Tooley Street – Part 2

Mr. Newmarch of the Globe was a very different type of witness. He said there was not the smallest moral obligation on the offices to the public to continue the Establishment; the public should be much obliged to them for having borne the expense so long without grumbling. The offices were certainly not willing to pay any further expenses. Public authority, either municipal or government, should pay. It was no more part of the business of the fire offices to maintain a fire brigade than it was of life offices to maintain physicians or send people to Madeira. To expect the offices to run the public fire brigade was just as reasonable as to entrust the whole administration of the police to some private body of persons. The service was becoming so large and so complicated and was extending over so large an area that it was getting wholly beyond the limits of any private enterprise, “especially when I remind the committee that the London Fire Engine Establishment is a body of persons altogether unknown to the law, who have no charter, no Act of Parliament, even no deed of partnership among themselves, who have no power to ask the services of a single policeman, who have no power to ask the services of a single turncock, who go about London putting out everybody’s fire and asking no questions and asking for no payment” . Only about one-third of the property in London was insured and the owners of that one-third paid all the expenses for the other two-thirds. It was a very great injustice.

He agreed that it was in the interest of the insurance companies that fire should be put out, but denied that it was their duty to put them out. It was a very short-sighted policy of the offices to take up such a charge thirty years ago. They were now in the masquerading position of putting out everybody’s fire, without the smallest sanction on the part of the law. He could state it on his own personal knowledge that the offices’ minds were fully made up and the Establishment was going to be disbanded, but they would do nothing rash and indiscreet; they would not suddenly retire with- out affording a fair and reasonable opportunity for the inauguration of a better system. 

The Committee asked many questions as to what this better system should be. 

Sir Richard Mayne was strongly of the opinion that the fire brigade should be a part of his police force; it had always appeared to him that the preservation of life and property from fire ought to be as much a part of the duty of the police as preservation from thieves and murderers. It would be, of course, a very great responsibility and an additional force must be provided for it, but such an establishment would be much more efficient and economical than an independent one. He thought he could run it for an addition of one penny on the police rate, which would raise £56,000. He also made the rather surprising statement that if the two services were amalgamated it would be worthwhile installing the electric telegraph for both police and fire duties. At present, for police purposes only, he did not think the telegraph So important as to make it worth the expense. He relied on runners as the fire brigade did, and said with pride that by a system established by routes, communicating from a central point with the different stations, a communication could be sent and an answer received from every station throughout the police district in two hours. His fellow commissioner for the City supported his view and said that the police and firemen were already very cordial and effective in their co-operation.

Major Greig, the Chief Constable of Liverpool, strongly recommended the police brigade and his own arrangements. “I cannot fancy a better system,” he said. It had been in existence since 1837. The population of Liverpool was 475,000, but the cost of the brigade with its fifteen engines (and there was a Steamer on order) was only £2,871, of which the insurance companies contributed but £350. He agreed that the only wages charged to the fire side were the salary of the superintendent in charge and his deputy, an inspector, and the extra remuneration paid to those policemen who acted also as firemen. These men were paid 22s. a week instead of the ordinary constables 20s. There were 155 of them and they were selected as qualified by health, strength and intelligence. He did not consider that these men attending fires deprived him, at the time, of the efficiency of a certain useful part of the police force, which had a total establishment of over a thousand. The efficiency of his force was proved by the fact that in 1843 the insurance on an uncertificated Liverpool warehouse was 35s. per cent., but it was down to 12s. per cent. by 1851. 

Captain Shaw said he could see no objection to the brigade being part of the police, but to make skilled firemen out of London constables would be an impossibility. In Belfast he had been Chief Officer of the Fire Brigade and Chief Constable, but “they were not mixed in any way, excepting in my own person”. The arrangements in Belfast were efficient and sufficient, but in London under the present system they were not. 

The insurance and commercial interests also mostly favoured a police brigade, but the former made the proviso that if a police brigade was formed it would depend whether the insurance companies would deem it sufficient protection and they would probably form a salvage corps as they had done in Liverpool. There were some caustic comments about water damage by non-insurance brigades, and Mr. Drummond said that in Man- chester, where the corporate body put out fires, they were reckless in the use of water.

