Martha one of our six-year-old twins screws her nose up, causing a small furrow of lines between her eyes. “What IS that smell?” she says giggling. Gracie, her sister, joins in: “It is AWFUL.”
The potent pong, a mixture of stale urine, sweat and general grime is admittedly pretty rank – perhaps not the best way to try and get people into a tourist attraction, unless, that is, you’re being shown around the original cells at the National Emergency Services Museum, housed in what was once a real-life police and fire station just outside Sheffield city centre.
Pumped from an overhead unit, the manufactured stench adds a layer of extra authenticity to the pokey Victorian slammers that are as basic as you like: four tile-covered walls, a rock-hard bed, and a door that thunders shut after you walk through it. “They were made to do that on purpose,” our guide Nigel Kind tells us. “It emphasised the fact that people were being locked away for a long, long time.”
Nigel is a former fireman (as are most of the other staff who work here) and his knowledge, enthusiasm and respect for the emergency services are infectious as he takes us around the museum, showing off its best pieces.
If you think that might be a short tour, think again. The three-storey redbrick building and yard out the back are packed to bursting point with hundreds of exhibits large and small, from tiny pin badges to full-on vintage fire engines.
The team, Nigel says, know they need to expand and funds are trying to be raised, but in the meantime, the somewhat higgledy-piggledy nature of the exhibits and displays certainly manages to keep our girls entertained.
Normally sitting on the pink side of princess, we’d half expected them to get bored pretty quickly while looking around engines, police cars and ambulances, but there are so many things to press, try and jump about on that they happily rush around giggling and drinking it all in, especially as they’re given a pencil and paper to try and track down six mini knitted dolls hidden throughout the museum.
Nigel’s an incredible guide too, which helps bring the place even more to life. He tells us stories from the Sheffield gang wars of the 1920s when Sam Garvin, a bare-knuckle boxing promoter, tried to take over the city after World War I, waging battles on the streets with rival George Mooney.
At first they seem like tall tales, until we find out that the wars led to the formation of one of the country’s first police Flying Squads and we’re shown books with actual mug shots from the day. A motley collection of ne’er-do-wells, their gritty faces framed by flat caps and bonnets – who knew Sheffield was the British version of Chicago?
Martha and Gracie pour over them trying desperately to find an Ellis somewhere (our family comes from nearby Rotherham), but to no avail – thankfully, we obviously come from good stock!
Elsewhere in the museum, they get to jump on all manner of vehicles, trying out a defibrillator on a dummy in one ambulance and posing happily for pictures in the driving seat of a fire engine.
The museum has more than 50 vehicles in total, from an original Victorian horse- drawn fire engine, to a NYPD replica car that happens to be a bit of a film star thanks to its role alongside Brad Pitt in disaster flick World War Z.
All around Nigel fills us in on the history of each exhibit, many of which are one-offs or incredibly rare – one cabinet even has a handheld water pump of the kind that was likely used to help put out the Great Fire of London.
Another room is a hive of activity thanks to a scout group who’ve taken the opportunity to ‘camp’ for the night in the museum – one of the special events, including ghost tours, that are offered out of normal opening hours.
As we move up the floors there are rooms dedicated to special events or types of emergency, the most poignant of which is a 9/11 memorial, dedicated to those who lost their lives in the attack on the World Trade Center.
A screen replays the events of the day, two passenger planes crashing into, arguably, what were then the two most famous buildings in the world. Images that are ingrained into the memory of anyone who saw them unfold live on TV – a new generation’s “Where were you when JFK was shot?” moment.
A pile of cards allows people to write down their thoughts and attach them to a tape, and Nigel periodically sends them or personally delivers them to his friends and colleagues at the Fire Department of New York.
The events here are somewhat lost on Martha and Gracie and other visiting children, but leave any visiting adults in a sombre mood.
That’s lightened somewhat when we reach the top of the museum where the resident police and firefighters would have slept when it was still in operation. There’s a shiny pole that leads to the bottom that we aren’t allowed to use thanks to health and safety regulations, but Nigel’s colleague Mike leaves his spot on the front desk to give us a demo. We hurry down the steps giggling for Martha and Gracie to press a mock alarm button that sets off a siren blaring and sees him slide casually to the ground floor with the agility of a man half his age.
Sadly, it’s time to go and we pass by the cells again, the girls holding their noses in mock disgust as they’re handed a tiny rubber, shaped like a mobile phone, as a prize for finding each of the knitted dolls on their list.
“What number will you call in an emergency?” asks Nigel as we leave. “999,” the girls trill in unison, reading the message on the back of their mock mobiles. It’s just one of the many things they’ve learnt over the course of a few hours – one that could serve them well in future – a fitting tribute to the museum’s many exhibits and the men and women who risk their lives to keep the rest of us safe and sound.