A form of mutual insurance had existed in Saxon times when members of the guild made periodic payments to a common fund to secure each other against loss from “fire or other calamity” . Proposals for the formation of a Fire Insurance Company had been made in 1635 and 1638 in requests to Charles I for letters patent. They had included provision for engines, “reserves of water made in convenient places for sudden use” and watchers whose proposed duties were explained, the term watchers being in fact synonymous with fireman. The amount of the premiums was submitted for consideration; £5,000 was to be deposited for security and the petitioners commented: “From hence will arise great comfort to the inhabitants, for many times a poor man’s house is burnt, being all his livelihood, and soe utterly undone, whereupon divers briefs are granted, and often not without abuse.” As an additional inducement for the King’s favourable consideration the petitioners promised to allow £200 per annum towards the rebuilding of St. Paul’s steeple until finished. King Charles granted the petition and instructed the Attorney-General to prepare a Bill, but nothing more is heard of the proposal, probably owing to the Civil War.
After the Restoration similar proposals were made to Charles II by “several persons of quality and eminent citizens of London” but were rejected on the grounds that “it was unreasonable for private persons to manage such an undertaking, or that anyone but the City should reap the profits of the enterprise”.
After the Great Fire, proposals were made that the City should set up in business as fire insurers, and these included the obtaining “of fire engines far more useful to the public than any that hath yet been invented”, together with a body of firemen to work them. But Nicholas Barbon and his partners “at the backside of the Royal Exchange” had already commenced business, and after a wordy warfare of pamphlet and broadsheet it was conceded that this or any form of municipal trading was inappropriate and that insurance was better left to private enterprise, although the City had already issued some policies.
The City of London had been prepared to raise and run a fire brigade as part of a civic insurance business, but was not prepared to do so as part of its civic duties when the insurance proposal was abandoned.
The Fire Office for a short time had a monopoly. It had probably founded its brigade to try to avoid heavy losses among the risks it had insured and as a further inducement to prospective policy holders, for its firemen and those of its competitors, soon to appear, only attended fires in buildings insured by the company or when the fire was likely to spread to such buildings. The monopoly of the Fire Office did not last long; business was good and competitors soon appeared. One of the first was the Friendly Society, who in 1684 advertised that they employed “watermen to assist at the quenching of fires” .They were followed by the General Insurance Office in 1685, and in 1694 by the Amicable Contributors for Insurance from Loss by Fire, a company who by virtue of their badge and fire mark soon came to be called the Hand-in-Hand and who were to survive as a separate entity for over two hundred years, being finally absorbed into the Commercial Union in 1905.
The first companies only insured buildings, but in 1704 the “Lombard House” was founded which insured household furniture and stock-in-trade and advertised that they employed “watermen with coats and badges to help remove goods” .
The first two decades of the eighteenth century brought more competition. The Charitable Corporation was founded in 1699, the Exchange House which undertook provincial insurance in 1708, the Sun in 1709, the Union in 1714, the Westminster in 1717, the Bristol Crown in 1718, the Friendly (Edinburgh), the Royal Exchange, the Globe, the London and the Glasgow Fire in 1720. They all formed fire brigades, in competition with their rivals, and since at least a part of the scheme was to advertise their enterprise these men were magnificently uniformed. In London they were almost exclusively recruited from the Thames watermen, a brawny, agile and quick-witted section of the population whom the directors thought most suited to the task. It has been stated that the term watermen was used because they conveyed water to fires, but it seems certain that their original calling gave them this name. Soon they were being referred to as Watermen- Firemen, and later the Watermen was dropped and the term ‘firemen’ was in general use before the middle of the eighteenth century. Daniel Defoe, writing on the Insurance Offices in his Essay upon Projects, published 1697, says: “One benefit I cannot omit, that if any fire happen they have a set of lusty fellows, generally watermen, very active and diligent in helping to put out fire”. Twenty-seven years later, in his Tour through Great Britain, he say:
“The several insurance offices .. have each of them a certain set of men, who they keep in constant pay, and who they furnish with tools proper for the work, and to whom they give jack -caps of leather, able to keep them from hurt, if brick or timber, or any thing not of too great a bulk, should fall upon them; these men make it their business to be ready at call, all hours, and night or day, to assist in case of fire; and it must be acknow- ledged, they are very dextrous, bold, diligent and successful. These they call fire-men, but with an odd kind of contradiction in the title, for they are really most of them water-men”
Besides the firemen the insurance offices also employed porters “who had given bonds for their fidelity”. The duty of these men was to remove salvaged goods to a warehouse belonging to the company, a very necessary provision, for accounts of fires during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries often include bitter complaints about those who came ostensibly to help but actually to pilfer. The awful confusion at fires continued, but at least there were now organised and trained brigades under experienced leaders. These leaders were called foremen, and there were also deputy foremen; they were whole-time employees of the companies, but the watermen- firemen continued to ply their trade on the river, being called to fires from their work or their home by messenger and having to attend regular drills for which they were paid; they were also paid for their attendance at fires.
