The century turned and the old Queen died. Edward VII came to the throne, his coronation procession marred or enhanced according to individual opinions by a fire on the route and the spectacle of a horsed steamer galloping past the procession. Perhaps the new mon- arch sitting in the State coach allowed his thoughts momentarily to slip back to the ‘sixties and the days when he regularly turned out as a volun- teer fireman. During the provincial tour that followed the coronation, there was consternation in Birmingham when, as the royal procession approached one of the triumphal arches that was decorated with a bust of the King, it was noted that the royal effigy was wearing a fireman’s helmet. The outrage was traced to members of the fire brigade, who were accused of lèse majesté and threatened with dire penalties. They gave an assurance that no disrespect was meant by their action, which was dictated entirely by loyalty and pride in King Edward’s well-known interest in their Service. They were let off with a caution.
Commander Wells and the London County Council were soon to face a storm of abuse and criticism over a fatal fire which occurred at 5 p.m. on June 9th, 1902, in Queen Victoria Street. The building was of five floors, the top three being occupied by the General Electric Company and staffed mostly by girls. On the top floor were thirteen young typists and packers, and the only approach to this storey was a spiral wooden staircase. On the floor below, lamp-holders with ornamental sprays of artificial flowers and leaves were being made, involving celluloid, rubber tape and rubber solution.
The fire broke out in a waste-paper basket in this department and spread with terrible rapidity and dense clouds of smoke; the girls on the top floor and a young man who went to their assistance were cut off. The offices had internal fire hydrants and a private fire brigade, but the orders to this brigade had recently been amended, the instruction to call the London Fire Brigade immediately having been rescinded and erased from the printed list of action to be taken on an outbreak of fire. At the inquest the hall porter said he had sent a boy round to the nearby Watling Street fire station, but no one was able to produce the boy in question. The brigade was actually called at ten minutes past five by a passer-by.
When they arrived they found a huge crowd, smoke and flame belching from the fourth-floor windows, and screaming girls at the fifth-floor windows. A message calling for reinforcement was sent and escapes pitched at the side of the building. It was impossible to pitch them immediately below, for they would have caught fire, but, anyhow, the standard London Fire Brigade escape was only fifty feet fully extended and the trapped occupants were more than sixty feet above the street.
A London newspaper said next day:
“The smoke rapidly increased in volume. Someone ran round to the firestation in Watling Street- not a minute’s run. The firemen promptly arrived with the fire escapes and reared them against the building. But by now- only a few minutes had elapsed- great volumes of smoke were issuing from the fourth-floor windows, and flames began to shoot forth. Almost instantaneously a huge crowd of people had collected on the spot, and as they gazed at the flames they were stricken with horror to see young girls at the windows on the fifth floor. A great cry of terror went up from the thousands massed in Queen Victoria Street and at the corner of Cannon Street. But above it were heard the shrieks of the hapless girls at the windows over sixty feet above the pavement. Men and women cried for the escape to save them, and the frenzied girls above waved their arms to the crowd below. But the Watling Street fire escape stood idle. The brave fire- man’s weapons broke, so to speak, in their hands. While the victims were yet shrieking at a fifth-floor window, while they were wildly waving to the crowd in their agony, while thousands of persons stood appalled at the spectacle, a fire escape, six or ten feet too short, was reared helplessly against the building, and the firemen had to look on- impotent – while the nine people were sacrified.”
There seems to have been some want of initiative among those first crews to arrive, for, though without hook ladders or turntable ladders, they were well practised in rope rescues from adjoining roofs and carried both ropes and jumping sheets.
Station Officer West, following some men of the London Salvage Corps, got on to the roof of the adjoining building but carried no lifeline with him. He chopped down a length of telephone cable with his axe and by that was lowered to the window over the projecting coping and dragged two of the girls clear. The special seventy-foot escape ladder then arrived from Southwark and two more girls were rescued with it, and West was dragged out unconscious and hauled by line on to an adjoining roof. Eight girls and the young man who had gone to their assistance were found dead.
There was a remarkable reaction in the Press. London and provincial newspapers headlined the tragedy and laid the blame squarely on the London County Council and the management of the London Fire Brigade.
“Wells Must Go”, said the Daily Mail in headline and poster. “It took the loss of nine lives to bring home the fact to the brigade that a fifty-foot ladder is incapable of reaching a window sixty feet from the ground,” said the Saturday Review. The Press did not mention the responsibility of industry and commerce reinforced by Building Acts and Workshops Acts to ensure that their employees were not placed in such death-traps, a far more important matter, for the wood horsed escapes were of a design that was unstable and very heavy if made longer, and the narrow streets of British cities were unsuitable for the American-type ladder truck.
Probably no fire in Britain has caused a greater sensation than this one in Queen Victoria Street, yet in comparison with others it was not a major disaster. A mill fire in Stockport the same month claiming nine lives went almost unnoticed, the death of fifty-one unfortunate mental patients at Colney Hatch the following January and of thirty-nine residents of a Glasgow lodging-house two years later caused little public alarm. A fire at Eton College the following year in which two of the boys lost their lives was also “featured” to an unusual extent, but this had special interest due to the prestige of the establishment, royal messages of condolence to the College authorities and the fact that one of the victims was trapped in his bedroom by the vertical iron window bars which had been placed there to prevent boys breaking bounds at night.
