The threat of war prompted the government to create the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) under the 1938 Fire Brigades Act.
The recruitment of tens of thousands of new volunteers caused great concern among existing professional firefighters, especially FBU members. They saw the AFS as a threat to professionalism and to pay and conditions. The issue sparked a major debate within the union and created significant divisions. The FBU leadership, under general secretary Percy Kingdom, was opposed to the creation of the AFS and to any involvement of these ‘amateurs’ in the union. This view was supported by many FBU members as well as by key figures in the wider trade union movement. The general secretary of the TUC, Walter Citrine, described AFS members as a ‘transient horde of wartime auxiliaries’ who would be impossible to organise.
Against this view there emerged a group of younger FBU activists who saw it as essential to recruit and organise the AFS. This led to a challenge to Kingdom and the election of a new general secretary, John Horner. Horner argued that “the AFS could neither be left unorganised nor left to any other group to organise.”
While controversial, this new strategy proved decisive in establishing the FBU as a genuinely national organisation and as the main voice of firefighters during and after the war. The union recruited large numbers of AFS members and led campaigns to improve pay, uniform, conditions and equipment. Despite the initial difficulties, the horrors and dangers of firefighting in the blitz cemented a new unity between the AFS members and the pre-war full timers.
Read more on our blog 'Women blazing a trail'.