The 'forgotten' fire fighting hero remembered 50 years after he paid the ultimate price, Manchester, UK
Station Officer Wilfred McLaughlan died in 1972, six weeks after being injured while fighting a blaze at Oldham Batteries in Denton. He had joined the fire service after already serving his country in war. On 25 April 1972 he was just three days away from retiring after a distinguished career had seen him rise through the ranks to station officer. On that day, when the call went up for Manchester crews to help those across the then border in Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancashire, tackle a factory blaze, he led from the front. He and colleagues from Phillips Park Station raced to Oldham Batteries in Denton, which was well alight. The huge site employed 1 000 at its height and fire fighters faced a volatile situation. But Station Officer Wilfred McLaughlan was directing his crew by walking towards danger. As they battled to stem the flames part of the building collapsed.
Wilfred was one of three fire fighters injured when a roof fell in.
The Manchester Evening News reported the following day: “Four firemen were hurt, one of them seriously, when a roof and part of a wall collapsed at the height of a factory blaze. The men were partially buried by burning timber and hot asbestos from a warehouse at the Oldham Batteries plant in Denton, near Manchester, last night.”
Station Officer Wilfred McLaughlan of Manchester Fire Brigade was buried up to his waist. He dragged himself clear, then another small section of roof collapsed and buried him again. He pulled himself clear again and was taken to hospital with severe burns to his face, arms and legs.
The other three were allowed home after treatment. Tons of paper used in making battery separating plates was damaged by fire.
"Station Officer McLaughlan is 55 and was due to retire on Friday after 26 years. He was Officer-in-Charge of Philips Park fire station since it opened in 1967. He was 'comfortable' today. A Manchester Fire Brigade spokesman said, 'It’s really tough luck that his duty should end like this'.”
Tragically, six weeks later, on June 9th, Wilfred died from his injuries after suffering bronchial pneumonia and peritonitis and 30 percent burns.
At the inquest Manchester Fire Brigade Chief Officer, Harry Lomas, said, "He was a man who has always had my greatest support and my greatest respect. It seems a terrible tragedy to all his friends in the brigade.”
The Coroner, Donald Summerfield, said, “This is a tragic story and I am told this brave man was only a few days off retirement. At every fire, firemen take their lives into their hands but it does not deter them.”
Now, 49 years after his death, a lasting tribute has been installed to mark Wilfred's sacrifice thanks to the efforts of another retired fire fighter.
Graham Bowker was a rookie when he first learned of Wilfred's story. "I joined Greater Manchester Fire Service in 1977 and was based at the old London Road Station," he said. "But we often had to go to other stations to provide support. I went to Phillips Park station and learned of Wilfred.
"It was only five years after he had died and his name was on a roll of honour inside the station but unless you were an operational fire fighter you would never see it. It was so poignant that he had been due to retire on the Friday and the fire was on the Tuesday before."
Graham retired in 2008. "It was a story that stayed with me during my career. I live in Denton and would regularly drive by the site where the factory once stood, which was demolished decades ago. "The site remained undeveloped for a long time. But then the Tameside Wellness Centre was built there. As a public building I thought it would be an ideal place for a memorial plaque to Wilfred to be placed."
Graham researched Wilfred's story and helped produce a memorial booklet issued at a ceremony on Friday (November 19th) to unveil a fire fighters Red Plaque in his memory.
Wilf married Violet Beatrice Kirby in 1945 at St Ann’s church, Junction street, Ancoats. They lived at 81 Farmway, Alkrington, Middleton and were married at the time of his death. Violet died on August 1st 1998 and is buried with Wilfred in Moston Cemetery.
In the booklet Graham writes, "Unfortunately we have not been able trace his family. All of us involved in this project hope that in future his family will be able to look at this plaque and be proud that his service and sacrifice will never be forgotten by future generations of fire fighters."
Wilfred joined the National Fire Service on 27 May 1946. It was disbanded two years later and Wilfred joined the reformed Manchester Fire Brigade. In July 1955 he was promoted to Leading Fireman; then Sub Officer in September 1956. In January 1960 he became Station Officer. He was in charge at Phillips Park from when it opened in 1967, a post he held until his death.
Graham said, "In the picture that we were able to find of him in uniform you can see service ribbons on his jacket. These were probably earned during service in the Second World War. Many who had served in the Royal Navy joined the fire service. “As fire fighters, we are always mindful of the debt we owe to our fellow firefighters who came before us. Although I heard this story as a young fire fighter, it has always stayed with me even though it’s been around 45 years since.
"When I saw the site where the fire happened was being built on I thought it was the right time to start trying to ensure that Mr McLaughlan and his sacrifice were never forgotten. We owe it to him to ensure that that doesn’t happen.”
The plaque was unveiled is part of the Fire Brigade Union’s Red Plaque scheme, which seeks to memorialise fire fighters who died in the line of duty with a plaque near to where the relevant incident happened. Three of Wilfred's colleagues from Phillips Park at the time he was fatally injured attended.
Fire Brigades Union regional secretary for the North West Ed Burrows said, “As fire fighters we want to ensure that our predecessors are not forgotten. They helped build and develop our profession through their dedication and service, something we all benefit from today. "McLaughlan and many other fire fighters have made sacrifices which we must remember and the Fire Brigades Union is honoured to play a part in remembering Wilfred McLaughlan and his sacrifice.”
Poignantly, the Wellness Centre where the plaque was placed is on Lance Corporal Andrew Breeze Way. The soldier, from Tameside, was killed while serving in Afghanistan in 2010 and the road was named in his honour in 2016. Aged 31 and serving under the B (Malta) Company, 1st Battalion of The Mercian Regiment (Cheshire), he was caught in an explosion and killed while clearing an area to increase security at a checkpoint.
The former Audenshaw School pupil and member of the Church Lad’s and Girls’ Brigade at Christ Church, Denton, had enlisted into the Army in February 1996 and served in both the UK and Cyprus as well as on operations in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Source: Manchester Evening News