Small Museums #4: Greater Manchester Fire Service Museum

Natalie Bradbury

With the help of costumes, Victorian fire appliances and model horses, this small museum in Rochdale tells a firefighting tale.

Rochdale Fire Station is the first sight to greet visitors to the town, its hose tower looming high over the tram stop and nearby railway station. And as far as introductions go, the 1930s building is an impressive one: sturdy, secure and imposing in the classic Accrington brick that is becoming of a former mill town. One of the country’s first automated fire stations, Rochdale Fire Station boasted cutting-edge facilities like onsite firefighters’ housing and even a ballroom. It gets better. Walk a few steps around the corner to the back entrance of the building and you’ll find one of Rochdale’s most sparkling hidden gems: Greater Manchester Fire Service Museum.

Entering the station yard, you’re immediately struck by the museum’s collection of shiny red fire engines (and, to the volunteer-run museum’s credit, oh, how they sparkle!). Representing all eras and styles, from humble wagons and early horse-drawn vehicles – complete with life-size model horses realistic enough to make you do a double take – to more recent motorised trucks; they’re clearly someone’s pride and joy. The well-maintained metalwork sets the standard for the rest of the museum, which continues inside a former workshop block. Medals and fire appliances gleam and even the worn fire pole (of course) is housed rather grandly in its own wooden cupboard.

Through artefacts and ephemera ranging from costume displays, breathing apparatus and pumps to notices and newspaper articles, the museum tells the story not just of firefighting in Greater Manchester and the personalities associated with it (our favourite is Superintendent Alfred Tozer, who was known for his love of horses), but the development of the public service we know today. As the museum explains, the earliest organised fire services were set up by insurances companies and it was only when local services were overstretched amid the destruction of the Manchester blitz of 1940 that a national service was initiated.

Medals gleam and even the worn fire pole is grandly housed in its own wooden cupboard

Also of special interest to Mancunians are pieces from Manchester’s own municipal firefighting landmark, the former London Road Fire Station in the city centre, which we’re told was once the “finest fire station in this round world.” As well as exploring its status as a remarkable feat of architecture (the designs were reportedly drawn on Chief Officer William George Parker’s shirt cuff seven years before the building was completed), the museum highlights the London Road station’s technical innovations, such as the fresh air ventilation system that stopped the smell of the stations’ horses from reaching the firefighters’ flats above. As a public campaign to save London Road station from dereliction rages on, it is comforting to know that at least some small remnants of its past can be enjoyed by the public.

Feeling the cobbles of the museum’s replica Victorian street beneath your feet and peering in through the recreated windows highlight the enduring debt we owe to the fire service. The museum celebrates its 30th birthday in September and volunteers are currently working to secure the building’s future so it can be restored to its former glory – definitely time to blow some candles out!

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