Municipal Provisions

During he fourteenth century the central fire with the smoke finding its way out through a hole in the roof in the meaner houses or through a louvred lantern in better ones began to be replaced by a hearth against the wall, but there was still no chimney. The fireplace would have an iron reredos or back plate, often with designs in relief. Sometimes the reredos was of carved brick. 

By the end of the century chimneys were appearing, but they were made of hollowed-out logs and must have been more dangerous than the reredos or the central hearth. Certainly in the next century ordinances against their use were passed in London and Worcester. 

The first was in London in 1446 when the Lord Mayor proclaimed that anyone lighting a fire beneath a wooden chimney would be fined 6s. 8d. and that any workman repairing one would be fined twenty shillings; the second in Worcester in 1467, “That no chymnyeys of Tymber be suffred wtyn the cite, but the owners do them away, and make them chymyneys of stone or bryke, by mydsomer day next commynge in peyn of lesynge of a noble.” 

This same Ordinance of Worcester had other fire protection instructions.

“Also that the Bitters be redy wt hur horses and bittes (barrels) to brynge water vnto euery citezen, when he ys required by eny man or child when eny parelle of fuyre ys wtyn the cite, in peyne of lesynge of xl.d., to the Baillies half, and the other half to the comyn tresour. Also, that ther be v. fuyre hokes to drawe at euery thynge wher paryle of fuyre ys in eny parte of the cite; and they to be sette in iij. parties of the cite. And grete helpe and nede be that god defende.”

This reference to bittes or butts being carried to fires shews that a larger vessel than the bucket was by then in use, and a fifteenth-century drawing shews such a barrel slung on a pole between two men, being carried to a  burning church. It must have been a great weight for such transportation when fall and in the picture the front carrier is staggering. 

In the fifteenth century *Royston. a fair large market town, was burned” in 1406. York Minster, nas destroyed in 1463. The City of Chester was nearly destroyed by an accidental fire in 1471, and in 1498 at Sheen in Surrey a fire in Richmond Castle is recorded “in the night suddenly. near to the king’s (Henry VII) own lodgings, whereby a great part of the building was consumed and much costly household stuff”. Refreshments provided for fire fishters appear in various accounts The Proctors of Cambridge University record in 1497: “For wine and ale when the fire was at Gunwell Hall Mr. Vice Chancellor spent 2ld.” 

War, of course, brought its record of disaster: Winchelsea burnt by the French in 1449and Fowey in 1457; Inverness burnt by Donald, Lord of the Isles, in 1411; Elgin by the Earl of Huntly in 1452. 

A sort of blackmail by threat of arson seems to have been common enough for the passing of a special law in 1429 which laid down that “If any threaten by casting bills to burn a house if money be not laid in a certain place and do after burn the house, such burning shall be adjudged high treason”.

The sixteenth century brought no advances in technique. Fires were still fought according to contemporary account “by the help of God and good, well disposid people as the mayer, the shyrevys and other good cytyzynes”; though records shew that in some towns it was the duty of the brewers to bring their drays loaded with barrels of water on hearing the church bells signal fire. In Winchester every householder was apparently expected to come with his own bucket, for in 1574 it was ordered that “to avoid the peril of fire yt ys agreed that everie one in this cytie shall have ready in his house one lethern bucket upon payne that everie person that shall lack the same after the last day of September next shall forfeite 6s. Sd.”

In 1586 Bristol passed a similar ordinance but it referred only to members of the Common Council, who were to provide six buckets each. In Southampton the Court Leet of 1573 heard complaints that the common wells were out of repair and lacked ropes and buckets and was requested to see to the matter “For yt is a thing most necessarye and nedful for the saveguard and preservation of this town from fyre”. A suggestion was made that baskets be filled with earth and placed near the watergate, and earth was sometimes used both to throw on the fire and to build a bank against adjacent buildings threatened by heat. 

Occupational fire risks were also investigated, the bakers being particular oflenders, for they fired their ovens with furze and stored this fuel in and around their bakehouses. Year after year Southampton Court Leet heard complaints about this dangerous practice and Adam Veald was fined 2s. chimney”. “in respect of his virses (furzes) which lie thereupon his oven and near his

In 1566 Manchester Court Leet forbade bakers to keep stacks of gorse *within two bays of the ovens”. In 1590 this distance was increased to “within ten yards of any house, barn or stable”. Bristol forbade the boiling of tallow, oil and pitch in the city. The Chamber Act Book of Exeter has the following entry on February 4th, 1558:

“Wch do whoalye consent and agree that forasmuch as many inconveny- ences hathe grown At this Cittie by mysventures of fire and no provision made or hadd for redresse thereof that there shalbe a halfe dysme and quyndesyme gathered throughe out the whoale Citie & the same to be emploied for the necessarye provisyone of suche necessaries as be & shalbe thoughte most mette and expediente And first there be provyded iiijor doss. (4 dozen) of bookettes of lether & the same to be putt in a place wch shalbe devised for the same.”

