Re-enacting With The NFS Vehicles Group
The NFS & AFS Vehicles Group grew out of the NFS Display Group, which has been around for about 20 years, run by brothers Richard and Peter Townsley from the Mansfield area, and their families and friends.
Under the auspices of the Fire Service Preservation Group, we re-enact the work of the National Fire Service and the Auxiliary Fire Service of the Second World War and the Cold War periods.
It all started when my stepson showed me an advert for a Green Goddess, being sold off by the Home Office a few years ago. Where else could you get 6 tons of 50-year-old fully-kitted classic commercial that had been dry stored almost all its life, and done so little mileage it was barely run in, all for £2,500? One thing lead to another, and I had to get the hang of using the pump, and find out what all the equipment was for.
Meanwhile, I had been driving a 1935 Brough Superior car for a number of years, and enjoyed civilian re-enacting at 40s events. Pity I couldn’t take the Goddess to those – what I needed was some 1940s firefighting equipment, and the first item, a Dennis No2 pump from 1938, was bought on ebay, and made to work. About that time, I stumbled across the NFS Display Group, the two Townsley brothers and a few friends, who had a makeshift ‘fire station’, a tent with all the right period accessories – the right tea pot, as well as the right equipment – real living history, and we were made very welcome. I started to acquire uniform, and my wife dresses as civilian or WVS, as the mood takes her. On a few occasions, the Brough towed the Dennis.
I became good friends with the Sutcliffe family in the same village. John Sutcliffe shares all the same interests, and in parallel to the 40s interests, we started planning a major Green Goddess event, remembering the Mobile Columns of the Auxiliary Fire Service in the 50s and 60s. That was very successful – involving 4 goddesses in the arena, pumping 900 gallons per minute round a 200-yard circuit from a 2,500 gallon tank. The Welland Steam Rally has become a significant fixture.
At this stage, the group didn’t have any name, or any membership – it was a case of inviting anyone we found who had suitable vehicles to join in.
Shortly, we acquired an Austin K2 towing vehicle, which looks great with the Dennis behind, and that quickly became our most useful vehicle, as it has space inside for all the ‘stuff’ that you need for a weekend away – both the modern camping bits and all the firefighting equipment. This was jointly owned by myself, John and the Townsleys, and we did a few very enjoyable seasons of events with them as part of the NFS Display Group.
One of the best events we did at that time was a weekend in Coventry, over the 70th anniversary of Moonlight Sonata, the Blitz that destroyed the medieval Cathedral, and much of the city. We spent the Saturday at the Transport Museum at their Blitz Memorial event. It was also Remembrance Sunday, and my wife and I, in WVS and NFS uniform wandered through the remains of the old city, ending up in the old cathedral as the clock struck 11. Spontaneously, the hundred or so people there stopped talking, stopped moving, and we remembered those who died. It was the first time I have ever spent that moment amongst wartime ruins, and wearing the NFS uniform added a real connection.
But the guy that sold the K2 also had an Austin K4 Turntable Ladder that John and I coveted, and later bought. The chassis and bodywork were fine but it needed repainting, and that was slow going. At the start of 2011 it was almost ready.
Towards the end of 2010, I was concerned at the complete lack of any official event in Nottingham to mark the 70th anniversary of the Blitz on Nottingham, 8th May 1941, and put the word around that I was interested. That bore fruit, in that in February 2011, I got a call out of the blue from David Needham, who also wanted to mark the event. He had the organisation and the venue, but needed some wartime fire engines! Being a retired Fire Service Divisional Officer, he had arranged Open Days over the anniversary weekend at Nottingham Central Fire Station, which was built in 1939, had bays for 6 appliances, but only three modern vehicles stationed there. They could move them out to the front – would we like to recreate a 1940s Fire Station for the weekend, with free use of fire hydrants, the drill yard and training tower? With 8 weeks to organise this, and get the K4 working properly, things were busy. Some years ago, David Needham wrote a book, ‘The Battle of the Flames’, about the Blitz in Nottingham, and naturally is very knowledgeable about it.
Having been a professional fireman, he is also very much aware of the dangers that firemen face, and is a major motivation behind the Nottinghamshire Firefighters Memorial Fund, an organisation working towards a memorial to those firefighters and Civil Defence workers who died in the war, and since. His enthusiasm rubs off, and we now make a collection for the fund after each display we do (when we remember!)
