A History of the Fire Service In Epsom and Ewell

A Victorian Fireman
A Victorian Fireman.
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum.


The modern fire service that we know today is the result of development and improvements over the last few hundred years. Indeed, the first organised fire fighting in the U.K. is thought to have originated during the Roman occupation in about A.D.43.

The Roman fire brigade was started by aedile [a person responsible for public buildings and public order] Marcus Egnatious Rufus, using slaves passing buckets of water in a line from the nearest water source. This idea was then adopted by Augustus Caesar and built into a force called the Vigiles, a free public service. Vigiles were fire fighters and watchmen who patrolled the streets watching for fires, burglars and runaway slaves. When the alarm was raised they would form up using buckets and pumps along with poles, hooks and even ballistae to tear down buildings ahead of the flames to minimise the damage.

However, once the Romans had left Britain fire fighting declined and in the middle ages whole towns and villages simply burned to the ground due to their construction of wood and thatch and the use of open fires in buildings.

A German visitor to London in 1584 stated that he saw at the head of the Lord Mayor's procession "a contrivance intended for putting out fires, from which water was squirted upon the crowd of people in the streets in order to clear the way." King James 1 granted a patent in 1625 for the introduction of a fire extinguishing engine - a portable apparatus consisting of a cylinder and piston pump adapted for continuous operation.

Before the Great Fire of London in 1666 some parishes in the U.K. had started to organise a basic form of fire fighting but without any regulation or standards. After the Great Fire public concern was so great that things began to slowly change and become slightly more controlled.

A year after the fire, where much of the City of London had been destroyed, a man called Nicholas Barbon introduced the first kind of fire insurance. He formed his own fire brigade and other private companies soon followed his example. Policy holders were given a plate or fire mark to attach to their property and if fire broke out the brigade was called. Providing it was the right fire mark the problem was dealt with but if the building had no cover or belonged to a different company it was left to burn until the right fire brigade arrived. This practice continued until well into the 1800's and it is still possible to see "fire marks" on the walls of old buildings.

Firemark from the Cedars, Sun policy 357323
Firemark from the Cedars, Sun policy 357323
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

The events of 1666 set in motion changes which laid the foundations for fire fighting in the future. In 1667 the "Fire Office" was established employing teams of Thames Watermen as fire-fighters and provided them with brightly coloured uniforms, arm badges and buttons showing the company to which they belonged.

Early Fireman's Uniform c. 1750
Early Fireman's Uniform c. 1750

The first insurance company was named the Phoenix, after the Greek mythological bird which "arose from the ashes"

Phoenix Firemark
Phoenix Firemark
Image by © Pauline E and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.


In 1672 two Dutchmen, Jan Van der Heyden and Jan Loftingh invented the fire hose. Made of flexible leather and coupled every 15m [50ft] with brass fittings, these hoses were attached to the manual pumps and increased the range that the water could be pumped. The length of hose remains standard to this day in mainland Europe but In the U.K. the standard length is 23 or 25 metres.

In about 1688 Loftingh moved to London, became a British citizen, changing his name to John Lofting and patented the "Sucking Worm Engine" in 1690. The London Gazette of 17th March 1691 gave a glowing description of his device and the British Museum has a print of Lofting's machine at work.

Sucking Worm Engine
Sucking Worm Engine

By 1708 "The Parish Pump Act" was passed by the government, ordering every parish to keep a water pump for extinguishing fires. Unfortunately the water pumps in use at the time were so ineffective that more water was lost than found its way onto the fire.

In 1725 a London button maker named Richard Newsham invented the first truly effective fire engine. This was mounted and pulled as a cart. The manual pumps were then manned by teams of men and could deliver up to 400 litres of water per minute at flames over 40 metres away. His design was so successful that the City of New York imported their first two machines from him. In Britain, King George II ordered one to protect his palace. During large fires the men would become very tired through continual pumping of the appliances and would offer bystanders "beer tokens" in return for their help.

When Newsham died the company passed first to his son and then to his wife who joined forces with a cousin George Ragg. The company continued to flourish and Newsham and Ragg pumps were still being used until just before WW2 in 1939.


It is thought that possibly the first "manual" engine in Surrey was used by the Ewell Volunteer Brigade and kept in one half of the Watch House in Church Road, just off the High Street in Ewell. Even then the engine was referred to as "old". The original Watch-house is still preserved and thought to have been built around 1770 although some records indicate an earlier form of fire engine was kept in a private house in about 1763 by Mr Judd of Lower Mill. The other half of this Watch-house was used as a lock-up for the local drunkards and trouble makers.

Ewell Fire Engine
Ewell Fire Engine.
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum.

This basic manual machine still survives and can be seen at the Bourne Hall Museum. The hoses were not very effective, being made from stitched canvas which led to a lot of water being lost. The horses used to pull this machine were kept in stables behind the King William 1V public house and it attended its last fire at 15, High Street, Ewell in 1869. The Ewell fire brigade continued until the outbreak of W.W.1 when it was amalgamated with the Epsom brigade.

Epsom had a similar version of the machine at around the same time with the Watch-house situated next to the clock tower.


The first organised municipal fire brigade in the world was formed in Edinburgh Scotland in 1824, called the "Edinburgh Fire Engine Establishment" and led by James Braidwood. London followed in 1832 when companies merged to form the "London Fire Engine Establishment". [L.F.E.E]. James Braidwood moved to London and became the first Fire Chief. He never had a deputy as he always managed to attend every fire in person.

James Braidwood was killed on 22nd June 1861 in a fire in Tooley Street, Cottons Wharf near London Bridge Station. This became known as the 2nd Great Fire of London. He died when a wall collapsed on him while he was assisting one of his fire fighters. It took two days to recover his body and the fire continued to burn for almost two weeks causing 2,000.000 damage, [about 90,000.000 today]. Engines from all over the country arrived to try and help the L.F.E.E. including a floating engine on the river but because the Thames was at low tide they were unable to get sufficient water. More than 30,000 spectators arrived from all over London to watch. Street vendors with ginger beer, fruit and other refreshments did a roaring trade and public houses stayed open all night even though this was against the law.

