History of the British Fire Service – Part 2

In March 1820 a conflagration broke out in Chatham, destroying seventy-three dwellings and warehouses. The fire was so great that London engines were sent for and dispatched.

Mr. Baker, evidently one of those gentlemen “in authority” already mentioned, who with neither powers nor specific responsibility did what they could to stay the outbreaks, gave orders for the pulling down of two houses belonging to a Mr. Cowen. Shortly after the demolition the fire in that quarter was got under before reaching the firebreak. The two houses were insured by the Eagle, who refused to pay because the terms of the policy only covered burning and not demolition. Cowen therefore sued Baker at Maidstone Assizes and, despite the latter’s plea that the demolition was ordered to save life and property, he was ordered to pay £320 compensation and the costs of the action.

This was in contradiction of a judgement in the Court of King’s Bench (Manby v. Scott) in 1660, in which the judges laid down “that the law of necessity dispenses with things which otherwise are not lawful to be done, as to throw down any neighbour’s house for preventing the spread of fire”. 

William Jeffreys, treasurer of the relief committee, gives an eye-witness account of this fire, as he does of an even more serious one which destroyed ninety-seven buildings in the town twenty years earlier, when he acted in the same capacity. The 1820 fire started at about 2 a.m. in a bakehouse in High Street near the town quay and spread to a tallow-chandlers next door, being first seen by a boatman on the Medway, who rowed ashore and roused the inhabitants. 

At about the same time it was seen by the sentry on duty at the Chatham barrack gate, who roused the officer of the guard who beat to arms. Soon Sappers, Artillery, the Veteran Battalion, Royal Marines, Navy and East India Company had detachments at the fire, but the account says that “it quickly crossed the High Street and in half an hour the flames raged with so much violence as to prevent all approach to them. Though able, active and enterprising men were well supplied with water from the river, the fire bade defiance to all human exertions. Soon it communicated its devouring flames to the elegant and substantial mansion called Chatham House; in less than two hours the fire had consumed the interior of this noble edifice, leaving its walls a melancholy heap of ruins.” 

Jeffreys states that at this time it became doubtful to every person who had a house and family in the town whether he should long possess them. He draws a pitiful picture of the inhabitants running about in their night clothes on a cold March morning of sleet and snow seeking children and carrying goods.

Men were stationed on roofs to beat out burning embers as they fell or to douse them with water supplied by bucket chains, but the heroes of the day were those unnamed men who, taking advantage of the thick, still- standing walls of Chatham House, made a fire-stop there “by their united exertions, with a plentiful supply of water from buckets and engines and through the merciful interference of a kind Providence”. The writer does not mention any firemen either from London or elsewhere, but from the organisation of water-supply, the mention of engines and other factors it can be assumed that these men were firemen.

The fire was in hand by noon, though in the area consumed the ruins continued to smoulder for five weeks. The usual pilfering took place and the writer of the account refers to “A painful and necessary task, that of recording the villainy of those wretches undeserving the names of men, who during the awful visitation, under the pretence of yielding assistance to their fellow creatures in the hour of distress, took base and cowardly advan- tage of their sufferings by pillaging their houses” . Some were apprehended and “after a strict examination into their nefarious conduct, committed to prison to answer for crimes for which language has scarcely a suitable epithet”.

The usual subscription lists were opened in the locality and “application made to the Mayors, Magistrates, Ministers, etc., of the cities, boroughs, towns and parishes of the County, supplicating their aid”. As already stated, Mr. William Jeffreys was made the secretary and treasurer of the committee set up to solicit and disburse the money for relief, a task he undertook with the comment “Having, I believe, given general satisfaction in the discharge of similar duties in which I engaged, after the great fire that happened on the 30th of June 1800, I feel less reluctance than I otherwise should have done in undertaking the present arduous and invidious task.” 

His accounts and record of disbursements contain an amusing sidelight on human nature. In the 1800 fire the premises of Mr. Fird, a pawnbroker, had been burnt and all the pledges destroyed. “A great number of persons, in very low and indigent circumstances who had been obliged to pawn their wearing apparel, goods, etc., applied to the committee stating their loss and infinite distress on the occasion, and praying relief (Mr. Frid not being responsible).”The committee apparently had money in hand and treated these unfortunates generously. In the 1820 fire Mr. Frid’s pawnshop was burnt down again, as was that of another pawnbroker named Cohen. Memories of the handsome treatment accorded to the sufferers from loss of goods in pawn twenty years earlier apparently produced out- rageous claims on the fund, for Mr. Jeffreys states that he received claims for gold watches, jewellery, silk dresses and “furniture fit for a nobleman’s house” from persons in very poor circumstances. Such calamities occurring at an interval of only twenty years in one town did little to awaken either municipal or national bodies to the necessity of protecting the public, for by now it was established in the minds of authority that it was the duty of the insurance companies to provide protection for insured and uninsured alike; a contention the companies continued to foster, in their competition with each other, by still presenting fire engines to towns and by forming their own brigades wherever business was likely to accrue from such activities.

The Herts & Cambs Office in a prospectus of 1827 said:

“In giving this short notice of the institution, one remark occurs, which in justice to the directors, it is proper to notice and that is the very different situation in which the two counties of Hertford and Cambridge are placed in regard to protection against fire, since the establishment of the company. 

