In early May of 1842, the free city of Hamburg suffered what is now considered to be one of the most severe fires in German history. Raging on for three days, the inferno destroyed large parts of the old town, 71 streets, 1800 houses and 4200 apartments, three churches, two synagogues, and claimed the life of 51 people, as well as leaving 20 000 survivors homeless.
The fire started in the residence of a local cigar maker and was detected early on by night guards, yet the quickly alarmed “Spritzenleute” – who were already founded in 1761 to combat the cities fires – couldn’t extinguish the flames even in its early stages.
The unorganized group of untrained men was powerless against the quickly spreading blaze and had to watch as the neighbourhoods to the north and west of the fire’s source perished. Even when additional “Spritzenleute” from nearby towns such as Lübeck and Kiel came to their aid, they only managed to save a small area from the inferno.
City officials finally resorted to a solution they rejected before: Using explosives to create a gap the flames couldn’t cross. The fire could only be contained after several buildings, including the town hall, were blown up. On May 8th, the nightmare was finally over and the street where the last flames died out was then called “Brandsende”, literally “Fire’s end”.
In 1799, Germany’s first volunteer’s fire service was founded in the city of Alzey in Rhineland-Palatinate, but it still took until the middle of the 19th century for Germany to catch up to its neighbours in terms of fire protection and fighting.
After the German revolution in 1848/49, suddenly fire stations seemed to sprout from the ground. Historians attribute this sudden change in attitude towards firefighting to the need of the upper-class citizens to remain in power wherever they could, after emancipation and liberation was promised to the people by German monarchs. The ongoing industrialisation only increased the risk of fire, due to unsafe factories and cramped living spaces, so the newly established fire services were badly needed.
The first official “Berufsfeuerwehr” (professional fire brigade) was founded in 1851 in Berlin, 9 years after the devastating fire of Hamburg. As was typical for the time, firefighters used horse drawn carriages to transport their water pumps, but at the beginning of the 20th century most brigades switched to automotive transportation.
In their early stages, fire brigades weren’t in possession of protective clothes and wore a simple uniform with a hat and a pair of gloves. Most of the time, the firefighters even had to pay for the uniform themselves.