Monday 31 October 2011


A brief article on firemen from All the Year Round. More on London firemen and firefighting here.

THE fire-engines of London, including the puffing Billies which make such a ferment of steam and smoke along the streets, now belong to the public, or at least will do so as soon as the recent statute comes into operation. Strange it may appear to continental nations that these invaluable aids to the security of our dwellings have hitherto been absolutely unrecognised by the government, the municipality, or any public body.
    For a period of ninety years there has really been only one statute in operation containing compulsory rules as to fire-engines; and this refers only to the little half-pint, squirts known to us as parish engines. It is to the effect that every parish must keep one large engine and one small, one leathern pipe, and a certain number of ladders. What the parishes might have done if no other organisation had sprung up, we do not know; but the insurance companies having taken up the matter, the parishes backed out, doing only just as little as the law actually compelled, and doing that little about as ineffectively as possible. It used to be fine fun to see the magnificent beadle and his troop of young leather-breeches drag the parish engine to a fire, and profess to pump upon the flames. But that fun has sadly waned; some of the engines have died from asthma or rickets, or have been laid up with rheumatism in the joints ; while others are so rusty and dusty, and the key of the engine-house is so likely to be lost, that we can afford to forget them altogether.
    No ; it is to the insurance offices, and not to any governing or official body whatever, that we are indebted for our capital fire-engines, and the small army of brave fellows who attend them. The system was a self-interested one, of course, in the first instance; seeing that the companies were not bound to take care of any property save that in which they were directly concerned. But the curious part of the matter is, that the companies have long ceased to feel that kind of interest, and have actually kept up the engines and the brigade-men at a loss, until the public authorities should fill up the gap. In the first instance, the fire insurance companies thought fire-engines an essential part of their establishments; seeing that the less damage was inflicted on the property for which they had granted policies, the less they would have to pay to the persons insured. They bought, each company for itself, as many fire-engines as they chose, and paid for as many men as they chose to manage them. When a fire occurred, out rushed these engines, with no paucity of heroic daring on the part of the men. But then two evils arose. Each corps cared only for such houses as were insured in one particular office, and deemed it no matter of duty to save adjacent property. The other evil was, that the men quarrelled with each other as to precedent claims for reward, and sometimes fought while the flames were blazing. To lessen if not re- move these evils, was the purpose of a very useful arrangement made about forty years ago. The managing director of the Sun Fire Office proposed that, without interfering with the independent action of the companies in other ways, they should place all their fire-engines in one common stock, to be managed by one superintendent, under a code of laws applicable to all the firemen; the system to be administered with due impartiality to all the partners, and paid for out of a common purse, to which all should contribute. It was a sagacious suggestion, proper to come from the largest of the companies. As some minds move more slowly than others, so do some companies fall in more readily than others with a new and bold scheme. At first the Sun, the Union, and the Royal Exchange were the only companies which entered cordially into the scheme; the others "didn't see it." Then the Atlas and the Phoenix joined. This limited partnership lasted till the year eighteen hundred and thirty-three, when all the companies assisted in the formation of the London Fire-Engine Establishment. Mr. Braidwood threw his energies into its organisation, and gallantly headed the brigade-men in their dangerous duties for some thirty years; but he fell in the great fire at Tooley-street four years ago a brave man dying at his post.
    The arrangement of this fire establishment is peculiar. Any insurance company may belong to it, on paying a fair quota of expenses; and the total number has gradually risen to about thirty. Each board of directors sends one or more delegates to represent it, and the delegates form a committee for managing the system. All the engines and apparatus, floating engines, and engine-houses, belong to the committee ; and out of the funds provided by the several companies, the committee pays the salaries of the superintendent, inspectors, and firemen. The metropolis has been divided into a certain number of districts, convenient as to size and relative position ; and each district has a station at which the engines are kept, with firemen always ready to dash out when their services are needed. These head-quarters of districts, to which the boys "run to fetch the engines," are at Watling-street, Tooley-street, Southwark Bridge-road, Wellclose-square, Jeffrey's-square, Shadwell, Rotherhithe, Whitecross-street, Farringdon-street, Holborn, Chandos-street, Crown-street, Waterloo-road, Wells-street, Baker-street, King'-street, and Horseferry-road. Captain Shaw, the present commander-in-chief of the brigade, pitches his camp at Watling-street. These stations have engines and men ready day and night. The general allowance is three engines, four horses, and about nine men to each station. Electric wires extend from station to station, affording means for communicating the news of a fire very quickly ; and the men pride themselves on the rapidity with which they can horse their engines and start off. The most prominent novelty in the organisation of the system is the steam fire-engine, which drives the water forth in a jet such as no engine worked by hand power can equal. During the International Exhibition, there was a grand field-day of steam fire-engines in Hyde Park, at which Marshals Shand and Mason, General Merryweather, and other steam magnates, showed what they could do. One engine shot forth three hundred gallons of water in a minute ; and another sent up a jet to a prodigious height, showing how useful such a power would be when a lofty building is on fire. In some of the steam-engines, such is the arrangement of the boiler and flues, the water can be raised from the freezing temperature to the boiling point in ten or twelve minutes. The attendant genii have not to wait for steam before they start ; they fill the boiler with water, light the fire, gallop away, frighten all the old women, delight all the boys, and nearly madden all the dogs ; and by the time they arrive at the scene of conflagration, the water boils and the steam is ready for working. Captain Shaw speaks highly of these steam fire-engines ; and more and more of them are to be seen rattling through the metropolis. All the engines, steam and hand, have their regular quota of apparatus stowed in and around them scaling-ladders, canvas sheets, lengths of hose, lengths of rope, nose-pipes, rose-jets, hooks, saws, shovels, pole-axes, crow-bars, wrenches, &c.