The “Instructions for the Firemen” of the London Assurance issued in 1752 are exact and detailed. They must get to the fire with their engine in the quickest possible time. They must obey all directions and orders of their foreman and, if he be not present, of their deputy foreman. Every fireman must report to his foreman on arrival at the fire. He must be properly dressed and wearing his badge and number. He must be careful of the insured’s property and cause no unnecessary damage. He must behave himself courteously and with diligence and fidelity and shall not ask for any reward from any sufferer, nor favour any person for reward, promise or threat in securing his house preferable to another, but apply himself for the security of that which is most exposed to danger. The foreman or deputy shall take his axe and badge from any fireman that in drink or otherwise behaves rudely, negligently or disorderly, and deliver him into the office with an account of such behaviour. The instructions end with a footnote : “The above orders, rules and regulations are to be observed by all parties concerned upon pain of being cashiered. And every fireman is required to give his place of abode in writing to be stuck up in the watch house, in order to be called upon occasion”.
There was no lack of recruits; to the generous part-time pay and magnificent uniform was added a further inducement of great value to the waterman. They were immune from the press-gang who prowled about the river impressing men for the Navy.
This immunity was granted by a clause of the 1707 Act which stated:
“Whereas the insurance offices retain in their service and give coats and badges unto watermen for service in extinguishing fires, who are always ready at call and provided with hooks, hatchets and other instruments at the charge of the insurance offices; which watermen by custom and skill venture much further and give greater help than any other persons not used to come into danger, not exceeding thirty of them for each office to be exempted from being impressed or liable to go to sea their names being registered and entered with the secretary of the admiralty.”
The men carried an exemption certificate to which the “Instructions for Firemen” of the London Assurance contain a reference. “The Firemen to wear their badges and have their certificate always about them to distinguish them; and if any happen to be pressed for want thereof, the charge that shall thereby be occasioned, such firemen shall bear.” From this it would appear that the companies were sometimes called on to release firemen from the press-gang and that if the man had been pressed for lack of his certificate some legal fee was involved. It would appear that the uniform was not sufficient protection if the certificate was lacking, for when the crew of the Bounty mutinied in 1789 and settled Pitcairn Island there was a fireman aboard complete with uniform, probably indicating that he had been pressed while wearing it. It was used as ceremonial dress by the island’s chief inhabitant many years later, as it might well have been, for these uniforms were very resplendent.
The Hand-in-Hand dressed their men in yellow plush breeches with cotton stockings and silver- buckled shoes. The tunic was of blue cloth with silver buttons. The Sun issued blue breeches with white stockings, blue tunic and double-breasted waistcoat with silver buttons, the Westminster black breeches, white stockings with yellow garters, blue coat and waistcoat frogged and embroidered with yellow. Other coats were of bottle- green, red, yellow and brown, often with facings and trimming of a different colour. All the companies issued a large badge in gilt or silver, which was worn high up on the left arm and bore the same design as their fire mark.
These fire marks were placed on the front of a house, usually between or above the centre first-floor windows as soon as the insurance was completed and the premium paid.
They were first made of lead and later of copper. Their object was to identify the property on fire or threatened so that the company’s fire brigade on arrival could immediately see if their services were required or not. If the burning or threatened buildings did not bear their company’s mark they either returned to their station or remained to jeer at and comment on the activities of the brigade of a rival company. Many of these marks remain on old houses to this day, though they become rarer year by year through the demolition of old property and the activity of collectors.
