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The Great War


The Great War

WAR DECLARED 4th August 1914

Ended 11th November 1918

During WW1 even full-time salaried firemen were not seen as being in a “reserved occupation,” nor even as being essential to the war effort and the men were eligible for volunteering or conscription into military service.

The working strength of the Sheffield Fire Brigade had been gradually reduced because of the men being called up to fight. At one time it was reduced to three officers and twenty men. By 1916 the strength of the brigade had become so depleted that a number of volunteer firemen stood by at the two fire stations during the evening for the purpose of assisting the Brigade in both firefighting and ambulance duties (the Sheffield Corporation had purchased a horse-drawn ambulance in 1900 which was kept at the main fire station at Rockingham Street). As well as the lack of men, there was also the possibility of fires being caused in Sheffield by bombs dropped by enemy aircraft, and this resulted in a notice being sent out in February 1916 cancelling all arrangements for the attendance of the brigade outside the city limits. Cover was still provided at the hospitals at Wharncliffe, Longshaw Lodge and Dore provided that they continued to be used as military hospitals.

In April 1916, five months before a Zeppelin raid on Sheffield, a deputation of the Stocksbridge men met with the Council to discuss what their duties would be in the case of an air raid. There had recently been an alarm given, and the men had reported for duty, remaining until 3.30, but they had been issued with nothing official from the Council and were looking for definite instructions. Councillor Pearson thought the brigade should have a free hand to do as they saw fit, and if there was nothing to do then they might assist the police as special constables and undertake such tasks as making sure all lights were extinguished. In some towns – Nottingham being one of them – members of the special constabulary were used to fill the places in the fire brigade of those who had joined up.

Sheffield was one of the most important munitions towns in Britain and was a target for bombing by the Zeppelins. To avoid such attacks, every light was put out and the steel furnaces tapped so that their glare would not betray their position. Only one Zeppelin got through to Sheffield, on a fine and clear night, 25th September 1916. The next day, The Star reported that 29 people had been killed when a Zeppelin airship bombed a “North Midlands Town.” This was Sheffield, but they weren’t allowed to print the exact location. The raid was aimed at the industrial areas in the city’s east end, but this area escaped relatively unscathed. Several bombs fell on Burngreave before the Zeppelin turned towards Attercliffe, looking for the steelworks, but managing to miss the large John Brown & Co. It then moved on to Tinsley and Darnall. The raid lasted fifteen minutes, with 36 bombs being dropped. Among the dead were eight victims found in the cellar of a bombed house at Burngreave. Three fires were started by incendiary bombs dropped from German Zeppelins, two in dwelling houses and one in the Stores of the Great Central Railway at Woodbourn Road. In total, twenty-eight people lost their lives that night, almost all of them women and children. There were no bombs dropped on Stocksbridge as far as I know. The local paper reported that a “sensation” was caused when a plane was spotted over the village in August 1914. “An aeroplane (supposed to be a military machine), which passed over the village on Monday at noon, created a good deal of interest, inasmuch as it was the first to pass over this district.”

Not all the men of the Stocksbridge Fire Brigade were called up, and some joined to replace those who had left.  There must have been need of back-up members, however, because a ladies brigade was formed. Ubfortunately, I have been unable to find out anything at all about them, including whether they were ever called out to attend any fires. The first photograph in the gallery below is the only evidence I have that a ladies brigade existed at all. Captain Ernest Jackson’s daughter, Dorothy (“Dolly”), was made temporary Fire-Chief and one of the other ladies was called Frances Hawley.  Please get in touch if you know anything about this.

British Pathe films have two interesting short films about ladies' fire brigades at this time:

There was very little reported in the Council minutes about the fire brigade during the war years, and not a mention of recruiting ladies in the minutes or in the newspapers. And while the men who joined or left were named, and the men’s salaries stated, nothing was reported about the women. Perhaps the newspapers were limited in just what they were allowed to report on.