Queen Victoria is said to have watched the fire from the roof of Buckingham Palace and recorded in her diary "poor Mr Braidwood - had been killed - and the fire was still raging. It makes one very sad"

His funeral procession was a mile and half long, shops closed and as a mark of respect every church in the city rang its bells. He was buried at Abney Park Cemetery.

Up until this time the insurance company brigades were mainly concerned with keeping damage to property to a minimum because of the amount of money they would have to pay out but no-one assumed responsibility for rescuing people from fire. In 1836 a society for the Protection of Life from Fire was formed and one of its objectives was the supply of suitable fire escapes to localities along with men trained to use them. The society received Royal Patronage in 1843.

Epsom received their escapes from 1867 - 1876 along with a group of trained men called the Fire Escape Brigade. These escape ladders were put on street corners at night and kept in churchyards during the day. The wheeled escape ladders could reach up to 60ft and the operators, known as "conductors" had to undergo training of two to six months. Some ladders had a canvas chute so that ladies could slide down without showing their ankles

Escape Chute c. 1884
Escape Chute c. 1884

In 1862 the insurance companies wrote to the Home Secretary stating that they could no longer be responsible for the fire safety in London due to the cost so this service should become a public authority. The L.F.E.E. had been efficient but was now much too small for the growing city. In 1865 the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Act was passed making it a public service.


In 1866 Epsom was referred to by the author C.F.T. Young, where he states;
"The town of Epsom has no fire brigade but one engine with 5" pumps for use with 20 men, one hose reel and 300ft of leather hose. [A hose reel was as its name implies, a moving drum reel to which the hose was wound on, the whole mounted on a pair of carriage wheels either hand or horse drawn]. The water supply is obtained from the mains with a head of 200ft [about 100lbs per square inch of pressure] from the town reservoir and by means of hydrants which are placed at distances of 80yards apart. The fires are extinguished in the town by means of hose and standpipes whilst the engine goes out to country fires. The fires are not very frequent there having been only three since 1863"
However, this does not mean that only three fires occurred in this time, only that the engine was sent for and probably charges would have been made.

These early fire engines only had engine keepers to take them to the fire. The man power for the pumps was provided by anyone that was about and volunteered to help. This usually led to an untrained and disorganised "rabble" dealing with the fire. A quote from the Sussex Agricultural Express of 19th May 1863 gives an example.
"The alarm was immediately given and the parish engine was promptly on the spot and Sergeant Wagstaff with a body of policemen arrived there simultaneously with the engine and kept order amongst many rough characters, who immediately flocked to the spot, many of whom at this time were acting as "collectors of unconsidered trifles".
The fire happened at Kingston Lane, Epsom.

The Ewell Fire Engine 1821-1902
The Ewell Fire Engine 1821-1902
Image Source The Epsom and Ewell Local and Family History Centre

Following a disastrous fire at Mr Chadband's the tailor in the High Street Epsom in October 1869, when the hose did not arrive to deal with the fire until 35 minutes after the alarm was given, the Board of Health made the following arrangements.
"Part of the hose and one engine will be kept at the Clock Tower in the High Street, with a complete set of standpipes, water keys and appliances will be kept at both places. The officers appointed were Superintendent Busbridge, James Furnise [foreman], subalterns William Rose, G White, R Hayton, W Blackshall, C Sandon, J Gray, Charles Venner and W Collins. Keys of the waterworks and Clock Tower will be kept at the Engine House. A hammer will be attached to the bell in the Clock House to give an alarm when necessary and the remainder of the hose will be kept at the engine house in East Street."
However, perhaps it should be mentioned that where water mains existed with enough pressure a standpipe connected from the main to the hose was used rather than a pump which required a great deal of man power.

At the scene of the fire, a Mr Hardy seems to have taken overall charge of what appears to have been an absolute disaster of events, including a search for the water hydrant which appears to have been buried. Meanwhile the property burned. As a result of this episode calls were made for the provision of some kind of formal fire brigade.

In 1870 the clerk of the Epsom Board of Health wrote to the Norwich Union Office about the establishment of a Fire Brigade in Epsom and how the maintenance of the Brigade should be paid for.

25th JANUARY 1870


     I am directed by my board to inform you that they have at considerable expense established a Fire Brigade in this place and have provided three engines and a considerable length of hose. They have also adopted the recommendations of a committee, a printed copy of which I send you. The men are to be supplied with necessary implements and I have arranged for the co-operation of the Police Authorities in case of fire.
     The charge for maintenance will be paid for by the Rate Payers but the Board consider that the actual expenses paid for conveying the engines to a fire and for remuneration to the men should be paid for by the Insurance Policies Office by which Policies may be effected and in case of insurance in more than one office that the offices themselves shall arrange with each other the proportion which each should pay.
     They propose to pay in addition to the charges for hoses the following sums to the Superintendent 1, to the foreman 10/-s and to each subaltern 5/-s on every occasion of their attending duty besides reasonable allowance for refreshment.
     On two occasions lately Insurance Offices have declined to reimburse the Board or have demurred to the charges although the engines have been sent into neighbouring Parish and I am directed to apply to some of the leading Officers to know if they will reimburse what they may expend on the above mentioned.
     The Board will be happy to receive any suggestions about any aspects to provide for a more efficient service.

Unfortunately a copy of the Board of Health recommendations no longer exists. It is also unlikely that Epsom had three engines as mentioned in the letter and it is possible that two of the "engines" were in fact hose carts or an old form of hand held squirts or hand pumps that had been in use for several years.

Epsom Fire Brigade 1878
Epsom Fire Brigade 1878
Image courtesy of W Saunders and held in The Epsom and Ewell Local and Family History Centre

By the late 19th century manual engines were being replaced by the horse-drawn "steamer", where a coal fire brass boiler would heat water and create steam power to drive the pump. Merryweather and Co. of Greenwich were the leading manufacturers.