The next year they agree “that Mr. William Martyn thalderman Mr. Burro and Stuwarde Martyn shall by ther discrecoun cause to be provided and hunged upp in Conveniente open places for the provicon of this Cittie for the savegarde of fier so many Ladders and Crookes as the sevrall parishes of this Cittie shalbe able & Thinke fitt to provide for the same”. 

In 1575 the University of Cambridge and the City came to an agreement for joint and mutual fire protection in the following terms:

“And for the better provision against casualty of fire, it is agreed, that within one quarter of a year after the commencement of this composition, every college of this University, shall provide and have in readiness, within their said colleges, to help to the extinguishment of fire that shall happen, such and SO many instruments, of leather buckets, hooks, ladders, and scoops, as are hereafter particularly mentioned.”

Here follows a list of the fourteen colleges then existing with the number of buckets, scoops and ladders each was to provide.

“And that the inhabitants dwelling out of colleges within the town shall be sessed and rated by this composition, by the same sessors and collectors, to the provision and having five dozen leather buckets, four hooks, four long ladders, thirty staves a piece, four shorter ladders, 18 staves a piece, and 16 scoops; whereof two dozen buckets, one hook, one great long lad- der, one shorter ladder, four scoops, to be always kept within Great St. Mary’s Church”.

The document continues with the allocation to four other churches.

“All which instruments shall be had in readiness in all the places above limited, upon pain of 20s. to be levied of the Town. And if it shall happen, any of the said instruments be lost or decayed, then the same to be repaired or newly bought, within one quarter of a year following, by the parties that are charged herewith, or by a new rate, upon the like pain.

“And it is agreed, that upon signification of fire, the two Proctors of this University, and two of the constables of the ward where the fire shall So happen, shall in all haste, repair to the place of the fire; and the senior Proctor and senior Constable, taking to them bothe scholars and other inhabitants meetest for that purpose, shall with all endeavour labour to quench and stay the fire; and the junior Proctor, with the junior Constable, calling to them a convenient number of such as are abovesaid, shall dilig- ently keep that ward, and so that no person carry any thing, either from the place where the fire is, or any other places near, but to such where they shall be assigned; and those whom they shall find faulty, or otherwise neglecting their commandment, to commit presently to ward. 

“And it is agreed, that whensoever any such casualty of fire shall happen, the next day after quenching, proclamation shall be made by authority of the Vice Chancellor and Mayor, in the Market Place, that every person which hath in his custody any of the said instruments not being his own, shall forthwith bring the same to the crier, to be delivered by him to the owner, or Churchwardens of the Churches, where any such instruments can be duly proved to have been delivered by any of the Town or University and not brought into the Market Place to the crier, within one day next after such proclamation, that then upon proof thereof made, the party offending to pay double value of the said instruments so detained, and to be punished further at the discreation of their competent Judge.

“And it is agreed, that the Churchwardens of those parishes where these instruments are to be kept, shall yearly make their accompt of them as of other church goods, and shall put them into their inventories, and deliver them over to their successors in that office, and to be charged with them as with church goods of that parish from time to time at their accompt.”

Exhortation to care was plentiful and when the first bellmen were appointed in the reign of Mary they were to ring their bells at specified hours of the night and call out: “Take care of your fire and candle; be charitable to the poor, and pray for the dead.” Accounts of fires become more detailed. The destruction of the steeple of St. Pauls Cathedral in 1561 produced a pamphlet “The True Report of the burnyng of the Steple and Churche of Poules in London” 

This tells how at two of the clock of afternoon was seen a marvellous great fiery lightning and ensued a most hideous crack of thunder. Divers persons affirmed that they saw a spear pointed flame of fire run through the top of Paul’s steeple and heard the rush of stones which fell. Smoke was espied to break out and in a moment the flame break forth like a garland round about the broach. “The Lord Mayor being sent for, came with all speed possible and had a short consultation with the Bishop of London and others for the best way of remedy. And thither also the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal and Lord Treasurer who by their wisdom and authority directed as good order, and in so great a confusion could possibly be. Some there were, pretending experience in wars, that counselled the remnant of the steeple to be shot down with cannon which counsell was not liked, as most perilous for those dispersing the fire.

Others thought best with axes to hew down a space of the roof to stay the fire, but before the ladders could be brought, the labourers also being troubled with the multitude of idle gazers, the most part of the church was on fire. The fall of the cross and eagle fired the south aisle, and brands fell down on every side so that the steeple was burned down to the battlements and most of the roof consumed.

“The state seeming desperate my Lord Mayor was advised by Master Winter of the Admiralty to convert his care to preserve the Bishop’s Palace lest from that house being large the fire spread to the streets adjoining. Whereupon the ladders and buckets were commanded thither, and by great labour and diligence a piece of roof of the north aisle was cut out and the fire so stayed and by much water, that part quenched and the Bishop’s house preserved. “There were about five hundred persons that laboured in carrying and filling water. Divers substantial citizens took pains as if they had been labourers so did sundry gentlemen. In the evening came Lord Clinton from the court, whom the Queen sl majesty sent to assist my Lord Mayor. About ten o’clock the fierceness of the fire was past, the timber being fallen and lying burning on the stones.”