At about the same time, a Fordson V8 Escape Carrier, complete with all the equipment, was up for sale. With a bit of care, I could get it back to Nottingham in time for the weekend, even if it had to arrive on a recovery truck as it broke down on the way! Another vehicle to fix, and a very short deadline. Then came the offer, would we like to do a major demonstration outside the Council House in the Old Market Square, right in the middle of Nottingham’s shopping district, and involve the Lord Mayor as well? Planning, recruiting, training, mechanics, and occasionally some work and sleep as well followed. In the end, it all worked out OK, although a few things were a bit unpolished, and we had technical problems with some modern props (but all the 70-year-old equipment worked fine). We got mentioned in the local papers and local TV, and it gave the group a big boost, and the Mayor later said that although he got wet, it was the best civic occasion of his year in office.
During the 2011 season, it became clear that there were differences between those of us who are more interested in the heavy equipment, and those interested in the living history detail. At the last event that the NFS Display Group was at, there were very clearly two groups there – some who put out incendiaries with stirrup pumps, followed by tea and cake, and those who pumped 200 gallons of water to the top of a 60-foot ladder. We do make every effort to get the detail right as far as uniform etc is concerned, however we are more concerned with the correct operational side of the fire equipment not the fire station. It became clear that the different aims and interests could not work together as a single group.
Within a few days, we decided that we would form our own group, the NFS Vehicles Group, reflecting our interests in vintage vehicles, heavy machinery, big pumps and displaying them as they were meant to be used, pumping water at fires. So we parted company with the NFS Display Group, however we agreed that we would ask organisers to place us adjacent at future events, so we could benefit from the Display’s superb living history, and they would benefit from being adjacent to an appropriate set of vehicles, and associated with the larger demonstrations.
So what is the ethos of the group? We aim to preserve and display vehicles and equipment of the wartime AFS and NFS and the Cold War AFS. We also aim to operate this equipment in a manner as close as possible to the methods and practices in use at the time. Whilst achieving this, we aim to educate people to the sacrifice made by the Fire Services in time of war and to honour their memory.
We are all interested in large vintage vehicles, and making them do what they were made for. At the moment, we do not have a formal membership, and invite people to take part where they can. We have a certain amount of uniform to lend out, so the initial hurdle to getting involved is very low. As people become regulars, they are expected to source their own uniform. We try to be a welcoming, friendly and sociable group.
We want to involve young people as well as grown ups. This is not only because they are interested but also because we want to pass on the knowledge of firefighting in wartime to a new generation.
The group is based around Nottingham, and the events we attend are mostly within a 30-40 mile radius of there, such as Rufford, Clumber, Burton-on-Trent, Papplewick, Rauceby, the Victory Show (Leics), the Great Central Railway (Loughborough) and Crich Tramway Museum.
We are trying to do more training, making use of links with the Notts Fire and Rescue Service, to improve the slickness of the displays, and do it ever more safely, as we are handling heavy equipment which has the scope to do real damage if handles incorrectly.
We all find that talking about what the men and women of the NFS did, and demonstrating their equipment, and wearing their uniforms brings a real empathy for them, and a respect for all that they did. We hold a branch for five minutes, and get a bit wet on a summer Sunday, but they held a branch for 12 hours, through the night, with bombs falling, often in the freezing cold, and in extreme danger. We get water from a peaceful pond or high-pressure hydrant, but they had to run hoses through the city to a river, or the flooded basement of a bombed-out building. We go home to a warm bed, but they worked through the night.
We hold them in the greatest respect, hence our support for the Firefighter’s Memorial.
The group always welcomes new faces, so please get in touch if you are interested in family-friendly days out, dressing up as a fireman, war-time and post-war life and culture, and of course using the equipment for what it was designed – pumping water. Sometimes, (when they fit!) uniforms can be lent to newcomers.
We try to be as authentic as we can, within reason. So trainers, plastic cups, use of mobile phones are frowned on, but no-one will crucify you for having the wrong make of gas-mask!
To contact us, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0115 9664938.
Here are some comments from some of the people involved.
Michael (age 11)
Re-enacting is interesting, educational and really good fun. We remember those who died in the war, and feel a connection – like walking in their footsteps. It brings history alive. My great grandad was in the AFS in the Blitz. You meet a lot of interesting people at 1940s events.
The vehicles are interesting – much more ‘hands on’ than modern fire engines, because nothing is automatic. And because they had no radios, I act as a messenger, and it gives me a real purpose in the displays. I have also learned the basics of operating the pump, and have held a branch.
