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Exeter Rural Fire Brigade

Serving Exeter, Sutton Forest & Werai

History of Exeter Fire Brigade

Our Exeter Rural Fire Brigade has a proud history.

From the early 1900s bushfire brigades in country areas were formed by farmers and landowners as mutual help groups. In 1927 a Royal Commission into bushfire control and prevention made several recommendations, one of which was that brigades be formed in as many country areas as practicable. Organisation and cooperation were recognised as the only way to satisfactorily handle the fire question.

It is in this period that our local brigade history really begins.

The list of Captains on the Honour Board takes us back to the early 1950s but the formation of local brigades goes back to the late 1920s in Sutton Forest and, in Exeter to 1939, largely I believe in response to the disastrous fires in January of that year, NSW was in the grip of terrible drought and after an almost unprecedented heat wave it seemed that the whole State was on fire. In the Southern Highlands the village of Penrose was virtually wiped out, Mittagong was in danger of being engulfed, with thirty homes lost. Bowral was threatened and a fire raged from Paddy's River to Exeter.

This wasn't the first time Exeter had been threatened by wild fire. Exactly ten years earlier, a fire burning on an eight mile front swept towards the town, but an army of 200 fire fighters fought hard to save houses and farm buildings. On New Year's Eve 1904, a fire started by sparks from a steam train swept through Werai, destroying the Greenhills homestead among others, before it swept on as far as Kangaloon. I mention this fire because it's a nice segue into talking about some of the names on the Honour Board and demonstrates the continuity in a community such as ours. In the early days, of necessity, all the small communities had their own volunteer bushfire brigades – Sutton Forest, Werai, Yarrawa Road and Exeter. There was little in the way of equipment in the 20s and 30s – firebeaters, branches and hessian bags were used and fire breaks were one of the few means of defence.

At Sutton Forest, one of the stalwarts of The Forest brigade was Ernie Ditton, who served as a volunteer fire fighter for 50 years from 1927. Ernie was a mechanic, so equipment, such as it was, was stored in his shed so he could fix and maintain it. When they got a water tank, it was housed at Newbury, because there was a truck there that could pull it. The Ditton family had been in Sutton Forest since the 1860s and for them, and the other early families, being involved in the brigade was part of belonging to a close community. Ernie's daughter, Kathleen, and her husband, Buzz Mackay, managed Munro Park for Reggie Gaskell, who was Captain of the Sutton Forest brigade in 1962.
Frank Badgery was the grandson of the early settler of Vine Lodge, Henry Badgery, whose family hailed from Exeter in Devon. The Badgery name is synonymous with our history, and with practical and financial support of the institutions that are so much a part of the village – the school, the church, the School of Arts, the CWA. It was Frank Badgery's father who was one of the locals who helped out in the 1904 Greenhills fire.LindaLinda Emery

Donald Akrigg is another of the volunteers whose family were very much a part of Exeter in the early days. His grandparents emigrated from Yorkshire in 1912 with their five sons and two daughters and settled in Exeter soon after. Some of the sons became farmers, and one, Benjamin operated one of the stores, now Village Pump Antiques. In trawling through the local papers for information about past Brigade Captains I came across a headline "Amazing Escape for Operator". Donald and his brother Bruce were working on their Rockleigh property pushing timber logs to the top of a hill, when the brakes on his tractor failed and machine and man went hurtling down the hill. Donald told the newspaper reporter that he thought himself one of the luckiest men alive, having been thrown from the tractor before it ended up in the ravine below.
Most of the early Brigade Captains were farmers, several associated with properties still well known today – William Grant Davies of Cherry Tree Hill, Colonel Palmer from Comfort Hill and Bill Mason from Whare Tau.

In March 1977 the four local volunteer brigades amalgamated to form the Exeter Rural Fire Brigade. The first Captain of the combined brigade was Peter Lawler, who would also become its longest serving Captain. I think the Badgerys are the only family who have been associated with Exeter longer than Peter's family, the Hilliers. His grandfather William bought a property at the end of School Lane around 1890 where he and his wife Ada Gambell, had ten children, one of whom was Mary, Peter's mother. Peter loved Exeter, its community and its history. Peter captained the brigade for eight years until 1985. From 1990 to 1994, his brother, Brian Lawler, took up the job so between they racked up a formidable family record. Brother Kevin was also on the scene when he came back to live in School Lane, helping out in many ways.

We have mentioned just a few to give a sense of the wonderful continuity within this small community. Behind these names are their many colleagues who have been with them in the good times and the bad. Volunteer bushfire brigades enjoy a very fine reputation within the community. They respond to many calls for help, they educate us in fire prevention and survival, and when it comes to the crunch, they put their lives on the line to help others. Over the years, brigades have become increasingly professional, better resourced and trained, but at a basic level, they continue to do what the Royal Commission recommended so long ago in 1927- organise and cooperate. We can't all be fire fighters, but we can all help and support those who are!

Linda Emery 12 December 2012

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