22 August 2019

Portslade Fire Brigade

Judy Middleton 2003 (revised 2019)

copyright © D. Sharp
The former Portslade Fire Station in August 2019

In October 1898 a deputation urged Portslade Council to form its own Fire Brigade. A committee was set up to consider the matter and in February 1890 committee members consulted Superintendent Lacroix of the Brighton Volunteer Fire Brigade as to the equipment they might need, and the number of men needed. Lacroix made the following recommendations:
copyright © J.Middleton
The highly decorated Victor Lacroix

1,000 feet of canvas hosepipe was essential costing £50
Fire escape and hose cart costing £35
At least ten men
Jacket and cap issued for each man

Lacroix agreed to take the preliminary drills, and indeed he continued to inspect the men for a couple of years.

In April 1900 the first thirteen members of Portslade Fire Brigade were sworn in. Their surnames were as follows:


  copyright © G. Osborne
 Portslade Fire Brigade in the early 1900s, at this time their fire appliances were stored in a council yard on the corner of Church Road-Vale Road before the new Fire Station was built in Church Road.
With thanks to Mr G. Osborne for granting permission for the reproduction of the above photograph from his private collection.  

Henry Pettett
copyright © S. Pettett
Henry & Fanny Pettett with their son Albert.

A very interesting photograph survives of Henry Pettett wearing his fire brigade uniform during the First World War. He certainly liked to move around Portslade – he once lived in Windmill Cottage, Clarence Street, by 1901 he was to be found at 13 Elm Road, in 1911 his home was at 50 Trafalgar Road, while his address in 1921 was 3 Beaconsfield Road. It seems possible that Henry Pettett might have attained a degree of immortality because his family are firmly of the opinion that the fascinating plaster head above the doorway at 3 Beaconsfield Road is the spitting image of old Henry Pettett.

Henry Pettett’s occupation was described as a stoker / fireman. On Christmas Day 1890 he married Fanny King at St Andrew’s Church, Portslade, and when his son Albert married in 1921, he too chose St Andrew’s Church, following in the family tradition. (Information kindly supplied by S. Pettett).

Captain Packer

On 8 June 1902 there was a fire at Hangleton on Mr Hardwick’s property. Captain Packer of the Portslade Fire Brigade took it upon himself to call for the assistance of Hove and Brighton Fire Brigades. No doubt he deemed the fire severe enough to seek extra help, but the Royal Assurance Company took a dim view of his action. They refused to pay out £5 – the cost of summoning the Brighton Fire Brigade – because they deemed the call-out unnecessary. Therefore, the Royal Assurance Company would only pay the expenses incurred by Portslade Fire Brigade.

In September 1903 Captain Packer was warned not to call upon the assistance of other brigades in the event of a fire, but to leave the decision to the property owner. No doubt the unfortunate captain felt this ruling was a slur on his honour, and he resigned shortly afterwards.

Albert William Hillman
  copyright © G. Osborne
 The 'new' Portslade Fire Station in 1909
With thanks to Mr G. Osborne for granting permission for the
reproduction of the above photograph from his private collection.

Albert William Hillman, son of Walter Hillman, embarked on his public service career at the age of seventeen when he became honorary secretary of a committee set up to arrange celebrations for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897.

A. W. Hillman joined Portslade Fire Brigade in 1900 and was appointed captain in November 1903 – he continued to head the brigade for a period of 25 years. During his time a new Fire Station was built, and the first motor fire engine provided.

In June 1910 Chief Officer Hillman received a testimonial from the directors of the Diaphragm Leather Company in Franklin Road to express their appreciation of the firemen’s conduct at a fire on their premises on 28 May 1910. It must have been a severe fire because the cost of the damage was put at £2,000. There also seems to have been a behind-the-scenes rumpus on that occasion concerning Hillman’s handling of the situation. Chief Officer Hillman asked Portslade Council to state firmly whether or not he had complete authority at the scene of a fire. If he did not have such authority, then he would have to consider his position. It seems that a bossy councillor had been present at the fire, no doubt telling Chief Officer Hillman what he ought to be doing. But Portslade Council were quick to reassure the irate Hillman that he had complete authority at the scene of a fire, and moreover they would always back his decisions.

During the First World War Chief Officer Hillman trained Southwick volunteers in fire-fighting duties, and he was in charge of both organisations until Southwick established its own fire brigade. Hillman also acted as a special constable during the war, and by the 1930s he held the rank of inspector for the Hove County Division.

copyright ©  Brighton & Hove City Libraries
 Captain A.W. Hillman in front of Portslade Fire engine at a fete held in the grounds of Windlesham House in 1927

Hillman was indeed a busy man. Other positions he filled were as follows:

Manager of St Andrew’s School, Portslade
Sidesman at St Andrew’s Church, Portslade
Clerk to the Portslade Joint Burial Committee for eleven years
Portslade councillor for six years
Secretary of the Portslade-by-Sea Unemployment Relief Organisation
First initiate of the Duke of Richmond Lodge, Portslade (Freemasons)

In 1924 Hillman was foreman of the jury at the inquest into the death of the celebrated Sussex cricketer George Street who unhappily was killed when his motor-bike crashed at Southern Cross. The coroner deeply appreciated the plan of the accident that Hillman drew on behalf of the police.