1915: fire at Waldershaigh, 18 January

Mrs. Charlesworth, the caretaker at Waldershaigh, discovered a fire in the west side of the building one Monday evening, and the fire brigade were summoned. However, although the men arrived at the station in good time, there was again a delay in securing horses. 15 minutes elapsed between the first sound of the hooter summoning the men and the appearance of the horses. The Bolsterstone members of the Brigade (possibly the “supernumeraries”) were first on the scene and managed to prevent the fire spreading to the rest of the building. When the engine arrived, they connected the pump to a hydrant in the yard and were able to put out the fire, with little damage having been done.

After the fire at Waldershaigh there was concern that the fire brigade was still using the same equipment as they had acquired 25 years ago in 1890 and the local paper was of the opinion that more up-to-date fire-fighting apparatus was needed, especially now there were more houses and people in the district and more calls made. It was also suggested that the old pump well should be used to supply water to the fire brigade should they be called to Bolsterstone; it should be broken through, and the necessary connections made so that the fire engine could use it.

1915: Fire at Messrs. Steward Brothers, 1 September

The smell of burning timber alerted the occupants of a cottage close to the Steward Brothers Brickworks on Hoyle House Lane in the early hours one Wednesday morning. The alarm was raised, and “the weird music of the village syren disturbed many inhabitants from their slumbers.” The fire brigade commanded by Captain Jackson was quickly on the scene with the engine and, with a good supply of water from a nearby hydrant the fire was soon extinguished, but not before a great deal of damage had been done. It was a large building with an engine room and boiler shed, and the whole building and its machinery collapsed into the basement.

One of the men who joined the brigade during the war was my great grandfather Wilfred Donkersley.  Wilfred was the eldest son of Brook Donkersley, and ran the family butcher’s shop at Bracken Moor. I was always told that he was in a “reserved occupation,” meaning he was exempt from the call-up, but it wasn’t that simple.  Wilfred was born on the 22ndAugust 1877 and would have been a married man of almost 37 years old when war was declared. He joined the brigade in October 1915, replacing George F. Swallow, who had resigned. There were too few volunteers to fill the fighting ranks, and so the Military Service Bill was introduced in January 1916, bringing in compulsory conscription for the first time in Britain’s history. Originally, conscription was introduced for unmarried men or childless widowers aged between 18 and 41, although in May this was extended to married men, and in April 1918 the upper age was raised to 50, or 56 if the need arose.

There was an appeal system. The men, or their employers, could appeal to a local civilian Military Service Tribunal. At a Stocksbridge Council meeting in February 1916 in response to the January Military Service Bill, all members of the Council, plus some others, were appointed to serve on the local tribunal. There would also be a military representative present, who could appeal against a decision to grant exemption, although he wasn’t always successful. The reasons a man could be excused service varied, from being engaged in work of national importance, business or domestic hardship or being medically unfit. Some of those seeking exemption were Conscientious Objectors. Being granted an exemption wasn’t always a permanent reprieve; sometimes men were given a temporary or conditional exemption, for example, bringing in a harvest on a farm. Some men who were granted exemption were told they must work in munitions factories. Wilfred’s father was 63 years old when war was declared, and too old to be called up. Being a butcher and running a grocery shop was important, but two sons were not needed when women could step in and help, and Wilfred’s younger brother, so the story goes, went into the steelworks (another important job). The sad irony is that he was supposedly killed in an accident there in 1917.  The youngest brother was a miner, another “vital” occupation, and was not conscripted. The local newspapers were full of these appeals and their results, although the men were not named in them. Being a butcher was not an automatic exemption from call-up; the tribunal heard many cases where butchers were stating their case to stay in their jobs, and the members of the board would look at how many butchers there were in the area and take into account age, marital status, number of children, and so on. In one North Riding appeal a master butcher called Edward Foley had been granted exemption, but the military representative had appealed and been successful. Foley then brought an appeal against that decision. The appeal tribunal, on the 22ndDecember 1917, said there were “too many” butchers in his area, of which seven were master butchers of military age. Foley was the youngest of them all. His appeal was dismissed, but he was not to be called up until 1 February 1917. (1)

In June 1916 the fire brigade asked the council whether they intended lodging appeals before the tribunal, to get call-up exemptions for its members, but this matter was left over for another meeting, and I can find no evidence that they did this. Even if they had, it was unlikely that they would all have been granted exemption. Firemen were not seen as being in a “reserved occupation” nor even as being essential to the war effort, and even full-time firemen were conscripted into or volunteered for military service.