In rural areas the manpower was entirely voluntary and in some cases the firemen had to purchase their own uniforms but larger urban brigades funded their senior officers and occasionally provided living accommodation. These professional fire-fighters were considered to be "on duty" full time and sometimes only had one day off in ten. A well turned out fire brigade was a matter of enormous civic pride in every town and village.

Epsom Firemen Off Duty 1895
Epsom Firemen "Off Duty" 1895
Image source The Epsom and Ewell Local and Family History Centre

By this time the Fire Station in Epsom was situated in Waterloo Road, backing onto the railway embankment at a point now the east end of Station Approach. The horses were stabled elsewhere which meant that when an alarm of fire was given they had to be brought from their stables to the Fire Station, harnessed to the engine which then had to go to the clock tower to collect the extra hoses or the escape ladder before any help could be sent out. Firemen were summoned by a hooter which made for a quicker turnout during the daytime saving valuable time.

Arriving at the Clock Tower to collect the ladder
Arriving at the Clock Tower to collect the ladder.
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum.

In 1903 the question of purchasing a motorised fire engine was raised in council but this was decided against and the decision to buy new horses instead was accepted. The idea of purchasing a motorised engine would continue to smoulder on until 1918.

In September of 1903, the resident electrical engineer was sent to instruct the local brigade in methods to be used in the event of fire caused by the new innovation of electricity.

Here are a few examples of the costs and expenses incurred by the fire brigade that had to be paid by the council who in turn had to reclaim them from the insurance companies.
  • The 21st Sept 1903: A fire at Langley Bottom, charge 16.8s (16.40).
  • The 4th February 1906: Fire at stables 7.9s.8d (7.48).
  • The 6th February 1906: Outbreak of fire in the administration block of the hospital 6.17s (6.85).
  • 25th March 1906: Fire at No.8 Grand Parade 6.9s (6.45).
23rd Dec 1903: A proposal was put forward for the purchase of a fire engine and escape ladders for use at the five local asylums. This was later rejected by the council saying that the increased water supply and the contemplated purchase of a horsed escape would be more than adequate with present appliances stationed at Epsom. The council went on to say that
"They did not recognise any responsibility to incur any further expense in obtaining appliances for the protection of buildings already equipped to cope with fire and in the construction of which they had no control, but that the Brigade would willingly render every assistance in the event of fire." (Note: The Epsom Hospital Cluster had it's own fire brigade)
Horton Hospital Fire Drill c.1910
Horton Hospital Fire Drill c.1910
Image Courtesy of Mr Piner

Horton Hospital Fire Brigade c.1913
Horton Hospital Fire Brigade c.1913
Percy Walker Hepworth is shown seated in the first seat on the left.
Read more about Percy in our War Memorials section.
Image Courtesy of Mr Piner

In June 1904 an electric call bell system was fitted in to the houses of the firemen thereby speeding up the call out response time.

The question of purchasing a motor engine was again raised and the distinct advantage that it would provide in being able to turn out instantly was put forward but without a permanent station staff the council were unable to agree.

Plans were also proposed for a new fire station at Bromley Hurst [now Church Street]. Bromley Hurst was the site of a large house in Church Street that had been bought by the council for use as offices but it was found to be unsuitable.

In July the engine, horses and men attended the National Brigades' competition at Crystal Palace where they won 2nd prize for their turnout.

By November 1904 the existing fire station in Waterloo Road was in need of repair and enlargement to meet the growing needs of the district and plans were submitted for the new station at an estimated cost of 1500. This sum did not include the installation of call wires or street alarms which would be required.

It was also agreed to provide anyone calling out the Brigade to the scene of a fire with a fee of 5 shillings (25p) for their trouble.

By January 1905 the condition of the station had become unsatisfactory with the hoses suffering from damp. The surveyor submitted plans for a corrugated iron building with a hose drying tower on the existing site at an estimated cost of 400. He also put forward plans for the new station at Bromley Hurst, which the council accepted.

August 1905: A fire at the property of Mr Hampton in Ewell resulted in a charge of 9.17s.6d (9.87). Part of this charge; 2.2s.0d (2.10) was for the horses and refreshments for the firemen. Mr Hampton instructed his solicitor to challenge this amount but the council refused to make a reduction as they considered the charge for horses to be reasonable so by February 1906 Mr Hampton was obliged to pay the full amount.

In 1906 The Fire Brigades' Union, which had been formed the previous year, wrote to the Chief Fire Officer of Epsom asking for support in their efforts to get a bill passed which would place all the Brigades under the control of the Local Government Board. The Chief Officer, Captain Reeves, was asked to reply that the council was not in favour of the proposal.

The council received a petition from all members of the Brigade asking for an increase to their retaining fees after two years' service. The annual fees which had not altered since 1878 were 5.5s (5.25) for a Chief Officer and 1.1s (1.05) for other members for the first two years' service and then 1.11s.6d (1.57). It was agreed to increase the fees to 2.2s (2.10) after two years' service for the ordinary members but the fee for the Chief Officer appears to have remained the same.

The Chief Officer W. M. Reeves decided to resign and was replaced by Captain Cropley.

In 1907 the outgoing Chief Officer reported that there had been 12 fires in and around the town over the previous 12 months. Most had been slight but two had been quite serious resulting in the destruction of stables, bedrooms, equipment and 1 horse.

In 1908 the Brigade attended the annual drill competition where the Epsom team of 4 men won 1st prize, the Thirty Guinea Silver Challenge Cup and 1st prize for the one man drill, the winner being Fireman Bullen.

A  Prize winning team from Ewell.
A Prize winning team from Ewell.
Image source The Epsom and Ewell Local and Family History Centre

The call bell system was becoming very unsatisfactory and not working properly but the estimated cost of 100 to review the system proved too expensive for the Council and they asked if an overhaul could be arranged for a cheaper amount.

