Early days of Winslow Fire Brigade (from 1869)

by Ed Grimsdale

1838 Decision to build an "engine house"
1840 Site of engine house and cage in Pillory Ditch (Horn Street) granted to four trustees
1869 Inception of Fire Brigade
1870 Arrival of new Fire Engine in April
First attendance at a fire on 16 Sep in a thatched cottage adjacent to Mr Matthews' timber yard
Bucks Herald, 30 April 1870
The Committee formed during the early part of the past winter for the worthy object of providing a new Fire Engine for the town of Winslow by voluntary contributions, may now congratulate themselves upon the success which has attended their efforts. Many were the prognostications as to the possibility of raising sufficient funds by the voluntary system for the purchase, but the committee, perseveringly surmounting every obstacle, can boast of a New Engine with a well equipped Volunteer Fire Brigade as the result of united energy. The engine is from the well-known firm of Merryweather and Sons, Long Acre, London, and arrived here on Friday morning last; the members of the brigade, in uniform, mustering in the market square marched to the railway station, and met the 11.0 a.m. train from London. The horses were put to, and the members of the brigade having taken their places, were driven at a good pace to Grandborough brook, where the first trial was appointed to take place. They were accompanied by Messrs. Merryweather, the makers, who, previous to commencing, gave instructions as to the working of the engine. At two o'clock a dinner was provided at the Bell Hotel, the chair being taken by Mr. W.H. French, the Superintendent of the brigade, supported by T.P. Willis, Esq., Treasurer, and Mr. John Grace, Secretary. After dinner the engine was drawn to several of the wells in the town, where practice took place enabling the subscribers to witness its capabilities; altogether the engine gave satisfaction. It throws a large volume of water at the rate of about 80 gallons per minute, carrying the same to the height of any house in the town. We feel we cannot accord too much praise to the committee, also to the treasurer and secretary, for the pains and time they have bestowed to accomplish the purpose for which they were united, and who, by untiring energy collected upwards of £200, to be prepared against the ravages of fire. Hitherto the town has been wholly unprovided in such an event, and the new engine has therefore supplied a want long felt in the neighbourhood.
In fact there was controversy about the choice of fire engine according to a letter to the Buckingham Advertiser.
Bucks Herald, 20 Aug 1870
  On Monday evening last the Volunteer Fire Brigade met, and, under the command of Supt. W. H. French, went through a water practice.  The engine was first taken to a well in the High-street, but after it had played for a short time the supply of water became exhausted.  The brigade then proceeded to a well in Horn-street, and as soon as it reached the spot it was instantly in position, and the order given to run out 4 lengths of leather, 4 of canvas hose, and 3 of suction, and notwithstanding the distance to go over (about 220 yards) in a few minutes the delivery-line had reached to Mr. Neal’s buildings at the Bell.  Meantime the fireman, (Mr. J. King, jun.) who always shows by his aptitude and energy at drill how thoroughly he is adapted for his post, had collected 26 effective pumpers, and given them their badges, and stood ready at the whistle signal that the branch pipe was on to give the word “down with her.”  This being soon done, they went at their work heartily, doing it as English volunteers should do.  A stream was thrown for some time on Mr. Neal’s buildings, and shortly after the active and intelligent engineer, (Mr. H. Sellar, jun.), assisted by his attendant firemen, moved the branch pipe and hose to the Market-square, and here the performance was really good.  Darkness had set in before the drill was over.  The whole proceedings recalled to our mind the words of a neighbouring farmer, who in addressing the Winslow Brigade, said - “You are as fine a set of young men as I have ever set my eyes on, and I have no doubt you will justify the high reputation of your spirited little town.”  Before concluding we must draw the attention of our parish officers and our townsmen to our deficient supply of water.  All that a powerful engine and an effective brigade can do is to make the best possible use of such a supply of water as exists.  Beyond this they cannot go, and it is absolutely necessary as an effective means of fire extinction, that the wells of the town should be so enlarged in circumference as to render them practically inexhaustible tanks.  Such an outlay would be very slight for each ratepayer, while by neglecting such a precaution, and refusing to learn the lesson promulgated on Monday, we run the greatest risk possible.
1871 2nd fire, 25 Oct, in Mr Neal's hay-rick
3rd fire, 29 Oct, in Mr Lowndes' cottages, Sheep Street
4th fire, 28 Nov, cornstacks at Mr Clarke's farm at Hogshaw (it took over a day to dampen down)
1872 Newport Pagnell competition, placed 5th but a mistake robbed the team of a prize
5th fire, August, rick-fire at Mr Bliss', Salden (Sunday to Monday)
1873 6th fire, January, Mr East's shop
26 Aug: competition at High Wycombe. Winslow 1st out of 14 brigades.
7th fire, September, Mr Curtis', Denham: Winslow attended as a back-up