It is probable that the location of the Queen Victoria Street fire in a busy City street, the fact that most of the victims were young girls, whose screams had been heard by a huge crowd, and that Fleet Street was within walking distance combined with a shortage of other news to make it the Press sensation it became.
The inquest took place at the Guildhall and was closely followed by Press and public. The coroner in his summing-up said:
“The importance of the enquiry can hardly be over-estimated, involving as it does an investigation of the means taken to prevent the loss of life from fire in the Metropolis. If the jury find that the deaths resulted from the neglect of statutory or other obligations, then it would be their duty to determine upon whom and to what extent responsibility attached. A great mass of evidence has been given in the course of the enquiry, and, as always happens in dealing with the turmoil of a fire in a crowded building, much of the testimony was confused, inaccurate, and in some instances plainly at variance with the facts. Misstatements of this kind might be unintentional but such witnesses would have been better advised to leave out doubtful matters rather than to have made them the subject of definite assertion.”
The main questions put to the jury and their answers were:
“What was the cause of death?- -Suffocation, burns, shock, and injury, in accordance with the medical evidence.
“Did the private Fire Brigade of the General Electric Company materially contribute to the extinguishing of the fire? – No
“Were reasonable precautions taken against fire by the General Electric Company, having in view the number of electric lighting lamps and wires in use and the amount of inflammable material about the premises? ·We say No.
“Whether the deaths under enquiry were not due to the shortness of the fire escape sent from Watling Street Station? – Partly.
“Whether a tall ladder – say of 60 ft. – should not be taken in the first place to all fires? We are of opinion that this question be left to the discretion of the Fire Brigade officials.
“Was the call at Watling Street reasonably early? In other words, did the lateness of the call contribute to this lamentable loss of life?- The call was a very late one, and in our opinion contributed to the lamentable loss of life.
“Would the lives of some or all of the girls have been saved had the Watling Street escape been able to reach the fourth-floor window of No. 67, Queen Victoria Street, on its arrival at the fire at 5.14 p.m.? – Some might have been saved. “
“Does the City get all it has a right to expect from its Fire Brigade? – It is an impossible question for us to answer.
“Do you think that the premises of the General Electric Company, Nos. 67, 69 and 71, Queen Victoria Street, constitute a workshop within the definition of the Act? – We say Yes, most decidedly.
“Do you think that had proper structural exits been provided in the roof or elsewhere this loss of life would have been altogether or partly prevented? – We say Yes, altogether prevented.
“Was there any neglect of legal or other obligations or duties on the part of the following: (1) The General Electric Company; (2) the Metropolitan Fire Brigade; (3) any of the various officials who have given evidence; (4) any of the various authorities alluded to in the course of evidence; if any negligence has been committed, to what degree does that negligence, in your opinion, amount? – We say, with regard to the General Electric Company, here was gross legal negligence, but not criminal. With regard to the Fire Brigade, No, considering the appliances at their disposal. (3) We say Yes; we consider the factory inspector failed to properly represent to the Home Office the nature of the work carried on by the General Electric Company through not making sufficient enquiry.”
The jury added the following riders:
“(1) We consider that the Watling Street Station is totally inadequate to meet the demands of the district in which it is situated, and that it should be immediately reconstructed a first-class fire station. (2) We consider that the London Building Act, 1894, should be made retrospective as regards life- saving. (3) We consider that the General Electric Company, by evading the Factory Act and misleading the district surveyor, render themselves responsible for the loss of life. (4) We give unqualified praise to the Metro- politan Fire Brigade and the Salvage Corps.”
It appeared that the General Electric Company was in for trouble, especially as they had applied for a licence (which had been refused) to store rubber solution on the premises. They were able to prove, however, that the premises were not a workshop as specified in the Factories and Work- shops Act of 1901, and the Amendments to the London Building Act passed in 1894, which laid down safety codes for buildings over sixty feet high, were not retrospective to buildings built before the Act was passed.
The Press turned again on Wells and the L.C.C., and there was published anonymously a scurrilous little book of sixty-three pages called The Decay of London’s Fire Brigade, which opened with the words: “The Metropolitan Fire Brigade might naturally be expected to be the best equipped and finest organised in the world. It has the most valuable area on earth to protect. It is planted at a spot where it is the cynosure of all nations. It is splendidly placed for learning from the experience of others. It is backed by the wealth of London. It should be an example to the provinces and to other lands; instead, it is a warning.” Wells was accused of being hostile to innovations, refusing to fit bells on appliances and relying on the cold- fashioned shout”, of having a policy that had sent the death-rate and insurance-rate up out of all proportion, of being self-satisfied and inefficient and of being responsible for a decline in morale and efficiency.
All this criticism had its effects. There was much checking of local bye-laws in the provinces, and Bradford and other towns wrote to all occupiers of buildings which had floors too high to be reached by the brigade’s escapes informing them that they should make proper provision for the safety of their employees. In London, horses were kept harnessed to escapes at certain key stations instead of being in their stable at the rear of the appliance room. Each pair did a two-hour turn thus hitched and became very indignant if the period was exceeded, stamping and pawing for their relief, but, more important, London adopted the hook ladder.
