Wargrave Fire Station
10 May 2022
A History of Wargrave Fire Station was the topic of Rodney Annetts' presentation to Wargrave Local History Society's May meeting. Rodney, and several members of his family, had been firemen based there, so the audience had a personal insight as well as an historical account of our local station.
The fire service in Wargrave began in 1905 when Lance Hannen provided a hand operated fire pump to the village. It was operated, on a volunteer basis, by the local Scout Group. Within a few years, however, the pump was worked by men from the village - still volunteers. The appliance was replaced by a horse drawn one, which was the one that attended the Wargrave church fire in 1914. It needed 4 men on each side to work the pump, with others filling it with water.
In 1930 a house-to-house collection in the village raised £430 (about £24,500 at today's values) towards the cost of Wargrave's first motorised fire engine. This was a Morris Commercial machine, and arrived in 1931. The Parish Council provided a plot of land for a fire station, which was built by the volunteer fire crew and W H Easterlings, the local village builders. In fact, Easterlings workforce were the backbone of the village brigade for several decades, most of the firemen having served an apprenticeship with the firm. This could create difficulties, as if 6 or 8 men from a building project were called away to a fire-fighting incident, the building work came to a standstill. An agreement was then reached that if possible 2 of the builders would not attend the incident. The practice came to an end, however, in the 1970s, when the firemen needed to attend at Wargrave Manor. Rodney found himself working at the Hannen Room, and sat just waiting for building materials to arrive - at which point the agreement with Easterlings "went out of the window"
In 1941, the National Fire Service was formed, when many local brigades were taken over, and this continued until 1948, when county fire services were established, Wargrave becoming part of the Berkshire and Reading Fire Brigade at that time, known as 'Station 9'
By the early 1950s, the fire engine had been replaced by one on a Commer-Karrier Gamecock chassis. Although a more modern appliance, Rodney said it was difficult to drive, and tended to suffer from brake fade. It was about this time that bells were installed in the houses of local firemen, and a siren would also be sounded to call the volunteers to the station - there was also a bell in the Woodclyffe Working Men's Club - in case the men were in the bar there when an alarm was raised. The crew at that time included Bill Collyer, John Goddard, Dan Weston, Reg Annetts, Ron Holloway, John Smart, Bill Green and Jack Annetts, whilst by the 1960s Alan Hatch, Geoff Briggs, Alvin George and Ron Hayward had joined the village fire station team.
A record was kept of the fire station's work, whether that was routine, such as testing the house bells, or an 'incident' that the brigade attended. Entries in this 'Occurrence Book' were written in blue for "every day" events, but if someone was injured, or there was a fatality, it was in red ink, and the Chief Fire Officer had to be notified. One "special job" that Rodney recalled from the 1960s was a fire at Cape Farewell. His father - also a fireman "rescued a fur coat" thinking that it was a cat. Being located alongside the River Loddon, there was certainly no trouble with a water supply to fight the fire.
Rodney Annett's brother, Tony, joined the Wargrave fire brigade in 1971, and 2 years later the house bells were replaced by a system of bleepers or pagers. The first incident to which the Wargrave firemen were called using these was when a car had rolled over at Crazies Hill - it belonged to Tony's then girl-friend! In the same year, the Wargrave fire engine was replaced by one on a Dodge chassis -much more modern and comfortable.
Local government reorganisation in 1974 resulted in boundary changes to the brigade area. Now known as the Royal Berkshire Fire Brigade, they lost the Didcot and Faringdon area (which had just had brand new fire engines), and gained the Slough area (which had rather poorer Bedford TK types!). This was also the year when Rodney joined the Wargrave fire station. Under the new regime, however, part-time fire officers were not allowed to continue in the service, and so some, locally including Messrs Brooks and Hatch, unable to remain as part of the Wargrave crew. The service was renamed (and had new badges again) in 1977 when it became the Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service.
Wargrave had long supported its firemen. There were just two who were drivers, and when it looked likely that one of them would shortly become homeless, the village rallied round to assist, so he could. Similarly, the firemen looked after each other. When the Wargrave firemen attended a fire at DES (a domestic appliance shop) in Reading in 1972, Tony's life was saved by fellow Wargrave man Bob Goddard. The heatwave of 1976 created different challenges - even ground peat catching fire at times - and so ex-Army 'Green Goddess' fire engines were brought out of mothballs to assist. They had very good pumps, able to move 12,000 litres of water per minute - but were horrid to drive. Another major incident at about this time was a fire at Clark's Builder's Merchants, in Reading's Elgar Road, where two firemen lost their lives. Despite that, newspapers gave preference to coverage of a giraffe who fell over.
By this time, volunteers were no longer allowed to be firemen, so a retaining fee was paid to the local station crew. Some former volunteers, however, decided to donate their retainer to the Fire Service Benevolent Fund.
Wargrave received a new fire engine in 1979 - previously new machines had been allocated to full time stations for 5 years, and then handed down to retained stations. This was another Dodge, Sonning receiving a similar engine at the same time (the pair were a little smaller than standard in order to fit into their fire stations). The Wargrave crew were proud of theirs, so it was well polished. One sunny day, being called to stand-by at Caversham Road fire station, it was followed by a police car. The police complained to Geoff Briggs, who was in charge, that the bodywork was too shiny, and "blinding everybody"!
Into the 1980s, many of the Wargrave firemen still also work for Easterlings, the team including Tony Annetts, Robert Perry, Ian Simpson, Chris Brooks, Les Piercy, Wayne Nash, Gerald Botting, Jim Hawkins, Howard McDonald and Melvyn Hunt - several serving locally for many years.
Even into the 1990s, the administration was still all done as paperwork - in triplicate, but eventually computers were introduced, although some of the older men it was not easy to adapt. this was not an easy process to adapt to. A notable event in 1992 was the fire at Windsor Castle, when the smaller size of the Wargrave fire engine meant it could get through archways to areas inaccessible to the standard appliances - Wargrave being the 7th fire engine on site. It was an occasion when Rodney was called in even though officially off duty.
Tony Annetts, by then in charge at Wargrave, left the fire service in 2012 - and for the first time in 78 years there was not an "Annetts" serving at Wargrave fire station, and 5 years later it was announced that the station would close. Various petitions etc managed to keep it alive for 3 more years - there were times when even for an incident in the village a fire engine would be sent from Reading rather than use the locally based crew. As a result, the nearest station now to the village is at Wokingham Road in Reading - who would take 12 minutes to reach Wargrave - if they were actually available "on station".
The village brigade had always been a big part of the community, holding open days in aid of the Benevolent Fund, providing demonstrations for local schools, etc There was clearly a great camaraderie amongst those who served at Wargrave - and pride in what they had done.