Buckingham Advertiser, 15 March 1873

In aid of the Funds of the Brigade,
will be given at
The Bell Hotel, on THURSDAY, March 20,
When the following Ladies and Gentlemen have kindly consented to assist, viz:-
 Mrs. Boisragon, the Misses Abbott, Miss Boyes, Miss Reeves, and Miss Turner, Dr. Newham, M. Selby Lowndes, Esq., Mr. Hunt, and Mr. H. Wootton, Mr. J. King, Messrs. Nelson, Young, Sellar, Jennings, Bond and others, and

Tickets may be had on and after the 12th of March, at the “Bell,” the “George,” of Messrs. E. J. French, W. H. French, and J. King.

ADMISSION- Front Seats, 2s 6d; Second Seats, 1s 6d; Third Seats, 1s.
Doors open at 7 o’clock, the Concert to commence at 7.30.

M. SELBY LOWNDES, Chairman of the Committee.
W. H. FRENCH, Captain of Brigade.
JNO. GRACE, Hon. Sec.

1874 8th fire, 8 Jan, fire in roof of Winslow's Workhouse

1870 fire engine
The 1870 fire engine was brought out for the Jubilee celebrations in 1935, when the current fire crew dressed up in appropriate costume

The above information is from a report of the Annual Brigade Dinner in the Bucks Herald of 25 April 1874. The dinner was provided free by Mr Neal of the Bell Hotel. The members of the Fire Brigade who attended were:
Captain W.H. French
Lieutenant J. King
Engineer Henry Sellar
Firemen: Elley, J. Grace, G. Hawley, G. Jennings, J. Jennings, Keys, Turnham, H. Ingram, Bond, Odell
At the annual dinner in 1880, Mr Neal, recalled the earlier pre-1869 town appliance. The engine had solid, wooden wheels and when required to travel some distance it had to be hoisted into a wagon that wended its weary way slowly to the seat of a fire aided by one man who cut back bushes and another who mended the deep ruts in the country lanes.   

Fire station
The fire station (right of centre in the photo) was in Pillory Ditch at the eastern end of Horn Street; it became the library when the present fire station was built, and is now an office

At the vestry in 1893, it was decided that the Volunteer Rifle Brigade who had been using the upper room of the engine house should be told to leave so that part of the floor could be removed to make room for drying the hose.

Due to the lack of a mains water supply in Winslow, finding enough water for fire-fighting was a regular issue. At the annual dinner in 1888, Superintendent Lee said: "If the Market-square was on fire he did not know what they should do, or what they could do, except 'Watch and pray'" (Bucks Herald, 26 May 1888). In 1914 there was a proposal to build a 10,000-gallon tank at the corner of Greyhound Lane, but it did not go ahead. Read the minutes of the meeting. There was much controversy in 1926 about whether to upgrade the equipment. This report is from the Buckingham Advertiser, 26 Nov:




Winslow’s immunity from serious fires during the past thirty years probably accounts for the lack of modern fire-fighting apparatus the local brigade possesses, but evidently the captain of the brigade is doubtful as to the reliability of the equipment now at their disposal, especially if a high wind was to arise at a fire in a congested part of the town.

At a well attended public meeting held at the Oddfellows’ Hall, on Monday evening, Mr. A. J. Illing propounded a scheme which would overcome their present difficulties.   Although there was some opposition, chief of which seemed to be the adequateness of the water supply, the suggested scheme was approved of and a committee appointed to investigate ways and means of voluntarily raising the money to cover the cost of purchasing another steamer and a lorry, which would be converted into a tender, and also for other improvements, such as a fire escape.

