This is the story of an old Albion Merryweather Fire Engine, built in 1930 with a Braidwood body. This type of body was completely open; there was not even a windscreen, although this was added later. James Braidwood, b. 1800 was the founder of the Edinburgh Fire Brigade, the world’s first municipal fire brigade. Braidwood became the first Superintendent of the new London Fire Brigade in 1833.
It was purchased by Ware Urban District Council (now Ware Town Council), and the registration number was UR 9029. Up until World War II, it operated in and around Ware in Hertfordshire. During the WWII it was operated by the National Fire Service in London. After the war, it returned to its original duties at Ware. Several years later, it was put on standby, and eventually taken out of service all together in 1948.
Dick Brittain, who owned a heavy transport and goods delivery business known as Essex Carriers Ltd. (based at Tarpots in Benfleet), had for several years entered various vehicles and trailers in the Southend Carnival and other events. The company tried to imbibe the true spirit of the carnival. Not something pretty or clinical like the tobacco companies or the brewers, with their very expensive floats. They decided to do something silly, in fact the sillier the better, but it needed organising properly. Dick’s son in law Eddy Barber devised the various entries for the carnival, usually built around one of the company’s mobile cranes. The first, and probably the best effort was “the stork”, in 1950. The jib of the crane formed the neck of the stork, and suspended from the “beak” was the basket carrying a baby. In the basket was one of Essex Carriers drivers, whose name was Curly Ford, and was completely bald, and he was wearing a towel to represent a nappy.
The next year was the Festival of Britain that featured the Skylon. Dick and Eddy entered an airship called the Skyloff. Other entries in consequent years were the Flying Ballet, a Flying Bedstead, which was a parody of the Rover vertical take off aircraft, and then in the year when flying saucers were much in the news they entered their own version in the carnival, a flying cup and saucer. Another year was a house on fire. Each year, they decided that it was too much trouble, and the mobile crane needed to be out of action for two weeks preceding the carnival.
He decided it would be fun to have a permanent vehicle for such purposes, similar to the Kursaal Flyer Railway Engine that was a dedicated vehicle for the carnival. After much deliberation, decided to buy a fire engine in 1958. But where to purchase such a vehicle? He went to his friend who was the Chief Fire Office at Hadleigh fire station, and asked him how to go about purchasing a vintage fire engine. He suggested “Why don’t you write to the various fire authorities to see if they have an old vehicle tucked away?” Dick replied “That’s all very well, but I don’t have their addresses”. The Fire Chief said that he would loan him his fire manual, in which there was a complete list with all addresses – all 140 of them!
So a letter was duplicated to all 140 Fire Authorities asking them if they had an old fire engine for sale. He was offered 18 vehicles, from as far north as Aberdeenshire to South coast towns. Amongst these 18 vehicles, the nearest one was at Ware in Hertfordshire, and seemed the most suitable.
An appointment was made with Mr. G. V. Blackstone, Chief Fire Officer of Hertfordshire at Ware, for Dick and his Chief Engineer at Essex Carriers, Jack Smith to view the 1930 Albion Merryweather Fire Pump.
Dick continues the story thus. “I had no idea what to offer for the vehicle, the only guide I had was that I had seen an old Fire Engine in a scrap dealer’s yard, which had been vandalised considerably, and was for sale at £75. During the discussion with Mr. Blackstone I felt the atmosphere to be somewhat prickly”.
It suddenly occurred to Dick that Mr. Blackstone had a soft spot in his heart for this old girl. Dick said “I hope you don’t think that I am a scrap dealer and that I want this vehicle for scrap”. Mr. Blackstone admitted that that this was exactly what he was thinking. “Oh no” Dick said “I want to restore this to its original condition”. The situation then completely changed. “Well now” said Mr. Blackstone “in that case you will want the bell and ladder, which you can have for an extra £12”.
And so in 1958 Essex Carriers became the proud owners of this fire engine, and it was based in Benfleet, Essex, having previously not travelled beyond Hertfordshire and London during its 28 years of service. During this time, it had only done 6,000 miles. Once housed in Benfleet, restoration started.
