New Municipal Brigades – Part 2

Complaints were made about the way the Building Act was being ignored, and by calling on insurance agents who represented their firms in Germany and Russia the Committee learnt something of fire prevention in those countries. Mr. Jensen from Hamburg said that in that city “there is a man on a tower watching, and as soon as he sees a fire he rings a bell and then hangs out a flag towards the fire. At night he hangs out a lamp.” Similar arrangements in Moscow and St. Petersburg were described by a Russian insurance agent. The suggestion made after the great fire of 1666 for a sentinel on the steeple had persisted on the Continent for another two hundred years.

Captain Shaw was asked what was his opinion of such a system. He replied: “It has signally failed; the first calls received from these towers have been so few as to make them worthless.” 

The Committee was told that the number of country brigades established during the last few years was “very great indeed” but that”many towns were still dependent on engines kept by fire offices, a duty which the fire oflices do not recognise” . It should be made compulsory for country towns and villages to keep fire brigades. 

There seemed to be very little of importance that came before the Committee, and the evidence appeared overweighted by insurance interests. 

Three witnesses made a vicious attack on Captain Shaw and the Metropolitan Fire Brigade. These were Mr. C. T. F. Young, a civil engineer, whose book Fires, Fire Engines and Fire Brigades had been published in the previ- ous year; Mr. Lewis Becker, who on being asked “In what capacity do you appear before this Committee? replied “I am Fire Superintendent of the Western Insurance Company,” and Mr. Alfred Baddely, “superintendent” of the Holloway Volunteer Fire Brigade. Mr. Young was asked: “In appearing here, do you represent any particular body?” and answered:”None; except that so far as my sympathies are with the volunteers, I represent the voluntary idea of extinguishing fires” . His 530-page book had in fact extolled the volunteer system and his prejudice can be gathered from its reference to the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Act as “the late one-sided piece of legislation for the benefit of the insurance companies, compelling the public to take from the shoulders of the associated offices their expensive fire establishment because it did not prove so paying a concern as was desired, and to maintain it for their benefit”.

Young’s appearance before the Committee seemed partly to be made with the idea of boosting his literary sales, for to several questions he answered: “You can read it all in my book”. The Committee had sent out a circular to 120 towns, but Young said he had sent one to 800 but he had received fewer than 200 replies, and complained that when he asked such simple questions as “How is your town supplied with water?” some of his informants had replied, “From taps” . 

He referred to the Metropolitan Fire Brigade as “very inoperative” and accused them of pushing the volunteers out of the way when they got to a hydrant first. There was a great amount of skill and science on the part of the volunteers; the paid men only did what they were told to do. For small fires they sent several engines dashing across London, the men’s instruction did not amount to much, Captain Shaw had no previous experience, unlike the late Mr. Braidwood who was born a fireman. London ‘s protection had not become more efficient since the 1865 Act; the engines were still all con- centrated at the centre, and the outlying districts paid for protection and did not get it. He said that the brigade had installed Wheatstone’s Tele- graph, which was an apology for a telegraphic system. He had visited the Sapeurs-Pompiers of Paris and that was a far superior formation. Its officers were very scornful of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade arrangements. 

The newspapers now had a regular formula for reporting fires, which went something like this: “In spite of the strenuous exertions of the fire brigade, the progress of the devouring element was s0 rapid, that in a short time the premises were totally destroyed.” 

Mr. Becker, having first introduced himself as the fire superintendent of the Western Insurance Company, later said he was the chief of the Camden Town volunteers. The engine was supported out of his own funds. “I pay my own working expenses and get blamed for putting fires out by the brigade.” He had had experience with Hodges’ Fire Brigade, “the finest in London, but now the volunteers got black guarded and insulted by profes- sionals and the volunteers are composed of gentlemen who cannot be insulted”. He said that the Metropolitan Fire Brigade was anything but efficient. They were employing exclusively ex-sailors who were the worst class of men you could get. You might after ten years make a good fireman of a sailor, but the public would have to pay for his experience; you would never make so good a fireman out of a sailor as out of an artisan. He had asked Mr. Bryce, the fire superintendent of Liverpool, about it. He did not like sailors and would not employ them. Liverpool, Glasgow and Manchester firemen were much better than London. The London steamers were very badly managed. The men couldn’t handle them and it was fortunate that so far there had been no boiler explosions. He had often seen them improperly worked, with bearings hot and only an inch of water in the gauge glass. One of the Committee asked him to mention a specific case and he replied: “It would be ridiculous to go into petty things like that. I was not aware that I should be expected to bring forward a diary.” 

