Local Brigade History
WIGAN FIRE BRIGADE
Wigan is one of the eight County Borough fire brigades which were amalgamated in 1974 to form the Greater Manchester Fire Service.
The earliest reference to fire protection in Wigan can be found in the Wigan Water Act of 1764, which provided for the use of water to supply “the water engines” should “any fire happen or break out.” By 1837 the town had three engines, kept in a shed at the Wigan Gas Company on Darlington Street.
Twenty years later, in 1857, the existing brigade was reorganised as a police fire brigade under the control of the Chief Constable, with all firefighting duties being carried out by police constables.
By 1876 the brigade comprised of a Captain (the Chief Constable), one Chief Engineer (a Police Inspector) and eight Firemen-Constables. The appliance fleet included one steam fire engine, one manual pump and a hose cart. A 55ft telescopic wheeled escape ladder was acquired in 1878 and stationed in the Market Square.
Four steamers, all built by Merryweather & Sons of London, were eventually operated - the last being delivered in 1893 - before the Borough’s first motorised fire engine, also by Merryweather, was purchased in 1909. The tradition of naming the town’s fire engines was continued with motorisation, the 1909 Merryweather being named “Layland” after a local dignitary.
World War I brought new hazards for firefighters, with the large-scale manufacture of munitions in many parts of the country. On 15th May 1916, the brigade attended an explosion and fire at the Roburite and Ammonal works in Gathurst. Police Fireman Ralph Ainscough was awarded an MBE following this incident.
The following year, the Brigade sent a detachment to an even larger incident on 1st October 1917 at the National Shell Filling Factory, White Lund, near Morecambe, along with fire crews from all over Lancashire. For his actions at this incident, John Jones of Wigan Fire Brigade subsequently received the OBE. In 1923 Jones was also awarded the John Watson Memorial Medal from the Lancashire Fire Brigades Friendly Society for saving the life of a colleague.
At this period, Wigan Fire Brigade was made up of an inspector, a sergeant, two full-time police-firemen and 22 auxiliary police-firemen. There were now two motor fire engines, one steamer, one escape ladder and two motor ambulances on the fleet. The Brigade’s first turntable ladder appliance, a Leyland-Metz 85ft model, was delivered in 1924 and remained in service until the Second World War. In accordance with local tradition, this appliance was named “Pagett.”
In 1928 the Brigade moved into its new fire station on Chapel Lane, part of an extension to the municipal offices, and replacing the earlier premises close by. This would remain open until 1963.
By 1929, Inspector Jones was Chief Officer, though still responsible to the Chief Constable (Mr. Thomas Pey, appointed in 1921) who acted as Chief Executive Officer of the Brigade. Jones would remain in post until the outbreak of World War II.
For a while, in the 1930s, the Palace Cinema had a red light near to the back row seats so that the on-call firemen, who were allowed to visit, could be alerted.
At this period, Wigan Fire Brigade also provided cover for the surrounding areas of Abram, Aspull, Billinge, Ince, Orrell, Standish and Upholland. Still under the control of Chief Constable Pey, the Brigade now had 5 whole-time and 21 “retained” (police) firemen.
As part of the contingency arrangements at the start of the Second World War, the town, in common with all other authorities, expanded its fire protection arrangements through the introduction of an Auxiliary Fire Service, including additional fire appliances and temporary fire stations.
Although Wigan was spared any direct Blitz activity, firefighters from the town were frequently mobilised to assist other towns and cities during this time. In May 1941, Wigan crews were sent to assist in Merseyside, resulting in Sergeant Thomas Callaghan of Wigan Police Fire Brigade being awarded a BEM for Gallantry for his actions following a raid on the Liverpool Custom House. On 18th August 1941, the Brigade was absorbed into the new National Fire Service, as part of the No.28 Fire Force with its Headquarters in Bolton.
It was during the NFS period that Wigan’s venerable 1924 wooden Leyland-Metz turntable ladder was replaced with a more modern 100ft appliance which had already seen service in north London. This would remain in service until 1957.
On the de-nationalisation of fire services on 1st April 1948, Wigan County Borough Fire Brigade was re-formed under Chief Officer J.H.W.Brown, with Mr.Albert Cawley as Deputy Chief. A fleet of modern fire appliances was built up through the 1950s, starting with a Commer water tender and including a 100ft Dennis-Metz turntable ladder in 1957; as with previous convention, all were given names such as “Holland” and “Somers.”
On the retirement of CFO Brown in 1958, Deputy Chief Officer Norman Peet was appointed as head of the Brigade.
The long-inadequate Chapel Lane fire station was eventually replaced by a large new seven-bay Headquarters at Robin Park Road, Newtown, in occupation from November 1963 and officially opened in April the following year.
During the 1960s, the appliance fleet was updated with three new Bedford fire appliances, one a combined Foam-Emergency-Salvage Tender delivered in 1962.
Like many Lancashire towns, Wigan saw its share of serious fires in former textile mills at this period, including Victoria Mills (Taylor’s Carpets) in January 1967. A major fire on 20th October 1969 at Messrs. John England, Gidlow Mill, was attended by firefighters from Wigan and various Lancashire County Fire Brigade stations. During this incident, an explosion occurred resulting in very serious injuries to Sub Officer George Chadwick from Lancashire’s Hindley fire station. Other large fires in this period included Taylor’s Carpets (Victoria Mills) in January 1967 and Jefferson Smurfitt at Ashton-in-Makerfield in May 1970.
The final new fire appliance delivered to the brigade was a Dennis F46 water tender, which arrived in 1970.
On 1st April 1974, Wigan Fire Brigade was absorbed into the new Greater Manchester Fire Service, at the same time seeing the retirement of its Chief Fire Officer, Norman Peet. Wigan currently has the largest administrative station area within GMC and remains one of the busiest.
Work is due to start in 2016 on a new Community Fire Station for Wigan, which will be a joint project in conjunction with the North West Ambulance Service. The new building is being erected on the site of the existing Robin Park Road fire station which it will replace when completed.