The London Fire Brigade Establishment

In 1832 the attempts to amalgamate the insurance brigades in London 

into a single formation under one chief officer were successful. Mr.

Charles Bell Forde, one of the managers of the Sun Fire Office and

described as “a man of mind and mark”, was the successful instigator of the

scheme. The Alliance, Atlas, Globe, Imperial, London, Protector, Royal

Exchange, Union and Westminster Offices agreed to join with the Sun in

the formation of a combined brigade. Other offices soon joined. The

brigade was to be run by a committee consisting of a director of each con-

tributing fire office. Their first task was to find a suitable chief officer and

they looked no farther than Edinburgh.

James Braidwood accepted their offer and came south in the autumn to

organise the new brigade which was called “The London Fire Engine

Establishment” and started its operations on January Ist, 1833. On leaving

Edinburgh he was presented by the City Council with a gold watch and a

vote of thanks “for the singularly indefatigable manner in which he had discharged the duties of his important office, not merely by his extraordinary

exertions on occasions of emergency, but for the care and attention he had

bestowed on the training of the firemen whereby the establishment had

been brought to its present high state of efficiency”. His men presented him

with a silver cup with the inscription: “Presented to Mr. James Braidwood,

by the City of Edinburgh Firemen, as a token of their admiration of him as

their leader, and of deep respect for him as a gentleman.”

Braidwood was given eighty professional, whole-time firemen and nine-

teen fire stations. The splendid uniforms of the insurance offices dis-

appeared, the men being clothed in grey coats and trousers with top boots

and black leather helmets. Braidwood, who was given the title of super-

intendent, divided central London into four districts, each under the com-

mand of a foreman who, as supervisory ranks, had three engineers and three

sub-engineers in his district. Drills on the Edinburgh pattern were instituted, despite the fact that each London fireman attended on the average

three calls a day! The men were also expected to have a first-class know.

edge of the area covered by their station; Braidwood laid it down in

writing that

“Any buildings, supposed to be particularly dangerous, should be care.

fully examined, and all the different places where supplies of water can be

obtained for them noticed. A knowledge of the locality thus obtained will

be found of great advantage in case of a fire breaking out. Indeed all fire-

men, especially those having the charge of engines, should be instructed

carefully to examine and make themselves acquainted with the localities of

their neighbourhood or district. Such knowledge will often prove valuable

in emergencies; the proprietors or tenants of the property on fire being

sometimes in such a state of alarm, that no distinct intelligence can be got

from them.”

Soon after taking command Braidwood changed his mind about the

most suitable material for fire brigade recruits; he had changed from a

part-time brigade to a full-time one and soon forgot his skilled carpenters,

masons and slaters. “Seamen are to be preferred,” he said, “as they are

taught to obey orders, and the night and day watches and the uncertainty

of the occupation are more similar to their former habits, than to those of

other men of the same rank in life.”

With the setting up of the London Fire Engine Establishment there began

the Naval tradition which persisted for a hundred years in the British Fire

Service. There also began the continuous duty system that persisted in many

places until 1941. The men were accommodated in houses around the fire

station, where two duty men kept a twenty-four-hour watch. On receiving

a call, one of these ran the engine out and fetched the horses; the other ran

from door to door calling the crew. When not attending a fire or drill the

men were confined to their little houses, day after day, week in week out,

with negligible periods of leave, as soon they were to be confined to the new

fire stations and quarters above them. Though it was always publicly

averred that sailors were selected for the reasons given by Braidwood and

for their general handiness and agility, in the comparative privacy of Royal

Commissions and Select Committees over the next hundred years municipal representatives often admitted that they were selected because, being

used to confinement aboard ship for long periods, they were less averse than

others to confinement in a fire station for even longer. Braidwood refers to

the wages of his men as “liberal, although the discipline is severe”. They

started at 21s. a week, rising by increments to 24s. 6d., a high wage for that

period, and he had no lack of recruits.

Great fires continued, but the new organisation began to impress every-

body by its efficiency. It had been in existence for less than two years when

a national calamity occurred, the destruction by fire of the Houses of

Parliament, which were the Old Westminster Palace and st. Stephen’s

Chapel. Westminster Palace, founded by Edward the Confessor in pre-

Norman times and enlarged by William Rufus, was one of London’s most

venerable buildings. The adjoining St. Stephen’s Chapel, built in the twelfth

century, had been used since 1547 for meetings of the Commons. Contiguous to the rambling old buildings was Westminster Hall, built in 1099,

with its unsurpassed open timber roof added by Richard Il’s master carpenters in 1394. Lost in the fire were priceless paintings and documents of

great historic interest, including the warrant for the execution of Charles I;

the Painted Chamber, the Royal Gallery and the library were all destroyed.

The fire was first seen from the outside at 6.30 p.m. on October 16th,

1834. It had been caused by the overheating of flues from the furnace under

the House of Lords, where a large quantity of the old-fashioned, wooden,

exchequer tally sticks were being disposed of by burning. At a subsequent

enquiry, which reached the conclusion that “the fire was wholly attributable to carelessness and negligence”, it was stated that about a cart-load of

the sticks were being burned.

The fire spread rapidly through the old buildings, which were interconnected by winding, draught-producing passages and had no fire-stops or

party walls.

The London Fire Engine Establishment despatched twelve of its engines

and sixty-four men, but their task was hopeless. The old Houses of Parliament were a raging inferno; the firemen abandoned them to their fate and

concentrated on saving Westminster Hall. They dragged their engines into

the building and fought a fierce battle all night, detachments of the guards

providing the man-power for the pumps and also helping to cut away part

of the roof where it adjoined the Speaker’s burning house. Two of the fire-

men were so severely injured that they had to be invalided out of the

brigade, but by morning Westminster Hall was saved though both Houses

of Parliament were a shattered, smoking ruin. Huge crowds, including

Lord Melbourne and other members of the Government, watched the fire

throughout the night.

Of these The Times reported next day:

“The conduct of the immense, the countless multitudes which, in the

course of the evening, flocked together to view this spectacle of terrible

beauty was such as to inspire respect . .. the general feeling seemed to be

that of sorrow, manifested either by thoughtful silence or by occasional exclamations of regret. The admiration of the sublimity of the scene, which

seemed to impress every mind, was subdued by the pain at losing these

noble memorials of the wisdom and greatness of bygone ages. On common

occasions of general concourse the English are sufficiently noisy in the

demonstration of their feelings; but on this occasion all was grave,

decorous, and becoming a thinking and manly population”

James Braidwood in a letter to The Times said:

“The causes of the fire proceeding so rapidly in the work of destruction I

believe to be as follows:

“1. The total want of party-walls

“2. The passages which intersected the building in every direction, and

acted as funnels to convey the fire.

u. The repeated alterations in the buildings which had been made with

more regard to expediency than to security.

“4. The immense quantity of timber used in the exterior.

“5. The great depth and extent of the buildings.

“6. A smart breeze of wind.

