The Somerset Fire Brigade at Hestercombe

A unique chapter in the history of a country estate

By Hestercombe House & Gardens

Hestercombe House in 1953, prior to becoming Somerset Fire Brigade Headquarters (1953) by UnknownHestercombe House & Gardens

Following the death of Mrs. Portman on 4th May 1951, and the winding up of her affairs in the months that followed, the administration and letting of Hestercombe House and estate — now 234 acres in extent with 15 houses and cottages — was taken over by the Crown Estate Commissioners.

There were five parties interested in occupying the estate: the Royal Observatory, Greenwich; The Regional Hospital Board; The Somerset County Fire Service; a Mr. Meyer (who operated a school at Street); and a Mr. C. [‘Gassy’] Harris, a local property developer.

Plan. Hestercombe House Conversion to Fire Brigade HQ (1953) by County Architect, R. O. HarrisHestercombe House & Gardens

On 3rd July 1951, Somerset County Council approved, in principle, ‘the acquisition as soon as possible, by lease or purchase, of suitable premises in or near Taunton for use as a combined County Fire Brigade Headquarters’.

By the autumn of the following year Hestercombe House had been confirmed as the only viable option and by September 1953 a resolution had been passed, permitting SCC to lease the House and 12 acres, including all of the Edwardian-era Jekyll & Lutyens Formal Garden, from the Commissioners of Crown Lands for a period of 28 years at a rent of £500 per annum.

Somerset Fire Brigade officers at the first annual inspection held at Hestercombe House, 12 August 1954 (1954)Hestercombe House & Gardens

‘Every member of staff was required to give one day’s decorating experience – even the chief [W. H. Barrett] – to put the place in order’. (‘How the fire brigade saved a fine building for itself’, Western Daily Press and Times and Mirror, 28 July 1979, p. 3.)

Somerset Fire Brigade Specialised Training Courses proposal, c.1959 (1959)Hestercombe House & Gardens

The open spaces surrounding Hestercombe House were formally put under review when the Fire Brigade relocated to the estate in 1954, with a range of options being explored in a bid to utilise the grounds as efficiently as possible. One proposal involved the installation of a tarmacadam drill ground in the Formal Garden which would have covered the Great Plat. This was narrowly rejected by Somerset County Council — purportedly by just one vote.

Legend, Somerset Fire Brigade Specialised Training Courses proposal, c.1959 (1959)Hestercombe House & Gardens

A second more ambitious scheme, dubbed ‘Somerset Fire Brigade Proposed Specialised Training Courses’ (c.1959), advocated the redevelopment of the open spaces around the mansion to accommodate some 40 new freestanding buildings, most to be located just south of the Formal Garden and the Orangery.

Auxiliary Fire Service members cooking at Hestercombe in the 1950s (1950s)Hestercombe House & Gardens

Members of Column 17 of the Somerset Auxiliary Fire Service cooking on outdoor stoves near the entrance to the Hestercombe Stable Block (now the Plant Centre) in the 1950s. The former Portman Chauffeur's Cottage is shown in the background.

Column 17 of the Somerset Auxiliary Fire Service on exercise on the Pear Pond, sometime before 1968. (pre 1968)Hestercombe House & Gardens

Members of the Auxiliary undergoing training in the operation of a bikini raft on Hestercombe's Pear Pond in the Georgian Landscape Garden. The fire engine sitting nearby is a ‘Green Goddess’.

Fire Brigade Exercise with Portman Garage in the background, c.1957 (1957)Hestercombe House & Gardens

A training exercise taking place near the garage/workshop erected by the Fire Brigade, west of the Stable Block, in around 1957. The timber garage with inspection pits that once housed the Portman automobiles is evident to the left on the site of the present day picnic area.

Members of Column 17 of the Somerset Auxiliary Fire Service undergoing first aid training in one of the derelict World War II huts in Rook Wood, c.1967. (1968)Hestercombe House & Gardens

Formed on 1st April 1948, the ranks of the Somerset Fire Brigade initially consisted of a mixture of just over 600 Auxiliary (part-time) Fire Service personnel and County appointed personnel.

Here they are undergoing first aid training in one of the 22 former World War II army huts that existed at Hestercombe, occupied by US Army personnel, when Hestercombe became the HQ of the United States 19th District supply services from 1943. Today, only one army hut remains standing at Hestercombe, in Rook Wood.

