I recently received a pleasant surprise on a Facebook group when a fire service colleague posted a photograph taken of my watch at Plaistow Fire Station taken about 1978/9. I found it refreshing to see once again the faces of those I knew well albeit touched with a twinge of sadness for three colleagues no longer with us.
Everyone in this picture has now retired but looking at the photograph with the trained eye of experience, I could not help but notice how things in the fire service have changed, including myself, in the never ending march of modernity. I am fourth from the right in the rear row and apart from my hair now being white, I can also see substantial changes to the equipment used as well.
Our fire tunics are of the more traditional design which have been around since before the turn of the 20th century. The have now been replaced by the more Hi-Viz wrap around type. Our helmets are black as well as indeed our fire leggings used to be. This picture was taken in a transition period before our helmets were also swapped for yellow ones in aid of visibility safety when on the fireground or public highway in reduced visibility. These helmets too have again been replaced by the completely enclosed motor-bike type with protective visors and some with built in communications equipment.. The fire boots were of strong leather with non-ferrous and spark-proof nails in the heels. Comfortable as they were they offered little protection against penetrative chemicals and these were replaced by strong rubber boots with reinforced toecaps and a metal plate to protect against stepping on nails and other sharp debris.
Of the two fire appliances, (fire engines), in the background, the one on the left carries an Escape Ladder. This was the type that was mounted on two large wooden carriage wheels and weighed about one ton. This was a very robust ladder that would take a lot of fireground punishment and I have even had occasion to use one as a battering-ram without ill-effect to the ladder. Alas due to traffic congestion and parked cars it has become necessary to replace this ladder with one that can gain access through narrow obstacles. This photograph apart from now being a visual historical document sometimes makes me wonder if I am now a museum piece too.
The area of covered by this station at Plaistow was quite extensive too in both the area it covered and the types of risk likely to be encountered. Geographically it covers the area from along the railway station in Green Street Plaistow to the River Lea and everything south of the railway line to the River Thames. Since the closure of Silverton Fire Station, the area it covers has been extended to protect this heavily industrialised area too. In this area at the time of this photograph there was a mixture of profuse old terraced housing, heavy industry and shipping in the Royal group of docks. Even the famous West Ham United football stadium is directly protect by this fire station. The now infamous Ronan Point which collapsed during my time in 1968 was within this stations fireground with the first appliances to reach the disaster coming from this station.
Even the old station originally built in 1932 under the former West Ham Fire Brigade and which I knew so well has now gone, fortunately it is being replaced by a new one currently being built on the same site.
I suppose everyone who has retired occasionally allows their thoughts to wander back over the years with memories of “Those were the days”.