“7. An indifferent supply of water which, though amply sufficient for any

ordinary occasion, was inadequate for such an immense conflagration

“8. My own and the firemen’s total ignorance of the localities of the

place. In fires in private dwellings, warehouses, or manufactories,

some idea may generally be formed of the division of the inside of the

premises from observing the appearance of the outside, but in the

present case that rule was useless.

His oft-quoted dictum that firemen must know the ins and outs of big

buildings on their station’s ground had had no effect as far as the Houses of

Parliament were concerned, for the firemen had never been allowed to inspect

its interior; anyhow, the building was not insured, for the Government, as

it still does today, carried its own risks.

During the fire the Establishment men were subjected as usual to contrary instructions from “gentlemen in authority”. Sir Richard Mayne, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, at a subsequent commission asserted that the saving of Westminster Hall was due

“mainly to the exertions of Lord Hill and myself; we endeavoured to get the engines to play at the only point which appeared to us to be of importance, but the fire engine men

refused to do what we asked them to do”. This statement was hotly con-

tested by another witness who said that “the preservation of Westminster

Hall was entirely owing to Mr. Braidwood and his men, two of whom were

disabled for life by it”

After this fire the insurance companies began to consider whether they

had been right in forming the Establishment and thereby relieving both

local and national government of a responsibility which they should long

before have undertaken, as other European governments had done. On

December 9th, 1834, they wrote to the Duke of Wellington, who was acting

Prime Minister at the time, saying:

“The Committee appointed by the undersigned Insurance Companies to

conduct their united Engine Establishment in the metropolis, having had

under consideration the Report made to them by the Superintendent, Mr

Braidwood, on the occasion of the recent destruction by fire of the two

Houses of Parliament, beg leave to call your Grace’s attention to the actual

state of the public means for atresting the progress of such calamities.

“The engines and men employed by the fire insurance companies,

although always ready and anxious to afford alf the assistance in their

power upon every occasion of fire, are nevertheless private establishments,

maintained for the immediate purpose of protecting the interest of their

employers. They still form the main security of the public against the

spread of fires; but where their service might require to be absorbed in the

protection of the peculiar interest of the insurance companies, the uninsured portion of the public and the Government works must necessarily be

left to the care of other engines.

“Thus, if during the late conflagration at Westminster, any insured property in danger, or any simultaneous fire or fires in other parts of the town,

had imperatively called upon the Superintendent to devote the services of

the engines elsewhere, Westminster Hall and the public property adjoining

must have shared the fate of the two Houses of Parliament.

“The only provision made by law for the suppression of fires will be

found in the 14 Geo. III, c. 78, sec. 74. By this Act parishes are directed to

maintain engines in an efficient state; but the experience of this Committee

justifies them in stating, that neither the power of the engines, nor the

means of prompt attendance, nor the independent and unsystematic plan

upon which they are worked, will ever enable them to render any very

effective service, unless they should be placed under some general superintendence, and more especially be restrained on some occasions from

placing themselves in the way of the more effective engines of the offices,

and exhausting their supply of water.

“Though it is scarcely within our province to intrude on His Majesty’s

Government any suggestions for remedying these defects, we nevertheless

(having judged it highly important to request your Grace’s attention to

them at a time when recent events have strikingly exemplified their existence) venture to state generally our views on the subject. With great deference, therefore, we give our opinion, that many of these evils would be corrected merely by placing the parochial engines under the inspection of the Commissioners of Police, as to their repair and efficiency for service (the fine of £10 imposed by the Act above referred to on the churchwardens for

neglect in this particular, appearing sufficient if rigidly enforced), and by

placing the public and parochial engines at fires under the orders of one

directing officer.

“We shall be ready to afford to your Grace any information on this subject in our power”

They had to wait until February 28th for an answer, which when it came

contained the surprising statement:

“I beg to assure you in reply, that I am not disposed to deny that there

are cases of fire in which arrangements which you recommend might be

productive of beneficial consequences; but nevertheless it appears to me

that in the majority of instances, the interference of Government would be

productive of little benefit, while it might and probably would relax those

private and parochial exertions which have hitherto been made with so

much effect and so much satisfaction to the public.”

The companies accepted the position and provided the fire protection of

the world’s greatest capital for the next thirty years with the assistance of a

peculiarly British institution, the Royal Society for the Protection of Lite

from Fire.

Philanthropists, shocked by the high death-rate at fires in domestic property, had formed the Fire Escape Society in 1828. One of the organisers

was Captain Manby, and a meeting was held in the City in October, which,

according to The Times, “was as numerous as could conveniently gain ad-

mission and was composed of persons of both sexes of great apparent re

spectability”. Captain Many could not attend but was represented by Mr.

Atkinson, who explained “a variety of inventions connected with the views

of the Society which shewed that the solicitude of Captain Many for the

safety of his fellow creatures continues unabated”. The object of the Society

was to place fire escapes manned by competent men in the street each night

so that on an alarm of fire they could be pushed to the house involved and

rescue the occupants. Fifty pounds was raised at the meeting and promises

of larger sums obtained.

For a time six escapes were maintained and manned by men who were

called escape conductors, but the Society did not flourish, though it paved

the way for its successor, the Royal Society for the Protection of Life from

Fire, into which it was amalgamated. This new Society was formed in

March 1836, and Captain Many was vice-president under the presidency

of the Lord Mayor. At its first meeting it was referred to as “a cause of

charity that could advocate itself”

A year later the meeting congratulated the Society on the provision of

six new escape stations and Mr. Broughton, the police magistrate of Worship Street, expressed his cordial approbation of the objects of the Society,

saying “that it was surprising that London which had so long boasted a

kindred society for the preservation of human life from drowning should

have hitherto remained destitute of one to provide against a calamity

more appalling”.

The escapes were the invention of Abraham Wivell, a member of the

Society, and were similar in appearance to the modern fire escapes which

are carried on a fire engine, but they were not telescopic. Mounted on a

spring carriage with large wheels was the main ladder, which was thirty-five

feet long and could reach second-floor windows. Ten feet from the top of

the main ladder was a twenty-foot fly-ladder hinged on a bracket. When not

in use this fly-ladder hung head downwards from its hinges along the rungs

of the main ladder. When the window to be reached was higher than

thirty-five feet, the head of the fly-ladder was swung through the arc of a

circle by a guy line attached to a lever at the base, the head of the ladder

coming to rest against the building ten feet higher than the head of the

main ladder. If this was not high enough, a sixteen-foot extension could be

added to the fly-ladder giving a total height of sixty feet. This extension

ladder was carried underneath the escape and could be used separately to

rescue people from first-floor windows. A canvas chute into which rescued

persons could be dropped was attached to the underside of the main

ladder and strengthened with wire netting.

These escapes were in use for over forty years, and hundreds were

supplied both in London and the provinces. Wivell did not benefit greatly

from his invention. He died in a workhouse.

