Spotlight on…The Essex Fire Museum

This month we talked to Laura Bayley at the Essex Fire Museum about how they are using Facebook Live events to reach audiences in lockdown, water squirting, and their plans for adapting their learning offer!

For people who haven’t visited the Essex Fire Museum before, what’s it all about?

The Essex Fire Museum depicts the history of the fire service in Essex and is one of the few fire museums in the UK. We house an array of artefacts dating from the mid-18th century and allow visitors the opportunity to take a fascinating look at how brigades have changed from the local town and parish brigades to the modern day service – plus how some things have stayed the same.

Enter into the Victorian period to discover what equipment was available to firemen and how physically demanding it would have been to fight a fire over 100 years ago. Our WW2 section explains the dangers faced in the UK and includes front line roles women could sign up to. You can also read first-hand accounts from local residents who recount their experiences of the war.

We’ll also talk to you about fire safety in your home and the importance of smoke alarms – so as well as receiving a history lesson you’ll leave knowing how to stay safer in your home.

How has lockdown affected the museum and your activities?

Due to the museum being held in the former AFS (Auxiliary Fire Service) garages at Grays fire station we close to visitors between the October half term and Easter as it gets rather cold in there. So when the lockdown was announced there were no immediate issues for us as we had no open days planned.

We would usually have held open days during the various school holidays, which of course we were unable to do this year, so instead we have made more use of our Facebook page to keep in touch with those who follow us and reach out to new people. In the past we have only really used regular text/photo posts to promote our activities. Now, however, we have held live sessions, posted videos and also post about more of our artefacts to ensure the museum continues to remain active even when it is closed.

We have been lucky in that we don’t rely on income from visitors to stay open, which has meant we can concentrate on alternative ways to keep the museum alive and in people’s minds until it’s safe for us to reopen – and continue to provide fire safety advice.

What new ways have you found to reach your audiences?

With social media being the only way we can connect with people while we’re closed we focussed on being more active and introducing new and different posts to keep our audience engaged – and educated! Though I don’t have the exact number, in mid-March the museum’s Facebook page had around 1,600 likes. Now, we have over 2,100 so, though not quite on the heels of the British Museum (1.5 million), it is a noticeable increase. Also, there has been good interaction on the posts with comments and shares as well as reacting to them.

What’s your favourite object in the museum’s collection?

We have thousands of items stored safely at the museum: engines, manual pumps, helmets, uniforms, hoses, medals, cutting equipment and so on, but my favourite item is something I didn’t actually see myself for the best part of a year. It’s an account of a bombing raid in Grays given by someone who was a young girl at the time and, when the siren sounded to warn of an attack, would make her way to the bomb shelter created in their back garden with her mother and grandmother. Unfortunately, it seems the shelter wasn’t particularly comfortable and was described as damp and cold. On one occasion an incendiary bomb landed near their shelter and started a small fire near their fence. The grandmother, on top of the general discomfort of the shelter, was even more aggrieved by this new situation and refused to spend any more time in there so went back into the house, followed by her daughter and granddaughter. The next morning the granddaughter went outside and saw scorch marks on the fence but, thankfully, nothing more, and kept the remnants of the device as a souvenir. They never returned to the shelter, the grandmother told them they’d be much more comfortable in their bed.

…Though our 1994 Dennis Rapier fire engine is a close second!

Why do visitors particularly enjoy your museum?

Undoubtedly the most enjoyable part of an open day for the children is the water squirting. Five of our engines are over 50 years old so quite delicate. Our 1994 Dennis Rapier, however, is still in working use so children (and adults) are able to climb inside and we’re able to use the pump to spray water as a firefighter would.

Other than that, the five fire engines clearly visible as visitors walk through Gray’s yard towards our museum are our biggest draw, especially with those who grew up watching them whizzing through the streets on their way to calls.

What are your plans for 2021 and beyond?  

Our Collections Officer, Roger Pickett, announced his retirement a couple of weeks ago so it will be the end of an era for the museum as its existence is entirely due to his enthusiasm and determination – and I suspect his wife’s wish for him to keep the fire engines he owns elsewhere!

The first change we’re going to implement is to recruit an apprentice rather than a like-for-like replacement. This is likely to be advertised in the autumn so please spread the word if you know anyone who might be interested. Details are being finalised but we’re looking forward to the new chapter of the Essex Fire Museum.

Other than that, I would like to introduce more interactive activities for visitors to enjoy as much of what we have is hands off so it would be great for people to be able to get more hands on. Part of this would be to hold sessions for those who are visually impaired. As just mentioned, our museum is primarily visual so we want to create some sessions to allow those who may usually feel as though there’s little point in them visiting feel welcome.

We are also looking to create remote educational sessions which would be available to schools. We are visited by local schools who want to learn about the Great Fire of London and the emergency services. However, it’s not really practical for schools further afield to travel to Grays which is a great shame for both parties as I still clearly remember school trips and what I learned from them. By creating such sessions many more school pupils would benefit as they would be able to talk to and ask questions directly to members of the fire service.

How can people get in touch with you?

When we are able to reopen again on a more ‘normal’ setting, we only open for general entry on set days during school holidays. However, bookings are taken for groups and special occasions so if other museum people would like to pay us a visit please contact us via museum@essex-fire.gov.uk to arrange a suitable time – it would be great to welcome you to our museum and share ideas! We are also looking to start an apprentice scheme at the museum, so if anyone has experience of running them, or traineeships, we’d be grateful for any advice.