Jack Corbett, London’s Oldest Fireman
In the week ten fire stations shut forever – Belsize, Bow, Clerkenwell, Downham, Kingsland, Knightsbridge, Southwark, Silvertown, Westminster & Woolwich - I publish my portrait of Jack Corbett, veteran of Clerkenwell Fire Station, as a tribute to the courage of London’s firefighters.
Jack Corbett, born 1910
“I like the life of a fireman,” boasted Jack Corbett, who is London’s oldest surviving fireman at one hundred and three years old. Based at Clerkenwell Fire Station for the duration of World War II, Jack and his team were fortunate enough to endure the onslaught of the London Blitz without any fatalities. “It was all coincidental because I happened to live within a mile of the station,” he announced dismissively, as if he just fell into it. Yet the same tenacious spirit that sustained him through the bombing has also endowed him with exceptional longevity. “You want to go on living,” was what Jack told himself in the midst of the chaos.
“It’s not easy remembering what you did and didn’t do.” he confessed to me vaguely, casting his mind back over more than a century of personal experiences, “It all seems so bitty trying to put it all together, but it all went like clockwork. It was rather wonderful really.” Jack’s father served in the First World War and, after Jack witnessed the Second World War in London, he cannot escape disappointment now at the persistence of warfare. “It’s a shame after what we went through that people have learnt nothing,” he confided to me in regret. The closure of Clerkenwell Fire Station, the oldest in Britain, meets with his disapproval too, “Modern life demands the police, fire service and ambulance yet, if you cut them, the longer it will take for these services to be applied – and that’s foolhardy.” he said, “Clerkenwell Fire Station is well-situated, in one direction is Kings Cross and in the other direction is the City of London.”
In wartime, as one of the firemen responsible for protecting St Paul’s Cathedral from falling bombs, Jack was given access to the entire structure and once he climbed up alone inside the gold cross upon the very top of the dome. Standing in that enclosed space so high over the city, with a single round glass panel to look out at either end of the cross-piece, was an experience of religious intensity for Jack. And now, at such a venerable age he is able to look back on his own life from an equally elevated perspective through time. “I don’t know what people think of me but I guess I’m a little on the starchy side. I try to be a man of principle but it’s not easy.” he admitted to me with a shy grin, “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke and I’ve always been a Christian.”
In 2000, Jack retired from London to live with his daughter Pamela in Maldon in an old house up above the river, surrounded by a luxuriant well-kept garden.”My parents were ordinary people but they produced a good commodity in me – my mother lived to ninety-three and my father to ninety-one.” he assured me in satisfaction, as we sat together admiring the herbaceous border from the comfort of his private sitting room. “Some people would have written their life, but I’m not that type. I’m not bothered,” Jack whispered, thinking out loud for my benefit – however, for the sake of the rest of us, I present this account of his story.
“When I left school at fourteen in Woking, I got a job as a guard boy. It was my first proper job, working for a gentleman. But in the thirties there was a financial crisis and quite a lot of people lost their property. So he said to me, ‘I’ll have to let you go.’ I didn’t realise it was the sack. Then, one wet day, I drove him to Woking Station and he said, ‘You probably realise I’ve got a business in London. Would you like to change your job?’ The business was a glass warehouse in Clerkenwell, Pugh Bros off St John St.
Isn’t it strange? I can’t remember the name of the man who gave me my job and brought me up from my lowly life in Woking to London, where I met my wife, and the story of my life proper began there.
I lived at 330 St John St, from my early twenties, when I first came to London and that’s where I met my wife Ivy. I was the lodger and she was the only daughter of the house, and we went to Sadlers’ Wells Theatre for our first date and we got married in 1935 in the Mission Church in Clerkenwell. She worked at a furrier and she was pregnant with our daughter Pamela when the war started. I was keen to get behind an ack-ack gun, but she reminded me I could get assigned anywhere and not to be so quick. My daughter was due in April 1939, not the best time to be born because of the situation with the war, but my baby, my wife and mother-in-law were evacuated to Woking where I had my original home, so that was alright. They couldn’t come back to London – they wanted to but I explained that bombs were dropping.
When I was enlisted, I joined the City of London Auxiliary Fire Service. They trained you up to a certain level but after the London Fire Brigade lost a lot of their men who were ex-army and ex-navy, when they were called back to the forces, they needed to replace them and I was accepted. So eventually I became a professional. We were always on duty, it was continuous duty during the Blitz, then they granted you four hours break, not every day but when circumstances allowed. Clerkenwell was one of eighty fire stations, so you can imagine the immensity of it. In London, there was a separate water system for the fire service but when that became broken, we had to pump water from the Thames.
I never thought about the danger - I just got on with it, like everybody else. You’d be a strange person if you didn’t know fear but in any situation, you go in and do your duty to the letter. Often, what I found exciting was that you didn’t know what kind of fire you were going to. The job consisted of extinguishing the fire and rescuing life, and rescuing life was the most important because a building can be rebuilt – your priority was saving lives.
We were being bombed in the docks where all the food storage was, so we had a job there and ,when we had to go further downstream to extinguish the oil depot, we had to go through the East End where there were lots of houses on fire, and they used to call us names. Once, we heard a group of five bombs approaching Clerkenwell and I thought one must surely be for us, but it hit the building next door. We couldn’t see inside the fire station for the dust and I really thought that one had my name on it.
When things were cooling off, you could take a weekend and I went down to Woking to see my family. Eventually when things quietened, my wife found a house in Finchley and that’s where we had our son and lived for the next sixty years and where my wife died twelve years ago. We’d been married sixty-seven years. We had a grand life if you come to think of it. I wonder what would have happened without the war – I would have continued working at the glassworks. I was moving up, after three years I was appointed manager of the guys who were going out making deliveries of glass.
After the war, I asked for a transfer nearer home, and they transferred me to Hornsey and I stayed in the fire service until 1965. The average person wanted to get back to ordinary life, but there’d been so much change it wasn’t that easy. You want to go on living and when you have two children, they want to have a life. Now I have eight great-grandchildren, it has all grown like a tree of life from Pamela’s mother.”
Jack Corbett - “I don’t know what people think of me but I guess I’m a little on the starchy side.”
Jack with Freda and Cousin Dot, 1923
Charles Corbett, Jack’s father
Charles and Ann Corbett, 1944
330 St John St where Jack lived when he came to London and met his wife Ivy. Ivy’s parents lived on the ground floor, and Jack and Ivy lived on the first floor after they married.
Jack aged twenty, 1930
Jack in his first car.
Jack and Ivy, 1934
Jack and Ivy’s marriage at Clerkenwell Mission Chapel, 18th May 1934
Jack (on the far left) joined the City of London Auxiliary Fire Service, 1939
Jack (with his back to the camera) pictured fighting a fire at St Bartholomew’s Hospital during the London Blitz.
High Jinks with the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, 1955
Jack returns to Clerkenwell Fire Station, January 2013
Jack with Green Watch at Clerkenwell Fire Station
Jack in his garden in Maldon.
Jack and his daughter Pam
Clerkenwell Fire Station, Britain’s oldest working fire station.
Photograph of Clerkenwell Fire Station copyright © Colin O’Brien