“By their liberal assistance many towns and villages within the two counties now stand in respect to engines, engine houses and men, in a state of comparative security, and at this moment three considerable towns are in the course of purchasing engines of a very superior size and action, to be placed under the superintendence of an engineer and men, regularly appointed to the service, similar to the company’s own establishments at Hertford, Hemel Hempstead and Cambridge.”

But there were other men who reading of or seeing the chaotic conditions that lead to regular disasters were prepared to act independently. The first two decades of the nineteenth century brought the first formations of these volunteer brigades which were to be such a feature of British fire fighting for the next hundred and twenty years. At that time Napoleon threatened invasion, and Militia, Fencibles and Volunteers drilled on the commons and the Martello towers rose along the south coast. But Boney was slow in coming, and perhaps it was the volunteer spirit and constant drilling engendered by his threat that madesome of the part-time soldiers turn their thoughts to an enemy near home who struck so often and so terribly at life and property. Ashford in Kent was one of the first of these volunteer brigades, who without authority, official backing or payment provided themselves with uniforms and equipment at their own expense, or by such subscriptions from gentry and tradespeople as they could solicit, and proclaimed that they were prepared to fight fires wherever they were called.

The Ashford Fire Engine Association met in July 1814, and a minute is preserved which states that “the Committee learn with pleasure that the institution is making rapid progress, not only throughout the county, but throughout the kingdom”. This may have been an optimistic statement, for no other records are apparently preserved of such early volunteer brigades. Sleaford (Lincs) had a volunteer brigade in 1829, but there are no records remaining except a carved stone on the original engine house marked “Fire Engine Establishment 1829″ and a minute of 1874, when the brigade was reorganised, referring to its formation in 1829. The Ashford brigade was itself re-formed in 1824, and from that date minute books and lists of members are still preserved at the Ashford Station of the Kent Fire Brigade.

The minute book of the Hemel Hempstead Volunteer Fire Brigade dates from 1845 and records a public meeting called to form the Brigade which was known sometimes as the “Gentleman’s Brigade” to distinguish it abso- lutely from the paid brigade (retained) already in existence in the town and supported by the Phoenix Insurance Company who had bought up the Herts & Cambs Fire Office in 1831. Mr. James Cranston took over the command of both brigades.

The Volunteer Brigade posed for their photograph in the year of their formation, being the earliest known photograph of a fire brigade. The early years of the nineteenth century produce several records of the term “Gentleman’s Brigade” instead of Volunteer Brigade. It was the middle of the century before the volunteer brigades were to reach their hey-day. By then insurance company competition had eased off with the liquidation of the unsound and the amalgamation into the bigger offices of the smaller concerns, and some of the well-established survivors preferred to defend their rural risks by payments to volunteer brigade funds for fires attended rather than by maintaining their own formations.

In Scotland the municipal conscience was apparently more alive to the fire peril. Glasgow appointed a General Superintendent of Fire Engines in 1809. He was Mr. Basil Aitchison, who accepted the appointment with the grandiose comment that his object was more with a wish to have the de- partment conducted on better and more judicious principles than with a view to emolument. Next year he pointed out that he had had great trouble with the fire plugs, and was ruining his own clothing, and was given a rise. The city appealed to the fire insurance offices for financial assistance in the maintenance of engines and hydrants and were refused.

The companies apparently got together and decided that where a municipality did nothing it was to their advantage to make some provision themselves, but when the local council were active they should be encouraged to remain so. The calling arrangements for Glasgow are mentioned in a minute of 1812, when two new drums were bought to be kept at the police office and beaten in cases of fire and also that the Laigh Church bell be rung. Aitchison was a master slater and only a part-time fire chief, but in 1816 the council agreed to advertise for a person to take charge of the fire engines “who shall have no other employment, his salary to be from £60 to £100 at the pleasure of the Committee”. The Committee appointed James Black, and with Scots canniness at a salary of £54 12s. Od. per annum.

But it was Edinburgh that was the first municipality to attempt to deal seriously with the constantly recurring conflagration menace of the time. In 1824 the city had a succession of disastrous fires: first in February, when most of Niddrie Street was burnt; then in March, when a great block of buildings in North Bridge was destroyed, and then in June, when there was a serious fire opposite the Royal Exchange. The Acts of 1703 and 1726 with the plethora of twelve firemasters, who apparently worked more in competition than in unison, had proved ineffective. In August the magis- trates, police commissioners and insurance offices met to consider the position, and as a result of their discussion there was formed the Edinburgh Fire Engine Establishment, claimed, on somewhat insecure premises, by that city as the first organised municipal fire brigade in Britain. The meetings had no doubts about the necessity of the new organisation and were largely concerned with what it was going to cost and how the money was to be raised. Finally, the Insurance Company of Scotland, Scottish Union, Caledonian, Hercules, North British and Friendly Offices offered to subscribe £200 each towards the initial outlay of £1,400. The magistrates agreed to provide the remaining £200 from city funds, with an annual grant of £50, the commissioners promising a further £150 per annum.

Three new twenty-man manuals were bought in London and four smaller engines with the necessary ancillary gear, and ten water-carts were obtained. Eighty firemen were recruited and supplied with white trousers, blue jackets and hard leather helmets, and finally a Master of Fire Engines was appointed with complete charge and command of the brigade and its operations. It was this appointment which made the formation of the Edinburgh Fire Engine Establishment such an important event in the history of Britain’s fire service. The committee selected a young man of twenty-three, named James Braidwood. Braidwood came of an old Edinburgh family; his grandfather was one of the strict Sabbatarian “Bowhead Saints”; his father was a builder and cabinet-maker in Adam Square. James was educated at Edinburgh High School and trained as a surveyor. The success of the new formation has been largely attributed to his initiative, shrewdness and energy. He was appointed Master of the Fire Engines in the last week of October and before he could get his command organised there broke out on November 15th the Great Fire of Edinburgh.

