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 one day’s leave in seven, but would reconsider the question “in six months time or at the end of the war, whichever be the earlier date”. At the same time they expressed concern at the depletion in the brigade’s numbers and offered 10s. to members of the brigade who during the ensuing three months introduced a suitable recruit, saying that “it is important that the brigade should be well maintained during the war”.
In this respect neither London nor any other brigade received encouragement from the Government, who announced that there was no reason for special emergency fire measures. Central authority continued to pooh pook the risk of aerial attack, as they had done since 1911 when the Master General of Ordnance, who was in charge of aeronautics at the War Office, had said: “We are not yet convinced that either aeroplanes or airships would be of any utility in war”. Though the Government took no action so far as fire brigades were concerned, the National Fire Brigades Union, the British Fire Prevention Committee and the Fire Service Press, represented at that time by The Fireman and Fire, went into immediate and energetic action for the war effort. The Union’ confined themselves mostly to fire prevention propaganda and the raising of special ambulance teams of firemen for enlistment in the R.A.M.C., but the British Fire Prevention Committee embarked on ambitious schemes. In September 1914 they formed the “Special Fire Service Force” which they placed at the disposal of the Government and local authorities both for fire fighting and for fire surveys of temporary hospitals, munition works, food storages and other risks. The force was based on their testing station at St. John’s Wood under a committee with the Earl of Londesborough as chairman, and included surveyors, chief officers and inspecting officers. The committee announced that “some of the necessary fire appliances have been offered by great estate owners whilst others have been duly registered as available promptly upon official requisition”, and it was apparently intended to form a sort of mobile column available to the Government when and where needed. All the officers, fire surveyors and administrative staff were members of the British Fire Prevention Committee and offered their services gratuitously, but firemen were needed also and the committee went about their recruitment, offering a wage of 42s. a week for firemen and 49s. a week for drivers and engineers, which was higher than the average wage in the municipal brigades. The committee also issued a number of special fire-warning notices for a diverse number of premises including refugee hostels, soldiers’ billets, munition factories and hospitals. They announced that they were official advisers to the Government on fire precautions and undoubtedly did much useful work, though later a senior civil servant announced that they “were not considered a sufficiently authoritative body to advise the Government”. The volunteer survey teams carried out a number of in- spections and made sound recommendations, but the fire-fighting detachments never went into action and were not heard of again after the end of 1914.
The Service Press concerned themselves with the position of young fire-men who were being urged by poster, recruiting sergeants and public to join up. No authoritative statement had been made about their position and both The Fireman and Fire wrote to Lord Kitchener asking for an expression of opinion from him as to whether firemen of military age should join the forces. A similar letter was sent by the chairman of the London Fire Brigade Committee. All these received the same reply from Kitchener’s private secretary, enclosing a letter signed by the Field-Marshal which had been sent to munitions workers: this ended with the paragraph: “I should like all engaged by your establishment to know that it is fully recognised that they, in carrying out the great work of providing the Army with supplies, are doing their duty for their King and Country equally with those who have joined the Army for service in the field.” The covering letter stated that Lord Kitchener desired it to be known that the contents of this letter to munitions workers applied equally to men serving in the fire brigade. Such a lukewarm recommendation did little to stop the resignations from the Fire Service to volunteer for the armed forces, and professional, retained and volunteer brigades were soon seriously under strength.
Some of the gaps in the professional brigades were filled by young men coming in to fill the vacancies and these were rather unfairly referred to as the “Kitchener dodgers” throughout their twenty-eight years’ service.
The first enemy action against these islands was the bombardment by German cruisers of Scarborough and the Hartlepools in December 1914. Damage was quite heavy and 122 people were killed in Scarborough. Fires were, however, few; there was only one in Scarborough and this was easily dealt with by the local brigade, as were the few outbreaks in Hartlepool. After the attack some North-east coast towns appealed for volunteers to form auxiliary detachments of their fire brigades. No further sea bombardment took place.
On December 24th, 1914, the first bomb arrived from the air. It was dropped by a German aeroplane near Dover Castle and broke some windows. Five months of immunity and then some broken glass in a coastal town confirmed the view that the danger from the air was negligible.