The fly-ladder seems very insecure and dangerous, especially with its

extension added, but these escapes saved hundreds of lives, and accidents

either in use or at drill were rare. The contemporary illustration shews the

fly-ladder in use without its extension, which is being used for a rescue

from the first floor. It can be seen that when the fly-ladder was raised it

barred access to the last ten feet of the main ladder and this was overcome

by a sort of wicket gate at the base of the fly.

Besides providing the escapes, the Society offered prizes for suggested

improvements in their design “so as to ensure the attention of mechanical

and scientific men to the subject” and presented silver and bronze medals to

those who had displayed bravery at fires. In 1837, her coronation year,

Queen Victoria became patroness of the Society and for the next forty-four

years sent an annual contribution of ten guineas. Annual subscriptions of

£400 and donations of over £300 were received that year, by the end of which

sixteen escape stations had been established.

In 1843 the Society was reorganised and three people were appointed as

collectors, receiving 15 per cent. commission on all sums collected by them,

and £800 was subscribed during the year. The escapes were placed at their

stations at 8 p.m. and remained until 7 a.m. next morning, then they were

put away, generally in the nearest churchyard. Anyone trapped by fire

during the daytime therefore had to dispense with the aid of the Society.

The conductors received 18s. per week and were provided with a uniform

cap bearing the initials of the Society, a tarpaulin coat and trousers, and a

helmet, lamp and rattle. They kept their vigil in a sentry-box which was put

away with the escape during the day. They could, of course, be called to a

fire only by messenger or through a glow in the sky to which the conductor

could turn out at his own judgement. But it took at least three men to push

and handle the heavy, cumbersome escape, similar to the type still carried

on fire appliances and handled by a crew of four. The conductors were

therefore instructed to spring their rattles and wait until two helpers were

available, policemen being preferred. 

With his crew obtained, conductor and helpers would set off running

through the streets pushing the heavy escape before them. On a windy

night the canvas chute might catch the wind, making the whole appliance

even more unmanageable, and the conductor must often have arrived in an

exhausted state before beginning his arduous and dangerous task. Since the

street escape stations were more numerous than fire stations, he would

generally arrive before the fire brigade and had to carry out the rescue un-

aided and without the cover of a jet of water. But despite these difficulties

they did good work and saved many lives. Conductor Samuel Wood, on

receiving a testimonial and silver watch from the Lord Mayor and a sub-

scription of £20 from the inhabitants of Whitechapel, near the end of his

service, was said to have saved 200 lives.

The Society did not rely only on individual subscriptions. In September

1844 it was resolved that

“in consequence of the deficiency of public fire escapes in the Parish of

Clerkenwell and the evident necessity for one in the vicinity of St. Johns

Street as manifested in several late cases of fire, a proposition be made to

the Board of Guardians of that Parish that immediately on their voting a

sum of not less than 30 Guineas as a donation and a subscription of not

less than €2 2. annually to the Society, a Fire Escape shall be purchased and

stationed within the Parish attended throughout the night by a well discip-

lined Conductor; the remainder of the purchase money of the said Escape

and the expense of supporting the same with Conductor being defrayed by

voluntary subscription to the Society.”

The Board of Guardians accepted the proposal.

About the same period another resolution appears to the effect “that in

consequence of the deficiency of Public Fire Escapes in the vicinity of the

central part of Oxford Street the Collectors be requested to canvass the

neighbourhood for subscriptions with a view to supporting one with a Con-

ductor at the corner of Marylebone Lane and that on receiving Sub-

scribers names to the amount of £50, one be placed there with as little delay

as possible”. The City of London voted £400 to the Society in 1845 for the

opening of six new escape stations within its boundary.

The Society was solicitous for the welfare of its men and employed a

“visitor” at £f12 per annum, his duties being to visit each conductor on his

station at least every six weeks for the purpose of “conversing upon, urging

and promoting his religious knowledge and otherwise improving his general

conduct”. The neighbouring clergy were also called upon occasionally 10

give an address to the men after they had received their wages. These were

quite generous, the original 18s. rising to 24s. by 1855 and later to 255. Of

this the men paid Is. a week to a superannuation fund which was also sup-

ported by Society funds. Sampson Lowe, the secretary, complained that as

the men only worked at night there was a tendency for all but the best of

them to accept other employment in the day-time, so that they were not in

a fit state to do their night’s work. Also that they wore such a fine body of

men, mostly recruited from sailors and building workers, that other employers such as banks and insurance offices were always seeking their ser.

vice and tempting them with high wages up to as much as 35s. per week.

London had left its fire protection to the insurance companies and a

voluntary society, and some other large towns took their example from the

capital. Between 1725 and 1800 Birmingham had grown from a population

of twenty thousand to seventy-three thousand and still kept its old town


In 1805 two new local insurance offices, the Birmingham Fire Office and

the Birmingham Union Fire Office, amalgamated and built a new fire

station with engine house, stables and firemen’s cottages in Union Street.

The Norwich Union had a fire station in Congreve Street, the Unity were

in Temple Street, and there was great rivalry between the brigades. The

city fathers, however, considered that they should at least make a token

display of municipal fire protection, so their own hundred-year-old manual,

which was kept in Park Street, was turned out to fires under the command

of one of the street scavengers called Dester. It had been handed over by

the churchwardens to the town commissioners when that body was formed.

The insurance brigades would race down New Street, the crews shouting

abuse at each other, the drivers using their whips indiscriminately on their

own and their rivals’ excited horses and disappear, but the crowds would

still wait for twenty minutes or more to enjoy a special Birmingham joke.

Soon the cry would go up: “Here comes Dester”, and the ancient bed-poster

would appear following in the wake of the company engines, greeted by

whistles, catcalls and shouts of “Good old Dester”. It was said that he never

reached the fire-ground in time to get his ancient machine to work, but on

one occasion he was ill and did not appear at all. Members of the crowd

therefore set off to Park Street and dragged the old engine to the fire “be-

cause Dester must be represented”

But in other places the municipal conscience was stirring or being stirred

by disasters that were bringing ruin, misery and unemployment to the

citizens. The heavy risks of cotton and shipping with its adjacent ware-

housing were formidable at this time. Huge multi-storied warehouses were

built with storage departments of enormous cube undivided by effective

walls, and any partitioning that there was useless as a fire-stop because it was

indiscriminately perforated by doors, hoist shafts and windows. When the

Goree warehouse in Liverpool burned in 1802 it contained great quantities

of grain, sugar, coffee and cotton, and the loss was no less than 323,000

nineteenth-century pounds. The ruins burned for over three months.

In 1833 there was another disastrous warehouse fire in Lancelot’s Hey

Which spread to thirteen others and also destroyed nine dwelling-houses,

and the following year an Act was obtained for the establishment of a Fire

Police with a fire station in Temple Court. Iwo years later the Liverpool

Police Fire Brigade was formed, under Superintendent John Hewitt, who

held that office from 1836 to 1873.