The fire started at ten o’clock at night in the premises of a firm of printers in High Street, and several fire engines had attended within an hour but found difficulty in obtaining water. By midnight the four adjoin- ing tall blocks were involved and the fire was spreading down the fish market. Flying brands filled the air and next morning the steeple of the Tron Church was alight. The firemen, spent from their night’s work, got on to the roof of the church, but soon found the building ablaze beneath them and had to withdraw and leave the great steeple to its fate. It burnt majestically and an eye-witness said that even the most unconcerned and profligate persons found themselves incapable of “beholding this terrific scene with indifference”.

In the evening a great fire broke out in Parliament Square, whether from flying brands or the coincidence of a simultaneous outbreak has never been established. Here were blocks of the great eleven-storey “islands” or flats. Firemen, citizens and soldiers were already exhausted by twenty-four hours of fire fighting. The Edinburgh Evening Courant of November 18th reported:

“The fire spread resistlessly. The roof of the adjoining house on the east side of the Square first appeared in a flame, and the fire afterwards broke out in the angle towards the Square from the windows and shop-doors. From these, it ascended in one continuous blaze up the front of the building; and about five o’clock in the morning, all the eastern side of the Square, not consumed by the recent fire (of June last) presented one huge burning tower, the beams crashing and falling inwards, and every opening and window pouring forth flame. The scene was now awfully grand; and could we have divested ourselves of the thoughts of the losses, and hardships, and ruin, which attended the progress of the conflagration, we could not have been placed in a situation where we could have derived such a portion of sublime enjoyment. The whole horizon was completely enveloped in lurid flame. The consternation, the daring, the suspense, the fear, that sat upon different faces, seemed each appropriately lighted up to express their several emotions the more vividly. The dusky faces of the firemen gleamed from under their caps and the very element by which they endeavoured to extinguish the conflagration, seemed itself a stream of liquid fire. The clattering of the horses’ hoofs, and the light reflected from their riders’ swords, added a kind of martial terror to the scene; and when we beheld the whole surrounded either with burning piles, or with edifices that reflected a light more fearful than even that which was thrown upon them, we felt a thrill of mingled fear and admiration. The County Hall, at one time, appeared like a palace of light; and the venerable steeple of St. Giles reared itself amidst the bright flames, like a spectre awakened to behold the fall and ruin of the devoted city.”

During the night the fires in High Street got out of hand again and it was feared that the whole town would be destroyed. Relief came towards morning with heavy rain. Parliament Square, Cowgate and High Street were in ruins, four hundred families were homeless, ten people had been killed and many injured. “The scene of desolation presented by the ruins is beyond belief. It gives the impression of a city sacked and burnt by an enemy rather than a mere casual conflagration”, said a contemporary writer. 

There had been the usual lack of organisation and co-ordination. “Deacon Field, an enterprising and most active individual with a powerful engine belonging to the board of ordnance”, is said to have saved part of the Tron Church; magistrates gave orders and issued proclamations. The Lord Advocate, it was said, “exerted himself with great activity and wrought for some time even at the engines” . The Sheriff, Lord Provost and Bailies attended “and many other high official personages engaged themselves actively” . 

Robert Chambers, in his book Remarkable Fires in Edinburgh, written that same year, says “the want of an experienced director to regulate and give effect to the operations was severely felt and afterwards generally acknowledged”. What, then, of Braidwood? The fire was of course too big to be handled by one man with an organisation but three weeks old. A modern chief officer faced with such a conflagration would allocate various streets and buildings to experienced officers under his command, while from some central control point he would coordinate their efforts, receive their reports and send them the men and equipment they required. 

For young Braidwood no such organisation existed, and magistrates, sheriffs, army officers and “gentlemen in authority” issued orders and counter-orders without apparent reference to him. He worked throughout the day and night, narrowly escaping death from a falling wall and being slightly injured. No blame could be or was attached to him for the awful losses. In fact, this disaster occurring so soon after his appointment only confirmed the wisdom of the city authorities in initiating the reorganisation they had made.

In January 1825 they confirmed his appointment, doubled his salary and drew up a list of regulations which laid down the rules of conduct for firemen, constables, magistrates and property owners at a fire. Braidwood was to be in charge of operations and his orders were to be obeyed; he set about the organisation of his command with characteristic energy. His eighty firemen were part-timers only; they plied their usual trade but responded immediately to a fire call and were paid by the hour for drills and fire fighting. He chose them with care, selecting only slaters, carpenters, masons, plumbers and smiths, and gave his reasons as follows:

“Slaters make good firemen, not spmuch from their superiority in climbing, going along roofs, etc., although these are great advantages, but from their being in general possessed of a handiness and readiness which I have not been able to discover in the same degree amongst other classes of workmen. It is, perhaps, not necessary that I should account for this, but it appears to me to arise from their being more dependent on their wits, and more frequently put to their shifts in the execution of their ordinary avocations. House-carpenters and masons being well acquainted with the construction of buildings, and understanding readily from whence danger is to be apprehended, can judge with tolerable accuracy, from the appearance of a house, where the stair is situated, and how the house is divided inside. Plumbers are also well accustomed to climbing and going along the roofs of houses; they are useful in working firecocks, covering the gratings of drains with lead, and generally in the management of water. Smiths and plumbers can also better endure heat and smoke than most other workmen.

