15. Betty’s Badge of Honour – 1941

This broken National Fire Service (NFS) badge has languished in the bottom of Betty Sparling’s jewellery box for as long as her daughter Jan can remember. Made of White Metal (a tin-based alloy) it feels cheap and the edges of the star are sharp. The raised pattern has trapped the grime of the years and it smells like a well-handled coin. Before 1939 this badge would have been made of sterling silver and with the King’s crown adorning the top, it would have been a totally different item. This feels very utilitarian and the broken clasp indicates poor quality.

Recently when Jan was clearing out a drawer she came across the badge and wondered about its relevance and history. After all, why had Betty kept an old broken badge?

Fortunately, Betty left her diaries under the care of Jan, she had wanted them destroyed but Jan just couldn’t bear to part with such a wealth of social history. Betty’s war diaries describe living through the sirens of the air-raid warnings and bombings, everyday life in the shadow of War and the Liverpool Blitz.

women!

When war broke out she was aged 19yrs and was working at the Cotton Exchange, Orleans House, Liverpool, as a secretary. No matter how many times she was woken in the night by the sirens to take shelter, she would be up the next morning travelling from her home in 23 Elmswood Road, Tranmere to Central Liverpool. She picked her way through bomb damaged streets and walked over hose pipes and debris when the transport services had failed and the roads were blocked. One day she got to work and found her offices had been bombed, so she rolled up her sleeves and helped to clear up the mess. Her life at the Cotton Exchange was to end abruptly though and on the 28th August 1942 she received her ‘Calling Up’ papers for the National Fire Service. She had been called to serve her Country, just as her friend, Bernard Sparling had been in September 1939, on the day war had broken out.

Just 21 days later she found herself in uniform entering a totally different world.

the fire girls

The NFS was created in August 1941 by the amalgamation of the wartime national Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) and the local authority fire brigades (about 1,600 of them). It existed until 1948, when it was again split by the Fire Services Act 1947, with fire services reverting to local authority control, although this time there were far fewer brigades, with only one per county and county borough.

The NFS had full-time and part-time members, male and female.

At peak strength the NFS had 370,000 personnel, including 80,000 women. The women were mostly employed on administrative duties.

The NFS was divided into about forty Fire Forces. These were subdivided into Divisions. Each Division had two Columns and each Column had five Companies.

Betty was instructed to attend an interview and a medical on the 3rd September and her final papers were received on the 11th September. Her last day at the Cotton Exchange was on the 19th September and one wonders what this 22yr old woman must have been thinking about what was to come. Today we have the freedom to choose what we do and when we do it. It is beyond comprehension that you can be forced to leave your job and your home – we should never forget what this generation gave up. It must have been frightening when on 10th October she was sent to collect her steel hat and respirator.

She was stationed at Priory Mount, Birkenhead and joined Blue Watch. She was desperately home sick on those first few days even though her hostel wasn’t too far from home. However, after initial training she was allowed to return home when she wasn’t on duty. On the 15th October 1942 she went for her first radio telephony lecture and on the 8th December, found out that she had passed her radio exam with distinction. Betty spent the next 3 years working this huge switchboard, presumably directing emergency calls to the fire crews.

Typical Switch Board and Blue Watch sitting on a Fire Tender.

Blue Watch were still being trained in September 1944 when they attended a wireless course in Birmingham. It sounded very intense. Lectures for most of the day, but also

practical tasks such as Squad Drill, Stirrup Pump Drill and Practical Telephony. During the second week they had exams and Betty scored 100% on one of her exams.

And what of the Badge? What was its use? Well if you look closely it’s on her hat.

I wish I had taken the trouble to ask how she felt about that badge. Thank heavens her diaries have at least shed some light on this part of her life and opened a window onto a much different world than the one we know today.

Betty received her final discharge papers on the 24th May 1945 her rank on discharge was ‘Firewoman’. Jan says ‘I feel really proud to know that my Mum was a Firewoman – and sad not to have acknowledged her war years when she was alive.

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