Next Sunday the Bishop of Durhan preached at Paul’s Cross and exhorted his audience to take the fire as a warning that worse would follow for London if “amendments of life in all states did not ensue”. He added that part of the cause of God’s wrath was the abuse of St. Paul’s by “walking, jangling, brawling, fighting and bargaining in sermons and service time”. Apart from the steeple, which was never replaced, the Cathedral was repaired but was still profaned by jangling, brawling and bargaining. After the repairs it went into further decay before being destroyed in the Great Fire.

The first illustrations of specific fires appeared during the century. Beccles, in Suffolk, was almost destroyed in 1586, and a contemporary picture shews the malt warehouse where the fire started blazing fiercely between the two towers of St. Peter’s Chapel. “The lamentable spoile by fire upon the Towne of Teverton in Devon, April 3rd, 1598”, is well documented in a pamphlet issued fourteen years later immediately after the second great fire there and entitled “Wofull news from the West-parts of England”. It is illustrated with a picture of a fire hook at work and a bucket chain on a ladder, also a rescue by line from an upper storey. As the same picture is used to illustrate a pamphlet on the Great Fire of Bury St. Edmunds in 1608 it must be regarded as a conventional fire picture of the period rather than an attempt to portray the actual disaster at Tiverton which started

“in a little low thatcht house where dwelt a poore needy woman, who had dwelling in the same house with her another like herselfe, bare and beg- garly: these women went to bake Pancakes with straw, for their provition was so small that they had no wood to doe it, sudainely the fire got into the frying pan and the house being low was by the high blaze that it made fired in the very roof. Hereupon the fire tooke hold of a certain hay house neare adjoyning and from thence it passed to the Towne-mils. The wind blowing fiercely, drove the fire into the town. But marke the event, men would have thought that upon a market-day when every street was replenisht with people, there had beene helpe enough quickly to have quenched the flame, having also the River Exe neare adjoyning: but it came not to passe for they neyther had hookes nor buckets fit for such a purpose, the want whereof they felt, to their great sorrow and cost.”

Four hundred houses were burnt and fifty people lost their lives, “divers of them being the best men in all that towne who did hazard themselves so far into the hot fire that they were most pittifully burned to death”. Some of them are mentioned by name in the pamphlet. 

It was in the sixteenth century that we hear of the first wheeled fire engines. Large brass syringes had been in use for some time and in 1548 Rudolphus Agricola published his De Re Metallica which contains an illus- tration shewing the metallurgist at work and neatly arranged on the wall behind him a “fire point” with buckets, preventers, sledge hammer and brass syringe. These syringes were referred to as fire squirts, and the larger of them as great squirts; the great squirts were sometimes mounted on wheels and sometimes operated by holding handles placed midway up the barrel, placing the end of the plunger rod against the chest and pulling the barrel towards it. Alton Plater, a goldsmith, constructed wheeled fire engines for Augsberg in Germany as early as 1518, and in 1590 there was published in London A Treatise Named Lucarsolace, devised by Cyprian Lucar, Gentleman. This shows a picture of a wheeled engine of impracticable design with the caption

“I will set before your eyes a type of squirt which hath been devised to cast much water upon a burning house, wishing a like squirt and plenty of water to be alwaies in readinesse where fire may do harme, for this kinde of squirt may be made to holde an hoggeshed of water, or if you will a greater quantity thereof, and may so be placed on his frame, that with ease and smal strength, it shall be mounted, imbased or turned to any one side right against any fired marke, and made to squirt out his water with great violence upon the fire that is to be quenched.’*

From the illustration it may be seen that the barrel was filled through a funnel at the top and when full the stopcock below the funnel was closed and the water ejected by turning the screw which presumably drove a piston forward. The machine does not appear hydraulically sound and perhaps a bucket chain would have been more effective. Nevertheless, it was illustrated in other and earlier works than Lucar’s. 

During the century King’s Briefs, sometimes called Fire Briefs, were instituted. They were issued by the Lord Chancellor on orders of the monarch after a fire, in the form of a document setting out the details of the calamity, the amount of the loss and the number of sufferers. This docu- ment was ordered to be read in all churches and called upon the charitably disposed to subscribe to the losses of the sufferers. Sometimes large sums were collected and great efforts were made to obtain a brief, the assistance of local noblemen and those with influence at court being invoked. They were even issued occasionally to a single person whose house had been burned down, though generally such briefs were only read in surrounding parishes. There is a rubric in the Communion Service which appoints a time for the reading of briefs. 

The records of old boroughs show that their councils had an increasing awareness of the fire hazard during the seventeenth century and references to the purchase, local manufacture and repair of leather buckets are frequent, though this may only indicate that the borough records were becoming more detailed and that such provision had been unrecorded in previous centuries.

