Circus and childhood are like bread and honey – excitement and the sweet smell of sawdust in a large multi coloured tent, whilst one sat hunched on a rough wooden bench – waiting for the whip to crack and the voice of the red-coated ringmaster to peel out,
‘Welcome to the Circus!’
Whilst I happily trotted off with my mom, to the twice yearly visit of the Chipperfield family; it was another circus that played a huge part in my childhood. Circus in the dictionary, is also defined as a large circular shaped place where roads converge, of which we had a few in Birmingham, such as; Colmore Circus, Paradise Circus and Lancaster Circus.
It was the latter, which became an integral part of my growing up, for here, at its bottom end stood The Central Fire Station. The large, three storey, wedged shaped complex (for it was more than a building) stood as an island with roads on three sides and a clock tower arch, as its front façade.
Deserted now it no longer serves its purpose; as West Midland Fire Service Headquarters, have moved elsewhere to a brand new purpose built Head Office; with no on site Fire Tenders; just dedicated to offices. Such is progress?
Where do I fit into this, you ask? Well my connection began on the very day I was born! Let me elaborate.
My mother gave birth to me at Loveday Street hospital, just off Lancaster Circus, whilst in a neighbouring hospital, The General; my father was in for one of his frequent visits, due to continued ill health. The story was often told how he was wheeled through a connecting tunnel, to see his new born daughter. The significance of this was I was the first of his three daughters he saw at just a few days old. My elder sister, Kathleen, was born whilst he was serving abroad in World War Two and she was three when was demobbed – next, in 1946, Pauline came into the world at three months premature, and it would be another two months before was allowed home – with no fathers permitted to visit!
Things had moved on a wee bit when I was born eleven years later. Mom was in hospital, for bed rest and dad across the road in The General, when I decided the time was right for my appearance!
It was visiting hour at the time and with this being precious, my mom held on till the bell at eight pm!
The visitor, who delayed my arrival, was to become one of the most important people in my life, my dear Auntie Ruby.
It was she who was taking care of my sisters, along with my auntie Oll, both of whom remained unmarried – with no child of her own, Auntie Ruby embraced all her nieces and nephews, but as she and my mom were close in more than just age, we were as valued as her own daughters would have been.
Auntie Ruby bought with her an extended family – her numerous work colleagues of Birmingham Fire Brigade, based at Central Fire Station – from cleaners to wage clerks, from fireman to officers they were a close knit community.
Jim Roach, a leading fireman at the time, supported my family at the time of this hospitalisation, by driving them here and there, as he was one the few people to own a car, his wife was also a great support, the legacy of which is, I inherited her Christian name as my middle name and she became my Godmother! It was ‘the done thing’ then and so I became Janet Edna Dearn! Edna I ask you!
As I grew, I valued the close presence of auntie Ruby – always involved in our family life, there never seemed to be a moment, she wasn’t there. Right from a toddler I was taken to visit her, in her office at Central (as it was fondly known) where she happily laid down her work and took us around the station, including the ‘Pump room!’
Things were so much ‘free and easy’ then; no high-tech security was required. No swipe cards or key coded door controls! They were to come much later.
To fill in a bit of background of how she came to be working there, we have to go back to World War Two. When she was called-up, Auntie Ruby chose the Fire Service and after training and serving in Birmingham, she was stationed down to Portsmouth. When peace was declared, and the Fire Service reverted back to being under control of the Local Council, she was offered the chance to stay on in a civilian capacity, to assist in the re-organisation. I don’t believe she even hesitated! She loved the camaraderie and the secure future it offered, and indeed it did just that. She remained working in the same office, Building Surveyors (becoming Sites and Buildings) till she retired at 60 and a grand party in the ballroom!
Yes, a ballroom! For Central boasted a fully sprung wooden floor, in a full length ballroom, with a stage, on its third level, where much entertainment took place. Auntie Ruby herself was at one time in the choir and once donned a habit as a nun in a production of The Sound of Music!
The ‘recreation room’ on the floor below mirrored the ballroom in its size and presence.
As for the rest, of this now deserted majestic building, perhaps you would like to join me in a little tour and travel back with me on a past visit to Aunt Ruby’s domain.
It began by walking through the arch in the clock tower; there began the surprise for a first time visitor, for the building was ‘hollow’. Contained in its three sides, was a large cobbled yard, used for drills and training. Once a year, a display and inter-brigade competition was held – and fireman from competing stations and watches would race to roll their hoses out first and win the shield! This was a highlight in the family calendar.
On the right and ahead was tenement style flats; fireman and their families often lived on site back then, officers included. Training offices were also contained here, as were classrooms for the Auxiliary Fire Brigade – disbanded in the late sixties.
At the far end were the workshops, repair shops and the ambulance depot, which were all relocated in time to more appropriate premises
Turning in to a side door on the left, one was into a corridor laid with oak wooden flooring, polished to perfection; this style of flooring was indicative throughout the building. A curving staircase led to the second floor; the polished wood continuing in the sweeping banister. Directly opposite, behind a thick carved wooden door (again indicative of the building) was the Building Surveyors Office (later to become Sites and Buildings), where my auntie Ruby was Chief Clerk. A most esteemed position!
