The first organised municipal fire brigade in Britain was established in Edinburgh in 1824 whilst other areas at this time had volunteer fire brigades. In Ivybridge, it was July 1846 before a few local gentlemen declared at a public meeting that it would be ‘highly desirable that the important village and neighbourhood of Ivybridge should be provided with a fire engine’. The ever growing population of Ivybridge with its extensive paper and flour mills, woollen manufactory and tan yard significantly increased the risk of a major fire. Ivybridge had also become a tourist destination attracting large numbers of visitors during the summer months.
The local community of Ivybridge rallied around and together raised just over £109 enabling a fire engine to be purchased. The vehicle arrived in March 1847 and the Royal Farmers Insurance Office, in recognition of the achievement, donated 12 leather buckets. A modest fire station to accommodate the new engine was built using spare stone from the railway viaduct which had neared completion. The station was located in the grounds of a house in Fore Street close to the present Methodist Church. As the engine was horse drawn, suitable stabling was also provided alongside.
During these early years of the fire brigade numerous minor incidents were reported such as hay rick fires but on 27 November 1876 the brigade was called out to a serious fire at the Union Flour Mills in the centre of Ivybridge. The fire was discovered by an employee of Stowford Paper Mill on his way to work around midnight. He raised the alarm and the brigade along with the paper mill’s own small appliance were soon at the scene. Despite their best efforts they were unable to save the mill. The buildings along with all the machinery were completely destroyed as well as a large quantity of wheat. Thankfully the flames were prevented from spreading to the nearby dwelling houses whilst William Bennetts, the Mill Manager succeeded in saving 27 sacks of flour ‘but not without severely burning one of his hands’. Luckily all the account books were kept at Mr. Bennetts’ house in Highland Street and thankfully the mill was insured. It was believed that the fire had started in the upper part of the mill as the roof and upper storey were destroyed first.
Whilst the advantage of a local fire engine was clear to everyone in the village, the water supply was sadly far from adequate, with the existing reservoir said to be ‘at least 200ft. too low’. There was barely a trickle of water in some parts of the village making firefighting extremely difficult. The situation was not improved until the new water supply came on stream during June 1916, with the construction of the reservoir at Butter Brook on Harford Moor, recorded at 854 feet above Ordnance datum. With the old reservoir just 220 feet above Ordnance datum this represented a significant improvement and would mean good pressure for the whole of the district.
By the turn of the twentieth century the small original fire station was deemed inadequate. The Urban District Council recommended that a store in Western Road should be converted to create a new one and around 1904 the local fire service moved to its second location in Ivybridge.