 “Men selected from these five trades are also more robust in body, and better able to endure the extremes of heat, cold, wet, and fatigue, to which firemen are so frequently exposed, than men engaged in more sedentary employments. 

“I have generally made it a point to select for firemen, young men from seventeen or eighteen to twenty-five years of age. At that age they enter more readily into the spirit of the business, and are much more easily trained, than when farther advanced in life. Men are frequently found who, although they excel in the mechanical parts of their own professions, are yet so devoid of judgement and resources, that when anything occurs which they have not been taught, or have not been able to foresee, they are completely at a loss. Now it happens not unfrequently that the man who arrives first at a fire, notwithstanding any training or instruction he may have received, is still, from the circumstances of the case, left almost entirely to the direction of his own judgement. It is, therefore, of immense importance to procure men on whose coolness and judgement you can depend. If they are expert tradesmen, so much the better, as there is generally a degree of respect shown to first-rate tradesmen by their fellows, which inferior hands can seldom obtain; and this respect tends greatly to keep up the character of the corps to which they belong, which ought never to be lost sight of.”

He divided the city into four districts and his brigade into four companies the red, the blue, the yellow and the grey. There was an engine house in each district and the engines in it were painted the colour of the company attached, which was officered by a captain and a sergeant, wearing appropriate badges and helmet markings; the men also wore distinguishing marks of their company’s colour. They were drilled every Wednesday morning at four o’clock. Braidwood says that he had the following reasons for selecting this early hour.

“It does not interfere with the daily occupation of the firemen. The chance of collecting a crowd is also avoided, as there are then compara- tively few people on the streets; this is a matter of some importance, as a crowd of people not only impedes the movements of the firemen, but, from small quantities of water spilt on the by-standers, quarrels are generated, and a prejudice excited against the corps, to avoid which every exertion should be used to keep the firemen on good terms with the populace. 

“The mornings, too, at this early hour, are dark for more than half the year, and the firemen are thus accustomed to work by torch-light, and sometimes without any light whatever, except the few public lamps which are then burning. And, as most fires happen in the night, the advantage of drilling in the dark must be sufficiently obvious. 

“The inhabitants have sometimes complained of being disturbed with the noise of the engines at so early an hour; but when the object has been explained, they have generally submitted, with a good grace, to this slight evil. A different part of the city being always chosen for each successive drill, the annoyance occasioned to any one district is very trifling, and of very unfrequent occurrence.”

The drills were comprehensive, competitive and exacting training and instructions were concise. The burning building must be entered and water must be played on to the burning contents. No one was more scornful than Braidwood of the long shot’ played from the safety of the street, and soon his men were gaining a tremendous reputation from the skill and daring with which they took their hose and branch-pipes into premises on fire and achieved fire-stops that had formerly been deemed impossible. Braidwood repeatedly laid down this tenet in writing.

“The branchman accompanied by another should get so near the fire, inside the house, that the water from the branch may strike the burning materials. If he cannot accomplish this standing he must get down on his hands and knees and creep forward, those behind handing up the hose. A stratum of fresh air is almost always to be depended on six inches from the floor, so that if the air be not respirable to a person standing upright he should immediately get down. This cannot be too often or too anxiously inculcated on everyone concerned with a fire engine establishment. Every other method will utterly fail. The old plan of standing with the branch- pipe in the street and throwing the water into windows is a very random way of going to work and I never saw it attended with success. It is impossible to say whether the water touches the parts on fire or not. No one can tell anything about it except when the flame appears at the windows.”

Braidwood was probably less than just to some of the old insurance and other firemen, but his men followed out his orders faithfully and laid the foundation of the principle of getting into the building at all costs and staying there until withdrawn by their officers which is such a characteristic of British firemen. His casualties were frequent, his fatalities few, for he laid down the other great principle that no fireman ever entered a building alone. If he was overcome by smoke or heat there were always comrades alongside to drag him clear. In 1826 Braidwood was given a full-time assistant, James MDonald, and in November of that year the Edinburgh Fire Engine Committee, reporting to the Council, stated that they had

“much satisfaction in stating that under a very minute personal inspection, by many of them individually upon occasions of fire, they have reason to be pleased with the conduct of the whole individuals belonging to the estab- lishment. In particular they consider it due to Mr. Braidwood, the master of the engines, to report that he has not only shown the most indefatigable zeal, assiduity, and attention in forwarding the views of the committee for procuring the outfit of the establishment, and in placing it and keeping it in the best possible order; but upon all occasions of fire, his steady coolness, self-possession, good judgement and intrepidity have been most marked and deserving of approbation.”

The new chief officer’s reputation spread beyond the city and was further advanced in 1830 by the publication of his first book, The Construction of Fire Engines and Apparatus, the Training of Firemen and the Method of Proceeding in Cases of Fire. Despite its verbose title, this was an excellent and well written handbook embodying principles which are still the accepted tenets of good fire-brigade organisation, and except for its descrip- tions of obsolete apparatus can still be studied with advantage by modern firemen. It was illustrated with the author’ s own drawings and brought him enquiries on fire-brigade work from all parts of the country and from abroad.

