John Humphries

John Humphries

John P Humphries lost his life in the line of duty on the 22nd of March 1989. His Red Plaque was unveiled on the 30th anniversary of his death, the 22nd of March 2019.

A firefighter on the Blue Watch at Stanground Fire Station, John was killed by a major explosion while bravely responding to an industrial fire in the Fengate area of Peterborough. He was forty-one at the time of his death.

John’s watch responded to an emergency call alerting them to a blaze in an industrial estate, where a lorry carrying explosives and detonators had caught fire. One of the first firefighters on the scene, John was tackling the fire in the van when the explosion happened and he was struck by shrapnel. He was killed by the subsequent explosion which injured a further 107 people. He. His death deeply affected firefighters across the Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service, a stark reminder of the dangers frontline firefighters face.

John is permanently remembered with gratitude across Cambridgeshire and the Fire and Rescue Service. The memorial included dozens of people – some who knew John, some who were at the scene when the van exploded, and some firefighters who serve residents in Peterborough currently. The event started with a parade from The Town Hall, led by standard bearers from Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service and The Fire Brigades’ Union. They were joined at the front of the parade by a piper, members of John’s family and Mayor of Peterborough cllr Chris Ash. They marched past fire engines parked outside the Town Hall and over to the park. Firefighter Nicola Barlow, who organised the event, opened the service and introduced speakers, including Matt Wrack, General Secretary of the FBU who spoke about the sacrifices made by fire crews every day – and the importance of learning lessons when there were tragedies. Wreathes were laid by the Mayor, the FBU and Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue, before the plaque was revealed. Speaking after the service, Ray McDonnell, who worked with John, said:

“We got the first call at 9.36am. I was in my office when I heard a bang. I thought someone had slammed the door. When I got to the scene, I saw the ambulance officer. I asked what had happened and he said ‘you don’t know, do you?’ John was a big part of the watch. He was a family man. It was a small watch, but we were a close knit group. If he is looking down from above, I’m sure he would be proud today.”

Mr McDonnell said firefighters and their families had been hugely affected by what had happened 30 years ago. He said:

“The aftermath was horrible. Mums, wives and girlfriends didn’t want their men to go to work because it could have happened again. It could still happen again. It might not be in this county, but it will happen again.”

Rodney Brailsford has more to thank John Humphries for than most. Mr Brailsford was managing director PPS Print, based a few yards away from where the fire in the van started. He said:

“I was in my office when I heard popping sounds. I assumed it was another incident at the firework factory – but I decided to go and investigate. I found a white Mercedes van with its rear doors open. Inside there were very large – bigger than tennis balls – bright blue balls popping. There were the detonators exploding out of the back of the van – but the van was also carrying gelignite (an explosive substance.) I was within 30 yards of the van, when firefighters, including John told me to get out of the area. If it wasn’t for him I might not be here. It was not John’s lucky day, but it was mine. The service today was beautiful. It was great to see so many people here to remember John.”

Nicola Barlow said lessons had been learnt as a result of the tragedy in Fengate. She said:

“It is important to remind people of what we do. When most people run away from danger, we run towards it. As a direct result of the incident, changes were made to improve safety. Notices were put on vans and lorries if there were explosives inside. The old yellow trousers fire fighters wore were gotten rid of, and visors were put on helmets. Our personal protective equipment was improved so much.”

Cameron Matthews, FBU Eastern Region Chair, said:

“For 30 years John’s death has remained a deeply traumatic and heart-breaking event, etched in the souls of many firefighters in the Cambridgeshire Fire & Rescue Service. Over the past 3 decades little had been done in recognition of the horrifying sacrifice made by John and his family. Our members were determined that this could no longer be allowed to continue. In 2018, Cambridgeshire FBU members took the initiative and applied to the Red Plaque scheme and were one of the first to secure a community memorial for our brother John Humphries. Poignantly the first fire crew to ring this memorial bell on this 30 year anniversary will be Blue Watch.”

His Plaque can be found in a Bishop’s Gardens, a quiet park in Peterborough, where it commemorates his ultimate sacrifice and acts as a testament to the dangers firefighters face every day. Local FBU members have also commissioned a memorial bell to be installed at John’s station, Stanground, which will be rung every year on the anniversary of his death.

