Remembered: Hackney's Second World War fire heroine Maisie Spooner, who served in the Auxiliary Fire Service
PUBLISHED: 14:59 26 August 2016 | UPDATED: 15:41 26 August 2016
Maisie Spooner, who served in the Auxiliary Fire Service in the war, died last month. The Gazette finds out how Hackney owes her a huge debt.
London Fire Brigade is a huge organisation. There are three modern, fully-equipped fire stations in Hackney, employing 130 firefighters. It wasn’t always this way.
Five hand-drawn water pumps were originally dotted around the borough, which were developed into functioning fire stations around the turn of the 20th century.
On the eve of war in 1938, the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) was formed, and thousands of volunteers reported to the 26 Hackney substations that had been hurriedly converted from schools and factories. Many were women, such as Maisie “Big G” Spooner, who served at Kingsland Road in Hackney for most of her career.
Maisie died at 99 last month, and her life was commemorated as part of the brigade’s 150th anniversary celebrations.
“She joined on a dare,” her granddaughter Amy Jo Simpson told the Gazette this week, “and she was very shy.”
That shyness soon evaporated as she was sent haring round London during the Blitz, dodging bombs and falling buildings as she drove her team’s fire engine night after night.
“As with every good firefighter, she kept going forward in to it while others went in the opposite direction,” added grandson-in-law Andy Simpson.
Women formed the backbone of the AFS. Most were cooks or drivers, but many were also on the front lines.
Cyril Demarne’s book A Fireman’s Tale details Hackney women who performed more adventurous duties, even though officially women weren’t supposed to engage in firefighting, and he says there were even entirely female pump crews.
Muriel Nyman told him of a particular incident on the way to Shoreditch Fire Station: “We were just passing Calvert Avenue, when a flying bomb exploded on a block of flats,” she writes.
“I was driving with both side windows wide open and the blast literally lifted the car from the road. It was a ghastly scene; there were bits of human bodies lying all over the road.”
Much of Hackney was devastated. Old Street’s warehouses were heavily targeted and much of Shoreditch was flattened, killing thousands. After every bomb, the AFS was first on the scene.
Despite a lack of equipment, and the inexperience of the AFS – 90 per cent had never fought a fire – their bravery and commitment in the Blitz helped change public opinion of firefighting.
Once derided as draft-dodgers, they were later hailed by Churchill himself as “heroes with grimy faces”.
For decades after the war, poverty and poor infrastructure in Hackney meant serious fire problems. Steve Dudeley, now fire brigade borough commander for Hackney, grew up locally in the ’70s. “We used to watch the fires from the higher school windows,” he said.
Steve joined the fire service in the ’80s, and told the Gazette there has been a massive change since then.
“I’d say there were about 10 times more deaths back then,” he said. “We used to call the three Hackney stations – Kingsland, Homerton and Stoke Newington – the triangle of fire. We saw some of the most action in London.
“The new housing built in the ’80s definitely improved things, and there’s a much bigger emphasis on community awareness now.
“Things like rubbish collection and sealing bins make a huge difference.
“I’m coming to the end of my fire brigade career, so it’s great to see how much more protected Hackney is from fires.”