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Fetch the Engine!
The story of the Steyning fire engine's mudguards

Horses ambled along the road from the White Horse to the fire engine beneath the town clock until a motor vehicle took over. Then it was time to replace it and the comedy of errors began.

Fire station 1897Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee celebrated by Steyning firemen. The horse drawn engine fits snugly in the station under the town clock.

There is a large collection of letters in the Steyning museum archives about the purchase of a new fire engine in 1935. The letters reveal a comic situation. It is difficult not to imagine the story performed in the style of Dad's Army, only set in peacetime Steyning rather than four years later in wartime Warmington-on-Sea.

Since the 1890s, the fire engine had been stationed in the Old Market House, or the Town Clock Fire Station as it was known. In those days, the Merryweather fire engine was pulled by horses supplied by the White Horse Hotel, just a short distance along the High Street.

When the fire bell rang, the horses were released from their stables. They made their own way along the High Street to be hitched up by the waiting firemen. It was definitely a slower pace of life.

Motorisation came to Steyning’s fire crew in the 1920s, yet little else changed until 1935. At this point, the parish council felt that a stronger and more powerful engine was needed.

The archives reveal an extensive correspondence between Dennis Bros. Ltd, a fire engine manufacturer in Guildford, and both the parish council and the fire brigade. The letters were about the purchase of a second hand fire engine.

Of course, though bigger, the replacement engine still had to fit into the Town Clock Fire Station. The full dimensions of the engine were requested and supplied. Although it would be a tight squeeze, all parties were satisfied. The deposit of £40 was paid, and the long awaited Dennis fire engine arrived. It didn’t fit.

Temporary lodgings were quickly found in the old coach house of the Chequer’s Yard over the road, behind the Chequer Inn. Needless to say, more letters flew off the typewriters.

“You said the width was 6’-6”, we find it to be 6’-10,”’ said the parish council, who refused to pay the balance of £135. Dennis Bros. were contrite - the reconditioned mudguards were indeed wider than they had thought. Dennis Bros. agreed to reduce the size of the mudguards free of charge.

The parish council was placated. But councillors had failed to anticipate the next development. The firemen flatly refused to have their shiny new engine compromised with modified mudguards. The proud men of the brigade wanted to, “preserve the modern and workmanlike appearance of the Dennis Engine."

The fire brigade made a bold, even adventurous request: "Could the parish council not reconstruct the entrance to the fire station instead?” No - they could not!

An impasse was reached. Neither the parish council nor the fire brigade would budge. Dennis Bros. awaited further instructions. The temporary home for the fire engine behind the Chequer Inn began to look more permanent.

The stage was set for a grand compromise, not without its own difficulties. The fire station would have to to be relocated across the street if the engine was to keep its six foot ten inch mudguards.

An agreement was reached with the Chequer's tenant, Mr A Chalcraft and his landlord, Portsmouth and Brighton United Breweries. A builder also based in the Chequer’s Yard, one F G Chalcraft, was employed to adapt the coach house for its new role. It was a diplomatic choice of builder under the circumstances.

The new fire station was officially opened on 26th December 1935, and remained there for 26 years, until a drive for modernisation prompted another move for the brigade.


Some Facts About
the Fire Brigade

White Horse Hotel
burns down

A fire in 1949 destroyed the main White Horse hotel building, despite the fire brigade's efforts to save it. The White Horse today is actually the former stables, once the home of the fire brigade's horses, converted for public use.

Fire Whistle
Shouting Fire! Fire! and frantically ringing the fire station bell was the traditional way to alert the fire brigade and have the horses released from the White Horse stables. When there was a gas works in Steyning, the screeching gas works whistle is said to have been used as a louder signal to release the horses.

The Old Market House
The Old Market House replaced an earlier market hall in the High Street. Since 1771, it has been the manorial court, town hall, general meeting house and a store, the jail, the police station and, of course, the fire station. It is now a commercial premises.

Links

British Listed Buildings
The Old Market House is a Grade II listed building.

BBC Domesday Reloaded
A short report about Steyning fire service past and present

The White Horse
The history of the White Horse, including the fire brigade horses and the terrible fire of 1949.

Knepp Castle Fire
The Steyning fire brigade didn't make it in time but the story shows the way the service had to operate in 1904. See also here.

Steyning Museum
Janet Pennington traces the history of the earlier market house and how it was replaced by the current building with the town clock .

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