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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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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