Public Health Act, 1875 – Part 2

In 1878 Merryweathers were advertising that they had sold over five hundred steamers, and the protection of many parts of the country was greatly improved. The arrival of the new steamer in a town was a great event; neigh bouring brigades bringing their own equipment would be present and with the home brigade would meet the new machine at the railway station, There it would be horsed and paraded through the town to the park for the christening ceremony. Here a local lady, probably titled, would break a bottle of wine which lay on the engineer’s footplate with an ornate, inscribed fireman’s axe, which would then be presented to her. The ceremony generally ended in com etitions. Queen Victoria’s daughter, the Princes Beatrice, christened Windsor’s new steamer, giving it her own name. Princess Alice did the same for Esher. 

In the eighteen-seventies the name was generally of a fanciful nature such as Ajax, Torrent or Firefly, with Victoria and sometimes Albert as alternatives. Later it became usual to name the machine after the chairman of the fire brigade committee or the Mayor or their ladies. This naming of fire engines persisted right up to the nineteen-thirties and was symptomatic of the smaller British local authorities’ attitude towards fire protection. By tradition they considered that public fire protection was really the responsibility of insurance companies, the nobility or volunteers. In providing their town with a fire engine they thought they had done something rather bold, picturesque and magnificent which called for ceremony. 

They never named or christened a dust cart, a police van or a sewer. Constant references in the Press to “christening ceremonies” drew protests from clergymen, who insisted that such a term should not be used for the naming of fire engines. 

During the eighteen-seventies more than a hundred volunteer fire brigades were formed in England and Wales, and many of them were equipped with steamers when, instead of calling themselves the Volunteer Fire Brigade, they proudly bore the title of the Volunteer Steam Fire Brigade to distinguish themselves from their less wealthy neighbours who had only a manual. 

Sometimes they overreached themselves in this matter of equipment, and there are cases of brigades desperately appealing for funds to pay off the outstanding bill for the new steamer and quoting in handbills the stern solicitor’s letter received from the legal representative of the fire engine manufacturers. 

Many of the volunteer brigades demanded membership fees, but not all were in a position to do so, and a correspondent in The Fireman in 1878 refers to the difficulties of brigades “formed of mechanics, etc., but officered by gentlemen” in this matter of finance. Funds were raised by concerts, fêtes, subscriptions and the fireman’s ball, the holding of which was to provide a smoking-room story for three generations. 

The house-to-house subscription was common, giving rise to the complaint that British fire brigades instead of being a Government or local authority responsibility as in other countries, were maintained largely by mendicancy. Collectors were complaining that many people when asked to subscribe replied that “they considered all these things should be paid for out of the rates” and trouble continually arose when a neighbouring brigade canvassed for subscriptions beyond their border. The secretary of the West Kent Volunteer Fire Brigade wrote a strong letter to the South London Press in February 1879 complaining about poaching by the South Metropolitan Brigade:

“…….in numerous cases that have come under our notice, the subscriptions have always been given under the impression that they were for our brigade, and on discovery of the mistake in some cases the subscribers have written to the South Metropolitan Brigade, telling them to refund the money but without any effect. We cannot characterise their behaviour as other than most unfair, seeing that our brigade are at the loss of their money, and are compelled to take such strong measures to expose the actions of a neighbouring brigade. There is a special radius recognised by both brigades, and our collectors have orders not to go beyond the pre- scribed limit. AIl we ask is that we may meet with equal fairness and open treatment at the hands of the South Metropolitan”.

But this was a small matter compared with another difficulty that was to harass volunteer and other fire brigades for the next thirty years, the Bogus Fire Brigade and the Bogus Fireman’s Charity. 

