Bildeston Fire Brigade

In 1844, Bildeston’s manual fire engine was ordered from its makers Merryweather of London costing £200. Funds were raised by subscriptions from Revd Charles Johnson (rector 1796-1849), landed proprietors of Bildeston and neighbouring parishes and various insurance companies. The manual engine underwent trials, after which it was pronounced by competent judges to be powerful and very effective. It was then placed in the care of the fire-brigade captain and his six men.

It was reported in 1884 that the hoses were in a very unsatisfactory condition and a subscription was raised to cover the cost of new ones. Three 75-foot lengths (82.05 metres) and one 30-foot length (32.82 metres) of canvas hose were purchased from McGregor & Company of Dundee, which were fitted with patent connectors made by Morris of Salford. From then on, the engine and its equipment were kept in High Street behind the Red Lion public house.

In 1894, the brigade came under the management of Bildeston Parish Council and although continuing as a voluntary fire-fighting unit, the men were paid for attending fires. Records from 1923 show the hourly rates:

First four hours:

  • captain: £1 2s 6d
  • men: £0 7s 6d

Per hour thereafter:

  • captain: £0 1s 6d
  • men: £0 1s 6d

Anyone else at a call out would only be paid if assistance was requested by members of the brigade and then at the captain’s discretion.

The fire brigade attended all calls within a radius of seven miles. However, charges were made if incidents occurred in non-subscribing parishes when a requisition had to be sent, which bound that particular parish responsible for expenses, and also a pair of horses wearing their collars to draw the engine. In 1923, charges were as follows:

  • call-out with engine £5 0s 0d
  • cleaning and oiling engine £1 2s 6d
  • cleaning and drying hose £1 2s 6d
  • damage to engine or appliances at cost
  • horse or motor hire at cost

In 1930, 240 feet (73.1 metres) of new hose costing £11 15s 0d was purchased from Messrs Riley Bros of Hoxton, London, and in order that traffic was not delayed, a local wheelwright was asked to make a protector for the hose when run across a road.

After the Great War (1914-1918), the engine was hauled by a motor-van but its efficiency as a manual pump was being called into question. The parish council considered that it had outlived its usefulness. Having served the district for 93 years, the Merryweather was advertised for sale in local newspapers and was sold in 1936 to Messrs Marriage & Hicks for £7. The men of the brigade were allowed to keep their uniforms as an acknowledgement of their services.

The role of the captain

The captain was appointed by the parish council and given entire command and responsibility for the conduct of his men on duty. Subject to approval of the council, he was to select men and report any refusals to attend without good reason and any improper language, intoxication or misconduct at a fire or at practice.

A practice was to be held once every six months under the direction of the captain, with use of the engine during a fire counting as a practice. Refreshments during these times were at his discretion. He was also responsible for seeing that the engine and appliances were kept clean and ready for use.

Known captains of the fire brigade

  • 1872-1874 James Tricker, harness maker
  • 1884-1891 Robert Hill, shoe maker
  • 1899-1908 Joseph Castle, builder
  • 1912 Edward Judd, plumber
  • 1916-1936 John Prentice, tailor

Attending fires

Bildeston fire brigade was recorded as attending fires throughout the district most of which were blazes on farms and house fires.

Members of the brigade attended a fire on the morning of 1 December 1911 at the home of James Herbert in Hitcham Street (now site of No.176 High Street). Before the flames could be subdued, the house, practically all furniture and contents of outbuildings were destroyed but his pony and trap were lead away to safety. Fire fighters also worked on neighbouring properties, the roofs of which were somewhat fire damaged. Although furniture was rescued, much of it was ruined by water.

In 1935, one of the last calls upon the Merryweather was from Chelsworth, where a large timber-framed and thatched house in The Street had caught fire, it was believed, after the wind had blown a curtain on to a lighted candle.

© Sue Andrews 2020

Photos top to bottom:

  • Crew members about 1902 (left to right):
    William Kitton, 31, blacksmith,
    Edward Judd, 44, plumber,
    Charles Robinson, 35, Red Lion publican,
    Charles Bantock, 38, blacksmith,
    John Prentice, 31, tailor,
    Joseph Henry Castle, 39, builder (captain).
  • In front of (left to right) Nos.66 to 54 High Street, this scene (possibly early 1920s) shows the Merryweather engine coupled up and ready to be hauled by motor-van. Two firemen and Captain John Prentice (seated front right) wear uniforms of buttoned and belted jackets and caps.
  • Fire at Hitcham Street (now No.176 High Street) in 1911 left only the brick chimney standing stack.
  • Bildeston fire brigade dampens down after a fire at Chelsworth in 1935, when a timber-framed and thatched house was destroyed leaving only part of one wall and a brick chimney stack.