Curators' Blog

Angels with Grimy Faces: Horsham’s Volunteer Firefighters

In the museum’s current temporary exhibition, All Work and No Play, one of the key areas that we weren’t able to cover was the invaluable work done by Horsham’s volunteers, both past and present. The museum knows first-hand the value of volunteers, having more than 60 people who assist us on a regular basis. Without their support the museum would not function.

Throughout Horsham’s history townspeople have volunteered their time, sometimes at great personal risk, particularly in the case of Horsham’s volunteer fire brigades.

After the Great Fire of London the first organised fire engines and fire crews were operated by the insurance companies.  If you were insured by a certain company you would have its sign attached to the wall of your building.  If a fire broke out, the insurer’s fire brigade would be called and, upon arrival at the property they would extinguish the fire only if the correct sign was displayed.  Often houses were left to burn for lack of a fire insurance sign.

Horsham had its first fire engine in 1724, which was replaced by a local benefactor in 1780.  It wasn’t until 1840 that the voluntary Horsham Fire Brigade was formed.

Horsham Museum collections, 1996.378

In the 19th century most local fire brigades were voluntary and Horsham’s Volunteer Fire Brigade was no exception. Joining the Fire Brigade was an honour, and new recruits had to be voted in by the existing members. The museum has the ballot box used by Horsham’s own volunteer firefighters on display in its Blazing Saddles gallery.

The high status afforded to members of the Brigade is reflected in the below portrait of T.C. Honywood, the Captain of Horsham’s Volunteer Fire Brigade from 1861-1888. The photographic portrait of Honywood in full uniform shows that the role was of great significance to him.

Captain Honywood. Horsham Museum collections, 1996.2160

By 1862 the Brigade had 548 subscribers and 60 volunteers. A new engine was purchased around this time, which is also on display at the museum. Kelly’s directory from the 1880s recorded the following about Horsham Volunteer Fire Brigade:

‘The Engineers number 1 captain, 8 superintendents and 51 firemen; the Salvage Corps consists of 1 superintendent and 11 men; and the Escape Corps numbers 20 men, under a superintendent: the fire escape stands at the Town Hall…the members pay all their personal expenses: premises in North Street were acquired in 1882, at a cost of £485, where the two engines, appliances, and a van for the conveyance of the Salvage Corps are now kept. A reading room, library and museum are about to be added.’

Gradually the Fire Service was professionalised, then nationalised, and local volunteer brigades such as Horsham’s declined. However, as the political climate intensified in Europe during the late 1930s, an Act of Parliament was passed authorising the formation of a new voluntary fire service.

The Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) was formed in January 1938 and fire stations were set up in buildings such as schools, garages and factories around the country. For the first two years of the Second World War, fires were dealt with by locally run Auxiliary Fire Services, staffed by men who were unable to serve in the armed forces. Most members of the AFS were unpaid part-time volunteers, however they could be called up for full-time paid service if necessary.

Most young men had joined the army, therefore the AFS relied on those too old or too young to go to war. It also marked the first time women would be accepted into the Brigade. Women undertook some training but did not fight fires in the Second World War. Instead they became fire watchers and drivers, managed the communications network and worked in mobile canteen vans.

Female London Fire Service workers during WWII . Image taken from the London Fire Service website (

Horsham’s preparations for the war began in advance of military action. During an Air Raid Precaution meeting on 4th June 1936 the committee recommended that “advertisements be placed for men under 45 to join the Fire Brigade.” In the West Sussex County Times on December 2 1938 it was reported that the “A.R.P. Auxiliary Fire service 50 Fit men still needed to complete the Fire defences of Horsham. (Age limits 25-50)”. It is clear that the AFS were in desperate need of additional support.

Group portrait of the WWII Horsham Fire Brigade Pump Crew. Horsham Museum collections, 1995.865.67

By 1939 Horsham’s voluntary Fire Brigade were clearly still expanding as, at a special full-council meeting in April 1939 it was noted that 31 men were currently in training, with a further 7 starting later that month. However, this still fell short of the required 60 men. By July 1939 even greater voluntary support was required and the Fire Brigade Management Committee noted that

“an Inspector from the Home Office visited Horsham and considered Messrs Jackson Brother premises in Springfield Road were ideal for the purpose of an Auxiliary Fire Station. The Council will have to provide sand bags, dark curtains for windows and hurricane lamps for lighting,  two telephone lines, and increase the number of Auxiliary Firemen  from 60 to 70 men.“

The first targeted air raid on London took place on 7 September 1940 and marked the beginning of the Blitz, when London was bombed for 57 nights in a row. For many AFS members, this was their first experience of firefighting. Most of the bombings happened at night, meaning firefighters spent long hours extinguishing fires or dealing with explosions. The public’s opinion of the fire service changed significantly as a result of the Blitz. Previously, firefighters had been thought of as ‘army dodgers’. But, after their efforts during the Blitz, firefighters became known as ‘the heroes with grimy faces’.

Horsham’s own brand new Bedford Tender was commandeered during the Blitz and sent to London. The town’s Fire Brigade had to make do with an older engine. Somehow the Bedford Tender eventually made its way overseas, and in the 1960s was spotted in Hong Kong airport, complete with the Horsham Urban District Council logo.

The Bedford Tender. Horsham Museum collections, 1995.865.60

To provide a unified service throughout the country, the National Fire Service (NFS) took control on 18 August 1941, and all AFS groups were merged with local brigades to form a national service. Horsham’s volunteer fire brigade therefore, ceased to exist.

Today West Sussex Fire & Rescue Service do not recruit volunteer firefighters, but they do recruit for other roles, such as Community Volunteers who support their home fire safety campaign. It is wonderful to see that even now, volunteers remain integral to community fire and rescue services.

All Work and No Play will run until Saturday 14th April 2018 on the ground floor of the museum. For more information on Horsham’s firefighters visit the Blazing Saddles gallery.

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