The Fire Office is believed to have had a mark, though none survive. In 1680, when Barbon went into partnership, the company adopted a Phoenix as its badge and in 1705 it adopted the title the Phoenix Office. The oldest existing fire marks are those of the Friendly Society, the Fire Office’s first competitor: The design, a sheaf of arrows, was taken from the family crest of Mr. Hale, one of the directors. In 1684 this company announced that “To prevent any fraud in getting any policy by indirect means after a house is burnt, no house is to be esteemed a secured house till the mark hath been actually affixed thereon”.
The Hand-in-Hand produced their famous mark of the clasped hands surmounted by a crown in 1697, their minutes stating: “Itt was ordered that Nicholas Baxter treasurer pay to Mr. Reynolds the sume of three pounds, ten shillings for to pay Mr. John Walton’s bill of one pound, ten shillings, one penny farthing and to pay for two hundred weight of lead eighteen shillings and for ye making of marks for ye society and to be accomptable for ye remainder, to ye directors and trustees”. AIl the early marks had a space in which the number of the policy was stamped, and they were placed on the buildings by employees of the company and recovered by the same people if the policy lapsed.
After a time this latter practice ceased, since the mark remaining was a discreet advertisement; and, as it was often the practice to insure building and goods with separate companies and the new insurers would also affix their mark, some houses had quite a display of these gaily-coloured signs, for they were all originally painted or gilded, though none of the early ones survive with their original colouring. Hence this stanza in a poem in the New Tory Guide:
“For not e’en the Regent himself has endured
(Though I’ve seen him with badges and orders all shine
Till he looked like a house that was over-insured)
A much heavier burden of glories than mine.”
The practice of fixing fire marks to insured houses persisted right up to the 1860s long after their original purpose had been forgotten, perhaps as a form of advertisement and because through long usage the insured did not feel really covered until the mark was on his home, but this was not the universal practice. The Albion announced in 1809 that:
“It is not the practice of this office to affix any marks on buildings. It is known that such marks are used only as a mode of advertisement. They continue on buildings many years after policies have ceased, and afford no guide whatever to the firemen of any company to regulate the attention they might show to persons really insured. The Čompany trusts that its conduct and character are sufficiently popular to remove the necessity of any such species of advertisement; and as the firemen of the Company are en- joined to render the utmost assistance to all who need it, the security of persons insured will in no respect be diminished by the disuse of this superfluous appendage.”
Here is a definite announcement early in the nineteenth century that a company’s firemen would render assistance to all who need it and there is no doubt that this concession was begun early in the eighteenth century on both politic and humanitarian grounds. To allow a house to burn because it did not bear their mark might cause the fire to spread to premises that did and, anyhow, if they could reach the fire before their rivals and put it out, the insured, impressed by such efficiency, might be persuaded to change his insurers at the end of the year. The houses of the poor who were never likely to insure were dealt with out of charity and for the good name it brought the company.
This meant that, through keen competition, the insurance companies had voluntarily shouldered the public duty of fire extinction. The parish engines became neglected and broken down; they had never been properly manned by skilled crews and were merely hurried to the fire by the beadle or some other minor official so that he could claim the reward for the first, second or third engine on the spot. Nobody bothered to check up as to whether the machine was in working order when it arrived and often, although it was not got to work, it obstructed the other engines, and when it did get to work obstructed their access to the water-supply.