In a period of great wealth and grinding poverty, charitable associations were many and flourishing, and it is hardly surprising that bogus charities flourished also. The first of these connected with fire brigades perhaps owed its existence to the manner in which the Metropolitan Board of Works had treated sick and injured firemen and the widows of those killed. In several cases there had been publicity and public indignation, making the fraudu- lent collection of relief subscriptions an easy matter. The most notorious of the charlatans was S. Seccombe, who flourished for thirty years and was alleged to have made £2,000 a year, a very high income for those days. He had begun work as a collector for the Ragged Schools, but was dismissed without prosecution in 1869 for falsification of his accounts and obtained employment with the “Christian Men’s Union Benevolent Society”, when he soon defaulted again. He then turned his organising ability exclusively to fire brigade charities and bogus fire brigades. He ran the “Disabled Firemen’s Pension and Relief Fund”, which had various names during the next thirty years, and the “London and Suburban Fire Brigade” .

He employed collectors who generally wore fire brigade uniform, and outside his office sat a man in the uniform of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade with his leg in a splint and his arm in a sling. His collectors were at various times sentenced to up to five years’ penal servitude, but Seccombe himself went free. 

Threats by fire officers produced counter-threats of libel actions, which never came to court, and offers to produce the books of his various organisations which were never produced. In desperation, an offer was made by a group of fire officers to buy him out. He asked only £250 for his organisation as a going concern, but compensation for his own post as secretary at an enormous sum. As in the case of other bogus charities, he could to some extent keep within the law by an occasional small disbursement to some unfortunate representative of the class for whom the subscriptions were nominally collected. The bogus fire brigade was merely a volunteer fire brigade run for profit and it was difficult to prosecute its perpetrators so long as they maintained some sort of equipment. One of Seccombe’s com- petitors in this line was a man named Skevington, who ran the “North London and Suburban Voluntary Fire Brigade” and made a living for himself and his son, the only other member, for many years. They issued a circular appealing for funds and operated from their house in Canonbury, which had a shed beside it with a red painted door. This shed contained an old manual and a horse, and if he got news of a fire in the vicinity Mr. Skevington would attend, disappearing when the public fire brigade arrived but quoting his brigade’s work at the fire and actively canvassing subscriptions next day.

Sometimes a genuine volunteer brigade would deteriorate through the course of years into a bogus brigade, as happened to the South Metropolitan Fire Brigade, founded in the early ‘seventies by Mr. Attwater and other gentlemen of Sydenham. They bought a steamer and paid nearly all the costs themselves, but after a time got tired of their hobby and the brigade passed into the hands of a Mr. Cucksey, who sold the steamer, disbanded the remaining volunteers and bought a manual. He employed three assistants who acted as his collectors, and when he died he left his brigade’ to his widow. She ran it for a time, and then sold it to an ex-policeman named Seals on condition that she received a specified share of the profits during her lifetime.

When one of the members was arrested for fraudulently collecting sub- scriptions while wearing Metropolitan Fire Brigade uniform the magis- trate commented that it was apparently a brigade consisting of a super- intendent, an annuitant and three collectors, but nevertheless it was a brigade, and if the public were stupid enough to subscribe to it there was nothing he could do about it. 

It was known that the brigade had an engine, since it was mentioned in court that recently the whole establishment except the annuitant had been incarcerated for being drunk whilst in charge of a horse and fire engine. 

A serious matter for the genuine volunteers was the anticipation of their collections by the swindlers. A volunteer brigade generally had a list of small annual subscribers whose money would be collected from door to door. The men who ran bogus brigades, and there were alleged to be no fewer than twelve of these on the northern fringe of London, would find out on which day the annual collection was to be made. The day before, two men in fire brigade uniform would arrive by an early train in a town even fifty miles from their own “station” and, sometimes armed with the subscriber’s list, would make a quick tour of the town collecting subscriptions, then catch the next train home. 

When the genuine collectors called next day they would be told that the subscription had already been made. The best of the volunteer brigades were efficient units, with ample funds provided by their officers and supporters, well equipped, smartly turned out and tremendously keen. Many of the captains were no mere dilettantes and went to great trouble to fit themselves for their duties. Some could boast, like Sir Charles Firth, that they had served as volunteers under Braidwood. Sir Charles rarely made a speech without mentioning this fact and the reported statement was always followed by the word “(applause)” . Many went to see Shaw in London and were accepted as temporary members of the London Auxiliary Fire Brigade doing a “course’ in London in the recruits” drill class. After this, some would even go to Paris and make a similar arrangement with the Sapeurs- Pompiers.

