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At Britain’s Oldest Fire Station

January 8, 2014
by the gentle author

On the eve of the closure of Clerkenwell Fire Station, after operating from the junction of Farringdon Rd & Rosebery Ave for one hundred and forty-two years, I publish this account of my visit last year.

Clerkenwell Fire Station is the oldest operating fire station in this country, serving the people of London continuously from its handsome red brick tower at the junction of Rosebery Avenue and Farringdon Rd since 1872. Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien grew up a quarter of a mile from here in Victoria Dwellings, a tenement just down the road at the corner of Clerkenwell Rd and Farringdon Rd, and as a young photographer in the nineteen sixties he leaned out of the window to photograph the Clerkenwell firemen when they came to extinguish a conflagration in his building.

So when I learned that that Clerkenwell Fire Station must shut forever, I realised that Colin and I needed to pay a visit upon the firefighters of Clerkenwell to celebrate these heroic individuals and record their brave endeavours, before the end of their operations here after one hundred and forty-two years. In spite of the fact that they had all recently received letters inviting them to take voluntary redundancy, we found them in buoyant mood and it was only towards the end of our visit I learnt that several members of the watch had also recently received awards for bravery after saving people trapped in a cradle high above the new University College London Hospital in Gower St.

Firefighters work in “watches” of fourteen and there are four watches at Clerkenwell Fire Station who work alternating shifts, two days of 9:30am until 8pm and two days of 8pm until 9:30am, a total of forty-eight working hours each week followed by three days off, thus providing cover every hour, every day of the year. Colin and I had the privilege of being the guests of Tim Dixey’s watch, arriving in the morning to discover the team around the table in the mess, at the end of the days’s briefing before they headed out to the yard to run through the drill that is a constant of life as a firefighter, designed to hone the co-ordination, proficiency and team work of the watch.

Although the fire station opened in 1872, it is still fully functional and it was a pleasure to see the working parts of the old building cherished – freshly painted, cleaned and maintained in tip-top order, still in daily use for the purpose for which they were built. On the Farringdon Rd side of the building are two wooden doors, a narrower one originally used for the hand cart fire engine and a wider one for the horse drawn engine.

Tim Dixey, a veteran of twenty-nine years in the service who joined at eighteen years old, explained that the founders of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade in 1866 came from a naval background and every station was designed to be sufficient to itself. “They were conceived as ships on land,” he told us. Many of the early firefighters were ex-naval men who were comfortable with heights and familiar with ropework, introducing the structure of shifts and terminology of “watches” that is still used in the fire service today.

Meeting the firefighters of Tim’s watch for the first time, Colin and I were touched by the generosity of spirit and emotional openness with which they accepted our presence. I recognised the depth of trust necessary between those who risk their lives in the course of their work and must depend upon each other absolutely. We were surprised to meet a father and son, Andy Simkins and Dave Smith, working together as firefighters in the same watch, yet it only served to enforce the sense of intimate reliance among the crew.

At Tim’s request, firefighter Gregg Edwards took us on a tour of the upper floors of the station which have been disused for decades. With views across the rooftops to the City, we found the washrooms of the eighteen-seventies with huge white sinks lined up for the firemen of a century ago to wash the soot off their faces. In the next room, an elaborate series of metal racks offered arcane facilities for drying wet uniforms in a heated chamber. Walking through another door, we entered the former accommodation of firefighters under the eaves. There were neat delft tied fireplaces and rooms still lined with faded nursery wallpaper. Abandoned in the middle of the last century, when the firefighters sought a degree of independence from their employers, these flats are now designated “unfit for purpose” even though with a modicum of repairs they could have been a boon to the firefighters of today, who are unable to afford housing locally and must commute long distances as a consequence.

Then we watched the fire drill as the watch in their yellow and black overalls, swarming like bumble bees, slid the tall aluminium ladder off the engine, extending it to the highest extremity of the tower. We asked some obvious questions, about the whether the fireman’s lift is still practised and enquired about the frequency of cats stuck in trees. “You’re not supposed to carry people down ladders,” we were told, “But, if it needs that, we will.” We learnt that rescuing felines did not take up a great deal of the fightfighters’ time. “How many skeletons of cats do you see in trees?” quipped Dave Smith, speaking with authority after twenty years in the service.

And then a call came in. Tim Dixey waved a slip of paper that reported a mother who had locked herself out of her flat when the wind blew her front door shut, trapping her baby inside.“We all go and we don’t leave anyone behind,” Tim joked, introducing a personal tenet, as he and his fellow firefighters climbed aboard their engine. In a moment, the truck turned into the Farringdon Rd, disappearing into the traffic as the siren faded into the distance, and Colin and I were left standing.

Colin O’Brien’s photograph of firemen at Victoria Dwellings in the nineteen sixties.

Tower used for firefighting exercises and as a lookout.

Firefighter Craig Wellock, seven years in the fire service.

In 1872, the door on the left was for the handcart fire engine and the door on the right for the horse-drawn fire engine.

Firefighter Dave Smith, twenty-one years in the fire service.

View from the top floor, looking south

Firefighter Mandy Watts, fourteen years in the fire service.

Wash room from 1872, used by firefighters on their return from duty.

Father and son firefighters, Andy Simkins and Dave White – twenty-seven years and seven years in the fire service respectively.

Disused furnace to heat the drying room, dating from 1872.

Drying racks for wet uniforms

Firefighters Gregg Edwards, Merrick Josephs and Henry Ayanful.

Long-abandoned living quarters for firemen and their families on the top floors

Looking towards Clerkenwell

Firefighters Gregg Edwards, Henry Ayanful, Watch Manager Tim Dixey, Firefighters Nasir Jilani and Merrick Josephs.

The change in the brickwork indicates where the station was expanded in the eighteen eighties.

Firefighter Gregg Edwards.

The view from the accommodation floor where firefighters once lived with their families.

Firefighter Henry Ayanful, twenty-two years in the fire service.

Station Manager Steve Gray, twenty-six years in the fire service.

Watch Manager Tim Dixey – thirty years in the fire service, joined at the age of eighteen.

Firefighters Mandy Watts, Dave Smith, Andy Simkins, Dave White and Craig Wellock.

Clerkenwell Fire Station, Britain’s oldest operating fire station.

Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien

Along with nine other London Fire Stations, Clerkenwell Fire Station closes forever at 9:30am on Thursday 9th January – there will be a demonstration outside from 8:30am

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Jack Corbett, London’s Oldest Fireman

7 Responses leave one →
  1. January 8, 2014

    I’ve always had the highest respect for firefighters, and it’s so sad that Clerkenwell Fire Station is to disappear, with its long years of history, and its committed personnel. Good wishes to them all.

  2. Patty/BC permalink
    January 8, 2014

    Sad day indeed. I especially feel sad being the dauhter of a fire fighter.

  3. 'liza Hardy permalink
    January 8, 2014

    Another piece of our nation’s history being “thrown away” by greedy and selfish people who do not care. One hopes that the same eventually happens to them.

  4. January 8, 2014

    I fear this closure has more to do with the money-value of a prime site than it does with the value of the lives of the people who live and work within the area. We shall see.

  5. January 8, 2014

    They do a great job in great historic architecture. My deep respect for them!

    ACHIM

  6. Cindy permalink
    January 8, 2014

    It’s just so sad – all that history lost, all those jobs lost – so someone can make more money than they can ever spend. The firefighters and their families will be in my prayers as they mourn the loss of their jobs and seek new ones.

  7. Alexander McBride permalink
    January 11, 2014

    Having served on the white watch at Clerkenwell in the sixties sorry to see the station closed have many happy memories of my short service.

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