The Zeppelins arrived on the night of January 19th, 1915, the first town to suffer damage and casualties, but with no fires, being Yarmouth, where two people were killed. The raider flew on to King’s Lynn, where a woman and a boy were killed, but although incendiary bombs were dropped no fires were started.
A month passed before the next raid, which was made by an aeroplane which dropped bombs at Colchester, Braintree and Coggeshall, doing negligible damage, and it was not until April that serious raiding started, with Zeppelins dropping bombs on Wallsend, Hebburn and Blyth and starting their first fire which was speedily extinguished in a house in Carlington. In April houses were set on fire in Bury St. Edmunds and Ipswich, and on May 10th over a hundred bombs were dropped in and around Southend, giving British fire brigades the unprecedented situation of four- teen fires burning simultaneously in one town. Fortunately, they were in small house property and the local volunteer brigade, without proper mobilising or reinforcing arrangements, were able to cope with the situation mostly by containing the fires in their burnt out premises of origin. During that May there were several raids over East Anglia and the first serious fire was the burning out of a timber yard at Lowestoft. There was intense indignation in the country both because of the killing of women and children and because no effective counter-measures were available. The Zeppelins roamed at leisure over the Eastern Counties seeking targets and obviously sometimes lost and off course, but always returned to their bases undamaged. They flew at about 6,000 feet, out of range of the ridiculously inadequate anti-aircraft gun defence which consisted only of one-pounder pom-poms and six-pounder Hotchkiss guns.
Just before the war Mr. Winston Churchill had said in a public speech that “Any hostile aircraft which reached our coast would be promptly attacked in superior force by a swarm of very formidable hornets”. Where are these hornets? demanded an indignant public. The answer was that the aeroplanes of 1915 had not reached a stage of development where it was safe even to take off, let alone to land in the dark. The Government were taken by surprise on finding that the Zeppelins could operate by night. British pilots were killed in taking off and landing, and even when airborne could not find their target in the vastness of the night sky.
The enormous casualties of the Western front brought conscription to England early in 1916, but the threat from the air brought exemption for all professional firemen though not for members of retained and volunteer brigades.
In London some precautions were taken and the depleted London Fire Brigade was strengthened by a detachment of the London Rifle Volunteers. These men, who were mostly too old for service at the Front, were given training and stood by at fire stations at night. The Royal Engineers also provided a small detachment of men with three motor lorries. The London Salvage Corps, the Kodak Works Brigade and the Metropolitan Water Board’s Works Fire Brigade put themselves voluntarily at the disposal of the chief officer for assistance at air-raid fires. On May 31st, 1915, the first air-raid on London took place. East-enders were surprised at half- past ten by the sound of explosions in the streets. Only one Zeppelin took part and it dropped a number of incendiary bombs. Six people were killed, two by being trapped in a burning house and another by jumping from the window of a burning house. London received no further attention from the enemy until September; in the meantime the Eastern Counties received sporadic visits during which a few fires were started. On the night of September 8th there was a heavier raid on London, when twenty-eight incendiary and twenty-one explosive bombs were dropped and twenty-nine fires were started, causing a £500,000 loss of property. The raid was over Bloomsbury and the north of the City, and it was in the City danger area that the serious fire situation arose, with fires in Holborn, Love Lane, Bartholomew’s Close, Wood Street and Silver Street. The Wood Street fire approached conflagration proportions and when, a few years later, the strict censorship on air-raid reports and locations was lifted, amazement was expressed at the fact that “no less than twenty-two motor pumps were at work at the fire in Wood Street” . On this night the first fire-brigade air-raid fatality of the war occurred. A house in Lamb’s Conduit Passage, Holborn, was alight with people trapped on the top floor. Rescues were made when it was reported that some people were still inside. Fireman J. S. Green went into the partly-collapsed and blazing building, was cut off by the fire and threw himself through an upper window, dying shortly afterwards of burns and injuries.
After September there was a lull, presumably caused by bad weather, until January 31st, 1916, when there was a serious raid on the Midlands, the Zeppelins penetrating as far as Burslem and Stoke in Staffordshire, causing considerable damage and casualties.
This raid caused great disquiet, for it had not been thought that the air- ships could penetrate So far into British territory, but in the night of April 2nd, 1916, a single Zeppelin reached Scotland.
