How fire brigade protected the mills

Brighouse's new Fire Engine presented by Mayor Robert Thornton - 1911
Brighouse's new Fire Engine presented by Mayor Robert Thornton - 1911

The Industrial Revolution (1760 - 1830) saw a proliferation of mills being built alongside the two water courses in Brighouse and brought great prosperity to the town.

However, it also brought something else and that was the sight of many of the new mills being destroyed by what was described as raging infernos.

Firefighters had little to no equipment to deal with a five or six storey mill fire. The best they could do was to try and prevent the fire from jumping across from one mill building to another.

Samuel Baines, the mid-nineteenth century entrepreneur, was developing the plot of land which became known as The Victoria Mills development - the area between the canal and Mill Lane, which is now the Sainsbury’s supermarket site.

Having witnessed so many mills been destroyed, to ignore the problem would have been unthinkable and he decided he must do something about it, if only to protect his own property.

He bought the town’s first fire appliance which was christened ‘Neptune’ and led by John Hopkinson and his band of firefighters who became known as The Victoria Mills Brigade.

From the day he set up his own fire brigade, his fire engine and firefighter volunteers were regularly called upon to help his neighbours. This was something the Victoria Mills Brigade was to do for almost forty years until the formation of the borough fire brigade in 1897.

Brighouse Co-op first opened in 1856 just as Samuel Baines was developing his mill site. Just when it was that the Co-op joined the other large firms in town and decided to have its own fire brigade as well, I cannot say.

The photograph of the Co-op Fire Brigade (below right) was taken in the Co-op yard in Police Street (Lawson Road) and includes: (back row, left to right) Unknown; George Eccles who lived in Manley Street; Harry Kershaw, who lived at Half House Lane, Hove Edge; Unknown; Gaythorne Fielding from Smithy Carr Lane; Wright Shaw who was the Warehouse Manager and leader of the Co-op Brigade and Arthur Schofield who became the Co-op Secretary in 1892. (Front Row) Willie Wood from Bailiff Bridge; Harry Littlewood and William Eccles who worked in the Central Stores and served in the fire brigade with his father George Eccles.

How can you have a fire brigade without a fire engine? Well that was something the Co-op managed and quite often led them to being considered as a joke, or as many of the full time firemen called them “The Keystone Cops”.

Quite often the Co-op lads would be first to the scene of a major fire having dragged their pumps and buckets on a wooden hand cart. But as soon as the regulars arrived they were somewhat rudely told to clear off and let the experts get on with the job.

Not only did they not have an engine but their uniforms had the appearance of hand-me-downs as well. Ill fitting uniforms, no engine, ridiculed by almost everyone, all for an extra shilling a week. It’s not surprising that many of them packed it in and let the regulars get on with it.

The new borough fire brigade used horses from its inception in 1897 until the Mayor Robert Thornton JP bought a new motor driven fire engine in 1911 for £1,000. It was after this that the tradition of naming future new fire engines after the mayor began. This photograph above shows the presentation ceremony with the Mayor Robert Thornton saying a few words to the small crowd.