There was evidently still a good deal of noise and confusion at fires even in Edinburgh, despite the fact that the 1826 regulations already referred to which had put thenecessary operations to be adopted under the absolute control of the master of the fire engines” also forbade the cringing of alarm bells, beating of drums and springing of rattles” and had substituted an orderly system of watchman messengers to call the brigade. 

Braidwood referred to “the noise and confusion which more or less attends all fires” and the difficulty of getting concise orders to his men above the din. He tried a speaking trumpet, but abandoned it as impracticable and used instead a bosun’s pipe, the shrill note being easily heard above other sounds. There were no fewer than thirty-four call-signals in his code, which was said to have worked perfectly, surely a tribute to the training of his men. Another of his dificulties was the enthusiasm of the volunteers who rushed forward to work the engines. Seizing the pump-handles, they would bring them down with a great bang which sometimes damaged the engine at the first stroke.

British firemen still waited the day when an organised police force could bring order to the fire-ground and give them room to work. The first step towards this happier state was taken in 1829, when despite considerable opposition there was passed “An Act for Improving the Police in and near the Metropolis” generally known as Sir Robert Peel’s Police Act, and contemporarily described as “an invidious attempt to enslave the people by arbitrary and tyrannical methods”. For the first time there was a uniformed, disciplined and properly officered body of men immediately available at a fire to control the mobs who had previously been such a handicap to organised fire fighting. Previously soldiers had done this work, but they were often slow in arrival and untrained in such duties. 

There were even people who protested that the calling out of troops to keep order was “an infringement of the constitution and an endangering of our liberties” . Sometimes they had carried out their task with needless brutality, and it is recorded that at the great Cripplegate fire of 1748 “a soldier on guard at the fire stabbed a man who refused to assist in carrying water to the engines in So dangerous a manner that his life was despaired of”. The constables often mentioned in early fire reports and ordinances were the amateur parish constables whose office went back to Norman times. Like jury service today it was unpaid and compulsory; each constable when selected was liable for service for one year and fines were levied for neglecting the duty. The duty was carried out in such spare time as the man’s occupation allowed. 

It was the Englishman’s boast that his country was the only one in Europe without a professional police force, but this was not strictly true, for many people when appointed by rota had preferred to pay a substitute to undertake their duty and there had grown up a body of corrupt professional deputies who did the duty year after year. The only other person formerly available to keep order on the fire ground was the beadle, the gorgeously dressed but poorly-paid servant of the churchwardens and overseers of the poor, but he was generally engaged in trying to get the broken-down parish engine to the fire “manned by poor decrepit old men from the workhouse” so that he might claim for himself the reward for first, second or third engine to arrive. 

Peel’s 1829 Act brought his Bobbies to London only. It was not until ten years later that new statutes permitted the formation of paid country police forces. In the interim some cities introduced private Bills into Parliament to set up their police forces and these Bills often contained clauses concerning the setting up of fire brigades which were sometimes to be run by the police. The Police Act of 1856 made the formation of an adequate police force compulsory throughout England and Wales. In 1857 a similar Act did the same for Scotland. The formation of the Metropolitan Police did not, however, immediately bring relief from the mob to the hard-pressed firemen; indeed, the firemen were soon complaining that the new servants of law and order were proving more obstructionist than helpful, and in August 1830 the secretary of the London Assurance wrote to Sir Robert Peel:

“I am directed by the Court of Directors of the Corporation of The London Assurance, to represent to you that their Firemen & Porters have made various complaints of obstruction from the new Police in the execution of their arduous duties, and from the investigation which they have made the Court feels satisfied that the servants of the different Fire Offices do not meet with that assistance and cooperation from the Police force which the object and nature of their employment appears to entitle them to. 

“I beg leave to enclose a copy of the instructions which are issued to the Firemen and Porters of this office and to state that the Court insist on a rigid compliance with them and also that all their men are dressed in the regular uniform of the office and that each man wears a number on his badge, which number is also worked on the sleeve of his waistcoat, and may consequently be easily known and recognised by the Police. 

“The Court of Directors feel assured that it would be your wish to afford the firemen every protection and that they need only request your attention to this important subject to procure the issue of such instructions to the police as will ensure their giving to the firemen the most efficient aid towards the extinction of fires and the preservation of that property in which most cases the Fire Offices are so deeply interested and where in all cases the exertions of their servants are of so much importance to the public.”

This letter shows some of the difficulties of the insurance companies, who drove their engines through the streets and extinguished fires as a matter of business and without any statutory rights, privileges or obligations. The Home Secretary replied personally, promising to look into the matter, and a few years later James Braidwood, by then in charge in London, was referring to “the willing and able assistance given by a numerous and perhaps the best police in existence”. Town record books record the “laying of mises” on inhabitants to provide fire-fighting gear as early as the sixteenth century and there are many later references to a rate being levied for this purpose, yet there seem to have been doubts as to the legality of the process and in many cases subscriptions were solicited rather than a rate levied. 

After a disastrous fire some towns had passed a local Act through Parliament regulating building and banning dangerous trades from the congested quarters, and these local Acts contained clauses such as the following from “An Act to prevent Dangers from Fire in the Town of Tiverton (1732)” passed after the disastrous fire of that year, “The Governors and Guardians of the Poor of the Parish be empowered to buy engines and make parochial rates for that purpose with the approbation of the Mayor and Justice.” In 1830 any such doubts were resolved by the passing of “An Act to make Provision for the Lighting and Watching of Parishes in England and Wales” generally referred to as the Lighting and Watching Act. 

