This Blog tells the story of my first night duty at Bethnal green Fire Station in November 1987. Reeling from the tragic Kings Cross Fire, which occurred just after my very first day duty, it was an adrenalin fuelled introduction to life as a Firefighter in London in the 1980’s.
Friday I met my Girlfriend for lunch and got into Bethnal Green for my first night duty early. My Mate Ian had had his first day, not as exciting as mine had been but he’d had a few bits. At about 5 a few of my Watch started to drift in. Archie asked me if I fancied a pint, being my first night I declined and he ribbed me a little bit about being soft and ‘Shit scared of the Guvnor’…he wasn’t wrong.
Soon enough 6 pm was upon us and I was about to find out what it was like to be a Fireman in the East end of London in the 1980’s. As I placed my gear in the middle of the Pump, I was riding with Dave again and another bloke, really friendly, whose career was cut short a few years later. Pete was one of the nicest men I ever met…too nice to be a Fireman… but he also had a bizarre sick sense of humour and was probably one of the unluckiest people I ever met.
“Friday night is ‘make up’ Night Young Stephen” he said. “Uhh?” I replied with a smile. “Fridays…we always get a job on a Friday, normally a four pumper either on our ground or someone else’s, that’s why they call Friday night ‘make up’ night, normally some punter comes in from the pub half cut and ends up torching his place” Pete offered me by way of an explanation.
I didn’t get upstairs before the bells went down, I was rigged and on the Pump in seconds. I was looking over a Brand New Dodge Pump that had been delivered to the Station as a replacement for the 1977 ERF fire engine that we had on the run. It was going to be placed on the run as the Pump Ladder during the next couple of days so it’d be a few weeks before I got to go on it. As a probationer, I’d ride the Pump all of the time for a while to gain experience and be under the watchful eye of the Station officer. These new machines were the first batch of London fire engines to be fitted with sirens instead of the older Two-Tone Horns.
I climbed on the Pump and sat in the middle. We were going to a person shut in a lift somewhere behind the Station. When we got there Pete took me up to the lift motor room to wind the lift car down while Dave and the Guvnor stayed down to release the trapped passengers once the lift had been brought level with the floor. Pete explained the workings of the lift room to me, and how the brake release and winding wheel worked. He also told me to be aware of needles as ‘Druggies’ often used these motor rooms. This was before Aids had really become an issue, so it was all about avoiding unnecessary injuries.
From there we drove back to the Station and I was in the Watchroom when the bells went again. Once more we were off down Roman road, this time to Bow for a fire in a flat in Tredegar Road. The job was just around the corner from Bow Fire Station, so things were well under way when we arrived. A line of Hosereel was hanging from the fourth floor balcony and some light smoke came from a nearby window. On the instruction of Pete I’d grabbed a 9 litre water extinguisher. It was a cardinal firefighting rule that a Firefighter should always have something with them on job, a line (rope) an axe, an extinguisher…but never be without something.
We were soon on our way back and already the two quick calls in succession had began to get me a little hyped…what else? I hadn’t even been upstairs yet. Back at the Station we went up to the kitchen where I was told to help with the washing up and the meal. I heard loud shouting and swearing coming from the kitchen and felt a little embarrassed to find Mark in a heated debate with the other Pete, the guy who had been driving me on the first day. Mark was challenging some of the more established views on the Watch. He was about 28 at the time and like me had joined young and came from the local area. He had a good part time job and drove around in really nice cars, but did not like the views of some of the guys who had done OK for themselves and who he thought had ‘forgot their roots’. Mark stormed out and left Pete and me in the kitchen.
“What you looking at?” he said, then smiled, “Peel about half of those spuds then wash up the cups, Stuart is the mess slut tonight, but you can help out, do another pot of tea as well while you are at it”
I obliged and got on with the spuds looking at myself in the reflection of the kitchen window with the night sky behind. The teleprinter bell rang out, but it was a copy of the stop message from the job at Bow.
The curry had been cooking since the afternoon, Pete had left a note for the cook to hand over to the green watch to get it going before we came on. All we had to do was cook the curried potato and boil the rice. I guess it was about 8pm when we settled down. I was gulping a glass of water to wash my curry down when the bells went down again. I slid down the pole and got on the machine, the others got on and the Guvnor shouted, “Car alight…Malcolm Place” as we pulled out. Pete told me to look out of the left Window as Malcolm place was in a road adjacent to the Roman Road where the Fire Station was. Sure enough through the trees in the park I saw a plume of smoke with bright flames dancing toward the night sky. We soon pulled up and Pete told me to grab a hosereel. We may have used two high pressure hosereels on a car but this was only a small car so it would not be a problem for the high-pressure reel to overcome.
