Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Website - Historic tribute to our firefighting heroes (Sheffield)

IT was labelled in newspapers as ‘the trapeze rescue’, but to firemen it became known simply as ‘the impossible job’.

On February 26 1983 a teenage girl, trapped in a burning flat, sat on a window ledge 60 feet above the ground screaming for help.

Rescue ladders could not reach her, while the blaze blocked the door to the apartment in High Egerton, Broomhall, Sheffield.

As onlookers saw the flames start to lick at the window, two firefighters, Geoff Yates and Keith Summerfield, did something which has gone down in local legend.

After breaking into the flat next door, Geoff climbed out on to the window sill – the next one along from where Dawn Lipscombe, 19, was now hanging by her finger tips.

Then, with Keith grimly holding his ankles, he allowed himself to be swung pendulum-like so he could grab hold of the youngster, creating, as The Star reported, “a human chain”.

For a brief moment Geoff and Dawn hung suspended in mid-air. Then Keith hauled them both to safety.

“It’s the stuff of legend,” says Ted Mullins, a retired Sheffield firefighter of 30 years, recalling the incident today in his little home study. “Geoff and Keith were honoured by the Queen for that rescue and quite right. Every Sheffield fireman should be told the story. It was just... well, impossible. Incredible stuff.”

What’s perhaps even more incredible, however, is that this is just one – albeit perhaps the most nail-biting – of dozens of stories of such heroism currently being archived in a ‘living’ online book.

Ted has created – and is still creating – The History Of Sheffield Fire Brigade to ensure such acts of bravery are never forgotten.

It charts the entire timeline of firefighting in the city from the mini lake created in Barker’s Pool in 1434 so there was a constant supply of emergency water to the creation of the new purpose-built fire station in Eyre Street in 2009.

In fact, that last one’s not quite there yet but Ted – a 59-year-old father-of-two of Garden Walk, Beighton, Sheffield – is slowly but surely getting round to it.

What is there already, though, is everything from escaped tigers to trapped cats, explosions to gas leaks, comradeship to the chaos of the early 19th century when rival firefighting firms would obstruct each other.

The site also honours all 17 crew who have died attending jobs – from the first, Archie Cornish who suffered fatal burns at the old Royal Hospital in 1930, to the last, Robert Smith and Paul Parkin, who perished during a massive fire at the British Steel Corporation, in Shepcote Lane, in 1974, and including the seven crew and auxiliaries who were killed during the 1940 Sheffield Blitz.

Indeed, it was with those 17 that the whole project started.

“There was a roll of honour at the old Central Fire Station in Division Street, just the names, and I’d look at wondering what happened to them,” says Ted, who was based at the Mansfield Road fire station for most of his career.

“So I did some research when I retired five years ago, and that just led me off on all sorts of other paths until, almost without realising, I was doing this history project. It started off as one sheet of paper for my own use, and now it’s turned into the online book. And there’s people constantly getting in touch about it – old personnel, their families, Sheffielders.

“I’ve had people sending me historic pictures from all over the world and there’s a fellow going through old copies of The Star looking for stories of interest. The beauty about it being online is it never ends – whatever we find can be added in.”

What they’ve found so far then stretches back to 1379, though perhaps the story really gets going with the creation of the Sheffield Fire Office in 1808.

Based in Market Place, this was a private service which offered fire protection to home-owners and businesses in return for a premium. Those who were not signed up would be left to fight any fires alone.

The trouble was its success led to rival firms setting up, which in turn lead to firefighters from competing services regularly obstructing each other in the course of duty.

It was a less than ideal situation, and so in 1869, the city council established the foundations of the service we know today – a part-time unit made up of 15 policemen and a single horse-drawn vehicle.

It might seem a far cry from today’s service – with almost 300 firefighters and 12 vehicles based at eight stations – but back then, as Ted notes, it was revolutionary.

“You have to remember for centuries the only firefighting provisions had been leather buckets so this was a real shift forward,” he says.

One of the UK’s first purpose built bases – West Bar Fire and Police Station, today the Fire and Police Museum – was opened in 1900, and the first motorised vehicle came in 1907.