Public reaction to the raids was varied; some demanded a proper warning system, shelters and a black-out instead of the ‘dim out’ augmented by the cutting off of electricity from the central supply of towns in the raiders’ path; others crowded into the streets when a raid took place to try to see the enemy and to watch the searchlights and the gunfire despite warnings and appeals to stay under cover. Indignation at the killing of civilians was intense: a formal inquest was held on all victims and coroners were unable to prevent their juries bringing in verdicts of “Wilful murder against the Kaiser” .
The raids and the threat of raids had secured exemption from the Conscription Act for professional firemen, but this was not considered necessary for the retained and volunteer firemen of the semi-urban and rural areas. Except for the London raid of September 8th, 1915, fire damage had been amazingly small. A number of factors may have accounted for this. The proportion of incendiary bombs to high-explosive bombs dropped was small. The difficulty of aiming them into areas of high fire risk without bomb-aiming instruments was considerable and a large number dropped in open country. The incendiary bomb of the time was not efficient and a large number were picked up unexploded. After a raid on Birmingham in October 1917 five undetonated bombs were found in the Austin Works. The bomb consisted of a conical sheet-metal canister with a saucer-like base pierced with holes to allow the flames to escape. It was twelve inches long and nine inches in diameter at the widest part. In the centre was a stick of thermite with a percussion ignition cap. The space around the thermite stick was filled with various materials, including resin, celluloid chippings and petrol, and the case was bound round with an inflammable rope. At the top was a handle used for dropping the bombs from an airship gondola and to this handle was attached a long cloth streamer to steady the bomb in flight and to ensure that it dropped nose first.
Without exemption the brigades relying on volunteer and retained men were soon badly under strength and often in worse straits than the big professional brigades who had lost their reservists. Considerable interest was occasioned by the exploit of Miss Isobel Silver, aged eighteen, who drove the Emsworth (Hants) steamer to a fire at Blenworth Hall, and some of the big stores formed smartly uniformed fire brigades from their women employees.
At another mansion fire at Copped Hall near Epping in June 1917 the Epping Fire Brigade could only muster the chief officer, the engineer and his assistant to man their steamer.
Since the fire brigades were an entirely municipal service and in some cases a volunteer service unconnected with any statutory body, and since there was no Government coordination or control, the granting of exemptions under the various National Service Acts to retained and volunteer firemen became chaotic.
The British Fire Prevention Committee, the Association of Professional Fire Brigade Officers and the National Fire Brigades Union, each working independently, offered advice to the Government, sent deputations to the various Ministries and appealed for discretion and the preservation of fire cover at different times and with different voices. The British Fire Prevention Committee expressed the view that substitute firemen for retained brigades could be trained in two months and this opinion was quoted in Parliament during debates on the subject, producing from the other two bodies the statement that such advice was preposterous. The National Fire Brigades Union stated that it took three months for a whole-time fireman to receive elementary training with eight hours instruction a day, and since part-time firemen could only spare a few hours a week for training there was no question of them being fully efficient for two or three years.
As the war progressed and the huge casualty lists increased the demand for Army man-power, the position of the rural fire brigades became worse and worse. Applications for exemptions under the National Service Acts for men in reserved or key occupations could be made to Advisory Boards and Tribunals on which Army officers sat with local dignitaries appointed to the post. Local authorities and chief officers were advised that they could make application for deferment or exemption of their key-men to these bodies, and the Ministry of National Service issued instructions to its regional directors that
“the National Service representatives are not to oppose before tribunals the exemption of part-time members of fire brigades certified by the chief officer of the brigade to have satisfactorily performed fire brigade duty during the preceding twelve months and to be essential to the efficiency of the brigade, provided these men are in Grade 3, and over thirty-five years of age or in Grade 2 and over forty-five. National Service representatives have also been instructed to give careful consideration to the cases of men of lower ages in these grades who are of special value to the brigade on account of their exceptional qualifications and long service.”