In April a serious fire occurred at the Railway Hotel in Kingswood causing 2,000 of damage.

Galloping to the Rescue
Galloping to the Rescue.
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum.

In 1909 the annual Fire Brigade report confirmed that the Brigade had been called out 5 times during the previous 12 months. The Brigade also asked if something could be done to keep clothing dry. At times the oilers [clothing worn by the firemen] were so damp that they were quite unfit to use. Many things in the station needed to be kept dry but under the present conditions this was quite impossible.

So, after several years of indecision the Council finally agreed to the building of a new fire station at Bromley Hurst. The approximate cost would be 2,300 to include provision of eleven alarm posts, telephone communications and the re-arrangement of all the call bells in the firemen's houses.

By December of that year a total of 28 estimates from builders all over South London, Surrey and Sussex had been received by the council for the building of the new fire station.

The vicar and churchwardens made an application to the Council for payment of a wayleave rental of 5s (25p) per annum because the fire brigade had erected a pole and wires in the churchyard.

A fire at the Magpie Inn in South Street caused approximately 900 worth of damage.

The Chief Fire Officer Capt. Cropley resigned and was replaced by Mr Kelham who reported to the council that there had only been 5 call outs over the last year, 2 of which were false alarms.

By January 1910 the Council accepted the cheapest tender of 2,000 for the new station from T. W. Moss of Southend-on- Sea. However, by March certain discrepancies in the finances of that firm had started to appear so the Council withdrew their acceptance and offered the job to the firm of Mr. Norris of Beckenham at the estimated cost of 2,050.

In May Mr Moss's solicitor wrote claiming 200 for loss of earnings. The Council denied any responsibility as no contract had been signed.

In June the electrician, while testing the call bell system broke an earth wire resulting in all the firemen being called to the station on a false alarm. The cost of this call out was 4.15s.(4.75).

The Council borrowed 2,285 from the Local Government Board to pay for the new fire station, repayable with interest over 27 years.

It was about this time that the Chief Officer took possession of his official car, enabling him to reach the scene of a fire in advance of the engine.

Fire Chief's Car 1910

In August 1911 the Fire Brigade took possession of the new station and the first resident fireman started his duties. Each man was paid 1s (5p) for night duty. It was decided any official opening ceremony would be dispensed with. The first telephone line was connected to the new station, the appointment of an Honorary Surgeon for the Brigade was granted and the fire hooter was to be tested every Saturday morning. Each fireman had a call out bell fitted in his house, usually in the bedroom so that he could be called at any time. The signals were - 2 peels then stop followed by 4 peels indicated an emergency and to meet at Church Street in a hurry. 5 peels then stop followed by 2 peels meant meet at Hook Road with the engine.

Epsom Fire Brigade outside the 1911 Station
Epsom Fire Brigade outside the 1911 Station taken c1920s.
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum.

It was also agreed that as two drivers of the scavenger cart [dustcart] were also members of the brigade and the same horses were used to pull the fire engine that they confine their work to within half a mile of the fire station so that if an alarm of fire was called, they could unharness the horses and return to the fire station as quickly as possible.

1913 Councillor Chuter Ede was asked to look again into the possibility of buying a motorised engine but the council thought that buying a fresh horse for the team which pulled the aged manual engine was more cost effective. Some councillors went to view a motorised engine in London in 1914 but with the outbreak of war the idea was put aside.


In April 1915 Lord Kitchener asked the Local Government Boards [L.G.B.] to supply as many men as possible from the council departments, including the fire brigade, who were fitters, millwrights, machine hands, skilled and unskilled workers for the war effort. In total 66 names were put forward from Epsom and Ewell.

In June the Fire Brigade applied to the council for the purchase of a motorised vehicle which they considered necessary due to the large number of wooden buildings in the town and also to train 12 extra firemen for emergencies during the war.

Application was made to the L.G.B to borrow 1,000 to purchase an engine but this was positively refused.

In May 1915 the first Zeppelin raid on London occurred, killing 28 people. These huge airships were capable of carrying 2,000kg [4,400lbs] and travelled at a height of 4,250 meters. Most of the raids took place on the East Coast but some came into the Home Counties so the local Brigades were kept on stand-by.

A Graf Zeppelin from West Street c.1915
A Graf Zeppelin from West Street c.1915
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum.

By February 1916, the Brigade was finding it difficult to recruit men so the retirement age limit was raised from 50 to 60 in the hope that more men would come forward. The Brigade also revised their list of rules.
  1. Each member to attend 16 drills a year.
  2. On an alarm of fire all members should hasten to the Fire Station
  3. Should the resident fireman receive a telephone call about a fire he should immediately summon the Brigade.
  4. Home Watch shall receive 5.s (25p) a man per callout.
  5. Anyone not arriving in 15 minutes from departure of the engine shall not be entitled to payment.
  6. The sum of 1s.6d (7p) a night to be paid for relief duty.
  7. Charge of 2.2s (2.10) to be made for the use of the engine outside the district.
In December it was confirmed that firemen on active service should be paid a retaining fee while absent form their jobs. Also that part time fireman could not be granted exemption from military service.

1917 saw the introduction of rationing for sugar and coal and a local society lady, Mrs Lucy de Wasselow, of Ebbisham House in Church Street asked if it was possible to use the old fire station in Waterloo Road, to set up a communal kitchen for the residents of the town.

One of the largest fires to ever happen in the area was at the R.A.C.House in 1917. It burnt for 3 days and the firemen worked round the clock to try and control it. They were only allowed to leave the scene to change their clothes when they became soaked to the skin and then returned to help fight the fire.

In January 1918 a fire was reported at Sandiford Road, Walton-on-the-Hill. A delay in getting to the fire was caused because the man sent to collect the horse was unable to ride it back to the station. The Chief Officer attended the scene in his motor car and decided that the Brigade would not be required but he charged the householder 15shillings for his own attendance.