Jim Benson, a Coach Trimmer in Leigh on Sea re-upholstered the seats, and remarked what a pleasure it was to work with real leather. The aluminium carburettor induction pipe was so corroded it was wafer thin, but Mr Herrincx of Westcliff on Sea was an artist with welding equipment, and repaired it. The magneto was sent to Bosch for overhaul.
Dick still had a problem as all the necessary fire fighting gear such as hoses, branches, special spanners and sockets were missing. He was greatly helped by Mr. Greenwood, the first President of Basildon Rotary Club. Dick was a founder member of the Leigh on Sea Rotary club in 1953. Mr. Greenwood, affectionately known as “G”, was in charge of fire precautions at Marconi’s new factory in Basildon, and recognising that Dick needed some original equipment to restore the fire engine to its original working condition, he was put in touch with a member of Brentwood Rotary Club who was an officer in Brentwood Fire Brigade, who sent a fellow officer along to see what was needed.
This fire officer scoured all the Essex Fire Stations for original equipment, and found the equipment down to the last details, with the exception of one reducing socket, which “G” got the Marconi apprentices to make as an exercise.
This equipment was then tested and found that everything worked perfectly. When Dick asked what they were going to charge for all this equipment, they sent him a bill for £26.10s.0d.
Dick then needed to add brass fireman’s helmets to the equipment, and by devious means, managed to get 13, including an Officer’s helmet in nickel. A bulb horn was found in a ditch on a farm in Norfolk, and it was cleaned up and got working. A police siren was added later.
So at last, the vehicle was ready for the road! The fire engine was christened “Mrs. Frequently” [Ed: a mis-spelling of the term ‘misses frequently’, applied to motor engines that were not running smoothly] by Dick, who had seen the name on a racing car at Brooklands Race Track many years before, and it appealed to him, although this was something of a misnomer, as the vehicle ran very well.
He then joined the Historic Commercial Vehicle Club which had just been formed. The outstanding event in their calendar was the London to Brighton run which takes place on the first Sunday in May, and is organised by the Historic Commercial Vehicle Club. This run first tool place in 1959, and started from the Transport Museum in Clapham. This was an old tram depot, and was then the largest transport museum in the world.
The Historic Commercial Vehicle Club members own a wide variety of commercial vehicles. There are buses, coaches, charabancs, taxis, steam lorries, road sweepers, electric vehicles, vans, petrol and diesel trucks, fire engines and army vehicles. In fact almost anything that is not a car! Several vehicles date back to the early part of the twentieth century.
Dick had entered for the first Brighton Run, and arrived at Brighton well in time for the start. In waiting for his turn to get in the queue for the start, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, who Dick had met in the early days of the formation of the HCVC approached Dick that he was supposed to start the rally with a chequered flag, but he would much rather start the run by driving the fire engine. So, that first year the run started with Lord Montagu of Beaulieu driving Dick’s fire engine, with Lady Montagu sitting next to her husband, with Dick ringing the bell as hard as he could! This was featured prominently on TV.
The next year (1960) Dick challenged the Dennis apprentices, who had three old Dennis fire engines, to a race down Brighton promenade, instead of trickling down into the final control one by one. They lined up at the head of the promenade and then all four engines went down the promenade four abreast towards the finish line with bells ringing and sirens wailing, and a large number of girls and young men on each of the fire engines, shouting at the top of their voices. The TV people loved this one as well!
The third year of the run in 1961, the Southend Standard newspaper did an article a few weeks before the London-Brighton Run, giving pictures of local members of the HCVC polishing their vehicles. After the article appeared, Dick was approached by a man who ran a modelling agency, and asked whether he could take four of his girls on the fire engine to Brighton. “Not likely” was Dick’s reply “because if it rains you get soaked, and if its cold you freeze, and I don’t want a group of complaining females and a temperamental fire engine to manage as well”. However, Dick was assured that a large car would follow the Fire engine in case of inclement weather. So it was agreed, and arranged to meet the girls on London Bridge at 8.30 of the morning of the run.