Fox’s steelworks was feeling the effect of the war. Labour was in short supply and the company was four hundred men short. 160 soldiers were drafted in, but they were apparently unsatisfactory. Men who were deemed unfit to be called up for fighting were, where possible, set to work in the steelworks. During the war Fox’s amalgamated with some other firms, forming, in 1918, the United Steel Companies Ltd. Production was organised on a wider basis, and the works began producing special steels instead of railway materials. For the duration of the war the umbrella plant was turned over to the production of belt links for the air forces, and .303 Browning machine-guns ammunition. School children joined in the war effort by knitting khaki scarves for the troops.

Two small fires were reported at Fox’s during the war. The first one was at the end of September 1914 in one of the wire-drawing departments, and although the brigade was called, the workmen had almost extinguished the flames themselves thanks to a plentiful supply of water and plenty of buckets. The second fire occurred in August 1969 when the roof of the smelting shop caught fire. Again, speedy work by the employees prevented the fire from spreading.

1916: fire at Grayson Lowood & Company, 30 October

A fire at Lowood’s brickworks demolished the joiners’ and blacksmiths’ shops, in which a lot of timber and tools were stored. The outbreak also caused a leakage of gas in the mine, and all work had to suspended. The fire brigade attended, and spent several hours in keeping the flames from spreading to the adjoining buildings, but nothing could be done to save the buildings where the fire had broken out. The charge for the brigade’s attendance was £12.

As a little light relief, in May 1916 the members of the brigade, their wives and friends, got together for a tea and social evening. Musical entertainment was provided afterwards by Mr. C. Jackson, Private J. Hayes. Mr. H. Robinson and Miss A. Whittaker, accompanied by Thomas Hall Nevison, one of the brigade.

1917: fire at Mrs. Bowers shop, Manchester Road, 18 July

A fire broke out in the early hours of Wednesday at the fent shop of Mrs. Bower on Manchester Road, causing £50 worth of damage. With the assistance of neighbours and the captain of the fire brigade, the fire was got under control and prevented from spreading. This would be Florence Bower, who was a widow. Her maiden name was Herbert, and she had married John Bower in 1891. After his death she opened small millinery shop in a terraced house near the bottom of Victoria Street. “Fent” was a word meaning a remnant of cloth, more specifically a short and often imperfect piece of finished fabric. Local man John Holling mentions this shop in his unpublished memories: “continuing on the main road from the bottom of Victoria Street on the south side was Mr. Tom Corbidge’s shop (barbers), and then a little fent shop (Bower’s). Next was a fish and chip shop kept by Mr. and Mrs. Thickett. The next was Plumber Brown’s. At the corner of Johnson Street and Button Row, I remember a shop fronted house where Mr. and Mrs. Tommy Brodsworth lived.” (2)

In 1917 the brigade asked for new uniforms, but it was pointed out to them that it was not a suitable time for this request to be considered. The Council did however agree to have their Surveyor prepare a plan for a tower to dry the hose-pipe.

1917: Another fire at Dixon’s paper mill, 4 August

The early hours of Saturday 4th August another fire broke out at the paper mill, Oughtibridge, but thanks to the quick actions of the workmen the damage, which was heavy, was confined to one part of the mill. The fire took hold in the machine house. One of the machines was not working because of the depleted workforce but this machine was damaged when fire spread from the other machine. The fire was noticed at 1am by workers on the night shift who immediately ran to their fire stations and a few minutes afterwards powerful jets of water were being aimed at the flames. The steam whistle apprised the day shift men that something was amiss, and these came to reinforce those fighting the fire. Villagers also came to help. The firm’s own brigade had 12 jets of water playing, which were supplemented by those who had rushed to help. Shortly after 3am, the Stocksbridge Fire Brigade arrived on the scene, and Samuel Fox’s fire brigade also came to the rescue with additional plant and firefighting material. Damage was estimated to between £35,000 and £40,000 based on pre-war figures and it was unlikely that work would be resumed for at least a year. Mr. Dixon said output wouldn’t suffer, and that staff and workpeople could transfer to the firm’s premises at Grimsby. However, this would not be easy, because the firm had taken on a large number of female workers to replace conscripted men, would find it much harder to transfer because of their family commitments.