The parish representatives opposed a police brigade. They thought the cost would be too high. Mr. Ellis said that in Hackney they had to pay a very large police rate (it was about 6d.) but saw very few policemen. The Lord Mayor said he was quite certain it would be a great mistake to mix up the duties, the efficiency of both would be impaired; they required altogether a different training. It had been found a wise system for the fire insurance offices to pay the firemen full wages and insist that they shall do nothing else. He spoke, he said, from his experience as chairman of the police committee of the City of London for several years. The police had duties at a fire to protect property and to prevent the multitude pressing upon the firemen.

Most of those who opposed a police brigade suggested that any new formation should be the responsibility of the Metropolitan Board of Works. As to how it would be paid for, many of the witnesses were opposed to further demands on the ratepayers, but the representatives of commerce did not take this view. “It would be a most provident regulation to have a general rate for fire,” said one, and even Mr. Ingold, draper of St. Pancras, who represented an association of ratepayers, said that they would highly approve of an increased rate for fire purposes if it resulted in the proper provision of protection. The Lord Mayor of London disagreed. He said that the imposition of any new rate would be so obnoxious that it would be difficult to carry the necessary Bill through Parliament. He suggested that the necessary money should be provided by the Government by their handing over a portion of the tax on insurance.

Every witness who was asked, and some who were not, intimated that whatever the arrangements made, the insurance companies should be required to pay some part of the cost up to the £25,000 they had spent on their London Fire Engine Establishment during the past year. One witness, nearly a hundred years before his time, made a prophetic assertion. Mr. William Hall, wharfinger and merchant of Tower Hill, on being asked “On what principles do you think protection ought to be afforded?” replied, I am strongly of the opinion that the protection of life and property against fire should be under one commission upon a large and comprehensive scale embracing the United Kingdom.”

On May 8th, 1862, within six weeks of its final session for hearing evidence, the Select Committee produced its report. This was a model of brevity, consisting of but five pages and forty numbered paragraphs. One of them referred to parochial arrangements as not only entirely useless but in many cases productive of injurious results, another referred to the money wasted on these arrangements which was computed at approximately E10,000 a year for the whole metropolis. The Committee bore witness to the high state of efficiency of the London Fire Engine Establishment and said that whatever arrangements might be made, the services of the existing staff ought to be made available in connection with any new system. 

After these and other comments they made their recommendations, which were as follows.

“1. That a fire brigade be formed, under the superintendence of the Commissioners of Police, on a scheme to be approved by the Secretary of State for the Home Department, to form part of the general establishment of the Metropolitan Police, and that the Acts requiring parishes to maintain engines be repealed.

2. That an account of the expenditure of the new police fire brigade be annually laid before Parliament, together with the general police accounts; in such a manner that the special cost of the brigade may be ascertained. 

3. That the area of the new fire brigade arrangements be confined within the limits of the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Board of Works, with the option to other parishes to be included, if within the area of the Metropolitan Police. “

They added a further paragraph

“In conclusion, your Committee would beg to state, that in their opinion no security can be given by legislation on this important question which would supersede the necessity for individual care by the occupiers of houses against the risk of fire; no precaution can prevent the occurrence of fires, nor can any public measures be enacted which could or should prevent individuals from suffering losses from those acts of carelessness from which fires generally arise; public measures can only be of real service in arresting the progress of fires when they occur, and in preventing the enormous losses which arise from allowing a fire to attain to any considerable dimensions.”

As soon as the Select Committee had reported, Captain Shaw was asked to submit schemes for the new formation covering the Metropolitan Board of Works area. This was a considerable task, for the London Fire Engine Establishment’s nineteen stations were all contained in ten square miles of Central London, while the jurisdiction of the Board of Works covered 117 square miles, being the same area as that of the present London County Council. 