The fire engine and Dick were there first, with the girls arriving soon after, and he had a very pleasant surprise. The girls were all models and had been to the Civil Defence to borrow Fire Women’s uniforms, and they looked great!
When they arrived at Clapham for the start, they stole the show. For the fire engine to have a crew of Fire Women was really unique. That year, there were a number of driving tests which Dick passed with flying colours, and he won the premier award. It must have been the influence of the girls.
In the fourth year of the run in 1962, it was decided that as the run was now becoming so popular, and that there was such a large number of entries, that the fire engine stood no chance in the Concours D’elegance, but Dick realised that it is always the vehicle that gets to Brighton first that gets the main publicity, although it is always stressed that it is not a race. In fact, to get to Brighton first is more a feat of endurance, so it was decided to try and get there first.
This meant getting up at 4.30am to get to London before 8.00am. On this occasion Dick was No. 9 away, at 9.15am, so it meant keeping going all the time and not stopping for cups of tea or nature calls. They gradually worked their way ahead of the rest, but were pursued by a model T Ford. However, they just pipped this Ford, and reached the Brighton finish line about half a minute ahead. The fastest speed that year was 27mph.
In the winter following the run, the engine was overhauled, and this improved the top speed of the old girl to 29mph, and going downhill with a following wind, reached 35mph.
It was increasingly difficult to get to Brighton first, as the entries grew. The following year Dick’s start number was 43 from an entry of 140. Dick arrived in London at 7.30am and had to line up in the side streets around the Transport Museum in Clapham. Dick heard they were starting the slowest vehicles first. Dick went to the Chief Marshal and told him he had a very slow fire engine, so he got moved up in the order to No 25. Then the vehicle in front would not start, so with colossal cheek, Dick nudged his way forward into 12th place. From then on it was a case of overtaking the earlier starters in traffic jams or at traffic lights, and by the time Dick got to Gatwick, he had passed them all, and then it was a matter of keeping ahead of them all the way down to Brighton.
That year (1963), the Run had engaged Eddy Barber, Dick’s son in law to do the commentary at Brighton. Dick had told him that he was trying to get there first, and Dick had issued his crew with thunder flashes to announce their arrival. As he entered Madeira Drive, he was met by a reception committee of police on motorcycles, so the enthusiasm for letting off thunder flashes quickly passed, so they were saved for after the finish line when the police had finished their escort duties.
One of the reasons for owning the fire engine was for the publicity it attracted for Essex Carriers Ltd. The old girl had already appeared in two films, the Galloping Major with Basil Radford, and the Faithfull Carrier, a documentary film made by National Benzole. It appeared many times on TV, and was also used by publicity agencies.
One year, it was used to publicize the Southend Town Show. There were four girls from Kodak who were modelling in the Photographic Pavilion, and it was decided to take them around the town on the fire engine. As Dick was driving up Southend High Street, the girls were ringing the bell as hard as they could, when out stepped a Police Sergeant. He asked Dick what he thought he was playing at, and did he know that ringing a bell was reserved for ambulances and genuine fire engines? Furthermore he thought that Dick was making unlawful use of trade plates on the fire engine.
Whilst he was lecturing Dick, the Kodak girls were taking the Mickey out of the sergeant. Luckily he got off with a caution. When they returned to the Town Show, Dick was told to report to the Police post. He was asked what he had been up to, because in the meantime, the Sergeant had thought up all the other laws and regulations that had been broken by the fire engine, including misuse of trade plates, misuse of fire bell, taking passengers on a fire engine, misuse of fireman’s helmets and a number of other infringements.
There were eight policemen at the police post, and Dick got eight different versions of the laws that had been broken. Later, he saw the Chief of Police going round the show with the mayor, who was a friend of Dick’s. Dick was told to “keep his nose clean” and not to do anything else silly! Fortunately he heard no more of the incident, but the lesson learnt for Dick was not to use the trade plates again!