Mr. G. O. Long presided and explained the object of the meeting, stating that at present they were without the necessary equipment to cope with a big fire in the neighbourhood.    The present engine was altogether inadequate to deal with a serious conflagration.  They proposed to make enquiries as to the money required for another engine and, if possible, carry the scheme out by voluntary subscriptions.


Mr. Illing, captain of the Fire Brigade, outlined the scheme, and said about two years ago Mr. Chowles and himself were asked to see what they could do to make the Fire Brigade as efficient as possible.   In the old times they knew little about fire engines or fire fighting, but they were learning and consequently realised that the present engine would be practically useless to cope with a serious fire, especially if there was a high wind.

For instance there were two dangerous places in Winslow, the first from Brook Hall to Mr. Willis’s offices and the second from Avenue road to the Post Office, [This was exactly where the major fire of 1933 happened]  In both cases, they had not an adequate length of hose.   Last summer, Mr. Chowles and himself visited every pond and well near the town and realised they would have a serious task in obtaining an adequate supply of water.


They also interviewed Mr. Saxby, the Chief Officer of the Buckingham Fire Brigade and after clearly stating their case, Mr. Saxby suggested the co-operation of the two brigades.   From that day the two brigades had known what to do in cases of fire.  As soon as there was an outbreak Buckingham would be called and they would proceed to the Gasworks and pump the water to the pond at the rear of Mr. McCorquodale’s house where the Winslow Brigade would be drawing their water to play on to the fire.  However, with the engine at their disposal they could not get enough force behind the jet and consequently if there happened to be a strong wind, the engine would be practically useless.   It was not exactly the fault of the pumps, but they wanted something to throw out the jet better.


They had written to the London County Council about tenders they had for disposal, but these had been sold.  Then they heard that Bicester had obtained a new motor pump and the old steamer was for sale.  They had, together with Mr. Saxby, been to Bicester and actually seen a demonstration by this steamer, and they were convinced it was capable of doing the work they required.  With two jets on they could throw for 40 feet and with one jet for 50 feet, at a sharp pace.

When inquiring from the Parish Council, asking the price of the steamer, the sum of £50 was mentioned, and they thought it reasonable as Mr. Saxby had expressed his opinion that it would suit their purpose and also the Boiler Inspector’s report was satisfactory.

If they decided to purchase this steamer they would require means of transport.  In the past they had the assistance of two lorries in the town, but he knew of occasions when these were not available when required.

He would like to go on with a similar scheme to Buckingham and convert a lorry into a tender so as the fire engine could be attached to it.  He had the offer of a Ford tonner very cheap which could be converted at very little expense.  This would also necessitate slight alterations at the engine house.  Double doors would have to be erected and the stairs placed outside.  He estimated that the whole scheme would cost approximately £120.

It had been said: “What was it going to cost the rates?”  It would be £9 per week on the present rates, made up as follows:  Boiler inspector’s fee, £4 per year;  insurance £3 10s.; and in order to get the co-operation of the Aylesbury and Buckingham Fire Brigades he would suggest joining the National Fire Brigade’s Association, this meaning a payment of £1 10s. per year as a subscription.

In conclusion, he said he wanted to emphasise the point that it was not only a fire engine they required but something that would take them out to the villages.  Fire fighting was a great work and he wanted to make the Brigade an efficient one.  They had a good set of men and now he required the material to carry them through. (Applause.)


A voice : I don’t think it is needed.  The old manual will do just as well.

The Chairman replied that he did not think it was the captain’s intention to dispose of the old manual.

Mr. Langley asked whether the money could not be collected voluntarily without coming out of the rates.

The Chairman said that was their idea and if the villages gave their support their subscriptions would be utilised for maintenance purposes afterwards.

Mr. Illing said the extra cost to the rates would be for maintenance afterwards.


Mr. Wm. Monk considered the scheme a good one, but as an alternative suggested the provision of a horse-drawn steamer.   If it was an extra big fire they could send for the Aylesbury motor engine.  They had had no fires in Winslow for a good many years.  They wanted a lighter fire engine and he did not think it needcost so much money.   They were all agreed the old steamer was inadequate.

