The Fire Brigade

“About seven o’clock on Saturday, 11th April, 1840, Superintendent Hopkins received intelligence that a fire had broken out in the pottery of Mr Clarke, near Pill, owing to the drying kilns being overheated. He immediately went down and having fixed a ladder for the purpose of carrying water to the roof, that it might be poured down upon the flames, the warehouse door was broken open and a quantity of pitchers taken out, which were given to several active men who set diligently to work; and before the shattered town engine, with one poor jaded horse in ragged harness feebly dragging it along, had arrived, the fire was almost extinguished. We believe that the damage was not extensive and the premises were insured. If the engine was under the control of the police, we apprehend that more promptness would have been exhibited, and perhaps more property saved.

“The engine house is converted into a ‘Tinker’s Shop’ and the engine itself is decorated with divers kettles, saucepans, tools, etc., and indeed the whole machinery affords but a sorry specimen of what the inhabitants have to rely on for security against such a destruction as fire.”

That, according to the “Monmouthshire Merlin” of 18th April, 1840, was the state of the town’s fire-fighting resources at that time. Five years later the Watch Committee ordered the fire-engine to be placed under the care and superintendence of the Police and on 15th August, 1845, the Superintendent was allocated a part of the Town Hall for his residence, so that he would be readily available for his extra duties.

The fire-engine house was the room adjoining the present arch leading off Dock Street to the rear of the Commercial Street premises. The fire-engine at this time was known as the “old manual”.

On 28th February, 1848, an account was passed for payment of £2.8.3d to Jasper Westcott for inspecting the engine. Its regular cleaning was attended to by the police on night duty.

The Waterworks Company were then very concerned with the pressure of the water mains and their secretary attended a meeting of the Watch Committee and pointed out that under Section 78 of their Act it was the committee’s duty to provide standpipes and fire plugs to “marked”, houses. Soon after, the committee ordered fire plugs, 120 feet of hose, one fire key, one crowbar, one mallet and a chisel.

Burning of Newport Railway Bridge

According to a newspaper report of the time–

“At six o’clock on Wednesday, 31st May, 1848, workmen were engaged on the South Wales Railway bridge, a vast timber bridge crossing the River Usk at Newport, when a fire broke out due to one of the workmen using a bolt which had been over- heated. The fire soon spread, flames leaping from the centre to the side of the bridge, and the whole structure was soon ablaze. A team of wagons was passing at the time and dashed through the fire to escape. An alarm was raised and hundreds rushed to the stone bridge. The town fire-engine arrived but proved useless and at 9.0 a.m. the central arch, having lost its abutments, crashed into the river below. The river was covered with burnt wood.”

On the 30th September, 1851, the committee applied to the Union fire societies for a contribution for extinguishing a fire in Llanarth Street, and at the same time the committee appealed to other offices to support the borough fire brigade. The Fire Society paid £2 to Sergeant Harlow, ten shillings to each of the constables who attended the fire and four shillings to Constable Bath for the extra trouble involved in cleaning the engine and hose.

At a fire at Mr Rupell’s shop in Commercial Street, difficulty was experienced with the fire plugs and the Watch Committee decided to complain to the Waterworks Company.

In the following year a sub-committee was appointed to ascertain the number of buckets required, the cost of a fire escape and the cost of firemen’s dress helmets. All that was purchased, however, was one hundred feet of hose.

In 1855, the committee directed that the Superintendent (if unable to consult the Mayor or other member of the committee) could use his discretion in sending the fire-engine outside the borough. It was understood that persons requiring the services of the brigade would be responsible for all expenses and damage.

On 29th April, 1856, a new “Paxton”, fire-engine was purchased at a cost of £104. This new engine was to be kept at Pillgwenlly police station near Church Street and adjoining the “Smithy,” whereas the old engine was kept at the Town Hall police station. The Lancashire Insurance Office sent £10.10s towards the cost of the new engine.

In June of that year, plans were approved for the Temple Street police station together with a fire-engine house and mortuary, at a total estimated cost of £740. Mr Homfray, of the Tredegar Wharf Company, offered to defray the cost of the bell tower, which amounted to £30.

On 22nd March, 1864, the Police fire brigade attended a fire on board the S.S. “Ellena“ at Newport. The agent of the firm owning the vessel, Mr J. W. Jones, sent the Mayor £100 for police funds and other charities.

The brigade next attended a fire on board a vessel at Cardiff and on 17th October, 1865, a letter of thanks was received from the Superintendent of Police, Cardiff. 

The Alexandra Docks was the scene of an alarming incident in 1873. The “Chrysolite”, a schooner, had almost completed taking on a cargo of coal when a terrific explosion in the hold blew the trimmers into the dock and caused severe injuries to the engineers and the master. Fire broke out and the vessel was soon in flames. The fire- engine, although soon in attendance, was not able to subdue the outbreak until some hours had elapsed. Four of the trimmers lost their lives.

In 1874, the committee laid it down that the fire escape was to be used once a month as an exercise. The fire escape was for years kept outside the Old Library in Dock Street. 

In May of that year, the Watch Committee suggested that the principal fire offices should be requested to provide their own fire engine and premises. 

In 1881, the brigade attended a fire at Portskewett Pier, which was attended also by the Cardiff fire brigade. Subsequently, the Great Western Railway Company complained of the excessive charges of the Newport brigade, which were £11.3s against Cardiff’s claim of only £4. The charge was reduced to £4.4s. 

At 10 p.m. on 2nd October, 1883, a fire broke out at the premises of Messrs Searle and Herring Ltd., at the Castle Brewery. The flames spread to the mill room and the machinery department. An alarm was sent to the temporary Town Hall and the police quickly ran to the scene with hose and reel. Fortunately, the directors of the Waterworks Company had that very day decided that it was no longer necessary to turn off the water at night and in consequence the mains were “fully charged.”

A great number of soldiers from the barracks assisted the police, who, after the roof of both rooms had collapsed, concentrated on saving the remainder of the building. The flames shot high in the air and brought hundreds of sightseers. 

In 1884, the Mayor, Mr J. W. Jones, called a public meeting to form a Volunteer Fire Brigade, due no doubt to the ever-increasing responsibilities of the police and the need to afford them some relief. There was a good response and after four months’ training under the police the new brigade was inspected by the Head Constable, Mr A. I. Sinclair, who expressed himself highly pleased with the manner in which they had carried out their duties. On his report, the Watch Committee handed all appliances over to the new brigade. The services of the Head Constable were retained as consulting Superintendent, and for years he took an active interest in the brigade.

In his report for 1888, he stated that the Volunteer Fire Brigade had attended 29 fires during the year. Ten fires had been extinguished by reel and hose, and nineteen by buckets of water. 

Co-operation was maintained between the two services. A large bell was fixed above the entrance to the Town Hall police station, by means of which constables on the beats were made aware of fires so that they might communicate the information to the firemen living on their beats. 

On 2nd May, 1889, the firemen, including the officers and honorary medical officer, dined together at the Westgate Hotel, with the inspectors and sergeants of the Borough Police, to cement the cordial relationship which existed between the Police and the Fire Services. 

In that year fire alarm pillars were installed at various road junctions in the town. These were in use until 1935, when the police box system was brought into use, with direct telephone lines between the police switchboard and the fire station.

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