New Municipal Brigades – Part 1

The Metropolitan Fire Brigade Act of 1865 at last put London’s fire protection on a public footing, but while the events described in the last chapter were taking place some progress was being made in the provinces. It lagged behind the needs of the community, for Britain’s industry, population and towns were growing at an ever-increasing rate and so was the fire risk. Gas was by now the established form of lighting and the flaring jets appeared in street, home, factory and theatre, causing many accidents and fires. Soon after the invention of gas the first friction matches had appeared, originally invented in 1826 by John Walker, a chemist of Stockton-on-Tees. His sales were only local and he never patented his invention, but others soon copied it and by the mid-thirties they were becoming common.

The early phosphorus friction matches were very dangerous, for they ignited too readily. A sharp blow would set the box ablaze, and on the kitchen mantelshelf or a sunny windowsill the temperatures were high enough to set them off and they often ignited surrounding objects or woodwork. Where gas was not installed the new oil lamps were replacing candles, and oil chandlers’ shops in unsuitable buildings sprang up to supply the paraffin, which was kept in bulk in warehouses and at docks with almost complete disregard for its dangerous properties. Fashion took a hand in the increasing domestic fire risk when the crinoline appeared, and newspapers reported almost daily the death of an unfortunate female whose crinoline had come in contact with the coal fire, though its wearer might have been standing up to four feet away from the source of ignition. So common was this accident that the single word “Crinoline” appeared on the printed forms of some fire brigade report slips, along with other com- mon causes, needing only the number to be inserted to complete the weekly return of fires under each cause.

Tobacco was becoming more popular, though only among men. It had not previously been accounted a serious fire risk, for smoking was an elaborate ceremony indulged in at times of leisure with long clay churchwardens. The short clay pipe was being used by working men at the turn of the century and a great warehouse fire at Grays (Essex) in 1805 was attributed to a workman’s pipe. The Crimean War popularised the cigarette, but it was not until 1918 that smoking became a country-wide fire risk.

But it was industry that was producing the greatest risks, as the mills and factories grew up in the congested new working-class streets, unregulated by Factory Acts and sometimes death traps for the hundreds of employees if a fire should break out during working hours. A lot of this new industry was in towns that a hundred years before had been small villages and had no mayor and corporation properly to regulate their growth and public services. They had had to rely on Court leets, manorial powers and Im- provement Commissioners until the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 gave them the opportunity of instituting proper municipal government. 

When Bradford Corporation was formed in 1847 the new body took over from the Commissioners a town of 70,000 population, with eighty worsted mills and two hundred wool warehouses, but no sewers or street lighting. There was, however, a fire brigade which the Commissioners had formed in 1803, and they had provided it with “very convenient Station House in Swaine Street” in 1837. In addition there were three insurance brigades in operation (the Leeds & Yorkshire, the Halifax, and the Bradford & Keighley). 

The new watch committee laid down rules in the December of 1847 for both police and fire brigade, including

“In the event of fire within the Borough, it is the duty of the Chief Constable immediately to repair to the place. Immediate notice of the fire must be given to the several Fire Offices. The keys of the engine house are kept at the Borough Police Office and may be procured immediately. Every possible assistance must be given in the removal of property, conformably with the wishes and suggestions of the owners thereof, and if desired, such property may, for its greater safety, be conveyed to the Borough Police Office; special attention must be directed to the numerous thieves who usually assemble at such times. In the event of a fire breaking out on his beat, the Constable is immediately to spring his rattle and cry “Fire”. His first duty is to alarm the inmates, if any, of the house on fire; and his next duty is, if possible, to put out the fire. Ifit be quite obvious that he can put out the fire instantly, he is to give no further alarm; but if he has doubt of being able to do so-and it is better to be wrong in giving the alarm than to be late, he is to send the first Officer who comes to his assistance to the establishment in Swaine Street, and the person so sent is to run all the way himself, and he is not to send another, but as he goes along he is to knock and tell every Constable who comes to him where the fire is, the name of the street and the nature of the property, and he is to do all this briefly and without stopping for one moment. If he has far to run, and feels tired, he is to send forward a fresh Constable when about half-way; but still he is to keep on his course as fast as possible, lest the message should miscarry. For this service if he do it well, the Committee will reward him. On his arrival at the Fire Station he is to render all the assistance in his power in getting out the Engine, and he may ride back upon it, directing the driver, if necessary, the shortest way. All the Constables who happen to meet him, or when they hear the Fire Bell, are first to call up all the Firemen and Water-Turners Beats and spring their rattles. To every Officer who comes to the rattle, they are to tell where the fire is, and they in their turn are to act in the same way, So that in a few minutes every Constable in the town when asked may be able to tell where the fire is.”