The insurance companies were not blind to the commitment they had taken over. The Acts of 1707 and 1708 had laid down that if the church- wardens and parish officers failed in their duty to supply fire engines and firecocks they should be liable to a penalty of £10, and in 1716 the Hand-in- Hand and Union issued a joint advertisement saying that “they think them- selves obliged to prosecute all such churchwardens and others concerned as have not provided and kept fit for use engines, firecocks, plugs, etc., pursu- ant to the Acts”. In 1720 the directors of the Hand-in-Hand advertised in the Daily Courant that “they had paid a reward of 40s. to Mr. Wm. Smith of Blackfriars for his prosecution of the Churchwardens of St. John Baptist, and St. Antholin’s, as defaulters upon an Act of Parl. made, etc., which provides that in default of making, placing, fixing, and continuing such stop-blocks or firecocks on the several mains and pipes, as also in default of having and keeping in good repair such large engine, hand engine, leather pipe and socket as the said Act requires, etc. °And they are ready to give the same reward of 40s. to any person who shall convict any churchwardens upon the said Act”
But they were fighting a losing battle. Their own crews were well equipped and drilled. The parish engines fell more and more into dis- repute, and though the rewards for the first engine to arrive continued to be paid for 150 years, in other respects they became moribund. The confusion that reigned at fires was still appalling. There was no police force to regulate the crowds, the insurance brigades, though each under their own fore- man, were uncoordinated and competitive. Each made a dash for the most productive source of water so that their engine should show up the others by producing the most powerful jets, and fights between rival crews were not uncommon while the fire blazed unchecked; sometimes members of a crew even fought each other, and the Rules for the Norwich Union’s Man- chester Brigade say: “Any firemen challenging another firemen to fight shall be fined Two Shillings and Sixpence; any one striking another to be fined Five Shillings; and if the man so struck returns the blow, they shall each be fined Five Shillings”, and that “if any fireman is observed throwing water or fire-brands over another fireman, or in any other manner annoying his comrade while on duty, he shall be fined Two Shillings and Sixpence for each offence”, also “that any fireman cursing or swearing shall be fined 3d. for each oath”.
The poem, “Rejected Addresses” by Horace Smith, published in 1809 at the reopening of Drury Lane Theatre following its third destruction by fire gives a graphic description of the insurance brigades responding to a call:
“The summon’d firemen woke at call,
And hied them to their stations all;
Starting from short and broken snooze,
Each sought his pond rous hobnail’d shoes;
But first his worsted hozen plied,
Plush breeches next, in crimson dyed,
His nether bulk embraced;
Then jacket thick, of red or blue,
Whose massy shoulder gave to view
The badge of each respective crew,
In tin or copper traced.
The engines thund’red through the street,
Fire-hook, pipe, bucket, all complete;
And torches glared, and clattering feet
Along the pavement paced
The Hand-in- Hand the race begun,
Then came the Phoenix and the Sun,
The Exchange, where old insurers run,
The Eagle, where the new.”
Long before this time the companies were offering 5s. to their driver if he got their engine first to a fire, and the drivers were not very scrupulous in their methods, for another poem of the period describes “attempts to nick the Phoenix’s wheel”. In fact, attendance at a fire was soon a form of advertisement. The companies did not maintain these bands of magnificently liveried men without taking every opportunity of showing them off, and on special occasions they “marched with musick” parading the streets behind a band. Sums for the provision both of the music and refreshments for the marchers appear often in the early-eighteenth-century accounts of the companies. Most companies had a special yearly “Day of Marching” followed by a dinner for the men, a kind of annual review, and before the parade new uniforms were issued. Indications are found that the showy and expensive outfits were not altogether practicable for fire fighting, certainly not the black shoes with silver buckles, as witness this petition of 1763:
“To the Governors and Directors of The London Assurance. The humble petition of the Porters and Watermen belonging to that Corporation.
“Sheweth that amongst all the Dangers and hardships to which Your poor Petitioners are exposed in the discharge of the Duties of their Office, there is none more sensibly felt than those which they experience from the want of Boots, as their Leggs are frequently torn with Nails, Barrs of Iron, and such kind of Rubbish as Fires occasion.
“That the late dreadful Fire at Shadwell particularly Evinced the great Necessity of Boots, as several of Your poor Petitioners were up to their Knees in Water, hot from the Water-Works, and Instantly after plunged in Cold Water, by which Deplorable case great Numbers of Your Petitioners Lives were endanger’ d, by the Coughs and Colds which they caught, which Calamity, Your Petitioners presume to suppose, might be in future happily prevented were their Leggs defended by Boots.
“That as the health, and Indeed the Lives of many of Your poor Peti- tioners, might be in a great measure preserved by the use of Boots; Your Petitioners humbly Submit this Matter to Your Consideration, and humbly hope that as Your poor Petitioners may be Justly deemed usefull Members of Society, the Preservation of their Lives and health will be thought Worthy Your Attention, and Engage Your favouring this Petition by Ordering Your Petitioners Boots for the Use and Purposes aforesaid.