Manchester had its fire chiefs and the embryo of a municipal brigade in

the eighteenth century. Thomas Knight, who succeeded the prize-fighting

giant Perrins, had not been a great success. He was a blacksmith by trade

and not only repaired the engines but built two new ones. His office was

part-time and his salary the same as Perrins, £20 per year, but he was able

to augment this at the municipal expense by charging heavily for his repair

work and for the new engines. In March 1822 he was discharged “in consequence of his conduct at a recent fire, though the minute does not specify

the conduct, and the commissioners requested and authorised the con-

stables to take charge of the fire engines and firemen and “to see that the

oldest fire engines be placed upon wheels”.

Apparently one of the complaints against Knight was his excessive

charges for maintenance and repair of the engines. The supervision of the

constables proved no better than the supervision of the commissioners, and

in 1819 a Fire Engine Committee was formed to run the brigade and it was

“ordered that the engine committee be authorised to appoint an efficient

body of firemen to each engine, with distinguishing badges, and be em-

powered to dismiss and appoint firemen on their own, and also make such

regulations and institute records for good conduct and fines for neglect of

duty as they may think proper”. They discharged William Vickers and

Phineas Sykes “for inefficiency and failure to present accounts of the repairs

to the fire engines” and put Richard Downing in charge, giving him the title

of “Conductor of Fire Engines” with the stipulation that “the Conductor

will not in future be allowed to perform any work in the repair of the

engines or to sell or furnish materials for same”.

They then apparently changed his title to Superintendent of the Fire

Engines and in 1822 drew up the following rules for him:

“He must take charge of the engines, pipes, carts, draught plugs, and all

other apparatus connected with them, and see that the engines are properly

equipped and always in perfect order.

He must see that the Sub-conductor of engines and all firemen do their

duty at all times and take special care that the engines and pipes are well

oiled and attended as early as possible after a fire has taken place and make

report of the same and also a report as to the conduct of the Sub-conductor

and firemen, submitting it to the Committee at their monthly meeting.”

At the same time they drew up “Rules & Regulations to be observed by

the Firemen

These regulations for the firemen were an almost exact copy of the rules

for the Norwich Union Brigade in Manchester issued many years earlier,

and apparently in the eighteen-twenties this insurance company brigade

was more efficient than the municipal one. The Manchester Guardian referred to it as a “spirited establishment” and reported that

“At a fire in a blowing room near a cotton factory at Porthead Street,

Manchester, in 1821, the Norwich Union’ Fire Engine, with its characteristic alacrity, arrived at the premises first, and Mr. Birch considers that

to the extraordinary exertions of the Norwich Union firemen and the

judicious and very effective manner in which their engine was conducted,

he is principally indebted for the preservation of the large factory, which

remains without the slightest injury, although there are several communi-

cations with the building destroyed.”

Four years later, referring to a fire in 1825, the same paper commented:

“There was a great lack of water for the first hour as the suction pipes

were so out of order that they would scarce act upon the water of the canal.

As is usual too at fires in this town, and as will be the case until some

efficient regulations are formed and put in force, the greatest disorder and

confusion prevailed throughout; and with no want of laborious exertion of

all present there was utter absence of method arrangement and sub-

ordination which are essentially necessary on such occasions.”

There was a good deal of other criticism, and in November 1825 the Fire

Engine Committee drew up a plan for a complete reorganisation and put it

before the Commissioners. Their proposal included the appointment of “a

clever active man, conversant with engineering principles” as Superintend-

ent, with a salary of £100 per year plus house-rent and rates free, who would

wear an appropriate uniform furnished by the Commissioners and be entirely responsible to them for the maintenance of the fire engines and the

discipline of the men. At a fire “He shall control the town engines and those

Of the Assurance Companies who are willing to place them under his com-

mand”. There were to be thirtv-six firemen, with a first and second captain

In charge of each engine. The senior captain present to take charge of a fire

in the absence of the Superintendent. The Superintendent and his men were

to be entitled in addition to their wages to claim an hourly rate from the

Insurers of the premises involved: 45. per hour for the Superintendent, 25.

per hour for captains and Is. Gd. per hour for drivers and firemen.

At the meeting during which these proposals were put forward it was

reported that the commissioners were £14,000 overdrawn due to the extensions at the town hall and the gas works, and the bank had threatened to

stop payment.

There was uproar over the extravagant proposals of the Fire Engine

Committee, and some commissioners insisted that expenditure should be

cut down rather than increased “as it is the duty of the insurance companies

to put out fires”.

Mr. Garratt, the chairman of the committee, pointed out that “if the duty

is left to the Fire Offices there will be great clashing of authorities, which is

the evil complained of at present” and he finally won the day on condition

that the committee arranged with the insurance companies to make an

annual contribution to the reorganised establishment. The Manchester

Assurance, Guardian, Atlas and Beacon agreed to a joint contribution of

£165 per year, and later other offices joined them and the committee

sought their “clever, active men”. They chose Captain Anthony, R.N, who

had been one of Nelson’s captains, had fought at Trafalgar and had

recently retired from the Navy. Anthony carried out the reorganisation

energetically. He scrapped seven of the old engines, demanded and obtained

a pair of horses as part of the permanent establishment and improved the

drill and discipline, but after only eighteen months’ service left to take up

the better-paid post of Governor of Preston Gaol. On his retirement the

Fire Engine Committee reported to the commissioners that

“Before the appointment of Captain Anthony the Establishment was

notoriously inefficient; the engines almost unserviceable, and the firemen

in a state of complete insubordination. From this state he has, during the

short time he held the situation, brought the whole establishment into such

order as renders it a credit to the town to which it belongs; whilst he him:

self, by his uniform good conduct and gentlemanly deportment secured the

esteem and respect of those who knew him.”

The committee wished to appoint Lieutenant Gallemore, an artillery

Officer, as Anthony’s successor, but again had trouble with the commissioners. One of them, Mr. Whitworth, said: “Let the fire offices keep 

engines for those insured with them. There are no engines in London at the

expense of the public and if this town kept none the Manchester, Sun and

other fire offices would keep engines for themselves”.

Whitworth could not carry the meeting on that point but was able to sit

enough support to out vote the meeting on that poor superintendent Instead, the commissioners appointed William Rose at a salary of £175 per

year with free house. He took up his duties in April 1828.

From 1830 onwards William Rose reported on every fire to his committee, giving the date, address of the premises, name of occupier, the

number of firemen and pumpers employed, and if insured, the company

insuring and the charges made. He seems to have been backed by generous

expenditure, and to have completely re-equipped the brigade with new

engines. In 1832 his committee in their annual report stated that “Owing

to the increased efficiency of the Fire Department the Fire Offices which

kept Engine Establishments in the town are no longer continuing them”.

The Committee made certain, however, that they contributed to the in-

creased cost by drawing up a schedule of charges for the use of engines at

a fire to be levied on offices which did not contribute to brigade funds.