The hook ladder had originated in France in 1826, and for that reason was known at the time of its introduction to Britain as the pompier ladder. Some provincial brigades had been using them since the eighteen-eighties.
They consist of a light but very strong ladder some thirteen feet long, at the end of which is a long barbed hook. Weighing only twenty-eight pounds, the ladder can be easily manipulated by one man who, hooking it into a window sill or other projection, can climb the rungs, seat himself on the sill, raise the ladder to the next window and then climb again. The ladder therefore enables a fireman to scale a building of any height sp long as there is a succession of window-sills or projections on to which it can be hooked and on which the operator can stand or sit during the next lift. A lowering line carried round the rescuer’s shoulder can then be used to lower those rescued to the ground.
Hook ladders are now carried by all brigades, and are useful as a general- purpose short ladder besides their main purpose of scaling buildings. They are valuable as a training adjunct, for a recruit who must trust himself at heights to the swaying hook ladder hanging from the window above him will soon gain confidence in any other equipment. It has been alleged that through accidents at drill they have cost more lives than they have saved, but this is not true. Hook ladders have produced some spectacular rescues, and the number of drill accidents with them is small and compares favourably with some other equipment.
A year after the Victoria Street fire Commander Wells sent in his resigna- tion. It was stated at the time that he resigned as a result of the storm of criticism that had engulfed him, but this is unlikely. He resigned to take the higher-paid and less exacting post of Chief Agent of the Conservative Party. He served in the First World War as Commodore and was knighted.
It was confidently expected that Gamble, passed over in 1896, would obtain the vacant post and he was strongly supported by the rank and file of the brigade and the insurance companies, one of whose representatives stated, “We are thankful every time we see Gamble drive up to a fire.”
The County Council advertised the post and, to the amazement of all, the six names put to them by their general purposes committee did not include the second officer. Three of them were naval officers and three were army officers. Captain James De Courcy Hamilton, R.N., was selected. He resigned five years later to take up a directorship of the Army & Navy Stores and it was said of him that “he knew nothing about fire fighting when he took over the command of the London Fire Brigade and that his knowledge in this respect had not greatly increased when he left”.
The L.C.C. advertised again, and again were recommended to appoint an officer from the services, but they turned down the recommendation of their general purposes committee and appointed Sampson Sladen, who had been third officer of the brigade for the past ten years. Once more poor Gamble was passed over and the reason is a lasting mystery of the London Fire Brigade. He was very popular, a tiger at fires and technically sound and well qualified, yet he served as deputy to four successive Chief Officers. At the time of Sladen’s appointment the men initiated a round robin signed by all ranks praying that Gamble receive the post, and it was said that the L.C.C. took umbrage at this unwarranted attempt at interference in their affairs by junior employees and that this was the main reason for Gamble being passed over. It seems unlikely, however, that the Council would act so unfairly, and the men had taken similar action when it had appeared that Simonds was going to be passed over in Captain Campbell’s favour.
Gamble is still remembered in the Service for his painstaking and all embracing book of over five hundred pages, Outbreaks of Fire, Their Causes and Means of Prevention. First published in 1925, new editions have been produced up to as late as 1942. Hamilton was the last Chief Officer of the London Fire Brigade to be appointed from outside the Service. Until 1938 the L.C.C. continued to appoint direct-entry officers, either engineers or officers of the fighting services, as assistants to the divisional officers who commanded the two divisions into which London was divided, one north of the Thames and the other south. They went through the training school with the recruits’ class and served a year’s probation, during which time they had to attend all fires needing four or more pumps under the supervision of the super- intendent. Today, regulations prescribe that all promotions and appointments must be made from the ranks.
In 1903 the British Fire Prevention Committee embarked on an ambitious and successful project. With the support of the National Fire Brigades Union they ran the International Fire Exhibition, placing the management of the affair in the hands of London Exhibitions Ltd., the proprietors of Earls Court.
The Exhibition ran from May to October; Austria, Belgium, France, Holland, Italy, Scandinavia and Spain were represented, while the Royal Berlin Fire Brigade sent such a large historical and technical exhibit that the whole of one of the halls was reserved for them. Foreign fire brigade officers were frequent visitors, and even American and Australian fire brigades sent representatives to see the show. Municipal brigades had their stands demonstrating their history and their modern gear; commercial firms, both British and foreign, reserved space and shewed their latest machines and appliances. Fire prevention received particular attention with exhibits by firms supplying building materials and fireproof electrical and heating equipment. The National Fire Brigades Union ran country- wide competitions and there was an historical pageant of British fire brigades from the Vigiles to the brass-helmeted, steamer-equipped brigades of the new century. In the evenings a great fire scene spectacle was put on against a huge black cloth of a burning building from which people were rescued by jumping sheet, escape and hook ladder, while steamers poured water on the flames simulated by flares and smoke canisters. This display was carried out by volunteer members of the National Fire Brigades Union. Before each showing “a very necessary notice was displayed cautioning the audience not to be alarmed at the cry of Fire” as it is part of the performance”.
