History of the British Fire Service – Part 1

By the beginning of the nineteenth century the peculiar patchwork of British fire protection that was to persist until 1938 was already established. Parish fire engines without fire brigades were established in London by law, municipalities were buying or otherwise acquiring engines and appointing men to look after them and work them at fires on part-time basis, while insurance companies offered to provide engines and in many places provided both engine and crew. In addition, some of the new factories had engines and trained crews to protect their own risks, and the owners of big country mansions were buying engines for the same purpose. In 1809 the University of Oxford set up a fire brigade.

Some of the colleges had each an engine some years before and these had done good work at a fire at Queen’s College in 1778, while the city engine is mentioned at a fire in 1773. On March 3rd, 1809, an alarming fire occurred at Christchurch and did great damage. It was reported that

“as soon as the alarm was given, every possible assistance was afforded by the citizens and members of the University, many of the latter drawing down to Christchurch the engines belonging to their respective colleges. Notwithstanding these exertions the fire raged so furiously and had extended so far towards the Hall that great apprehensions were entertained for the safety of that magnificent building. The heads of the University have since provided against the occurrence of a like deficiency by arranging a regular Fire Establishment similar to those of the Offices in London.”

The University firemen, dressed in blue coats, with silver buttons the size of half-crowns, white trousers and tall beaver hats, were to be seen in Oxford as late as the eighteen-eighties. 

In 1808 there was another attempt to amalgamate the insurance brigades in London into one body. Sir Frederick Morton Eden, the founder of the Globe, proposed that each of the London Offices should provide twenty firemen towards a single amalgamated brigade; that all matters relating to appointments of firemen and business connected with the proposed establishment should be managed by an engine committee; and that each office should pay an equal contribution to the expense. 

His proposals included the formation of a brigade somewhat on the lines of the Sapeurs-Pompiers of Paris, whose fame had already spread beyond France, with the exception, of course, that instead of being a State or municipal enterprise it should be run, as the separate brigades were, by the insurance companies. There was no question of getting the State or the city to take an interest. Even proposals for a proper police force had been greeted with cries of “Unconstitutional” and “restricting the liberty of the subject” with dark hints that lettres de cachet and bastilles would result. Yet the growing towns of England were full of desperate criminals and no one was safe from robbery and violence in them after dark.

Sir Frederick Morton Eden’s proposals came to nothing. The only company prepared to join with the Globe in the mooted joint brigade was the Atlas. How necessary some sort of coordination was is shown by a letter in the Scots Magazine written by Sir Patrick Walker six years later (1814) following another disastrous Edinburgh fire.

“Allow me to state a general view of the chief defects to which I have been a witness in the means of assistance used in cases of fire, with a few hints at their improvement. The first and chief one originates in having company engines, which creates a degree of jealousy among the men who work them that I lament to say seems, for the most part, to increase with the fury of the flames; and at the moment when all success depends upon a union of their efforts, then are they the most discordant. A premium no doubt adds to the inducement to hasten forward the engines; but that is a small part of the business, for you have soon many more engines than you require, or have water for; and in place of 2 or 3 well supplied, according to the circumstances of the case, you have a whole dozen of them running counter, and depriving each other of the requisite supply of water, much of which is not only consequently wasted, but perhaps also no engine has a sufficient supply to enable it to work with effect; of course the exertion of all is diminished, and the character of a good engine too often lost. “

“The most effectual remedy is to abolish all names or marks that distinguish company engines, and form the whole into one body on military principles; a regiment, as it were, would be formed of firemen, and the men, as in companies, would be attached to the different engines, which would be like them numbered. The men of each company or engine, classed according to their individual qualifications, under intelligent men as non-commissioned officers, so as to form a regular gradation and chain of responsibility from the highest to the lowest, would enable you to work an engine with all the regularity of a piece of artillery, and men could be easily detached on particular services, such as to strengthen the operations of a particular engine, etc., as occasion might require. Thus a great and combined effect would at once be given to the whole, in a way that must insure success and prevent accidents.”

“The second evil is the great waste of water by hand-carrying, which in itself creates a great confusion. If the remedy above suggested is adopted, this will, as a subordinate part of it, be at the same time remedied; for the combined interest of the whole will lead the firemen to join their united pipes to the firecock, which is often beyond the reach of any individual engine, and of consequence a more regular supply of water will, without waste or confusion, be brought to the point of action, and be distributed under the direction of the superintendent officer to such engines as he may judge most serviceable, either from superiority in their equipment Or position.”

This letter show that in 1814 the water relay whereby water from a distant source could be pumped from engine to engine and thence to the fire was well understood and had perhaps been practised, as also the principle of the collector pump whereby in an area short of water one pump could direct good jets on to the fire when supplied by several others working from singly inadequate sources. But the conditions at big fires, with insurance company, municipal and parish engines each working as separate entities and an unpoliced mob crowding into the area of operations, allowed for no such niceties of organisation and fire attack. Blowing up or pulling down houses to create fire breaks was still resorted to not only with danger to the crowd, who often received injuries and sometimes fatal ones in the explosion, but contingent financial liability to those who gave orders for the work to be carried out.

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