By 1839 Rose’s salary had gone up to £200 per annum, and he had forty-

four firemen, the former captains and deputy captains being designated

sergeants and corporals, seven engines “each made in this town on a new

principle and of a very superior construction”, a new fire escape “upon a

new construction, and much approved of, capable of being elevated to a

height of forty feet”, and a mounted water-barrel holding 260 gallons

“which is kept constantly filled, to be taken out with the engine for the pur-

pose of affording a supply of water until it can be obtained from the water

company’s mains”. He instituted the first recorded fire brigade competitions. Each inspection day there was “a trial for quickness and skill. Each

corporal with his engine and eight men, six lengths of hose and two suctions

to pump water for five minutes, coil up the pipes and repack the engine. The

best team to receive ten shillings. His establishment was described as “the

most effective in the kingdom”.

In 1844 the Manchester Brigade was put on a sounder footing by the

passing of the Manchester Government and Police Regulation Act. This had seven sections which related to the fire brigade

and gave powers to maintain engines and pay firemen. Section 119 reafirmed the powers contained in the Gas & Police Act of 1830 and gave

the city powers to charge the owners of property for the services of their

brigade even though they had contributed to its cost as ratepayers. The

section stated:

“Whereas in the case of a fire certain extraordinary expenses are incurred,

that is to say, in wages of the fire police consequent upon the occasion, in

addition to their ordinary allowance, and in the pay of further assistance

necessarily employed on such occasions, and in the wear and tear of engines

and utensils, and by damage and injury sustained by such fires; and where

as it is expedient that ane Be anticious i property endangered by such fire

should join in contributing towards such extraordinary expenses, and that

all such extraordinary expenses as aforesaid should be borne expressly in

fair and equal proportions by and amongst the persons interested in the

preservation of property to which assistance has been bona fide given or

extended by such police in case of fire; be it heretofore enacted, that all such

extraordinary expenses as aforesaid in the case of any fire shall be paid to

the superintendent of the said fire police establishment by the respective

proprietors of property, in proportion to the value of such respective prop-

ertv as aforesaid: provided that no proprietor shall be liable to pay a

larger sum than the amount of his property. Any difference between the

said proprietors, or any of them, and the superintendent, is to be settled by

two justices.”

The cotton towns were well to the fore in municipal fire protection. The

Improvement Commissioners of Preston under a private Act of 1815 had

been given powers to “purchase fire engines and procure firemen” and had

acted on them. They had appointed Mr. Elsworth Captain-general of the

Town’s Fire Engines in 1818 and he seems to have done very well until 1837,

when a fire occurred in a large building in North Road occupied by a

cabinet-maker, a cotton-waste dealer and a flour merchant, a formidable

enough combination of hazards even for a modern fire brigade. The

Preston Pilot reported next day:

“It is painful to report that its speedy extinguishment was prevented

solely by the delay and mismanagement in applying the proper means. The

fire engines were not quickly on the spot and two of them were not in the

efficient state of working that the town has a right to expect. Again, there

was great bungling and loss of time in getting the proper supply of water.

Now these are defects in the fire police that should not exist. A more fre-

quent and careful inspection of the engines should be made, and the method

of opening the public water plugs should not be a mystery except to two or

three individuals; every officer should be instructed in this matter. The

whole town seems to be ringing with complaint at the confusion and want

of method that prevailed. It is only justice to say that the newly procured

“Victoria’ engine was in the most excellent order.”

Next month the Improvement Commissioners held a special meeting,

dismissed Elsworth and appointed Mr. Samuel Bradley Superintendent of

the Fire Brigade, dropping the Continental and magnificent title Captain-

general of the Town’s Fire Engines. Bradley came from the Manchester

fire Brigade and appointed seventeen new firemen and obtained from the

commissioners a long and comprehensive list of small gear including saws,

axes, ladders and “one hundred tin tickets”. These were for handing to the

pumpers at a fire so that they could later claim their shilling at the hire

station. He obtained uniforms for his men, who also asked him to put forward a request for additional payment. 

But though the cotton towns were dealing with the menace of increased

fire risks with commendable energy, many other large towns were still completely unprotected despite the lessons of the past. Gravesend had been

almost completely destroyed by fire in 1727. “The desolation here is hardly

to be expressed, the largest and best half of the town destroyed, so that all

that remains are naked walls. We were ill provided for such a visitation,

having but one engine in the town and that unfit for service”, wrote a local

correspondent to a London newspaper. In 1731 there was another disastrous fire, and another in 1748 at which many people were hurt by the

blowing up of a house with gunpowder. There were other conflagrations in

1779 and in 1801, and after the latter a local historian wrote:

“The loss of property destroyed upon these occasions, and the danger of

the loss of lives in such cases, render the necessary precautions to meet such

emergencies, a subject of vast importance. By the cooperation of the in-

habitants and the several insurance offices, upon which the losses by fire

eventually fall, might be attained the organisation of an efficient establish-

ment for the purpose. The funds necessary for the purchase and main-

tenance of fire-engines are raised at present with great difficulty, but the

means of working them are very inadequate. Until a permanent force be

provided, ready at least to direct, if not employ, the means of suppressing

fires, the lives and property of the inhabitants must be exposed to the most

disastrous casualties.”

Apparently no action was taken, for the town burned again in 1844.

According to the Illustrated London News the fire started in Mrs. Sandford’s

shrimp-boiling house, “where it is conjectured that the fire must have

originated from the stoker not having effectually extinguished the burning

cinders raked out of the furnace”. West Street, Bath Street, Horncastle

Quay and Elkins Quay were completely destroyed. The Kent Fire Office

sent their engines from Dartford and Rochester and the Royal Exchange

from Crayford, military assistance being provided by the garrison of Til-

bury fort and the Gravesend depot. “The exertions of the firemen and military were beyond all praise but were attended with little effect. The greater

number of the sufferers are very poor, and have large families; those who

were destitute of friends have been provided with temporary lodging by the

board of guardians near the union house”, announced the Illustrated

London News.

Gravesend ignored the lesson and two years later suffered an even worse

calamity. The fire broke out in West Street again, burning down the new

houses and spreading to King Street and High Street. Warehouses, shops

and houses were destroyed, and the Pier Hotel being alight the Town Pier

was saved with difficulty. The Illustrated London News reported that “steps

were taken to bring the corporation engines, which were soon on the spot,

into operation, but the defective state of the water mains enabled the

fames to extend themselves”. But despite this mention of corporation

engines the report ends with the statement: “The greatest dissatisfaction

prevails in the town from the fact of the fire having, as in the previous case,

made such fearful havoc before it was got under.”

On Wednesday, a numerous meeting of the inhabitants of Gravesend

took place in the town hall, relative to the fire, when the following resolu-

tions were adopted:

“Resolved; That the several Acts of Parliament which appear to give the

municipal and parochial authorities the means of making adequate pro-

vision, viz. the Local Acts of the 3rd and 4th Wm. IV., c. 90, and the 2nd

and 3rd Vic.,

c. 28, be referred to the Town Council and the Commissioners of Pavements, with the earnest desire of the inhabitants that they

will, without loss of time, cooperate for the establishment of adequate and

permanent means for the suppression of fires; That the Fire Insurance

Companies should be written to, and be requested to contribute towards

the support of an efficient fire establishment.”