H.R.H. the Duke of Cambridge accepted the presidency of the Exhibition, and in his inaugural speech said: “I believe that in the past the question of fire prevention and fire extinction have not been dealt with in this country to the extent that they should have been and I hope that the Exhibition will lead to more attention to these subjects to the great benefit of the community at large.”
The Exhibition was a success, despite one of the wettest summers of the century. Only one British fire brigade stood aloof and took no part, and that was London’s. The Metropolitan Fire Brigade had been one of the main supports of the earlier displays organised by the National Fire Brigades Union at the Agricultural Hall.
Sachs, in his foreword to the Exhibition catalogue, referred to people who “perhaps fearing comparison and criticism of their own policy of infallibility used the Exhibition as a suitable subject for attack or derision and succeeded in preventing support in at least one notable instance where most cordial co-operation had been expected” .
Perhaps that paragraph is the clue to London’s refusal to co-operate; Sachs and Commander Wells had had serious tiffs and the former was suspected of being the anonymous author of The Decay of London’ Fire Brigade. From this time until the Nationalisation of 1941, the London Fire Brigade became aloof from the provincial Service. Sufficient unto itself, many times larger than the biggest provincial brigades, it went its own way, rarely mixing with its neighbours, ignoring Associations, Conferences and Institutions, and accepting no provincial firemen into its ranks.
The new century heralded a revolution in fire brigade equipment; it came slowly in the first decade, but gathered such momentum with the years that a fireman of 1900 would have been amazed if he had been confronted at that time with today’s appliances.
One of the handicaps of the nineteenth-century fireman was the delay in getting to work at even a small fire because no water could be obtained until a hydrant had been opened up and the connections made. Brigades had had small hand pumps and stirrup pumps since the eighteen-sixties, but even then the bucket had to be filled on arrival at the fire. This state of affairs was overcome by the introduction of the chemical engine. This was a large cylinder of water (up to sixty gallons) mounted on the fire engine and connected to small-bore tubing. This tubing could be mounted on a reel and run quickly to the fire. The cylinder besides its water contained bicarbonate of soda and a bottle of sulphuric acid. The breaking of the acid bottle by pressing a plunger caused the chemicals to mix and produce large quantities of carbonic acid gas which drove the water through the hose reel at considerable pressure.
The machine could not be “turned off” until all the water was exhausted, so soon an improvement was designed in which bottles of compressed gas were mounted on the water container and connected to it by a pipe-line shut off by a valve. The opening and closing of the valve produced and shut off a high-pressure jet from the hose reel. Many towns ordered horsed chemical engines, and firemen then had a machine that would produce a “first-aid” jet immediately on arrival which would put out a small fire or hold a large one until a hydrant was got to work.
In Germany the first turntable ladders were produced in 1902. Here was the answer to the high building. Telescopically closing into a compass no longer than the fire escape, the self-supporting horse-drawn ladder could be extended by compressed air to eighty feet and swung on its turntable through 360 degrees. Manchester Fire Brigade acquired the first to be used in this country in 1904.
Steamers were being converted to oil firing, so obviating the cumbersome coal carts which attended big fires. Towns were buying self-propelled steamers; Leyland in Lancashire bought the first in 1902, being followed by Portsmouth, Plymouth and Liverpool; London tried them out the next year.
But the real revolution was the arrival of the self-propelled motor fire engine. It came gradually, with fire officers commenting “that the day might not be distant when a fire chief could run his brigade without the worry of a stud of horses on his hands” and others replying “that mechanical transport on roads was a ridiculous and passing fad, the horse could never be dispensed with”. In 1901 Eccles was the first borough to buy a motor fire engine. It was neither pump nor escape, but a tender to carry men, scaling- ladders, extinguishers, hose, stand-pipes and hydrant key and bar. With five men aboard it could run at fourteen miles per hour. It was made by a local firm, the Protector Lamp & Lighting Company, who were manu- facturing a small car called the °Bijou’. It was ordered in April, with the following resolution of the Committee: “Resolved- That the offer now submitted of the Protector Lamp & Lighting Co. Ltd. to supply a motor car capable of carrying five men and the necessary fire extinguishing appliances to render first aid at a fire, for the sum of £180, be accepted, the Company agreeing to maintain the car for a period of twelve months.”
The machine was delivered in September, the Eccles & Patricroft Journal reporting that
“The tender was handed over on Monday afternoon, 8th September, 1901. It was brought to the Town Hall by the makers, accompanied by Superintendent Hines and six men. Hines drove it about for a short time, after which the car was taken to the fire station at Patricroft. A call was made from the Town Hall, which was reached in seven and a half minutes, time being lost on the way when the road was blocked by a flock of sheep and a number of cattle. The trials passed off very successfully.”