    Fires are multiplying quite as fast as the population, despite the tact that fire-proof construction of buildings is more adopted than ever. London heads the list with fourteen hundred fires annually ; Liverpool follows with three hundred, Manchester with about two hundred and fifty, and Glasgow with over two hundred. In America, New York and Philadelphia both range between three and four hundred ; Paris about equals Liverpool; Berlin and Hamburg each about equals Manchester. The difference between any one year and the next is never very considerable ; for a sort of law of human carelessness prevails, leading us to a pretty steady aggregate of mishaps. Captain Shaw will not include "chimneys" or "false alarms" among his fourteen hundred. In one of the recent years there were sixteen days with no fire, one day with nine fires ; but the average is between three and four fires per day. The late Mr. Braidwood tried to ascertain whether the social and industrial habits of the people lead to a predominance of fires at particular seasons, days, and hours. In one year, August was most disastrous, October least; Tuesday the most disastrous day, Wednesday the least. There is no reason traceable for this ; and as the disastrous months and days differed in other years, we may pass the matter by. There are reasons, however, connected with the social habits of Londoners in respect to fire and light, which render intelligible the statement that more fires break out about ten or eleven in the evening, and fewer at six or seven in the morning, than at any other periods of the day. As to the causes of fire, one out of every six or seven is set down either as "wilful," "suspicious," or "unknown." The known causes, besides the more obvious connected with flues, ovens, boilers, gas explosions, include "cinders laid by hot," "poker left in the fire," "reading in bed," " playing with lucifers," "cigar-ends and pipe-lights thrown down carelessly," "sun set fire to fusees," "cat upset linen-horse," "cat ignite lucifers," in fact, we are inclined to think that puss is made responsible for more sins than she really commits, in this as in other kinds of wickedness. The terrible crime of arson terrible in relation to the peril to innocent life it brings with it we say nothing of here ; the insurance companies suspect more than they openly accuse.
    In France, the system is military ; the sappers and miners, or sapeurs-pompiers, are the firemen when on home-duty, in whatever town it may be. The fire-engines are small, but very numerous ; and as Paris houses have more complete and lofty party walls than those of London, rendering the spread of fire from house to house less likely, the engines and the sapeurs suffice. In Germany, many of the larger towns empower the police to demand the assistance of the inhabitants in case of fire. A night-watch man is perched upon some high place; when he sees a fire he fires a gun, and telegraphs with lanterns ; the inhabitants then drag the fire-engines in the direction shown by him. In America, the volunteer system is adopted. New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburg, San Francisco, and most of the large towns, have their respective volunteer fire-brigades. At New York there are no less than two thousand of these volunteers, grouped into eight, brigades ; and a dashing sight it seems to be when they have their annual procession through the city. Captain Leonard says that San Francisco is divided into a number of wards, each of which has its quota of engines, firemen, and hook-and-ladder men. A tocsin bell at the station of each ward gives the sound of alarm to the neighbouring wards, and the alarm of fire is thus speedily disseminated through the city. The firemen are a fine body of young men, in a smart yet suitable working dress, consisting of a red shirt and trousers, a belt, and a helmet, the latter indicating which corps the fireman belongs to, such as the First or Second Tigers. The fire-engines are generally beautiful models of their kind, very light, and in some cases deco- rated with silver ornaments. The larger engines are worked by steam, and send forth an immense body of water. By the rules of the several corps, a volunteer fireman, however engaged, is bound when the fire tocsin rings to don his helmet and red shirt and appear at his post. The hook-and-ladder men attend the firemen, and render service like that rendered by our admirable fire-escape brigade. The example of America is not wholly lost upon us here in England. The dock companies mostly possess private engines ; so do many of our large public establishments, and many large mansions. But the voluntary system, properly so called, is that which is intended to serve others as much as ourselves. Hodges's Distillery certainly takes the lead among such, so far as London is concerned. Well-appointed fire-engines, for steam as well as manual power, firemen clothed and accoutred at all points, an observatory whence a look-out is maintained all night, fire bells at the residence and the distillery, half a mile of hose or leathern water-pipe, horses and harness kept in such readiness that an engine can be sent off to the scene of a fire within three minutes after the fire-bell is heard, a lieutenant to command the men under the proprietor as captain there is something very gallant about this, and we touch hat to Mr. Hodges. This brigade has gone out to attend more than a hundred fires in twelve months, and not simply on the Lambeth side of the water. The example is spreading. Early in the present year it was stated that there were at that time forty-three Volunteer Fire Brigades in Great Britain, possessing seventy manual and steam fire-engines.