Mr. Becker was very verbose. His evidence in the report runs into sixteen foolscap pages of double-column small print and some of his comments were scurrilous. When he had finished with the fire brigade he turned on the turncocks and said that in the evening they were often drunk when required. He had often seen them in this condition. The fire brigade reports would confirm this. 

Mr. Alfred Baddely, “superintendent” of the Holloway Volunteer Fire Brigade, was more reasonable. His complaint was that in view of the withdrawal of the parish engines the Metropolitan Fire Brigade was not being increased enough. The halfpenny rate was not sufficient to run an efficient brigade, and the volunteers, who provided their own uniforms and subscribed to the funds of their brigade, did not get the encouragement they ought to get.

On his first two appearances before the Committee Captain Shaw ignored the evidence of these three men, but on his third and final appearance he was asked a number of questions about it and was ready with his answers. He said: “I think it is exceedingly hard on public officers that uninformed witnesses like these should come forward and make unfounded statements about the brigade.” He was astonished at the extraordinary number and extent of misstatements. The Board held him responsible for having everything properly conducted at a fire. The volunteers came when they liked, amused themselves and went when they liked. There was no objection to them provided they took care not to identify themselves in any way with those who were really responsible. That was one of the difficulties. They copied the Metropolitan Fire Brigade’s uniform exactly, and in order to provide identification at fires he had persuaded the Board to go to the expense of new helmets of a special design although the old ones were perfectly satisfactory. He soon found that the Holloway Volunteer Fire Brigade had exactly copied the new helmet.

Hodges’ Fire Brigade was an establishment that had the means of doing good and was really getting on very well until this same man Becker brought it to grief. It is interesting to compare this statement of Shaw’s with one in Young’s book which refers to this brigade being “under the energetic and able management of my friend Lieut. Becker [Hodges was captain] but on his resigning the duties he So ably performed fell into other hands and it came to an end, having existed since the year 1851″. That was in 1865. 

Captain Shaw stated that Mr. Young was never at a fire and never in a fire brigade station in his life. Seeing a fire from the outside of a mob did not qualify a man to come forward and make statements. There was a good deal in his evidence about remarks made on the London firemen by the Paris Sapeurs-Pompiers. “Those gentlemen in Paris are intimate friends of mine,” he said, “and have assured me that though Mr. Young had been in Paris and they had shewn him what they could in less than an hour, his statements were utterly incorrect. Anyhow, the expense of the Paris Fire Brigade of £100,000 per annum is quite beyond what this country would tolerate at all.”

With regard to the telegraph, Mr. Young was in the most extraordinary confusion. They were not using Wheatstone but Siemens and Halskes. He denied that Mr. Young knew anything of it and said his evidence shewed it. Mr. Becker’s statements about the Metropolitan Fire Brigade were quite untrue and without foundation, and he had checked up with Liverpool and been advised that they had a great leaning to sailors and always picked them when they could. Shaw said he chose sailors because they had learnt discipline and were strong and handy at climbing and other quick work. 

Becker’s comments on drunken turncocks had caused indignation among the water companies and the chairman of the Committee himself stated that “upon enquiry I find that they are very respectable men”. Shaw said that he had never seen a drunken turncock, nor had any of his men seen one. They were exceedingly respectable, well conducted men. Becker’s evidence was finally largely discredited by a letter from the Western Insurance Company which said: “Mr. Becker is no longer in the service of this company. At the time he gave his evidence he was chief clerk of our fire department. He had no authority from this company for his statements and he is solely responsible for them.”

