PortCities London

Fires in the port

The 20th century
 

The London Fire Brigade

The fire service was officially renamed the London Fire Brigade in 1904, although it had been popularly known by that name for many years.

The Brigade modernized quickly during that time, with motor vehicles gradually replacing horse-drawn engines between 1902 and 1921. Improved fireboats also made river work much easier.

London's fire service had been designed to meet the peacetime requirements, but found itself having to face unimaginable challenges in the 20th century.

World War I and the Silvertown disaster

World War I brought the first experience of modern industrialized war, in which mass-produced bombs, shells, torpedoes and bullets killed millions. Air power meant that civilians far from the front lines were also at risk. More than 600 people died in air raids on London during 1917-18.

Fireman Snell, killed while fighting the blaze.
View full size imageFireman Snell, killed in the Silvertown explosion. © NMM

However, the worst single tragedy was the Silvertown disaster of January 1917, when a blast at the Brunner Mond explosives factory killed 73 people and caused huge fires.

Firemen from Silvertown station.
View full size imageStation Officer Betts and Fireman Yabsley. © NMM
The dead included several firemen from the local station. At that time, Silvertown was in Essex, so they were not yet part of the London service.

Some firemen died because Silvertown Fire Station was very close to the explosion. Others died fighting the flames.

Station Officer Betts and Fireman Yabsley died as they were laying hoses and preparing to tackle the fires.

 

  

  

World War II and the Blitz

Looking towards Tower Bridge and the fires in the East End.
View full size imageFires in the docks, seen from the Upper Pool. © NMM
The worst ordeal of all came during World War II. In 1940-41, the German Luftwaffe launched a huge bombing campaign - soon nicknamed the 'Blitz' - in an attempt to paralyze London and force Britain to sue for peace.

Firemen tackling a blaze at the Surrey Docks.
View full size imageFiremen tackling a blaze at the Surrey Docks. © NMM
Around 20,000 Londoners died in the Blitz. From the very beginning of the bombing, the port was one of the main targets, and over 25,000 bombs were dropped on the port districts.

To combat the fires, the London Fire Brigade was expanded dramatically. Its 2000 regulars were assisted by 20,000 auxiliaries and volunteer fire-watchers. During the most ferocious raids, fire crews from as far as Bristol came to help.

Night-time raid on the Surrey Commercial Docks.
View full size imageA night-time raid on the Surrey Commercial Docks. © NMM
By the end of 1940, there were more fire pumps in the City of London than there had been in the whole of Britain before the war. Despite the destruction and the huge loss of life, London was never brought to a standstill.

Damage to Batavia Street, Deptford, after a V2 strike in 1944.
View full size imageV2 damage to Batavia Street, Deptford. © NMM
Many of the dramas were repeated in 1944, when Hitler launched his 'wonder weapons' - the V1 flying bomb and the V2 rocket - on London.

More than 9000 died in this 'little Blitz', but London was far better prepared and the city's essential services were never seriously threatened.

   

 

Over 300 regulars from the London Fire Brigade died during the Blitz. Their efforts had been vital in keeping London running during its grimmest time. Winston Churchill, with his talent for coining a memorable phrase, praised the firefighters as 'heroes with grimy faces'. 

The last fifty years

With the war over, the London Fire Brigade returned to its peacetime duties. The port also returned to nearly 20 years of unprecedented prosperity. Improved standards of building and safety procedures meant that warehouse fires were no longer as frequent, though fires on ships were still commonplace.

A memorial plaque to Leading Fireman Maynard in Limehouse Basin.
View full size imageThe plaque to Leading Fireman Maynard in Limehouse Basin. © NMM

With the closure of the inner London docks and wharves, fires on or along the river will never be as common as they once were.

However, the work of the London Fire Brigade remains as vital and as dangerous as ever. 

 





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