Catriona (age 14)
I like going to the shows – people are friendly. I love the dressing up – its like living in a different world. It is good to remember the 1940s.
I like the Fire Service stuff the best, because it all really works – it is not deactivated like the guns. Working the smoke machine (for the demonstrations) and ringing the bell is fun. It was Dad’s thing, and I really didn’t think I would get into it all, but I do now.
Some events have horses, and I really like them.
Rosie (age 15)
I like waving at people from the back of a really weird vehicle!
Hannah (age 16)
It is fascinating historically. There is a real warmth to the period, and well as all the hardships. You come across some funny moments of comedy as well.
I am into the Gothic scene, and we love dressing up. It’s part of ‘Steampunk’. I love the old machinery, vintage vehicles and steam trains.
Being Aspergers, I find socialising in normal life difficult, but I feel comfortable with like-minded people – who are genuinely interested in the same things. You can play a role, and tell something of what you know to people who really want to listen. And you can learn too. Re-enacting teaches you so much more than you can learn in a classroom. You remember so much more when you ‘do’ than when you just listen.
I’ve always liked dressing up since a little girl – this is big girl’s dressing up!
It can be a real family event. I like the social side. It can be quite fun lying underneath a Green Goddess with one of the other wives discussing its restoration! I’m also heavily into the catering for the big event at Welland.
I first got into re-enacting 4 years ago following a visit to a 1940s show at Papplewick Pumping Station in Nottinghamshire. Whilst I enjoy the military side of re-enacting I was drawn straight away to the fire service side of the home front re-enacting. Why?? Well, since I was a boy I have been fascinated with fire engines and re-enacting 1940s allows me to indulge in “playing with big boys toys”!!! Between David and myself we have managed to collect several vehicles and trailer pumps all of which do what they were originally designed to do 70 years ago. Operating the equipment does take quite a bit of training but fortunately we have some ex-regular firemen in our group who are happy to pass on their knowledge.
What a better way to spend a summer weekend then to be squirting water with some big pumps and a turntable ladder with a like minded group of people.
Taking part in Fire service re-enactments allows us to demonstrate to the public a part of our history that is not well known. Having researched this era extensively, I am amazed at what the Fire Service achieved during World War 2 in the most difficult of circumstances and with very basic equipment. We now involve re-enactors from the other civilian services such as Civil Defence and Police and this adds to the public understanding of what the ‘Fourth Arm’ of the Services did.
I am a vintage vehicle enthusiast, with an MGA, MGTD and a Green Goddess. I’ve had the MGA for over 35 years, and the TD I’ve inherited from my father. The Green Goddess was acquired in 2005, having seen an article about them in Classic and Vintage Commercial magazine.
The highlight of the year for me is the Derby Fire and Rescue Show in June, organised by the Fire Service Preservation Group of which I am a member. At Derby, I get to pump water to other fire engine crews who are putting out a fire. I enjoyed organising “Operation don’t rock the boat”, which was the launching of an inflatable raft from a Commer Q4 Transportable Water unit (Bikini unit).
Then I got involved with David Moore’s NFS display team, going back from 1950s to 1940s. I’ve driven all 3 of his vehicles, and manned his pump a few times. I bought an HJHeinz works fire brigade costume for the wartime reenactments. The HJHeinz works fire brigade covered the local area outside the factory during the war to support the NFS, so HJH firefighters would have worked alongside regular NFS teams in those days. This wartime reenactment is also good fun.
My main interest is in the firefighting side – I own a more modern appliance – and I want to see the displays done properly: slickly, safely and professional-looking. Although the 1940s history side is interesting, I’m not that fussed about the ‘dressing up’ but I suppose it goes with the territory!
My involvement with the AFS-NFS display group came about initially through my life-long interest in fire-fighting & military vehicles and machinery. Over the past few years, I have built up a fair old collection, mainly of post-war AFS and military vehicles. This brought me into contact with David, who triggered in me an interest in the AFS. That interest has grown to a point where joining in with the group’s 1940s re-enactments has become an exciting activity in its own right for me and for my children James and Karina. Learning how to operate, then to demonstrate to the public some quite amazing 1940s equipment has been a great privilege, and tremendously enjoyable. It has also given me a tremendous respect for the men and women, past and present (amongst whose ranks was my grandfather Leslie Albert Walker, factory worker and part-time fire-fighter in Birmingham during WW2), who have faced and go on facing the dangers of fire-fighting.