Apparently the Town Council and Commissioners of Pavements took

little notice. On August 17th, 1850, Gravesend burned again. This time the

fire started in High Street among the shops and houses of substantial

citizens instead of the slum hovels of fishermen and fish hawkers in West

Street. The Illustrated London News reported that

“the fire made rapid progress and before the residents became aware of its

existence the back of their dwellings in Church Alley and Princes Street

were cracking in the intense heat. In a short space of time the town engines,

together with those of the Custom House and Mr. Plane’s brewery, were on

the spot, and a supply of water from the mains of the waterworks having

been promptly got every effort was made to subdue the fire, but the engines,

though well worked and abundantly supplied with water, gained no

influence over it.”

The flames consumed the County Bank, the Savings Bank, Brinchley

distillery, a tallow chandlery and an oil shop, and spread down both sides

of High Street to the Pier. Police, military, Customs men and all available

townspeople were working on the engines and though the clerks of the two

banks involved were able to save the cash boxes and securities, they had

difficulty in finding a safe place to store them. At six o’clock the Mayor

sent *a telegraphic communication from the railway station to London

Bridge station” asking for the assistance of the London Fire Engine Estab-

lishment. They sent two engines and crews by train and their assistance

with their powerful engines and practised skill was effectual in suppressing the fire!

The Illustrated London News reported that

“the general body of tradespeople and inhabitants of the town are loud in

their complaints against the corporation in not having an efficient corps of

firemen and engines established, after the warning they received by the the

previous fires, which it will be recollected consumed the greater part of the

lower portion of Gravesend. It is the general opinion of the inhabitants in

the town, that had the corporation telegraphed for the London engines

when the fire was crossing High-street, instead of waiting three hours, a

very large portion of the property would have been preserved.”

It is interesting to note the report of the engine from Mr. Plane’s

brewery, for by this time quite a number of manufacturers maintained

private fire brigades to protect their business premises. Even if an effective

brigade was maintained by the municipality or insurance companies there

were still no telephones; firemen had to be called by messenger and the

delay between discovery and the attendance of the brigade was consider-

able. Loss of profits after a fire and the advantage given to competitors

during rebuilding could not be insured, and many owners of high-risk

premises therefore provided engines in their works and drilled a proportion

of their employees in their use. This was particularly common among the

cotton and woollen mills of the north, and the manufacturers were generally generous in allowing these works brigades to leave the factory and

come to the aid of the community. Many high-risk factories maintain

works brigades to this day, operating in unison with the public fire service

for the protection of their own premises.

In the mid-nineteenth century there were also the country-house brigades,

some of which survived well into the twentieth century. His lordship,

anxious for the family mansion and heirlooms and noting the complete lack

of protection provided in rural areas from other sources, would form a

private fire brigade with his house and outdoor servants. Often these

country-house brigades were magnificently equipped and accoutred; to the

best of equipment and smartest uniforms would be added the finest horses,

for the brigade would protect the dower house and other estate buildings

at a distance from the mansion. These brigades soon took over the protection of large areas for which the local authorities could not or would not

afford protection. Sometimes his lordship would act as captain, and at a

dinner party the butler would whisper an urgent message in the host’s ear,

Whereupon the latter would jump from the table and disappear, to return

to his guests perhaps several hours later smoke-begrimed and dripping wet

to tell them of the latest fire. When the village of Eynsham, near Oxford, was

partly burned out in 1854, country-house brigades attended from Blenheim

Palace, Wytham Abbey and Cokethorpe Park, besides the Oxford University Brigade and the University Press Brigade.

These country-house and works brigades, with the insurance companies

and the volunteer brigades, were of course a further encouragement to local

authorities to ignore their responsibilities. Why should they undertake the

unpopular step of levying a rate for fire protection when volunteer and

commercial bodies would provide it for nothing? In 1837 the Glasgow

Commissioners, apparently annoyed at the lack of support from the insure

ance companies, decided to do away with the brigade, and the Magistrates

and Council had to interdict them from carrying their resolution into

effect. Shortly after, the West of England Insurance Company, seeking new

business in Scotland and wishing to steal a march on their competitors,

agreed to provide an additional engine to go to all fires in the city. Ther

bought a large, modern manual which was a great improvement on the city

machines and rendered good service for many years.

Fires were doing enormous damage in the new manufacturing districts

and as in past centuries whole villages were sometimes almost wiped out.

Amongst these were Lympston (Devon) in June 1833, Shaw (Lancs) in

November 1833, North Tawton (Devon) in July 1834, Collumpton (Devon)

in July 1839, Fordington (Dorset) in March 1840, Dunstable (Beds) in

June 1841, South Molton (Devon) in October 1841, Soham (Cambs) in

July 1846, Cottenham (Cambs) in September 1847. In that same year, 1847,

another serious new risk to the thatched and unprotected villages was

brought to public notice by the partial destruction of Stoke Cannon in

Devon. The fire was started by sparks from a railway engine. Two great

London fires caused losses of national and historical value. On January

10th, 1838, the Royal Exchange, including the Lord Mayor’s court office,

was completely destroyed by a fire caused by the overheating of a stove in

Lloyd’s rooms there. This was the building provided after the fire of 1666,

partly by the City and partly by the Mercers Company. In 1760 the Govern-

ment had given £10,000 for extensions and improvements. It was a bitterly

cold night, and, though Braidwood had sixty-three men and eight engines

early on the spot, for a time they could not get to work as the fire plugs

were frozen up and when water was obtained the manual engines froze up

also. A feature of the building was a magnificent clock tower and clock

with a carillon which had a repertoire of twelve tunes and played a different

air for each hour of the day. One of these tunes was the old Scots air

“There’s nae luck about the house”, and contemporary writers aver that the

mechanism having become jammed by heat the clock continued to play

this tune until the tower toppled into the flames

Among the historic documents destroyed was the whole of the records of

Mayor’s court office.

In October 1841 the armoury of the Tower of London was destroyed.

This contained the magnificent historical collection of arms and armour

formed by James II and added to from year to year since his time. Two

hundred and eighty thousand pieces of historic interest were destroyed. The

Government had provided some measure of protection in the form of

buckets, hand pumps and small engines, but in the subsequent enquiry it

was stated that these appliances “were in a most neglected and dilapidated

condition”. Richard Wivill, one of Braidwood’s men, was killed at the fire.