In 1607 Hastings Corporation voted £6 13s. 4d. for buying leather buckets, grapples, hooks and ladders to be hung in both the churches, and in 1618 they bought eighteen more and resolved that every Jurat and Freeman should furnish himself with a bucket under penalty of a fine. Belfast also insisted that “every inhabitant of £60 free subsistence shall at his own proper cost furnish one leather bucket”.

In 1615 the Court Leet of the village of Manchester, following a disastrous fire, imposed a special tax to provide twenty-four buckets, six ladders, four ropes and four hooks to be kept in convenient places about the town.

In 1634 Perth Council “understanding that Andro Read is presentlie God willing of intention to gang to London and that the said Burgh is destitute of bucketts for saftie of fyre when sic accidents occurs as God forbid, thaiefor they be thir pre- sentis gifs commission to the said Andro Read to buy 24 bucketts to serve the burgh to the former effect and promittis and be thir presents oblisses thame to satisfie him thairfor at his returning therewith.”

Sometimes the buckets were presented by a prominent citizen, as fire engines were to be in the next three centuries, and the minute and order book of Carmarthen Corporation records: “In the year 1633, Thomas Atkins being the then Maior, bestowed on the town 12 bucketts with 2 hookes with iron heads & iron chaines for fire, upon his own charge.”

In 1680 Hull ordained that “the following were required to keep in their houses leathern buckets:–Aldermen, 4 buckets; those having served as Sheriff, 6 buckets; those having served as Aldermen, 4 buckets.”

Often the buckets were made locally. Louth’s municipal papers record in 1633 a payment to “W. M. for a Stear hide and a calf skin for bucket making and mending”, and in Dunfermline the “Counsell appointed the Treasurer to send to Edinburgh for a hide of good inglish uppers to make water buckets to be kept by ye town in case of fire”. In 1692 Perth no longer sent to London but appointed the “Deacon of the Shoemakers to make fifty buckets for use of fire”.

It would appear that this town had distributed its original buckets among householders, for in 1672 the town minutes state that “Persons nominated to receive buckets ordered to do so on pain of having their goods forthwith poinded and aprised at the cross without respect of persons” .

The twelfth-century practice of putting vessels of water outside house doors was kept up in places, and the Constable’s accounts for Bruton, Somerset, have the item for July 9th, 1691, “payd ye Bellman for crying water to be sett forth at every door. 6d.” Perhaps that was done only in very hot weather, for the same item does not recur for thirteen years and then it is on June 30th.

Thatch was probably the greatest hazard of the congested little towns,and the practice of carrying burning sticks or peat from a neighbour’s house to relight the fire was banned in many places. The Portmote Records of Salford for October 11th, 1615, state: “The Jurie doe order for caryage of ffyer. There shall none carry ffyer openlie uncovered nor delyver ffyre out of his house. Sub pena vjd for everie tyme so offendinge.” It must have been a temptation to break the law, for the process of getting a light from a tinder- box was often long and tedious. Even with the tinderboxes of the early nineteenth century three minutes was reckoned an average time, but half an hour was not unusual in unfavourable circumstances or with damp tinder.

But it is obvious that the regulations were frequently ignored. In 1615 James I protested against such carelessness and announced that he would “Now and hereafter leave words and act and execute our princely ordinances on that behalf and not make discourse or recital of them”. Some towns were not lax. In 1609 Hastings had condemned the new malthouse of John Brett built near Courthouse Street as svery dangerous for fire” and later charged John Kneeves with building a small house that was a “Publick Nuisance, in great danger of fire and in probability may occasion the burning down of several houses near adjoyning thereto”. He was ordered to pull it down within ten days.

The wardmote inquests of the time provide evidence of an awareness by the public of the fire hazard. They were held each St. Thomas’ Day (December 21st) and the “questmen” or representatives of the parishioners would come forward with their complaints, called presentments, from year to year, nor were they slow to remind the aldermen that matters complained of the previous year had not been put right. Any matter of annoyance or danger to the inhabitants could be raised parish officers who had used their position to oppress, foul ditches, unreformed drunkards, brothel keepers, unlit streets, or blocked drains, but almost every year the main complaint in most parishes was houses not roofed with slate, lead or tile, defective chimneys, bakers lighting ovens with straw and failure of the churchwardens to provide buckets, ladders and hooks in the church. The church porch or tower was by now the almost universal repository of such gear and although there is no evidence of men specially trained to use it, protective head gear was certainly provided for those who did, and a very serviceable padded leather helmet with neck curtain is still preserved in St. Katherine Cree Church. A typical wardmote inquest presentment is the following from the parish of St. John Zachary in 1614.

“Item, wee present the tenements of Richard Smith, George ffalet and John Westcote have noe chimnies in them but Reredorses or such like, very dangerous for fire, heretofore often presented but never amended.”