“And Your poor Petitioners as in Duty bound shall Ever Pray”.
Contemporary pictures of other brigades show that their men were equipped with boots.
But if these early firemen were partly an advertisement, it is also certain that they did much good work under difficult circumstances. Their conditions laid down the attendance at regular drills, and printed instructions were issued to them on party walls, the closing of shutters, water-supply and the position at branch-pipe or engine each member of the crew was to take up, with especially specific instructions on immediately obeying the orders of their foremen and nobody else. The casualty lists among the crews began to mount and the companies’ records include payments to those injured and to the widows of those killed.
Though rivalry was intense, the natural interest in men of their own calling, even if members of another company, began to grow and “Rejected Addresses” describes the attempt of Foreman Higginbottom to save the Foreman of the Eagle trapped by a fallen roof. Earlier stanzas are interest- ing for their description of shouted instructions to the firemen, many with a very modern ring, such as “heads below” and “keep near the walls”. The poem ends with Higginbottom’s attempt and death.
“Did none attempt, before he fell,
To succour one they loved So well?
Yes, Higginbottom did aspire
(His fireman’s soul was all on fire)
His brother chief to save;
But ah! his reckless generous ire
Served but to share his grave!
‘Mid blazing beams and scalding streams,
Through fire and smoke he dauntless broke,
Where Muggins broke before;
But sulphry stench and boiling drench,
Destroying sight, o’erwhelmed him quite
He sank to rise no more!
Still o’er his head, while fate he braved,
His whizzing water-pipe he waved:
°Whitford and Mitford, ply your pumps-
You, Clutterbuck, come, stir your stumps,
Why are you in such doleful dumps?
A fireman, and afraid of bumps !
What are they fear’d on? Fools! ‘od rot Pem!’
Were the last words of Higginbottom”
The description of Higginbottom dying with a curse on his lips recalls the following generations of tough, martinet fire officers who would lead their crews into most perilous situations. Some are still remembered and discussed in station watchrooms, like the station officer who could “eat smoke” and, when his crew, gasping and suffocating, went on hands and knees to seek the cooler air near the floor, would deliberately stamp on their fingers, or Superintendent James Crow, whose brother had been killed in the Service and who stated that he wished no better death himself, and according to the luckless subordinates who had to accompany him would seek it at every fire he attended.
Throughout the eighteenth century the business of the insurance companies increased and So did their number. Some went under when the commercial acumen of their directors failed to match up with that of their competitors, but for each company that disappeared a new one was founded and as each was founded a new brigade was formed. Provincial business was sought by the London companies as assiduously as business in the capital, and new offices sprang up in the provinces announcing that :It is a well known fact that the losses that happen by fire in the country bear a very small proportion to those that take place in London; it follows that large profits arise from too high a premium being paid by the country insurers” . On these grounds the provincial companies began to cut their rates. The London companies countered by setting up agents and fire brigades in any town where the amount of business they were likely to obtain justified such action. Where they did not set up a brigade they presented fire engines to the municipalities.
The two Acts of Queen Anne had excluded the provinces, and the parish councils, churchwardens and vestries of rural England had no legal onus laid upon them to provide engines. The municipalities, however, in many cases took on the task and generally did it better than the churchwardens of London.
References to the purchase of engines are to be found in numerous borough records throughout the eighteenth century, but what was more useful, many of these minutes are accompanied by others authorising payments to men for looking after them and “playing” them at stated intervals, usually once a quarter but sometimes more often.
This quarterly drill did something to ensure that the engine was in working order when needed and that there were men available who knew how to work it. In most cases the engine keeper is merely named and the amount of his remuneration varying from £1 to £10 a year is stated, but Croydon in 1745 drew up a form of agreement which is still preserved :
“For the looking after ye 3 fire engines and to play each not less than 4 times in every year in order to see that they are in good order ready on all occasions whatsoever, and to clean ye barrels, pipes, valves, suctions, etc., also if any part wants repairing, will give my assistance and to attend to play such engine whenever required and to keep the carriage well greased, all of which I profess to do So for £1 16s. Od. per yeare. Also I agree to find two proper men to go and help play the same at all fires at all times for ye sum of 10/–.”