I opened the nozzle and turned it to a slight spray, I directed it into the burning passenger compartment and it darkened down and engulfed me in a plume of hot steam. Pete directed me around the car, again the adrenalin was pumping and straight after my dinner I felt slightly nauseous as well as anxious. After the fire was out Dave and Pete went around banging the doors, roof and so on. I didn’t understand why until I saw a few embers drop down. I turned the nozzle back on and gave the car another good wash down. The Police turned up and the Guvnor exchanged details and reference numbers for the fire report. Pete explained that as it was only railway arches around this street it was a regular place for us to get torched cars. People would drive them here and torch them to get the insurance money. “We get a load of car fires round here, where ever the railway arches are and away from houses. Fucking pain in the arse, but a good bit of flame for you I s’pose.”
Back at the station we all washed up after the dinner. Everyone helped to clear the bulk then Stuart and I finished up. He told me to get my bedding down, because “If we are busy tonight you’ll get hung trying to get your bedding out in the middle of the night.”
I went to the dorm and unpacked my sleeping bag, pillow and sheets. I made up a bed near my locker, it was right opposite the double doors, I wasn’t allowed a bed tucked away around the corner in case I missed a shout and anyway the doors to the dorm were glass so light got through them. I went down to see the Guvnor. He was in his office in a white T-shirt, smoking a cigar and writing in some sort of log book.
“Hello Steve, settling in OK?” he asked. “Yes Guv, I’m OK…er is there anything else you need from me?” I stood there, my hands heading for my pockets before I thought better of it. “No, you take it easy and get a feel for the place this week, we’ll get you started properly next week…. Lose the shirt Steve, t-shirts are fine after supper.” He said blowing smoke out the side of his mouth. “Oh right, Thanks Guv, Thanks, Seeya” I about turned and walked smartly out of the office.
I ran back upstairs and changed into a t-shirt. Most of the others had changed into t-shirts and the older ones into old overall type trousers that I guessed were a throwback to the 60’s and 70’s Fireman. Waiting for the next call I crept into the TV room behind the Guvnor who had come up from downstairs, someone had put a video on, the room was heavy with cigarette smoke.
I sat down at the back of the room, the smell of the Guvnor’s cigar and the warm atmosphere reminded me of being at home when I was younger when my Dad would smoke a cigar whilst watching TV on a Saturday afternoon with a glass of Barley Wine and a Scotch as a chaser. I was feeling on top of the world. Here I was doing the job I loved the job I had always wanted to do… all the years of wanting to belong but never quite being there, for as welcome as Poplar made me I was only ever a visitor, now I was a Fireman in my own right. Not at Poplar but at a station that was equally as busy in the same area.
Before long we were on our way again. This time we were called additionally on multiple calls to a fire in a house north of Victoria Park on Homerton’s ground. Just off of our ground they had a minute or two on us from the original call. We pulled into a side turning and pulled up behind Homerton’s machines. Smoke was blowing across the headlights and the blue lights on the machines were cutting through the smoke like a lighthouse through fog. A few of Homerton’s guys were pulling more Hosereel off and their Sub Officer was standing on the street encouraging the crews.
I followed Pete as the Guvnor went to have a word with Homerton’s Sub Officer. The house was three floors with a basement, as with many of these properties the basement had been converted into a flat in its own right. I stood at the edge of the front garden as Homerton’s crews piled in. The window was black and dark brownish grey smoke pushed out of the door from about shoulder height. Pete acknowledged someone behind me. “Come on Dud” He said “We need to check the property above” I duly followed.
There was a light haze of smoke in the house above Pete told me to open the back door. I did this but the garden was heavy with smoke from a basement window that had been vented by the Crews fighting the fire, so I took the initiative to shut it and tell Pete. I wandered into the front room and Pete was feeling around the edge of the floor. I started doing the same guessing I was feeling for heat but not really knowing. As if guessing my thoughts Pete explained that I should feel around the floorboards for any heat. It was unlikely that the ceiling below had been breached as the fire seemed more smoke than anything else…but we were always to check.
We went back outside and I was venturing toward the basement flat. Most of the smoke had cleared and the BA Crew were out taking their sets off. I felt a tug.
“Come on, we’re all done here. Homerton will finish off this is their job” We got back on the Pump, the Pump ladder had already gone and I heard the Guvnor book available on the radio.
As we turned back toward the Fire Station I heard the radio call the Pump Ladder up
“Foxtrot two six one, Foxtrot two six one from ‘F.E priority over” I heard Paul the Sub Officer on the Pump Ladder reply, and then it was us.
“Foxtrot two six two, Foxtrot two six two from ‘F.E priority over” The Guvnor acknowledged. “Foxtrot two six one and foxtrot two six two… you are ordered to smoke issuing from a shop, Bethnal Green Road near Valance road, taken as Bethnal Green, East Two….”
