Obituary: Richard James Knowlton CBE, firemaster

Born: 2 January, 1928, in Southampton. Died: 19 September, 2014, in Salisbury, aged 86

James Knowlton CBE: Firemaster who created and ran Strathclyde Fire Brigade, the second biggest in the UK
James Knowlton CBE: Firemaster who created and ran Strathclyde Fire Brigade, the second biggest in the UK

When the preparations were made 40 years ago to re-organise Scottish local government into regions and districts, one of the hardest tasks was faced by Jim Knowlton. On 16 August 1974, he was appointed Firemaster of Strathclyde Fire Brigade, with only nine months to create the largest UK fire service outside London.

Knowlton was a surprise choice to integrate the firefighters and stations from five brigade areas into one unit that would serve more than two million people, almost half the population of Scotland. George Cooper, the “fireman’s fire chief” who ran Glasgow Fire Service, was expected to be given the top job, not the more reserved firemaster of the smaller South Western Area.

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Knowlton himself expected Cooper to become firemaster while he would be made deputy or an assistant firemaster. “After the initial shock and euphoria at obtaining the firemaster’s appointment,” he said afterwards, “I soon realised the size of the task ahead.”

The new service inherited a variety of vehicles, some new and some very old, and an equally varied complement of fire stations. It served communities across an area of more than 5,200 square miles, stretching from rural Argyll to industrial North Lanarkshire, the urban sprawl of Glasgow and the towns and villages of Ayrshire.

Perhaps the greatest contrast lay between the urban communities where full-time firefighters operated state-of-the-art equipment and had relatively modern fire stations, and remote mainland or island communities in Argyll, where the local fire brigade comprised a handful of volunteers, the fire station was a shed to store a hose and stirrup pump and the “fire engine” was the local builder’s pickup.

To add to the new firemaster’s difficulties, industrial unrest was brewing. This reached a climax in 1977 when a national firefighters’ strike lead to Army “Green Goddess” fire engines being taken out of mothballs to provide fire cover across Scotland.

Strathclyde Fire Brigade came into operation in May 1975. Very soon Jim Knowlton was introducing measures, such as a review of specialist equipment including turntable ladders, to reduce unevenness of fire and rescue cover. At a time of severe cuts across all council departments, he had to take tough decisions: these included trimming back on planned service improvements and pensioning off the River Clyde fireboat St Mungo.

Jim Knowlton did, however, succeed in 1975 in persuading the Region’s Police and Fire Committee to invest in new fire engines, including eight machines built at Irvine. He also selected Hamilton as the site of the headquarters. In subsequent years, as purse strings were loosened, many new investments were made in the brigade, including the construction of fire stations at Cowcaddens, Govan and Springburn in Glasgow, and also at Muirkirk and Kilbirnie.

In 1977, Jim Knowlton was awarded the Queen’s Fire Service Medal, and in 1983 he received the CBE.

In September 1984, he stood down from Strathclyde to become Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Fire Services in Scotland.

Looking back on his ten years with Strathclyde, he said: “They have been the most eventful years of my life and although there have been times of frustration and great difficulty, there have also been many notable advances and examples for pride and satisfaction.”

Jim Knowlton was a native of Hampshire. In 1947 he was called up for national service and he was spent two years with 42 Commando of the Royal Marines, serving in Hong Kong and Malta.

In 1948 he joined Southampton Fire Brigade and worked his way through the ranks before moving to London Fire Brigade as an assistant divisional officer in 1963. After several years as divisional commander of London’s B Division (Clapham) he moved to Scotland in 1971 to run the South Western Fire Brigade, where he carried out a programme of reforms.

During his fire service career, Jim Knowlton was president of the Chief and Assistant Fire Officers’ Association, chairman of the Fire Services’ Benevolent Fund and vice-president of the European Association of Professional Fire Brigade Officers. He continued his public service into retirement as a volunteer for the National Trust for 19 years.

Jim Knowlton is survived by his wife Pamela, whom he married in 1949, and his son Richard.