The Division Street Station – perhaps the facility still most associated with the brigade in Sheffield – opened in 1929 with a fanfare of publicity.

But it has not all been constant improvements and acts of heroism. Inevitably there has also been tragedy, not least on February 25, 1974 – “the saddest day in the history of Sheffield firefighting,” says Ted.

As crew attended a molten metal leak at the British Steel Corporation plant, in Shepcote Lane, an explosion ripped through the building.

Witnesses later recalled the blast could be heard up to half a mile away. A firefighting crew from Darnall took the full force of it. Two men – Bob Smith, 47, of Woodseats and 27-year-old Paul Parkin, of Handsworth – died. Another 14 were injured.

“Fortunately there hasn’t been an incident like it since,” says Ted. “But it brings home what a dangerous job it is. Bob was a father of one, and Paul had two children and a third on the way – it was devastating.”

Shortly after the City of Sheffield Fire Brigade ceased to exist. That year it merged with crews around the county to become the South Yorkshire County Fire Service.

But just as Ted’s history doesn’t start with the brigade’s creation, neither does it end with its closure.

“This is about the firefighters of the city, as well as the structures they worked under,” he notes. “I’m still working on the later stuff but the target is to have it always up to date.

“It’s lovely when I look at the viewing figures of the site and they go up each month. It’s lovely to know people appreciate what the fire service does.”

Ted is looking for a sponsor for the site. Visit

Firefighters and cats
THERE is no easy job when you’re a fireman – even, it seems, rescuing a cat.

Indeed, it was attempting such an operation that on June 5, 1950, fireman Colin Hill died after falling from a tree.

The 39-year-old, of Vincent Road, was trying to bring the pet down from an oak in Albert Road.

But as he got the cat in his arms and started to make his way back along a branch, it cracked, plunging both 25 feet to the ground.

An ambulance was summoned but Fireman Hill could not be saved.

He left a wife and two-year-old son.

In another cat case, a crew had to deal with an escaped tiger using little more than hosepipes.

The animal was being kept in a cage at the old Empire Theatre when he mauled his trainer, got free and slunk into the basement.

The Star that evening reported: “The fireman brought hoses out which they placed in strategic positions.

“They descended into the cellar and managed to drive the animal into a corner by playing water on it from a hose pipe.

“The tiger rushed into the band room under the stage, and the door was slammed and locked.

“Attendants then built a tunnel of iron cage sections, lashed together with rope, around the band room door and up the steps on to the stage and into the animal’s cage.”

Hoses were again turned on the animal to drive it back to its cage.

City timeline
1434: There are no firefighters and no official way of dealing with fires. However, Sheffield city elders, realising the need for a quick water supply in case of emergencies, create a small lake where Barker’s Pool stands today.

1572: Documents show leather buckets for firefighting purposes are hung in the Town Hall.

1703: Town trustees buy the city’s first fire engine and organise men to operate it.

1808: Sheffield Fire Office is created. Business and home owners who pay a premium can count on help if hit by a fire.

1869: Sheffield Council create the city’s first public fire service. It is staffed and run by 15 police officers based in Norfolk Street.

1900: West Bar Fire and Police Station opens.

1907: The first motor fire engine is purchased.

1929: Central Fire Station in Division Street opens. It has space for 10 engines, a watch room, superintendent’s office, living quarters and recreational hall.

1930: The city’s first firefighter to die on duty is Archie Cornish. He suffers fatal burns during a blaze at the old Sheffield Royal Hospital.

1940: Sixty regular firefighters and more than 1,000 auxiliaries spend three days fighting fires caused by the Sheffield Blitz. Seven die.

1974: Two firefighetrs Bob Smith and Paul Parkin die while attending a blaze at British Steel Tinsley Works, Shepcote Lane.

1974: Sheffield Fire Brigade ceases to exist, replaced by the South Yorkshire County Fire Service.

1983: The legendary trapeze rescue takes place.

2009: Sheffield’s new state-of-the-art Eyre Street fire station opens.

No comments:

Post a Comment