An Act of Elizabeth I (1583) had forbidden “any man to build or make a reredorse for the fire of charcoals in any house and this for avoiding the rage of Fire”. The same Act forbade tallow-chandlers to melt tallow in their dwelling-houses.

In many cases the municipal fire-fighting equipment housed in the church tower was, when required, found to be missing or unserviceable, though expenditure on “oyling” and repair of buckets is as common in town minutes as the provision of them. When the prevailing confusion allowed, the bucket chains were organis- ed from the water supply to the fire by two rows of persons on each side of the street; one row passed the full buckets from hand to hand up to the fire, the other, in which the women were mostly stationed, passed the empty buckets back to the water. Water was also swept along the kennels by brooms, scoops and paddles. In the seventeenth century street water- mains were installed in many towns. The first were made of hollowed-out logs of elm, one end being tapered and fitted into the untapered end of the next. There were no cocks fitted on them and the fire fighters merely dug down to the main, pierced it and allowed the water to run into the street and kennels, from whence it was picked up in buckets and squirts and thrown on to the fire or into the cisterns of the engines, for in the first quarter of the seventeenth century fire engines were in use. They were crude affairs drawn on sledges with none of the refinements of Ctesibius, and are described in a scientific pamphlet titled Forcible Movements written by the Huguenot refugee engineer Salomon de Caus in 1615.

He refers to the invention as “a rare and necessary engin by which you may give greate reliefe to houses that are on fire. Though the fire be forty foot high, the said engine shall there cast its water by help of four or five men lifting up and putting down a long handle, in form of a lever where the handle of the pump is fastned. The said pump is easily understood: there are two suckers within it, one below to open when the handle is lifted up and to shut when it is put down and another to open to let out the water; and at the end of the said engin there is a man which holds the copper pipe turning it to and again to the place where the fire shall be.”

In 1634 John Bate wrote “A Treatise on Art and Nature” and described wengins to be drawn upon wheeles from place to place, for to quench fier among buildings; the use whereof hath been found very commodious and profitable in cities and great townes”. He describes seven different types, one with two cylinders and one without a cistern, it being used by placing it “in the water or over a kennel and drive the water up to it and by moving the handle to and fro it will cast the water with a mighty force up to any place you may direct.”

The Wallington Journal MS. gives an account of the use of engines in 1633 at a London fire which destroyed forty-two houses on London Bridge and blocked the carriage-way.

“On the 1lth day of February (being Monday, 1633), began by God’s just hand a fearefull fire in the house of one John Brigges neere tenn of the Clocke att night, it burnt down his house and the next house with all the goods that were in them and as I heere that Briggs his Wife and Child escaped with their lives verily hardly having nothing on their bodies but their Shurt and Smoke; and the fire burnt so fearcely that it could not be quenched till it had burnt downe all the houses on both sides of the way from S. Magnes Churche to the first open place. And although there was water enough very neere, yet they could not safely come at it, but all the Conduittes neere were opened and the pipes that carried watter through the streets were cutt open, and ye watter swept down with broomes with helpe enough, but it was the will of God it should not prevaile. And the hand of God was the more seene in this inasmuch as no means would prosper. For the Engines which are such excellent things, that nothing that ever was devised could do so much good: yeet none of theese did prosper for they were [all] broken, and ye tide was verie low, that they could get no watter and the pipes that cut yelded but littel watter; some ladders were broke to the hurt of many for some had their legges broke, some their armes and some their ribs were broke and many lost their lives. This fire burnt fiercely all night and part of the next day (for my man was there about twelve a Clocke, and he said he did [see] the Swedish house on fire) till all was burnt and pulled down to the ground, yet the timber and wood and coales in the Sellers could not be quenched all that weeke; till the tues- day following in the afternoon the xix of February, for I was there then my Selfe and had a live cole of fire in my hand, and burnt my finger with it. 

“Notwithstanding there were as many night and day as could labour one by another to carry away Timber & Bricks, and tiles and rubbish cast downe into the liters, So that on Wensday the Bridge was cleared that passengers might goe over. 

“At the beginning of this fire As I lay in my Bed and heard ye sweeping of the channels and crying for water-water, I arose about one of the Clocke and looked downe Fish street hill and did behold such a fearefull and dreadfull fire, vaunting itself over the tops of houses like a Captaine florish- ing and displaying his banner, and seeing So much meanes and little good it did make me thinke of that fire which the Lord threatneth against Jerusalem for the breach of his Sabbath-day.

 “I did heere that one the other side of ye Bridge the bruers brought abundance of watter in vessals on their draies which did with the blissing of God much good. CAnd this mircie of God I thought on, yt there was but littel wind, for had ye wind bin as high as it was a weeke before I think it would have indangered ye most parte of the Citie, for in Thames Street there is much pitch-tarre, rosen and oyle in their houses; Therefore as God remembers mercy in justice, let us remember thankfullness in Sorrow.”