This extended in the words of the Act to “Every Wapentake, Division, City, Borough, Liberty, Township, Market Town, Franchise, Hamlet, Tithing, Precinct and Chapelry in England and Wales which wished to adopt it. By Section XXX it was the duty of “the watchmen, sergeants of the night, patrols and other persons, during the time that they shall be on duty, to use their utmost endeavours to prevent any mischief of fire,” but most important was Section XXXII, which stated :

“And be it further enacted, that it shall be lawful for the said Inspectors and they are hereby required from time to time to provide and keep up fire engines with pipes and other utensils proper for the same, for the use of the Parish adopting the provisions of this Act, and to provide a proper place or places for the keeping of the same, and to place such engines under the care of some proper person or persons, and to make him or them such allow- ance for his or their trouble as may be thought reasonable; and the ex- pences attending the providing and keeping of such engines shall be paid out of the money authorised to be received by the inspectors under the provisions of this Act.”

The Act was permissive only; it laid no obligation on the local authorities to provide fire protection, but at least it removed any doubts as to their powers to levy a rate for the purpose. Previously some towns had obtained such powers by virtue of a local Act into which clauses were inserted in respect to fire, fire engines and apparatus. Southampton, for instance, had had such powers for nearly a hundred years under a local Act of 1747, an “Act for repairing, improving and maintaining the publick conduits and other waterworks belonging to the town of Southampton”, which contained the following clause.

“And the Commissioners, or the major part of them, if it shall be so agreed at any of their Meetings, shall have Power to make Fireplugs, and repair the present Fire-engines, Fire-crooks and Fire-bells, in the said Town, or alter the same, and purchase new Fire-engines and Fire-crooks, and do all and every such other Act and Acts, for preventing or extinguis ing Fire, and for supplying the said Town with Water, and for effecting and convenient.” 

Under this section the town bought three fire engines which were in use until 1855, when they were condemned as unfit for further service. The passing of the Lighting and Watching Act did not end local Acts with clauses concerning fire protection. If a municipality had to go to the expense of getting a special Bill through Parliament the insertion of an additional clause was a minor matter and only six years after the passing of the national Act, Southampton had their 1747 Act repealed and replaced by one giving them more extensive powers. There was no alteration in the fire protection provisions. 

Public Conduits and for Providing an Additional Supply of Water for the Inhabitants of the said Town and Neighbourhood.This contained a more extensive clause with regard to the fire service:

“That it shall be lawful for the said Commissioners and they are herebyempowered to purchase or provide such Engines for extinguishing Fires, and such Buckets for supplying such Engines with Water, and such Pipes, Tubes and other apparatus for such Engines, and also such Fire Escapes, Ladders, or other Impelements of Safety or Use in Cases of Fire, and to hire or purchase and keep such Horses for the Use of the same, as they the said Commissioners shall think fit, and to purchase or to hire and rent a proper Place or Places for keeping such Engines, Buckets, and Apparatus, and to hire or employ a proper number of Persons as Firemen to attend the same, and to pay them such Wages or Salaries as they may think proper, and from Time to Time to dismiss all or any of such persons or Firemen, and to appoint others in their Stead, and also to give such Firemen or other Persons such Rewards for their Exertions in Cases of Fire, and to make such Rules and Orders for the Regulations of such Firemen, as the said Commissioners shall think fit; and such Firemen or Persons hired or em- ployed as aforesaid shall in all Cases of Fire be at liberty to take and use, for the Purpose of extinguishing any such Fire, or working the said Engines thereat, any Water provided for the Use of the said Town”

The Elective Commissioners of the Waterworks ran the brigade, and in 1834 they appointed Mr. G. Garratt Engine Master, later changing the title to Superintendent of the Fire Department. He held the post until 1853, and apparently had a stormy passage. On the night of November 7th, 1837, a fire broke out in a large four- floor warehouse in the High Street, which contained, among miscellaneous goods, a considerable quantity of turpentine in twelve-gallon carboys. The springing of rattles and ringing of bells brought the usual crowd to the scene, though it was past eleven o’clock, and some of them began to remove goods from the premises. 

Suddenly there was an explosion, believed to have been caused by turpentine vapour, which blew out part of the front of the building. The falling walls killed twenty-two men in the crowd that was milling in front of the premises. The building was a total loss and at the subsequent inquest the fire brigade was severely criticised. Witnesses testified that the fire brigade did not arrive until three-quarters of an hour after the alarm, that the firemen were agitated and could not couple their hose until assisted by bystanders, that no water was available for a quarter of an hour after the brigade arrived, that the firemen ran away after the explosion and that the hose was in such bad condition that tarpaulins had to be cut into strips which were smeared with white lead to bind up the leaks. 

Mr. Garratt defended his brigade manfully, but the verdict at the inquest was that “the fire might have been stayed if the proper implements and a number of firemen had been early in attendance, that the supply of water was greatly delayed and the arrangements to obtain it insufficient and improper, that the fire department is incomplete and the arrangement defective especially in the discipline of the firemen, and as such endanger the lives and property of the town”.

