with Marlowes. Image attributed to ‘Culverhouse, Hemel Hempstead’.
The foundation stone laying ceremony took place on 18 April 1906, and, in addition to the official stones, a set of bricks destined for the lower part of the wall was arranged for interested people to lay with their name. The initials of those who laid them were carved to show on the inside wall of the station at the cost of 5 s, with all proceeds going to the building fund. The old slanting engine house at the foot of the high street in the old town was replaced with what was described as a ‘modern structure befitting the importance of the town’. It was a two-storeyed structure in the Elizabethan style of architecture so that it would be in harmony with the shops and offices which adorned the approach to the high street, known as The Broadway.
In just two months, in June 1906, a little over a year after the Gaddesden Place fire, the new fire station for Hemel Hempstead was opened by Alderman Balderson, the senior trustee of The Boxmoor Trust.
The first item on the programme was the presentation of a silver key, suitably inscribed, by the Mayor to Alderman Balderson on behalf of the Council, and the worthy ex-Mayor lost no time in fitting the key to the lock in the doors of the new station. As he turned it and threw the doors open, amidst applause, Alderman Balderson said:
Mr Kimich, who owned a clock and watch makers shop in the old town, made and supplied the clock at his own expense. The Mayoress, by pulling the cord, then uncovered the clock on the building. In her speech she joked that the clock would be of much benefit to a very large number of people, especially to ‘those who were in the habit of getting to church late on Sundays’, which apparently went down very well with the crowds. Tea was provided afterwards in the new fire station, followed by a series of dry and wet drills performed in excellent times, by the Hemel Hempstead Brigade in the Bury Meadow.
Soon after the opening of the new fire station, work commenced to raise the £400 (approx. £30,000 in today’s money) needed for a new steam engine. In November 1906, we can see that the committee used the fireworks celebrations to persuade the public to subscribe and boost the funds for a new steam engine. At that point, only half of the money needed had been raised and, in the Gazette, they pleaded:
Even ‘small villa residents’, were encouraged to donate as little as 5 s, or £20 in today’s money, for the much-needed engine.
By the end of 1906 the committee had enough money to finally purchase a steam fire engine and they accepted the tender of Messrs. Shand, Mason and Co., for the supply of one of their latest models of engines to be delivered next Easter. On 3 April 1907, the new steam fire engine for Hemel Hempstead arrived and was handed over to the Mayor on behalf of the town and a christening ceremony took place on the Market Square, High Street. Afterwards a demonstration was given in the Bury meadow and the annual dinner in connection with the brigade took place in the evening at the Town Hall.
We know that the new steam engine was affectionately called Mabel, but this is not reported in the christening ceremony. The only time we can see the reference to this name is in a letter written into the Gazette. In this letter, dated 13 June 1908, the reader asks where is Mabel? ‘I understand it is nearly three months ago since the last practice took place. Surely, sir, it is not doing the machinery any good, lying dormant at the Brigade station’. This letter was quickly followed up, the next week, with two letters in defence of the volunteer fire brigade, the first acknowledging their hard work and pointing out that the men had been recently awarded their certificates in first aid. The second letter was written by Captain Hancock and he states that Mabel was in fact moved at least two or three times a week and that steam fire engine practices cost money. He goes on to invite them to the next practice, so ‘that he may come and observe ‘Mabel’ for himself and also bring a donation to help pay expenses.’
The first time we can see the fire engine being used is in the reporting of a major fire in Leverstock Green on 21 July 1911. This fire took place at a barn and stabling adjoining The Three Horseshoes. The article in the Gazette reports that ‘a message was wired to the Hemel Hempstead fire station, and the Brigade under Captain Hancock, turned out smartly and was quickly on the scene with the steamer’.
We hope you have enjoyed reading about our research into the Gaddesden Place Fire and the subsequent improvements made to the brigade in Hemel Hempstead. We thank the volunteers who have worked through old copies of the Gazette to help us report on this episode from Hemel Hempstead’s past.