One of the exciting things about working with the museum’s collection is that researching objects can lead you to some amazing stories about the person they belonged to. This is never more true than when it comes to the life of Superintendent Tom Breaks, whose personal collection is cared for by NESM. After all, how often do you learn about someone who took on an escaped tiger single-handedly!
A decorated firefighter, an inspiring leader and a pioneer in the organisation of fire services in Britain, Breaks spent 14 years as head of Sheffield’s fire brigade. In that time he developed the brigade into one of the most efficient in the country and laid the foundations for what would eventually become our museum.
Born in Bradford in 1890, Breaks grew up in stations as the son of a chief and joined the Nottingham brigade aged 21. When World War I intervened he enlisted as a private but his skill as a firefighter soon came to the fore. In 1917 he received the Croix de Guerre and Palm for his efforts in tackling a fire caused by enemy aircraft and later was put in charge of a team of military firefighters. This was the first of many decorations Breaks received during his career; his impressive collection of medals now forms part of the permanent display at NESM.
Following the end of World War I he returned to the fire service, arriving to take over as superintendent of the Sheffield brigade in 1923. As chief his courage and leadership became legendary. Which leads neatly back to the story of the escaped tiger.
In 1933 a tiger featuring in a show at the Sheffield Empire escaped into the theatre’s cellar. It had already badly mauled one man by the time the fire service arrived on the scene. Breaks disappeared into the cellar armed only with a fire hose, using the water to drive the frightened animal down a makeshift tunnel and back into its cage.
One former colleague, Jack Ryan, recalled, ‘In all he was down there alone with a savage tiger for more than an hour and all we could hear from up top was its roaring and snarling. A dozen times I was certain he was a goner. It was a wonderful moment for me when he came back safe and sound!’
It wasn’t just in the face of danger that Breaks showed his leadership and dedication to the service. He was instrumental in the opening of a new central station at Division Street, recognising the need to expand not just the service’s operational space but also to provide better accommodation for men and their families. He introduced open days at the station, teaching the importance of fire safety and how people could help themselves in the event of fire. And in 1931, recognising the importance of preserving the heritage of the service he loved, he began a small collection of historic objects at the Rockingham Street station that would lay the foundation for NESM.
Breaks left Sheffield in 1937, moving to the Home Office as fire brigades inspector and helping to set up the Auxiliary Fire Service, the army of men and women who would be instrumental in tackling the ravages of the Word War II blitz. This led to the creation of the National Fire Service and the beginnings of the fire service we know today. He spent his later years in retirement in Northumberland.
Speaking on the BBC programme This is Your Life, which honoured Breaks in 1962, firefighter Bill Atkins summed up his former boss with these moving words. ‘Tom Breaks never just ordered firemen into a blaze. He said ‘come with me’ and led them there.’