The reference to Thames Street and its inflammable contents is interesting, for the hazardous goods stored there were the·fuel that touched off the Great Fire of London thirty-three years later. The London engines referred to in this MS. had evidently been in use earlier and their fame had spread to the provinces, for the minutes of the %Company of Four & Twenty” of Braintree, Essex, contain the following entry for October 1st, 1632. “Fire Engyne. It is agreed that an engyne be procured for the common good of the parish to quench any starr fyers that may befall. Such an one as in use in London”. And on December 30th, 1632, “Fire Engyne. That Mr. Hawkins is requested to deal with some work- men in London about the making of an engine for the quenching of starr fires.”

The Four & Twenty were a closed vestryl and were very conscious of their parish fire risk. Their minutes are interspersed with the provision of buckets, payments to men cof the poorer sort which took paynes to quench the starr fire” and in 1622 comment severely on “Stanley Kennet who do dwell in a chamber where they do make fires very dangerously.” 

Exeter too bought a similar engine, for the City’s Chamber Act Book records on December 21st, 1652, “Wch day Mr. Henry Prigge is appointed and desired by this house to write to London about the procuring downe of an Engine for the quenching of fire for the publique use and service of this Citty”, and the Receiver’s Book mentions- “Paid Mr. Henrie Prigg for soe much by him disbursed for carriage of the Engyn and bucketts from London as by his note- -£4 6s. Od.”, and “Paid Lewes Greenslade Carpenter for timber and fitting of the Studdye under the Guildhall wherein to place the Engyn for fire, –£1 9s. Od.”, and “Paid Robert Chamberlaine car- penter for his labour and for wo: of bord nailes used about the inclosing of A place to putt the fire engyn in, by Mr. Prigges order as by a note- 10s. Od.”

In 1656 Glasgow Council gave an order to James Colquhoun to build an engine similar in construction to one which was then in use in Edinburgh, and the year following £25 sterling was paid to the said James Colquhoun as the price of the engine made by him. In 1637 Charles I wrote to the Lord Mayor of London concerning “Pro- visions of Engins in London for Accidents of Fier” .

“Whereas wee have had good informacion otherwise of the excellent use to bee made in accidentes of fier of the new Engins for spowting of water; and that in the late fier which happened neare Arundell Howse the good use thereof did manifestly appeare, although there was none of the said Engins brought untill it was late, by reason (as is informed) that there was none of the said Engins in the Parishes neare thereaboutes. Wee have thought fitt to take notice to your Lordshipp of the great scarcity of the said Engins, considering the great use to bee made of them, and earnestly to recommend unto you that there may a frequent provision bee made of them, so as that upon all occasions, they may bee neare and ready at hand. Yet to avoyd any burthen upon the Citty, more than necessary, we con- ceave that more of the lesser parishes may joyne together in providing of an Engin; but that the great Parishes should provide themselves, as wee intend to give direccon for the Parishes out of the Cittyes jurisdiccion, every one to make provision.”

But buckets, hooks and the new engines, if provided, could not stop the cities of Britain being destroyed. Tiverton had burned again in 1612, the fire starting in the workshop of a dyer

“who notwithstanding the celebration of the holiday kept his fornace going for the dying of cloathes and left the charge thereof unluckeley to a boy: which boy having more minde on play, and purposing to be sooner among his companions, hastened his fires exceedingly and put under his fornace too greate a number of furses, the quicker to make it boyle. This made too violent a flame, more than the fornace could contain and it sudainely tooke hold of the Dyer’s house.”

The contemporary account is long, detailed and verbose, concerning the progress of the fire and the distress of the inha bitants, yet despite their experience of fourteen years before, there is no mention of organised fire fighting, only of panic, “heauge griefe” and closs without recoverie” . The whole town, :builded up again to her former estate and the chiefe market in Devon for cloath and meeting of merchants” , was destroyed except the school house and a few poor cottages. In April, 1653, occurred the “Great Fire of Marlborough”, the main weaving town of Wiltshire, swith merchants of affluence and repute who lost their brass and pewter, gold and silver, silks, taffetas and wool, the value whereof could not be made known. Two hundred and twenty-four houses, the church and the market house were burned and it started in a house whose owner had been recently guilty of the extravagant pretension of assuming the name of Messiah.”

