It was seventy five years ago – in 1943 in Blitz-torn London – that Martha, the Austin turntable ladder came into service. Around the same time, Squadron Leader Johnny Johnson of the famous 617 (Dambusters) Squadron was the bomb aimer on their daring raids over Germany. It was a privilege to meet Johnny Johnson and hear him speak with clarity and without notes for a good 20 minutes at an RAF 100 lunch at Foxham on Saturday. He wrote out a message for the PM for me, which I will be glad to deliver to her.
Martha the fire engine went on to take part in the Victory Parade in 1946, but then fell into a sorry state of disrepair. Then in 1975, the Chief Fire Officer in Wootton Bassett, Chris Wannell, bought her as an old wreck, and set about the painstaking task of rebuilding her. Since then, to mark the great work done by his firefighting mates, Chris has used old Martha in her renewed pristine state to raise funds for the Firefighters Charity. Not only that, but Martha also graces every kind of village fete, wedding, fireman’s funeral, Royal Wootton Bassett events, especially the annual Victorian evening.
Last year Chris Wannell was kind enough to drive me and High Sheriff of Wiltshire, Sir David Hempleman-Adams up Malmesbury High Street, bell tinging to a 3000 people crowd in the Cross Hayes gathered to witness my (ultimately unsuccessful) re-enactment of the historic balloon ascent from the same square by my predecessor Walter Powell in 1873.
Well on Thursday last, Chris’s huge contribution to the Firefighters Charity and to so many other good causes using Martha was marked by a Lifetime Achievements Award in London. After it, we were given a great Garden Party in the garden of No 10 Downing Street, with Home Secretary Sajid Javid singling out Chris and the Wannell family for special praise for their efforts over so many years.
As I said I a little TV clip attached to the event, Chris is rightly honoured not just for his service to firemen; but for everything he has done for the town of Royal Wootton Bassett, including being the inspiration behind the Repatriation ceremonies. There are few events, or institutions, in the town that Chris and Audrey have not had some part in – sharing the Mayor-ship on four separate occasions, and giving some 70 years of collective service to the Town Council, and the Town in general.
People like Chris and Audrey and their children Heather (husband Charley) and Martin, are the very lifeblood of a decent society. They give their all, not for any kind of honour or thanks; not for money or position. The same could be said of Johnny Johnson and his like. They do what they do to pay back a little to their community. They truly put the needs of others before themselves; and they are driven by a love of their country, their town and its people. You don’t get many people like the Wannells and Squadron Leader Johnson, and it is good to be able to celebrate their great public service, and to salute them for it in this thoroughly memorable way.