Below are memories added by those who knew John Humphries or had a story that they wish to share with you. If you have a tribute for John Humphries that you wish to add, please include your memory below.

Please help support our Firefighters with the Firefighters 100 Lottery, a weekly online lottery created to support firefighters, their bereaved families and to honour the bravery and sacrifice of firefighters killed in the line of duty. With your help we can have schemes such as the Red Plaque Project for memorials to those lives lost.

Learn about the history of the Red Plaque Project and discover other Firefighters that have also received Red Plaques.

Photo credits: Peter Everard Smith


  • Posted May 21, 2021 Reply moderated

    Nicola Barlow

    An honour and a privilege.

    I was at a Brigade Committee Meeting where Keith Handscomb completed a presentation on the Red Plaque Scheme. He spoke with such infectious passion about the project and pointed out that John was the only Firefighter to have died at an operational incident in our brigade, but had no permanent, publicly accessible memorial. I wanted to get involved.
    I did not know John - the Fengate explosion occurred two years prior to my joining CFRS - but as a Firefighter stationed in Peterborough, I was aware of the location of the incident. As a Watch, we visited the site and viewed a brass plaque located in the foyer of a coffee roasting company, formerly the site of Vibroplant. Driving away afterwards, I couldn't comprehend losing a member of my own watch and wanted to help create a lasting memorial not only for John's family, colleagues, members past and present, but also for the public to quietly reflect on the sacrifice John made.
    Thanks to the Red Plaque scheme, we were able to do this. It was an honour and a privilege to be part of a small group of volunteers that have ensured John Humphries will not be forgotten.

  • Posted May 18, 2021 Reply Report


    Feature in FBU journal 'Firefighter'

    After the event, key organiser Nicola Barlow wrote a feature in the June July edition of the twenty nineteen FBU journal Firefighter. In the article, Nic talks about her experience of organising a Red Plaque event and offers advice to others who may want to do the same for a fallen comrade. I've attached photos of the article here but you can find the feature on the online edition of the magazine which is available on the FBU website.

  • Posted May 18, 2021 Reply Report


    Order of Service for the unveiling event

    The FBU organisers wrote and published a short order of service for the unveiling event on 22 March 2019. This set out the sequence of events for the day and also gave some background of the terrible event where John lost his life. It's attached here as a series of photos for people to view.

  • Posted May 7, 2021 Reply moderated


    A moving & very well organised event

    This was a very moving unveiling which was attended by some of John's family and his former colleagues, some of whom who were with him at the incident where he lost his life. Firefighter Nicola Barlow deserves huge credit for her key role in organising the plaque and the unveiling event. The crews marched from Peterborough Guildhall with FBU banners before arriving at the plaque site, where a minute's silence was held in memory of John - sounded by a Fire Service bell. The standards of Cambridgeshire Fire & Rescue Service and the Fire Brigades Union were present and a piper played the Firefighters lament. An exceptionally well organised and dignifed event which exemplifies the spirit and purpose of the Red Plaque project.

  • Posted April 29, 2021 Reply Report

    Cameron Matthews

    After decades of neglect by my fire & rescue service, it was one of the proudest moments of my career being part of the FBU team that organised a Red Plaque for Firefighter John Humphries in 2019. A particular special mention should go to firefighters Nicola Barlow and Rob Allport in the organising. I personally hadn’t known John. He died on 22nd March 1989 in horrific blast in Fengate, Peterborough. But from the moment I joined the fire and rescue service I knew he was the only firefighter in my small brigade to die in the line of duty since WWII. So it always felt so wrong that there was no memorial to remember his bravery and sacrifice. The Red Plaque scheme gave us firefighters the opportunity to finally correct this. There is now a Red Plaque memorial and place of remembrance in the heart of the city that John dedicated his working life protecting. Thanks to the Red Plaque scheme we were able to bring together John’s family, friends, local firefighters and the community for a respectful unveiling event on the 30th anniversary of his death, ensuring he will never be forgotten.

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