In 1849 the brigade was reformed, and in 1854 a fire brigade committee was formed and appointed a full-time superintendent, selecting Daniel Graham of Preston. At the same time the firemen were issued with “good and durable uniform and helmets”. In 1867 the corporation purchased a steam fire engine.

Middlesbrough, in County Durham, grew from a hamlet of 150 population in 1830 to a county borough of 90,000 by 1900. The new corporation formed in 1853 took over its duties from two bodies, the Improvement Commissioners and the Owners of the Middlesbrough Estate, a private company who had developed the new town mainly by an extension of the Stockton & Darlington Railway. The corporation formed a police fire brigade in 1855 and provided an engine. The following year they received a second engine from the railway company as this corporation minute of September 9th, 1856, records

“Ordered – That the Corporation of Middlesbrough do take charge of the Stockton and Darlington Railway Company’s Fire Engine, to provide a house for it, keep it in repair, and to allow their Fire Brigade to go with it whenever needed by the Company, on being paid for the services of the men forming the Brigade. The Engine to be placed in the hands of the Corporation in perfect order, and with a satisfactory outfit of Hose. John Vaughan and the Corporation to have the use of the Engine when they require it, free of charge. The Corporation agree to pay the Company one shilling a year as an acknowledgment.”

In 1875 the ·Middlesbrough Owners’ handed over to the corporation their steam fire engine, and a new central fire station was built. 

Cambridge had a municipal police fire brigade by 1849, but they relied for assistance on college and insurance companies, engines and there was evidently chaos and lack of unified command at fires. After a serious fire which destroyed twelve houses in Market Hill in 1849 the local newspaper reported:

“Fire engines of the Borough, the various Insurance Offices and those belonging to Trinity and St. John’s were soon on the spot, but alas; the keys of Hobson’s Conduit could not be found. The final discovery of the keys only increased the prevailing excitement and confusion, for the firemen were soon vigorously squabbling over the limited supply of the conduit. Matters were improved, however, by the numberless buckets and pails which were literally showered upon the crowds of willing helpers, who soon formed themselves into lines to supply the ten engines now upon the scene, some of these lines extended down Garret Hostel Lane as far as the river. The high hats worn by the Police afforded many times a mark for the facetious young man in charge of the Phoenix engine, who scored several direct hits with the water jet, much to the merriment of the onlookers.”

In 1861 the Manchester Fire Brigade made a great step forward when the Council appointed Engineer Alfred Tozer of the London Fire Engine Establishment as Superintendent on the resignation of Thomas Rose. The salary was £200 a year with house, light and fuel. Tozer came from an entirely professional brigade to one that was largely retained, and at once advised his committee that a small number of full-time men would be far more effective and cost little more than the large number of part-time fire- men then engaged. He also told them that there was practically no pro- vision to meet the heavy life risk in the city and advised them to purchase five fire escapes. The committee sat on his recommendation for a year but then, following a fatal fire in Stretford Road, they were criticised by the coroner and agreed to their Superintendent’s scheme. An assistant superintendent, three engineers and thirty wholetime firemen were appointed on the continuous-duty system. They were to have fourteen hours’ leave once every fortnight and three days’ annual leave! Junior firemen were to be paid 19s. a week. New stations were built with quarters for married and single men. Soon the percentage loss by fire of property in Manchester dropped from 10 per cent. to 4.5 per cent.

Many other towns were taking an increased interest in fire fighting and protection, but just as many still ignored their responsibility. Birmingham had received its Charter of Incorporation in the eighteen-thirties, by which time the population had grown to 180,000. By 1865 it was almost 300,000 and still the corporation did nothing about fire protection; even Dester had gone! The city fathers considered that the insurance brigades were doing the job adequately and in 1863 two new units provided by the Royal and the Alliance Offices had been added to the available force, the board of the former stating that they considered such a formation would “add to the popularity of the company and lead to increased business”. Soon they were regretting their decision. Fires in Birmingham were frequent and losses were heavy. 