In April of that year, Surbiton firemen withdrew their services from the Kingston District, refusing to attend fires outside their boundary limits into Epsom without special consent of their committee.

In May the National Fire Brigade Union organised a national flag day to assist widows and orphans of firemen killed in the war or on duty at home.

The question of the provision of a motorised fire engine ignited well and truly in 1918 following the outbreak of a serious fire at the home of Mr Garrett in Longdown Road Epsom. At breakfast time on a Monday morning the fire was discovered in one of the servants' bedrooms at the top of the house and quickly spread to the roof. The fire brigade was sent for and Capt E. Capon was first on the spot, getting to work with buckets of water. It was sometime before the brigade arrived with the engine owing to a delay in getting the machine horsed. It was then found that the water pressure was insufficient and the brigade had to carry water to the top of the house. By this time the fire had got a firm hold and before it could be extinguished much of the roof had been destroyed and a lot of damage done to the house and contents by smoke and water. Had the fire occurred during the night the consequences would have been far more serious. The cause was thought to be a defective flue.

The fire and the delay in getting the engine to the spot greatly added support to Capt. Capon and his plea that a motor fire engine was urgently needed. Firstly the horses had to be gathered from the farm and elsewhere, harnessed to the engine and then had to negotiate a steep hill finishing up at little more than a snail's pace. The general opinion was that while everyone waited for sanctions and for a motor engine to be built, the town might be devastated by fire simply because the brigade could not get quickly to the scene and because the water pressure was very poor in parts of the town.

Finally, after hours and hours of discussion it was agreed by a majority vote that the council would purchase a motor fire engine. This was to cost in the region of 1,000 and would be made by the Dennis Motor Company based in Guildford. Sometime before this the Treasury had ordered that public authorities should only raise loans for urgent purposes. The Council put their case to the Local Government Board, describing their antiquated engine and equipment. However, the board refused to allow the loan asking whether it was a reasonable thing to purchase in the crisis of The Great War and that the money would be better invested in War Loan Stock. The board went on to say that the purchase of a new machine would mean a rise of a penny a week on the rates for the next three years and that they were inclined to think that a cheaper provision, such as a motor tender and first aid apparatus or a second hand steamer would meet all requirements until the war was over. The purchase of new horses had removed the difficulty of transporting the old engine, hydrants with proper pressure should have reduced the need for an engine to a minimum and the absence of any considerable fire in the town for many years past seemed to point to the power of the existing arrangements meeting normal emergencies.

However, the majority of the council were agreed on purchasing a new engine and decided to raise a mortgage on the sewage farm to pay for it so avoiding having to make an appeal to Whitehall. So, on Saturday 25th September 1918, Dennis Bros. of Guildford delivered one of their 60hp motor fire engines and gave demonstrations in various parts of the town. The Chief Fire Officer,Capt. Capon jumped on board the engine and was driven around the town in triumph. The council received its petrol licence, the rates did go up and the mortgage was duly paid. The old manual engine was sold for 65.

The 1918 Dennis Fire Engine
The 1918 Dennis Fire Engine
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum.

Early on the morning of Sunday January 8th 1919 a disastrous fire occurred at the Manor House, Little Bookham. The owner, the Hon. Mrs Barrington was awoken by her maid who told her the house was on fire. The family, including four children and seven maids escaped in their night clothes by the back stairs as the front of the house was by this time impassable.

Mrs Barrington tried to ring the Leatherhead Fire Brigade but this took nearly an hour as she was unable to raise the Bookham Telephone Exchange. Attempts were made to contact the Brigade at Guildford, the only other Brigade in the area with a motorised engine. After a considerable delay the Chief Fire Officer came to the phone but he declined to attend the fire. In the meantime the Leatherhead Brigade had set off and was met by a motor car from the Manor House along the road. This immediately returned to the house with the Chief Officer leaving the horse drawn engine to follow on. On arrival the Chief Officer attempted to tackle the fire with two small hand extinguishers, without much success.

The Epsom Brigade was sent for in their new motorised engine, but this broke down on the way. Eventually the Guildford Brigade consented to turn out, arriving in due course at the same time as the Epsom brigade, who had managed to re-start their engine. These engines got to work using water from a nearby pond but by now the mansion was practically destroyed. The owner, the Hon. Bernard Barrington arrived home that evening to find his elegant mansion in ruins. Fortunately the buildings and contents were covered by insurance so the house was eventually rebuilt.

The refusal of the Guildford Brigade to attend the fire was reportedly because a scheme had been previously introduced where Parish Councils had been asked to make contributions towards the upkeep of the service if they wanted to be covered, some Parishes agreed and some did not so it wasn't immediately apparent to the Guildford Chief Officer if Little Bookham came under the scheme. The outcome of this unfortunate event was that councils insisted that all parishes contributed towards the upkeep of the Brigades in their area.

THE 20s & 30s

During the 1920's and 1930's things continued to slowly improve. More and more fire hydrants were laid throughout the town and parishes as water mains were laid. Firemen were able to be insured against injury whilst on duty. Brigade members were given first aid instruction by the St John's Ambulance. Due to the rapidly expanding population it was felt that in the interest of efficiency the Brigade strength should be increased from 14 to 19 as 2 firemen were permanently employed as ambulance drivers. It was usual at this time for Fire Brigades to provide ambulance cover.

Engines with solid tyres
Engines with solid tyres outside the 1911 Epsom Fire Station
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum.

New rubber tyres were introduced to replace the solid tyres used on the engine at a cost of 121.10s.0d (121.50). A new style of helmet was purchased, designed to withstand electric shock. This was thought to be essential due to the "modern" widespread use of electricity.

Firemen's wages were at this time 3 a week increasing by 2/6d (12p) a year to eventually reach 3.10s (3.50) - less deductions.

In September 1930 a grand dinner was given by Sir Arthur Glyn in honour of the Fire Brigade members and they used the engine to travel there.