Sir George Grey, the Home Secretary, examined the proposals and asked for an estimate of the cost. When he was told that for an adequate force this would be in the neighbourhood of £70,000 a year, he said it was out of the question and the Government would not support such an extravagant proposal; a cheaper solution would have to be found. The proposed estab- lishment of men, stations and machines was cut down and the plan was re- submitted at a cost of £52,000 per annum. Sir George said if it could be cut to £50,000 his Government would be prepared to support any Member of the House who would bring in a Private Member’s Bill for the transfer of the brigade to such authority as might be selected, so another cut was made. This £50,000 was an arbitrary figure based on a halfpenny rate to which was added a Government grant of £10,000 and a proposed contribution from insurance companies.

Shaw recast his scheme again to bring it down to the proposed cost, raising the number of stations from nineteen to forty-three, with new stations to be provided as far afield as Hammersmith, Hampstead, Stoke Newington, Bow, Woolwich, Lewisham, Norwood, Tooting and Wands- worth: the number of firemen to be raised from 129 to 232. He always denied that it was his own scheme, though he worked out the details of it, saying that it was an arbitrary arrangement forced upon him without regard to any of the usual circumstances except expenditure. It was simply the best force that could be got for the money.

It was an extraordinary basis on which to assess the needs and size of a new public body. No regard was paid to what was necessary or desirable. A figure was laid down and it was ordered that the proposed establishment should cost no greater sum than that figure. When the necessary legislation was completed, the Act perpetuated the stringent economies of the proposals by limiting the power to raise a rate to one halfpenny. 

Then came the question of what authority should manage the new formation. The police brigade was ultimately turned down on grounds of expenditure and difficulty with the City, who said that if the Metropolitan Police were to run it they would want a separate formation run by the City police. Finally it was decided that the Metropolitan Board of Works should be the masters, but all this took three years and it was not until July 1865 that “An Act for the Establishment of a Fire Brigade in the Metro- polis” (28 & 29 Vic., c. 90) became law and instituted the Metropolitan Fire Brigade on January 1st, 1866. 

During this three years the insurance offices, with commendable public spirit, not only continued to maintain the Establishment but continued to improve it. They ordered more Steamers and allowed Shaw to start on the installation of the electric telegraph between his stations. Shaw was later to write

“The history of our country abounds with instances of the wonderful energy of private undertakings, but there are few records more remarkable than that of the late London Fire Engine Establishment, which, without any legal status of the parochial authorities, worked itself steadily through every difficulty, until it became a publicly recognized institution, reflecting the highest honour on the fire offices which organised and worked it. The combination of kindness and strict justice with which they treated those in their service constitute an honourable and enduring example of energy and success in private enterprise.”

For the purposes of the Act, the Metropolis was defined as the City of London and all other parishes and places for the time being within the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Board of Works. On and after January 1st, 1866, the Metropolitan Board of Works was to be the fire authority, with powers and duties to provide an efficient force of firemen and provide them with all such fire engines, horses, accoutrements, tools and instruments as may be necessary. The stations, fire engines, plant and other property of the London Fire Engine Establishment were to be transferred to the board, who were to take over all liabilities for pensions incurred by the Establish- ment. The brigade was to be under the charge of an officer to be called the Chief Officer of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, and on occasion of fire he or any other officer in charge of the brigade might remove any persons who interfered by their presence with the operations and might break into or through or pull down any premises and cause water to be shut off from mains, any damage occasioned being deemed damage by fire within the meaning of any policy of insurance against fire. All police constables were authorised to aid the fire brigade in the execution of their duties. They might close any street in or near which a fire was burning. 

The Board could precept on the overseers of the poor of every parish for the laying of a rate out of the poor rate, but this rate must not exceed in any one year a halfpenny in the pound. 

The Commissioners of Her Majesty’s Treasury were to pay to the Board by way of contribution such sums as Parliament might from time to time grant, not exceeding in any one year £10,000. This was for the protection of Government buildings. 

Every insurance company that insured from fire any property in the area was to pay annually to the Board a sum in the rate of £35 per million gross insured by it. The Board, with the consent of the Treasury, might borrow up to £40,000 and apply the same for the purposes of the Act. 

If the insurance companies decided to form a salvage corps it should be the duty of the brigade to afford the necessary assistance to that force in the performance of its duties. The fire brigade must each day send to all con- tributing insurance companies information of all fires which have taken place. The Board might delegate their powers under the Act to a committee and could permit any part of the fire brigade to be employed on special services.