The Army authority could appeal against the decision of a local tribunal and often did so, as in the case at Southend where the tribunal had granted exemption to twenty-three members of the fire brigade. Mr. Harvey, the chief officer, made a strong appeal to be allowed to keep these men. Twenty-two members of the brigade had already joined the forces and recently they had had fourteen fires burning at once. He was told he could make replacements with older men from reserved occupations and outlined the difficulties in recruiting such men and training them. The final decision was that twelve of the men must be called up, but they were given a defer- ment of two months to enable the brigade to find replacements.
The comments of some of the tribunals when dealing with fire brigade exemption cases caused indignation in the Service. At Lindfield, Sussex, Mr. Higgs, a member of the local tribunal which was hearing a case for deferment of three members of the volunteer brigade, made the widely publicised comment that “the most useless thing in this country was a fire brigade” . It later transpired that his premises at Lindfield had recently been completely burned out despite the attendance of the Lindfield, Haywards Heath and Burgess Hill brigades.
At about the same time a senior civil servant acting as chairman of the Reserved Occupations Committee told a delegation from the National Fire Brigades Union that “the present system of fire brigades in this country is rotten and obsolete; every town or district should have a paid fire brigade”.
Since the N.F.B.U. were the champions of the volunteer and the volunteer system, the remark made to such a delegation was tactless and caused a good deal of Press comment. Soon deferment of professional firemen was rescinded if they were under twenty-five unless a tribunal granted exemp- tion, and Commander Sladen and Mr. Percy Simmonds, the chairman of the London Fire Brigade Committee, had to appear before a tribunal to claim exemption for 119 men of the London Fire Brigade below that age. They were told it would be quite easy to release the men as the tribunals had had to give exemption to over two thousand young men working in the postal services who could be called on to augment the fire brigade as part-time auxiliaries. During the argument one of the tribunal referred to fire brigades as “funk-holes for young men”. It was an unfair comment and drew a response from the National Fire Brigades Union pointing out that 8,237 of its members were at the time serving in the forces.
The volunteer and retained brigades had great difficulty in filling the gaps in their strength. The tribunals in granting exemptions to various key-men could require, as a condition of exemption, that the men joined the fire brigade, the special constables or some other body. Chief officers com- plained that many of these unwilling recruits were too old, unresponsive to training and quite unsuitable. Low-category medical cases were also directed to part-time fire brigade work. They were referred to as medicated crocks, worthless to the brigade and a danger to themselves and others.
The summer of 1916 brought improvements in Britain’s defences against the raiders. More powerful anti-aircraft guns and powerful searchlights were provided and night-flying training for airmen was started. Soon crowds of cheering Londoners were to see the first success of the defences over British soil when a German airship was brought down in flames at Cuffley between Potter’s Bar and Enfield. It was one of thirteen that raided the Eastern Counties, the Midlands and the northern fringe of London on the night of September 2nd, 1916. In the previous April a Zeppelin had been brought down in the sea off the Thames Estuary, its back broken by anti-aircraft fire, and there were several instances of jettisoned guns, spare parts and other heavy gear which indicated damage that made it difficult to remain airborne.
The Germans switched to the aeroplane and daylight raids, and though desultory Zeppelin raids continued until March 12th, 1918, when Hull was attacked in the last raid using airships, it was the German twin-engined Gotha that soon became the serious menace and London that became the main target. The first daylight attack on London by aeroplane was on November 28th, 1916, and was a minor affair causing negligible damage, but on June 13th, 1917, at half-past ten in the morning, eighteen Gothas flew unopposed over London and dropped over a hundred bombs within a mile radius of Liverpool Street station. A hundred and sixty-two people were killed, many of them in the wreckage of a train that caught fire. The fatalities included one fireman. Three weeks later twenty-two planes flew over the City, their bombs killing fifty-seven people and starting big fires in the danger area. The post office in St. Martin’s-le-Grand was ablaze and there were spreading fires in Bartholomew’s Close and Little Britain. The London Fire Brigade, under strength and inadequately supported, only just managed to prevent a serious conflagration. None of the raiders was brought down and it seemed that the huge bulk of London was at the enemy’s mercy. The War Cabinet met, and on representations from the London County Council decided to recall the surviving London Fire Brigade reservists from the Navy and Army. They returned from the sea and every battle front that same summer. The heavy casualty lists of the June and July raids increased the demand for air-raid warnings and the Government arranged for all fire stations in the central Metropolitan area to be linked by special telephone lines and to receive advance warning of approaching aircraft. On receipt of the warning they were to fire maroons from the fire-station yard or roof. The official announcement was made on Saturday, July 21st, too late for most people to hear of it, and next morning at 8.30 Londoners were awakened from their Sunday lie in’ by the sound of 237 maroons fired almost simultaneously from seventy-nine fire stations. There was some panic, on the assumption that the heaviest raid of all had started. Actually the enemy were no nearer than Harwich.
