The Fire Brigade

“About seven o’clock on Saturday, 11th April, 1840, Superintendent Hopkins received intelligence that a fire had broken out in the pottery of Mr Clarke, near Pill, owing to the drying kilns being overheated. He immediately went down and having fixed a ladder for the purpose of carrying water to the roof, that it might be poured down upon the flames, the warehouse door was broken open and a quantity of pitchers taken out, which were given to several active men who set diligently to work; and before the shattered town engine, with one poor jaded horse in ragged harness feebly dragging it along, had arrived, the fire was almost extinguished. We believe that the damage was not extensive and the premises were insured. If the engine was under the control of the police, we apprehend that more promptness would have been exhibited, and perhaps more property saved.

“The engine house is converted into a ‘Tinker’s Shop’ and the engine itself is decorated with divers kettles, saucepans, tools, etc., and indeed the whole machinery affords but a sorry specimen of what the inhabitants have to rely on for security against such a destruction as fire.”

That, according to the “Monmouthshire Merlin” … Read the rest

The Great War

The first effect of the Great War on British fire brigades was the immediate recall to the Fleet or to the colours of the Navy and Army reservists who made up such a large proportion of the strength of the professional brigades. The volunteer and retained brigades were also diminished by the loss of their reservists, and the rush to volunteer by many of the younger men anxious to play a part in the war that was to be over by Christmas. The London Fire Brigade’s strength in August 1914 was 1,251 men, and 280 were recalled to the Army and Navy to fulfil their reservist obligations. They went with the blessing of the L.C.C. with their quarters available to their wives and families and with their Service pay made up to fire brigade wages.

Most of the big professional brigades treated their reservists in the same way. Resignations to volunteer for the forces continued, and by October the London Fire Brigade was nearly four hundred under strength. Man- chester Fire Brigade lost 34 per cent. of its establishment. In December the L.C.C. announced that in the circumstances they would have to defer the question ofa pay increase and of … Read the rest

Firemen’s Unions

The new decade brought other changes to the Fire Service besides mechanisation, including the first movement by the rank and file towards joint representation. Trades unions had been established for many years, but the firemen with their naval traditions and strict discipline had made no move in that direction and had brought any grievances to the notice of their employers solely by memorials. 

Their wage, after a few years’ service, was above the national average for skilled men, their position was secure from periods of unemployment and the threat of poverty in old age was overcome in most brigades by pension schemes or ex gratia retirement allowances. 

But continuous duty at a time when the working week of other trades was being reduced to fifty hours was a source of great dissatisfaction. In London the leave period was still twenty-four hours every fourteenth day, in Manchester twenty-four hours every eighth day, in Salford twenty-four hours every fifteenth day, in Glasgow sixteen hours every thirteenth day, in Birmingham thirty hours every fourteenth day. Annual leave varied from seven days in London up to fourteen days in Edinburgh. For thirteen days at a time junior firemen who were never sent on out-duties … Read the rest

Queen Victoria Street Fire

The century turned and the old Queen died. Edward VII came to the throne, his coronation procession marred or enhanced according to individual opinions by a fire on the route and the spectacle of a horsed steamer galloping past the procession. Perhaps the new mon- arch sitting in the State coach allowed his thoughts momentarily to slip back to the ‘sixties and the days when he regularly turned out as a volun- teer fireman. During the provincial tour that followed the coronation, there was consternation in Birmingham when, as the royal procession approached one of the triumphal arches that was decorated with a bust of the King, it was noted that the royal effigy was wearing a fireman’s helmet. The outrage was traced to members of the fire brigade, who were accused of lèse majesté and threatened with dire penalties. They gave an assurance that no disrespect was meant by their action, which was dictated entirely by loyalty and pride in King Edward’s well-known interest in their Service. They were let off with a caution. 

Commander Wells and the London County Council were soon to face a storm of abuse and criticism over a fatal fire which occurred at 5 … Read the rest