Baron Klaus Wulfenbach: Welcome, everyone, to November’s Aether Salon. We thank you for finding the time to attend, and hope you’ll enjoy today’s topic. Fraulein Bookworm Hienrichs has collected some fascinating information on Firefighting for us today. Our speaker today is a long time resident of New Babbage. She was one of the first members of the Ladies Fire Brigade of New Babbage, and is now a captain in its successor, the Babbage Fire Protection Brigade. She has been with the Salon as one of its organisers since ownership was transferred, and has been a pillar of support. I give you, Fraulein Fire-Captain Bookworm Hienrichs.
Bookworm Hienrichs: Thank you all for coming.
On the 29th of June, 1861, a funeral cortege made its way through the streets of London. Now, the Londoners of Victorian times loved a large funeral, but this one was remarkable even for them.
Shops had closed, and along the route, shutters and blinds were drawn to show respect. Bells in every City church (except for St. Paul’s) rang out a funeral peal.
The funeral procession stretched for a mile and a half, with thousands of policemen and brigade members joining the mourning family and friends. It even included the private carriages of the Duke of Sutherland and the Earl of Caithness – and at a time when sending just the empty carriage was considered a significant mark of respect, the Duke and the Earl were actually in them.
Thousands upon thousands of bystanders lined the streets, pressing in so close that it took the procession three hours to travel four miles to Abney Park Cemetery.
Who was this man being honored with such a public outpouring of mourning and respect? James Braidwood. A firefighter. What had he done to earn all this? Well… we’ll get to that.
The history of organized firefighting really starts with the ancient Romans. Marcus Licinius Crassus formed the first fire brigade in Rome, some 500 men strong.
They would rush to the scene of a fire… but upon arrival, would refuse to do anything until the building owner paid what they demanded. If he didn’t, they’d simply leave the building to burn to the ground, and Crassus would offer to buy it at a fraction of its former value.
During the time of Nero, a group called the Vigiles was created. Partly, they were night watchmen, stationed in small barracks around the city and hauling off nocturnal miscreants, whether cut-throats, or simply drunken party-goers getting too rambunctious.
However, the main job of the Vigiles was to fight fires. Most Roman buildings were too flammable for traditional bucket-chains to do much good, so they usually didn’t try that.
Their job was to assess the direction and speed of the fire’s spread, and to knock down the buildings in the way, in order to contain the fire. They had trained specialists able to rip off roofs, flatten walls, and drag anything flammable out of the way of the fire with great speed.
Of course, the owners of the buildings that were torn down seldom agreed with the Vigiles that it was necessary, and so their efforts were not often met with much appreciation.
(And those of you who think the New Babbage Fire Brigade doesn’t have the best of records in fighting fires, at least we manage to contain them to one building without doing this!) grins.
We all know, of course, about the Great Fire of London in 1666, which destroyed so much of the city. Afterwards, fire insurance brigades were developed to deal with future fires.
People would pay an insurance company for protection against damage – and fire damage was certainly the most common. The insurance companies used the significant profits from these premiums to establish their own fire brigades.
A firemark, such as the one seen behind me, would be placed on an insured building, showing (and advertising for) which company insured it. When an alarm of fire was raised, any nearby insurance fire brigades would rush to the scene.
waits a minute for it to rez for everyone…
This was the firemark for one of the first insurance fire brigades.
On arrival, the brigade would look for the firemark to see which company had insured it. If they didn’t see their company’s firemark, they simply left it to burn – thus taking a page out of Crassus’ book.
Distilleries also often maintained their own private fire brigade, as did other manufacturers that dealt with flammable goods. But again, these were, in the main, concerned only with their own properties.
And now, we come to James Braidwood. He was born in 1800 in Edinburgh, and joined his father’s building firm as an apprentice; what he learned about construction during that time would stand him in good stead in his later work.
In 1824, Edinburgh, in response to a series of fires, decided to establish the world’s first municipal fire brigade. Tapped to head this organization was none other than James Braidwood. He was only 23 years old, but had an obvious passion for the work, and a keen mind for how to organize this new brigade.
Unfortunately, just two months after it was first established, the brigade had to face a massive fire – the Great Fire of Edinburgh – which burned for four days and destroyed a number of large buildings, as well as 400 homes
Braidwood and his new organization came under a lot of heat at first (yes, pun intended), but the subsequent inquiry into the fire cleared them completely, showing that the disaster had been magnified by the meddling of public officials and ‘gentlemen of importance’ who thought they were in command, and by the great lack of access to water-cocks (valves and pipes connected to the water mains).
After this, Braidwood took the Brigade well in hand. One of the main things that separated the municipal brigade from the private ones is that Braidwood and his men trained regularly – usually early in the morning, to avoid congesting the streets and to lessen interference with the firemen’s regular jobs.
For, indeed, this was a second job for the firefighters. Braidwood focused his recruiting efforts on young men from professions that would dovetail well with firefighting, such as slaters, masons, carpenters, plumbers, and smiths.