The most important result for the Fire Service of the June and July Gotha raids on London was that the Government at last introduced compulsory measures for the coordination of fire brigades. The instrument was ready to hand, the Defence of the Realm Act, which gave the Government wide powers to make regulations on a variety of subjects. In July the Home Secretary appointed a Greater London Fire Brigade Co-ordination Committee, which consisted of Sir James Restler, the chief engineer of the Metropolitan Water Board, chief officer of the Board’s fire brigade and a vice-president of the National Fire Brigades Union, Mr. Gamble and the chief superintendent, Mr. Willis, representing the London Fire Brigade, Mr. Dane, Chief Officer of Croydon, representing the Association of Professional Fire Brigade Officers, and the chief officers of Acton, Hornsey, Ilford, Kingston and West Ham. Mr. A. L. Dixon, an Assistant Secretary at the Home Office, was put in charge of the negotiations, which resulted in Regulation 55.B. of the Defence of the Realm Act giving the Home Secretary powers “where he is satisfied as respects any area that it is expedient for the better protection of the area from fire that in case of any air raid or apprehended raid, the Fire Brigades and fire appliances in the area, or any of them, should be employed under single control, to constitute it a special Fire Brigade area, acting under the Chief Officer of one of the brigades, or some other specified person.” At first the only designated area was London, the ground covered being the Metropolitan Police district with, in addition, the urban districts of Watford, Dartford and Egham.
The order came into force on October 1st, 1917. Lieutenant-Commander Sladen was made the mobilising officer under the regulation, which gave him powers to order any fire brigade, including works brigades, within the district to come to the assistance of the London or any other fire brigade.
The order and the subsequent ones designating other areas in the country were not made without difficulty. Some local authorities were far from cooperative. Why should we send our brigade maintained by our ratepayers to the assistance of other areas? they demanded. And, anyhow, if the Government is going to make us do so they must pay grant on out fire- brigade expenditure. The question of out-of-area charges inevitably came up and the variation between brigades was proved to be considerable. The National Fire Brigades Union claimed that the variation was negligible as most brigades used their standard scale, but Mr. Dixon, referring to the list, remarked: “I have never seen anything more heterogeneous in my life” . A standard Home Office scale of charges was drawn up and these could be preferred against the owner of premises unfortunate enough to have his air-raid fire attended by an out-of-area brigade.
Another difficulty was that in the Metropolitan area alone some twenty different types of couplings were in use by various brigades. An adaptor had to be produced and fitted to all lengths of hose not of the standard type, so that reinforcing brigades could join up their hose lines with any neighbour.
The coordination order worked well in the next serious London raid, which was on the night of December 6th, 1917, when six aeroplanes dropped 276 incendiary bombs, and it was noted with satisfaction that “motor engines from points as far distant as Twickenham and Wembley were used for extinguishing a fire in Shoreditch”. Only one incendiary bomb had been dropped in the two daylight raids of June and July, but despite the close censorship the Germans must have heard of the big fires that had been started by high explosive and this was the first time the Germans had concentrated on the incendiary raid. Only two people were killed and six injured, but fifty-two fires were started, the largest number caused by any single raid. There were serious fires in Shoreditch, White- chapel Road, South Lambeth Road and Gray’s Inn Road. Twelve days later six aeroplanes made another night raid, dropping thirty explosive and thirty incendiary bombs, mostly in pairs. Only thirteen fires were started, but two, in Farringdon Road and Pentonville Road, were serious and while the brigade were at work on them two firemen were injured by bombs.
The last serious raid of the war took place over London on the night of January 28th, 1918. Only one incendiary bomb was dropped, with thirty-three high explosives. Four fires were started and forty-one people were killed, twenty-nine of these dying when a high-explosive bomb penetrated into the basement of Odhams Press, Long Acre, which was being used as an air-raid shelter. Between that date and the Armistice a few light raids causing negli- gible fire damage took place on London and provincial towns.