The insurance companies considered that they had come off well enough; £35 in the million was not a great deal. It was estimated that it would pro- duce £12,000 a year, less than half the cost of the London Fire Engine Establishment. In the first year the levy was actually £10,200. 

Under the Act the Metropolitan Fire Brigade began its legal existence on January 1st, 1866, Captain Shaw being appointed its first Chief Officer. Not only was the income restricted to a halfpenny rate and the small Government and insurance contributions, but the borrowing powers were restricted to £40,000, a ridiculous sum in view of the necessity to protect a huge area of London in which the insurance companies had never provided stations and this £40,000 was already burdened with £7,000-worth of mort- gages on the stations taken over. Shaw’s first difficulty was that the insurance companies decided to set up forthwith the London Salvage Corps, and many of their old firemen elected to stay in their employment and transferred to the new corps under the chief officer, Peter Swanton, who had been a fireman for eighteen years and at the time of the change-over was foreman in charge of the Western district. Shaw’s recruiting problem was therefore increased, but he still determined to select only ex-sailors, either Royal Navy or Merchant Service.

The new brigade had an inauspicious birthday. On January 1st, 1866, there was a great fire at St. Katherine’s Dock, which started in jute and spread to other merchandise. The loss was £200,000, but it might have been much higher. It was stated that the greatest force of steam fire engines ever brought to bear on one emergency was employed. During the fire, flames burst out of another section of the warehouse which it was alleged the brigade never knew was on fire though they had been in attendance for several hours. A good deal of criticism was levelled at the new corps and its chief officer, it being falsely contended that the fire had broken out again after the brigade had left. 

But Shaw answered his critics and got on with his task. With considerable difficulty sites were found for the new stations and the electric telegraph was extended so that every station was interconnected. This telegraph, regarded at the time as a modern wonder, was a crude instrument on the alphabetical principle. The sender had a dial, around the edge of which were the letters of the alphabet, and a similar dial was at the receiving end. The dials had a pointer and when this was moved to the appropriate letter at the sending end, the pointer at the receiving end moved to the same letter. In this way the message was laboriously spelt out.

The passing of the Act caused trouble for the Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire. Parishioners had now compulsorily to pay a half-penny rate for fire protection and they naturally considered that such term embraced protection of life as well as protection of property. There was a falling off of income, especially in so far as annual subscriptions donated by parish authorities was concerned. But the Metropolitan Board of Works’ income had been cut to the bone by Sir George Gray’s dictate, and the final scheme had envisaged the fire escapes still being managed by charity.

When the Royal Society pressed the claim that it was obviously a public duty to run the fire escapes along with the fire brigade, the Board demurred and pleaded lack of income. By the summer of 1867, however, public pressure and the pleas of the Society forced the Board to act, it being considered that in a rapidly growing London the increasing product of a half-penny rate would perhaps resolve their financial difficulties.

On July 1st negotiations were completed with the Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire, and the Metropolitan Fire Brigade took over their escapes and sixty-seven of their staff, the establishment of the brigade thereby being increased to 299 men without any additional source of in- come to pay the extra wages. By that time the Society were running eighty- five escape stations and had a staff of eight-nine conductors and five inspectors. The committee of the Society wrote to the Board of Works stating:

“the continuation of this force by the Board of Works is contemplated in the transfer of their plant to them, not merely as an act of justice to the men themselves but on public grounds. The committee depend upon their men receiving the same treatment, improvement of wages and prospects, as a public department can always offer over a voluntary society supported at the best with precarious resources. The men will come to the Board as disiplined and efficient as a body of public officers can be, and they fully deserve any improvement in their position the Board can secure to them, based upon their present character and experience.”

The Royal Society then turned its attention to the provinces and provided escapes for various towns which applied for them, though they no longer provided conductors. Their conditions were that the escape must be provided with a suitable standing, kept in good repair and be subject to inspection by the Society. Careful consideration was to be given to its working, the Society undertaking to give instructional drill and reserving the right to withdraw the machine if the same were not efficiently kept up. Brentford, Canterbury, Lowestoft, Warwick, Gravesend and Kingston were the first towns to take advantage of this offer, to be followed in the next few years by sixty-six others as far afield as Tenby, Norwich, Crewe, Wrexham, Truro and Llandudno.

