Three Counties Asylum

Fire brigade

Fire was a constant threat at the Three Counties Asylum, There was such an abundance of naked flames from open fires, chimneys, gas lights, gas cookers and personal smoking that the outbreak of fire was imminent. The asylum was built in such a rural location it had to be prepared to fight its own fires at a moment's notice. There were no fully skilled professional firemen employed at the asylum, the fire brigade was made up from non-uniformed attendants who worked there, these men had minimal training and fought many fires to the best of their abilities with the minimum amount of equipment at their disposal.

To combat any outbreak of fire the asylum had many internal and external underground fire hydrants, the idea being a hose could be quickly attached outside and the natural water pressure would produce a jet of water adequate enough to kill the flames, this worked sufficiently well outside if there was a roof or chimney fire.

To fight any outbreak of fire in the wards the asylum had internal hydrants, sand and water buckets along with two corridor engines and eleven tozer engines supplied by Messrs Merryweather at a cost of £66.4.0  the asylum turned the internal  water tower supply off between the hours of 7pm. and 6 am. This meant the inside hydrants would be rendered useless as these were only connected to the internal water tower supply, this situation put the asylum in a very precarious and dangerous situation.

 

 

 

 

 

   Original advert for the "Corridor " Fire Engine and the “Tozer “ Engine

 

The Tozer and Corridor appliances did not actually have an engine, they were a portable pump system which held its own water supply (approximately ten gallons per fill)These could be operated by a single person but worked better with two as one man or woman could operate the pump while the other pointed the hose at the flames.

In 1897 it was reported that these appliances had worked very satisfactory in the hands of the fire brigade

One big problem was the hydrant fittings inside the asylum, these were a different size to the external hydrants, this meant the hoses internally and externally could not be connected together if they were needed to make a very long hose extension.

In November 1897 The medical officer Dr Swain realised there were problems with the fire system so he called upon the expertise of commander Lionel Wells of the London fire brigade. It would be his job to send down an experienced officer to look at the asylum's fire fighting appliances and give a full report with recommendations to himself and Dr Swain.

After the visiting officer completed his report on the asylums fire fighting capability, Commander Wells wrote a detailed report  to Dr Swain, in his report dated December 1897 he stated:

"All hoses and connections to be of one standard size, all hoses to be of sufficient length to combat a fire in the vicinity of  the hydrant, hoses to be hung on the wall ready for immediate use, Bucket taps to be fitted to all indoor hydrants. a system of electrical call points be established and connected with the fireman's room and central office."  He also reported that the old manual engine was in a bad way and should be dispensed  with as the water arrangements appear to be adequate for the asylum.

It was noted that the chief Engineer had not been drilling the fire attendants on a regular basis,one of the biggest recommendations was to employ a full time experienced fireman who could constantly monitor and take care of all the fire appliances and of course be ready to take charge in the event of a fire. If the full time firemen were to be married then rooms must be provided with a pay of 30/- ( shillings) per week. If this is not an option it was recommended that an experienced fire officer attends the asylum for a few months to drill the men and make an efficient fire brigade for the institution. He also asked that the officer who attended the asylum  be paid one guinea and be given his travelling expenses, commander Wells also mentioned that the officer also stated he is willing to drill the part time attendant firemen, service the equipment and cover his own travel expenses for £50.00 a year. The officer also recommended that all attendants and nurses should be trained in using the fire fighting appliances and would go as far as to recommend they all form part of the brigade,after all it would probably be a member of the nursing staff who would be first on hand to tackle a fire on the ward

After reading the report The visiting committee decided to leave on the internal water tower pressure at night for one month as an experiment, Commander Wells was also asked to send down an "efficient" man to drill the attendants once a fortnight for three months starting on January 1st 1898 at a cost of £2.00 per visit including expenses. Fire officer George Mills was chosen and sent down to drill the firemen

Four years later in 1901 it looks like the powers that be at TCA did not head all the recommendations of the fire officer. An inspection carried out by Captain Douglas Spong of the Biggleswade Fire Service found that a lot of the equipment in a dilapidated state and in some cases totally unfunctional and inadequate. Leather hoses were so old they had perished and would not be able to withstand any prolonged high water pressure, Some of the hydrants were at an unconventional angle and the water release valve was difficult to move, this would be hard for a female attendant to use especially as she would probably be the first person to notice and tackle the fire on her ward.

He  also found that the hoses still had two different fittings, this he reported as unconventional and highly dangerous to the safety of the building as valuable time might be lost while trying to couple up the hoses during a firefight. He realised that to change all the fittings and equipment would be extremely expensive and difficult so to compromise the situation he recommended to change all the leather hoses in the asylum for the new modern canvas ones which are fitted with the "Round Thread", special sockets could be supplied to take the round thread so that the large and small hoses could be coupled together in case of necessity.