The cost of running the brigades was increasing, especially due to the lack of unified command and the wasteful turning out of a number of competitive engines to one small fire. There were five separate insurance brigades running in the city. In 1867 they met and sent a letter to the Lord Mayor saying that they were willing to hand over their engines and plant to the corporate authorities provided the latter would undertake to establish and maintain a fire brigade, and that the managers of the respective offices were prepared to confer with any committee of the corporation to whom the subject might be referred for the purpose of considering and arranging the necessary preliminaries. The letter was referred to the watch committee, who later reported that the probable cost of maintaining a fire brigade would be £2,000 per annum, exclusive of the considerable first out- lay in getting the brigade in proper order. Because of this high cost the committee felt that it was undesirable to establish and maintain a borough fire brigade. The council concurred.

The insurance companies therefore held another meeting and decided on the course the London offices had taken in 1832 and from the consequences of which they had so recently been released. They decided on amalgamation, with a chief officer who was to receive £120 a year and free quarters, costs to be shared equally, £100 entrance fee to any new company wishing to join, charges to be made for attending any premises not insured with a member company, each office to be represented on the committee of management which was to meet weekly at the brigade headquarters. The five companies were the Birmingham Alliance, Alliance, Lancashire, Royal and Norwich Union, and their new brigade was called the Birmingham United Fire Brigade.

They obtained premises for a new fire station in Little Cannon Street and set about selecting a chief officer. They chose George Tiviotdale, a foreman in the Metropolitan Fire Brigade who appeared before them with a testimonial from Captain Shaw. The United Fire Brigade protected Birmingham for the next seven years.

The sixties provided other legislation besides the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Act. Glasgow and Aberdeen put local Acts through Parliament, the Glasgow Police Act, 1862 (25 & 26 Vic., c. cciv (local)) and the Aberdeen Police and Waterworks Act, 1862 (25 & 26 Vic., c. cciii (local)). Both these Acts had sections giving additional powers to maintain fire engines and fire brigades, but in the same year Salford stole a march on other municipal- ities and on the insurance companies with the Salford Improvement Act, 1862 (25 & 26 Vic., C. CCv (local)). 

This had twelve sections dealing with the “Fire Police”, giving powers for the continuance of that body and concerning the provision of firemen, engines, horses and stations, and Section 274 stated: “And whereas it is expedient that all extraordinary Expenses occasioned by any Fire should be borne by and amongst all the respective Insurance Offices who have insured against Fire Property endangered, Be it enacted, That all such extraordinary Expenses together with such Sum as the Corporation shall think reasonable for the Use and Risk of their Engines and Utensils, shall be paid to the Superintendent of the said Fire Police Establishment by the respective Insurance Offices” .

Apparently the fire offices were caught napping. The Bill went through Parliament and they found themselves saddled with the payment of “such sums as the Corporation shall think reasonable” for every fire attended by Salford Fire Brigade in insured property.

It was the last local Act passed in Britain giving a borough power to charge sufferers from fire for the attendance of a fire brigade that they had already paid for out of their rates or to charge their insurance company if they were insured. Other Acts got at the insurance companies by charging the owner, who passed on the charge if insured. This one gave Salford powers to present their bill direct to the insuring office. After the passing of this Act many cities noted the contribution legally enforced on the insurance companies and considered that a similar arrangement for their own borough would be of advantage to the municipal treasury. Bradford, Huddersfield, Carlisle and others promoted local Acts with the object in view, but the insurance companies were. having no more of it. They made representations to the Parliamentary Committees considering the Bills, who struck out the proposals on the grounds that fire extinguishment was a public duty. Parliament had at last come to this conclusion, and when Manchester extended its boundaries and had to promote a local Bill to do so, the insurance companies objected to the special power for charging for the attendance of the fire brigade being applied to the added areas. The Parliamentary Committee agreed with them that the charge was contrary to principle and said they would prefer the inconvenience of different powers applying to different parts of the city rather than extend a wrong principle. They struck the clause out of the Bill so that for many years the Manchester ratepayer in certain parts of the city paid for the attendance of the brigade while his fellow ratepayer in another part did not.

Also in 1862 there was passed the General Police and Improvements (Scotland) Act (25 & 26 Vic., C. 101). The full title was “An Act to make more effectual Provision for regulating the Police of Towns and Populous Places in Scotland and for lighting, cleansing, paving, draining, supplying water to and improving the same, and also for promoting the Public Health thereof.”

