PortCities London

Fires in the port

London's early fire services
 

The private fire crews

Towards the end of the 17th century, an insurance industry began to develop in London. One branch of the industry became involved in offering fire policies to owners of buildings. Before long, the insurance companies employed their own fire teams - recruited from the Thames watermen - to put out fires at properties they insured.

To distinguish which buildings were covered by their policies, insurance companies devised 'fire marks' - special metal signs to be placed on the facades of insured buildings.

Unfortunately, private enterprise was not really up to the task of protecting the public. As insurance companies were interested in protecting only their clients, they would usually ignore any properties not insured or insured by other firms.

Even when a company's fire crew did turn up at a blaze, they would often leave the building to burn. Although various compromises were reached, it was not a satisfactory situation.

The London Fire Engine Establishment

It took more than a century before it became clear that the free market in fire fighting was not providing adequate protection. In 1833, 19 insurance companies banded together to form the London Fire Engine Establishment.

It was headed by James Braidwood, who had pioneered a similar initiative in Edinburgh. The Establishment had 80 full-time officers, popularly known as 'Jimmy Braiders'.

The Destruction by Fire of the Houses of Parliament on October 16 1834
View full size imageThe Destruction by Fire of the Houses of Parliament on October 16 1834. © NMM

The Establishment's first major assignment was tackling the fire that engulfed the Houses of Parliament in October 1834.

It was only partly successful. The Palace of Westminster was destroyed, and only Westminster Hall was saved.   

The Tooley Street fire

The Tooley Street fire.
View full size imageThe Tooley Street fire. © NMM
Over the next decades, the Establishment tackled hundreds of fires in London, including many in the port. Its greatest challenge came on 23 June 1861, when a fire broke out at Stovell's warehouse, at the back of Tooley Street, on the south bank. 

Cotton's Wharf (Tooley Street).
View full size imageCotton's Wharf (Tooley Street), c. 1901. © NMM
The fire spread to Cotton's Wharf and all the neighbouring buildings. It raged for two days before it could be brought under control.

Every single officer of the Fire Engine Establishment was called to the blaze, including Braidwood himself. 

Braidwood was killed when a wall collapsed on him, and another officer also died while fighting the fire. The fire smouldered on for weeks, and caused an immense amount of damage.

The insurance companies, which had to pay out a fortune, appealed for the creation of a publicly funded fire service. After much deliberation, the Metropolitan Fire Brigade was created in 1865.

The Metropolitan Fire Brigade

The Metropolitan Fire Brigade was headed by Captain Eyre Massey Shaw, an energetic officer who had succeeded Braidwood in 1861. During his 30 years at the head of London's fire service, he introduced many new features, including telegraph systems and steam-driven fire engines.

New floating fire-engine in the Upper Pool.
View full size imageNew floating fire-engine in the Upper Pool. © NMM
This period saw the introduction of special fire floats designed to tackle fires from the river or the docks. As the Tooley Street fire had shown, most fires in the port were difficult to access from the land.

The Brigade had been funded from the rates (local taxes levied in London) and was controlled by the Metropolitan Board of Works. It came under the control of the new London County Council in 1889. Massey Shaw retired two years later.

 





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