Didcot station caught fire in 1886. It was a large wooden structure, having five very narrow platforms below an all-over roof. The alarm was at once sent off to Harwell, where there was known to be a “manual” pump, and word was also sent to Oxford.
In due time the Harwell Fire Brigade appeared on the scene to reinforce the efforts of the Didcot station staff and the villagers, who with water from the wells at the nearby hotels, and the water-cart from Blagrave Farm, were doing their best to check the flames. The Harwell “engine”, brought on a wagon, and drawn of course by horses, was manned by a team of some six or eight men, among whom was Dr Richard Rice, then aged twenty-six. Another member of the team had a wooden leg, so the story goes, and this not being securely fastened, fell off during the hasty journey over the uneven roads, and its owner was seen hopping around on one leg when at length the pump got to work.
The now well-known and time-honoured tradition that the first brigade to arrive at a fire takes and maintains control of operations seems to have been observed at this early date, for the chief officers of the Harwell team took command of the combined operations of both the Harwell and the Oxford brigades. Despite their efforts, the fire was not got under complete control, and the station had subsequently to be almost entirely rebuilt.
Harwell men have long been noted for their wit, and when the ancient fire engine once again made a public appearance as one of the tableaux at the Didcot carnival in 1934, with some boys of the “Old Brigade” in attendance, it bore the legend
“Fires attended – Anywhere – Distance no object – Send a postcard”.