It was an enormous “omnibus’ Act of 499 sections, repealing some older Acts and dealing with such diverse subjects as the licensing of sedan chairs, the provision of public clocks, and the prevention of any indecent exposure of the persons of bathers.

It had four sections dealing with fire prevention and fire brigades, and laid down fines of £5 for wilfully firing chimneys, and 10s. for accidentally firing them, plus the expense of extinguishment which was to be fixed by the magistrates. Party walls were to be carried twelve inches above the roof, roofs were to be incombustible and thatch was to be removed within seven years of the adoption of the Act. 

Another section said that towns might

“purchase fire engines, escapes and equipment, purchase or hire horses, employ a proper number of persons and make such rules for their regula- tion as they think proper and givę such salaries as they think fit and shall be entitled to recover from the owners and occupiers of the premises where any fires shall happen such reasonable sums of money as they shall consider just, not exceeding in the whole £15 or whatever less sum is equal to one half of the actual expenses of extinguishing any such fire.”

The whole of the Act was adoptive and its most important provision for fire protection permissive, so that any progress incidental to it was dependent upon the attitude of individual burghs.

The year 1862 also saw the passing of the first Petroleum Act – An Act for the Safekeeping of Petroleum (25 & 26 Vic., c. 66). This was a simple piece of legislation; its preamble stated: “Whereas it is expedient to provide for the Safekeeping of Petroleum and Certain Products thereof that are dangerous to Life and Property, from their Properties of giving off inflammable Vapours at low temperatures” and the Act forbade the keeping of more than forty gallons of petroleum within fifty yards of a dwelling-house or of a building in which goods are stored except under licence. The penalty was £20 per day and forfeiture of the petroleum. Licences might have any conditions which the local authority thought necessary for diminishing the risk of explosion or fire.

In 1867 the Poor Law Amendment Act (30 & 31 Vic., C. 106) under its Section 29 gave powers to appoint firemen to parishes where there was no local council or board. 

The 1862 Commission having produced the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Act and set London’s fire protection on an improved footing, there was agitation for similar measures with regard to the provinces. Mr. Peter McLagan, M.P., a director of the Queen Insurance Company, was assiduous in pressing this cause and in 1866 was successful in having another Select Parliamentary Committee appointed, with himself as chairman, “to inquire into the existing Legislative Provisions for the Protection of Life and Property against Fires in the United Kingdom and as to the best Means to be adopted for ascertaining the causes and preventing the Frequency of Fires” . The Committee held its first meeting on March 29th, 1867.

Previously it had sent a circular to 120 of the principal towns in the country asking the following questions:

“1. Are there any means adopted in your town for the protection of life from fire in the construction of buildings or in the possession of fire escapes? 

2. Is the water supplied by a private company, or by the local authority? 

3. What are the regulations regarding the supplying of water in the case of a fire? 

4. What are the number and kinds of fire engines and other appliances for the extinguishing of fires? 

5. Is there a fire brigade? If so, how is it supported? 

6. Is there any local Act, or are there any municipal regulations applic- able to the erection of buildings and the storage and classification of goods with the view of preventing the spreading of fires? 

7. In the event of a suspicious fire occurring, what measures are taken for investigating into the circumstances?”

Thirty-four towns did not bother to reply, but from the eighty-six who answered the Committee found that:

“1. No means are adopted in any of the towns for the protection of life from fire in the construction of buildings, with the exception of one or two instances, where ladders are built in the outside of the walls of some manufactories: 51 towns have fire escapes, and 35 have none. 

2. The water is supplied by private companies in 38 towns, and by the local authorities in 42; and there is no supply of water except by pumps and wells in six towns. 

3. There are no particular regulations regarding the supplying of water, but the private companies and local authorities are understood to be bound to give a full supply of water free of charge, and fireplugs are placed in all the mains. In the large towns turncocks are appointed, to whom notice is sent when a fire occurs, and the firemen and police, when acting as firemen, are supplied with keys to the fireplugs. 

4. 78 of the towns are furnished with fire engines, very few of them being steam engines, and eight have no fire engines, but some of them are supplied with water at high pressure, and are furnished with hose, which are attached to the fireplugs when a fire occurs. In some towns the engines belong to the insurance companies; in others they belong partly to the insurance companies and partly to the local authorities. 

5. In 78 towns there are fire brigades, either supported by the local authorities, or by insurance companies, or they are volunteer brigades; in some towns they are both volunteer and paid. Some of the brigades are paid in part by the owner of the property at the burning of which they were called on to act. Where there are no brigades, the police are expected to act as firemen. 