The Committee held its last session on July 4th and reported three weeks later. They stated that on the whole they considered the answers received to their questionnaire satisfactory except in regard to Building Acts and enquiries into fires, but added that in coming to this conclusion they had assumed that the engines, hose and other appliances were kept in good repair and in an efficient state. 

They had taken into account the means afforded by insurance companies in many towns for extinguishing fire and considered it would be more satisfactory were the whole means of extinguishing fires supplied by and placed under the control of local authorities. Their recommendations were

“1. A general Building Act for all towns in the United Kingdom should be placed on the Statute Book. It should embrace thickness and height of party walls, the placing of fireplaces, stoves and flues, the keeping of timber at a sufficient distance from flues, the limiting of size and isolating of warehouses and the use of proper materials in building. 

2. Where dwelling-houses were above shops, and especially where assistants were lodged in the upper floors, there should be efficient fire-resisting separation between shop and living-quarters and efficient means of escape in case of fire. 

3. Unopposed Water Bills should after the second reading be referred to appointed referees and if a constant supply was not to be provided these referees were to inquire and report whether sufficient reasons existed for this non-provision. 

4. No petroleum, parafin or other mineral oil be sold for lighting purposes with an ignition point under 110° Fahrenheit. Anyone selling such oil to have the stock confiscated and be fined. 

5. An inquiry be held after any serious fire by the coroner in England and Wales and by the Procurator-fiscal in Scotland to establish if possible the cause of the fire.

Next March Mr. McLagan asked the Home Secretary whether it was his intention to bring in a Bill during the session to carry into effect the recom- mendations of the Committee. He received the reply that the Home Secretary could not promise such a Bill on all the recommendations, but he hoped to do so as to enquiries into suspicious fires. That was the last that was heard of the 1867 Select Committee and its report. 

It was, anyhow, an ineffective proceeding, spending far too much time on London, already thoroughly investigated five years previously, and accepting the written answers to a circulated questionnaire as adequate evidence of the state of affairs in the provinces. 

Meanwhile London was in trouble. The product of a halfpenny rate had risen only from £30,913 in 1866 to £33,869 in 1869, while in the same period the £35 per million of the insurance companies had gone up from £11,050 to £14,391. The Government’s contribution was limited to £10,000. But London was growing fast and the fire brigade committee was continually being harassed by demands from parishes both new and old for fire protection which they had not the means to provide.

Some temporary financial relief was afforded by the Metropolitan Board of Works (Loans) Act, 1869, which (1) authorised the interest on borrowed money to be paid, and the principal to be redeemed out of the proceeds of the metropolitan consolidated rate, apart from the halfpenny portion allocated for fire brigade purposes; and (2) provided that the amount to be raised for the annual working expenditure on the brigade should be equal to what would be produced by a halfpenny in the pound on the gross annual value of property, instead of, as before, on the rateable value.

Shaw’s small force could not, however, be increased and it carried out its duties as best it could, mainly by an oppressive burden of overwork. The men were on continuous duty and there was no day’s leave each fortnight as in Manchester and other provincial brigades. The prescribed off-duty time was four hours per week and even that sometimes had to be foregone in view of shortage of staff. Each evening between ninety and a hundred fire escapes were pushed out into the streets and the men returned next morning to station work, cleaning and watchroom duty. On a summer’s night perhaps the escape man with his single blanket could get some hours of broken sleep, but in the winter he would more likely be walking and stamping around his box in an attempt to keep warm. There was practic- ally no drill except for recruits, and a succession of large fires brought in- tolerable strain on the men. Duty men (two on each station) could sleep at night if they could but were not allowed to remove boots, belt or axe, and it was not uncommon for a man to be on duty for sixty hours at a stretch without the opportunity to take his clothes off, getting what sleep he could on the hard bench beside the telegraph instrument. When finally relieved he might go upstairs to bed in his tiny two-roomed quarters, but remained immediately available to catch the fire engine if a fire call came in. For this gruelling, imprisoned work a fourth-class fireman received 24s. 6d. a week and had to pay back 2s. 6d. for his quarters. The ranks of the brigade were superintendent at £200 a year, first-class engineer £128 a year, second-class engineer, £109 a year. First-class fireman 35s. a week, second-class fireman 31s. 6d. a week, third-class fireman 28s. a week, fourth-class fireman 24S. 6d. a week. The superintendent and engineers had free quarters, coal and light, as did the chief officer, who received £1,000 a year. There was no automatic movement from one class of fireman to another after a specified period of service. The four classes were specified ranks and promotion was slow.