In 1928 Hillman moved from his home in St Andrew’s Road to Hove. In 1931 he was elected a councillor for Medina Ward, defeating Major Phillips by just two votes. Three years later he was elected to East Sussex County Council.

In 1932 Hillman was appalled to hear that Portslade Council was considering relinquishing their own fire brigade on the grounds of expense, and going in with Hove. However, he need not have worried because that solution was going to be expensive, and the matter was dropped.

By 1935 Hillman had been treasurer of the South Coast Area of the National Fire Brigade’s Association for ten years, He was also active in the cause of the Benevolent Fund of the Fire Service, and in 1915 he was presented with the Distinguished Service Medal of the Association.

 copyright ©  Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
Captain A. W. Hillman with Hove's Fire Chief at Hove Fire Station in Hove Street in 1937

Hillman became a keen supporter of Brighton & Hove Albion Football Club, and by 1940 he was vice-chairman. He rescued the club from liquidation.

Hillman had the distinction of being elected Mayor of Hove for a fifth year of office, but two months later in November 1940 he died. It was a great shock to everyone because he seemed to have made a good recovery from a setback in 1939 when his left foot was amputated because of sepsis.

 copyright ©  Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
Albert William Hillman, the Mayor of Hove leaving All Saints Church, Hove in 1938

Hillman’s first wife, Alice Ethel, sang on the concert platform under the name of Avril Houston. She died in June 1934 and was buried in Portslade Cemetery. His second wife became Mayoress of Hove. Hillman’s Hove address was a house called Rhodesia at 12 Princes Square.

Some Events

On 3 August 1903 Portslade Fire Brigade held their sports day and competition at Victoria Recreation Ground. This event was of course a great attraction for people, especially youngsters.

In January 1905 it was reported that Portslade Fire Brigade had attended two fires in Southwick. Southwick Council then decided to make an annual contribution to Portslade until such time as they might have their own fire brigade.

On 28 June 1905 Portslade Fire Brigade won fifth place at the Crystal Palace in a competition involving the whole of England and Wales.

In July 1905 Portslade Fire Brigade won 1st prize in the Escape Drill at the Fire Brigade Union Competition – they also held the Challenge Shield for a year.

Conflict of Interest

 copyright ©  Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

In 1906 there was some controversy over two men who belonged both to Portslade Fire Brigade, as well as the Gas Works Fire Brigade. At the National Fire Brigade Union competition that took place in June 1906, these two men decided to compete on the Gas Works side, thus weakening the Portslade team. When Portslade Council heard about it, they decreed that no member of their fire brigade could belong to another brigade as well.

 copyright ©  Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
This early 1900s photograph of a horse drawn and steam driven pump fire engine used by Portslade Gas Works Fire Brigade, a similar engine would have been used by Portslade Fire Brigade. 

Fire Alarm Improvements

After a fire on 22 February 1907 in Station Road, Captain Hillman proposed that a more efficient method of calling out the fire brigade ought to be adopted. At that time, if the steam alarm at the Britannia Flour Mills was not available, the way of communication was to send a messenger scurrying off to raise the alarm. Captain Hillman wanted Portslade Council to approach the National Telephone Company about the matter, but they refused, most probably on the grounds of cost.

However, by June 1907 Portslade councillors had changed their minds, and three fire-alarm posts were installed at the following locations:

Station Road, at the corner of Franklin Road
The corner of Trafalgar Road and Victoria Road, near Mr Coustick’s establishment
The corner of South Street, adjacent to the Brewery

By July 1908 the new electric system was operating so satisfactorily that the council decided to dispense with the services of the messengers.

  copyright © G. Osborne
 Portslade Fire Brigade marching behind the officials of the Court Olive Branch (Ancient Order of Foresters) in 1909
With thanks to Mr G. Osborne for granting permission for the reproduction of the above photograph from his private collection. 

Firemen and Equipment

In the old days firemen were part-time volunteers. Bells were fitted inside the men’s houses, which could be activated by someone pulling a switch inside a glass-fronted fire-alarm post. Then the men had to dash to the Works Depot on the corner of Vale Road and Church Road (where Tozer Court is today) and collect their handcart.

Old hoses were made of leather, riveted at the seams, and later on canvas hoses came into use. But canvas hoses took a long time to dry out after being used to douse a fire.

Soon after Portslade Fire Station was built in 1909, Portslade Fire Brigade acquired an up-to-date fire engine. Legend has it that it was donated by a grateful builder who was allowed to develop part of Victoria Road for housing.

In September 1909 Fireman Sleeman was reported to be incapable of further duties because of an accident, and so his employment was terminated.

Probationers Mills and Hastings became fully-fledged firemen in 1909, followed two months later by S. Fuller from Albion Street.

