So Long, Clerkenwell Fire Station
Last day at Clerkenwell Fire Station
Photographer Colin O’Brien & I made a return visit yesterday to visit our friends, the firefighters of Clerkenwell, on their last working day before the closure of Britain’s oldest fire station after one hundred and forty-two years. They invited Colin to come and take their photographs as a dignified record of this long-awaited day that everyone hoped would never come.
In fact Colin had joined White Watch, one of four watches at the station, for their last night shift earlier this week photographing their final roll call and the communal nocturnal meal they all share, which on this occasion was termed “The Last Supper.” When we arrived yesterday, we found the station busy with activity as the firefighters made their preparations for departure, clearing out personal lockers and removing moveable fixtures, such as the hefty snooker table that a team of men were manhandling from the basement.
We took this opportunity as our last chance to seek the wartime graffiti up in the roof that we heard had been left by a firewatcher seventy years ago. Climbing up through the senior officers’ quarters, unoccupied for decades, we emerged onto a high balcony at the rear of the station with views across to the City beyond and the natural advantage of this location was immediately apparent, upon the peak of the rise at Mount Pleasant.
From here, another ladder led us into the loft and the clamour of the city receded to a distant drone as we searched the roof space for graffiti. Little has changed up there, and finding ‘TOM SAYERS WATCHING FOR FLYING BOMBS 25/6/1944′ written in pencil upon a beam brought the past closer to us, as if we might have climbed the ladder, opened the roof hatch and entered that June night of 1944. Yet time was running out at the fire station and we descended back to ground level, where the business of the hour awaited us – the taking of the final group portrait of the firefighters.
In spite of the melancholy timbre of the day, we found them ebullient and even playful so it was only when I found myself standing in Rosebery Ave, with the firefighters lined up in front of two fire engines outside the station as Colin took the photo, that I realised the enormity of the event. Traffic slowed down, drivers honked their horns in tribute and passers-by stopped in their tracks.
Commonly when I am on assignment with a photographer, no-one pays any attention but from the reactions of those in Rosebery Ave, I realised that everyone knew what was going on and stood in wonder at the sight or they drew out their phones to record it for themselves – because it was a moment in the history of London we were all witnessing, as the closing of the oldest fire station was recorded at the time of the closure of ten fire stations across the capital.
Once the photos were done, I joined Captain Tim Dixey in his office for a few last words and his statements were characteristic of the stoicism we encountered in the face of the circumstances of that day. “It’s a sad day when the beautiful old station closes, but it’s all over now, the decision has been made and we’ve got to move on,” he admitted with admirable restraint, explaining that his watch start work next day at Islington Station which will be their new home. “Come and join us for a cup of tea, if you are passing,” he suggested, extending a friendly hand.
Today at 9:30am the final watch ends at Clerkenwell Fire Station.
Loft at Clerkenwell Fire Station with ladder leading to Fire Watchers’ Station from WWII
TOM SAYERS WATCHING FOR FLYING BOMBS 25/6/1944
Tim Dixey takes the last Roll Call for White Watch at Clerkenwell Fire Station
The firefighters of White Watch
Merrick Josephs & Scott Thorpe
Merrick Josephs & Mandy Watts
Henry Ayanful & Scott Thorpe
Greg Edwards cooks supper
The Last Supper at Clerkenwell Fire Station
Tim Dixey prepares to leave for a call-out
The firefighters of White Watch outside Clerkenwell Station on the last day of operations 8/1/2014
Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien
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