‘LORD ‘KEMSLEY’S ROLLS
The Famous Rolls Royce Fire Tender of Borough Green
By Nicholas Wright
Every schoolboy will be familiar with the gleaming red “miniature of the Rolls
Royce fire engine in the window of his local model shop — model number Y-6
in the ‘Matchbox’ ‘Models of Yesteryear’ series manufactured by Lesney Products
of London. This tiny 48:1 scale replica bears the inscription ‘Borough Green & District’ along its sides.
“Borough Green & District? . . . Surely that’s the village in north West Kent?
How on earth did Borough Green come to have a Rolls Royce fire engine, and
how did Lesney Products come to make a model of it?” How indeed!
In the early thirties Borough Green had no fire service and relied for cover on
the brigades at Maidstone and at Sevenoaks, each some distance away — especially in terms of the time taken to reach a fire. A number of local properties had
been lost in fires and it was clear that despite the best of intentions and efforts ,
the existing brigades were just too far away to give Borough Green any real
protection. And so, in 1934, the local Chamber of Trade made the decision to
establish and organise the village’s own volunteer brigade.
A Fire Committee was formed, and among its leading figures were the two
Cloke brothers, Robert and Richard, who ran the long-established, and still
flourishing, family grocery business in the centre of the village. Other founder
members included Messrs A. Wilkins (Chairman), L.S. Daniels (Secretary), C
H. William-s (Treasurer), C.G. ‘Bill’ Kennett, his brother Arthur,’George Andrews,
Ken Ashton, Geoff Bacon, Bill Corner, G. Marchant, Fred Pierce and Harold
Woods, all as firemen. John Stone was also a founder member, and, despite being
well over 60, he turned out enthusiastically to every drill and practice. Chief
Officer Bob Bates of the Seal Brigade was co-opted as Training Officer.
And so the village had a Brigade Committee, but at this early stage it had
little else: no equipment, no premises, no funds, nothing in fact except a keen
spirit, an infectious enthusiasm, and an obvious willingness to work and learn.
They operated as a busy team and soon collected enough basic equipment and
funds to form the nucleus of an effective brigade. They had a stand-pipe bar and
key, a few lengths of hose, two extinguishers, and the use of Bob Cloke’s Morris
Eight grocery van. This meagre equipment was kept handy beside the van in the
grocery shed, and water came from wherever was the nearest mains supply.
A few (precious) maroons were bought and a launching mortar was made
from some old pipes. The Clokes’ business and yard became the fire station, and
when a fire call was received on the shop telephone, it was Bob’s job to nip
smartly out to the yard, fire the primitive maroon to call the crew, remove the
trays of eggs and sacks of spuds from his van, and quickly load the fire equipment and be ‘ready’.
The Brigade operated in this way for some time, providing efficient cover and
gradually increasing its range of equipment. The men quickly became proficient,
thanks to the capable training of Bob Bates, and they were perfectly happy with
the grand sum of one shilling a week as a ‘retainer! They involved themselves
wholeheartedly in fund raising and other voluntary activities. A branch and hose
was put in a locker outside the National Provincial Bank to give better access to
water in the village centre, and then came news of a portable single-cylinder
water pump up for sale. The price was high and funds were still low, but pumps
were scarce and the deadline for purchasing was within a week. Literally, it was a
case of ‘all hands to the pump’ as an immediate appeal and collection was
launched. A lot was raised, but not enough, and it looked as though this rare
chance would be lost — that was until a last-minute benefactor generously stepped
in with the balance. The deal was clinched and the pump was proudly displayed
outside the grocery shop to serve as a visible sign of progress, and to highlight
the need for further funds.
This was all very well, but the Brigade was still in sore need of a proper
appliance and tender. All the volunteers addressed themselves to this problem,
and early in 1935 Bob Cloke saw a box number advertisement in the ‘Daily
Mail’. A 1921 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost saloon was for sale at £30. Bob enquired
and found that the vendor was Lord Kemsley, the newspaper baron, and the
vehicle was to be seen at his Lordship’s residence near Slough.