But the machine was not a great success. The seven-horse-power engine did not give enough power and early next year there was an accident with unfortunate consequences. The Council minutes for February 10th, 1902, record:
“With regard to the cause of damage, the Sub-Committee have obtained a report from the Superintendent who admits that on the date mentioned the motor collided with an iron pillar in the Town’s Yard and explains that one of the Firemen was at the time learning to drive the machine. The Superintendent instead of reporting the accident to the makers and the Committee, endeavoured to repair the damage and his conduct in this respect deserves severe censure. The makers further complain that the motor has not been used in a reasonable manner, and the Sub-Committee are of opinion that good ground exists for this complaint and they intend to submit a further report upon this point.”
A month before Eccles took delivery of their motor fire tender, Liverpool Watch Committee were experimenting with a similar but larger vehicle.
They had been approached by the Royal Carrying Company’ of Liverpool, who were local agents for Daimlers, and agreed to consider a motor tender if it could be proved to their satisfaction that it was faster and as reliable as a horsed machine. The “Royal Carrying Company” built a special body on to a Daimler chassis and the fire brigade removed a sixty- gallon chemical engine from one of their horsed vehicles and fitted it. The machine also carried hose, stand-pipes and small gear with a crew of six men. Mr. G. H. Bechtel, one of the company’s employees, was in charge during the tests, which were to include several surprise turnouts in competition with the horses, besides any fire calls which came into the station. Bechtel kept his machine warm and ready, and noted that in the stables at the back of the appliance room a man was standing in each stall ready to see that the horses made a prompt response to the alarm bell. The first call was to an actual fire in a cotton warehouse and Mr. Bechtel got away so quickly that he left his crew behind in the appliance room, but they were able to catch the machine up! Horses and motor arrived at the fire together and the result was declared a draw, the company’s demonstrator noting with satisfaction “this was quite a good beginning as we had not been beaten and had not broken down”.
The engine remained at the station for a fortnight, attending all fires and generally a little ahead of the horses. On the last night a test call was given and in Mr. Bechtel’s words:
“Just before ten the alarm went, an address was given us, the men climbed in and we went all out down the hill into Dale Street. The police tried to stop the traffic, and to a certain extent were successful, but a tram came just where I had judged I could get through. I thought I could still do it, but the back wheels caught in the tram lines, and we hit the side of the tram, tearing out most of its side panel. We could not stop this time, and on we went past the Adelphi, up Hardman Street level with the galloping horses, using every atom of power that we could possibly get out of our engine. At last, as we gained the top of the hill, we drew ahead faster and faster. With our tons of weight behind, it would have been all up with us if we had hit anything, but we took the risk. The poor men behind were hang- ing on for their lives as the engine rocked from side to side. With every yard we went we were gaining round, and at last we arrived, and there was the Watch Committee waiting. We had won ! And as I went back to the fire station that night for the last time, I went with an order in my pocket.”
However, like the Eccles machine, the tender was not successful.
It was fitted with the old open-flame ignition system, which needed meticulous and skilled attention and caused constant misfiring so that the brigade christened their new machine “Farting Annie”. After extensive trials it was decided that it was not reliable enough for a first-turn-out engine and it was relegated to use as a stores tender.
So Mr. Hines of Eccles, having received his Council’s official censure and the Liverpool machine having been taken out of first-line service, the opponents of the motor fire engines felt their opposition justified, but not for long. In 1903 the Borough of Tottenham, which already had a self-propelled steamer, bought a motor escape with chemical engine, and built a new fire station at Harringay without stables or any provision for horses. This motor escape was built by Merryweathers and had a twenty-horse-power engine, giving a top speed of fifteen miles per hour; the chemical engine carried sixty gallons of water. At the formal opening of the new station the machine turned out in twenty seconds and “was demonstrated to the entire satisfaction of those who witnessed it”. It had been designed to the speci- fication of Mr. Eddington, the Chief Officer of the Tottenham Fire Brigade, who had been whole-heartedly supported in his daring suggestions and innovation by Mr. L. E. Ward, J.P., the chairman of the Borough Council.
The next year the Borough of Finchley bought the first British motor pump. This was another Merryweather machine, partly designed by Mr. Sly, Chief Officer of Finchley Fire Brigade, who had received the support and encouragement of Mr. Wild, the chairman of the fire brigade committee. It was powered by a thirty-horse-power engine and carried an escape and chemical engine for the first-aid hose reel. Through a clutch and countershaft the engine drove a three-throw pump with an output of 250 gallons per minute. Its acceptance tests by the borough in November 1904 were witnessed by large crowds and included a test turn-out to Christ’s College, Finchley, when it was reported that: “In a few seconds the escape was shipped and run to a top dormitory window, and the chemical hose was uncoiled and a powerful jet delivered. The fire pump was thrown into gear with the motor and drawing through three lengths of suction hose from the swimming bath sent a fine jet nearly over the tower which is about 160 ft. high.”
The success of these two machines caused a sensation in fire brigade circles, but the new self-propelled steamer and the old horse-drawn ones still held their own and were being ordered by conservative brigades. A feature of the time was trials between horse-drawn and mechanical fire engines; unless a mechanical fault developed, the machine was winning every time and such comments as “the horses though splendid cattle were dead beat” occur regularly in reports of these trials. Chief fire officers, however, had to be absolutely certain of reliability, and arguments and correspondence in the technical Press of the day constantly stressed this need.