The Society continued to award its medals and testimonials for gallantry at fires and to encourage the improvement of fire escapes. Many subscribers continued their support, and by 1878 the reserve fund had grown to £5,000 and a letter was sent to subscribers, which still included Queen Victoria, saying that the funds in hand being now sufficient for the purposes of the Society, your committee consider that they are not justified in soliciting a renewal of your subscription”. 

In 1881 the committee decided that:

“as the work which was in the Metropolis is not any longer in their hands and that as for the protection of life from fire in the suburban districts and in the provincial towns, the tendency of public opinion is that it is the duty of the local authority to provide the necessary means for this purpose, an application should be made to the charity commissioners for the appoint- ment of trustees to establish a scheme for the future administration of the Society.”

This was done and the funds of the Society were vested in the Official Trustees of Charitable Funds. To this day those funds are used for the presentation of medals, testimonials, watches or monetary awards to members of the public who have shewn gallantry in rescues or attempted rescues at fires. On the death of Queen Victoria and the accession of Edward VII an unsuccessful petition was made for the continuation of royal patronage, and the Society is now known as the Society for the Protection of Life from Fire. 

Shaw took over the London escapes and most of the staff, but did not change the method of use. The escapes were still wheeled out of the church- yard to their street station every evening and returned to their daytime storage next morning. 

The fire-escape conductors on assimilation into the brigade found their lot worsened. Previously they had been night workers, free in the daytime. Now they came under the continuous duty system, and when they returned from their escape duty found themselves required to do station duty all morning and were allowed rest in the afternoon only if the exigencies of the Service permitted. The night duty was, however, alleviated by the keeping of a sleeping watch instead of an alert one, a blanket being provided; but, as the men complained, this was small consolation on a cold winter’s night and proper rest was impossible. 

The insurance companies had soon realised that they had found a worthy successor to Braidwood, and when Shaw became a public official after the passing of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Act he went about his task of the enlargement and reorganisation of the Service with great vigour. 

He was thirty-five years old and had had four years’ experience with the London Fire Engine Establishment and about eighteen months as head of Belfast Fire Brigade. Before joining the Army he had graduated at Trinity College. In many respects he was a contrast to his predecessor. A great society man, affable and pleasing in manner, especially to ladies, he could when crossed be stubborn or quick tempered; he was a strict disciplinarian and was well over six feet, with a goatee beard and drooping moustache. 

His men called him the long ‘un’ or the skipper. His first tiff was with the London volunteer brigades. Braidwood, with his small force concentrated in central London and responsible only to his employers, the insurance companies, had given these brigades plenty of latitude and often had been glad of any assistance they could render. Shaw, a responsible public official with growing resources, was glad enough at times of their help but was always insistent that he or his officers were in charge and that everyone assisting came directly under their orders. He also objected to the volunteer brigades copying his men’s uniform. The volunteers preferred the old free and easy relationship and there was soon trouble, which resulted in some of them disbanding.

The uniform question was a particularly sore point, for after a visit to Paris Shaw had decided to adopt a brass helmet similar to that worn by the Sapeurs-Pompiers who were, and still are, a regiment of the French Army. He introduced the brass helmet into the Metropolitan Fire Brigade in 1866 and was annoyed when not only the volunteer brigades but many provincial brigades copied it. Previously most brigades had worn a black leather helmet. The brass helmet was a feature of British fire brigades for the next seventy years and caused several fatalities to its wearers by contacting bared electric wiring at fires. For this reason it was discarded during the nineteen -thirties, and the modern insulated helmet is very similar in design to the old leather type. 

