Wednesday 8 September 2021

Cheshire's Emergency Services

September 9th is Emergency Services Day (or 999 Day) in the UK, and one of its aims is "to promote the heroes who serve/have served". As we recognise the vital role the emergency services play in our communities, Cheshire Archives and Local Studies is looking back at first responders from times gone by. There is a proud tradition of people working for the emergency services in our county - read on for a glimpse of the records we hold about the fire, police and ambulance services of Cheshire’s past.


There are many records relating to the fire service, going back centuries. As early as 1570, the City of Chester Assembly’s minute book contains an order on the provision of fire buckets, with every member of the Assembly having to provide and maintain a certain number. Councilmen were each responsible for one, Sheriff Peers provided two and Aldermen four (ref: ZAB/1/123). But before too long this had changed: the minutes of 24th August record, 
“Whereas buckets provided against fire under a former order (Jan 20th 1570), are by now wearing out…all strangers admitted in future to the City, are to pay for the cost of providing two buckets.”
Several fires had apparently recently occurred. (ref: ZAB 1/258)

We have archives covering a range of fire services from across Cheshire: from records of Tarporley Fire Brigade from the start of the 20th century (ref: D 5156) or fire service-related material in archives of local councils like Lymm (ref: LUL/5) and Northwich (ref: D 7474/78), to how much it used to cost to fight fires (ref: DCH/GG/
37), medals commemorating firefighters’ service (ref: ZDF 9-13) and photographs of ceremonial occasions (ref: ZDF 32-62), among many more. But a significant number of our records are from Chester Fire Service, the origins of which date to the early 19th century.

These photos show an extract of the Schedule of Fires from 1925, which gives details of supposed causes of fires and how they were extinguished. And the annual reports of the Chief Fire Officer from 1955-60 are similar, but have further details relevant to the era such as recording how calls for the fire brigade were received (by ‘exchange telephone’, ‘private telephone’ or ‘caller at the station’, for instance). In both volumes, fires are attributed to children playing with matches. The Annual Report of 1957 notes a fall in some causes of fire over the previous year, but states: 
“causes traced to the carefree disposal of lighted cigarette ends and young children being allowed access to matches regrettably remains almost constant.” 


As well as the fire service, we also hold records of the Chester City Police Force from 1836 to 1945. Popular items in the collection include photographs of criminals charged and convicted in the 1860s and 1870s, for crimes like stealing an umbrella or a shawl, embezzlement or begging (ref: ZDPO/2). There are more modern records relating to the police too, such as archive material from the Gay Police Association, a police staff association that had members from all UK police forces and ran from 1990 to 2014. Document reference D 9081/245 is a 2003 training resource for ‘Policing Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Communities’.

Our Local Studies collection has a large range of books, pamphlets and articles related to the emergency services. Along with titles showing how the police service has developed over time, for example A Short History of the Macclesfield Borough Police Force (ref: 114735) or Peelers to Policemen (ref: 016802), one that gives a flavour of life as a police officer in times past is A Policeman’s Notebook by Thomas Smethurst (ref: 223013). It recreates the notes taken by a member of the Stalybridge Police Force in 1914 and is an account of incidents in the police “in the days when birching was a legitimate punishment, when playing games in the streets on Sundays and letting a chimney set on fire were offences, and when attempted suicide was punishable”.


Some archive material can come from unexpected sources. This image of an early ambulance is from the records of Mostyn House School in Parkgate. It is a postcard showing a British Red Cross ambulance car for the Italian Army in 1916 and, according to a note by the head teacher printed on the back, its £475 cost was partly funded by “the boys, old boys, parents and friends” of the school.

Also from the First World War, we have an application to Warrington Borough Council for a proposed ambulance station. The detailed drawing shows aspects of the building like a nurse’s room and treatment room - but also space for the ‘ambulance carriage’.

From the Second World War, several files of correspondence survive from 1940 about ambulances and first aid, such as detailed information about medical supplies in Bollington Urban District Council’s archives (ref: LUB 2638/1/8-9). St John’s Ambulance is also covered, for example with certificates for an Annie Rowe in ‘First Aid to the Injured’ and ‘Home Nursing’ gained in 1939 (ref: EMC 15/24/18,19), and later ambulance service-related records include the Ambulance Service Scheme within the 1946 National Health Service Act (ref: ZDDH/5/1), amongst others.

But as we mark Emergency Services Day, we are fortunate to have some images of first responders of the past. This c.1916 photograph from Cheshire Image Bank is an ambulance from the Red Cross Auxiliary Hospital in Bromborough – the ambulance driver is thought to be a surgeon.

This photograph shows the Northwich Police Force outside their police station during the 1910s.

And these are members of the City of Chester Fire Brigade, c.1920 - complete with their fire engine and dog mascot.

All of these records and more are available to view at Cheshire Record Office in Chester, and our online catalogue can be searched here.


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