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The chimney fire - Peter Hinchliffe

In the days before personal radios, when policemen walked the beat there was a system for the Sergeants to cycle around the City and supervise them, and also to make sure that they were still safe and sound. This system was known as “visits” Most sergeants were quite sociable and his visit broke the monotony of walking about alone. Some sergeants saw their role differently and would try to catch you out. Others would test your knowledge on various subjects, one such was Sergeants Horace “Dixie” Dean he was very much of the “old school”, nearing the end of his service and somewhat eccentric, though perfectly harmless.

One evening in 1959 I was in Fore Street being visited by Dixie, we were standing beside the pillar at King Street when an elderly lady came hurrying up the street to use the police pillar to call the Fire Brigade as she had a chimney afire in her tenement flat in King Street. Dixie keen to demonstrate his skills and pass on good practice to the un-initiated, went into to “Instructor mode”, telling me to call the Fire Brigade whilst he set off with his bike, and the woman to the flat.

In those days of the open fire and some time before the Clean Air Acts, Chimney fires were literally an everyday occurrence. One of the senior Fire officers in Exeter was Frank Sculpher and he had adapted a milk churn and welded a stirrup pump to it to provide a very useful tool for extinguishing chimney fires, all the Exeter engines carried a “Frankie”, and like all their kit, was polished up so you could see your face in it.

Having called the Fire Brigade I followed down the street, and on arrival at the flat, Dixie was in full flow, telling me to assess the dangers, did we need to evacuate the other flats, would we need the ambulance, etc etc I told him I thought that would all be unnecessary as we were dealing with a simple chimney fire. Dixie agreed with my assessment and said the only thing we need do, was to reassure the occupier that she was in no danger, and the building would not be burnt down.

Before she realized that the chimney was on fire, the woman had prepared to do the weekly ironing and had set the board in the living room. Dixie told her that she should get on with the ironing, he explained how lucky she was to be living in Exeter, where the Fire Brigade was equipped with “Frankies” and within moments of their arrival, he was sure they would have the fire out. In the meantime he made himself comfortable in one of the fireside chairs, ordering me to put the kettle on and make tea for the three of us.

Having produced the teapot and caddy, (no tea bags in those days) the occupier left me in the kitchen and started her ironing. When the tea had brewed, I poured the three cups and carried them in to the living room, moments after there had been a “fall of soot” There was soot everywhere, the atmosphere was laden with it, the lady and Dixie were coughing and spluttering, and both looked as though they were from the cast of the Black and White Minstrels, she looked like the “ole Mamma house keeper” and Dixie looked like the first black copper in Exeter!

The firemen were falling about laughing as Dixie set off on his bike towards his home in Alphington, there to restore himself to his personal comforts.

Peter Hinchliffe is a retired City of Exeter police officer.

King Street Working Men's DwellingsThe King's Dwellings.

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