The men had many complaints, not the least of which was that their new masters did not treat them as leniently as the old.

The London Fire Engine Establishment had always paid £10 for funeral expenses to the widow of a man killed or dying in the Service, for a Victorian funeral was a costly matter involving mourning clothes for widow and children. This sum the Board cut to £5. There had never been a definite contributory superannuation scheme in the Establishment, but it had hardly been necessary since the insurance companies had always treated handsomely anyone injured or worn out in their service and this applied also to the widows of those killed. 

With the Board it was a different matter. The eighth section of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Act had stated: “The Board shall also make such regulations as they think fit with respect to the Compensation to be paid to firemen in case of accidents, or to their wives and families in the case of death; also with respect to the pensions or allowances to be paid them in case of retirement”, but they had So far taken no action in the matter, saying that they would for the time being deal with each case on its merits.

But the men were far from satisfied with what the Board considered a case’s merits. In some cases they made ineffective representation, as in the case of Engineer Radford, who was invalided out of the brigade with consumption after seventeen years’ service. The brigade surgeon certified that the complaint was due to service and that Radford had less than a year to live. Shaw reported on him as a very strong man and a very valuable officer whose illness had been caused altogether by his work. He was married and had a family to support. The Board granted him a pension of sixteen shillings a week. The firemen represented to the Board that there was great destitution in his home and the nature of his illness made medicines and delicacies necessary. The Board replied that they were not prepared to reconsider the case. Radford died within six months and they then gave his widow a gratuity of £20. 

Another case which caused indignation was that of Fireman George Ray, who lost his leg in collision with an omnibus when riding a horse back from a fire. Said the Board, *The injury which necessitated the amputation was not caused by his duty. He was riding through the streets on horseback, which is no part of a fireman’s duty.” Shaw contested this, saying that it was often part of a fireman’s duty (in fact, an assistance message from a fire was sometimes taken back to the station telegraph by a fireman riding one of the horses that had drawn the engine), but the Board were adamant that on this occasion they did not consider the man was performing his duty. The luckless one-legged Ray was given a gratuity of £10.

In other cases the Board were no more generous. After being soaked through during long periods of duty at winter fires the men returned cold and wet to their inadequate quarters, which had no provision for bathing or drying clothes, and consumption, lung disease, bronchitis and rheumatism constantly recur on the list of “Men discharged on account of infirmity”; pensions were rare, with a maximum of 16s. a week, gratuities varied from h guineas to £20. A case that caused particular indignation was the treat- ment of Mrs. Ford and her children. 

She was the widow of Fireman Joseph Ford who was killed in heroic circumstances at a fire in Gray’s Inn Road on October 7th, 1871. Ford was on escape duty in Holborn when the news was brought to him of persons trapped on the top floor of a house over a chemist’s shop. He ran his escape to the house with the help of a policeman and pitched it to a window, making five ascents and descents, carrying one of the occupants each time, a feat requiring considerable strength and stamina. The fire then burst from the first-floor windows and set the escape on fire, but a woman was still screaming from the top-floor window. Ford, who must have been completely exhausted, went up again, got her through the window, partly descended the burning escape and dropped her unhurt to the crowd below. He began to descend the remainder of the escape alone when the crowd saw to their horror that his accoutrements had become entangled in the wirework of the blazing canvas chute and in his exhausted condition he could not clear himself; he was almost burned alive before he managed to break clear and fall to the ground. He died in hospital. 

The Board granted his widow a pension of £l a week, but the circumstances of Ford’s death occasioned a good deal of publicity. The newspapers referred to him as a “Fireman hero” and described his deed in glowing terms; the Graphic went farther and published a poem of eight stanzas describing the rescue, which ended :

“He falls ! he falls is there none to save? 

Ah! cruel to think that one so brave, 

Who snatched six souls from a fiery grave, 

Should perish by the same!