Mr. Walker : Is this new engine going to have a man to light the fire?

The Chairman said he did not think the meeting had been called regarding the Bicester engine itself.

Mr. Walker : There is one thing I should like to know and that is whether a man is going to be paid so much per week to light the fire.

The Chairman, replying to questions, said the district had no claim upon them unless they subscribed.  They did not pay any retaining fee to the Buckingham or Aylesbury Fire Brigades for their services.

Mr. Illing said if they joined the National Fire Brigades’ Association they would come under an agreement to assist each other.  At the present time, the Chief Officer of the Buckingham Brigade would come over if they called them.


Mr. Paine asked whether they had taken into consideration the fact that they had no water in Winslow.

The Chairman said he was sorry that point had been mentioned as he did not intend being dragged into the controversial question as to Winslow’s water supply.  Two wrongs did not make one right.

Mr Paine argued that if Bicester could have a new fire engine, why couldn’t Winslow? They had had three fires during the past few year, but they had been lucky in not having a serious conflagration.  How could they work the new engine if they had no water?

The Chairman replied that although they had a difficulty as regards an adequate water supply, it was their intention to equip the Brigade with a good engine.   A new engine would be a too heavy burden on the rates

Mr. Paine thought the cost of a new fire engine could be spread over a number of years.

Mr. Illing said the reason Bicester was disposing of its old engine was because the Rural District Council were not quite satisfied with the means of transport in rural areas, which consisted of 39 parishes. The two bodies joined and the Urban District Council having the majority, decided to purchase a new engine.   Mr Saxby thought the steamer reliable and even if the motor went wrong, it could be drawn by two horses.


Mr. Stock likened the steamer to an old man who had done his work well.  The captain had got modern ideas and he thought they should support them all they could.  He was of the opinion they had a supply of water at a reasonable distance.  Then the proposed scheme was a voluntary one and the rates would be burdened a little extra annually.   Still they should not stop in a rut.  As regards the cost, he expressed the view that the insurance companies might assist them as no doubt more pounds had been paid to them than shillings returned.

Regarding the latter suggestion, the Chairman said the insurance companies had been approached, but they declined to make any contributions.   They were agreeable to paying any reasonable costs for fires out of the town.

Mr. Illing said the actual extra cost to the rates would be a third of a penny in the pound on the present rates.

Mr. Walker : That third of a penny will be a terrible cost in 20 years’ time.  When you once get this you don’t know what the cost will be.  I am going to suggest you can get the old manual to any place within twenty miles from here and pump water as good.

The Chairman : If that is so, I can’t say why these people are getting rid of the old engine.


Mr. Walker : They are selling it for old brass.   I will buy it off them for old brass.  (Laughter.) 

The Chairman asked if anyone would be kind enough to propose they adopt the scheme.

Mr. Walker : I propose it be opposed.

In reply to a question, Mr .Illing said their hose would fit the Bicester engine, and a cwt. of coal would be enough for practice drills for a long time.   The other costs (as previously mentioned) would be about £10, which represented one-third of a penny rate.  Mr. Saxby had informed him he was willing to call the Brackley Brigade if it was necessary at any time.

Mr. Chowles said Mr. Saxby was in a grave danger as to one place in his area, but they (Winslow) had expressed their willingness to assist.

Mr. Illing informed the gathering that the whole of the hose, if they had the Bicester engine, would reach a thousand yards.  The rumour that the Bicester fire engine had been purchased was wrong.

Mr. Wise, sen., said he knew of no well in the town that would stand an hour’s pumping.   What they wanted was a good reservoir.  Could it not be arranged that the engine pumped from the Great Horwood or Granborough brooks:  with the additional hose they could reach there?

Mr. Illing replied that Winslow would go to the pond at the rear of Mr. McCorquodale’s and the Buckingham Brigade would go to the Gasworks and pump into the pond.

Mr. Wise still persisted that they required a good water supply in the town.


Mr. Chowles added that the supply of water at the Creamery was sufficient.  A recent test had proved they could pump for three hour without the wells being dry.