To a generation which has experienced the air-raids of 1940, those of 1915-18 appear negligible. Counting every incident where a machine crossed the coast and dropped a bomb there was a total of 103 raids, 51 by airships and 52 by aeroplanes, and 1,413 people were killed. The Metropolitan area received the biggest share of the serious attacks, with 75 tons of bombs and 670 fatalities.
Fire situations never got out of hand owing to the small number of incendiary bombs dropped, their inefficiency, the fact that they were scattered over wide areas so that individual fires could be dealt with before they joined up and that the high-explosive bombs were too few and too small to cause serious damage to water mains. Only six of the twenty-five raids on London caused serious fires.
Many of the casualties were caused by people being trapped in collapsed buildings, and here the country’s fire brigades, with their good discipline, team work and experience of special services, did some fine rescue work. At Odhams Press, for instance, the London firemen extricated nearly a hundred injured people from the ruins besides recovering the bodies of the dead.
Only two firemen were killed in air-raids, but another wartime risk took a much greater toll from the Service. This was the temporary munitions factory, which sprang up in great numbers all over the country with safety precautions relaxed or even non-existent as Britain strove to produce the shells that were needed for the great artillery duels of the static Western Front with which both sides sought to soften up the opposition before launching their infantry into suicidal charges against machine-guns.
Explosions, fires and fires followed by explosions were distressingly frequent, causing serious damage and many casualties. There were 485 explosives accidents in Britain in 1915 and 641 in 1916. The major disasters were obscured by strict censorship, which sometimes went to absurd lengths to cover up the facts. For instance, in 1916 there was a fire in a filling factory near Bradford attended by the Bradford Fire Brigade. In a subsequent explosion six firemen were killed and twelve others injured, including the chief officer, one of their pumps being wrecked at the same time. The Ministry of Munitions later released a Press statement mentioning that “several firemen had been killed owing to the bursting of a fire engine”. This caused considerable discussion, for though firemen had been killed by the bursting of steam fire-engine boilers, it was a very rare accident and it was well known, at least around Bradford, that the brigade had attended with motor pumps only.
One of the most serious disasters was at Faversham in May 1916, when a small fire started in empty bags and due to the lack of first-aid extin- guishers spread to explosives. One hundred and six people were killed, including all of the works fire brigade.
Seven firemen were killed at the Roburite Works the following May, and at Low Moor in the following August thirty-eight people were killed, including firemen.
The munitions explosion which obtained the greatest publicity, owing probably to its proximity to London, was at Silvertown, West Ham, at 7 p.m. on January 19th, 1917. West Ham Fire Brigade had been called to a small fire in the munitions works from their new station only a quarter of a mile away and were getting their pump to work from a street hydrant when there was a tremendous explosion which damaged the pump and killed a sub-officer and a fireman. Fortunately the factory was nearly empty of workers at the time, but the casualty list in the adjoining streets included sixty-nine fatalities of whom twenty-six were women and children. The near-by fire station was extensively damaged and two of the firemen’s children were killed. Windows were broken as far away as Blackheath. The explosion was followed by a serious fire which lit up the night sky to the east of London and was beyond the resources of West Ham Fire Brigade, who asked London for assistance.
This assistance message was not received at London Fire Brigade Head-quarters until 7.29 p.m., for every telephone was out of order for a considerable distance around the scene. The London Fire Brigade was itself already committed.
A gas-holder belonging to the South Metropolitan Gas Company at Blackwall had been damaged by the explosion and a fire involving 9,000,000 cubic feet of gas started. Sparks crossing the river from Silver- town had started a fire in a tar manufacturers at East Greenwich and the brigade was somewhat disorganised by almost every fire alarm in the East End being actuated by passers-by who had seen the glow in the sky.
The fire destroyed a range of buildings 1,000 feet long by 300 feet wide, with a total damage of over £1,000,000. London sent twenty-nine motor pumps and two fire floats, and fire engines remained at the site for ten days.
