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A Local Hero

On 15 July 1960, the Western Gazette announced on the front page that Mr Herbert Swetman had retired after 46 years service with the South Western Gas Board and its predecessor, the Yeovil Corporation Gas Department. Whilst 46 years service was a matter for congratulation, Mr Swetman was remembered fifty years ago by many Yeovilians as the hero of the Town Hall fire in September 1935.

At about half-past three on Sunday morning 22 September 1935, fire broke out in the gas-lit turret clock on the top of the Town Hall roof, and within minutes the upper floor of the building in the High Street was in flames. Despite the Yeovil Fire Brigade’s early arrival, the flames had spread rapidly and the fire was too far advanced to save the century-old building.

The Brigade turned its attention to confining the blaze and prevent it spreading east to the Municipal Offices in King George Street and west to Messrs Clements’ adjoining grocery shop. However, a group four of gas meters and pipes under the stairs leading up to the Town Hall had been smashed by falling debris and high pressure jets of blazing gas were playing on the wall of the grocery shop. As fast as the firemen’s hoses extinguished the burning gas, the flames lit the gas again and unless the taps could be turned off, the fire would break through into Messrs Clements’ premises.

At about four o’clock that morning, Mr Herbert Swetman was woken by the police and told of the fire, and asked to try to turn off the gas. He was one of the Corporation’s senior gas fitters and was quickly on the scene. As Mr Swetman made his first effort to reach the meters and close the gas taps, stones were falling about him from the superheated walls, but he managed to turn off one before he was forced out by the heat and smoke. After a short breather, back he went into the heat and swirling smoke and turned off the second, before he was driven out again into the fresh air. Herbert Swetman was determined to finish the job and after another short breather, he went back in. In the dense smoke and flames he finally located the two remaining gas taps, turned them off, then collapsed unconscious and was pulled from the blazing building by Fireman F Clarke and given artificial respiration. With the gas turned off, the danger passed and the fire was contained.

Mr Swetman was taken to the nearby Mermaid Hotel, where he recovered, but the effects of the heat, smoke and escaping gas took its toll of his health which required treatment for the next 14 months. Being unable to continue as one of the Corporation’s senior gas fitters, Mr Swetman was promoted to Inspector, which post he held until his retirement.

Mr Herbert Swetman, was no stranger to action, having joined the army three months after the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, and saw active service in Egypt and Palestine. He was twice wounded, and on demobilisation in 1919, returned to his former employers, the Yeovil Corporation Gas Department.

Jack Sweet
Decemeber 2019

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