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15 October 2014
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Fire Service

by Ian Billingsley

Contributed by 
Ian Billingsley
People in story: 
Muriel Theaker
Location of story: 
Leeds
Article ID: 
A3996020
Contributed on: 
03 May 2005

Muriel and Albert’s Wedding, June 1943

I joined the National Fire Service, during the war in 1941. We began with some very interesting lectures on the chain of command. From fireman to Commander to Home Office Control. We had lectures on the dangers of chemical gasses, to the most common causes of haystack fires. These could be caused by insects, (Thermopiles) creating internal combustion: The definition of this, I remember to this day.
Burning of itself, by itself and without outside assistance.
We were taught first aid, how to take messages, (Control Room Procedure) P.T. squad drill and the odd march to blow away the cobwebs.
My first posting was to a small station, where I worked as a telephonist. I then moved on to a Sub-Division Control Room at Pudsey. We were in overall charge of eight stations. Whilst I was there, I was promoted to Leading Fire-woman, where I took on the duties of Mobilising Officer. We worked watches of twenty four hours about, whilst the firemen worked, forty eight hours on and twenty four off. There were three watches altogether. Red, White and Blue.
I married Albert R. Theaker, in the June of 1943. He was a Telegraphist, (Sparks) in the Royal Navy. We had a small Guard of Honour made up of 'off duty' fire-girls, firemen and the Column Officer. We received a beautiful cut glass reading lamp from my colleagues which even to this day, still remains a much treasured possession. Our few short days on honeymoon, were spent at Scarborough. Of course, we were unable to walk on the beach because of all the barbed wire.
Muriel & Albert’s Wedding 1943
Not long after we were married, I was sent on an A.T.S - O.C.T.U. training course in London. I spent the first night at the reinforcing base in Horseferry Road, before moving by camouflaged coach to Hampstead Heath. We stayed in a beautiful convent building. It was a shame it had to be used in this way. In the grounds, were various assault courses. Luckily for us, the A.T.S Catering Staff were still there, (they made lovely pancakes).
It wasn't long after my short stay in London, that I was promoted to Senior Leading Fire-women and moved to ‘C’ Divisional H.Q. at Swinnow House in Leeds. Whilst stationed here, we had a rather nasty fire at a mill in Morley. It was lunch-time when the call came through on a beautiful sunny day. Luckily, most of the employees were getting a breath of fresh air and enjoying the sunshine, so they. The fire quickly caught, and extra appliances were drafted in; the pre-determined attendance already being there. All large or dangerous buildings, had been assessed for essential attendance.
We received a message that a wall had collapsed and there were men trapped. In the meantime, Fireforce H.Q. (responsible for four Divisions or more), had ordered a Mobile Control Room from the next Division. Most of the communications were then made between them, but some did come back to us. We found out, that the trapped men were a Leading Fireman and a Senior Leading Fireman. Both of them from my old Sub Division.
Their funerals were held together, and we rehearsed the Slow March at Park Street Fire Station in Leeds, (The former Leeds City Fire Brigade H.Q.). There was also two sisters from East Ardsley, near Wakefield, killed in the fire. They had stayed in the Mill and had become trapped before they could be rescued from the upper floors.
On the many courses I attended at Wyther Park House on the west side of Leeds, we fire-women would share our experiences. It was an old house and it was said to have been haunted by the ghost of a young girl who'd fallen from the iron balcony. There were French Windows which led onto the balcony and nobody enjoyed sleeping by them, there was always a rush to grab the beds furthest away. During my various stays here, I learned about the terrible conditions in Hull.
We had a stand-by pump and crew, stationed at Knavesmire, near York, ready to move to Hull if things became too bad. (Knavesmire Reinforcement Base, was to the best of my knowledge, York Racecourse). We didn't suffer as much enemy action as other towns, but we were kept busy dealing with Incendiary Bombs and U.X.B.'s.
In Leeds, we had a good emergency communications network, if the main phone lines went down. Leeds City Transport and Electricity Department, had four switchboards with hundreds of lines leading from a lamp post by the tram tracks. The electricity boxes also had phones connected to them. Lock houses on the canals had phones. They extended into other areas, should their services be required.
Before leaving the Service, I attended a meeting in Leeds, when the preparations were being made for the D. Day Landings. We discussed which of the single girls, we could send as back-up for the coast. Quite a few men went too. I remember being part of a ‘Guard of Honour’ for Herbert Morrison, the Home Secretary, when he visited the town.
I stayed here, until my release in 1944, when I left under ‘Paragraph 4’ due to the expected arrival of my daughter in January of 1945. I left before having completed my ‘Acting period and confirmation.’

Muriel Theaker. (Nee Stillings), Wakefield, West Yorkshire.
810631. No. 4. Leeds Fire Service.

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