Villages and national monuments continued to burn, but it was the new

slums of the growing industrial towns that were the greatest risk. Here

Warehouses, factories and workers” dwellings were lubled together in un-

planned confusion and with no regard for fire-stops. At three o’clock in the

morning of September 23rd, 1842, the great Formby Street fire broke out in Liverpool. It started in a wooden shed used as an oil store in Paisley

Street and, although the “fire police” had fourteen engines early on the

scene, the inflammable nature of the property was such that it soon spread

into Neptune Street, Formby Street and Compton Street. Formby Street

consisted almost entirely of cotton warehouses. Wall after wall fell in,

leaving “burning mountains of cotton seventy feet high sending up flames

as high again”. The fire was not in hand for three days, and 48,000 bales of

cotton insured for £384,000 were destroyed. The total loss was £700.000 and

there were several fatalities. The Liverpool Courier said:

“We have elsewhere given full details of the terrible calamity which

visited this town on Friday last a calamity attended with the loss of many

lives, and the destruction of property to the amount of half a million ster-

ling. The actual origin of the fire is, as usual, involved in mystery and uncer-

tainty, never likely to be cleared up, but its probable origin may easily be

imagined from the following description of the Liverpool warehousing

system, which we copy from a contemporary:

” That destructive fires should occur amongst the warehouses of Liver-

pool is the inevitable result of the want of plan in their formation and

judgement in their location, with the consequent absence of system and

responsibility in their management. Erected by individuals without regard

to general interests, the warehouses scattered throughout the town are frequently in proximity or immediate contact with active sources of ignition,

such as smithies, cooperages, mills, steam-engines, etc; and to these

dangers, to which they are exposed from external causes, are added those

from dram-shops, ship-chandlery stores, and other hazardous trades which

not infrequently occupy part of warehouses otherwise filled with merchandise of immense value and in connexion with other richly laden stores.

Each warehouse, being separate private property, is liable to have as many

tenants as rooms, or parcels of goods therein stored, and to be served by as

many different sets of porters. Open, almost, ad libitum, to the thief and to

the incendiary; free from general superintendence; and exposed to the

danger of fire within and from without, such calamities as that which we

now witness are, according to the doctrine of chances, of certain advent,

the precise times being the only question of uncertainty.”

This was only one of the serious fires in Liverpool that year. The insurance companies panicked and raised their rates in the city, in some cases

by over 400 per cent., promising reconsideration when the standard of

warehousing was improved, when a better water-supply for fire fighting

was available and when goods were stored to a proper classification instead

of being jumbled together at the whim of the warehouse owners.

At the same time they formed the Liverpool Salvage Corps, which with

the London Salvage Corps and Glasgow Salvage Corps they still maintain.

The functions of the new body were to look after the insurance companies”

interests by attending any hire along with the fire brigade. At the fire they

were to sheet up goods not involved to protect them from water damage,

remove goods when possible, sweep up and clean out after the fire, pumping away surplus water, and wiping down and greasing machines, etc.,

that would otherwise be damaged by rust. After the fire they would make

safe and guard the damaged premises and remove and recondition those

goods that were worth such treatment. They were also to maintain patrols

in insured high risks and make surveys to discover defects in storage,

segregation and buildings.

The Liverpool merchants reacted immediately and strongly to the in-

creased insurance rate. To carry on their hazardous business without insurance was unthinkable, to pay the increased rates they said was ridiculous

The City Council acted promptly and in 1843 got a local Act through

Parliament-_”An Act for the better protection of property in the Borough

of Liverpool’ (6 & 7 Vic., c. cix (local)).

Its preamble reads

“Whereas fires in warehouses in the Borough of Liverpool have of late

years been of frequent and alarming occurrence, and have been attended

with considerable loss of life and property. … And whereas it is expedient

that improvements in the construction of warehouses, the better to protect

such buildings and the property stored therein from fire, should be effected;

and that other provisions should be made for the better prevention of fires

in the Borough, and that for such purpose the said police rate should be


The Act provided that no warehouse should be built or rebuilt “except of

good materials of sufficient strength and in a substantial and workmanlike

manner”, and gave powers to enforce pulling down or alteration if the

building did not comply with such provisions. No warehouse was to be

larger than 4,000 superficial square feet, nor could it be built in proximity

to other buildings. “Ardent spirits”, oil, turpentine, pitch, rosin, naphtha,

varnish, brimstone and other hazardous storages were to be stored separ-

ately in special warehouses. Certain trades, including ship chandlers, colour

men, cabinet-makers and sail-makers, were not to be plied except in special

buildings, and the boiling of oil, blubber or tar and the manufacture of

turpentine, naphtha and varnish could take place only in buildings

segregated from others by at least seventy-five feet.

Warehouses had to be registered “in the town book” and the insurance

companies acting in unison agreed a substantial discount on those that

complied with the regulations. A “safety certificate” was issued in such

cases, and No. I certificate for Harbords warehouse in Newquay issued on

February 2nd, 1844, and still in force is illustrated.

The growing manufacturing towns were becoming a national problem;

their inefficient sanitation and insufficient water-supplies produced regular

outbreaks of cholera, and the same lack of water allowed many fires 10.

spread into conflagrations. A “Commission for Inquiring into the State of

Large Towns and Populous Districts” was set of and reported in 1844 and

Right in 1845. The commissioners heard a good deal of evidence on fire

Fighting and fire prevention and wear dad sood sea by Superintendent

Bradley of the Preston Fire Brigade and Mr. Hawksley, engineer of the

Trent Water Company, that if the street mains had a good pressure and

constant supply and were provided with an ample number of fire-cocks,

most fires could be contained by hose attached to the mains through stand-

pipes without the use of engines.

Mr. Hawksley said that a large and serious fire at Nottingham Exchange

had recently been extinguished in this way. They also heard evidence that

many water companies refused to maintain a constant supply in their

mains. Mr. Corbett, a member of the Manchester Fire Brigade Committee,

said that there the water company had refused to keep the supply on at

night on the grounds that additional water would be drawn off by consumers, and they demanded a sum to compensate them which the Fire

Brigade Committee had no funds to meet. He was most dissatisfied with

the delays which occurred in securing supplies of water for the engines at

night fires.

In their second report the commissioners said:

“We have already adverted to the legislative enactments relating to the

supply of water for the extinction of fire, and we there intimated our

opinion that the water companies should be required, under a penalty, to

keep the mains constantly full of water, and that the distance between the

fire-plugs should be limited. The present general arrangements in towns,

both on the part of the water companies in providing ample supplies of

water, and on the part of the other authorities in furnishing the means for

its speedy and effectual application, vary from the highest degree of efficiency to a total want of that preparation which prudence and foresight re-

quire. At Nottingham, Preston and Oldham, the practice of keeping the

water constantly on in the mains and pipes under a high pressure, affords

the opportunity of applying it rapidly on the first outbreak of fire. The constant pressure maintained at the works of the companies enables them in

most instances to throw a jet of water to the top of the houses without the

aid of a fire engine. The facilities thus given for the extinction of fire has

caused the gradual introduction of fireplugs upon each storey of large

buildings; and we are assured that the efficiency and rapidity of this mode

of applying the water has, on more than one occasion, successfully pre-

Vented any extensive damage. In extensive fires this system may not super-

sede the necessity of using Fire engines, but we cannot too strongly recom-

mend its adoption where circumstances afford opportunity for its


“With the exception of Liverpool, we have not found in any town a

separate supply of water introduced for the distinct purpose of protecting

property from fire. The enormous destruction of property that has occurred

to that own from this cause, the extent of which has been chiefly attributed

lo the difficulty of obtaining a sufficiency of water, compelled the author

lites to seek for a better supply than could be procured from the ex stun

Water company. The losses sustained at Liverpool are not, however, confined to actual destructions of property by fire, the increased charges for

insurance are the source or a serious and constantly added expense.