It  would appear that the brigade was given less than justice, for in most towns at that period a four-floor warehouse 100 feet wide by 120 feet deep, which this one was, and fully stocked, would in burning out have involved the whole street, while every fire officer knows the exaggerations which are liable to be made by members of the public when allegations of delay are made against a brigade. When waiting for the fire engine every second seems a minute. It was never clearly established whether the twenty-two victims had come to watch or to assist, but a subscription was raised for their families and their memorial tablet stands in Holyrood Church which, in the manner of epitaphs, gives them the benefit of all doubt, for it says:

“Sacred to the memory of twenty-two brave and disinterested men who, in attempting to check the ravages of a calamitous fire in the night of November 7th, 1837, either perished in the flames or survived but a short time the injuries they received. The sympathising public who have protected the widows and orphans of those who had families erect this grateful but melancholy memorial of their intrepidity, their sufferings and their awfully sudden removal into an eternal state.’

Feeling in the town ran so high that despite the fact that Southampton was one of the few towns in the kingdom with an organised municipal brigade, a public meeting was held at the Coach and Horses Hotel in December and a volunteer brigade was formed with the title “The Southampton Honorary Fire Brigade” Mr. Knight was appointed the superintendent and he with other gentlemen had already approached the Sun Insurance Company who had expressed the “utmost astonishment” at the way in which the town’s fire establishment had been conducted.

In return for promised business the Sun provided the Honorary Fire Brigade with a “large and powerful engine” and various other gear. Mr. Knight went off to London to study the methods of the new brigade there and was soon able to “put his volunteers into perfect drill”. The Waterworks Board took a poor view of the opposition body which they described as “a useless appendage” and refused to allow them to use their standards except “at the discretion of the surveyor and then only after a day’s notice” So the volunteers found themselves in the position of being unable to connect to the public water-supply unless they had had twenty-four hours’ notice of the fire! They must have got round the difficulty somehow, for they continued in uncooperative opposition to the municipal brigade for another sixteen years.

Two or more separate brigades in the same town was to be no uncommon thing during the next hundred years, and one example still exists where the long-established Peterborough Volunteer Fire Brigade has survived the Fire Services Act, 1947, and still maintains its separate existence in co-operation with the Soke of Peterborough Fire Brigade. 

The beginning of the nineteenth century brought further advances in brigade apparatus. In 1812 Sir William Congreve invented and patented the forerunner of the modern sprinkler system. He arranged perforated pipes running along the ceilings of premises stored with hazardous goods and by turning various cocks situated outside the building any particular portion of the building involved in fire could be sprayed with water. In 1816 Captain Manby invented a portable fire extinguisher. Manby, a retired Army officer, was Barrack Master at Yarmouth and is famous for his invention of the rocket line for the rescue of sailors from shipwreck. His extinguisher was charged with compressed air and what he himself describes as an “Antiphlogistic fluid,” which was actually water mixed with pearl ash. On turning the cock at the neck of the vessel the water was ejected by the compressed air. 

In his Essay on the Extinction and Prevention of Destructive Fires, published in 1830, Manby states that his attention was called to the necessity of a simple firstaid fire-fighting device when he witnessed a fifth-floor fire in Edinburgh in 1813. Because the firemen could not get their hose up to the necessary height in time the building was burned out; he says he became “fully persuaded that the application of even a small portion of water at a critical moment would often effect what, at a later period, a much larger power of water could not accomplish”. 

He recommended to Parliament and others that a “Preventative Fire Police” be formed to patrol the streets of large cities at night drawing a hand-cart on which four of his extinguishers and an additional supply of “Antiphlogistic fluid” were to be carried. Manby uses the term “fire police”, by which fire brigades were generally known during the first half of the nineteenth century even when they were not a police brigade and had no connection with the police force. The term “fire brigade” had appeared in the eighteen-twenties but was not adopted on a country-wide basis until the eighteen-sixties. 

Leather hose was improved in 1819 by the patented invention of Jacob Perkins, who joined the two sides of the strip which make the tube with copper rivets instead of sewing it. This was a great improvement, for the sewn seams had previously been the weakest part of the hose and occa- sioned many leaks and bursts. Riveted leather hose was to be used for nearly another century, but it was difficult stuff to handle, heavy and stiff and requiring regular applications of dubbin to keep it even moderately pliable.

Also in 1819 came the first practicable street fire-escape, invented by J. Gregory. This consisted of sliding ladder sections capable of being extended and mounted on a two-wheeled carriage, and was the forerunner in design of the modern fire-brigade escape. The manual engine was improved and enlarged largely under the influence of Braidwood. The old bed-poster of the eighteenth century was re- placed by a model with sprung wheels, wider and more robustly built, fitted with pole or shafts for horses, and with two traverse bench seats along the top upon which the crew sat while going to the fire. Having a wider wheel base and being heavier and more strongly built than the older type, more man-power could be employed without rocking the whole machine. Soon folding handles were added, folded for travelling or stowage but opening out on the arrival at the fire So that some thirty men could be employed in pumping. 

When the motor pump came into universal use, the “Braidwood Body” was still used by manufacturers and accepted by fire authorities until the late nineteen-thirties. Most important, the steam fire engine was invented in 1829 by John Braithwaite, partner in Braithwaite and Ericsson, engineers, of New Road, London. Braithwaite’s first °steamer’ had a ten-horsepower horizontal twin-cylinder engine driving a two-throw pump, each engine piston being attached to the same rod as its opposite pump piston. Waste steam was conveyed through the feed water by two coiled pipes. The engine weighed forty-five hundredweight with water and fuel, could raise steam in thirteen minutes and had an output of one hundred and seventy gallons per minute. 