Braidwood also turned attention to inventing and improving equipment, such as fire escapes and a rudimentary breathing apparatus, and studied each fire they fought closely, looking for ways to improve tactics.
In 1830, he published ‘On the Construction of Fire-Engines and Apparatus, the Training of Firemen, and the Method of Proceeding in Case of Fire.’ In it, he described everything he’d learned about fighting fires, including:
–The best type of engine for most use, and its construction and operation
–The tools and equipment that should be with each engine (hoses, cord, wrenches for fire-cocks, rope, chain, ladders, equipment for portable fire escapes)
–How to supply the fire engines with water, especially if water-cocks are not nearby. This included hose-and-bucket chain, using gutters and drainage ditches, tapping ponds or rivers, and even breaking into sewer mains.
(Though he didn’t recommend that last unless absolutely necessary. “For the purpose of procuring water to extinguish a fire, I had at one time occasion to open a common-sewer, in which, with the usual impurities, the waste from a gas-manufactory was intermixed, and the stench in the premises where the fire had been extinguished by this water, was for some time after very disagreeable.”)
loves his mastery of understatement.
–Drilling techniques for training the firefighters, including providing time and space for physical fitness training
–Detailed tactics for fighting fires and rescuing people. He was the first to advocate for actually entering a burning building to fight the seat of a fire. Many of these basic tactics are still in use even in the time of our typists.
With such efforts, it wasn’t long before the Edinburgh municipal fire brigade was the most efficient in the world.
In 1833, with demand for their services increasing, ten private fire brigades in London combined forces to form the London Fire Engine Establishment (LFEE).
James Braidwood was named to head it, becoming London’s first Fire Chief. He oversaw 13 fire stations, with a total of 80 firefighters.
Now for a bit on the common firefighting equipment.
((And I apologize for this section – I’m under the weather this weekend, so it isn’t as polished as I’d’ve liked it. wry grin))
Manual fire pumps had been in use since the 16th century, but these early pumps were only force pumps, in which water was drawn into a cylinder on the upstroke of a piston, and discharged through an outlet pipe on the downstroke.
In the most common design, the pump was housed in a cistern, which was filled by men in a bucket chain. The discharged water was directed onto the fire through a swivelling pipe on top, with four or five men handling the lever.
In the 1600s, German inventor Hans Haustch invented a suction-and-force pump, which could discharge water on during both pumping actions of the piston. While this was an improvement, it still didn’t discharge the water with much force, meaning the manual pump had to be parked very close to the fire.
In 1672, Dutch inventor Jan Van der Heyden developed the fire hose. Made of leather and coupled with brass fittings, these hoses allowed firefighters to deliver water with more force, making their efforts much more effective.
An improved engine, developed in 1721, was manned by four to twelve men, and could deliver up to 160 gallons per minute to a distance of up to 120 feet. As the size and power of the pumps increased, it became more and more common for the engines to be pulled by horses, instead of men.
Jimmy Branagh: Wos they called “Hosers”?
Bookworm Hienrichs: Only in Canada, Jimmy. grins.
Jimmy Branagh: Ahhh. nods
Dr. Henry Jekyll: People were pulling engines around before horses?
Bookworm Hienrichs: They were. It was a while before the engines were heavy enough to necessiate being pulled by horses.
Dr. Henry Jekyll: That sounds like a lot of strain on the men.
Bookworm Hienrichs: nods. That, and the pumping itself.
Lady Sumoku: Hence all the exercising
Bookworm Hienrichs: So actually, they often recruited male bystanders to help with the pumping.
Bookworm Hienrichs: In 1829, John Braithewaite and John Ericsson build the first steam fire engine in London. Curiously enough, James Braidwood wasn’t keen on steam power, so the LFEE didn’t actually get its first steam engine until 1860.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire was formed in 1828 as an organization to help people escape from burning buildings by providing ladders.
These ladders were stored in churchyards during the day, and placed on street corners during the night, leaned against streetlamp posts.
(Something to add to some of ours, perhaps?) grins.
Some models had canvas chutes, so ladies could slide down without showing their ankles. (Or knees. grin)
James Braidwood developed a fire escape system consisting of a chain ladder and canvas cradle. This could brought up to the roof by firefighters, if possible, and be secured to the roof, with the firefighters using the ladder to reach a window where people were, and then let them down via the canvas cradle, which was attached to a single chain.
If it wasn’t possible, or safe, to get onto the roof, they used a large crossbow to shoot a rope over the roof to others waiting on the other side of the building. Those firefighters would then pull the rope over, which drew over first a single chain, and then the chain ladder.
In the late afternoon of the 22nd of June, 1861, workers were leaving for the day from the row of warehouses that lined the river Thames near London Bridge. One of these, Scovill’s Warehouse, was storing a variety of goods, including hemp, saltpetre, tallow, cotton, rice, sugar, tea, and spices.
Somehow, a fire started in the counting house. Within minutes, thanks to a combination of the flammable items stored, and the fact that the iron fire doors in the warehouses had been left open, the fire spread to nearby buildings, feeding on more highly flammable materials. Finally, the fire reached Chamberlain’s Wharf, which traded in sulphur, tallow, saltpetre, jute, oils, and paints.