“Not really cruel. If Providence, 

In place of our dull earthly sense, 

More godlike eyes had given; 

Like Jacob’s Ladder, years ago, 

Perchance that fire escape would glow 

With angels passing to and fro 

To point the way to heaven.”

Such obsequies had an immediate effect on a charitably disposed public; a public subscription was opened for the widow and children and over a thousand pounds was raised. The Board of Works thereupon decided that Mrs. Ford and her family were adequately provided for and cancelled the pension. 

No wonder the men were dissatisfied, and with no union or representative body their complaints were brought to the notice of the Board by a species of round robin universally signed and known as a memorial. Several of these memorials were received during the early years of the Board’s jurisdiction. Here is an example of one in 1874:

“The Memorial of the Officers and Men of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade praying the Board to adopt a Scale of Pensions for the Brigade.

“Gentlemen, We, the undersigned officers and men of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, serving under your honourable Board, view with consternation and alarm the position we hold with regard to the future of ourselves and our families, in the event of our becoming incapacitated, either through accident, ill- health Or old age, from further service. We therefore beg leave to remind your honourable Board that last year we humbly petitioned you to consider an appeal made by us to lay down a scale of pensions, to which we received an answer to the effect that the Board were not then prepared to do so; and also that since that time several of our men have broken down, and have been dismissed from the service without any provision whatever for their future; and therefore it is that we desire most respectfully and seriously once more to draw your attention to the great necessity which exists of adopting a scale of pensions, whereby any one of us, through any of the above causes, or, in case of death, our wives and families, may be entitled to receive a pension according to the position held by us at the date of our incapacity.

“With this object we beg leave most humbly to submit for the consideration of your honourable Board the following suggestions

The suggestions were: 

A pension of five-eighths pay for a man so  disabled on duty as to be unable to gain a livelihood. 

Ill-health retirement gratuities of one month’s pay for each year of service. 

Widow’s pension for the wives of men killed on duty. 

A contributory pension scheme.

The “Memorial’ ends:

“we therefore trust that this our petition will meet with your most careful consideration. “In conclusion, we beg leave to assure your honourable Board that we shall continue, as heretofore, to give every attention to your rules and regulations; and shall endeavour, as far as lies in our power, to perform our duties with cheerfulness and diligence. “Trusting that our case may be thought worthy of your earnest attention, and that in its most essential points it may meet with your kind approval and support.

“We have, etc.” Signed by all Engineers and Firemen.

Other memorials were presented in regard to pay and conditions of service, and all were supported before the Board by Captain Shaw who continually asked for more men, better stations, superannuation and finally shocked the Board in 1872 by advising them that to provide an adequate force with reasonable duty hours he required 931 men instead of the 398 he had. 

Shaw found some relief for his manpower difficulties at large fires by obtaining the services of properly organised volunteers. He would still have little truck with the various volunteer brigades who turned up at fires as independent units, but in 1875 a number of volunteer firemen met him and agreed on the formation of the London Auxiliary Fire Brigade.

It started with fifty members and had an annual subscription fee of one guinea with an entrance fee of a guinea. Candidates for admission had to be proposed and seconded by two members and recommended by an engineer of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade. They could then be elected by ballot at a general meeting, one blackball in five to exclude. The uniform, which had to be purchased by the volunteers, was that of the regular brigade but had black buttons and the brass helmet was painted with black enamel. The flat undress cap of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade was worn without the red band. Rule XII was: “As to conduct at fires, all members to obey implicitly the orders of the Officers of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade and assist them to the best of their ability.” 

Members could attend the drill classes of the regular brigade. 

But manpower and personnel troubles were not the only difficulties the Board had to contend with. The insurance companies were critical and continually making representations about the brigade’s efficiency. The first trouble was that while the stations in the City were close together and afforded adequate protection, farther out cover was sparse and stations distant from each other. The Board, on Shaw’s advice, decided to close Farringdon Street fire station. The insurance companies reacted immediately with protests and recriminations.