The exponents of the motor engines declared that “the endeavour to introduce these new appliances has met with somewhat more than the amount of opposition that new things usually encounter” and certainly every breakdown and accident with motor traction received undue stress, though they were not uncommon with horsed appliances. The Birmingham Evening Dispatch mentioned that there was “likelihood of the Birmingham Brigade being provided with a motor fire engine but such a machine was still in the development state and nothing had been lost by its absence from Birmingham. The Worcester Fire Brigade already had one which was more a subject of amusement than success”. In January 1904 The Fireman stated that “Although the motor steam fire engine for large pumping capacity will hardly be superseded, there is no doubt that for escapes and pumps of small capacity petrol is the motive power of the future”. The writer was only half right. The self-propelled steamer hardly survived for five years after its introduction.
As the first decade of the century progressed, more brigades bought the new motors. In 1907 Glasgow had three, Portsmouth bought three the next year and Belfast became entirely motorised. London bought motor fire escapes in 1906 and motor pumps in 1908.
One of the effects of this mechanisation was that Shand Mason and Merryweather, who had shared the steam fire engine market for so many years, found themselves faced with a number of competitors. Denis Brothers of Guildford produced their motor pump in 1908,
Leylands in 1910. Halley-Simonis and Stanley came into the market, and the firm of John Morris & Sons of Salford who had been manufacturing escape ladders and small gear since 1865 produced their first motor tender in 1903, motor escapes in 1906 and a turbine motor pump in 1908 which was fitted with a small auxiliary pump to supply the “first-aid” hose reel from a water tank carried on the engine. This was a great improvement on the chemical engines and soon replaced them. With increasing mechanisation the big brigades had to set up motor-driving schools. A petrol motor was con- sidered both a dangerous and delicate piece of mechanism requiring con- siderable skill in handling; drivers were at a premium and industry snapped them up at enhanced wages when they were trained, so that it was necessary to make the men sign agreements on joining the motor class that they would refund part of the cost of their special training if they left the Service within three years.
The horsed steamer “died hard” ; there are records of brigades ordering them as late as 1923 and some of them in rural areas fought air-raid fires in 1940, but by the outbreak of the First World War they were becoming rare in the big cities and one of the sights of the times was disappearing. Many people now growing old speak of the thrill of seeing these steamers driven through a busy street. They stood in the station, a gas jet permanently under the boiler keeping the water near steam pressure. The fire was laid with coal at the bottom, sticks next and paper on top. On receipt of a call the engineer ran to his step at the back and threw a special fusee match which lit the fire down the funnel, the horses would be hitched and the machine would be away. Magnificently driven, the horses would gallop through congested traffic, sparks flying from their lightly shod hooves, and from the smoke- belching funnel, while at night the boiler fire threw a glow on the road beneath. The officer sat by the coachman ringing the bell and operating the hand brake when necessary, the engineer stood on the step at the rear holding on to two handles, and the other members of the crew sat on the hose box.
It was inevitable that accidents sometimes happened, but at that time it was generally accepted that a fire engine had the right of way. In 1909 a case was heard in the High Court in which a farm labourer sued the London County Council for damages after being knocked down and injured by a horsed steamer. The unfortunate man had had an arm amputated, besides injuries to head, back and hip. He attributed the accident to the negligence of those on the engine in driving furiously, giving insufficient warning of their approach, and failing to pull the horses so as to avoid running over him. The defendants denied that the engine was being driven at a furious pace and set up the further defence that, if it was, it was proceeding from the fire station in answer to an alarm of fire in Chiswell Street, and that the driver was discharging a statutory duty imposed upon the defendants and their servants by 28 & 29 Vic., c. 90, to take such measures as appeared expedient for the protection of life and property and for speedy attendance with fire engines in case of an alarm of fire. They denied driving negligently, and pleaded contributory negligence on the part of the plaintiff in ignoring the warning bell and the shouts of the bystanders, in failing to keep a proper look-out, and in turning into the horses on becoming aware of the approach of the engine.
After hearing several witnesses Mr. Justice Darling, in summing up, said that he did not see that there was any evidence that the fire engine was going too fast, especially considering the pace at which fire engines ought to go. The men on them were entitled to do what no one else might do, they might ring a bell and shout as a warning to people that they are going fast, and it is for the people to get out of the way. The Londoners, when they heard the engine coming, did get out of the way, but this old labourer from the country was walking about on the road when the engine reached him. What, then,was the negligence? According to the evidence, if the plaintiff had gone on instead of stopping suddenly and turning round he would not have been hit. If the driver had swerved he might have knocked down other people who were on the road or hit the plaintiff with the wheels, instead of the pole. One could not help being sorry for the poor old man, but it must be remembered that the matter was also a serious thing for the men on the fire engine and not a mere matter of money.
The jury found a verdict for the defendants, but earnestly recommended the plaintiff’s case for the favourable consideration of the London County Council.
Said Mr. Justice Darling: “If the London County Council give anything as a pure act of charity, the jury would wish the money to reach the plaintiff himself and be for his benefit and not for the benefit of those who brought the action when there was no proper evidence to support it.”