There is no doubt that other volunteer brigades were not very efficient. A body of enthusiastic amateurs, often raised after a public meeting following a big fire, would find themselves without instructors, without proficient advice and with no means of securing either. The only people they could turn to were the fire engine suppliers. Only two British firms had been successful in producing a steam fire engine, Messrs. Shand Mason of Blackfriars Road, London, and Messrs. Merryweather of Greenwich. Unable to compete without the ability to offer a steamer in their range of products, the other engine makers were closing down or being absorbed by these two firms, who were soon competing for a monopoly. They therefore took great trouble to bring their products promptly to the notice of any new brigade in course of formation as well as to old ones, and if they were successful in obtaining the business, to see that their machines were properly handled and maintained. Though these activities were of course dictated by business interests, they were carried out exceedingly well. Staffs of ex-firemen and fire-brigade pensioners were maintained, who were available both as instructors and inspectors, and rules were drawn up for volunteers and retained brigades which would be issued free as printed handbooks, with the brigade’s name and its list of officers and any special rule or regulation added. Merryweathers produced two more ambitious works, the Fire Brigade Handbook and Fire Protection of Mansions.

The nominal author was James Compton Merryweather, the managing director of the firm, but the books were actually the joint work of various senior employees, and very excellent books they were, free from advertising and containing most of the theoretical instruction a brigade could require. In addition, the Fire Brigade Handbook was a most handsome volume of 250 pages with gilt-edged leaves. Both these books had gone into third editions by the end of the century.

In 1877 Shaw produced his book Fire Protection, which gave firemen their first useful textbook (other than the Merryweather volumes) since the publication of Braidwood’s book in 1830. This was a comprehensive book, lavishly illustrated and giving particulars of drills, appliances, small gear, hose and with chapters on hydraulics and physics. By the end of the ‘seventies, therefore, those responsible for new brigades could not complain that they were short of theoretical instruction, but it was admitted that from the practical side they were “largely in the hands of the engine makers”:

This state of affairs gave rise in 1877 to the formation of “The Fire Brigade Association”, originally started by Mr. Charles Footit, the captain of Marlow Fire Brigade, as an association of volunteer fire brigades, with a circular sent out in February to one hundred volunteer brigades which described the objects of the Association as: the provision of competent inspectors to brigades who wished for instruction, the formation of a system of communication throughout the country, the formation of a benevolent fund for volunteer firemen injured on duty, and exemption from jury service for volunteer officers as an acknowledgement of the movement from the Government. Footit found plenty of support, notably from Sir Charles Firth and Captain Wykeham-Archer, an insurance director who commanded the Alexandra Palace Volunteer Fire Brigade. By autumn the Association was launched after several meetings in London at which the organisers and their supporters, mostly volunteer chief officers, subscribed £200 towards preliminary expenses. Charles Firth, who had been one of Braidwood’s “gentlemen volunteers” and was now Sir Charles and a power in Yorkshire volunteer fire brigade circles, was elected president. Captain Wykeham-Archer was elected vice-president and Mr. Footit was made treasurer, from which invidious position he made up deficits from his own pocket for several years. 

It was decided that the Association should embrace all British fire brigades and not only the volunteers, and its objects were “to save life and property from fire, and, with that view, to organise the fire brigades of Great Britain and Ireland under one recognised council; to encourage the formation of fire brigades and auxiliaries; to increase the efficiency of firemen and the means of communication; to consider all questions affecting the interests of firemen generally, together with the establishment and direction of a benevolent fund for firemen injured in the execution of their duty, to this end encouraging the formation of provincial branches of this Association, similar to that adopted by the West Yorkshire fire brigades’ and the Lancashire fire brigades’ friendly societies; to reward, by gift of testimonials, medals, gratuities, or annuities, acts of valour or important services rendered on the occasion of fires; to diffuse information and instructions to established brigades; to encourage inventions and applications for the more successful subjection of fires, and to circulate directions to be observed by persons in saving themselves and their property from fire”.