Then the Board, against Shaw’s advice, decided to close the Sloane Street station because the lease of the premises had fallen in. Again the insurance companies protested and their protests were followed by a disastrous fire at the Pantechnicon, the colossal fire-proof furniture depository in Motcombe Street. The Pantechnicon covered two acres and had been built in 1839 when the proprietors in advertisements had informed “the nobility, gentry, artists, coachmakers and the public generally that no expense had been spared in order to erect a building that would be proof against the destructive ravages of fire, the whole of the ceiling has been lathed with iron rods and covered with a composition that will resist the strongest fire and which will not fall down or crack if water be thrown upon it.” Fire broke out on February 12th, 1874, and, Sloane Street fire station having been closed, the call was taken to a volunteer fire station nearby. The volunteers turned out without sending any message on to the brigade and it was alleged that it was thirty minutes before a brigade engine arrived. When it did so the volunteer engine had the nearest fire plug but had not got to work, having trouble with its fitments. It was immediately pushed out of the way. The Pantechnicon was a total loss, as were its con- tents, which included magnificent furniture, paintings, carpets and antiques, among them being the ancient armour and enamels of the Marquis of Hertford which would have been destined for the Wallace Collection, Lord Mont- eagle’s famous collection of pictures, Sir Seymour Fitzgerald’s collection of old china and, perhaps a not very serious loss, call Sir Garnet Wolsey’s accumulation of valuable souvenirs gathered in the Crimea, India and China during his brilliant career and stored there, he being away fighting the Ashantis in Africa”. The loss was estimated at £1,850,000. Other great fires had resulted in criticism by the insurance companies, notably the loss of the King & Queen Wharf and Granaries at Rotherhithe in December 1871. These huge premises stood by the side of the river and the only piped water connected to them was a two-inch domestic supply. It was low tide when the fire started, and the brigade’s big float broke down on the way and had to be laboriously warped into position and then the hose had to be carried across the mud. 

The insurance companies paid out £150,000 and entered into a correspondence with the Board suggesting a greater number of smaller and more manoeuvrable fire floats. The Board, on Shaw’s advice, turned down the suggestion and the correspondence eventually became acrimonious. 

Water-supply was a constant trouble. There were eight separate water companies in London whose separate mains system did not interconnect and who gave only an intermittent supply in most of their areas but a continuous supply in some parts. Even where there was a continuous supply the Board had not fitted hydrants and the Metropolitan Fire Brigade still relied on the old fire plugs throughout their area. One of the water engineers giving evidence at the 1866 Select Committee had referred to the fire plug as “a disgrace to the mechanical invention of our age” , but London still used them after almost every major city in the country had fitted hydrants, and normally they did not even use them with a stand-pipe but allowed the water to flow into a canvas dam having a hole in the base which was placed over the opened plug. The suction of the pump was placed in the dam, and when pumping stopped a lot of water was wasted, for it was often impracticable to replace the wooden plug against the pressure in the main and this could only be done after the turncock had turned off the water. The water companies demanded that the Board should replace the plugs with hydrants; the Board pleaded poverty and said that anyhow it was not worth doing until continuous supply was universal, and they had their doubts about it even then, since they were advised that even if hydrants were fitted in every street it would still be necessary to provide fire engines !

The Metropolis Water Act of 1871 had included a clause enabling the companies, on giving a constant supply in any part of their water limits, to fit, at the expense of the Metropolitan Board of Works, an improved and satisfactory system of hydrants. Some of the companies, therefore, on laying new mains enquired of the Board where they would have the hydrants fitted, and getting no reply fitted them at what they considered suitable locations and sent the bill to the Board, who had to pay. The wealthy City Corporation decided that hydrants were a modern necessity and went ahead and fitted them at their own expense, although under the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Act the responsibility was that of the Board as fire authority. There was trouble in Watling Street when the drill yard on a piece of waste ground was lost to the brigade, and even before that the old insurance company premises were hopelessly inadequate for the enlarged brigade. Shaw wanted a riverside site on the north bank to include workshops and training-school and a pier where his floats could lie alongside under the eye of headquarters’ officers, but all available sites were too expensive. At last a site was found in Southwark Bridge Road which met all Shaw’s requirements except for the floats.

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