We are grateful to Jack Pridham for his account of Thornbury during World War II. Jack grew up in the town and was able to provide some interesting insights
“Much to the relief of the family, father had escaped conscription but by avoiding the ‘frying pan’ he had gone into the ‘fire’– a wartime fire!
When he was quite a young man he had joined what had been the ‘Thornbury Fire Brigade’. The sartorial elegance of its members was mentioned but in addition to the chance to dress-up like horse guards without horses and occasionally parade, the Brigade was a club for men who had hard lives, enjoyed the company of other men, and wished to escape from the families for a few hours a month.
Interestingly, this was not a drinking club which, in part, was probably due to the impecunious nature of the group but on the other hand, cider was cheap and many men in the same social class took advantage of this. One or two in the Brigade, had probably been brought up in the shadow of the Chapel which would have been inhibitory. Reverends of the day often threatened that, in another place, fire and brimstone would be exchanged for alcohol abuse or even a sip. Teetotalism on duty would have sprung quite naturally from the men’s pride in their club, their professionalism and team spirit. Being drunk in charge of a fire engine in an emergency would not have gone down well. The firemen did, however, enjoy another vice – their card games – pontoon and rummy and the like, and during the war, they often played all night when on watch in the High Street Fire Station. This was about every fifth night after which they emerged, slightly bleary-eyed, and the first one out always checked the red telephone box next door to the Station. Pushing ‘Button B’ revealed whether any member of the public had, earlier, failed to make a connection and forgotten to recover his or her investment. Apparently, these early morning excursions were often quite lucrative and perhaps allowed some to recover what they had lost earlier at the card table!
Most war-time emergencies occurred at night and if the men were not at the Fire Station they were summoned by a bell which in our case, was installed on the landing between my bedroom and my father’s. I seem to remember that prior to 1939, during the day, the Saw Mills’ ‘hooter’ sounded the alarm and as far as I know, employers allowed employees who were fire brigade members, to attend incidents without financial penalties.
Pre-war, the Brigade was largely involved with agricultural fires – haystacks, grassland, etc and regular call-outs to deal with domestic chimney fires. Black and yellow smoke tinged with red was commonly seen coming from chimneys – usually caused by the failure of the occupant of the house to employ, the chimney sweep, Mr Reginald Poulton, at regular intervals. The situation was often exacerbated by the practice of placing and then forgetting, a piece of wood or metal over the fireplace to create a draught to raise the fire quickly! In the 30s, as far as I can remember, the Brigade only attended one serious fire which involved a large grain silo at Sharpness which burned for several days. At other times the fire engine needed to be cleaned, the brass burnished and fire extinguishing procedures practised. ‘Running-out the hoses’ was usually carried out at the Bowling Green field, just adjacent to what is now the town football pitch. Here, there was a deep pool in a rocky crater which backed on to a crumbling sports pavilion. Suction pipes from the old, red Dennis fire engine which were fitted with ‘basket filters’ – to keep the weeds at bay – were thrown into the pond and the pumps were activated. When the filters were not clogged with Canadian pond weed, firemen struggled to control the powerful jets of water from the shining brass hose nozzles which shot over the length of the field. Fire practice, which included carrying colleagues by fireman’s lifts up and down ladders and ‘shooting’ at targets with water jets also came in the form of competitions with local brigades at places such as Kingswood and Mangotsfield. This was taken very seriously as cups could be won and displayed in the fire station! The man in charge of all these activities was ‘Captain’ Arthur Wilkins, a small, round person, usually with a cigarette hanging from his lips, who probably would have found it difficult to rescue a maiden from a burning bedroom window. When in formal uniform he wore seriously heavy brass epaulettes and a flat cap adorned with ‘scrambled egg’ – quite unlike the splendid brass helmets of the ‘enlisted’ men. Arthur was a draper with a domineering wife and a shop in the High Street, right opposite the Fire Station.