The officers set to work with energy and were soon claiming a membership of over a thousand and announcing that “the Chief Officer of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade has expressed his good wishes towards the Association”. They turned their attention towards standard drills, the acceptance by insurance companies of volunteer brigades’ reasonable charges, the arrangement and supervision of inter-brigade competitions, first-aid training for all firemen, producing an officer’s undress uniform for members, and a standard bugle call for calling together volunteer firemen.

Though in some districts a reverse peal on the church bells still persisted, the bugle was becoming quite a common means of calling volunteer or retained firemen on the outbreak of fire, and many fire brigade photo- graphs of the ‘seventies include the buglers holding their instruments. The Association decided that a fire call different from any military call was required and their standard call was adopted by many brigades. Crediton, Devon, used this method and the F.B.A. call well into the twentieth century.

The Association also attempted the standardisation of fire brigade ranks and titles with little success. The men who founded and ran the volunteer brigades called themselves and their officers what they pleased. Even the professional brigades varied from town to town in their nomenclature of ranks. The police brigades, of course, followed police procedure with sergeants, inspectors, chief inspectors and superintendents or chief superintendent where the size of the brigade warranted such high ranks to command it. In London the old senior rank of foreman had been changed to superintendent in 1866, with engineer as the title of the officer in charge of a station. This term was later altered to station officer. The rank of foreman still persisted in some towns, especially those where an insurance company still ran the brigade. Many of the volunteer brigades favoured military ranks, calling the chief officer captain and his immediate juniors lieutenants. The term captain was also adopted by some professional chief officers, while the heads of quite small brigades, either volunteer, retained or professional, sometimes called themselves superintendent, a practice which did not always find favour with the local police force.

In the matter of uniform the police brigades wore police uniform with a special rig and helmet for fire fighting; most of the professional brigades copied the sober utilitarian outfit and brass helmet of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, but with the volunteers it was a matter of choice of the chief officer, who sometimes paid for all the uniforms anyhow, or of a meeting of members. 

Sometimes the uniforms erred on the showy side. Epaulettes, shoulder knots, frogging and silver braid abounded. Some brigades even had revers in the racing colours of their lord-of-the- manor patron, and with a four- horse turn-out for country fires the postilions wore white buckskin breeches, scarlet jackets and black velvet jockey caps. With such a smart turn-out the temptation to show off was strong, and on long runs the horses would be carefully nursed between villages so that they could dash through the streets at full gallop with the buglers aboard blowing lustily to clear the way and attract the populace. 

The use of bugles and post-horns as a method of clearing the way for a fire engine was quite common in provincial brigades at this time, but most units relied entirely on the vocal efforts of the crew. The standard shout was rhythmic “Hi-ya-Hi,” said to be copied from the cry of ships’ crews engaged in manning braces to swing the yards when a vessel was being put about. Alfred Tozer of Manchester did not agree with the whole crew shouting, which was the usual method. He wrote:

“On the road to a fire I have tested many signals such as bells, whistles, horns, and shouting, and I find nothing like shouting; not when the danger may be several yards ahead, nor do I mean all hands to shout, or move their arms and legs, or double themselves up like lunatics. I mean the look- out men to shout in a commanding manner, and only when there is something worth shouting for. If firemen wish to gain the confidence of the public, they must go quickly to their work, and I see nothing to be gained by continuous shouting or other noises on the machine whilst being drawn to a fire.”