The next serious munitions explosion was on October 2nd, 1917, in the national shell-filling factory at Morecambe. This again started as a small fire and ten firemen were killed by the first explosion. Ultimately two hundred and fifty acres of the four-hundred-acre works were burnt out and the damage exceeded £1,000,000. When the first assistance messages were sent out, several local brigades refused to attend. “It’s not in our area,” they said, and that was that. Ultimately pumps from Preston, Lancaster, Blackpool, Barrow in Furness, Chorley, Leyland, Fulwood, Horwich, Liverpool and even from Manchester and Salford, seventy miles away, arrived. Conditions at the fire were chaotic, with no authoritative officer in charge, orders and counter-orders being given by all and sundry, and the separate brigades going their separate ways about the business of fire extinction with little regard for the necessary cooperation. The Ministry of Munitions were so concerned that they requested the Govern- ment to extend the application of Regulation 55.B. of D.O.R.A. to embrace other parts of the country besides London and fires in Government buildings whether caused by air-raids or accident.
This resulted in the Fire Brigades (West Midland Area) Order incorporating the Midland counties, with Mr. Tozer, Chief Officer of Birming- ham, as mobilising officer, the Fire Brigades (North-Eastern) Order incor- porating Durham, Northumberland and part of Yorkshire with Dr. J. Wright, the Chief Constable and director of the fire brigade of Newcastle on Tyne as mobilising officer, the Fire Brigades (North Western) Order in- corporating Lancashire, Cheshire and part of Yorkshire with Mr. Corlett, Chief Officer of Manchester, as mobilising officer, and the Fire Brigades (South-Western Order with Mr. J. Henderson, Chief Constable and director of the fire brigade of Bristol as mobilising officer. There was S0 much obstruction by local authorities that practically the whole of 1918 was taken up with working out details of these coordination schemes, and two of them were not formally constituted until after the Armistice had been signed.
Senior officials of the Ministry of Munitions expressed the view that it was useless and dangerous to attempt to fight a fire in these war-time filling factories and that immediate evacuation and the writing-off of the factory was the correct course, which would save life and result in little further damage than in fact had occurred. Fire brigade officers contested this point of view and quoted excellent stops made without loss of life and with the preservation of almost all the plant and contents at Chilwell, Dartford, Queensbury and other places.
Following the explosion and fire at Morecambe, Mr. Dixon of the Home Office visited the scene and met Lieutenant-Colonel Guy Symonds, D.S.O., a gunner officer who had been invalided home from the Italian front and given a post with a Ministry of Munitions Fire Advisory Committee. Mr. Dixon was most impressed and Lieutenant-Colonel Symonds, still with the Ministry of Munitions, assisted him with some of the details of the co- ordination schemes.
By 1918 Britain was war-weary and depressed. The cost of living had risen steeply and had been met by a series of war bonuses added to the standard 1914 wages of the workers. A wave of strikes and industrial unrest spread across the country and there were even incipient mutinies in the forces. The firemen were included among the restless and discontented, especially in London, where in 1914 they had received a half-promise of improved conditions and pay which had been deferred “for the duration”. The duration of the war had proved longer than anyone had expected, and with trade unions championing the cause of miners, railwaymen and gas- works employees who were on strike, the refusal of the L.C.C. to recognise their union was a sore point. The suggested staff committee was still un- acceptable and the men petitioned the chief officer for a wage increase and additional leave days. They were told that this was a breach having been told in 1913 that it was a breach of regulations to petition the Council, the correct channel being the chief officer, there was considerable frustration. His contemporaries stated that Commander Sladen was some what at sea during these difficult days and that the Fire Brigade Committee lacked a competent adviser and the men a firm and sympathetic leader would properly put their views and problems to authority.
The unrecognised branch of the National Union of Corporation Workers was active. It now had a full-time secretary, MI. James whose father had been a fireman and who gave up his post as a London park-keeper to take on the job.
