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First World War centenary: The heroic Romford firemen who rescued women from munitions factory minutes before it exploded

Chris Van-Holby, with his grandfather's long-service medal Chris Van-Holby, with his grandfather's long-service medal

Sunday, February 23, 2014
9:00 AM

The sacrifices of the soldiers who risked life and limb on the Western Front are the enduring image of the First World War, and rightly so.

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The firemen with their OBEs in 1920The firemen with their OBEs in 1920

But thousands of other men, and women, made their contribution on the Home Front, sometimes in circumstances which were dangerous in their own way – as the tale of one Havering fireman and his colleagues demonstrates.

George Alfred Holby and fellow members of Romford Fire Brigade rescued 13 women from a blaze at a Rainham munitions factory in 1916, with the last leaving just minutes before the building exploded.

Their courage saw four of them made an OBE.

George’s grandson, Chris Van-Holby, 68, has researched his story after hearing tales of him as a boy.

George Alfred HolbyGeorge Alfred Holby

He said: “I felt so proud of him. As I got older I realised what the firemen had done and just how brave they all were.”

George, 52, and the other firemen, who were too old to enlist, worked not only in the brigade but also in their captain Samuel Davis’s building firm Dowsing and Davis, of Mawneys estate.

The men, who all lived in and around St Andrew’s Road, were painting a house on September 14, 1916 when they were sent to the inferno at the Rainham (Essex) Chemical Works, which had been a soap factory before the war.

George and the crew rescued 13 trapped women workers from the site, which was believed to employ more than 100, and the last girl was brought outside by a fireman just seconds before a huge explosion blew the side of the building 100 yards into the River Thames.

Members of the Romford Fire Brigade outside the stationMembers of the Romford Fire Brigade outside the station

At least five people were killed, three chemists and two female employees, with their deaths believed to have been caused by falling timbers.

The facts behind the incident are still a mystery. In a report on December 20, 1916, compiled by military officers and a chemist, it is suggested a night watchman caused the blaze through a match falling out of his pocket and a woman later stepping on it.

The match was said to be red-tipped, which meant it could be struck anywhere and ignited if stood on or rubbed together.

Mr Van-Holby said: “A girl said she saw a match fall out of a hole in the man’s waistcoat, which another girl then apparently stepped on, causing a bad fire. It was put out, but there were crates of shells nearby and it flared up again and went out of control.”

Romford Fire Brigade

- Romford Fire Brigade was formed in 1890 when the Local Board of Health decided a trained organisation was needed

- It brigade began operating in 1891 with 13 members, including their captain Samuel Davis

- The fire station was built in Mawney Lane and had a manual pump engine which dated from 1810

- The station was manned every evening and had drill night on Fridays

- The positions were voluntary until 1901, when the captain’s fee became two guineas

- The men got one guinea and a sixpence an hour for drill and sixpence for an hour of duty

- If called out to a fire, the captain could have 10 shillings and the men five

- But Captain Davis’ daughter, Joan, said he never took a penny during 36 years in charge

- Maroons, used to signal a fire, were introduced in 1905. Before that, the crew had been called by messengers

- The brigade celebrated its 20th anniversary in 1911, just before King George V’s coronation

- Fires were caused by factors such as faulty chimneys and curtains set alight by candles

Several people said they saw the man’s waistcoat catch fire days before, leaving a small hole. However, the watchman allegedly implied the women at the factory were to blame. Three girls had been dismissed for smoking weeks earlier.

The firemen’s success was not recognised until 1920 when four of them, including Captain Davis, were made OBEs.

It was a family affair for George, whose brother Edward was a driver for the fire brigade and had also been at the Rainham blaze.

Other firemen were also given the award on the same day, but for a separate incident, which Mr Van-Holby believes was an explosion at a factory next door.

George completed a remarkable 44 years of service, attending a fire just one week before he died in 1932, aged 68.

“My grandfather and the men didn’t think they were heroes or brave; they just got on with their job,” said Mr Van-Holby. “I think some would have wanted to fight in the war and may have felt like they were not in the thick of it, but they were.”

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