Above: The old fire station, standing at the junction of Perry Vale and Perry Rise. Notice the tall look-out tower at the far end.
One of the rather quaint fire stations still standing in Inner London today is in Forest Hill. It has not been in service for several decades. Whether you ever give the fire station in the area where you live a second glance is unlikely. Such buildings house an important service and we tend to take them for granted.
The London fire service that we know today came into existence in 1866 but the initial response to providing fire-fighting equipment in Forest Hill was quite patchy. There was a horse drawn pump based at the Crystal Palace. There was also a fire escape (a cart with a ladder fixed to it to rescue people from burning buildings) next to the Woodman, in Kirkdale. In 1872 a volunteer fire service was formed in Forest Hill but it was severely constrained and constantly in debt because it depended entirely on voluntary contributions.
After its creation in 1889 the London County Council (LCC) began building fire stations across the area of London under its control. The earlier buildings were typical Victorian Gothic – like those at New Cross and at Ladywell. By 1900 the Arts and Crafts style predominated and the building at Perry Vale is a fine example. Building began in 1901 with the foundation stone being laid on 4 July 1901. The architect was most probably Charles Canning Winmill, the LCC Fire Brigade Department’s principal architect. The building is considered a particularly fine example of an early arts and crafts fire station in Inner London.
One feature that was to be found on nearly all the early fire stations was a tall look-out tower. Men were detailed to keep watch and scan the area around the station for any signs of fire or even smoke. We tend to forget that early fire stations were erected in the days before the telephone and, on occasions, people had to run to the nearest fire station to ask for assistance. Although the first patent for a telephone design was granted in 1876, the use of telephones in London came later – with the first Post Office telephone exchange in London not being opened until 1 March 1902. Even then most of the telephones were installed for customers like companies and large shops. Very few private households had a phone.
The fire station at Perry Vale was opened on 22 March 1902, designed to house 12 firemen and their families. The 1911 census shows 10 firemen, 2 coachmen (who drove the appliances and cared for the horses) and their families, a total of 50 people were living in the station. The reason the accommodation was provided was because the firemen were on call 24 hours a day. This system ended in the early 1920s when shift work was introduced and the firemen had a fixed working week.
At the time the Perry Vale station opened there were two basic types of fire appliance: the pump, for extinguishing fires; and the escape with a ladder for rescuing people. The familiar dual-purpose fire engine, with both a pump and ladder, was introduced in 1934, partly for greater efficiency, and partly as an economy (reducing staff numbers).
When the new Forest Hill Fire Station on Stanstead Road opened in 1972 the Perry Vale Fire Station closed. In March 1973, within a year of closure, it was listed Grade II. Since the building closed as a fire station it has been used by Lewisham Council as a housing office. It has also been used for temporary accommodation. In 2008 the Council decided that the building was surplus to its requirements, and put it up for sale. In November 2010 Lewisham Planning Department received an application to redevelop the building as apartments.
Nikolaus Pevsner described the Perry Vale Fire Station as ‘an especially picturesque example of its type’. Recent surveys make it clear that although there have been internal changes, some original features still survive. We must hope that any plans for the future of the building respect its past. The building is certainly an interesting feature of the Forest Hill locality.
Some of the text in this article comes from a write-up on Perry Vale Fire Station by local historian Steve Grindlay (http://www.sydenhamsociety.com/2010/11/a-history-of-perry-vale-fire-station/).