In 1934 a full time compliment of firemen was introduced. The number of fires and call outs had also been steadily rising over the years. Most were small or chimney fires, many were for motor cars catching fire but an increasing number were malicious false alarms.

In 1935 the Riverdale Report was published recommending an overhaul of the existing "ad hoc" system of fire protection around the country, in favour of a uniform organisation in readiness for any future aerial war. As military technology became more advanced it only served as a warning that the approximate 1,450 brigades in the country, many of which were equipped with obsolescent appliances, such as manual or steam engines and manned by unpaid volunteers who had little training was wholly inadequate to deal with the threat of incendiary bombing.

Some local authorities such as Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield or Portsmouth simply made their police forces responsible for fire fighting to save money. In this respect Epsom was extremely fortunate to have such a well-established Fire Brigade with permanent staff and modern appliances.

A new Fire Station opened in Church Street on the 2nd October 1937 on the site of the old station. This was at the same time that the Epsom and Ewell was granted Borough status. At this time the appliances held at the station consisted of a Dennis pump escape, a smaller pump, a Ford tender and two ambulances so the new station engine room needed to have 5 bays. The new premises were built by Taylor's, a local firm of builders at a cost of 24,000 and provided one of the most modern fire stations in Southern England. On the ground floor there were offices, including one for the Chief Officer, a uniform room, workshop and pit, battery room, watch room and toilets. A large fuel tank house and boiler room served the central heating system for the station. This included under floor heating in each bay as well as vertical heating panels on each of the eight piers in the appliance room. A vehicle exhaust system was incorporated in each bay which involved ducts under the appliance room floor, connecting with the boiler chimney. On the upper floors domestic quarters for the Chief Officer and Second Officer were sited along with a recreation room and common room. Sliding poles were available from the upper floors to the appliance room. Whilst construction of the new station was taking place a temporary station was set up at Woodcote Motors on the other side of the road. A spacious yard was provided along with a brick built drill tower which housed the siren used to summon the part time firemen. This building was considered a big asset and offered extremely fine conditions.

The New Station which opened in 1937
The New Station which opened in 1937
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum.

On the far side of the yard a block of 9 flats was erected where full time firemen and their families were required to live at a rent of 10s (50p) a week along with rental for cookers and wash boilers. The pay for full time firemen was 3.15.0 (3.75) per week for which a continuous duty system of 24 hours per day was performed, with one full day off each week. Each flat had its own 5cwt (254kg) coal bunker to store fuel for the living room fire as well as an endless loop washing line and a supply of hot water from the station heating system. The living rooms had a front balcony but these were screened off after the young son of one of the families fell from one of them. A common entrance stairway at the rear of the flats was cleaned on a rota basis by the tenants. Near to the stairs were sliding poles so that the firemen could make a quick getaway from the flats if necessary. Under the stairs were hot water tanks which eventually provided a good home for cockroaches which also managed to infiltrate the flats! Many of these flats were found to be damp, even before the tenants had moved in. The flats were also built in very close proximity to the town mortuary which many families found upsetting so steps were taken to try and screen the mortuary from their view. The Chief and Second Officers were granted free quarters with coal, light and a car allowance.

The population of Epsom at this time was about 71,000 and growing rapidly as new estates were built at the rate of 1,500 houses per year, creating an annual population increase of 5,000 to 6,000. This presented a challenge to new firemen in learning their way about the Borough. Epsom had six railway stations, including Tattenham Corner within its boundaries and six more at various points just over the border. Water supplies were provided by four companies which meant the Brigade had to carry various adaptors to ensure the standpipes could be fitted to different hydrant outlets. The area was served by six different telephone exchanges which could at times lead to problems in handling emergency calls.

About this time reciprocal agreements were being reached with neighbouring Brigades for "fringe fires", fires that happened on the borders between two districts. Most Brigades were happy to agree but the Brigade at Malden and Coombe were not prepared to enter into any arrangement with Epsom so the council declined to send the local Brigade to attend any fringe fire in that area if Malden and Coombe would not enter into an agreement.

Miss Margaret Glyn, sister of Sir Arthur Glyn, approached the council asking for the return of the original Ewell Fire Engine to the Watch House. She was informed that the engine would be retained in Epsom to be properly preserved until suitable housing could be found. However, it was soon discovered that the engine was being kept out in the open so arrangements were hurriedly made to house it in the stables at Ewell Court.

Around this time the Fire Brigade was called upon for two "special services", something they had not encountered before and therefore were unsure what to charge. The first incident involved a small child who had locked himself in the bathroom of his home and turned all the taps on. For this rescue his mother was charged 7s.4d (37p).

The second incident came after a gale had left tiles and dangerous structures hanging from roofs in the High Street. The owners were charged the same as if it had been a fire but there was some concern about if the firemen would be covered against injury on these "special services."

The new firemen's flats were now so damp that electric fires had to be installed to try and resolve the problem. The Council was informed that members of neighbouring Brigades were enjoying higher pay and better conditions than Epsom so they accepted recommendations to increase the wages of the ordinary firemen but not that of the Chief or Second Officers.

Auxiliary Fire Service

A few members of the Epsom A.F.S Brigade
A few members of the Epsom A.F.S Brigade
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum.

In 1938 the Auxiliary Fire Service [A.F.S] was formed as the possibility of war seemed ever more likely. It was part of the Civil Defence Air Raid precautions and its role was to supplement the work of the brigades at a local level. The A.F.S. had their own rapidly constructed or requisitioned stations or added their services to the existing stations. However, their job was severely hampered by the incompatibility of the equipment used by the different brigades, most notably a standard size of hydrant valve.

Approximately 150 volunteers in Epsom and Ewell enrolled for training as Auxiliary firemen. Each volunteer had to undergo a medical examination for fitness to carry out duties. The council's medical officer Dr Napier agreed to carry out the examinations for a fee of 5 shillings (25p) per person.