The judge’s comments gave rise to the impression that fire engines had special rights on the road but, in this country, unlike most others, there is no legal basis for such an impression and this was soon to be brought home to the Service after several cases in which motor fire engines were involved. What applied to horses no longer applied to motor vehicles and the toll of roads was soon to become so severe that public opinion would tolerate no exceptions, and modern fire engine drivers are torn between the necessity of getting to the fire quickly and of getting there safely. Instructions are that the latter consideration must always hold first place.
The passing of the horses was a gradual process, but it was attended with many heartburnings among those who knew and loved them and there are many stories of their prowess and sagacity, some of which may be apocryphal but many of which are well authenticated. In rural areas the horses were °part-timers’ who were hurried to the station on the sounding of the alarm either from a livery stables which was on yearly contract to supply or from some similar source. In some country brigades a quite substantial award was paid for the first pair of horses brought to the fire station on the ringing of the alarm bell, a system which in the daytime often caused confusion by excessive supply as butcher, baker or other tradesman galloped his horse to the station to claim the award and found that perhaps a dozen competitors were before him. But in the big city brigades the fire engine horse was the expert and the specialist without other duties. Most of the big city brigades had their own horses, but London after 1867 was an exception and always hired from contractors. The main contractor to the London Fire Brigade was the firm of Thomas Tilling; they supplied the brigade for over fifty years and in 1902 had 314 horses on hire to the L.F.B. alone. They produced an animal that was ideal for the work; strong enough to pull the heavy steamer and crew but not too heavy to gallop. The horses did not “enter the fire brigade” until the age of five, being first broken to traffic as the leaders of four-horse buses, and they usually served for six to eight years. It was a good life for a horse: excellent food that included treacle in the bran mash, good quarters and regular attention, including visits from the vet. One of the troubles was lack of regular exercise and on receipt of a call there would sometimes be erces- sive plunging and rearing in the excitement to be gone. They were lightly shod, sometimes even running on the frog so that they were very sure-footed and, despite some notoriously furious driving, accidents were not frequent. The big brigades sought the finest animals that could be obtained and though fire brigade committees might sometimes exercise the most stringent economies, they rarely did so in this field. In 1904 the veterinary surgeon of the Middlesbrough Corporation reported to the fire brigade committee that “the long-legged, long-backed Cleveland brutes”, they had provided were absolutely useless for the specialised work of the brigade he wanted a hunter type. He got them.
New horses were trained carefully by the coachman and firemen. In a well laid-out station the stables would be at the rear of the appliance room, the new recruit would be quartered there and the alarm bell rung. Time after time he would be led from the stable to stand under the pole of the fire engine and rewarded with titbits until he made the short journey with- out leading or encouragement, when the reward would be doubled. When a call was received, the stable doors and the main doors were opened by the pulling of lanyards, the horses without a word Or any other sign trotted out of the stables to stand by the poles, lines attached to toggles pulling off their rugs leaving them suspended, then the special harness hanging on pulleys from the ceiling would be lowered on to their backs. This harness had split collars with spring clips, and as the collar was lowered in the open position it fell across the horse’s neck and a fireman hooked the clip underneath. The machine would be away in under two minutes. Som times with new horses it was not wise to open the main appliance-room doors and the stable doors in one movement since the horses might gallop straight out into the road instead of waiting for the harness to drop.
Stories of the fire horses’ sagacity are legion and start from the earliest days. In 1851 the West of England Insurance Company’s brigade reported that they were called at 1 a.m. to “a fire at Deptford”. They started out, hoping to obtain more precise information as they neared the locality. Arrived in High Street, Deptford, one of the horses stopped and refused to move farther. Encouraging words, tugging on the reins and even the whip were useless. The dismounted firemen looked around and then through the fanlight of a house saw the reflection of a fire which had not yet burst out of the building. Contemporary accounts refer to the incident as “well authenticated” ! But some of the stories, though firmly believed by firemen, are too tall. When the Brown fire-alarm system was installed, the street alarms were connected to a large board in the watchroom and each alarm had a hinged brass flap on the board. The pulling of the street alarm allowed the appropriate flap to drop, disclosing a white enamel plate with the number of the fire-alarm on it. Many watchrooms had a window into the appliance room through which this board could be seen as the crews ran to their machines, so that it was unnecessary for the watchroom man to shout its number. One horse is said always to have looked through this window as he trotted to his position by the pole, noting which flap had dropped. He was the only member of the station staff who knew that his coachman was going blind and might want assistance.
In the town of Ware the liveryman who had the contract for horsing the brigade whenever a fire occurred is said to have had two horses which, on the ringing of the town fire bell and the opening of their stable door, would set off at a smart canter to the fire station, unaccompanied.
Contemporary with the firemen’s horses was the family of famous firemen’s dogs. The earliest of which any record remains was “Chance” of London. His recorded history starts in 1834 when he was “drawn from life” by William Heath. Beneath the picture is the caption:
“Stop me not but onward let me jog
For I am the London Fireman’s Dog.