The first of Cromwell’s fire briefs was issued on behalf of the sufferers in the following terms:

“Whereas the Council hath been informed, as well by petition of the mayor and inhabitants of Marlborough, in the county of Wilts, as by certificate under the hands of several justices of the peace of the said county, that upon Thursday, the 28 April, 1653, the Lord, whose judgments are un- searchable and His ways past finding out, in His overruling providence disposing, a fearful and most violent fire broke out almost at the lower end of the said town, which in the space of 3 or 4 hours burnt and destroyed all the considerable parts and body thereof, to the utter undoing of the greater part of the said inhabitants, they not having anything for their future liveli- hood, and withal to supply the urgent necessities of their languishing families. The sense of this weighing deeply and seriously on the hearts of the Council, with tenderest bowels commiserating the much to be lamented condition of the said distressed inhabitants, they have thought themselves bound both in conscience and duty, as suffering and sympathising with them in their great afiliction, to recommend the same to the charity and benevolence of well-disposed persons and upon this extraordinary occasion to appoint, as they do hereby, a collection to be made in the Cities of London and Westminster, and in all other cities, counties, boroughs, towns corp., and other principal places within England and Wales, for the relief of the said inhabitants and for re-edifying of the said town, which is exceed- ingly necessary and of great importance for commerce and trade; not doubting but that a business of this nature (so Christian and of such con- cernment to so many ruined and desolate families) will find ready accept- ance with all those who have anything of bowels of compassion in them; and that they will be easily provoked to such a cheerful and liberal contribution as shall be answerable to so great a loss.”

Cromwell headed the subscription list with the princely sum of £2,000. He got scant thanks from the local royalists who said “the fire was started by his red and fiery nose and was an ominous commencement of this incendiary’s usurpation”. 

During the Civil War William Gosling, engineer, printed a pamphlet headed: “Seasonable Advice for Preventing the Mischiefe of Fire”. Thought very necessary to hang in every man’s house, especially in these dangerous times.” It gives almost every “cause” that appears in the daily fire report of modern brigades (except replacing fuses with hairpins, and look- ing for gas leaks with candles), and also a good account of how a fire was fought at that period, and is worth quoting in full:

For Preventing The Mischiefe Of Fire, That May Come ByNegligence, Treason, Or Otherwise

Ordered to be printed by the Lord Mayor of London.

And Is Thought Very Necessary To Hang InEvery Man’s House, Especially In These Dangerous Times.

Invented by William Gosling, Engineer.

How many severall ways, Houses, Townes, and Cities, habe beene set a-fire.

Some hath been burnt by bad Harths, Chimnies, Ovens, or by pans of fire set upon boards: some by Cloaths hanged against the fire: some by leaving great fires in Chimnies, where the sparkes or sickles breaking fell and fired the boards, painted Cloaths, Wainscots, Rufhes, Matts, as houses were burnt in Shoreditch: some by Powder, or shooting off Pieces; some by Tinder or Matches: some by setting Candles under shelves: some by leaving Candles neere their beds: some by snuffes of Candles, Tobacco- snuffes, burnt papers: and some by drunkards; as many houses were burnt in Southwarke: some by warming Beds: some by looking under beds with Candles: some by sleeping at worke, leaving their Candles by them, sO many have been burnt of severall Trades: some by setting Candles neere the thatch of houses: some by snuffes or sparkes falne upon Gunpowder, or upon matts, rushes, chips, small coale, and in chinkes; so Wimbleton was burnt: some Townes were burnt by Maultkills: some by Candles in Stables: or by foule chimnies; some by Candles amongst hempe, flaxe, and ware-houses: some by Candles falling out of their Candlesticks: some by sticking their Candles upon posts: some by Lincks knockt at shops, stalls, sellers, windowes, ware-houses, dores, and dangerous places: some by carrying fire from place to place, where the winde hath blowne it about the streets, as it did burne St. Edmondsbury: some by warme Sea-coale sinders put in baskets, or woodden things, as did burne London-Bridge: And some have been burnt without either fire, or Candle, as by wet hay, corne, straw, Or by mills, wheeles, or such like: all which hath been by carelesnesse. And some have been fired a purpose by villany or Treason.

Orders to be Observed that fire may not happen.

Is that every housekeeper, either himselfe, or one by his appointment that should be last up, to see to the fire and Candle, and to shut the Seller- windowes, dores, casements, garret-windows, and to stop holes, and sinkes, that fire may not come in by Treason, or otherwise: To prevent Treason that may come by wilde-fire, is to stop the wildfire simples, where they are sould: Seeke to prevent fire at the beginning, and by the sight of smoake, to looke to it, for divers fires have been So prevented: Some have been pre- vented by smelling old wood, linnen, or woollen burne: and some by hear- ing the crackling of sticks, coales, or sparkes of fire, have prevented mis- chiefe thereby; if you will use Candle all night, let your Candlestick be a pot of water brim full, and set it where it shall stand, and then light a Candle and sticke a great pin in the bottome of the Candle, and let it slowly into the water, and it will burn all night without danger: if the wood under the harth of a Chimnie be a-fire, then take heed you doe not open it too suddenly, before you cast water upon it, for the ayre getting in, the fire will burst forth, therefore still throw water, and upon it by degrees. And that the Bricklayers should look better to the foundations of harths, and ovens, to prevent the hurts of fire: if Chimnies be a-fire, either wet hay, or straw, or a wet blanket, or a kettle of water hung over, or bay-salt cast into the fire, or a Piece shot up into the chimnie, will helpe it. And that the watch might be from day-light to day-light, at such a distance that they may see and hear from one Watch to the other; that some might be upon Gates, Towers, or Churches, if need be, to give notice to the Watch below, upon any occasion, to prevent both enemy and fire.

