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The father of the fire brigade

Talking to people who knew our museum from years ago but haven’t been recent visitors, we often hear the phrase “but you’re just fire engines, aren’t you?” And once we’ve taken a deep breath, counted to 10 and unclenched our teeth, we explain politely that no, we’re much more than that, thank you! Why don’t you come and see us and find out for yourself?

Having said that, there is of course plenty for fire engine buffs - young and old - to enjoy at NESM. How could there not be, when our home is an amazing historic fire station? And, as part of the changes that we’ve been making over the last year, we’ve now updated some of our displays and exhibitions to give an even better insight into the people, technologies and milestones that helped create the modern fire service as we know it today.

One of the pioneers that we celebrate at the museum is Superintendent John Charles Pound; the very first chief fire officer of Sheffield.

By the mid-19th century many towns and cities in the UK were beginning to move away from the old insurance brigades - multiple private brigades run by insurance companies, available only to those who paid a premium - to a single, municipal brigade available to all. In 1869 Sheffield Town Council followed suit and advertised for a chief fire officer to lead its new service.

The job was highly sought-after and 37 people applied, including two from the city’s soon-to-be-dissolved insurance brigades; Henry Millward from the Alliance Fire Office and Thomas J. Holmes from the Royal Fire Brigade. Despite their obvious experience and knowledge of the city, the role went eventually to Pound, who was then with the Nottingham Fire Brigade.

Before he landed on the shores of Sheffield at the age of 35 (although obviously Sheffield doesn’t have shores. But we do have a lifeboat at NESM. Sorry, I digress…) Pound had enjoyed an adventurous career in the Royal Navy. Born at Sittingbourne, Kent in November 1833, he had started out on a merchant vessel before joining HMS Ocean aged 17. A few years later he was serving in the war in Crimea, where his ship, the Algiers, was involved in transporting troops and destroying enemy supply ships, and even took part in the bombardment of Sebastopol.

Pound was discharged from the navy in August 1856 and by 1857 was serving with the London Fire Establishment under probably the most famous firefighter of his day, James Braidwood (another pioneer who is also celebrated in our museum, and who is worthy of a whole blog of his own). Pound served alongside Braidwood at a number of major fires in the capital, including one at the docks where he recalled there were “50 casks of brandy destroyed and 20 firemen drunk with the fumes”.

By 1860 Pound had been promoted to Engineer and was responsible for the London Fire Establishment’s “floating engines”, or fire boats, as well as the brigade’s first steam fire engine. In 1861 he was at the massive Tooley Street fire, standing just yards from his boss and mentor James Braidwood when the senior man was tragically killed.

For three years, from 1864, Pound was in charge of the South Western Railways fire brigade before heading to Nottingham in 1867 as assistant superintendent and engineer. Just two years later he was on the move again, this time to the steel city of Sheffield. Pound officially became the head of the city’s new brigade on 15 July 1869 with the police rank of Superintendent (at the time, the fire service was part of the police force) and just 15 police constables under his command. His salary was £100 per year, with accommodation provided and coal and gas paid for. Overall, Pound’s wage and the added benefits amounted to the equivalent of about £20,000 in today’s money - a relatively low income for the responsibility of running a brand new brigade.

Two weeks later, Pound was at his first fire as chief, at a cabinet case maker in Arundel Street. It didn’t go particularly smoothly; the brigade had to wait 15 minutes for someone from the corporation to turn the water supply on.

The lack of water would be a recurring theme in Pound’s first few months in charge, and it was not the only difficulty he faced. He soon discovered that establishing a new brigade from scratch was not an easy task. The fire station, close to where Sheffield’s famous Crucible Theatre now stands, had no accommodation for his crew, so they were forced to find lodging wherever they could - and it wasn’t always close by. Later Pound recalled the difficulty he had rounding up his men, saying “in the daytime I had to pick up any constable I could find” en route to a fire.

It wasn’t just men that struggled to get to incidents in time. The brigade’s horses were stabled so far away from the station that it took too long for them to arrive, so the crews would often haul the heavy pumps by hand. On one occasion, when the brigade was called to a fire in the relatively-distant Sheffield suburb of Fulwood, they were waiting a full 45 minutes for horses to arrive.

But Pound’s influence - and the growing importance of the brigade to the city - was starting to tell. In 1870 accommodation was provided for fire crews closer to the station and, to avoid problems with water supply, a ‘turncock’ - a corporation employee who could operate the water supply - was on hand at the station at all times. Better stabling was provided for horses from 1873 and 10 year later, in 1883, the brigade moved into its first purpose-built station at Rockingham Street in Sheffield.

With the new station came room for additional equipment and engines; by 1895 there were three steam engines, a four-wheeled tender and five fire escapes. Rockingham Street also included accommodation for 21 unmarried firemen and a house for Pound and his growing family. In 1891 the 57 year old is recorded as living there with his wife Charlotte, who he had married in 1858, and their six youngest children. (The Pounds had at least 10 children, of which at least two sadly died in infancy).

As new brigades were often very small it wasn’t unusual to find that every rank undertook every job, and the role of chief fire officer was a very involved, hands-on one. Pound was no stranger to getting his hands dirty and mucking in and had several of his own ‘near misses’ during his career. He recounted how, during one incident in 1871, he and a member of his crew had been attending a fire when the roof fell in, trapping them both. Both escaped, although Pound suffered a severe cut to his arm.

It was Pound’s willingness to face danger alongside his men that ultimately led to him stepping down from the brigade. On 11 February 1895 a major fire ripped through the Park Club in Sheffield. Around half an hour after the alarm, Pound and several of his crew arrived aboard the fire tender. The superintendent took charge of the hose and, while directing the jet of water towards the flames, a huge surge in water pressure threw him to the ground, where he struck a kerbstone with real force.

Back at the station, Pound - who was reporting difficulty breathing - was examined by surgeons Edward Skinner and Arthur Hallam, who diagnosed severe bruising and muscle damage. At first it was thought his injuries would keep him off active service for a week. Sadly the damage appeared to be permanent and the superintendent was forced to retire through ill health later that year.

By the time of his retirement, Pound had been superintendent of the Sheffield brigade for 26 years. During his time in charge he had witnessed many developments in both the local police fire brigade and in the country as a whole, including Sheffield receiving its municipal charter and gaining city status in 1893, at which time the brigade officially became the ‘City of Sheffield Police, Fire Brigade’. He had also taken a new and somewhat disorganised service and turned it into an efficient force, with a purpose-built HQ, state-of-the-art equipment and well-trained men. Although his successor, Superintendent William Frost, would go on to head up ever more innovative developments - not least, the creation of the combined police, fire and ambulance station that is now our home - Pound had made an indelible mark on the city and its fire brigade.

That he was remembered with affection is clear. When he died in 1918, aged 85 - a victim of the worldwide Spanish flu pandemic - the fire service ensured he had the send-off he deserved. His body was carried on a horse-drawn fire tender, with a guard of honour made up of regular and volunteer firemen. Among the mourners were the chief fire officer, police superintendents, his old fire service colleagues and even a handful of men who had served with him in the navy more than 60 years before.

So if you’re planning on coming to visit us when we reopen next week (and you really should - honestly, take my word from it, I’m not biased at all) be sure to give a nod to Superintendent John Charles Pound; Sheffield’s first fire chief.

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