“This dog is by right the property of a weaver in Spital Fields, who lost him a few years ago. When going to see a fire which broke out in the neighbourhood he was surprised to see his long-lost dog very busy among the firemen; he claimed and chained him up, but on regaining his liberty returned to the London Fire Establishment which he makes his head- quarters. On a fire occurring he starts with the engine and is seen scramb- ling amidst fire and water running from one engine to another the busiest of the busy. He was particularly remarked at the late fire at Westminster from the night of the 16th until the Sunday following. The above inscrip- tion is engraved on his collar which was subscribed for by the men of the London Establishment who are very proud of their canine friend.”
The “late fire at Westminster” refers to the burning of the House of Commons and there is another delightful coloured print showing Chance with a background of the blazing building assisting a fireman to get a fire-plug to work.
Chance used to run in front of the engine “announcing the welcome advent of the extinguisher by his bark”. He was also said to pull burning brands of wood out of the fire with his mouth. His death was a sad affair, or he was injured at a fire and was being nursed by a fireman at the hearth when a call came in. At the well-known sound of the engine turning out he made an attempt to jump on to it and fell back dead.
He was stuffed and preserved at Watling Street. In 1877 a famous London fire dog called Billy was accepted after death by Madame Tussauds.
There was another fire dog whose remains were stuffed and preserved. “Wallace “still sits in his glass case in the recreation room of Glasgow central fire station. In 1894, a poor stray, he wandered into that station and quickly became assimilated into the staff. For eight years he would run ahead of the fire engine barking furiously to clear the traflic and he was a well-known Glasgow figure, the citizens marvelling at the fact that al- though up to forty yards ahead of the leading engine he never missed his way and always ran straight to the fire. There was a simple explanation of this phenomenon, for Wallace always looked round when he came to a corner and the leading coachman would point with his whip to indicate which way he should go. A kind lady once noticed that he had sore paws and provided him with two pairs of rubber boots and one pair still stand beside him in his glass case.
A contemporary of Wallace was “Joe” of Oxford. His collar is preserved in the recreation room of the Oxford City fire station, with a similar description to Chance’s :
“Stop me not when on the jog
For I am “Joe” the fireman’s dog.”
Joe was alleged to have carried messages and roused the horses, but his fame is marred by a contemporary, a member of the brigade during the ‘nineties, who when interviewed ten years ago by a newspaper referred to Joe as “a bloody nuisance barking his head off at the horses” . Perhaps advancing years had made the old man cantankerous or was the sagacity of firemen’s dogs unduly enhanced by legend? The stories of them are legion. They ran up ladders, rescued infants in their mouths, led firemen to unconscious inmates. There was “Lion” of Salford, “Jack” of Hull and “Nell” of Rochdale. There are, of course, many instances of dogs arousing a sleeping family imperilled by fire, and in 1885 “Carlo” of Rochdale is said to have led Fireman Craggs of that brigade to three unconscious inmates one after another. Craggs rescued all three, Carlo barking and whining for him to follow him back after the first two had been carried out, and then the dog collapsed as the last inmate, a child, was picked up; so Craggs on this journey carried out both the son of the house and Carlo who was a huge retriever. The incident seems well authenticated both by the contemporary Press and Cragg’s citation for the Humane Society’s medal. Dog and fireman appeared in the Lord Mayor’s show that year, their appear- ance being the signal for a roar of applause. The Daily Telegraph said that “Carlo had the most notable reception of the day”‘.
Men conditioned to long hours of duty and stand by within the four walls of a station naturally took kindly to pets. Blackburn at one time had a goat and Birmingham at the turn of the century had a monkey. In view of the times he lived in he was called Oom Paull and was apparently very mischievous. He was not above giving false alarms by pulling the bell switch and would also remove any loose fittings from the steamers. The Birmingham Press did not approve and on May 3rd, 1902, commented acidly on this frivolous inmate of the central fire station. “That electric call bells should be at the mercy of a mischievous monkey is bad enough, but to be running the constant risk of a steam fire engine arriving on the scene minus an essential fitting is much worse,” said a leader. Oom Paul, fitted with a belt and chain, pined and died. He was stuffed and had his glass case at the fire station, but perhaps he was not very lovable even then, for the firemen soon presented him to the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. He is still in their property room and has made several posthumous stage appearances.
Mechanisation and the disfavour of authority brought an end to the fireman’s dog and other pets. The fleetest hound cannot keep up with a motor pump and his chances of survival in modern traffic would be slight. There was some revival during the Second World War when long duty hours in remote substations brought back the conditions under which such pets were acceptable and also provided proof that dogs can and will climb ladders. “Stinker” the pet of Canterbury Fire Brigade, was a great “ladder man” and the illustration shows him performing this feat during a visit by the Duke of Kent to his fire station. Stinker got his name from his condition on arrival as a stray at the station that adopted him; he had to be hosed down before admittance. He was shut up when calls were received, but if he got out, as he generally did, he had an uncanny sense of direction and would generally arrive at the fire. This was his undoing, for in 1941 there was a serious fire at the South Eastern Tar Distillery. Flaming tar had overflowed the compound and flowed across a road; Stinker, who was quite fearless, got involved in the stream and with an agonised howl was carried away. After the fire, all that was left of him was carefully dug out of the solidified tar and buried in the fire station garden.