6. In 60 towns there are no regulations as to the erection of buildings for the prevention of fire; one or two of the principal towns have local Acts, and the remainder have adopted the building clauses in one or other of the general Acts. 

7. The answers returned to this question in England and Ireland are rather vague, as in many towns no suspicious fires occurred, and no opportunity was therefore afforded for resorting to any particular measures. But they indicate that if such occurred, the police would be expected to investigate, or the insurance companies would be expected to institute an inquiry before settling the claim.”

Other than this excursion into provincial affairs the Committee seem to have ignored countryside fire protection and concerned themselves largely with London, already dealt with so fully five years earlier, and with two comparatively minor matters, the danger in the use and storage of paraflfin and the necessity for an official investigation into the causes of all fires so that arson might be punished and prevented.

Forty-three witnesses were called, of whom no less than twenty were connected with insurance companies, as directors, agents, surveyors, managers, assessors or loss adjusters. Eight others were connected with the paraffin oil trade. The only fire chief called was Captain Shaw. The other witnesses included two coroners, an architect and surveyor under the Metropolitan Building Act, a waterworks secretary, Professor Playfair, professor of chemistry, Edinburgh University, and Dr. John Attfield, director of the Laboratory of the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain, these last two being asked solely for evidence on parafin and petroleum risks. Provincial affairs received some representation from Mr. Clint, a Liverpool Council- lor, and a Mr. Turner, a Liverpool magistrate, also gave evidence saying “happening to be in London, I come to the Committee-room because I feel interested in the subject” . 

The burden of all the insurance representatives’ evidence was that the number of fires was increasing everywhere and the fire insurance business was hardly worth carrying on. They were convinced that a number of fires were of incendiary origin and had been started to defraud the offices. They felt that fire brigade officers did not take enough trouble to arrive at the cause of fires and that police officers did not pursue obvious cases of arson as they should. 

Mr. Swanton, Chief Officer of the London Salvage Corps, said he had no doubt there was a business in fraudulent insurance carried on by gangs of men who turned up again and again using assumed names and running different businesses. The insurance witnesses were continually asked by members of the committee why they did not prosecute in such cases and all took the same line as Mr. S. J. Fletcher, the secretary of the Sun, who said that as commercial firms they did not consider it their duty to prosecute in cases where crime had been committed: it was a public not a private duty. 

These witnesses agreed that competition was so keen that the offices were always reluctant to institute proceedings except in the most flagrant cases, as insurance offices who were litigious in settling claims soon got a bad reputation with the insuring public. Also there had been unsuccessful prosecutions because juries were apt to side with an individual who was opposed in court by a large and powerful corporation. Some successful prosecutions were quoted, however, including that of a Kent farmer who with his wife had that year been sentenced to ten years’ transportation for burning his hop store and house insured for full value with two separate companies. 

All agreed that an enquiry should be held after fires and most that the correct officer was the coroner or the Procurator-fiscal in Scotland where there were no coroners. 

Parafin oil took up a disproportionate part of the Committee’s time. Liverpool was the only city that had given any thought to its safe storage. There had been an enormous increase in the oil trade for lamps, and tragic accidents were common owing to the sale of cheap oils of too low a flash point and the public preference for low-flash oils which were cleaner and wrongly alleged to give better light. With regard to storage, cases were quoted of thousands of gallons being placed in warehouses in the same compartments as jute and cotton. Captain Shaw said that by law almost any goods could be stored in London in any way. 

Mr. William H. Whiffen, the secretary of the Middlesex Waterworks, was closely examined as to why the water companies in London did not give a continuous supply. He agreed that under the Waterworks Clauses Act the company must do so, but only if four-fifths of the inhabitants of a district laid a requisition on the company. They also had to set their house fittings in order to stand the constant pressure and when that was done could coerce the remaining one-fifth to do the same. The waste under the intermittent system was bad enough and it was reckoned that it would cost £2,000,000 to bring the house fittings of all London up to a standard to receive constant pressure. Before constant supply could be given, intrusive supervision would be necessary, including an inquisitional system of inspecting everybody’s water-closets. 

Some attention was given to lucifer matches. Mr. C. J. Bunyon, barrister and general manager of the Norwich Union, said that a heavy stamp duty on every box would do more to decrease the number of fires than anything else that could be done.

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