A Leeds newspaper in 1878 published correspondence on this subject and commented:

“We have all seen the crowds that assemble mysteriously in a few seconds, and the engines rushing through the streets with their thundering steeds and crashing wheels, threatening death and destruction to all who cross their path. Now, surely, it is of the very first importance that the firemen should arrive at the scene of action with their energies still fresh and un- impaired. On the contrary, they arrive more or less breathless from shout- ing at the top of their voices all the time they have been passing through the streets. Why not use a whistle like the tramway car drivers, or a horn like that used by the signalmen on Continental railways? Such a warning would be more efficacious and less likely to frighten horses than the wild shouts which now announce the approach of the engines. The only explanation we can imagine for the phenomenon is that the firemen, who are generally old sailors, keep up the shouting as a sort of reminiscence of their old nautical habits.*

Many of the police brigades used ordinary police whistles, each member of the crew blowing one. The fire-engine bell slowly came into favour late in the nineteenth century. London did not adopt it until 1903 and was one of the last brigades to gallop its machines through the street to the cry of “Hi-ya-Hi”. Great Britain is one of the few countries of the world to retain the bell. Most Continental and all American brigades now use sirens or special multi-note and distinctive horns. 

The Fire Brigades Association gave their support to the inter-brigade competitions which had started as early as the eighteen-sixties, and these were becoming popular annual events with twenty or more local brigades competing for cups and prizes given either by the local gentry or by Shand Mason and Merryweathers. At a time when country towns had few attractions for those with leisure, they attracted large crowds and the events were fought out with enthusiasm and some regrettable acrimony, generally aroused by different standards of equipment and different conceptions of how the drills should be carried out.

The judges had a difficult time and frequently received more abuse than thanks. Shaw allowed his senior officers to act as judges at competitions near London, but even the prospect of a day in the country for those rigorously confined and hard-worked men did not compensate them for their thankless task, and Engineer Penfold of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, having acted as judge at Watford in July 1877, completed his report to his chief officer in these terms:

“I would respectfully beg to add that I am strongly of opinion that these volunteer contests should find judges from their own class, as each competing brigade will always persist in following their own particular ideas, instead of following the rules laid down, and will insist that their own peculiar ways are correct, and that all others are wrong, and, as trickery is a great element in nearly all of them, it makes the office of judge for an impartial man a very unsatisfactory office.”

A Press report of the affair mentions huge crowds, brilliant weather, all the steamers and some of the manuals drawn by four horses with posti- lions, “the splendid greys of Captain Buckland of Windsor attracting much attention”, two bands and Watford being a town of great public spirit and public-house spirit. This last comment infers that there was a good deal of jollity or even drunkenness. 

It has been said that drunkenness was the national vice of Victorian England, and certainly it was necessary in almost every volunteer fire brigade’s rule book for stern injunctions to be included against the offence at drills or fires. 

The same rule also generally included the prohibition of practical joking and obscene language, but contemporary Press reports and brigade minute books show that it was sometimes broken, and even the officers might be at fault. 

In September 1877 a tailor sued the Chief Officer of Uttoxeter Fire Brigade for damage to clothing hung around his door by water from the fire engine during a practice. He won his case, it being agreed that at the time of the offence the chief officer was drunk. Refreshment for pumpers provided a great temptation to the firemen and had produced a tradition of free liquor at fires which survived the introduction of the steamer, while medical opinion at the time held that a generous application of alcohol was efficacious in preventing cold, exhaustion and even in reviving the insensible.

After a fire, public-houses would be open during the very short closing hours then in force. In 1878 the landlord of the Ring o’ Bells in Warrington, though not summoned, was ordered by the Chief Constable to appear before the Bench and offer them an explanation as to why his house was open and supplying liquor between 1 a.m. and 2.30 a.m. after the fire at Messrs. Rylands° Mills. The Chief Constable said: “I feel myself to be in a very awkward position; if i had taken any step in the matter it would have been to have summoned the landlord for selling during prohibited hours, but I [thought it better to bring the matter to the Licensing Committee in as quiet and pleasant a way as I possibly could, not wishing to clash with Mr. Wood.”

Mr. Wood was the chief officer of the fire brigade and he was present and had a good deal to say. “The house was opened by my order,” he affirmed. “I looked for the Chief Constable and could not see him and took it upon myself. Are we to be exhausted in the midst of our work and not have refreshments? “We can only do what is legal,’ replied the Mayor. “Then your committee must take responsibility if the men refuse to work,” said Mr. Wood. “The fire was a serious one and I was exhausted and wanted refreshment.” 