    There is something catching, not only in fire, but in the exciting enthusiasm connected with a large conflagration in London. One of our noble dukes has had a telegraphic wire laid from the nearest engine-station to his own bed- room, in order that he may jump up and go out to a house on fire, if so disposed ; and, not many weeks ago, the same nobleman gave an afternoon fete to all the firemen, on the lawn attached to his mansion. Nay, even the heir to the throne has donned the fireman's helmet, and ridden on the engine to the scene of a conflagration. In a recent fire on a small scale at Marlborough House, the royal fireman mounted on the roof, and did his duty. A fire levels all distinctions. More than one despotic king and emperor on the Continent has shown a relish for this kind of volunteer service, lending a hand, ordering the lazy, encouraging the timid, rewarding the brave, and doing hot battle to save a cottage.
    The insurance companies, we have said, wish to get rid of the cost and responsibility of maintaining the engines and the brigade. It is known that there is twice as much uninsured as insured property in the metropolis. The engine- men direct their gallant services equally to all houses and buildings, small and great, insured and uninsured. What is the consequence ? The companies do their best to extinguish fires in twice as many buildings with which they have no interest, as in those which are properly insured. If the brigade-men allowed a fire to blaze away because the house was not insured, what a public commotion there would be ! And yet the companies get no thanks for their unpaid service. There is no official recognition whatever of the brigade by any governmental, parliamentary, municipal, or parochial authorities.
    The London Brigade has received only a few augmentations in its strength during many years past, and is now too weak for the requirements of so vast a city. The companies refuse to strengthen it, because the non-insurers would get the lion's share of the benefit. Three years ago they addressed the Home Secretary on the subject ; they pointed out that there is no such anomaly in any other city in Europe or America, announced their intention of discontinuing their fire-engine establishment as soon as it could be done without public inconvenience, offered to transfer their establishment to some well-constituted public body on easy terms, suggested a small house-rate of a farthing or a halfpenny in the pound to defray the annual expenses, and expressed their willingness to render aid in every way towards the development of the new scheme. A committee of the House of Commons, in the same year, supported these recommendations, and named the Commissioners of Police as a fitting body to be entrusted with the work. In the years 'sixty-three and 'sixty- four the matter was well talked over ; and now we have an act (lately passed) which defines what is to be done. The Metropolitan Board of Works, and not the Commissioners of Police, are to have the management. On the first day of next year the new order of things will begin. The board are to build or buy new fire- engines and fire-escapes, or to buy up those now existing, whether from companies or societies, at their discretion. They will form a brigade of their own, and will pension off such of the brigade-men (if any) as they do not want. They may establish fire-engine stations at as many parts of the metropolis as they choose, and may make all necessary contracts with water companies and telegraph companies. They may draw up a scale of salaries, gratuities, and pensions for those employed by them in these duties. They may make arrangements with parishes for a transfer of parish engines and men. The government is to contribute ten thousand a year, on account of so many of the government, establishments being in the metropolis. The fire insurance companies are to contribute thirty-five pounds for every million sterling of property insured by them, as an honorarium for the new brigade's extinguishing of fires in insured property. The remaining expenses are to be defrayed by an additional halfpenny in the pound on the poor-rates. For the good working of the statute, intimate relations are to exist between the new brigade, the police, and the insurance companies, in all that relates to property under fire. Lastly a hint to those who neglect the chimney-sweeper a chimney on fire will entail a penalty of twenty shillings on the owner or occupier of the room to which the chimney may belong.

All the Year Round, September 2 1865

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