Bob and his brother Richard set off to Slough, along with Harry Carter and
Bill Kennett. They were received by a chauffeur who proudly showed them the
stately vehicle, parked on the broad gravel drive in front of the big house, and
who was intrigued to hear that the four men wanted the Rolls to use as a fire
engine. He politely reminded them that the price was £30, and when told that
they had only twenty-five, he reluctantly agreed to present their case to his
master. Lord Kemsley appeared on the steps, together with Anthony Eden, his
luncheon guest, and a bargain was struck. Because the sale was to a charitable
cause, the press baron came down to £26. But there was only £25 in the kitty,
so the four men emptied their pockets and scraped together the extra pound
from their collective loose change. And with but a few coppers left between
them, they thanked ‘the Lord’ that the Rolls had sufficient petrol in its tank to
get them home as they proudly drove their thoroughbred back to Kent.
On arrival the vehicle was stored and was later handed over to Mr W. Bonallack,
a local resident who ran the well known coach building company in Cable Street
near Tower Hill. Bonallack set about converting the limousine into a fire tender,
but at quite some cost, and the Borough Green volunteers were quickly back in
their familiar roles of beggars, cajolers and general fund raisers — all for a very
worthy cause. Slowly the money came in and work was progressed until, in
October 1938, the vehicle was ready.
The big day came on 5th November (and what better day could there be?)
when the Rolls Royce appliance was officially taken into service, together with a
Dennis trailer pump and a full kit of tools and accessories. Miss K. Ewart per-
formed the commissioning ceremony, and it was thanks only to the unceasing
efforts of the dozen or so Brigade members and to the generous responses from
the people of Borough Green, lghtham, Seal and Wrotham – the four parishes
covered by the station — that this long-held dream became a reality.
At this stage the volunteers had attended twenty-three calls and the Brigade’s
coffers had been swelled by the insurance bounties on fires attended — for this
was their main source of outside income, and in every case each man had paid
his full share of any bounty back into the Brigade’s general fund — such was the
spirit of Borough Green! After Munich, the air of threatening national doom
swelled the Brigade’s membership as ‘many volunteers signed up, all eager to do
their bit. Frank Oliver and Leslie Dryland joined at this time, both of whom
were to give long and distinguished service to their community.
The converted Rolls retained its basic chassis and front end. lt kept the
famous 71/2 litre six-cylinder engine, which gave 70 mph and was renowned for
being ‘quiet as a silent sewing machine’, and upon whose radiator a penny could
be balanced, and it kept the gracious and distinctive lines of ‘the best car in the
world’. From behind the driver’s seat the body was rebuilt to take a small reserve
water tank, hose and tool storage, ladder rack and pulleys, and (rather precarious!)
seating for the crew. ln this sense a fire call was reminiscent of the early silent
films, for the crew sat in line along padded bench seats facing outwards along
each side of the vehicle, their feet were pressed hard-down on firm running-
boards fixed above the rear wings. Behind them, along the smalls of their backs,
was a long brass rail to which stout rope tassels were attached as hand-holds.
lt was very ‘Keystone Cops‘ but only rarely was a man lost overboard!
When fully laden the vehicle weighed two tons seventeen hundredweight,
and it had brakes on only the rear wheels! The Dennis trailer pump weighed
another seventeen ‘hundredweight, but this spent at least half its time off the
road, being dragged behind the engine with both wheels airborne as it bounced
along the Kentish lanes at 60 mph!
The registration number was BH 8112 (a pity not ‘BG’), and the Rolls was
the pride and joy of the whole village. It was also the envy of every other fire
service in Kent! It was lovingly attended and polished – gleaming bright red,
with its brass and copper fittings and pipes almost worn away with devoted
elbow grease. It shone and sparkled come rain or sunshine, and soon it was to
become a very busy engine.
In 1938, the Brigade was officially adopted as the local ARP fire unit, and
when war came the station was taken over by Malling RDC. The RDC paid for
the equipment and premises requisitioned, including a sum of £200 for the Rolls.