The Chief Constable said the men could have had refreshment by opening the Ring o’ Bells and carrying beer to their station, but it was not right that they should sit drinking in a public-house on a Sunday morning. The Mayor then read correspondence that the Chief Constable had had with his colleagues of other towns on the matter. 

Macclesfield’s Chief Constable said there were two brigades in the town, the corporation brigade and the volunteers. The corporation brigade were provided with refreshments at their station; the volunteers were allowed to have refreshment at their headquarters, which was a public- house! Major Greig, Head Constable of Liverpool, said that after serious fires “the men are sent to a respectable public-house and the circumstances are looked upon here as to quite justify the proceedings” . The Chief Con- stable of Chester replied that “in the circumstances of fire occurring during prohibited hours, refreshments for the firemen were obtained at a neigh- bouring public-house and I believe it would be very difficult to find any- body to object under the circumstances” . Other Chief Constables said they objected to such proceedings, which drew the inference from Mr. Wood that Warrington ‘s Chief Constable had been deliberately selective in his choice of the police forces he had written to. 

The landlord said nothing until the end of the proceedings, when he asked the Mayor to exonerate him from any blame. “Now that the explana- tion has been made, we shall,” answered his worship. The matter was apparently dropped without any decision as to whether the chief fire officer had the right to order public-houses to open up during or after a fire, but the incident shows that at the time many people considered alcoholic refreshment inseparable from fire fighting. It was certainly a problem for officers. Even the records of the big brigades record frequent heavy fines and dismissals for drunkenness. Alfred Tozer had issued a brigade order in 1863: “The Superintendent advises those men to leave at once who cannot have that self-control as not to put into their mouths that which steals away their brains and influences them to commit acts of insubordination,” and in a later order he forbade the practice of firemen’s wives coming to a fire with jugs of tea lavishly laced with spirits for their husbands’ refreshment. One of the complaints about the London Auxiliary Fire Brigade was that it contained too many wealthy City men who sought favours of the regulars by buying them an excess of beer and spirits.

The volunteers had other excuses for drinking in the lavish annual dinners which were a feature of the movement. Reports of some of these mention that the company broke up at four o’clock in the morning. But they were hard-working, hard-drinking times and probably the firemen were no worse than other sections of the population; certainly they did not have the reputation of their French colleagues; while the English say “drunk as a lordy” the French say “drunk as a fireman”. Today the provision of alcoholic refreshment during fires is strictly forbidden in every brigade. The canteen vans that attend big fires serve only hot tea. 

Not only were they hard-working, hard-drinking times. It is difficult to realise now the callousness and poverty that existed in mid-Victorian Britain. Firemen at Broughton (Lancs) were shocked by an incident there after a fatal fire where a little boy was burnt to death. They recovered the body, which was taken to a neighbour’s house. These people let it be known that for a penny members of the assembled crowd could view the partly burned corpse. Soon there was a long queue, mostly of women and children, waiting for admission, penny in hand.

Crowds at fires were still unruly and obstructive. The Middleton Albion of April 19th, 1870, headlines its “Full and Interesting Account” of the destruction of the Old Hall Mill at 11 p.m. on the previous Saturday whereby over three hundred operatives were thrown out of work:

“The fire could not have happened on a worse night as there were many drunkards and inebriates about and much was the confusion. The scene at the Commissioners’ Fire Engine Office was of great disorder, not from any fault of the brigade but from the noise and clamour of the people congre- gated. Mr. Holt, captain of the brigade, sent for horses but the people dragged the engine to the scene. Engines from Salford, Broughton, Pendle- ton and Hopwood turned out.”

The paper goes on to describe how Mr. Tozer of Manchester would not attend as the fire was beyond his area, but one of his machines was at a fire in Rochdale Road at the time and

“three youths mounted the engine and drove away in great haste in the direction of Middleton. Mr. Tozer followed on another engine and caught the miscreants at Lever Bridge. The youths were charged with stealing a fire engine and equipment but the magistrate decided that the theft was not one of malice but was due to over-zealous members of the public going to the aid of an afflicted neighbour, the only damage being done was that the horses were in great distress.”

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