Post Memories: A shiny new 1950s fire engine thanks to Post report

Essex Fire Brigade engines lined up in the late 1950s (photo courtesy of Colin Pickett at Essex Fire

Essex Fire Brigade engines lined up in the late 1950s (photo courtesy of Colin Pickett at Essex Fire Museum) - Credit: Archant

One spring morning in 1957, staff at the Post saw through the windows of their offices (then in Whalebone Lane South, Dagenham) a primitive, broken down fire engine and some bemused firemen standing around it.

Tony Richards

Tony Richards - Credit: Archant

No time to call the AA, and the crew were desperately trying to restart it by swinging its old-fashioned cranking handle.

We couldn’t resist the picture opportunity and put it in the Post on May 1 under the heading: “Their fire engine ... broke down” with the comment: “Were their faces red!”

About the same colour as their fire tender, in fact.

The lads at Dagenham fire station laughed their heads off when they saw the Post, but the top brass of Essex County Fire Brigade were not amused.

A report that their brigade’s equipment had failed when answering an emergency call – to a grass fire – was just too much.


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A few weeks later that ancient machine, which had probably seen service in the Second World War, was pensioned off and must have been consigned to either the scrap yard or a museum.

A gleaming state-of-the-art (then) brand new machine arrived in Dagenham to replace it.

Of course, that new machine may have been on order already, though perhaps not destined for Dagenham.

If the Post played a part in expediting its arrival in Dagenham, it achieved something.

The authority that was in charge of local fire stations at that time, and until the restructuring of London government, was Essex County Council.

Their firefighters frequently worked alongside colleagues from neighbouring brigades or from far-flung corners of the county.

Frequently engines from Barking or Dagenham would be assisted by one proudly bearing the title “County Borough of East Ham” and equipped with sirens instead of the conspicuous chrome-plated bells on the Essex machines.

On the night of the Great Ilford Fire in 1959, one back-up machine, rather elderly and similar to the one which had broken down, managed all 65 miles from Harwich.

That fire began in the furniture store of Harrison Gibsons and spread rapidly through the loft spaces of adjoining buildings to reach, and destroy, Moultons, one of Essex’s best liked multiple stores.

It must have been the only occasion (except, perhaps, during the Second World War) when trolley buses on route 693, Barking to Chadwell Heath, were towed through Ilford side streets.

I saw the blaze when travelling along South Park Drive. Those weary firemen asked if they could have a well-deserved quire of copies of the Ilford Recorder containing masses of pictures, which we were pleased to supply.

Another major fire from several decades ago was the one started by an arsonist at Barking Central Library in 1967, which totally destroyed the building and its collection.

Pride and joy

That collection was the pride and joy of the chief librarian, William Fairchild. He died, heartbroken, three years later.


One story of heroism on that night was that of the fireman who rescued the Book of Remembrance which had been displayed in a glass case opposite the entrance. That book is still preserved with pride.

In 1956 came two successive arson fires in Barking Park: the bowls pavilion and the boat house, with several boats. I saw the replacement boat house being built over a period of about two weeks.

A few years ago I watched it being demolished in 30 minutes flat.

Dagenham firemen also proved their worth on the night of the Dagenham train crash in 1958.

Through pea-soup fog they rushed to the scene close to Blackborne Road, cut their way into the rear carriages of the 6.15pm from Fenchurch Street and rescued passengers, many of them severely injured. Sadly, ten passengers died.

In the ’50s street fire alarms were to be seen throughout the Becontree Estate. They had been installed when the estate was being built between the wars because few working class households then had telephones.

Even then only a minority of homes had one. They became targets for hoax callers, but undoubtedly saved lives.

Of course the thousands of fires, road accidents and other emergencies which the local firefighters have attended over the years are too numerous to mention, and so, too, are the many people who have the fire brigade to thank for saving their lives.