The A.F.S. in Epsom and Ewell existed alongside the regular fire brigade and was made up of non-professional, unpaid part time volunteers but could be called up for full time paid service if necessary. Women were also allowed to join but mainly in an administrative role.

In May 1938 a serious fire broke out at Banstead Woods and the whole Brigade turned out to support the Brigade from Purley. Fireman Edwards, although injured from a previous fire, volunteered to cover watch room duties and was rewarded for his dedication by two days special leave with pay. However, the cost of sending the Epsom Brigade amounted to 150.15s.6d (150.78) but the solicitors for the householder concerned stated that as the fire happened within the area of the Purley Brigade they were not prepared to contribute towards the charge for Epsom's attendance.

On the 26th June 1938 one of the most serious fires to have happened in the district occurred at Woodgoods Timber Yard, Kingston Road Ewell. The following extract is from the Daily Telegraph.
"Just after staff went home on the eve of 26th June 1938 a timber factory belonging to Woodgoods Ltd of Kingston Road, Ewell caught fire. It is believed that the fire was started by an explosion in the stores.
Every available man and appliance was used by Epsom Fire Brigade and volunteers including members of the Council helped the firemen in attempts to save the adjoining houses and offices.
The three storey factory was badly damaged and the fire spread to stocks of timber. When the roof fell in flames shot up to a great height and some of the burning debris was carried into the road where a big crowd had assembled.
For generations this factory was one of the flour mills of Ewell and was known as the Lower Mill. The Hogsmill River runs through the grounds and from this the Fire Brigade obtained plenty of water"
Lower Mill Timber Factory Fire 1938
Lower Mill Timber Factory Fire 1938
Lower Mill (Kingston Road, Ewell) Timber Factory Fire 1938
Image source The Epsom and Ewell Local and Family History Centre

The Fire Brigade Act of 1938 made fire protection compulsory for every local authority and Britain was soon divided into twelve regions under the command of Chief Regional Fire Officers. This was still without any form of financial support from the government.

Plans for a new fire station in Ewell were submitted at a cost of 21,380. This included air raid precautions, appliance rooms, drill yard and tower, petrol pump, a house for the Chief Officer and cottages for up to 6 firemen. The proposed site was "Grey Roofs" on the London Road. However, after the outbreak of war the plans were postponed and fire fighting facilities for Ewell and Cuddington were thought to be adequate.


Epsom Station during WW2
Epsom Station during WW2
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum.

The bombing of London started on 7th September 1940 and continued for 57 consecutive nights. There was a brief lull during December but the bombing resumed until May 1941 when Germany turned its attention to British ports and other larger cities. Written reports refer to some 440 HE [high explosive] bombs having fallen on Epsom and Ewell, 43 of which failed to explode. Most of the HE bombs fell during the night blitzes of 1940/41.

By December 1940 Epsom Fire Station was being used as a hold point for 86 fire appliances and 388 auxiliary firemen from southern counties or on standby. 77 A.F,S, men were billeted in the borough and 282 meals were provided through the A.F.S.

Most of the members that belonged to the Epsom and Ewell Fire Brigade were put on stand by as more and more fires developed in London. The Firemen would be moved up to London to replace those Firemen who were exhausted after being on duty non-stop for 48 hours or more. The Epsom men would then return, to be replaced by other crews from other areas where the bombing was less intense. Local volunteers also supplemented the local Brigade and a number of local industries had their own private fire units which were made up from their own work force.

By 1941 with the ferocity of the bombing and the possibility of invasion, all local authority fire brigades and A. F.S were amalgamated into the National Fire Service. This brought the service under direct government control for the duration of the war, with the government funding all emergency costs and a quarter of each Brigades peacetime cost. It existed until 1948 when it was again split by the Fire Services Act. At its peak strength the N.F.S had 37,000 personnel both full and part time, of which 8,000 were women.

The Epsom A.F.S Brigade in 1944
The Epsom A.F.S Brigade in 1944
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum.

Personnel and equipment was sent from the Borough to places as far as Portsmouth, Southampton and even Bristol to support other Brigades as the docks came under increasing attack.

During the war there were 5 sub stations in the borough under the control of Epsom Fire station. These included Ewell Court, St. Ebbas Hospital, Epsom College and Pitt House Ewell.

Among the blazes the crews were called upon to deal with was an ammunition dump at Leith Hill which went up with such an explosion that it cracked chimney pots in Reigate. On another occasion a goods train carrying tankers of fuel derailed and caught fire near Guildford. There were 10 vehicles with pumps, men and full equipment, known as "mobile columns" and they could be despatched to any town when needed.

An all woman fire fighting unit
An all woman fire fighting unit
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum.

One column from Epsom went overseas with the Army. It had a white American star painted on the side of the vehicles and it went right through Germany with the American division and the men were highly commended.

The second "doodlebug "of the war to land in Britain fell on Riverholme Drive West Ewell demolishing a number of houses and requiring the assistance of the local brigade.

A 'Fire Watcher'
A 'Fire Watcher'
This photo shows Eden King at her home at 6 Ridgeway in her fire warden's uniform with pump and bucket.
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum.

At the top of the drill tower at the Epsom Station 2 firemen were always on look out. They had a map and a direct line down to the control room so that if they saw a "doodlebug coming over the town they could ring down and alert the crews


A Surrey Fire Service Badge'
A Surrey Fire Service Badge.

After the war in 1948 the brigades reverted to local authority control. Existing fire stations in north Surrey became part of Fire Force 38, with its headquarters at Wimbledon Close, Wimbledon.

The county brigade of Surrey covered an area of 702 square miles and had 47 fire stations.

Green Goddesses.

A Green Goddess
A Green Goddess.
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum.

These green painted engines were built between 1953 - 1956 for use by the AFS and later by the Armed Forces. The design was based on a Bedford RL series British Military truck. At the height of the "cold war" it was feared that a nuclear attack on Britain would result in a large number of fires which would overwhelm the ordinary fire service so a large number of these machines were ordered to form a reserve capacity. These appliances were not primarily fire engines but "self-propelled pumps" and their main aim was to pump huge amounts of water from lakes, rivers and canals etc into cities in support of the Fire Brigades.

