Generations of firefighters returned to Huntingdon Fire Station on Friday (February 20) to mark its 50th anniversary. Hywel Barrett spoke to one of the first crews to operate at the Hartford Road station.
George Milbank addressed more than 120 former and serving firefighters on Friday, half a century after he and his Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) crew helped move the fire station and its equipment from Princes Street, Huntingdon, to Hartford Road.
When it was officially opened in 1965, three firefighters were in Huntingdon County Hospital, including station officer C A Miller, who was in charge of the fire station and collapsed the day before, however there was a full house as chief fire officer Graham Stagg and Sir Peter Brown, fire authority chairman, unveiled a plaque to commemorate its 50 years.
Soon after it opened, the fire and ambulance station, designed by Mr K Sparrow and built by F B Thackray and Co Ltd, won a Civic Trust environmental design award.
Mr Milbank, 81, of Ingram Street, Huntingdon, was one of two leading hand [firefighters] who made up the Huntingdon AFS – a group of volunteer firefighters who formed part of the nation’s civil defence to react if Britain came under nuclear attack.
He was joined on Friday by members of his crew Christopher Deeble, 66, of Heacham, in Norfolk, Cyril Metson, 68, of Ramsey St Mary’s, Harry Hackett 72, of Vermuyden, Earith and Eileen Righton, of Little Gransden and widow of crew member Bryan Righton.
“We are probably the only original crew who could still go out on a call today, although we might struggle, as we have enough crew members and our Green Goddess is still registered with the DVLA as on the run, though we’d have to go to RAF Cosford to get it,” Mr Milbank said.
He added: “One of my favourite calls was to a chimney fire at RAF Wyton. We were asked ‘Would we care to attend?’ We never turned down a job. We got to the gates and asked the guard did he know where the road was and due to my experience in London, I knew it was best to get them on board and he showed us.
“We kept coming to no entry signs and he said he wasn’t allowed down them, but I told him we were able to. When we got there, we were the first to arrive. We had beaten the full-time firefighters from St Ives so we had to put on a bit of a show.
“The ladder was put up, we took a bowl of cold water and a tarpaulin sheet inside – putting water on the fire at the bottom of the chimney would create steam and whatever was in the chimney came down – and as we were about to start the full-time firefighters came in and asked if they could take over and we said yes.”
It wasn’t the only time Mr Milbank’s volunteers beat their professional counterparts. “We took part in the Steadman Cup, which was a competition for firefighters to move equipment and set it up to shoot at a target,” Mr Milbank said. “When they announced we were the winners, the full-time and retained firefighters’ faces dropped.”
The crew was also asked to attend a fire at a chicken farm on Little Staughton Aerodrome. “We followed the car down the A1 but I think we could have got there quicker if Harry had lifted the fire engine as he was concerned as his girlfriend, and now wife, was working there,” Mr Milbank said.
Back at the base, Mr Deeble recollected: “The only thing that has changed is the fire engines and the people inside. It was also more about fires back then, whereas now, there’s more rescue that’s involved.
“We were quite lucky in having the same standard of training as the retained firefighters, I think the county was one of the only to have this so it meant that when we went out, we worked alongside the full-time firefighters as equals.”
The group disbanded in the late 60s, with some joining the full-time service, including Mr Righton who went on to become chief fire officer at Cranfield Airport and University Complex in Bedfordshire and instructor Maurice Johnson, former chief officer of Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service.
Each year, the remaining members meet to mark the end of the AFS ... normally in front of a Green Goddess.