The police were as discontented as other workers, especially over the refusal of the Home Office and the police authorities to recognise their Police and Prison Officers Union which had been founded in 1913, and on August 29th, 1918, Britain’s phlegm was considerably shaken by the first police strike. The Prime Minister met the men’s representatives, and in an atmosphere of good humour and conciliation granted a substantial increase in pay and told them that their union could not be recognised during the war. This successful outcome of the police strike naturally had its effect on the firemen who, through Bradley, sent a list of demands to the L.C.C., these being that all future negotiation between the fire brigade and the Council on the questions of pay and conditions of service be conducted by the secretary of the fire brigade branch of the National Union of Corporation Workers, that four-fifths of the war bonus be made permanent and pensionable, that one day’s leave in ten should be allowed followed by one day in seven after the war, that the L.C.C. should promise that twelve months after peace had been declared shifts of eight hours’ duty should be established. This list of demands was accompanied by the threat of a strike ballot if they were not conceded.
The fire brigade committee agreed to meet the men’s representatives at a conference on September 13th. At this meeting the men’s main demand was for a properly constituted union to negotiate on their behalf with their employers, the committee demurring and still pressing the case of a staff association. It was finally agreed that the matter should be submitted to arbitration and the Government were asked to appoint an arbitrator. They selected Sir George Askwith, a Chief Industrial Commissioner. The hearing was held in September 1918, Mr. Hume representing the L.C.C. and Mr. Bradley the firemen. Mr. Hume said “the County Councils responsible for the safety of London and rightly or wrongly they, as everybody else including the Government, have held that in a disciplined force it is fatal to introduce an outside person between the chief officer of the force and the governing body.” He insisted that the only method of airing grievances and submitting views should be through a staff association. Sir George Askwith later stated that the decision was not easy because the provinces were bound to follow London and because the attitude of the Home Office with regard to the police had not yet been announced. His award, published on September 23rd, 1918, established the London firemen’s right to belong to a trade union. During the negotiations the men agreed that they would be content with a “representative body” consisting entirely of uniformed members of the brigade so long as the spokesman of the body need not be a member of the brigade. The London Fire Brigade Representative Body was therefore set up with James Bradley as spokesman, and a somewhat anoma- lous position arose which was to be perpetuated for twenty years. Soon a fire brigade union was to be formed embracing the whole country, with the position of secretary held by the spokesman of the London Fire Brigade Representative Body, which had a sort of separate existence outside the union of which it was the largest unit.
Having received official recognition, the new body went to work, and in December 1918 gained for its members the concession of one day’s leave in ten. A rise of 5s. a week on the war bonus was also obtained. The other demands were met by the announcement that the Government intended to set up a committee to consider the whole question of fire brigade hours, wages and pensions throughout the country, and it was agreed that the men would await the findings of that committee.
The Armistice of November 1lth, 1918, brought relief and rejoicing to a war-weary Britain that had lost nearly a million men. The pensioners who had rejoined the fire brigade to fill vacancies went back to their retirement, and those unwilling members who had been directed to country fire brigades by tribunals as a condition of exemption from conscription thankfully handed in their uniforms to brigade officials who for the most part were glad to accept them.
Gamble had retired from the London Fire Brigade in December 1917 owing to failing health after twenty-six years’ service.
A year later Sladen also submitted his resignation with only nineteen years’ service completed, ten of which had been as chief officer. J. H. While, a free-lance journalist who specialised in fire reporting, in his book Fifty Years of Fire Fighting in London published twelve years later, alleged that Sladen had “lost the control and confidence of his command” and there was considerable conjecture about the circumstances of the resignation, for the L.C.C. minute reporting it did not include the usual paragraph thanking a retiring chief officer for his services. Nevertheless, they treated him handsomely, giving a pension such as would have been payable if he had been invalided out on a medical certificate after twenty-five years’ service.
The Council stated that it took this action “to mark its sense of the un- paralleled conditions which had obtained during the last few years when the work of the brigade had been carried out under special difficulties owing to war conditions”. In the next honours list he was knighted. Mr. A. R. Dyer, A.M.I.C.E., who had joined the brigade as a direct- entry principal officer in 1904, was made acting chief officer, a post which he held for six months while the Council decided what steps they would take to fill the vacancy. They advertised the post, and the general purposes committee, after interviewing a short list of twenty, recommended three names to the Council, two of them Naval Commanders, W. R. D. Crowther and A. N. G. Firebrace, and the other, Mr. Dyer, who was appointed. Commander Firebrace was offered the subsequent vacancy for a principal officer, which he accepted.