Mr. Walker : With all due respect to you, Mr. Chairman, I propose the scheme be squashed.

The Chairman ; I wish you would be quiet, Mr. Walker.   You can put that as an amendment afterwards.

Mr. Stevens proposed, and Mr. Langley seconded “That a committee be appointed and that power be given to that committee to discover the best means of voluntarily raising money to purchase a fire engine and necessary equipment” – This was agreed to by a big majority.

The following were appointed as the committee, with Mr. Illing and Mr. Chowles as ex-officio members – Messrs. Illing, sen., Wm. Monk, Stevens, Parsons, Stock, Spencer, and Bradbury.

The meeting terminated with thanks to the Chairman.

This satirical poem signed by "The Forsyte Saga" was published in the Buckingham Advertiser, 18 Dec 1926, immediately after the above meeting:

The Charge of the Fire Brigade.
(Blissfully ignoring the necessity for water, Winslow proposes to provide a second-hand steam fire engine.)

                         Half a step, half a step,
                         Half a step onward.
                         Thus in the usual way,
                         Our Township blunder’d:
                         So came the Fire Brigade
                         Seeking financial aid.
                         Pray be not so retrograde.
                                    We want a Hundred!

                         Forward the Fire Brigade
                         Was there a man dismayed?
                         Not though each member knew
                         Someone had blunder’d:
                         Theirs not to reason why,
                         Theirs not to make reply.
                         When rose the plaintiff cry,
                         Uttered with groans and sigh
                                    Why want a Hundred?

                         Questions to right of him,
                         Questions to left of him,
                         Questions in front of him,
                         Volleyed and thunder’d:
                         Pray, Mr. Chairman, tell
                         Where is the water well?
                         Speak up and quickly tell,
                         Sure now it’s but a sell
                                    If you want a Hundred!

                         Flashed all their helmets bare,
                         Flashed to the Market Square,
                         When in the meeting there
                         Cried they with jaunty air,
                         While all of us wonder’d:
                         We want to go by steam,
                         Not stand and idly dream,
                         Pumping by manual work,
                         Now somehow seems to irk:
                         But still we’ll never shirk,
                         Never our duty burk,
                                    If you’ll give a Hundred!

                         Questions to right of them,
                         Questions to left of them,
                         Questions each side of them,
                         Still made them wonder:
                         Sell the old thing for brass!
                         (This made them rather “crass”):
                         Say will the boiler “bust,”
                         Pray let us know the “wust”?
                         Is Bicester’s steam for us,
                         Why all this fret and fuss,
                                    Why want a Hundred?

                         Blame not the Fire Brigade
                         Seeking financial aid,
                         Each man to his trade:
                         But cart before the horse
                         Still then is Winslow’s course.
                         Or why an engine get?
                         Lacking the water jet,
                                    What use a Hundred?

The Advertiser also published a riposte on 1 Jan 1927, signed by "Put-it-out (a member of the Goose Club)". The "manual" was the fire engine.

(To Nero who fiddled while Winslow burned.)

There was a little poet
Got water on the brain;
It was miles and mile of water pipes
Which caused this overstrain.

The Brigade have got a manual,
But not sufficient power
To draw the water from
This poet’s watery tower.

Now to get sufficient power,
A scheme we did devise
To draw in lots of money
‘Ere his head got over-size.

For sure if it had busted
There would have been a flood;
Then his pals they would have shouted,
The “manual” is a dud.

Now we bought this little scheme,
So that he would be secure,
And so save rates and wastage
From ventures like the sewer.

And as this scheme progressed,
Someone gave a gentle hint
That this frothy-headed poet
Would have recourse to print.

A poet finds it easy
To write such common verse,
And so protect his pockets
And his ever-bulging purse.

Now, looking through the counterfoils,
The members did a grin;
He hasn’t spent a sixpence –
Oh, ain’t that just like him!

And if this sage (?) with foresight (?)
Can help with all his wit,
Let him do a little helping
And we’ll forgive the skit

And now, Sir Worthy Poet,
Just ponder this, and then
You might try to encourage,
Not discourage, Fire-Men.

See also

Copyright 10 August, 2021