History of the Fire Brigades in the United Kingdom

19th century

Between the 17th century and the beginning of the 19th century, all fire engines and crews in the United Kingdom were either provided by voluntary bodies, parish authorities or insurance companies. James Braidwood founded the world’s first municipal fire service in Edinburgh after the Great Fire of Edinburgh in 1824 destroyed much of the city’s Old Town. Braidwood later went on to become superintendent of the London Fire Engine Establishment (LFEE), which brought together ten independent insurance company brigades in 1833. A 7-foot-tall (2.1 m) bronze statue of Braidwood, located in Parliament Square in Edinburgh, commemorates his achievements. The Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire was formed in 1836 mainly to provide mobile escape ladders; protection of life was not the main concern of the insurance company brigades. Today it exists to give “recognition to individuals who perform acts of bravery in rescuing others from fire”.

James Braidwood was killed at the Tooley Street fire of 1861, where a wall collapsed on top of him. This fire was a major factor in the decision of the British government, after much lobbying by liability-laden insurance companies and LFEE, to create the Metropolitan Fire Brigade in 1866. The MFB would be publicly funded and controlled through the Metropolitan Board of Works. Its first superintendent was Captain Sir Eyre Massey Shaw. In 1904, the MFB changed its name to the London Fire Brigade.

Outside London, new local government bodies created by late 19th century legislation (such as the Local Government Act 1894) took over responsibility for fire-fighting.

20th century

Before 1938, there were some 1,600 local fire brigades in operation. The Fire Brigades Act 1938 constituted the councils of all county boroughs and county districts (municipal boroughs, urban and rural districts) as fire authorities. The councils were required to provide the services for their borough or district of such a fire brigade and of such fire engines, appliances and equipment as may be necessary to meet efficiently all normal requirements. At roughly the same time, the Auxiliary Fire Service, consisting largely of unpaid volunteers, was formed in parallel to the Air Raid Precautions organisation. Every borough and urban district had an AFS unit, and they operated their own fire stations in parallel to the local authority. Members of the AFS could be called up for full-time paid service if necessary, a similar arrangement applied to the wartime Special Constabulary.

The effects of the 1938 Act were short lived (though it was not repealed until 1947), as all local brigades and Auxiliary Fire Service units in Great Britain were merged into the National Fire Service in 1941, which was itself under the auspices of the Civil Defence Service. There was a separate National Fire Service (Northern Ireland). Before the war, there had been little or no standardisation of equipment, most importantly in the diameter of hydrant valves. This made regional integration difficult.

The 1938 Act was replaced by the Fire Services Act 1947, which disbanded the National Fire Service and made firefighting functions the responsibility of county and county borough councils, meaning there were still far fewer brigades than before the war. There were also slightly different arrangements in Scotland from England and Wales. The Auxiliary Fire Service was reformed in 1948 as a national fire reserve, and operated the famous Green Goddess “self-propelled pumps”, tasked with relaying vast quantities of water into burning cities after a nuclear attack, and also with supporting local fire services.

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