The Fire Station itself was found to be a credit to the men who looked after it, everything was smart and clean in appearance. Mr Spong highly recommended that the attendants be supplied with a full uniform, this should consist of ,  Brass fire helmet, Tunic, Trousers, Belt, Axe, Boots, Spanner, and life line . It may have been thought by some that a uniform was not necessary, but as Mr Spong reported it is acknowledged by all  who have experience in fire brigade work that it is a necessity. The uniform distinguishes those who are actually engaged in the work and materially assist the officer in charge in directing his men. The helmet is especially useful in being a great protection both to the head and neck .

The Merryweather Manual engine was put to work during the afternoon, this proved the engine was in good working order and well kept ,the firemen went through the wet drill in a very credible manner.

The asylum minutes books tells us that on Monday 25th November 1901 the committee took into consideration the report of captain Spong and after examining the fire extinguishing apparatus it was unanimously resolved to recommend to the visiting Committee that the following fire appliances be precured:

New canvas hoses 2inch fitted with the London round thread and gun metal couplings to be used throughout

the interior of the asylum, it being estimated that about 60 lengths of 40 feet run would be required

New canvas hose 2.5 inch with like fittings to replace the worn out hose at the fire station estimated at about six lengths of 60 feet.

New globe valves, Metropolitan or similar pattern round thread with wheel cocks, cap and chain, estimated 55 in number.

New branch pipes 1 foot long, 2 inches in diameter, estimated about 55

Four gun metal sockets 2 inch to 2.5 inches

About 60 spanners

One dozen brass helmets,London fire brigade pattern

One dozen belts and pouches

One dozen axes

One dozen lifelines

one dozen bright spanners

one dozen pairs of boots

One dozen tunics and trouser material

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                                             The Merryweather Brass Firemans Helmet

The committee wrote to messrs Merryweather and Messrs Shand Mason for quotes for the above fire appliances ,  they were also asked to quote for the tunic and trouser material as these items would be made by the asylum tailors.

It was also recommended that the asylum workmen would fit all the new fire appliances themselves under the supervision of the engineer,The committee also extended a thank you to captain Spong for all the trouble he had taken in this matter.

On Friday 13th December 1901 The sub committee studied detailed quotes from Merryweather and Shand Mason , Although Merryweathers goods were more expensive it was felt their quality was better than Shand Masson's so It was decided to accept Merryweathers tender to supply the firemen's uniforms and all appliances at a cost of £296. 6.3

The tender of £1.4.6 put in by Messrs Mr John Crawley of Bedford to supply pairs of boots for the firemen was also accepted by the committee

 

Ferocious Fire In The  East Water Tower

 

On the 12th March 1902 a terrible and ferocious fire broke out in the roof of the east water tower,It was apparently first noticed by gardener Billington around 12.30 midday, he happened to be on the road adjoining the detached hospital and noticed smoke billowing from beneath the slats from the upper portion of the roof. The alarm was immediately given and in just a few minutes the fire brigade and artizan workers were at the scene of the fire, a valiant attempt was made to extinguish the blaze from within the tower by using the Tozer engines.

These were found to be useless as the flames had taken such a hold and spread so rapidly they stood no chance of quelling the flames. it also became very dangerous to work on the inside of the building as this had now become a great threat to life through flame and smoke.

A hose was now bought up by means of a ladder on to the roof of the adjoining building and supplied water from the number 6 hydrant in the female airing court, it was found the water pressure on the hydrant was not sufficient to meet the flames.

The manual engine was now bought in to work and ladders were put from the ground to the roof of number eight female day room and then on to the tower roof besides the chimney stack on the south side

By now the blaze was almost uncontrollable, a hose was bought up by this means to and above the level of the fire where the full pressure of the water was brought down upon the flames, this had an immediate effect on the fire and by 2.30 the fire was well in hand and under control, by four o'clock the flames were extinguished.

The entire upper portion of the roof had fallen in, Considerable damage had occurred to the rafters and main supports of the roof between the plaster and the slates, other unseen smouldering areas were thought to be a danger , these were not extinguished until the falling plaster had been hacked away. There was a large overflow from the water tank owing to the waste being slopped up by debris from the burning roof above. This invaded some of the  dormitories adjoining but owing to the floors being recently puttied and varnished the water, apart from in a few small places, did not penetrate the ceilings below.

All furniture and bedding were removed from the adjoining dormitories and apart from some small personal effects of two nurses who slept in a room under the water tower no other damage was done in this respect

It was stated that there was no over excitement or panic amongst the patients.Twenty seven beds all occupied, had to be removed, but two nights later all beds and patients were back in their original places.

The cause of the fire is surmised to be lighted soot dropping from one of the flues in the south stack on to the leaden valley between the stack and the roof burning through the lead on to the woodwork beneath and igniting it.

