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Reflecting a changing world

Updated: Apr 24, 2020

As a member of the collections team at NESM one of my tasks is to assess, preserve and catalogue the books, magazines and other documents that make up our library. It’s a mammoth task; there are thousands of items to be worked through, some in better condition than others, and more seem to be sneaking in every time I look. I must remind my colleagues to stop finding things in cupboards!

Among the items being catalogued are numerous copies of FIRE magazine, dating back as far as the 1920s. This publication has been the voice of the UK fire service for well over a century and, leafing through its pages, you discover a fascinating record of the changing face of the service over the past 100 years. What is particularly striking for me is the attitude, of both sexes, towards female firefighters in what has been for the most part a very male-dominated profession.

Although women have been working as firefighters for longer than most people realise - Girton College, Cambridge, had an all female fire brigade from 1878 until 1932 - it wasn’t until World War II that women were actively recruited in large numbers, with almost 7,000 ending up as members of the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS), later the National Fire Service.

This must have come as a shock to at least one fire chief, whose opinion on the subject of female firefighters was reported by FIRE magazine in May 1939. In refusing to admit women to his brigade Chief Officer Hall, of the Leyton Auxiliary Fire Brigade in London, had ‘done what a large number of chief officers throughout the country have hoped to be able to do’, wrote the magazine.

Summarising the various letters that the magazine had received on the subject, FIRE wrote ‘there is a strong feeling that if women are to be admitted to the AFS at all, their work should be confined to cleaning stations and equipment...At the same time it would demonstrate that the women are genuinely inspired with a desire to assist their country and not to strut about in a new type of uniform’.

When asked about his stance, Hall said, ‘Can you imagine any father in his right mind allowing his daughter to help lift ladders and hose lines? They just can’t do it. Why, women would be more trouble than they’re worth round here. Oh yes, they might brighten up the atmosphere and make the place look pretty but that’s about all the good they would do.

‘Just imagine what would happen if we tried to mix a handful of blondes with the 200 men members of my AFS unit. It would upset the whole show, besides taking the men’s minds off their work.

‘The only fit place for a woman in wartime - the only really fit place - is in a hospital as a nurse, and they should be made to realise this.’

The magazine also quotes Hall as saying, ‘I would rather resign than be made to drill young girls and women to be firemen.’ Later issues do not record whether he made good on this promise when it was agreed to recruit women to the AFS just a few months later.

Despite the huge contribution of females to the wartime fire service, including a number of awards for bravery, the attitude that the fire service was ‘no place for a woman’ persisted for decades and it wasn’t only men who were in opposition.

Another letter quoted in FIRE magazine, this time in the 1950s, came from a reader called Anne who said, ‘If we’ve got to have women in the fire service let’s at least segregate them from the men...Imagine the emotional disturbances that would arise from accommodating men and women under one roof.

‘And why all the talk about modifying equipment for use by women? If they’re going to be tough enough to rescue us (which I doubt) and if they’re going to insist on playing the equal of men, let them learn to handle existing equipment with equal ease. After all are they ‘man’ enough for the job or aren’t they?’

It is only in the 1970s that things began to slowly change as more and more women began to join the fire service, and the change in recruitment - and attitude - is reflected in the pages of FIRE magazine. There are still signs of the natural bias women had to face (an advert from the early 1980s, for example, announces it is looking to recruit a ‘fireman, male or female’) but the magazine was there to reflect the improvements as they happen. For example, in 2017 it was able to run a major interview with Dany Cotton - the first female commissioner of the London Fire Brigade.

Having a resource like this at the museum, which charts in its pages the changing face of the fire service over decades, is so important. And when the library is fully catalogued, this amazing collection will be available as a valuable primary source for researchers and historians to explore.

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