The following January, when the road fund tax was being paid for Essex Carriers fleet of lorries, Essex County Council were asked what to tax the fire engine as? ECC replied that, as there was no doubt it was a fire engine, that is what it should be registered as, and as fire engines paid no road tax, they then sent Dick a road fund tax disc free. Since then a free tax disc was sent each year.
As for insurance, Dick joined a combined scheme which was arranged on behalf of the HCVC at a charge of £6 per year.
For very many years, Dick had been a member of the Road Haulage Association, and had attended their Annual Conference each year. In 1961 he arranged for the HCVC to hold a rally in conjunction with the conference which was being held at Brighton. So instead of going by car as usual, Dick went on his Fire Engine. He drove up to the main entrance of the Conference Hotel, opened up one of the equipment boxes, took out his weekend case, and handed it to the Head Porter. The local press had been tipped off and photographed the whole procedure.
During the conference, York Trailers asked Dick if he would give two of their publicity girls a ride around the town, which he did. Some weeks later a friend showed Dick a photograph which had been taken as he passed. The legs of the girl sitting on the side of the vehicle were covering up the first two letters of Essex Carriers Ltd, thus leaving Sex Carriers Ltd!
One year, as part of his holiday, Dick toured around Ireland by coach, and one evening arrived in Limerick. As there was time to spare before the evening meal at the Hotel he went out for a stroll. As he turned a corner he saw a large filling station and on the forecourt there were two Fire Engines, and they were being filled with petrol. One was a brand new Dennis; the other was the spitting image of Dick’s Albion Merryweather back home.
He enquired as to why both Fire Engines were being used, and was told that the new one was giving all sorts of problems so they kept using the old one as it was far more reliable.
During each summer season at almost every weekend, Dick was attending a Rally, Carnival or Festival – so much so that he had to consider the old girl’s advancing age, and not take her too far from home.
Eventually, trouble came in a big way. One of the pistons completely broke up. Dick telephoned Albion’s to see whether they had any spares for that type of engine, but was told “Sorry old chap; there are no spares available for your engine.” Dick looked around for a second hand engine but to no avail.
Just at this time, a Haulier friend of Dick’s, Eddie Hilburn of Basildon, came to see him, and asked “Do you want to sell your old Fire Engine?” Dick said he was sorry but that she was in trouble. Eddie said “I know”, so he was asked if he was willing to buy the old girl with trouble and all. He said he was willing to do so as he knew how to get out of the trouble. So it was sold to him for just under £1000, and Dick was sorry to see the Fire Engine go, but at least he was out of trouble.
A few months later, Dick heard that Mrs Frequently was out and about again. He met Eddie Hilburn at a function, and asked him “Come on, tell me the story, how did you get the old girl going again?” He replied “Well, I do a terrific amount of work for Ford’s and I got them to help. They got the Ford apprentices in Germany to do a special exercise by making four special pistons for an Albion engine in England. Having done this, it only needed a little machining to fit them in the engine. Which is an example of the proverb that it is not what you know, but who you know that matters!
For some years, Dick lost touch with Eddie Hilburn and the Fire Engine, and wondered what happened to Mrs Frequently. Then one day a friend of his asked him “Did your old Fire Engine have the registration UR 9029?” He said that it did, and was told that it had been seen at the Essex Show.
Dick wrote to Mr Banham, Chief Executive and Secretary of the Essex Show, and asked him who had entered the Fire Engine. From his answer, Dick was able, by devious means, to trace the whereabouts of the Fire Engine and its new owners, who were Mr and Mrs Edwards of Stapleford Abbotts. It was being kept at Ongar Fire Station, and being maintained by the firemen there, especially Barry Byford and John Ratnage.
Dick found it a thrill that his old Fire Engine was in such good care, and gave him great pleasure to relate this story of its earlier days, and to present to them all the Cups and Trophies, including the Premier Award for the London/Brighton run in 1962, all won during Dick’s period of ownership.
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