Above: Forest Hill Fire Station.
Passing the local fire station in Forest Hill the other day I noticed that there was a banner fixed to the top with the dates 1866 – 2016. It was a good reminder of the momentous events that led up to the establishing of the London Fire Brigade 150 years ago. For anyone living in a city, a town or even a village today, it would be inconceivable that the fire service was not in existence but that service is only 150 years old.
So what did people do before the 1860s? Fire has been one of the great destroyers of property ever since people built houses and owned that property but very little was done about the problem in early times. When you live in an early society where the only method of moving water is to fill up a small container there is not much that can be done about the problem. When the Great Fire of London broke out in early September 1666 the City of London was made well aware of their lack of ability to fight such a massive fire. The only thing that could be done was to deliberately tear down houses that were not on fire to create a gap on the land that prevented the fire from spreading. The theory sounds fine but knocking on a householder’s door and explaining that you would be knocking down their perfectly good house in order to save others was obviously met with considerably hostility.
The pre-1666 City still had timber-framed houses. While the use of thatch had been banned centuries before that, it made sense to make sure that later houses were all constructed of brick and that the roads were wider – so that fire could not spread too easily from one side to the other. However, fire is always a danger and even today’s steel and concrete buildings have been severely damaged by fire.
No permanent fire service was established after 1666 although the insurance companies of the day did have their own private fire brigades. These were men working for insurance companies and the coverage in parts of London was quite poor.
On 16 October 1834 another disastrous fire broke out in London at the Palace of Westminster – better known as the Houses of Parliament – and all the buildings, apart from the Great Hall, were destroyed. The buildings we have today, including Big Ben, were the result of the rebuilding on that site a few years later. Less than 30 years after that event another huge fire broke out in Tooley Street. It started on 22 June 1861 in Cotton’s Wharf and destroyed many of the warehouses between Tooley Street and the Thames. Those buildings were being used to store many flammable commodities including a jute warehouse which was ablaze from basement to roof. It soon collapsed and fell onto a nearby building which contained highly flammable products such as tallow, tar and resin. An explosion occurred which projected flaming materials far and wide, setting fire to other warehouses and buildings.
By that date a ‘London Fire Engine Establishment’ had been formed with its headquarters in Watling Street, in the City of London. Its Superintendent was James Braidwood who led his men into Cotton’s Wharf to fight the fire. Tragically one of walls of the warehouse collapsed and he was killed instantly. Braidwood was a very charismatic character and people could not bring themselves to believe that he had died. His funeral started out from his headquarters in Watling Street and conveyed his body to Abney Park Cemetery, in Stoke Newington – a distance of about four miles. The public lined the route and it was said to be one of the largest funeral events that ever took place in London.
Following his death in 1861 if was only a very few years later that the London Fire Brigade was formed and, in London, it is that date that the brigade are trying to remind people about this year. It is worth pointing out that when the brigade was founded there were no telephones. Most of the early fire stations therefore had tall brick towers where a fire-fighter kept watch to see any signs of tell-tale smoke in the area around. Fire appliances were also not as large as today, being horse-drawn and far slower to respond to a fire over a distance of a few miles. We owe a great deal to our fire-fighters today. For those who work in London, most fire-fighters are well aware of the story of James Braidwood and how his death contributed to the founding of the modern service.