The fact that the Sheffield Fire Brigade was unable to attend was a direct consequence of the war, it having been forced to rescinded its arrangement with Dixon’s because of a lack of manpower and to keep the firemen in Sheffield in case of bombing raids.

It was in January 1918 that the possibility of obtaining a motor fire engine was first discussed, the idea being put to the Council at their first meeting of the year by a deputation from the brigade. If that were not possible, then they discussed making arrangements with Gaunt Brothers (who supplied the horses for the fire engine) to use one of their motors. It seems that, despite the demonstration of fire-extinguishers ten years ago, back in 1908, the brigade themselves did not own any, and they thought they should. Another request was that the engine-house ought to be enlarged. In July, a deputation of firemen was appointed to inspect a motor chassis that Samuel Fox’s were selling, because it was thought it could be adapted for use as a fire tender. In the end, Fox’s had two chassis for sale; if the Council purchased one chassis the cost would be £50, but if they purchased both, then the cost would be £80. It was agreed at the August meeting to purchase both, one for the use of the fire brigade and one for haulage purposes. It was hoped to have a fully-equipped motor fire engine on the road by April 1919.

The local paper reported on a fire at Ewden Valley in October 1918. Smoke was seen issuing from a large rick of hay belonging to the Sheffield Corporation Waterworks and the alarm was given. This time it was not the Stocksbridge brigade but the Ewden Valley brigade, under the command of a Mr. Smith. I can find no more information about this brigade, but I would imagine that it was formed from among the navvies who were working on the Ewden and Broomhead reservoirs.

The War finally ended with the signing of the Armistice on the 11th November 1918. When the news reached Sheffield of the Peace Treaty, rockets were fired from the roof of the Telegraph building in High Street, and the celebrations went on for several weeks. The city was decorated with flags and bunting, troops marched past the town hall, and bonfires were lit all over Sheffield. Official Peace celebrations in Stocksbridge took place on Saturday 19th July 1919.

The news that the armistice proposals had been signed reached Fox’s works at around 10.30am on Monday 11th November. It had actually been signed at 5.10am to come into effect at 11am, to give the news time to reach combatants. The news was conveyed around Europe within the hour but fighting continued in several places during and after that time, including on the Western Front. On 11 November alone there were nearly 11,000 casualties, dead, missing and injured, exceeding those on D-Day in 1944. (3)

After the news had been received at Fox’s, a large Union Jack was immediately hoisted to the top of the main tower of the works, and this was the signal for every locomotive and crane driver to open his whistle, following which the powerful siren was put on full blast. Groups of people congregated in the works, and flags and streamers were produced “as if by magic.” Work was suspended for the day, and the local prize band soon got together. Flags and bunting went up everywhere, and the celebrations continued into the next day. It was bittersweet, because amid the joy was the knowledge of all those who would never come home.

Official peace celebrations would not take place until the following year though. Things did not return to normal for quite a while. Soldiers were not immediately demobbed.  Although just about all the men wanted to go home at once, it was simply not possible.  Not only would it have been practically impossible to process all men in a short period of time, but the British army also still had commitments to fulfil in Germany, North Russia and in the garrisons of the Empire.  Regular soldiers who were still serving their normal period of service remained in the army until their years were done.  Men with industrial skills, including miners, were released early.  It took until the end of 1919 for most of the men to be back in civilian life.

1919: Peace Celebrations

Peace Parade celebrations in Stocksbridge took place on Saturday 19th July 1919. Many people decorated the outsides of their homes and there was a procession of tableaux followed by an open-air service. In the afternoon there were sports and a gala. Evening celebrations were marred by rain, but there were still fireworks and bonfires – an effigy of the ex-Kaiser was suspended from a gibbet too! The cricket and more fireworks had to be postponed until the following Saturday.

(1) Record at the National Archives, North Riding appeal tribunal no. 2320. Ref. NRCC/CL 9/1/2320

(2) The Memoires of John Holling (MSS, Stocksbridge & District History Society) written in 1959/60. John was born in 1901 at Deepcar


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