The annual Fire Brigade Christmas party, c.1955 (1955)Hestercombe House & Gardens

Christmas was marked each year by a party to which Fire Brigade staffers could bring their families, complete with a visit from Father Christmas who arrived on a Leyland Club Fire Engine packed with presents for the children.

Auxiliary Fire Brigade members on parade near the Chauffeur's Cottage, c.1962 (1962)Hestercombe House & Gardens

When the Auxiliary was officially disbanded on 28th March 1968, the occasion was marked with a formal ceremony at Hestercombe House, presided over by Chief Fire Officer, A. L. Bullion.

Somerset Auxilliary Fire Service, 1968 (1968)Hestercombe House & Gardens

Somerset Auxiliary Fire Service posing on the main staircase of Hestercombe House, around the time the Auxiliary was disbanded on 28th March 1968. Chief Fire Officer, A. L. Bullion, is seated in the second row from the front in the centre.

Fire Brigade Control in the Column Room, 1971 (1971)Hestercombe House & Gardens

Partitions were erected in the 1960s at the eastern end of what is now the Column Room Restaurant, opposite the entrance, to create a cloakroom and office for the Station Officer.

The Control Consol with its individual workstations was positioned at the other end, near a large semi-curved map of Somerset that was fixed to the wall. From 1968 to 1984, 14 staff worked from the Portman’s former sitting room in shifts around the clock to deal with emergency ‘999’ calls for the entire county.

Somerset Fire Brigade members being instructed in the use of extension ladders by the north front of Hestercombe House, undatedHestercombe House & Gardens

A Club Room with bar and dart board (now the Second-hand Bookshop), a billiard room (in the basement), pitch and putt course (Orangery Lawn) and croquet (Tennis Lawn) provided after-hours recreation for staff. ‘Half a beer was normal at lunchtime in the 1970s . . . the whole building was licensed’, recalled former Fire Brigade Engineer, Steve Pike.

Proposed alterations to the former Portman Chauffeur's Cottage, Oct 1969 (1969) by County Architect, Bernard AdamsHestercombe House & Gardens

The old Chauffeur’s Cottage at the entrance to the Stable Yard, now the offices of the Hestercombe Gardens Trust, was modernised for staff lodgings in the early 1970s.

At a cost of £1,300 a new boiler with Courtier solid fuel room heater (woodstove) and Fortic hot water tank were installed in the three-bedroom cottage, which was also given a new kitchen, additional storage space and a redecorated bathroom and lounge.

Head Gardener Wilf Perry, and his wife, Glad, finally moved in to their new lodgings in 1973.

Gardeners Wilf Perry (right) and Jim Stagg (left), 1976 (1976)Hestercombe House & Gardens

By 1975, the Rose Garden, Grey Walk, East and West Rills and inner Plat Borders had been replanted, stonework repairs were underway, and in addition to his part-time assistant, Harry Parks, Head Gardener Wilf Perry (pictured, right) was being supported by a second full-time gardener, Jim Stagg (pictured, left), who had previously worked as a groundsman at County Hall in Taunton.

Guidebook, 'Hestercombe House & Garden', 1980 (1980) by Michael LopateguiHestercombe House & Gardens

By 1980, over 10,000 people were now visiting the gardens annually and interest was surging. Visitors were given a deeper understanding of the Formal Garden with the aid of a leaflet.

It included a foldout perspective illustration designed by Michael Lopategui of the Somerset College of Arts and Technology, accompanied by text on the history of Hestercombe House, the lives of Gertrude Jekyll and Sir Edwin Lutyens, Miss Jekyll’s planting design aims and how the Formal Garden was built. This leaflet cost visitors 10p to purchase.

Chief Fire Officer L. E. Johnson at his retirement party, 1978 (1978)Hestercombe House & Gardens

For many years portrait photographs of retired Chief Fire Officers decorated the walls of the old dining room, a tradition that was temporarily interrupted when Leslie E. Johnson (1972-78) politely declined the honour on the grounds that it might bring about his premature death; two successive Chief Fire Officers, Mr. W. H. Barrett and Mr. A. L. Bullion, had died within a year of having their portraits hung.

Refurbishment of the Column Room, 1986 (1986)Hestercombe House & Gardens

Following the move of Fire Control to Room A142 (now ‘Gallery 6’ on the 1st floor) on 1st March 1985 (it remained there until 2012), the Column Room was revamped as a meeting room. The floor was dismantled and then reinforced with a rolled steel joist (RSJ), the two fireplace openings were bricked up and plastered over, new curtains were hung, fresh carpet was laid, and ‘some nice soft furnishings’ were added.

