James Braidwood (1800–1861) was a Scottish firefighter who was the first “Master of Engines”, in the world’s first municipal fire service in Edinburgh in 1824. He was the first director of the London Fire Engine Establishment (the brigade which was eventually to become the London Fire Brigade). He is credited with the development of the modern municipal fire service.
He was born in Edinburgh, the tenth child of Janet Mitchell and Francis James Braidwood, a cabinetmaker. The family lived in College Street next to Edinburgh University. By 1810 the family owned an upholstery firm, Braidwood and Son, in Adam Square and were living in Roxburgh Square.
James was educated at the High School in Edinburgh, east of his home.
Appointed Master of Fire Engines at the age of 24, two months prior to the Great Fire of Edinburgh, Braidwood established principles of fire-fighting that are still applied today. His training as a surveyor gave him exceptional knowledge of the behaviour of building materials and housing conditions in the Old Town of Edinburgh. He recruited to the service expert tradesmen – slaters, carpenters, masons and plumbers – who could apply their various fields of expertise to fire fighting. He also recruited experienced mariners for an occupation that required heavy manual work in hauling engines and trundling wheeled escape ladders up and down Edinburgh’s steep streets, as well as nimble footwork when negotiating rooftops and moving through partially destroyed buildings. His many original ideas of practical organisation and methodology, published in 1830, were adopted throughout Britain. He was, however, resistant to the introduction of steam-driven engines. In 1833 he left Edinburgh to lead the London Fire Engine Establishment. The London Fire Engine Establishment had to fight a blaze at the Palace of Westminster, on 16 October 1834, that destroyed almost all of the Palace.
Braidwood was distinguished for his heroism on the occasion of great fires in Edinburgh (1824) and London (1830).
Braidwood was the first witness at the trial of William Burke of Burke and Hare fame. He gave evidence on Christmas Eve of 1828, in his capacity as an Edinburgh builder, who had been commissioned by the authorities to draw scale plans of the notorious lodging house on Tanners Close where the murders took place. His evidence was simply to state that the plans were an accurate representation of the building.
On 22 June 1861 he died in the Tooley Street fire at Cotton’s Wharf near London Bridge station when a falling wall crushed him, three hours after the fire began. It took two days to recover his body. His heroism led to a massive funeral on 29 June in which the funeral cortege stretched 1.5 miles (2.4 km) behind the hearse, a public spectacle almost equal almost to the fire itself. The fire, which continued to burn for a fortnight, caused damage valued at £2,000,000, equivalent to £198,550,000 in 2021 and was considered the worst fire since the Great Fire of London in 1666.
Braidwood is buried at Abney Park Cemetery, Stoke Newington, London, not far from the Stoke Newington Fire Station. The grave lies on a path edge towards the south, rendering it relatively easy to see in this congested and overgrown cemetery. His wife, Mary Ann Jane Braidwood (1806–1871) was buried with him. He was also buried near his stepson, also a fireman, who had died six years earlier.