Both appliances acknowledged and I detected urgency in the engine note as Steve the driver tonight changed the pace from sedate to urgent.
“Sets please gents” the Guvnor called into the back. My stomach dropped, the Guvnor wanted us in Breathing Apparatus… was I going to go in? “Grab the BA Board if we have anything Steve” came the reply that had let me off the hook. In any case it was customary for probationers not to go into fires in BA in their first 6 Months, there would be plenty of time for that later. You only got to wear after the fire was under control and there was ventilation and cutting away to do.
Pete & Dave grabbed their sets from the bracket in front of them. They placed the sets in their laps put their arms through the straps and pulled them over their heads and secured all of the straps. I pulled the BA board from in front of me and checked the clock against my watch…it was 10:30pm.
We slowed down but with Pete and Dave hanging out of each window I didn’t see much, I guessed that there was obviously not that much of a fire in Bethnal Green road or we would see it. We pulled up just short of the lights near Valance road and got off. Nothing showing at all, The Pump Ladders crew disappeared around the corner into Valance Road, I looked up and down and stepped off of the kerb to check the opposite side. I heard a shout and got back on the kerb. Stuart was waving us from around the corner. We went that way the Guvnor stayed at the front with the Drivers.
I rounded the corner and no one was there. I then noticed a small alleyway behind the shops. Dave and Pete passed by me, I turned into the alleyway and saw some flames at the back of a shop I still had the BA board as we approached I guessed I’d be dumping this to get the Hosereel to put the rubbish out. Paul the Sub Officer was talking to the Guvnor on the radio and told Pete & Dave to get back to the front. They parted and I could better see what was burning. There was a metal Roller shutter in a wooden frame at the back of the shop covering what seemed to be a loading hatch to the basement. The wooden frame was burning and part of the metal roller shutter was glowing red. There was clearly quite a fire going on in the basement of the shop. Shoreditch’s Pump ladder had turned up, we had all three Machines due on the Initial attendance here now.
I was ordered back to the front where I was put on an armband from the back of the Breathing Apparatus Entry Control Board that identified me as the ‘Entry Control Officer’ an illustrious sounding title normally reserved for the junior member of a crew or the driver unless the job was really sticky. As two Firemen were going into this job in BA it was my job to take the tallies from their BA sets and place them in a board where I would record where they were working, how much air they had and calculate the time of their low pressure whistle. The UK Fire Service had very strict procedures for Firefighters wearing BA after a couple of jobs in London in the late 1940’s and 1950’s where Firemen had got lost in smoke or simply run out of air and died.
As Dave and Pete started their BA sets I took their tallies and checked the content written on the tally with that on the pressure gauge. I panicked a little trying to work out their time of whistle on the clock in front of me. A simple exercise I had done time and time again in training, but this was real, a real fire in the middle of the East end on a Friday night.
I looked up as they disappeared inside, a light smoke was evident inside the shop, a drab place that sold Fire places, the smoke soon thickened, indicating Pete and Dave had found the door to the basement and had entered it. More sirens came along the road. The Pump Ladder from Whitechapel pulled up, the crew got off wearing their BA as their Sub Officer went over to our Guvnor… Obviously the attendance of both the Pump Ladders from Shoreditch and Whitechapel meant to me that their Pumps; usually the first mobilised were already on other calls. The Guvnor had obviously requested extra resources and had ‘made pumps four’ Bringing Whitechapel to join us and Shoreditch. Friday night clearly was ‘make up’ night.
Another crew fed a larger jet into the shop to back up the high pressure hosereel that Dave & Pete had took in as an initial attack line. Soon enough the smoke began to lighten the boys appeared to have the job. Dave & Pete came out; their tunics were steaming in the cool air. They took their facemasks off and I gave them back their tallies. The Guvnor spoke with them to ascertain that the job was best part over. Pete opened a delivery on the pump and filled his fire hat with water that he then dumped over his head. Dave dumped his set on the floor loosened his tunic and lit up a cigarette. It had clearly been a very hot job.
Soon the other crew withdrew and I shut down BA control. I then joined some others in turning over the basement to extinguish the last of the fire. The basement had been used as a recording studio. This explained the dozens of empty egg boxes that had burned; they were used as sound insulation in the studio. It appeared from what was being discussed that an electrical fault in one of the Amplifiers was responsible for the blaze. Also, in among the wreckage was the body of a big old Alsatian dog, kept there overnight to protect the studio from intruders it had slowly choked to death in the smoke from the growing fire. I looked down at it and felt a little sad at the limp beast that a couple of hours ago would have loyally faced anyone who dared to try to get onto his master’s property.