Sometime during the war, when the brigade had changed its name to Auxillary Fire Service (AFS), father also rose to dizzy heights through promotion to Leading Fireman but to my annoyance, with no adornments to signify the higher rank! His promotion came as a surprise: he was encouraged by the family to better himself in all that he did but as a shy man, he always tried to avoid ‘man management’ whereas he dealt with ‘inanimates’ with ease.
The war scenario for the Fire Brigade, and later the AFS which in 1943 became the NFS (National Fire Service), was very different from its peacetime activities. Long hours were spent on standby duty during air raid ‘yellow and red alerts’ and at the time, it was not fully appreciated how very dangerous some incidents were. The Battle of Britain had ended in September 1940 and Hitler, in defeat, turned his attention to night bombing all the major cities.
The Bristol Blitz which involved father, was the most worrying time for the family. The city suffered thirty bombing attacks, eleven of which could be graded as heavy to devastating. As far as I can remember, they were always at night and the first was on 24 November 1940 after which the German Official News Agency reported, “Bristol has been wiped out”. However, the Luftwaffe felt that it was necessary to come back another twenty nine times to finish the job! There were two further raids in 1940, followed by a quiet Christmas and then on a bitterly cold night on the 3 January 1941, the city was pounded again by 150 planes for 12 hours and then for 10 and 8 hours on 16 January and 16 March. The whole southern sky on these occasions was red from the fires that gutted the heart of the ‘city of pubs and churches’ and left only spires and towers to commemorate the atrocities. More than 30 churches were destroyed or seriously damaged along with a similar number of schools; some 37 main streets were reduced to ruins along with a wealth of public and historic buildings. Up to the end of 1941, 1,195 people had been killed and significantly more seriously injured. On ‘quiet’ nights, Bristolians were still kept awake as German bombers, harassed by heavy anti-aircraft fire, turned right over the city and followed the Welsh border up to Merseyside. If Bristol citizens had been asked in 1941 whether the RAF should bomb Dresden few would have said, “No”! Winston Churchill, after one of the major Bristol raids said, “We will give it them back!” And he did!
Father, with the Thornbury AFS, attended all of the large Bristol raids. He told us little about them but he came home on many occasions, black and exhausted. We did hear how in one raid, he had sheltered under the fire engine for protection and an incendiary bomb had landed a few feet away on the tarmac. It did not ignite, so father picked it up and brought it home! Later we unscrewed the end and found that it contained no thermite, the material that ignites the magnesium casing. We wondered whether the fault was a production problem or whether some slave munitions worker had sabotaged the weapon. The bomb hung on an outhouse wall at home on The Plain for several years!
When the brigade attended one of the blitzes nothing was heard from them for 48 hours or so, and we were desperately worried. The buses were still running and so rather stupidly and with no encouragement from the rest of the household, I travelled early on the Saturday morning into the city centre and walked around the area hoping that I would spot my father’s unit. The roads were strewn with hoses, glass and bricks and there was devastation everywhere. I did not find the Thornbury brigade but felt that if something terrible had happened to them, by then we would have heard. Despite the problems, confidence amongst ordinary people at this time was not in short supply. I think that most were sure that there was a light at the end of the tunnel even although, metaphorically, it was sometimes difficult to see it through the smoke and dust created by the bombing. I left the chaotic scene in Bristol at about noon and there was still no news of the brigade when I got home. However, in the evening father staggered in!
The war-time activities of the Thornbury AFS / NFS were not confined to Bristol. Units were sent to raids in Bath, Birmingham, Manchester, Plymouth, Southampton, Weston-super-Mare and Worcester and the brigade was on standby on 14 September 1940, to attend the ‘sacking’ of Coventry – the worst raid of the war when the cathedral was destroyed and a thousand people were killed. Thankfully, the Brigade was not needed on this occasion! At one period we did wonder how long the firemen could keep going. In addition to their nightly excursions they had their normal daytime jobs!