A fire had occurred in this tower in the same situation on the 31st January 1881, also in the same situation in the west tower on the 3rd may 1883 and also in the roof over F6 Dormitory on the 20th December 1884. Falling soot on the leaden gutters was on each of these occasions looked upon as the cause.

In the minutes book of August 1902 Samuel De lisle the Medical Superintendent wrote

All furniture and bedding were removed from the adjoining dormitories and apart from some small personal effects of two nurses who slept in a room under the water tower no other damage was done in this respect

It was stated that there was no over excitement or panic amongst the patients.Twenty seven beds all occupied, had to be removed, but two nights later all beds and patients were back in their original places.

The cause of the fire is surmised to be lighted soot dropping from one of the flues in the south stack on to the leaden valley between the stack and the roof burning through the lead on to the woodwork beneath and igniting it.

A fire had occurred in this tower in the same situation on the 31st January 1881, also in the same situation in the west tower on the 3rd may 1883 and also in the roof over F6 Dormitory on the 20th December 1884. Falling soot on the leaden gutters was on each of these occasions looked upon as the cause.

In the minutes book of August 1902 Samuel De lisle the Medical Superintendent wrote

"In conclusion I venture to submit that considering the height of the situation of the fire, the difficulty in getting at it, and bringing a sufficient power of water to bear upon it , the outbreak was extinguished smartly and well. Great credit is due to the fire brigade, artizans, and others for their daring and skill in surmounting the difficulties that arose, in some case at imminent risk to life.The new brass helmets I may add were of great service and prevented some serious wounds from falling slates and timbers"

The assessor for the sun insurance office visited on the 14th April and requested that specifications and estimate of damage should be made out and forwarded to his office, when their building surveyor would be sent down. He approved of a local builder being employed  and he also stated that he considered the fire had been well handled.

There had also been damage to attendants uniforms to the value of £2 and to artizans clothing to the value of £1:16:0

A letter dated 16th April 1902 was received from the asylums insurance company stating that their assessor had viewed the damage to the water tower and had interviewed the builder Mr Redhouse of Stotfold who gave him a written detailed estimate of £310 to complete the repairs . After examining his figures and requesting a few modifications it was agreed he lower his price to a new cost of £290 which would be a sufficient amount to carry out the water tower repairs.  The insurance company also agreed to pay £2.00 for the damage to any clothing.

On the 28th August 1902 all repairs to the east water tower had been completed and it was ordered that the payment of £290 be made payable to W.S Redhouse builders of Stotfold.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fire Bomb Fritz Hits Hospital

With TCH being situated in the country it was unlikely to be in danger from German Bombers but it was felt that it should comply with the national blackout regulation. Because of the rural location and the size of the hospital it was necessary for staff to be trained in the event of an enemy attack

As well as having its own fire brigade each department also had its own ARP (air raid precautions) Wardens.

Frank Mays started working at TCH in 1938, He was part of the Fire brigade during war time

(Taken from my interview with Frank in 2010 he tells us of life during those years)

 

“We had a bloke called Saunders from the government who showed us how to put the incendiary bombs out using buckets and stirrup pumps, He also showed us how to manage and put on gas masks. He showed us first then we had to show the others and then log their names down and get them to sign to say they had been given the instructions."

TCH did encounter the enemy twice, Frank Mays remembers..

"We had a tough go getting through the war, yes we did that, I remember a doodle bug coming over (V1 flying bomb), I remember that as plain as now, you could tell when the engine stopped that it was coming down, then you heard the crunch and a huge explosion,There was a lot of us stood watching this thing, some of them went back in and got under the billiard table in the ward because if it came down on us that would be it! it was so near to us, I watched it fly over the football pitch, all the flames belching out the back of it, the engine didn’t half rattle.It came down in a field near Wilbury Farm."

Frank's fire bomb training came in handy, On 15th March 1941 German Bombers dropped a clutch of incendiary bombs over TCH, it was thought they were probably off- loading their cargo rather than trying to hit the hospital. Not to much damage was done, only a few hit the roof,the others hit areas of the farm, The action of two farm workers saved the fire getting out of control and only one haystack was lost. Frank and his fellow firemen put out the roof fires.

Frank remembers.

"We did have a little shower of bombs come down behind the nurses home at one time. I don’t know if he {the German pilot} was trying to hit us but I heard them come down, we were on fire duty at the time, we saw the plane come over followed by one of our boys chasing him, I heard later that the German plane was brought down before he got to the channel but I don’t know for sure if he was. That was one of the fires we had to deal with."

 

 

 

 

 

Frank Mays  (far right) and the other members of the war time fire crew

Back To The Wards

Three Counties Hospital A.R.P.

Wardens Helmet The “E “ stands for Electrical Department

A rare  photograph of the TCA crew heading down Arlesey high Street

believed to be on their way to Hospital Day Stotfold  1915