In June 1910 the following men qualified for the long service medal of the National Fire Brigades’ Union after ten years of service. They were:

2nd Officer Abraham
3rd Officer Puttock
No. 1 Fireman Long

In April 1933 the following men all received a 5-year bar to add to their 20-year silver medal. They were:

Chief Office Puttock
Fireman G. Pierce
Fireman R. Vine

Fireman H. White received a 10-year bronze medal


An anecdote of the old days concerns a Ford motor fire-engine. Unfortunately, the vehicle was not very good at getting up a hill. One day there was a small fire at Portslade Industrial School and the Ford got stuck trying to get up High Street. The Portslade firemen were mortified to learn that Hove Fire Brigade (alerted by telephone) had travelled a different route and were first to arrive at the fire.

copyright ©  Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove 
The men of Hove Fire Brigade at Hove Street, who with their superior fire engine got to the small fire at Portslade Industrial School before Portslade's own Fire Brigade.

Then there was the time a wireless set short-circuited in Highlands Road, and caused a fire. Portslade Fire Brigade was summoned. But bystanders were astonished when at length the Fire Chief pedalled into view on his bicycle. Apparently, he had come to verify there was a genuine fire because there had been a spate of false alarms recently.

Joining with Hove?

    copyright © J.Middleton
Terracotta embellishments on the Fire Station, showing the badge of Portslade by Sea Urban District Council.

By January 1932 Portslade Council had started to think that having their own fire brigade was an unnecessary expense and they began negotiations with Hove Council to provide fire cover for Portslade too. Naturally enough, A. W. Hillman was appalled at the prospect. However, by June 1932 negotiations collapsed, ironically, because of the expense involved. Hove Council had demanded a contribution of £415 a year plus an assurance from Portslade Council that hydrants would be provided wherever it was felt to be necessary.

Instead, Portslade Council appointed a sub-committee to purchase a new fire engine The members wasted no time, and by August 1932 a Denis fire engine had been selected at a cost of £1,330. In addition £99-3-10s was to be expended on the following equipment:

1 jumping sheet @ £7-10s
1 Salvas outfit @ £17-8-6d
Hydrant keys @ £1
2 Tetrach extinguishers @ £5-15s
10 tins of foam powder @ £15
Insulated pliers @ £1
Insulated cutters @ £1-10s
Uniforms £50

In fact the uniforms that were ordered from Romford, only cost £43-16-5d, but it was expected that new hydrants would cost up to £500.

Now that the firemen were well kitted-out, it was time for the chief officer to have a new uniform, boots, etc. which he did in 1934 at a cost of £10-18s.

In 1934 it was recorded that three firemen were capable of driving the fire engine, they were:

A. V. Green, 2nd officer
H. Hardy, engineer
R. Burdock

Apparently, the regular driver, Mr Scammel, had poor eyesight.

Andrew Melville, the well-known theatrical impresario who lived at Whychcote, was chairman of the fire brigade sub-committee from 1933 to 1934.

Fires and the 1930s

In 1933 there was a suggestion that the steam hooter at Flynn’s might be used to give a fire warning.

17 May 1933 – there was a fire at Merlin Lodge, Station Road, and owner Mr D. F. Sundius Smith sent his thanks to the brigade.

14 November 1933 – there was a fire at 11 Carlton Terrace, and also a chimney fire at 13 Brambledean Road.

23 December 1933 – there was a fire at 24 Church Road.

The Old Question

In 1937 the old question of expense raised its head once more. It was stated that although Portslade firemen were a loyal and efficient body of men and did their job well, their equipment had become obsolete and it would cost £1,200 to replace.

A Despicable Offence

In November 1939 John Blomerley Scholefield was appointed full-time Chief Officer of Portslade Fire Brigade at a salary of £200 a year – he had previously been Chief Officer of the Baldock Fire Brigade in Hertfordshire.

It seems he was proud to wear his uniform, especially when embellished with his war medals, but unfortunately he was not entitled to wear them. It would be interesting to know the identity of the eagle-eyed man who spotted this breach and reported it. In September 1941 Chief Officer Scholefield appeared at Hove County Court accused of the ‘despicable’ offence of wearing medals to which he was not entitled. The medals in question were the 1914 star and ribbons of the British war medal, the Victory medal, and the Russian Order of St Michael and St George. He was fined £15 with £5 costs.

End of the Line

 copyright © H.G.J. Flowers
Portslade National Fire Service was photographed outside the Southdown Motor Works in 1941.  In the background is the ladder belonging to the engine that also boasted a Coventry Climax pump

In 1941 all individual fire brigades were nationalised and became the National Fire Service.

After the war, Portslade became part of the East Sussex Fire Brigade.

   copyright © J.Middleton
The former Fire Station photographed in the context of its surroundings.

See also Hove Fire Brigade


Middleton J, Encyclopaedia of Hove and Portslade
Sussex Daily News

The Keep

DO/A35/1-40 - Portslade Council Minute Books

Copyright © J.Middleton 2019
page layout by D.Sharp