When Chris Wannell, a former wholetime firefighter and on-call Sub Officer with Dorset & Wiltshire FRS, brought home a derelict vintage fire appliance in 1975, no one could have predicted the legacy he was about to begin.

Fast forward several decades, he and his family have raised more than £100,000 for us after transforming the appliance – which they’ve lovingly named Martha – and donating their time with it to Christmas Collections, Open Days and other fundraisers.

Chris, who was awarded our Spirit of Fire Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018, sadly passed away in 2021, but his wife, Audrey, daughter, Heather, and the rest of their close-knit family have continued his work ever since.

Chris Wannell began the incredible family fundraising legacy

Chris Wannell

“Martha is actually the same age as the Charity,” says Heather. “We brought her home in 1975 and she’s remained in the family ever since. Dad first spotted her in a fire station, while an auxiliary firefighter, and rescued her some years later from a scrapyard.

“Dad’s passion for supporting the Charity is something we’ve all taken from him. Every year, minus Covid, we’ve taken Martha out at Christmas to help with collections, as well as offering her to fire stations for Open Days. When Dad was awarded the Spirit of Fire Award in 2018, we predicted we’d raised upwards of £100,000, so we’ll be even higher than that now.”

And it’s become a family affair, as Heather adds: “My brother is Martin and he is Martha’s regular driver and grandson Bradley helps keep her maintained and is learning to drive her, getting to know her unique foibles.”

Heather, her mum Audrey and late dad Chris had all received our support over the years, so have seen first-hand the difference they’ve made.

'Martha' at a Dorset and Wiltshire Christmas fundraiser

“Mum visited Harcombe House after having a hysterectomy, and I had support at Marine Court after having the same procedure myself,” says Heather. “Dad also had help with arthritis, so we’ve seen just how much help is available.

“I’m now in the process of enquiring about a rest and recharge stay with Mum. She isn’t well at the moment – she had two strokes and a nasty fall. It’s been so sad to see someone so formidable now suffering in such a way.

“I’ve had a very difficult few years myself. We lost my dad and then more recently my marriage ended. A break would be so welcome… for both of us.”

Chris Wannell with his son Martin, who also became an on-call firefighter

Audrey Wannell received support at Harcombe House

Audrey Wannell

Simon Owen, Safe & Well Advisor with Dorset & Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service, was friends with Chris and has seen the family’s support himself over the years.

He says: “They’re such an incredible family. Chris’ legacy has carried on thanks to his wife, children and grandchildren.

“Anything they can do for the Charity or service, they’ll do. We as a service are extremely lucky that Chris’ family pledged to carry on providing their vintage fire engines for our events, all at their own cost.”

'Martha' has been central to many of Dorset and Wiltshire's fire service fundraisers

A huge thank you to the whole Wannell family for decades of support, we’re so grateful.

You can see our Spirit of Fire video with Chris’ family and friends here:

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