With his aristocratic family connections Shaw had an easy entrée to London society and soon became a friend of the Prince of Wales who had already shewn his propensities as a volunteer fireman. The future Edward VII was an enthusiast who, when other amusements palled, liked to don fireman’s uniform and attend fires, dragging hose and getting wet and dirty. He had seen his first fire at the age of eleven when the Prince of Wales Tower at Windsor Castle was severely damaged, and his mother, dis- pleased with the efforts of Windsor’s firemen, had telegraphed for Braid- wood’s men despite the fact that the castle, like other crown property; was not insured. The Sunday Times had reported the occurrence next day:

“London, March 20th, 1853. Dangerous Fire at Windsor Castle. A fire of very alarming and destructive character broke out at a late hour last night at Windsor Castle, at which time Her Majesty and His Royal Highness Prince Albert were in one of the rooms adjoining, the apartment in which the misfortune commenced. Her Majesty displayed the greatest coolness and presence of mind, and finding that the firemen appeared to make some mistake in marrying the hose gave orders to dispatch a telegraphic message to London for more firemen, who reached the spot by special train. Owing to the interesting situation which Her Majesty is in the greatest anxiety was manifested by the Prince Consort on her behalf. Nothing could exceed Her Majesty’s self-possession in the midst of the alarming circumstances by which she was surrounded.”

This early experience may have impressed the Prince, for twelve years later when Marlborough House, his town residence, caught fire it was reported as having been extinguished “mainly by the exertions of the Prince of Wales who trusting to lath and plaster fell partly through the ceiling” . In that same year, 1865, historic Saville House in Leicester Square was burned down. The newspapers reported that “the fire brigade arrived promptly and very soon afterwards the Prince of Wales, accompanied by the Duke of Sutherland, Lord Richard Grosvenor, and several gentlemen of the suite. The Prince was attired partly in the dress of a fireman, and received the cheers of the crowd. The fire spread and the North side of the Square was in danger. The Prince and the fire brigade worked with vigour and success SO far as preventing the extension of the fire.” 

Though the Prince of Wales was attired only partly in the dress of a fireman at the Saville House fire, he soon had a complete set of kit with helmet, fire boots, belt and axe. These were kept at Chandos Street fire station near Charing Cross, and on the occasion of a big fire Shaw would send a brigade trap for the Prince to hurry him to the scene. Sometimes the Prince with the Duke of Sutherland and other companions would go to Chandos Street and play billiards, hoping that a call would come in during the evening. He was popular with the brigade, for he never attempted to take charge or give orders; he just liked to work as a fireman, and after the stop when reliefs were arriving was generous with his cigars. On one occasion he nearly met disaster when galloping to a fire on an engine, for the coachman came to a road-up sign and could not turn his horses fast enough to avoid it. The sign was attached to scaffolding guarding a large hole in the road into which the horses disappeared and the engine was almost overturned.

For several years the Heir Apparent fire attendances were so regular that they were no longer remarked on by Press or public. At the Select Committee of 1867 the London Secretary of the Scottish Union Insurance Company was giving evidence and was asked by the chairman: What is the belief in your office with regard to the efficiency of the present fire brigade?” He replied: “I could not give you an opinion. His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales would give you a better opinion on that point.” There is no evidence as to whether or not Queen Victoria was amused by these activities of her eldest son. Perhaps she considered he was better employed at fire fighting than at baccarat; certainly she did not blame Captain Shaw, who she was soon to make Commander and later Knight of 1 the Bath, and the handsome inscribed marble clock she Presented to hirn still graces the Chief Officer’s office at London Fire Brigade Hicadquarters. When the Prince of Wales took to fire fighting, the aristocracy were not slow to follow suit. The seventies  and eighties  of the nineteenth century were the hey-day of the country-house brigades. Duke, Marquis and Earl vied with each other in the fire establishments they set up at their country mansions. The best of equipment, including steamers, was provided, and the finest uniforms for the gardeners, footmen and other staff who manned them. Fire-brigade pensioners were employed as instructors and, since efficiency depended partly on experience, the brigades were often willing 1o them. protect large areas of the countryside around the mansion that housed

The volunteers also reacted strongly to royal encouragement. Volunteer brigades were formed all over the country, sometimes with municipal support, sometimes as entirely independent bodies.  They were often offered by the town’s élite, professional men considering it an honour to be selected and proudly carrying the title of captain (as captain of the fire brigade) for the rest of their lives.

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