W. Harrod in a book on Stamford (Lincs) published in 1785 says:
“The Fire Engines which are three in number are the property of the body corporate, who pay 3s. a year to Mr. William Adams whitesmith of Stamford on condition of his keeping them in good order and fit for immediate use; to which end he is obliged to play them on or near every quarter day.
“The largest of the three has upon it R. Newsham, London, fecit. and when played produces a continual stream. “The second has no inscription upon it, and having no air-vessel does not produce a continual stream.
“The least of the three was made by Bristow, on the same plan as the largest, and has the following words upon it, viz. The Corporation of Stamford. H. Cumbrey, Mayor, 1772.”
This second engine is probably one which the same writer records as having been presented to the town by a local landowner in the late seven- teenth century. Sometimes the minutes make provision for dismissal in cases of inefficiency, as this one from Royston dated 1781:
“Ordered that the person who has the care of the Engine be allowed five shillings for himself, if on any alarm of fire he gets the Engine out of the Church-yard in good time, and one shilling each for the assistants, not exceeding six; and that if he plays the Engine at a Fire he be allowed 10/6d and his assistants 2/6d each.
“And in case the Engines, or either of them, shall be unfit for working at any time when called for, that a new person be appointed.”
Although there are many records of engine sheds or engine houses being provided, this last extract shows that the ancient provision of a place in the church was still used and it continued to be used until well into the nineteenth century.
A sixteen-man manual was kept in Wimborne Minster (Dorset) until 1874 when it was moved to the fire station, and it is also recorded of this fine church that during renovations in 1664 the west door was altered and then found to be too small to get the engines out unless they were first taken down three steps into the nave and then up three steps into the north porch and out through the north door.
The employment of engine keepers and their assistants gives rise to some conjecture as to which town in England can claim to have formed the first municipal fire brigade. C. F. T. Young in his book Fires, Fire Engines and Fire Brigades published in 1866 states categorically that Tetbury had such a brigade in 1745, and that Grantham had a volunteer brigade in 1764, and his statement, which is not supported either by references or details, has been repeated in almost every article and book on fire brigade history since. Close enquiry in both these towns, including search of municipal records, fails to reveal any evidence of such formations. Perhaps Mr. Young had available data or records which have since been lost, but even then he has ignored the claim of Beverley (Yorks), whose town minute book under the date June 20th, 1726, states :
“William Burton, junr., glasier, Christopher Thompson, sadler, George Halliday, Robert Wheldall, Thomas Brownrigge, William Bewley, with 6 other persons the Surveyors should nominate, to be employed in managing and working the fire engine, that they be ready and diligent upon all occasions when a fire shall happen, and that they be rewarded according to their deserts for every time they shall so work the same. That 30 buckets be hung up in each church and the respective Sextons do not upon penalty of 5s. for every bucket lend any of the said buckets to any person or persons whatsoever, unless it be when the engine shall be used at a fire in the town. William Burton and Christopher Thompson to play the engine on every first Thursday in every month so that it is kept in continual good order, to be ready upon all occasions and that they be paid 12d. apiece a time for their labour.”‘
Here is more than an engine keeper who must call upon the assistance of the crowd at any fire, but six men listed by name and six more to be nominated, ready and diligent on all occasions when a fire shall happen, and therefore the earliest municipal formation so far recorded. In Glasgow in the same year the sugar-boilers made a proposition to the magistrates which was accepted. They wished their employees to be exempted from town guard duties which were awkward owing to the men working night shifts, and proposed that instead they should form a sort of municipal fire brigade under the orders of the magistrates, who were to provide the equipment. The full proposal was as follows :
“That upon the town exempting the servants from keeping town guard in respect of their labour requiring their working in the night time as well as the day, they agree and condescended that the sugar boilers of their Sugar Houses, together with their servants, which will be at least 10 from each Sugar House, will be ready at all times when fire happens in the City, on their being advised by drum or bell, to attend thereto by the Magistrates and give their best help and assistance; the Town providing its Sugar Houses with four slings and stands and buckets SO that they shall come to the fire with them filled with water, and thereafter observe the orders of the Magistrates.”
