The story behind the picture: Red Dennis Fire Engine

This picture shows a 1928 Red Dennis Fire Engine parked outside Brighton Museum & Art Gallery with the Royal Pavilion seen behind. Photographed in July 2009 the highly-polished and beautifully preserved engine is decked with a banner and balloons celebrating it’s 80th birthday.

A quick look at The Dennis Society web page gave me some technical information and usefully the registration PN4119 can be seen on this photograph for identification: Chassis number 7148. Body type, Low Load 60/70hpN. Layout, pump escape. Year registered, 1928

The engine was made by Dennis Brothers Limited, makers of commercial vehicles based in Guildford in Surrey, about 35 miles north of Brighton. The Dennis brothers, John and Raymond, began trading by making and selling bicycles (setting up the company in 1895) progressing to cars and commercial vehicles. During the First World War production moved to lorries and buses aiding the war effort and home and abroad. In 1922 after the war and with peace returned the company also started making lawnmowers gaining the seal of royal approval when Dennis lawnmowers were sold to King George V and King George VI.

This engine belonged to the Borough of Hove Fire Brigade, as you can see by the gold lettering on the vehicle and to the right, the Hove crest. In 1928 Hove was a separate town from Brighton and remained so until 1997 when the Boroughs of Hove and Brighton formed a unitary authority becoming Brighton & Hove (before the award of City status in 2001).

Hove was granted arms in 1899 gaining a crest showing three martlets with a further six on the crest’s ermine bordure. The martlet in heraldry is a stylised bird like a swift or house martin and is the emblem of Sussex.

The men working with this vehicle were based at the fire station in Hove Street built in 1926 at the cost of £11,000 then a huge sum of money and in use until its closure in 1976. Fortunately, the attractive building wasn’t demolished. Instead it was converted into flats now called Regency House. If you visit the building you can see the large arches under which this fire engine passed. In 1927 seven-day a-week fire station operation allowed for one man in the fire station on-watch, four to attend an emergency and one man on leave. Under the Fire Brigade Act of 1925, the men could retire with a pension after 25 years of service aged 55.

Twenty-seven years before this engine was purchased the men of the Hove Volunteer Fire Brigade starred in a dramatic film, Fire!

With a running time of 4 minutes 47 seconds Fire! Is a short silent film by Scottish-born, Hove based chemist and film enthusiast, James Williamson (1855-1933) showing the occupants of a burning house being rescued.

The 1901 fire engine was drawn by horses proving how far fire-fighting technology had moved on by 1928. You can find and watch the film online and follow the drama from the discovery of a house billowing with smoke, to the dash on foot to Hove Fire Station (then in George Street) to the harnessing of three magnificent white horses to fire vehicles seen in a high-speed chase down St Aubyn’s  – then a scene cut to the householder waking in bed, his house on fire, he clutching his head and falling down in despair to be rescued by a brave fireman who appears at the window, extinguishes the fire and carries the man down the ladder and out of the burning building. However, the drama is not over, for the final scene shows the man’s child leap from the flaming window and into a large rescue-blanket held by the firemen. Not one second of screen time is wasted in this fast-paced film, which early audiences must have gone home marvelling at.

My favourite moment comes 1.20 seconds into the film in a scene demonstrating the skilled horsemanship of the men and the highly-trained nature of the horses as a man rushes forward holding a running horse by the bridle, stops the huge powerful animal to a halt then steps it neatly backwards into the fire-engine harness ready to go in ten seconds flat. That’s quite an achievement and proves these men and animals were the real deal.

John Benett-Stanford (1870-1947) of Preston Manor would have known Williamson as he too was an early film-maker, although his interest lay in documentary film-making. John Benett-Stanford is credited as being the first person in history to make a war newsreel by filming British troops assembling before the battle at Omdurman in the Sudan which took place on 2nd September 1898. This rare moving footage no longer exists and remains only in a few still frames.

You can discover the journey from early moving images to pioneering film-making in two interactive galleries at Hove Museum, images of which can be seen online.

 Paula Wrightson, Venue Officer Preston Manor

 

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