Sheffield emergency services museum's '999 call' to raise cash

Firefighters in Division Street yard on drill in the 1960s, using fire hoses with nozzles called branches
Firefighters in Division Street yard on drill in the 1960s, using fire hoses with nozzles called branches
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Sheffield’s National Emergency Services Museum is celebrating its 30th anniversary with an appeal to raise £20 million to better tell the story of the people we turn to in troubled times.

The museum opened in an old fire station on West Bar on August 3, 1986 but the first fire brigade collection was made in 1931 by the then chief fire officer, Tom Breaks.

Fire crews testing out an early version of air foam in the 1930s

Fire crews testing out an early version of air foam in the 1930s

Unfortunately, there’s only one leather fire bucket left from that collection, said the head of the museum and collections, Matthew Wakefield.

He said: “Everything was just on loan to the Sheffield brigade at the time.”

The museum does have Tom Breaks’ scrapbooks, though, and you can see just a few of his photographs here.

He served as chief fire officer from 1923 to 1938, when he was seconded to the Home Office to begin the training for the national fire service.

Tom Breaks, far right, seen in a diving suit after recovering a manhole cover in an incident where two children lost their lives in Rotherham

Tom Breaks, far right, seen in a diving suit after recovering a manhole cover in an incident where two children lost their lives in Rotherham

He was an extraordinary character who qualified as a diver to do underwater rescues in the days before search and rescue diving teams.

Innovations that date from Tom Breaks’ time include combining the fire, police and ambulance services under one roof in stations like West Bar.

After the war, the services were split up again.

Museum archivist, retired Leading Fireman Nigel Kind, reckons that’s one reason why Sheffield is a great place for a national museum.

The engine house at West Bar

The engine house at West Bar

He said that the city had always been a centre of innovation in emergency services, right from 1893, when chief fire officer William Frost visited the New York Fire Department to learn about an innovative way of harnessing up fire horses to trucks that took only seconds, rather than several minutes.

He added: “Nothing in the emergency services is new, even down to using a foam system to fight fires. Tom Breaks’ pictures date back to 1933, when it was called air foam.

“Things like that disappear and come back in again, they’re only making things right that weren’t perfect.”

Nigel was one of the firefighters who decided to set up the original museum in the disused West Bar station.

He said that the idea was to draw in children’s interest so that they could be taught about fire safety, a role that the museum still takes on today.

Nigel said: “We had a historical society and we started to pull together information and equipment and uniforms and we thought we ought to put this in a building.

“We used to pass this building on calls and we knew that the fire museum in New York was next to a fire house, so we thought why not do the same?”

Divisional Officer Ken Mettam was able to persuade the council that it was a good idea.

It took them two years to get the museum open with four fire engines on show.

Nigel said that never in their wildest dreams did the team of the 1980s believe that the museum would now have 50 vehicles on display out of a collection of 200.

Matthew’s team have ambitious plans for the museum, which now houses a national collection from a huge range of rescue services including the coastguard and RNLI.

Matthew said: “We are attempting to raise funds of around £20 million to develop and extend the site and as the area of Sheffield the museum is housed in is also developing and transforming, this gives us the perfect timing to expand utilising the land around the current site to make a world-class attraction and facility right here in Sheffield.”

“NESM will require as much support as possible from the public, emergency services, councils and funders to make this project work, so if you can help in any way, please contact the museum today and help make a difference.”

Call 0114 2491999, go to www.emergencymuseum.org.uk or email info@emergencymuseum.org.uk