Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Fire Brigade from 1917

It took Port Elizabeth 59 years from 1858 to 1917 to establish a ragtag fire service and then convert it into a professional body. But it was worth it. Now they would have to prove their mettle. This portion of the history has mainly been obtained from an article entitled Short Historical Notes on the Port Elizabeth Fire and Emergency Services Department by D.C. Sparks

Main picture: Firemen at the Fire Station

In 1917 a professional full-time Brigade of two officers and six men was established with Algernon Pett, a member of a prominent British Fire Service family, as Firemaster. At the same time a Chalmers motor car was converted into a fire engine, complete with a wheeled escape ladder in the Municipal workshops. This was the Brigade’s first motorised unit.

The earliest Brigade Order, then called a ‘Special Order’ was signed by Pett on 1st February 1918, informing personnel that with effect from 1st March, weekly wages would be replaced by monthly salaries. It was to be many years before this innovation was generally adopted by all South African Fire Departments.  

The Albany Road Fire Station in the 1930s after the upper floor was added. The Station served as the Headquarters from 1930 until December 1989 when the Port Elizabeth Fire and Emergency Services Department moved to the new premises in South End.

In 1919, Pett left for Natal and the Brigade Foreman, Reginald Stammers, was appointed to lead the Brigade, a position that he was to hold for the next 25 years. Stammers was one of the first South African members of the then infant Institute of Fire Engineers (UK) and was a founder member of the South African Association of Municipal Employees. He soon modernised the equipment of the Brigade, replacing leather hose and threaded couplings with canvas hose and the relatively new instantaneous couplings. In 1923, a Leyland fire engine, the first in South Africa, was purchased and soon afterwards, all horse-drawn vehicles were replaced with motor-powered units

In 1925, A.V. Mayhew, a former Sub-Officer of the London Fire Brigade, was appointed as Second Officer. During the same year, the Chalmers fire tender was replaced by a Dennis pump and in 1930, a Leyland Metz turntable ladder with solid tyres was placed in service. The new Albany Road Headquarters was opened in 1930 by which time personnel consisted of three officers, nine full-time firemen and four volunteers. The Fulltimers worked seven days continuous duty.

Walmer Fire Brigade

Followed by 24 hours off-duty. This was the shift system then followed by most South African brigades with the notable exception of the Durban Fire Brigade which had changed to a 24 hours on, 24 hours off duty system early in 1930. During this period the population of Port Elizabeth was estimated at 61,000 and fire losses still remained relatively low.

Second Officer Mayhew died in 1939 and P.W. Anderson who had joined the Brigade in 1923, was appointed to succeed him He was to hold the post for seven years until 1946 when he succeeded Stammers as Chief Officer, on the latter’s retirement. Simultaneously W.A.J. Ridge and R.W Black were promoted to second officer and third officer, respectively.

Post WW2
The post Second World War years was a period of growth for Port Elizabeth. The Brigade, with its limited resources and manpower, was kept busy handling large industrial, marine and shantytown fires. Two-way radio communication was introduced in 1951. By 1955, the overall population topped 200,000 and the strength of the Brigade had increased to five officers and 27 men who responded to 262 alarms of fire and no less than 11,000 ambulance calls.

In 1967, Chief Officer Anderson retired after 43 years service. His deputy since 1964,R.W. Black succeeded him as Chief for the next four years. Bob Black can be considered the great grandfather of the present Port Elizabeth Fire and Emergency Services Department. He joined the Service in 1929 as a Fireman and rose through the ranks, having served in North Africa during the Second World War. In 1949, as Acting Third Officer, Bob Black was praised for his heroism when he entered the hold of the MV City of Johannesburg in the Port Elizabeth harbour, to remove unexploded sodium. He entered the hold the day after 3,000 kilograms of sodium had been in an explosion following a fire on board. During his short period as Chief Officer he increased the fleet substantially and was instrumental in the establishment of the Sidwell Fire Station and the old Walmer Fire Station.

Bob Black was succeeded by Brian Estment, a man with a number of firsts to his credit. He was the first fireman to serve on the General Executive Council of the South African Fire Services Institute before reaching officer rank and the first to obtain the Graduate Diplomas of both the South African Fire Services and its British counterpart, the Institution of Fire Engineers, by written examination. Brian Estment built on the foundation which were laid by his predecessor. During his period as Chief Fire Officer many changes and developments took place. Some of these changes included the building of the present Walmer Fire Station, the creation of Training, Fire Safety, Operations and Support services Divisions; the modernisation and expansion of the fleet; the establishment of the Markman Township Training Centre; the introduction of shorter working hours and the planning of the new South End Headquarters Complex. His life was tragically cut short in 1986 as a result of a motor car accident.  

Brian Estment was succeeded as Chief Fire Officer by his deputy of fourteen years, Charles Nicholls, who had commenced his service with the Cape Town Fire Brigade in 1956. CFO Nicholls having served in Port Elizabeth since 1972, had been very much a part of the changes and developments which took place during Brian Estment’s term of office. Charles Nicholls also took office with a formidable track record. He was awarded the Draeger Shield for the highest marks in the South African Fire Services Institute’s Diploma examinations in 1966. IN addition, he became a Fellow of SAFSI in 1981, a Fellow of the Institution of Fire Engineers in 1984 and a Registered Professional Technologist (Engineering) in 1985.

Under the leadership of CFO Nicholls, the modernisation and expansion of the fleet continued: Research and Development, Planning and Liaison Divisions were established and the building of the South End Complex became a reality. AS the Department moved into the 1990s, a computer mobilisation was introduced, a far cry from the bells of Market Square and the local churches of the 1850s. In March 1990, Charles Nicholls was inducted as President of the South African Fire Services Institute.  

Situation at 1990
At 1990, the Fire Brigade protected approximately 900,000 inhabitants within an area of 437 square kilometres. The municipal valuation of property amounted to R 1,444, 203, 903 of which R146, 895,560 was non-rateable. Annually the Department responds to some 2,600 fire and emergency calls with as many as 42 fires having occurred on a single day.

The emergency fleet included the following:

  • 4 rescue pumps
    7 Pumps/ladders
  • 2 hydraulic platforms
  • 1 heavy emergency tender with a 6 ton hydraulic crane
  • 1 light Rescue Tender
  • 4 Foam /Water tankers
  • 1 Foam Carrier
  • 7 bush fire units
  • 1 hose laying truck
  • 1 damage control unit
  •  2 mobile breathing apparatus compressors
  • 1 diving unit
  • 1 water rescue craft
  • 1 command vehicle
  • 1 mobile control unit
  • 1 canteen unit

All this is far cry from the two manual pumps which arrived on the Skimmer of the Sea in 1859. With the move to South End, the Department will continue to operate from the Sidwell Fire Station, the busiest in South Africa and the Walmer Fire Station. Limited fire cover is also provided from the Department’s Training School which is located at Markham Township.

In the final analysis, a Fire Department’s effectiveness and efficiency is determined by its capability.

Short Historical Notes on the Port Elizabeth Fire and Emergency Services Department by D.C. Sparks [Looking Back, Vol 29, No. 2, September 1990

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1 Comment

  1. Good day
    I would be very interested in finding out more about our family who lived in Park Drive. My grandfather Wessinger owned what is now Sharley Cribb and also had other family in Park Drive – Griffiths. I am also trying to find out more information on Herman John vom Dorp. I would be fascinated to know more.


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