“The arrangements for the establishment of a proper service of Fire

engines and the necessary accompaniment of officers and men are for the

most part very defective. In any but the largest towns fires are happily not

sufficiently frequent to give constant and exclusive occupation for a body

of firemen; but this deficiency might be in some degree amended, if a por-

tion of the police were regularly trained to undertake this duty, under the

care of an efficient superintendent. Such a body might be entrusted with the

charge of all the Fire engines in the town, which when brought under one

united management would be rendered more efficient than they are now

described to be. They are now generally the property of the Fire Insurance

offices, the corporate bodies, or parishes, and sometimes of private indivi-

duals. The introduction of a regulation requiring the establishment of a

proper number of engines placed under the care of competent men, would

be a most important improvement, both in respect to security of property,

and in the economy of the expense of maintaining the existing separate

establishments. It does not appear that any system of rewards for the dis-

covery of fires and early arrival of the engines, similar to that adopted in the

metropolis, is generally in force. We believe that it has been found most

beneficial in stimulating the exertions of firemen, and might be usefully


“In many cases it appears to us that the causes of fires are not sufficiently

investigated in places where accidents from fire frequently occur, and that

much valuable information would be acquired and generally diffused were

the causes of all fires thoroughly investigated. No regular inquiry is now

instituted to ascertain the origin of fires unless they are attended with cir-

cumstances leading to the suspicion that they have been caused wilfully. It

may therefore be worthy of consideration whether such a duty should not

be imposed on some existing authority.

“The Commissioners therefore recommend that for increasing the pro-

tection of property from fire, in all cases the supply of water in the mains be

not only constant, but also at as high a pressure as circumstances will per-

mit, and that fireplugs be inserted in the mains at short intervals”.

The result of this report was certain sections of the Towns Police Clauses

Act of 1847 (10 & 11 Vic., c. 89).

The purpose of the Act was to consolidate the various provisions which

generally appeared in local improvement Acts and it extended only “to such

towns as shall be comprised in any Act hereafter to be passed which shall

declare that this Act shall be incorporated therewith.

It had sections on fire fighting which were only permissive. Section 32


“The Commissioners may purchase or provide such engines for extingushing fire, and such water buckets, pipes, and other appurtenances for

such engines, and such fire escapes and other implements for safety or use

in case of fire, and may purchase, keep, or hire such horses for drawing

such engines as they think fit, and may build, provide, or hire places for

keeping such engines, with their appurtenances, and may employ a proper

number of persons to act as firemen, and may make such rules for their

regulation as they think proper, and give such firemen and other persons

such salaries and such rewards for their exertions in cases of fire as they

think fit. The Commissioners may send such engines with their appurtenances and the said firemen beyond the limits of the special Act, for extinguishing fire in the neighbourhood of the said limits, and the owner of the

lands or buildings where such fire shall have happened shall in such case

defray the actual expense which may be thereby incurred, and shall also

pay to the Commissioners a reasonable charge for the use of such engines

with their appurtenances, and for the attendance of such firemen; and in

case of any difference between the Commissioners and the owner of the

said lands or buildings the amount of the said expenses and charge, as well

as the propriety of sending the said engines and firemen as aforesaid for

extinguishing such fire (if the propriety thereof be disputed), shall be deter-

mined by two Justices whose decision shall be final; and the sums of the

said expenses and charge shall be recovered by the Commissioners as


It was under this Act that there began the sorry history of refusals, until

financial reimbursement had been guaranteed, by boroughs who had fire

brigades to go to the assistance of their less fortunate or less prudent neigh-

bours who had none and were in trouble. Previously such cases had been

rare, though the Lord Provost of Glasgow had been censured by his council

in 1841 for ordering the city engines to a fire at Lancefield Mills outside the

borough. Generally, however, municipal and parish brigades had in the

past given what help they could and some continued to do so. When the

little town of Ashwell in Hertfordshire was half burned down in February

1850, their only protection was a seventeenth-century engine kept in the

church, and mounted messengers dashed into Hitchin, nine miles away,

arriving at midnight and shouting, “Hurry, hurry, all Ashwell is afire.”

Hitchin without delay or argument turned out its two “great engines” with

fourteen horses, seven postilions and twenty-two men, who are said to have

covered the distance to Ashwell in less than forty minutes. But as various

communities levied a rate and adopted the permissive clauses of the 1847

Act, they looked with disfavour on their neighbours who failed to do so and

then tried to call in the prudent town’s brigade when trouble struck.

Telegrams and mounted messengers would pass between the two com-

munities, one side imploring aid, the other refusing it, until guarantees of

payment by responsible persons had been signed, sealed and delivered.

Firemen would get their engines and horses out and stand in the street

watching the glow in the sky and anxious to be on their way, but powerless

to move until ordered by the mayor who was at last satisfied that financial

reimbursement was safely guaranteed. Sometimes that official would not

even act on his own volition but would summon the fire brigade committee,

Who would make their way to the town hall and there discuss the matter

While the fire a few miles away blazed on.

There were of course two sides to this question. There was that of the

small community where fires were rare and conflagration risks low and

where the rateable value was so small that a substantial sum would have to

be demanded from each resident to provide proper cover and who might if

only in charity expect aid from their wealthy urban neighbour when

disaster struck, and there was that of the urban area who having raised a

rate and formed a brigade found themselves constantly called on for the

use of it by neighbouring authorities who did not contribute to its cost.

In the latter case there were a good many examples of “once bitten, twice

shy”, for having sent out the brigade to a neighbour and having presented

a bill for the cost involved, they were told that it was no concern of the

district council and they should send the bill to the sufferer who sometimes

was both uninsured and too poor to pay it. Having no redress in this case

they would offer the rural neighbour fire protection from their brigade in

future in return for an annual sum in contribution to its cost. There would

follow a long wrangle, in some cases lasting for a decade or more, the rural

area saying the sum was excessive and the urban saying it was a mere

fraction of what they should rightly charge

During this wrangle another fire would occur in the rural area and all

help would be refused.

This state of affairs continued until well into the

nineteen-thirties, though sometimes the brigade would be despatched when

the assisting town was sure that the premises were insured. The bill, often

a very large one, would then be presented to the insurance company. The

principle of “soak the insurance office” was to die very hard, and town

councils often sent the company a bill even for attendance at a fire within

their own boundaries and expressed indignation at a refusal to pay.

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