It was past 1am as we got back to the Station. Bow’s Pump was parked in one of the bays, they had been sent to cover Bethnal Green while we were out on the job, they had been out a few times on stuff in our absence. Their crew appeared in the bay and began helping to get our machines ready to go again while a couple of the guys cleaned up. I was unceremoniously handed a BA set.
“Clean that up and get it ready to go again” was the order barked at me.
I was joined in the BA room by the friendly looking Grey haired Fireman from Bow who had briefly spoken to me at my first shout on Wednesday. “Hello young’un how are you?” “Oh, I’m OK Thanks” I replied.
“I’m Tom, from Bow” He said. “I’m Steve, Steve Dudeney” Tom held out his hand and gave me a big grin, “Nice to meet you Steve”
I came to know and respect Tom because we met up with Bow almost every day back in those days. Later in my career when I served at Bow a chat with Tom one afternoon when I was feeling miserable about the job saved my career. I was a junior Officer and came close to throwing it all in and going back to being a Firefighter. Tom talked me round.
The radio was on in the machine as I climbed up to replace the BA set. It had been chattering away all the time with the bleep, bleep, bleep of the busy signal interspersing each message to and from Eastern Control at Stratford. I listened harder… it seemed every station in the North & East of London was out; From Holloway and Tottenham, down into Stoke Newington & Homerton across where we were to Poplar, Plaistow & Stratford right out onto Barking and Dagenham, the Crews were out and about; flat fires, derelict buildings, rubbish and car fires, drunks fallen asleep halfway through cooking a midnight feast.
I jumped into the front of the machine and turned the channel switch on the radio. The South and West were busy too; Brixton, Peckham, Old Kent Road in the South. Paddington, North Kensington and Hammersmith in the West; It seemed the inner-city districts of London were keeping their Firefighters busy on this Friday night as I would learn they did on most nights.
I lay on my bed sometime after 2am. I was shattered but knew I could not nor would not be allowed to sleep. Most of the guys were still upstairs chatting and smoking in the quiet room. Soon we were on our way again, an automatic fire alarm at the London Hospital in Whitechapel, a candle tipped over in one of the nurses’ homes had set the alarm off. A call to smoke in a hall way of a block on Shadwell’s’ ground that was actually a rubbish bin burning followed soon after.
Back into bed again and this time I drifted off. The bells woke me with a start and set me on my way with a nauseous adrenalin that would shake me back into consciousness thousands more times in my career.
Having fallen asleep I felt terrible. I was glad of the fresh air that came in through Pete’s window as we cut through the dark streets. We were called to a house Fire in Cranston Cottages off of Maroon Street in Limehouse. Right on the borders of our ground and Poplar’s. We pulled in at the opposite end of the terrace of cottages from Poplar’s crews. The courtyard was shared with a rough looking block of flats. I knew this Estate well, like a lot of the East end the tiny cottages and low-rise blocks of flats were built before the Second World War as the Victorian slums were cleared. It had now fallen into disrepair with many of the flats boarded up or burnt out. I remember seeing a fire in one of these blocks as I made my way home from school a few years earlier.
Poplar were running so we started running, all of a sudden, I stared to feel a little breathless. I began to heave, I was convinced I was going to throw up, I guess I was on adrenalin overload. Not wishing to embarrass myself, I ducked into the lobby of the block of flats. I retched a couple of times but thankfully nothing came up, I heaved again taking sips of air between each heave trying to calm myself. Eventually I composed myself and slipped back into the forecourt. I joined the rest of my Crew, Poplar’s Guys brought out s smouldering pot…another Drunk I guessed. For Christ sake it was gone 5am by now, surely the world should be sobering up.
I nodded at Vince the new guy at Poplar. He had been there a few weeks longer than I and looked as confident as anyone. I hoped I would look like that in a month instead of the wreck I seemed to be right now. Back on the machine we headed back to Bethnal Green. For the first time I began to doubt myself. I had been on a load of calls and a couple of good jobs and just about survived, what if I had to face a Kings Cross like the Red Watch had faced just over 48 Hours earlier? I crept back to the dorm my head full of nightmares.
The last call came in just before 7am. It was to a car on its side in King Edward’s Road in Hackney. We pulled up and the Police were already there. I felt a little better but sank again when I saw a pretty Police woman who looked not much older than me giggling and flirting with the others. She had probably faced a night of fights, domestics, and drunks but still looked fresh and confident.
The car was a Mini, turned on its side quite easily by a few lads with a load of beer inside them. We righted it and I spread some sand on the petrol that had leaked. Safe, we left it with the Police who were waiting to find the owner. I got back to the Station had a wash and went downstairs to wash the Machines. We had Breakfast and slowly the Green Watch began to appear for their second Day duty. I got off at 9 having attended about 10 of the 18 calls that had come into the Station including two decent fires. The others were attended by Crews covering our ground while we were attending our Fires.