Its purpose was the upkeep and maintenance, of all fire stations in the Birmingham area; and from 1974 the whole of the West Midlands. This included, the once fireman’s flats – bringing aunt Ruby into contact with fireman at grass roots level, right up to the top brass; when a new fire station was commissioned to be built, the office also sharing in this responsibility. I said at her funeral three years ago ‘her legacy lives on’ and I believe this be true. She was at ease, dealing with contractors to councillors, from tendering a ‘new paint job’ to collating and balancing the budget for the end of the financial year. March and April was the only time ‘we had to stay away from the office’!
A quote from the Jubilee book, a 50 year history of Birmingham/West Midlands Fire Service Headquarters; 1935 – 1985.
‘Special mention must be made of Ruby Maddox who worked in the department from 1948 till her well- earned retirement in 1980. Ruby helped to carry the section through many difficult periods including the transition in 1974 and many of the systems she instituted are still in use today.’
A ‘real’ office of the time, complete with fireplace and the chimney breast adorned with a large mirror, it immediately gave a warm welcome to visitors, as did the smiles of its staff. As well as my aunt, there were two other clerks and in an adjoining office, the Building Surveyor himself – later to have a technical assistant.
Two large casement windows, with views over Lancaster Circus, flooded the office with light and whenever passing or approaching the building, I always looked for ‘Auntie Ruby’s window’, where she sat at her desk, with a large blotter pad and a glass ashtray – funny the odd things you remember!
There were two typewriters – changed and updated as time went on, that I could ‘have a go on’ typing with one hesitant finger! Switching from black to red ink on the ribbon!
Of course all office equipment and stationary moved on with the passing of time and as I grew I shared the unfolding of this, but nothing matched those early days, where ledgers were handwritten, in blue ink, in neat rows and columns, in hard bound volumes.
To this, and the other offices, a lady with a trolley visited mid-morning and mid-afternoon, laden with milky coffee and a large teapot – biscuits in the morning, cakes in the afternoon, no leaving the desk for a walk to the vending machine for weak coffee in a plastic cup!
I remember Mom, ‘timing’ our arrival to join in the refreshments!
Of course taking in fluid, results in the ‘letting out of’!
This meant running the gauntlet of The Staff Office! Very large it contained multiple desks, and big uniformed foreboding men. At least they appeared foreboding to a young child – me! They were very kind actually. Having risen through the ranks, they still wore a dress uniform adding to their stature. The strong aroma of pipe tobacco was always present and is as fresh in my mind as if it was yesterday.
The embarrassment came later, as an adult when on meeting any of them, they said, ‘I remember when you was little and…!
Oh, but it was worth plucking up the courage to walk the length of that office, for through the door at the end – things got very exciting!
A large decoratively, art deco wall tiled area ;known as ‘the landing’ housed a caged lift, where one could see all the well oiled mechanism as it slowly rose up and down the three floors.
Two closed doors with shiny brass plaques, offices of The Chief Fire Officer and the Assistant Chief Fire Officer were situated here also. I knew they were to be respected. I have to share with you though, a story that was often told, that when a dear gentleman; whose family and ours were great friends; having rose through the ranks right to the top of the tree as Assistant Chief Fire Officer, was now someone, I just couldn’t go and see. Apparently, I used to keep saying ‘Can we go and see George now? Why can’t I see George?’
He subsequently became, Chief Fire Officer George Merrill CBE, OBE.
George Merrill stood in office at the time of the Birmingham Pub Bombings and I remain very proud to have grown up knowing him as both a civilian and as an officer.
Here also, was situated the ladies ‘cloakroom’. One of the highlights of a visit! Why? Because on its facing wall, it had a huge window (nearly always pushed up open) that overlooked ‘the yard’! I used to ‘spend a penny’ as quickly as possible, so I could rush from the cubicle, lean on the wide window sill and watch all the comings and goings. If you were lucky, training would be going on at the tower. Men would be hurtling up ladders and carrying ‘casualties down slung over their shoulder, or be wearing gas masks, as they emerged from the 54 foot, smoke filled, underground tunnels. Beat television, every time! Especially if the turntable was in the yard!
From this landing, the corridor led on to the Fire Control Room, with an old style switchboard, with black plugs being pulled and pushed in and on the main desk stood a large red telephone! Maps and pins adorned its back wall. Local knowledge was much relied upon; I fear this is something we have lost now with the centralisation of Fire Control. One of aunt Ruby’s lifelong friends Freda ‘Chippy’ Carpenter was a stalwart in this department and reached the rank Principal Fire Control Officer before she too retired.
Like aunty Ruby, when retirement came, she was ready. Technology was moving onwards and upwards, and she left a fire control office that had ‘outgrown’ its switchboard and was now housed in a new extension with computers and modern communication systems.
Before we head down to Pump Room, a tour of the ‘upstairs’ wouldn’t be complete without saying a little about the canteen. Although it couldn’t be called ‘little’! The kitchen and dining area was huge! Well it did cater for an immense staffing level. All good home cooked food was served, typical British Fare of the era, including, good old stodgy puds!