There are several references to the use of drums in Scotland for calling fire fighters together at this period, and one of them records a rather shabby trick by the press-gang in Leith. Warning of their arrival had apparently preceded them and they found the streets deserted, So they beat the fire signal on drums and when able-bodied men ran to assist they promptly pressed them. This had its inevitable repercussion, for the Scots Magazine of May 1755 records a “dreadful fire” that month in Martins Wynd, Edinburgh, saying “the inhabitants with difficulty escaped with their lives and lost their effects of every kind. The working people on hearing the fire drum suspected it to be a stratagem used by the press-gang, who had used such an one sometime before at Leith; and, therefore, sufficient help was not SO speedily got as usual in such cases.”
Chester had bought five fire engines in 1705, one large sort, two middle size and two small size. The minute recording their purchase says “further a place to house the said fire engines be provided” and the engine house was built in 1709 “with fluted columns and rich cornice of the Corinthian Order”. The keys were lodged at the Exchange coffee-house. By 1762 Chester also had firemen. They were enrolled under an Act of that date called “An Act to Maintain Nightly Watch and to Provide Fire Engines and Firemen within the City of Chester” . The firemen were to number thirty-two, were to be appointed by the Commissioners and were “not to be the sons of whores or robbers”. They were given powers to break pavements to get to the water mains and the owners of the waterworks were “to cause their water engine on the Dee to be worked with the utmost force and water directed through the mains to the place of the fire”. People who refused to pump the engine or to carry water were to be taken to court and fined up to three shillings or lodged in the nearest gaol until the fine was paid.
It was not only the provincial municipalities who bought engines in the eighteenth century but their parishes also. There seems to have been no definite rule as to which body should make the provision, and church-wardens’ accounts both in big cities and small villages contain many records of the purchase of engines and the payment of engine keepers. Nor is it certain that they had definite statutory powers to raise a rate for the purpose and so there are many instances of subscriptions being invited towards the purchase of a new engine and a few of presentations. Two of the most popular gifts by would-be Members of Parliament seem to have been wine for the mayor and a fire engine for the town.
Sir Paul Methuen, M.P. for Buckley, wrote to Mr. Harding, the mayor of the borough, on December 28th, 1725:
“Sir, CÍ heartily wish you and Mrs. Harding a merry Christmas and happy new year, together with all health and prosperity. I am now come to Town for the whole winter, and as you know that the last time I waited on the Corporation, I promised to make them a present of just such another Fire Engine as Mr. John Cope gave to the Town of Banbury.
“I am desirous to comply with it as soon as possible. I have not been able to see Mr. John Cope but have talked with Mr. Newsham who is the famous man for those Engines, and told me he had sold one to Mr. John, the size of which he very well remembers, but does not know whether it be the same that Mr. John sent to Banbury. He further says that if it was made by him, his name, which is Richard Newsham, is upon it.
“I must therefore desire you to speak to any of your Town who go to Banbury to see if it be so, and that you would be so kind as to let me know it, for I shall then get the engine made out of hand and send it to you with all speed. I must also beg of you to let me know the name of the Carrier that brings you things from hence, the Inn where he sets up, and the day he goes out of London.
“You will I hope pardon my giving you this trouble which falls on you, only as you are Mayor of the Town at present, and do me the justice to believe that I am
“Sir, Your most humble and obedient Servant. “P. Methuen”
Sometimes a benefactor made the presentation by bequest. Anne Frazier of Bristol left £40 in her will to St. Michael’s Church in 1790 to buy a fire engine for the parish. It is still preserved in the city museum, having been moved from the church in 1920.
But many towns still had neither fire engine nor firemen, and even a large and important building would be left to burn out if it did not threaten adjacent property. Such was the fate of Dudley Castle in 1750. A contemporary MS. says:
“Be it remembered Dudley Castle was on fire St. James’s Fair Day Eve July 24th 1750, and was burning the 25th-26th, the folks would not go near it on account of the gunpowder said to be in the place, the eastern part of the roof being mostly lead, it ran down the hill red hot, and set fire to the long grass which for a time looked a hill of fire and sadly feared the town folks.”