1935. Captain Allan Baxter of the Henfield Fire Brigade had just welcomed his newest recruit. George 'Joe' Gillett was now outside the station, being shown around the gleaming 1915 Dennis motor engine that had replaced the old horse drawn appliance the previous year. Joe had just been kitted out in the same kind of gear he himself had started in when Victoria still had many years left to reign - gleaming buttoned heavy wool tunic and trousers, brass helmet, high leather boots and soft cap. He had no doubt that Joe'd do fine - he was a former Scout! His mind wandered to a time when the Scouts were new...
August, 1908. Sitting down to breakfast with his wife Ada, he jumped up as a loud rap came at the door - a brass plate indicated the member of the Henfield Fire Brigade within. The call boy shouted "A fire at Cowfold!". Once a grocer and with years of experience in the Dorking Brigade, the chance to lead the Henfield counterpart had arisen with its formation by the Parish Council in 1904. Within five minutes he was to be found, helmet gleaming, at the fire station (now H. J. Burt's), where the bell was being rung hard. The two horses had already been brought round and hitched to the Merryweather engine. A voluntary brigade, as today, all members' jobs and homes had to be within running/cycling distance of the station. There was the last man, running up the High Street. Up, onto the engine, a flick of the whip and the brigade were off at rather stately, but determined pace. Amid shouts of "Make way!", holding tightly, they galloped down the High Street, past the startled pony and trap of one Miss Brown, headed to the station with Henfield violets aplenty. It would be no mere stack fire, but their first major event, at Cowfold Lodge. The moment would be photographed for posterity, quite probably by the brigade member Edwin L. Merrett. Henfield's postmaster and chemist, he also produced postcards to sell in the shop, including of this very event.
The Cowfold Lodge Fire of 1908 - description from a local newspaper
The fire at Cowfold Lodge on the 6th August 1908 was the first major fire attended by the Henfield Fire Brigade. The house, situated on the eastside of the A281 on the southern edge of the village, was owned by Arthur Labouchere who lived there with four servants. It was around 1 a.m. that a gas explosion was heard in the front hall, and within fifteen minutes flames had reached the roof and the whole front of the building. Mr. Labouchere roused three of the servants who escaped from the house unharmed in night attire and coats, but Lilla Clark a 27 year old housemaid in a back upper bedroom was not so lucky as her escape route had been cut off by the fire. She cried out that she was on fire, when in fact she wasn’t, and a fellow servant Miss Cooper on hearing her, believing this to be true, shouted to her to jump. She fell 20 feet to the ground and received serious injuries to her spine. If she had waited a few minutes a ladder was being brought around by which she could have escaped without harm. Mr. Labouchere, who had lost his moustache and much of the hair on his head in the fire, roused his neighbours and sent messengers to Henfield and Horsham to raise the fire brigades. The Henfield brigade led by Captain Allan Baxter with second officer Walter Powell, ten firemen, and a callboy, were first on the scene at 1.50a.m. by which time the house was completely gutted. With the exception of saving the stabling from catching fire the only other thing to do was to water down the burning timbers. The Horsham manual and “steamer” appliances arrived later, and both brigades were kept busy until well after daybreak. The building had to be rebuilt, but fortunately it was insured to the value of £12,000.
Back to 1935. Four years later, the brigade's ornamental helmets and regular duties would be swapped for steel 'Tommy' helmets and wartime exercises as the threat became reality. The 74 year old Captain Baxter would take a well earned retirement in 1940 as the emergency duties became more onerous. After service in the RAF, Joe Gillett worked as a coal man, living with his wife Ciss at Wantley and continuing in the brigade until 1967. Having served 17 years as station officer, he retired in the era of electric sirens rather than that of bells and messengers related by colleagues in his early career. Joe was a well known figure and Parish Councillor who some readers may remember - in fact, on 8th February 1994, he opened the very museum building his helmet now shines brightly in!
By Robert S. Gordon. An earlier version of this article was first published in BN5 Magazine, July 2021
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