It was an extra special treat to join aunty Ruby for dinner! I used to feel so important standing with her in the queue to be served, because once we had our meal, we headed for an anti-room, reserved for ‘higher ranks’. I don’t recall it as snobbish, everyone remained friendly, and it was ‘just the done thing’ back then.
Having her dinner at work, like this, five days a week, meant aunt Ruby, rarely ever cooked! Such was her busy social life, with friends in the brigade – she was always ‘somewhere’ at the weekends, or with us her family. There was the odd Sunday, when as a child I had stayed over at her flat, when she cooked dinner, because I remember picking fresh mint from outside the front door. It was always, lamb or pork steaks, her repertoire!
I had so many happy weekends with aunt Ruby; I could go off at a tangent here, so to return to Lancaster Circus!
Where better to return to than the Pump Room! I used to hold my breath, when aunt Ruby telephoned them, to ask if she could bring her niece down!
If I could just transfer my memories and senses of that time onto paper, then I wouldn’t have to write any more. It is still so intrinsically imprinted within me today.
Walking down the main stairs to the main entrance hall; where stood ‘Ollie’ a full sized bronze statue of a once proud and brave fireman and also a shiny brass helmet mounted on a tall plinth, the area was opulent and very grand!
I only remember ever coming in that way, through the main doors once, on a senior school trip and desperately struggling not to boast, and not to show off too much! Aunt Ruby did pop down to say hello, making me feel very smug!
On the left coming down the stairs was the watch room, where; before 999 went straight to the switchboard; all calls reporting incidents were channelled through via the duty officer.
Ah but to the right were the engines!
Shiny engines all in a row, lined up, all ready to go, when the big red double doors opened on the cry of a shout! These doors could tell their own story, form the days when they were manually opened by pulley and chains to the electronic push of a button!
To be met with an expanse of tiled floor meant, some appliances ‘were out’ and a brief moment of disappointment.
Never lasted for long, as there was always ‘something’ to climb on or sit in! I have to be careful not to mention too often, that I remember Fire Engines with wooden ladders, and wheels, because it gives my age away, but I do, just!
Oh, the smell of leathered seats, so evocative, as I sat in the front of the ‘pump escape’, wearing a yellow cork helmet, that often fell down over my eyes.
I recall a line up of several other vehicles but I cannot tell you the make and model of every one, that is something for the fire engine historians, but all of them to me, were exciting to be around.
A couple of pump tenders with a larger capacity and a rescue tender, stood gleaming with their doors open, waiting for hastily dressing fireman, racing from wherever they were, or sliding down the shiny brass pole; having abandoned their dinner in the canteen on the second floor, or hurtling out of narrow beds, throwing back woollen grey blankets, from the dorm on the first floor; grabbing their uniform and boots as they flew past and dived into the cab, to finish getting geared up, ready for action.
There was also a turntable ladder; replaced in the early seventies with the much anticipated arrival of Simon Snorkel! High rise blocks were shooting up all over Birmingham, for which a super turntable would be needed! Enter Simon!
After this, there came the back up vehicles, for major incidents – I loved these! They were so smart! All polished wood and leather!
A fully equipped mobile canteen and a control tender to head operations, in which I would sit in for as long as I could get away with, it was so peaceful. Strange, away from the chaos of a fire situation, the engines at rest in the pump room were just silent beautiful creatures.
Last in line was the big green recovery truck; as I mentioned earlier the workshops were originally part of the Central complex and my interest stopped there! I was a girl, well sometimes, anyway!
Not all of this, was of course, done in every visit, I bought it all together here, for the purpose of this story.
As I got a little bit older, I often went by myself to visit, this was my time, something I valued and I was always ‘going off’ by myself – sometimes, I have to admit without permission, but that is another tale for another day!
Visiting regularly, as I did, there were many times, I saw the engines going out on a ‘shout’ and I used to rush to the nearest window or vantage point, so very excited to see them turn out, sirens blazing (incidentally the first siren was fitted to a pump engine, at Central, in 1957, the very year I was born!) wondering where they were going, where is the fire!
Back home if there was a merest hint of a siren, or flash of a fire engine, all us kids, would track it down and run after it, sometimes ending up streets away.
Just like, the thrill, of seeing lions coming into the cage; through a wire tunnel; mouth gaping, responding only to the crack of a whip, sea lions balancing balls on their noses and elephants trunk to tail parading round a sawdust ring, both gave a heightened buzz to a child.
So the two Circuses were not so very different, and now?
As I grew, I learnt to understand the fear and danger from fire; or of being trapped; from both the victims and the fire fighters perspective, just as I learnt we need to respect the wild creatures of our planet, they are not man’s toys, as fire is not a game.
The empty shell of Central Fire Station at Lancaster Circus is now; after a much fought battle; a listed building but its future remains uncertain. Wild animals are no longer subject to cruelty and cramped unnatural conditions, in our circuses, but their future is also uncertain. Man is destroying our planet, as a fire feeds on oxygen. We all need to quench the flames.