Orders that if fire should happen, either by wilde-fire, or other wayes, to prevent the miseries thereof.

Then the Bells going backward, doth give notice of fire: and that all Officers and others, must keepe the streets or lanes ends, that the rude people may be kept from doing mischiefe, for sometimes they doe more harme than the fire: and suffer none but the workers to come neere, and all the streets from the fire to the water, may have double rowes or rankes of men on each side the street, to handy emptie pales, ports, or buckets, to the water, and to returne full to the fire, by the other rowe or ranke of people, on the same side the street: so as the streets affords, you may have divers rankes: and by this order, water may be brought to quench it, or earth to choake it, and smoother it, with that speed and plenty, as need requires. All those of higher or levell ground, should throw downe water, to run to the place where the fire is, and there to stop it: and others to sweep up the waters of kennells towards the fire. If waterpipes run through the streets, you may open it against the house that is a-fire, and set another pipe in that upright, and two or three foot lower than the height of the head of the same water, set in some gutter, trough, or pipe unto the upright pipe, to convay the water to the fire, for under the foresaid height, it will run it selfe from high ponds, or from Sir Hugh Middletons water, or Conduit- heads, or from the Water-houses, without any other helpe, into the fire, as you will have it: you may keepe great Scoopes or Squrts of wood in houses; or if you will, you may have in the Parish a great Squrt on wheeles, that may doe very good service. Where mild fire is, milke, urine, sand, earth, or dirt, will quench it: but anything else set a-fire by that, will be quencht as afore: if there be many houses standing together, and are endangered by a mightie fire, before it can be quencht, or choaked with earth, then you may pull down the next house opposite to the winde, and then earth and rubbish being cast upon the fire, and round about it, will choake the violence of the fire: besides the water you may get to do the like. Also it is necessary that every Parish should have Hookes, Ladders, Squirts, Buckets and Scoopes in a readinesse upon any occasion. o the miseries of Cities, Townes, Villages, and particular houses, that have been burnt, where some could not recover their losses in thirtie yeares after, and some never, which have been lamentable spectacles unto us, when many men, women, and children, have been burnt in their houses; and multitudes of people utterly undone, who saw all their wealth burnt before their eyes. Besides, many have been hurt, many kild, and many burned, that came but to help to quench the fires. What lamentable cryes, frightings, and amazements, there were to all sorts of people, some sicke, some in child-bed, and some great with childe, to the terrour of them all: and all was through the miseries of fire, that came by carelessnesse and wilfulnesse. 

Therefore let the very sight of fire and Candle, put us in minde to prevent the like miseries that have come by fire, both in London, and the parts of England: for as ayre makes fire increase, so earth will choake it; and water will quench it. 

Prevention of fires, would save the often Collections of money in all Churches in England; all which is for the profit and safetie of the Common- wealth. As good order, and care, prevents our feare of fire, So a good life, prevents the wayes to sinne. And every one, mend one; then all will be mended. The Lord Commandeth us, to have care of our neighbours goods. Deut. Chap. 22. For the love of our neighbour fulfilleth the Law. Rom. Chap. 13.

The mention of “ra piece shot up into the chimney” refers to a contemporary method of dealing with chimney fires by firing a gun up the chimney, the resulting explosion dislodging the burning soot into the hearth. Evelyn, the diarist, refers to it in one of his many notes. He preferred onions! “Let onions be thrown on the coales, blow it SO as they make a reake, it imme- diately quenches the fire above in the soote. Better than salt or ye shooting off a gun.” The Civil War brought special fire protection ordinances to many cities, and the Nottingham Date Book for 1643 records that “secret attempts were made by some evil disposed persons to fire the city, but in every instance it was quenched”. To guard against these practices, a watch composed of women was formed to parade the town at night in a company of fifty, it being considered that fifty women in a state of terror would create an alarm that would arouse those sleeping in their beds more effectually than any other means which might be devised.

Charles Il, soon after the Restoration, was warning the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of London of the fire danger and giving his specific authority for the imprisonment of those who contravened building regulations and for the pulling down of the offending premises. The day of London’s tragedy was approaching and certainly there was no lack of warning, not only from the king but from the preachers who constantly proclaimed against the wickedness of the modern Babylon and Prophesied that it would be destroyed by fire as Sodom had been. Daniel Baker in 1658, after much invective against the city’s wickedness, declared that “a consuming fire shall be kindled, which will scorch with burning heat all hypocrites, unstable, double-minded workers of iniquity. Yea, a great fire and smoke shall increase, howling and great wailing shall be on every hand in her streets.”

Henry Smith, the Quaker, was even more prophetic in 1662 and wrote of a vision in which: “As for the city a great fire was kindled therein and there was none could quench it. And the burning thereof was exceeding great. AII the tall buildings fell, and it consumed all the lofty things therein and the fire searched out all the hidden places.”

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