PortCities London

Fires in the port

Fighting fires from the river

The fireboats

The fire at Dockhead, Bermondsey.
View full size imageThe fire at St Saviour's Dock, 1864. © NMM
The main effort of London's fire service was to tackle fires on land. Unfortunately, land-based fire engines could not easily get access to many fires in the port.

New floating fire-engine in the Upper Pool.
View full size imageNew floating fire engine in the Upper Pool, 1866. © NMM
One of the innovations brought in by Massey Shaw was the floating fire engine, also known as a fireboat or fire float. These allowed easy access to fires on the riverside or the dock quayside. 

The London Fire Brigade going to a riverside fire.
View full size imageThe Metropolitan Fire Brigade going to a riverside fire, 1890. © NMM
In 1866 the Brigade had two floating stations, and more were added later. The fire floats were frequently busy in the port.




The fireboats in action

A floating fire engine, c. 1901.
View full size imageA floating fire engine, c. 1901. © NMM
In 1901, the writer Ernest A Carr observed the fire floats in action from a police launch. His account of the action appeared in Living London, edited by George R Sims. 

Quotation marks left
A message from the smaller station down at Blackwall intimates that a brig proceeding upstream has caught fire, and has been run aground…

A strong glare of light round the next bend marks our objective, and a very few minutes more bring us abreast of the flaming vessel. There follow two hours of unremitting labour – aiding the crew of the fire-floats at their toil, taking wet lines aboard and fixing them to mooring posts and buoys, creeping down to windward of the flames to receive salvaged goods, and helping to fend the brig off by means of stout ropes into deeper water, where the volumes of water streaming in from the fire hose may submerge her. Not until, in an eddy of sparks and steam, the battle of water against fire has been won,
Quotation marks right
do our boatmen relax their efforts.

The fire float Gamma (1911).
View full size imageAboard the fire float Gamma (1911). © NMM
The fire float Beta III (1926).
View full size imageThe fire float Beta III (1926). © NMM
The fire float James Braidwood (1939).
View full size imageThe fire float James Braidwood (1939). © NMM

The Massey Shaw

The London Fire Brigade fire float Massey Shaw (1935).
View full size imageThe London Fire Brigade fire float Massey Shaw (1935). © NMM
Perhaps the most famous of all the London Fire Brigade fire floats is the Massey Shaw (1935). She was named after Captain Eyre Massey Shaw, who succeeded Braidwood in 1861 and became the first head of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade in 1865.

Her first major incident was a huge fire at the Colonial Wharf in Wapping, in September 1935. However, she became most famous for her role at Dunkirk.

In May 1940 she left her moorings at Blackfriars to join a fleet of small boats heading for the Dunkirk beaches. Over a period of three days, she ferried more than 500 soldiers from the beaches to larger vessels, and took two parties of solders back to Ramsgate.

The Tate and Lyle works in 1967.
View full size imageThe Tate & Lyle works in 1967. © NMM
She returned to service on the Thames, where she distinguished herself fighting countless fires. Among her last fires were a blaze at the Tate & Lyle works at Silvertown and a fire on the Jumna, in the Royal Albert Dock. She was retired from the force in 1971 and has been preserved.



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