Lightbody’s Granda’s life on the fire patrol

Gary Lightbody and Johnny McDaid playing at The Venue in Ebrington.
Gary Lightbody and Johnny McDaid playing at The Venue in Ebrington.

Among the names on the Diamond War Memorial is Corporal Thomas Wray, 10th Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers (Derry Volunteers).

He was the husband of Elizabeth Wray, 15, Fountain Street, and was killed in action on July 1, 1916, at the Battle of the Somme.

Thomas Wray was the great-grandfather of Gary Lightbody, lead singer of multi-platinum, Grammy-nominated, alternative rock band, Snow Patrol. Thomas’ son, and Gary’s grandfather, George Wray, was a fire fighter for most of his working life.

In February 1977, the Londonderry Sentinel published the following interview with him: “Few occupations demand more single-minded dedication than a career in the fire service and, after being ‘on the bells’ for nearly 32 years, Mr George Wray has found that old habits never really work their way out of the system.

“Although he retired from active service in 1969, George still finds that it only needs a telephone call in the middle of the night, or the flick of a bedside lamp, for him to spring to life, ready for action.

“His days as a fire fighter started in April, 1938, after eight years in the butchery trade, when he joined the Londonderry Corporation’s Fire Brigade, which was then stationed in Hawkin Street.

“At that time there were very few full-time firemen and they all lived at home. ‘We each had bells in our houses,’ George explained. ‘We operated on a twenty four hour basis using much the same system they have now in Northland Road.’

“The first ‘really good’ fire in which George was involved was at Lough Eske castle, a hotel about three miles from Donegal Town. Although the fire brigade was expected to cover only the Londonderry area, and a guarantee of payment had to be provided before the men could be called to fires outside the city boundary, George explained that they were frequently expected to travel to County Donegal.

“‘There was no fire brigade, as such, in Donegal, although they had the odd fire hose. The Corporation was paid a yearly retaining fee to ensure that the firemen could be called immediately if there was a fire anywhere in Donegal. As a result we did a lot of fires over the border,’ he recalled.

“Another blaze in those early years which left an indelible mark on George’s memory was the burning of the old Opera House in Carlisle Road, a fire which razed the building to the ground.

“When the Hawkin Street Fire Station was in operation, there were only 14 full-timers and 18 retained men who also had other jobs. The outbreak of war in 1939 and the expansion of industry soon meant that a much larger force was needed. In a short time the service was increased to 300 full-time men and 100 women.

“During the war years George moved to the Waterside and was stationed in a building known as Desmond’s factory on Prehen Road, adjacent to the former County Donegal Railway Station.

“The National Fire Service was introduced in 1942 and soon afterwards, provision was made for the men to sleep at the station.

Further changes followed at the end of the war and the Northern Ireland Fire Authority was created. It divided the province into four areas. The Londonderry Headquarters covered Enniskillen, Dungiven and Limavady and each town in that area had a station with part-time officers.

“Full time officers were needed to run the new system and Mr Wray was appointed Training Officer for Strabane, Castlederg, Limavady and Dungiven, a post he held for ten years. He continued to live in Londonderry and was also required to turn out at fires in the city.

“The Training Officer was the only full-time man in those towns and he was responsible for everything that happened in his area – ‘he had to turn out at any fire which occurred,’ Mr Wray recalled. ‘All my men were part-timers and the only way of calling them was with the old air-raid sirens.’

“In 1960 he returned to take charge in Londonderry as Station Officer in Waterside and, during that time, witnessed a number of serious fires including one in Fahan Street in which four people lost their lives and another in Eden Place in Bogside, where an old woman and man perished in the flames.

“The most difficult fires to fight were those which took place on ships, particularly if they were between decks as this meant that the flames were coming up at the firemen. One particular fire on a potato boat, which was started after a row at a party, stands out in his memory.

“The firemen succeeded in bringing seven men out from below the decks, and the story made headlines in all the English papers. Mr Wray was praised on all sides and, if bravery awards had been issued to firemen at that time, there is no doubt that Mr Wray would have been suitably honoured.

“The Waterside Fire Station was, in George’s words, ‘suited to the emergency, but it was never really a fire station,’ and in 1961, he moved to the present building in Northland Road. ‘All the stations now had the best possible equipment and the facilities in Northland Road were second to none.’

“The Melville Hotel was the most frequent casualty during George’s years as a fireman. He fought in three different fires in the former Melville Hotel – he had retired by the time of the fourth fire when two firemen, whom he had personally trained and recommended for promotion, tragically lost their lives.

“He also recalls the burning of the Embassy when it was so cold that hoses were frozen to the ladders and the ground, and one fireman’s tunic was actually frozen to the ladder.

“In Mr Wray’s opinion, firefighting is exactly the same as it was 100 years ago although the equipment may have changed. ‘Modern equipment makes it that wee bit easier, but the technique is the same – you have to get in to get the fire out.

“‘Some things have changed of course, and you no longer have the problem of looking for a water source or a stream, and breathing apparatus now means that the fireman can work in the smoke in safety.’

“A fireman’s job not only involves considerable danger but it also leaves very little time to enjoy the benefits of a home life, and George recalled that, at one stage, he operated on a five days on, two days off, basis. For the five days he ate, slept and worked at the fire station, and on the two days off he was still required to be ‘on call.’

“Mr Wray, who lives in 15, Fountain Street, the house in which he was born nearly 61 years ago, retired on October 31, 1969, but he has been far from inactive since then, and worked as a Clerk of Works for a civil engineering firm until December, 1975, when he began managing M….. bar in Magazine Street.

“He looks back on his years as a firefighter with a great deal of pride and pleasure. ‘They were 31 years I’d start again tomorrow,’ he insisted.’ ‘I enjoyed every minute. It was a job where you had to have good friends – you couldn’t afford to fall out – and I was blessed with good men all the way through.’

“He was married to the former Miss Rebecca Finlay in June, 1934, and they have a family of seven children, five grandchildren and one great grandchild. One son is a chemist in Belfast; another is employed at Altnagelvin Hospital; three married daughters live in Lisburn, Bangor and Eglinton; and two other daughters are students.”