This money was invested in a trust fund for the firemen to draw upon should
they be injured in the course of duty, and the fund exists to this day. Thus the
old Rolls passed out of the trustee ownership of the small band of volunteers
and became ‘official’ property. Even so, the Borough Green men (and the village)
still regarded her as very much their own.
The German air raids in the summer and autumn of 1940 saw the Rolls in
front line action attending to many bomb incidents and air crashes, and running
the gauntlet of Stukas and Dorniers in the Luftwaffe attacks on RAF West
In 1941, the National Fire Service (NFS) was formed and Borough Green
came within Area No. 30 with headquarters at Maidstone. Additional tenders
were allocated or ‘acquired’, the Rolls was used less frequently, becoming some-
thing of an ‘old lady in reserve’. Late in 1942, she was taken out of service and
was ignominiously laid-up in the yard, cruelly exposed to all the elements. There
she languished for eighteen months or so, unused, uncared for, but not forgotten.
Then, in 1944, Leslie Dryland took a wife. The Brigade was unanimous in deciding that the only vehicle fit to transport a fireman and his bride was the old
Rolls, and so the men, with the help of the Boy Scouts, restored the old girl to
her former glory for what was to be a fitting swan song. But there were problems,
for the glycerine used in wartime cooling systems had eroded the engine water
jacket gaskets, and on the short run between Wrotham Church and the wedding
breakfast at the ‘Pilgrims’ Restaurant’, the old lady had to be fed as much water
as she had pumped out on to fires during her distinguished working life! But at
least she was running — although, alas, for the very last time.
A senior officer from Maidstone got wind of the Roll’s reappearance and issued
strong verbal instructions for the machine to be got rid of — he wanted it off the
premises, out of sight and forgotten about. The Borough Green men took him at
his word and they moved the old lady up the road to Wrotham where she was
hidden away amongst the hay in a barn on Wrotham Park Farm, behind the
‘Spring Tavern’. There she remained until sometime in 1948 when the Kent Fire
Brigade was formed and Borough Green became a retained auxiliary station.
Officialdom noticed that a Rolls Royce tender was still on its books, and instructions were issued for the machine to be physically produced so that it could be
properly disposed of. Borough Green prevaricated, protested and appealed, and
only under dire threat of legal action did they finally give up the fine old warrior.
She was towed away to Maidstone — never to be seen again.
Bob Cloke was the first Sub Officer in charge of Borough Green under the
Kent Brigade. He retired in 1960 and was succeeded by Bill Kennett, who in
turn was succeeded by Frank Oliver in 1965. Frank retired in 1968 and set
about searching for the old Rolls — he had hopes of finding her so that she could
be restored and brought back to her original home. He tracked the old girl to
Guildford, whence she was taken from Maidstone in 1948, but despite wide
publicity and national appeals, there the trail went dead. Hopes were raised
briefly in the early seventies when Alan Whicker, of television fame, reported
having seen an old Rolls fire engine during his travels about America. Thorough
investigation, however, disappointingly revealed that this vehicle was a ‘custom-
built’ machine, cannibalised from many makes of car, and had no connection
with the thoroughbred BH 8112.
There the story would have ended, but for the fact that Silver Ghosts are
never laid, and in 1976 Lesney Products, having been alerted to the vehicle’s
existence by the wide publicity given to Frank Oliver’s search, made enquiries
with a view to immortalising the old Rolls as one of their replica models. Mr Peter
Halliday of the Kent County Council Fire Department was able to search out
and co-ordinate advice, and Bob Cloke produced the original plans and blueprints
from Bonallack’s coach-building conversion. Frank Oliver came up with what is
thought to be the only remaining photograph of the old machine, and these
three worked closely with the Lesney design team. The result was a very realistic
miniature of the grand old lady.
Hundreds of thousands of these models have now been produced and sold
across the country and around the world. They serve as a fitting memorial to this
famous vehicle, the only remaining part of which is the original brass bell, sensibly
removed by a Borough Green man back in 1948, and held in secret safe-keeping
to this very day!