During demonstrations it sent a jet to a height of ninety feet. On February 5th, 1830, the Argyle Rooms, a large assembly hall in London, caught fire and Braithwaite brought his engine along manned by mechanics from his works. It was a bitterly cold night and, as sometimes happened, the manual engines froze up and were useless. The steamer behaved perfectly, pumping without breakdown for five hours continuously and at one time putting a jet over the dome of the building. The building was largely burnt out, but the Steam fire engine had certainly shown its capabilities and Braithwaite must have waited expectantly for orders. He reckoned without the innate conservatism of the British fire chiefs. They would have none of the new invention. Braidwood was particularly adamant and was to remain.

So for twenty years he said that the machine was too expensive, too heavy and cumbersome, took too long to raise steam, had an output such as could not be supplied by ordinary street mains, and by throwing an excess of water on to the fire would cause excessive water damage, while the heavy powerful jets produced would encourage firemen to revert to the old bad practice of the “long shot” instead of entering the building and getting to close quarters with the fire. This seems an extraordinary attitude, for the cost of working the manuals was considerable, with a shilling for each pumper for the first hour and sixpence for each succeeding hour, to say nothing of the cost of beer. The average engine needed twenty men to work it, ten on each side, and Thomas Ewbank in his Hydraulics and Mechanics, published in 1856, says “the labour is so severe that few can continue it above a minute or two at a time, when if relays are not ready, buildings on fire are left to their fate”. 

The relays were organised at the same time as the original pumpers, standing behind them as they worked. At about five-minute intervals the relief would take over and the others would rest. It therefore needed forty pumpers to work a twenty-man manual. When police cordons became available at fires, the police would ask members of the crowd if they were willing to work the engine and then pass them through the cordon to the fire-brigade officers who sometimes complained at the quality of the pumpers sent to them. It was of course easy for a lazy man to shirk by just moving his arms up and down or, still worse, bear down on the pump- handle during the up-stroke and retard the efforts of the others. Difficulties in manning the engine at country fires, where the crowds from which to draw relays of pumpers were not present, are often mentioned in contem- porary accounts with such statements as “the fire was nearly under control when the pumpers being completely exhausted the water at the branch- pipes failed and the situation immediately got out of hand”. In the cities, lack of skill and rough handling of the machine by the pumpers was a continual source of trouble and Ewbank says:

“the jars or concussions produced by the violent contact of the levers with the sides of the carriage at every stroke is a source of waste of firemen’s energy, and want of uniformity in their movements when at work is another. The velocity with which engines are sometimes worked also occasions useless expenditure of their strength; we have seen some drawing water through long suction pipes, and the pumpers working so quickly that the water certainly had not time to pass through the hose and fill the cylinders, ere the pistons began to descend”.

The foreman of each engine was responsible for its working. He selected his volunteer pumpers, if necessary fought off the surplus with the aid of his crew and then, stationing himself at the end of the engine and indicating one or other of the two lines of men gripping the handles, gave the order “down with the pump”, that line of men then depressing their handle. The term “down with the pump” survived the disappearance of both the manual and the steamer and was still used, as the order to the operator of a motor pump to open his valves and let the water run into the hoses, until 1941, when under National Fire Service auspices it was changed to “water on”.

Liquid refreshment on a lavish scale was allowed to the pumpers, who often plied their handles to a monotonous chant of “Beer oh, Beer oh”, and when this and relief were sometimes slow in coming they might suddenly stop work with a cry of “No beer! No water!” Various methods were used to identify those who had worked on the pumps. Sometimes they were issued with an arm-band which they wore while at work and handed over on dismissal, collecting their money at the same time; sometimes tin or copper tokens were carried on the pump and handed to the men, who were able to exchange them for shillings at the fire station next day. 

With such difficulties to contend with it is surprising that the fire brigade of the eighteen-thirties did not accord the newly invented steam fire engine an exuberant welcome, but Braithwaite made only one sale in this country. His second engine is reported to have gone to Liverpool Docks and to have worked there for many years. He sold one to the Prussian Government for the protection of the public buildings of Berlin and another to the French. His original engine he kept in London and with it attended fires whenever the opportunity arose, but “the  managers of the fire brigade and their ser- vants perpetrated every possible annoyance towards him so that ultimately he withdrew in disgust from the new field in which he had hoped to have profitably and usefully employed his talents and resources”. 

He had other trouble at fires from the unruly mob, who repeatedly cut his hose, apparently on the principle that steam fire engines would dispense with the payment and free beer allowed to pumpers. These payments were the source of another temptation. In December 1833, John Stallan was hanged at Cambridge for arson at Great Shelford. He confessed that he had started ten fires in that village during the prece ing five years so that he could get money and refreshments for working the engine. The next developments of the steam fire engine were American. 

Paul Hodge, a British engineer who had emigrated to the United States, produced a self-propelled steamer in 1840 and other American manufacturers were not far behind him. The British did not enter the market again until the first Shand Mason steamer was made in 1858. Improved techniques and apparatus were never more needed than at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The industrial revolution was well under way, new industries brought new fire risks, the depressed agricultural labourers poured into the growing cities to obtain the higher wages avail- able there. They were housed in brand-new slums of back-to-back houses that were fire-traps. 

Gas lighting was invented and the big warehouses rose to receive the raw materials and finished goods of a growing trading nation. Many lessons were to be learned before factory and warehouse were even reasonably safe from fire. Few gave thought to the dangers at that time, but among them was Dr. Fothergill, who died in 1821 and in his will left in trust an annual sum of £20 “for the best descriptive essay or model embodying some new idea for the prevention or suppression of fire”. Fire officers and others still compete each year for this prize. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *