THE recent retiral of Newton Stewart fireman Tom Howatson prompted a bout of nostalgia for many local as Tom has been part of the fabric of life in the town for half a century.
Tom kindly called into the offices of The Galloway Gazette recently to look back and recount some memorable events during his years as a fireman and running Davidson’s Ironmonger’s shop in Victoria Street.
He served the fire service for 37 years starting part time before becoming a retained fire fighter.
Tom said: “Since I started the conditions of service are a lot better the equipment and the uniform have improved over the years. I remember my first uniform was a jacket, a pair of yellow trousers and wellies!
“There were a lot more bigger fires in the old days. I have had to attend my share of fatal fires as well but the introduction of smoke detectors has improved things.”
At his presentation in the Fire Station recently Tom was presented with a pamphlet recounting the history of the fire station at Newton Stewart and some of the most significant fires they attended.
The station in Arthur Street was built in 1966 to accommodate two pumping appliances, commonly known as ‘pumps’ and an incident support unit as well as having accommodation for supervisory officers attached to it. Before that the fire station was based in Princes Avenue, where the old ambulance station stands. Going back even further, to the 1930s and 40s, the fire appliance was housed in McCreadie’s Garage, where the auction house now stands.
Some of the incidents Tom recalled attending were the blaze at The Galloway Hotel in Wigtown in December 1982 when five fire engines battled for eleven hours. The fire was well alight before it was discovered causing extensive damage.
The former Penninghame Prison went up in flames in May 1986 and Tom remembers attending the scene. Two pumps and one emergency tender from Newton Stewart were sent to deal with a serious fire in the second floor tower room which was used as a lounge by the prisoners. During the operation prison warders noticed that some inmates were missing but fortunately all persons were quickly accounted for. The results of forensic tests were inconclusive as to the precise cause of the fire, but pointed to a likely cause as being a discarded cigarette end, with a possibility of wilful fire raising.
He also was at the fire that severely damaged the east wing of Kirroughtree House Hotel in the early hours of March 1, 1982. Four pumps and an emergency tender stayed for twelve hours to battle the fire that started in the kitchens before spreading to the dining room.
Another frightening incident was the evacuation of 50 children from Woodland Residential School in February 1988 after a serious fire broke out in the south wing.
A sad incident was the tragic deaths of two young boys, aged 13 and 16, as the result of a house fire in Beddie Crescent in Wigtown in June 1978. Units from both Newton Stewart and Whithorn raced to the scene to battle the fire that had spread rapidly through the semi-detached house. The fire was so intense the roof collapsed within 20 minutes. The conclusion was the fire had started after burning embers fell from an unguarded fore in the room where the two boys were sleeping. As a fire fighter Tom has also been called up to assist in rescuing people who have fallen into the River Cree and at road traffic collisions.
Tom was also involved at the Lockerbie disaster in 1986.
He said: “We didn’t really know at first what had happened. We initially thought it was a gas explosion as most of Sherwood Crescent had been wiped out. When we realised it was a plane crash we were all stunned. We never expected that.
“But what was equally sad was attending to five fatal road crashes within in a half mile stretch of the by-pass outside Newton Stewart.”
Something different was having to attend at Cairnryan Port when breakers were working on the famous de-commissioned aircraft carrier The Ark Royal minor fires were a regular occurrence during the work.
But there were also lighter moments. One of the Newton Stewart pumps was on stand-by in Stranraer one night as their unit were busy. Called out to a kitchen fire at an address in the town, the old lady who owned the house was relieved to see the fire engine arrive at her door in a matter of minutes. She enquired where they came from and on hearing it was Newton Stewart she exclaimed “By God, it didn’t take you boys long to get here!”
“I will miss the camaraderie and companionship of the fire station. You had to rely on each other as your live could have been danger. You trust each other and rely on each other.”
As well as being involved in the fire service many locals will have fond memories of Davidson’s Ironmongers Shop in Victoria Street where Tom worked, man and boy, for 35 years until the business closed down.
The shops was renowned throughout the region, particularly in the farming community. The staff of ten were kept on their toes, Tom recalls, especially on a Friday market day when once the livestock has been delivered to the market the farmers came into the shop for anything from a fireplace to a light bulb.
Tom remembers; “It was a busy shop you could be serving anyone from a Newton Stewart housewife to Lady Galloway. We always had a laugh too. In those days many of the customers ran weekly, monthly or three monthly accounts. Over the years the you built up a rapport with the customers.
“There was also the Gift Shop across the road where The Galloway Arms bar is now.
“There was three other ironmongers shops in Newton Stewart when I started working in Davidson’s - Littlejohn’s, Forsyth’s and Kevan’s. We all came and went with each other and exchanged things that we hadn’t got.
“But the street is changing. Years ago the shops were busy and working for a business was almost a job for life. A lot of the shops have closed down and young people in the town want to move away for work. And if the new supermarket gets the go ahead the street will change forever I fear.”