Meet Mavis - Downham Market’s fire engine from 1939, which is still going strong as a mobile catering van
06:30 17 March 2014
When Downham Market’s fire station went up in flames last week, it was thought that the town had lost its only engine in the devastating blaze.
But housed in a brand new garage in a village on the edge of Norwich lives a fire engine that helped protect the people of Downham Market almost 75 years ago - although you would not be able to tell from her appearance.
This Morris Commercial engine is affectionately called Mavis by her owners Geoff and Shirley Clayton, who live in Eaton.
However, it has been a long time since the vehicle was a red fire engine after being converted into a wireless communication vehicle during the Second World War, which then became a family camper van, and now serves as a Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) mobile canteen during 1940s re-enactment events.
Mavis, who can be seen on Norfolk’s roads around five times a year, was bought for Downham Market as a fire engine in 1939.
Mr and Mrs Clayton, who purchased their beloved vehicle for £300 40 years ago, said they were stunned when they heard that the town’s fire station and new engine had been gutted in a blaze last Tuesday.
Mr Clayton, a retired GP said: “We could not believe it. I almost phoned the fire service to tell them that not all was lost and we had a Downham Market engine here. We were glad that she was not still there!”
Mavis was barely used as a fire engine after she was purchased for Downham Market for £580 in 1939.
Soon after the outbreak of the Second World War, the vehicle was converted into a wireless communication vehicle as a precaution for if the Nazis tried to disabled the telephone service.
The 84-year-old said the vehicle’s original logbook and a photograph of the Queen inspecting the fire engine at Sandringham had been lost many years ago. However, he was proud that part of Norfolk’s firefighting history was still going strong.
“We bought it for the children as a camper van from a man living in Suffield in North Norfolk and we travelled around with three children and a St Bernard dog that slept in the front. We had beds in the back and used to make tea in the morning from a little cupboard.”
“We used to go off all over the place to North Norfolk, Southwold and Yorkshire and she would go about 50mph.”
“She is quite a good runner and has suffered a bit of damage, but that is in control and there is not much to go wrong. She is one of the family and that is why we built a garage for her,” he said.
After several years of dereliction, Mavis returned to the Clayton family following a major renovation ten years ago and is used to help serve the troops at Second World War re-enactment events about five times a year.
She has also been hired out to provide catering at a 1940s-themed wedding.
Mr Clayton added that they had learnt quite a lot about Mavis’ history over the years, but they were always keen to find out more about her early life with the fire service.
The initials of those that used the vehicle as a fire engine are carved into the brass steering wheel.
“People are always interested in it. The nerdy people like to look under the bonnet and the ladies love the kitchen.
“It was not a fire engine for very long and did not do many miles. When we got her, she had 3,000 miles on the clock and she has only done 17,000 miles now,” he said.
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• Mavis (or DPW 111) was born at just about the time of the outbreak of the Second World War in August 1939.
• She is a Morris Commercial CVS 11/40 known as the Equiload.
• Joe Diver, the surveyor for Downham Market, purchased her out of his own pocket for use of the town’s fire brigade. She had a 35ft wooden ladder on top, a brass swivel searchlight on the near side windscreen pillar and a hand-operated brass bell. Four firemen sat on benches either side in the back. There was a 40 gallon water tank and a hose reel which could be run out through rollers in the side lockers.
• Following the outbreak of the war Mavis found herself at the Norfolk Fire Service headquarters in Hethersett where she was turned into a wireless communication vehicle. She served in this capacity through to the post-war period, but was only used in exercises.
•She was auctioned off as surplus to requirements in the 1950s to a Norfolk man who converted her to a camper van. Bunks were built across the bulkhead, and a sink and cooker down were installed and a table could be folded down to make a double bed in the middle.
• 1964 saw her arrival at the Clayton family.
• Following mechanical problems in the 1980s, Mavis was towed away to her old home at Downham Market and sheltered in a shed behind the fire station. Her condition continued to deteriorate.
• Mavis was moved to another shed in a nettle patch behind the bus garage in Wymondham where she went under renovation as a WVS canteen vehicle.
• She returned home in 2004. She is equipped with crockery, teapots and many other artefacts. There is a two-burner paraffin stove for boiling water with an oven. Two serving hatches have been created.
• Mavis’ engine is a six cylinder side valve with maximum break horsepower of 70. She has coil ignition and four speed gear box. She does about 12-15 mpg.