Emergency rescue

Fire & Police Museum, West Bar : Benjamin Bates (3) and curator Matt Wakefield on a 1920s fire engine
Fire & Police Museum, West Bar : Benjamin Bates (3) and curator Matt Wakefield on a 1920s fire engine

IF you’ve passed West Bar roundabout over the last 29 years or so, every so often you might have noticed a wooden cartoon fireman inviting you inside to view the exhibits of the city’s Fire and Police Museum.

Up until recently, an average of 97 of you would have visited on one of the Sundays the museum was open.

Fire & Police Museum, West Bar : Jessica Atkinson (10) tries on a respirator

Fire & Police Museum, West Bar : Jessica Atkinson (10) tries on a respirator

Matt Wakefield has been a volunteer at the museum since the age of 13.

After a few years working at the Magna Science and Adventure Centre after leaving school, he suggested to the Fire and Police Museum trustees that it might be an idea to look a little more closely at the museum’s potential.

“It had always been a fingers crossed and we’ll keep going kind of thing,” says Matt. “I was told the museum was struggling, it was having to sell a fire engine every year to raise money and it actually got to the point at one stage where the volunteers had been putting their own money in to keep it going.”

Last year, Matt went to the trustees with the idea of a five-month feasibility study (funded by a grant) to look at how the museum could increase interest and raise funds.

“The old management stepped down and said they’d let me run with it. They said they’d just been plodding along and couldn’t lose anything.

“In that five months we started to bring enough money in to pay me full time, along with two part-time education staff.”

The museum was open all half term week this year with between 170 and 400 visitors per day. In the past there were 10 to 15 school visits a year. Now there are three to four visits a week, with staff taking emergency vehicles and other materials out to schools every Monday and Tuesday.

“Last year we wiped the slate clean and started again,” said Matt, now the museum’s curator at the age of 21. “It’s been one of the best things we’ve ever done.”

The ideas of the young curator coincided with a period when other emergency services museums were closing due to funding cuts.

“We are the only self-funded emergency services museum in the country and that means we’re the only one that can’t be shut down,” says Matt. “But museums in London and Manchester were all shutting to save money, so we had to make ourselves bigger very quickly.”

Holders and collectors of historical material related to the emergency services have been keen to find a suitable home for records, vehicles and other exhibits and increasingly that home is the 112-year-old former fire and police station on West Bar. It was also an ambulance station during the Second World War.

“We pounced on the idea that we need to get the entire lot of emergency services history here, where the story will be told properly, not just put in cabinets.”

Matt has no degree in museums studies, he says, just an enthusiasm to knuckle down, bring more people in, and work hard along with the volunteers to put together exhibitions and materials suitable for tourists and school students. He’s also gaining support from local businesses. Meadowhall has donated furniture for the cafe and education areas, for example.

Around a year after Matt took over as curator, the next step will be for the museum to open a new outdoor activity area in an adjoining former car showroom where children can learn how the emergency services tackle a house fire by working with hoses and other equipment. Matt hopes the new area will be open in time for the summer holidays.

The slightly longer-term plan is to be reborn as the UK’s National Emergency Services Museum, housing educational and historical materials relating to the police, fire and ambulance services. Matt’s hoping the museum will take delivery of five old ambulance vehicles from the Yorkshire Ambulance Service shortly – including the county’s oldest surviving horse-drawn ambulance, dating back 250 years.

Matt says the council has tended to see the building as a ‘back street museum’ in the past. “But now they seem over the moon about what’s happening. Sheffield is the only city without a national museum, so it’s very much in the city’s interests to bring the National Emergency Services Museum here.”

Some brown tourist signs wouldn’t go amiss, he adds.

The museum is now open every day except Monday and Tuesday, thanks to Matt and 18 enthusiastic volunteers.

Matt’s big idea is to turn the building into what was essentially a storage centre and part-time museum into a visitor centre to attract tourists and enthusiasts from all over the country.

The museum already holds “hundreds and thousands of items” and his aim is to get the exhibits out of storerooms and cabinets to “tell their stories”.

A quick tour shows the police cells with models of murderer Charlie Peace and 90-year-old mug shots of local villains. There’s a wartime scene created with the help of 1940s ambulances, and a selection of gruesome weapons picked up by Sheffield police over the years, ranging from a pitchfork and a nail-studded club to a modern knife concealed in a lipstick holder.

Then there are the collectors’ items, including police hats from around the world, a railway layout depicting Casualty-style accidents about to happen and a flag from one of the fire ladders attending the World Trade Centre attack.

Remaining spare rooms are being painted and opened up (thanks in part to people on community service orders) to store and display the ever-growing range of artefacts. And of course there are also the seven ghosts who’ve been resident for many years, says Matt, corroborated by several witnesses.

Matt recently brought the museum to the attention of Yorkshire’s tourist team. “They said, ‘This museum is a national treasure. There’s nothing else like it in the country’.”

lwww.firepolicemuseum.org.uk; tel 249 1999.