Mr. Hodges, the owner of a distillery nearby, had started his private fire brigade on attempting to control the blaze. Other private brigades joined him, followed by the official brigade, and James Braidwood.
There was little they could do, however. The LFEE’s one floating fire engine had arrived, but the Thames was at low tide, and the water too shallow for its pumps to operate. The river itself, too, was ablaze, as tallow and oil carried the fire into the river. The burning oils also covered the surrounding streets to ankle depth
The fire, by now, had engulfed the warehouses of eight companies. The flames could be seen from fifteen miles away, with smoke rising high into the air.
The various fire brigades worked desperately to try to prevent it from spreading further. Braidwood was tireless in overseeing and encouraging all the firefighters.
At about 7:30 that evening, he was seen by the wall of a warehouse behind Tooley Street, still working, but also handing out rations of brandy to his men. Suddenly, there was a huge explosion behind the wall, and James Braidwood, with four or five others, were buried under fifteen feet of burning brickwork.
The men of the LFEE continued on as they’d been trained by their fallen leader. Still, the fire continued to spread, destroying the houses that fronted Tooley Street.
More warehouses and granaries caught, as well as barges and schooners moored on the river.
It wasn’t until 3:00 in the morning, ten hours after the fire had begun, that it was finally contained to one area – but it was quite a large area. The fire stretched for 1000 feet from east to west, and 1000 feet inland from the Thames – over 11 acres of buildings completely razed.
All through the evening, and even in the middle of the night, people gathered from all over London to watch it. Sellers of beer, ginger-beer, fruit, cakes, and coffee gathered, and many of the nearby pubs stayed open all night.
So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at the spectators the New Babbage fires get, should I? grins.
The fire continued to burst out at various points for days afterwards. It was, in fact, just shy of three weeks before the fire was finally judged to be contained, though the ruins continued to smoulder long after that.
The body of James Braidwood was located three days after his death. One of the fire engineers cut off the epaulettes and buttons, giving them to the foremen of the fire service.
And thus it was, on the 29th, that we come to his funeral, and the public response to this man who had done so much to keep the city safe.
Of course, that’s not the end of the story. In 1862, partially in response to the Tooley Street fire, the insurance companies told the government that they were no longer willing to be responsible for fire protection.
London needed its own municipal fire brigade.
However, the wheels of bureaucracy grind slowly, so it wasn’t until 1865 that the Metropolitan Fire Brigade act was passed, with the organization coming into being on January 1st, 1866, under the leadership of Eyre Massey Shaw, who had taken over the leadership of the LFEE after Braidwood’s death.
Shaw was also an efficient and influential leader for the fire brigade. He expanded the use of steam fire engines, which could pump as much as 300 gallons of water a minute.
He had new fire stations built throughout the city, and connected them with telegraph communication.
The brass or silver helmet was introduced to the firefighter’s uniform by him. (puts on her own).
Shaw was also a friend of the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), who actually kept a fire brigade uniform at one of the fire stations for his own use.
And yes, apparently, the Prince of Wales did actually use it from time to time.
Dr. Henry Jekyll: Remind me what the helmet was for, exactly?
Prof. Woodsheart: Protecting the head methinks?
Myrtil Igaly: protection from falling stuff?
Bookworm Hienrichs: Yes, from falling debris, and also probably from sparks flying.
Bookworm Hienrichs: This overview certainly doesn’t cover everything about Victorian-era firefighting. If you want to learn more, these are a few sites that were very helpful for me:
*The London Fire Brigade’s history page
*Google Book’s copy of ‘An Illustrated History of Fire Engines,’ by Roger Mardon.
*Google Book’s copy of Braidwood’s ‘On the Construction of Fire-Engines and Apparatus.
*I hope you enjoyed this dip into the world of Victorian firefighting. smiles.
Baron Klaus Wulfenbach: Does anyone have any questions for our excellent speaker?
Prof: puts his hand up
Bookworm Hienrichs: Yes, professor?
Prof: Not a question, but does Miss Book know that the French term for fireman ‘Pompier’ literally means ‘pumper’?
Bookworm Hienrichs: I did see, that, actually.
Prof: Linking them with the past you have so eloquently described
Bookworm Hienrichs: The French had the Compagnie des gardes-pompes, which translates as Companies of Pump Guards.
Bookworm Hienrichs: They were, I believe, more military in nature, rather than municipal.
Prof: Yes, which is why they parade carrying rifles today..
Elleon Bergamasco: I think it’s time to install some sort of fire protection in the museum
Bookworm Hienrichs: An excellent idea, Miss Elleon.
Baron Klaus Wulfenbach: Fraulein Bookworm, did the principles of tearing down combustible structures persist?
Ceejay Writer: Baron, rather like clear cutting a forest, or so it reminds me of
Baron Klaus Wulfenbach: Fire lines, ja.
Bookworm Hienrichs: I’m sure Miss Jed knows more than I do on that, Baron, but I doubt it’s applied much to buildings today. The technology has become so much better.