MIDWEEK RETRO: Recruit all fired up

Firemen in Cross Street, Woodhouse, 1930's
Firemen in Cross Street, Woodhouse, 1930's
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IT was a dilemma faced by a city 12,000 miles away – but which was solved right here in Sheffield.

Eighty years ago this month, on the other side of the world, a 28-year-old engineer had just been announced as chief fire officer of Colombo in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka.

The only problem? Young Bertram Weerasinghe – who was to oversee a team protecting 250,000 people – had no previous firefighting experience.

Now, Midweek Retro can reveal how a solution was sought right here in the Steel City.

For in October 1932, Bertram was sent to South Yorkshire to spend 12 months living at Central Fire Station in Division Street while learning his trade.

And the story of how this exotic stranger fought dozens of blazes, made lifelong friends and was even eulogised in the national press has been recalled this anniversary by his son Odath.

“My father had a great affinity with Sheffield,” says Odath, a retired IT systems auditor who lives in Australia. “The UK had one of the finest fire services in the world back then but this arrangement was still very unusual.”

Bertram already had strong links with the city when he arrived here. He had studied at Sheffield University four years previously, and had married a Scottish girl before moving home to take up an engineering post.

“He didn’t really enjoy that work,” says Odath, 65, one of Bertram’s five children. “Then he learned Colombo Municipal Council was looking to recruit its first native fire chief and he applied for the job. I think the officials were impressed by his ambition and keenness, so they said he could have the post if he trained in England for a year.”

Thus, Bertram got in touch with Sheffield Fire Brigade and was taken on.

His wife Evelyn lived in a flat in Fulwood Road while Bertram stayed at the station itself under the command of Superintendent Tom Breaks – later famous for commanding London fire units during the Blitz.

And his arrival was considered so unusual several national newspapers ran the story.

“It is very fascinating work,” Bertram told one. “I have ridden on your fire engines; I have watched and assisted your firemen. They are quick and smart on the job. Not a minute is wasted. The art of firefighting is to be there before a fire really develops and put it out.”

It was an art he learned well.

Bertram’s diaries record him dealing with blazes across the city, from cutlery factories in Rockingham Street to furniture factories on The Moor. One official report noted he “worked like a Trojan”.

And the memoirs also show him being accepted into city life at a time when men from other parts of the world were far from a common sight.

He played golf at Sitwell Park, in Rotherham, drank in the Three Merry Lads pub in Fulwood, and regularly took Evelyn to the city’s cinemas.

The friends he made here would remain for life. In 1962, when Tom Breaks appeared on BBC TV show This Is Your Life, Bertram was flown to London to appear as a special guest.

By that time, of course, Sheffield was but a memory for him.

After his year finished he returned to Colombo and stayed in his post until 1946. He was awarded an OBE for work during World War Two when he was an assistant civil defence commissioner.

After retiring from the brigade he held various executive posts before passing away, aged 67, in 1971.