There aren’t many 80-year old vehicles still racing around the West Midlands roads, but Mike and Julie Blenkinsop spotlight Leyland Cub FK6 that’s one of them.
Built in 1936, ‘Belinda’ is a Leyland Cub FK6, bought by Cape Hill Brewery Fire Brigade on September 14th, 1937. Cape Hill Brewery brigade was established in 1882 with a manual pump, a horse cart and 400-ft of leather hose! The brigade became known as the finest private brigade in the country; its modern station being opened by Sir William Waters Butler in 1927. The brewery was then owned by two local brewing family firms, Mitchell and Butler; leading chief officers up until 1946 were ‘Mitchell’ family members.
The Cub served the Smethwick-based brewery well, right through the war years. Eventually it was sold-off, and ended up in a scrapyard in Brownhills, West Midlands. However, after a very long and often tortuous restoration by enthusiast Chris Wannell, ‘Belinda’ (as she was informally named by the Wannell family), celebrated her 80th birthday in style by returning to her old stamping ground in Smethwick, on September 9th, 2017.
An invitation had been sent out to former fire crew members to celebrate with her at this octogenarian event, and 15 of them turned up. Following the obligatory candle-extinguishing session on the 80-candle cake, the veterans climbed aboard the machine that was to be driven by Chris Wannell’s son, Martin, from the Smethwick Heritage Centre to the site of the former fire station at the Cape Hill Brewery; the event day being sponsored by the Hedley Industries plc group.
Afterwards, at the reception in the centre, the old crew members recalled how riding the Cub during its service days was always an exciting experience, as they sat in the open air being whisked along at a top speed of around 30mph. One chap said, that it always felt more like a 100mph, as they were thrown from side to side, rushing to a fire! The bodywork on the Leyland was known as Braidwood-style, in that the firemen sat facing towards the road on each side of the engine.
The Mayor of Sandwell, councillor Ahmadul Haque MBE, and Smethwick MP, John Spellar, gave a short speech to kick-off the reunion. Many of the crew hadn’t seen each other for decades, and it was a great opportunity to catch up on their lives; many of the elderly team had travelled for hours to be there.
During the day, it was learnt that ‘Belinda’ had been an important part of some of the crew’s lives. Malcolm Parsons (87), from Warley, travelled from his wedding to Barbara on the truck in 1951, while Barry Rowlands (78) met his wife, Valerie, while polishing the truck outside the station; Valerie sadly died in 2017.
In the 1950s, women weren’t allowed on the Cub, except on their wedding day. One attendee had just celebrated his 66th wedding anniversary the day before the event although, sadly, his wife wasn’t well enough to attend.
Just like the proud father of a college graduate, ex-fire-fighter Chris Wannell, 76, reflected on the big drain on his resources, and of the many thousands of pounds spent putting the engine back together again. But, at the same time, he’s very proud to have achieved his goal, which culminated in this great day.
Chris found ‘DHA 555’ lying, derelict, in a dealer’s yard in Staffordshire 38 years ago, in 1980. So, what he actually bought was, basically, “a rolling chassis and a few boxes of bits”, which he moved to Foster Yeoman’s limestone yard until he could arrange a closer location to start the work on the vehicle’s renovation. Eventually, Chris secured space in Michael Scarrott’s yard, just over the road from his house, where work began in earnest.
A £500 grant from the Transport Trust helped to replace the electrics but, sadly, low-life vandals destroyed the new electric loom by pulling it all out during an attack. Chris is very complimentary about the service he had from Pirtek Fluid Transfer Services in Swindon, which supplied all the brake pipes for the 1937 Leyland.
In February, 2012, Chris’s daughter, Heather, reminded him of a promise he’d made, 32 years earlier, when he bought the engine. She was only 10 years old then, yet she asked him if she could go to her wedding on it in the future. When Heather announced her impending wedding, it gave the family the necessary impetus and focus to have the engine ready for the occasion. They had only eight months to rebuild it!
To say that time was tight was an understatement as, following hundreds of hours of the family’s determined efforts, work on Belinda was still being finished at 11 o’clock on the big day! Heather turned up at the church of St. Bartholomew, Wootton Bassett, on the arm of her father, Chris, after being driven there, on ‘Belinda’, by family friend, Pete Price, for her wedding to steam enthusiast, Charlie Cribbes, on the October 6th, 2012. After the service, the happy couple travelled to their reception seated in a trailer towed behind Charlie’s Aveling steam-roller!
It appears that the Leyland appliance had been much revered in the brewery. One gentleman confessed that he was the banksman when a brewer’s dray lorry reversed into the front of the Leyland. He said he did everything he could to stop the driver from hitting it, but the driver of the dray couldn’t hear him above the sound of the Leyland Beaver engine, until he smashed into the Cub. When the driver got out of his lorry, he started to cry when he saw what he’d done to the well-loved fire engine.
Another man said that he loved and hated the Cub in equal measure, as he was not allowed to ride on it until he’d proved his worth at polishing her. Apparently, the paintwork shone so well you could see your face in the side lockers and, if you couldn’t, the station’s Chief Fire Officer would make you polish it again until you could!
It was evident during the day how important the Cape Hill Brewery and its fire team had been to the people of Smethwick, who still held the company in great affection. One of the celebrated veterans was Vernon Fisher who, at 73, recalled his 20 years as a full-time fire fighter with the Cape Hill Brewery. He started back in 1966, and continued until the brigade was disbanded in 1986, retiring as its Deputy Chief Fire Officer. The private company brigade was considered very efficient and professional, and would often be ‘first call’ to a ‘public’ fire as the people preferred “the Cape Hill boys” as they actually had better equipment than the municipal brigade, based in Rolfe Street.
There are rumblings that Chris is thinking about entering ‘Belinda’ for the London to Brighton run soon. Chris and his wife Audrey may also imagine the time when perhaps their grandchildren will take over and, in 20 years’ time, drive to the Smethwick Heritage Centre on the Cub’s 100th birthday.
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