Hose drill practice by the Pergola, 1987 (1987)Hestercombe House & Gardens

The working week was frequently demanding, as Hestercombe Fire Brigade HQ became the venue for regular inspections, outdoor training exercises, courses on various aspects of firefighting, and a wide variety of meetings, including almost all inter-Fire Brigade meetings in the South West.

South Front Hestercombe House being replastered, c.1990 (1990)Hestercombe House & Gardens

In 1990 it became necessary to repoint the outer walls of the house with hydraulic lime, a six-month project that cost £20,000 for the scaffolding alone.

Maintenance of Somerset Fire Brigade Headquarters at Hestercombe was now being carried out on a 10-year rolling plan, with a survey of the house carried out annually to determine maintenance/repair priorities. Annual costs for the upkeep of the building had reached £80,000, up from £45,000 in the 1970s.

Extravaganza' at Hestercombe, July 1993 (1993)Hestercombe House & Gardens

Mindful of their important role in the County, the Fire Brigade also staged various events at Hestercombe over the years to raise money for worthwhile causes whilst educating the general public about the highly trained staff and modern firefighting equipment that was now available to ensure their safety.

In July of 1993, an ‘Extravaganza’ gave the public an opportunity to view displays on fire prevention, witness equipment demonstrations, and inspect an array of appliances and other vehicles parked in front of Hestercombe House and along the grass verges that straddled the main drive.

Visit of the Princess Royal, Princess Anne, 1995 (1995)Hestercombe House & Gardens

On 27th February 1995, Fire Brigade HQ played host to the first of two royal visitors when The Princess Royal officially opened the newly refurbished Control Centre in Room A142, now ‘Gallery 6’, after which she presented long service and good conduct medals to several Fire Brigade staff and inspected various Brigade vehicles.

Prince Charles touring Somerset Fire Brigade HQ during a visit to Hestercombe, May 2002 (2002)Hestercombe House & Gardens

HRH Prince of Wales followed on 17th May 2002 touring Fire Brigade HQ with Chief Fire Officer Clive Kemp, examining displays about the Brigade’s work with vulnerable groups in the community, and visiting the Formal and Landscape gardens at the invitation of the Hestercombe Gardens Trust.

Prefabricated Fire Brigade Workshop, built in 1957 on the site of today's Marquee Lawn (2001)Hestercombe House & Gardens

Only one substantial new build was ever undertaken on the estate by the Fire Brigade, a five-bay prefabricated workshop to garage and maintain special emergency appliances that were on loan from the Home Office for emergency training purposes.

Demolition of Fire Brigade Workshop, summer 2004 (2004)Hestercombe House & Gardens

Erected in 1957 at a total cost of £4,325, and modified in 1974 to include an oil store, machine area and covered walkway linking it with the ladder store in the adjacent orangery (now the Bampfylde Hall), the Fire Brigade workshop was demolished in 2004 to make way for the Plant Centre and Marquee Lawn.

Hestercombe Stables, now the Stables Cafe, 2001 (2001)Hestercombe House & Gardens

The Lutyens room (now part of the Stables Cafe) once contained Fire Brigade stores for scrap metal and charged batteries, with the adjoining stabling of loose boxes functioning as a Transport Store and housing engine oil drums.

The Girl Guide Store - they were allowed to keep their camping gear here - was at the far end of the Transport Store by what is now the Servery (in Victorian times a three bay carriage house). Originally a Tack Room with parquet floor, the modern day toilets once served as the mechanic's mess & changing room.

Fire Brigade Control, 2012 (2012)Hestercombe House & Gardens

Fire Brigade Control in its final location on the 1st floor (now Gallery 6) of Hestercombe House prior to its relocation to service HQ at The Knowle, Clyst St George, Exeter in March 2012. The Brigade’s state-of-the-art telecommunications systems were upgraded in 1994 at a cost of £1 million.

Hestercombe Contemporary Art Gallery (2016)Hestercombe House & Gardens

In November of 2013 the Hestercombe Gardens Trust acquired the freehold of Hestercombe House from Somerset County Council, reopening the stately home to the public the following year. Situated across the first floor of Hestercombe House, Hestercombe Contemporary Art Gallery aims to present the best in contemporary arts practice whilst focusing on the relationship between art and landscape.

We aim to be a place where art is not just shown but where artists and designers can explore, collaborate, research and respond to make new work through residencies and commissions.

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