In 1968 the AFS was disbanded and the Green Goddesses were mothballed but occasionally used by the armed forces, mostly notably during the first national Fireman's strike in 1977 which lasted for 9 weeks and then again in 2002 - 2003. During these disputes 30,000 troops were brought in to provide emergency cover throughout the country. The appliances had to be driven by a senior NCO (non-commissioned officer).

The first ever Fire-fighters strike in 1977 was over pay and the possibility of reducing the 48 hour week. It lasted for 9 weeks with the Fire Brigade Union claiming 97.5% of its 30,000 members supporting the strike action and refusing to man the pumps but it should be noted that in several cases the firemen left the picket lines to assist in some major incidents. One of these was at a bungalow in Wallington, Surrey following a gas explosion and fire when the local fire-fighters came to the rescue of a woman and 2 children because the troops on a Green Goddess engine were a 25 minute drive away. Striking firemen received no strike pay but got plenty of donations from the public. Insurance companies picked up the final bill for the strike amounting to 17.5 m.

In 2004 the Government announced that it was planning to dispose of the fleet of 900 Green Goddess vehicles with most of them going to developing countries mainly Africa.


Fire at West Park Hospital in August 2004.
Fire at West Park Hospital in August 2004.
Image courtesy of Surrey & South West London newspapers via. Bourne Hall Museum.

Today Epsom is part of the Surrey Fire and Rescue Service which employs approximately 1,000 staff with its Headquarters in Reigate. Surrey Fire and Rescue Service covers several urban areas including Guildford, Redhill and Woking, 64 miles of motorway and is in close proximity to London Heathrow and London Gatwick airports.

A total of 24 stations sited throughout the county, 17 of these are manned full time, including Epsom and 7 crewed on a part- time basis with crews living and working in the vicinity and available on call.

In March 2007, crews across Surrey took delivery of 12 Scanias, the most advanced fire appliances in the U.K. The vehicles seat 8 fire-fighters instead of 6 and have a "tough book" computer system that contains every address in the county. A new rescue boat is based at Walton on Thames for use during flooding incidents.

The Fire Service is now established under the Fire and Rescue Service Act 2004. In general terms there is a duty imposed on fire authorities to plan for and provide arrangements for fighting fire and protecting life and property from fire. Fire safety provision is now a duty rather than a discretionary function, as is response to road traffic accidents. Over the border attendance is also a duty, if a brigade has better resources than its neighbour to deal with a particular incident.

There are special legislative provisions for dealing with chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear emergencies, train and plane crashes and maritime incidents. Decontamination suits are carried on board but the main decontamination unit for Surrey is at Godstone Fire Station.

The modern fire engine weighs approximately 18 tons, usually now with a crew of four and carries a variety of equipment for almost any situation. These days the service is funded mainly from the Council Tax and by Central Government but charges are still made for non-emergency call outs, this can be up to 400. This is usually explained to the caller at the time of the call. However, things like house calls for risk assessment and fitting of smoke alarms are free of charge.

Training is given over a ten week period followed by two years' probation before the applicant is considered fully proficient. All crews have some paramedic training as the Fire and Rescue is often first on the scene of a disaster.

Epsom Firefighters during a Practice Drill

Fitness is a top priority and all members of the crew, including women, must be able to lift the extending ladder which weighs 100 kilo.

Ewell Court House

In the early hours of 10 December 2013 a devastating fire ripped through Ewell Court House. Fifty firefighters fought for several hours to contain the blaze, using water from the ornamental lake, as flames leapt 20ft into the air. The fire crews were however able to prevent the blaze from reaching the public library and Bambini nursery although smoke and water caused extensive damage to the Grade II Listed Building. English Heritage and Epsom & Ewell Council promised that a full restoration would take place with rebuilding expected to take over 2 years.

Fire at Ewell Court House 1
Fire at Ewell Court House 2
Fire at Ewell Court House
Images courtesy of Surrey Advertiser (getSurrey.co.uk).

Ewell Court House Fire Damage
Ewell Court House Fire Damage
Images courtesy of thisislocallondon.co.uk.

The Future For Epsom

At the end of 2014 it was proposed to reduce the number of engines from 2 to 1. The second engine, along with its crew, to be moved to Banstead to help with cover on that side of the district, whilst the Fire Station in Purley, along with 9 others in South London are being modernised and rebuilt in response to the changing requirements of today. This second engine and crew were due to be housed in the disused Police Station in Banstead High Street but it has been suggested that this site is unsuitable and a more permanent building needs to be constructed in another part of the village. The situation remains unclear.

Staffing levels at Epsom, which now include 2 women, are split into 4 watches, 2 days on, 2nights on, 4 days off. One of the disused bays in the station has been converted into a gym. At nearly 80 years old the building is beginning to show its age and is now far too large for just one engine, so there is every possibility that it may be closed and the engine relocated to another part of the town, although no decisions have been taken at this time.

Today's Fire and Rescue Service is a far cry from those early days. It has to be ready to meet the ever changing demands of modern society. Not only fire and rescue but the risk of flooding from the changing weather patterns, the increasing threat of terrorism, major chemical incidents and road traffic accidents. This also includes a Safety Drive aimed at 16 - 19 year olds as they learn to drive. They also work in close co-operation with the Police, Ambulance Service, Adult Social Services, local councils and Volunteer Services.

Epsom has been extremely fortunate to have such a dedicated and well run fire service over the last hundred and fifty years and hopefully it will continue into the future.

Acknowledgements to:
Bourne Hall Museum:
Epsom Fire Brigade:
Surrey Fire Brigade Preservation Museum:
Recollections of a Fireman by Tom Pratt:
Epsom Guardian:
Surrey Advertiser (getSurrey.co.uk) thisislocallondon.co.uk
Janet Painter © 2015.

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