London’s firemen and firefighters rowing boats on the Thames.

London Fire Brigade Thames regatta. 1930s.

Even from its earliest days London’s fire brigades have had its firemen rowing boats on the River Thames. In fact, the very first firemen, in James Braidwood’s time, recruited sailors and Thames Lightermen and Watermen into the London Fire Engine Establishment as his firemen. Besides the qualities that these men brought to his fire brigade Braidwood realised that virtually nearly every building on or near the River Thames was associated with ships and the various cargoes these craft brought into, or carried from, London and its many docks. In fact the Pool of London was given the title of ‘the larder of London.

London first fire-floats were powered by oars, so who better to man them than firemen who knew the ways of the river. For many years the fire brigade remained the predominant occupation of former sailors, as it was only these men who were accepted as recruits into Capt. Massey Shaw’s Metropolitan Fire Brigade, although this requirement was later dropped by the London County Council, and after the name of the brigade had been changed to the London Fire Brigade in 1904. However, firemen rowing boats, or skiffs, did not change for many years, although it was not seen in such a sporting sense back then. There function were mainly fire service related, such as firemen rowing hose ashore at a riverside blaze by skiff from the fire-float. This was required either because of the state of the tide or the lack of sufficient draught, which prevented the fire-float(s) getting anywhere near the river’s bank.

15th August 1930. London firemen rowers at Putney.

It is not certain exactly when the first Thames rowing competition involving firemen took place. However in 1906 the first LFB river race was recorded. It started when the firemen of the Alpha fire-float, moored at Blackfriars, challenged the Royal Naval ratings of HMS President, moored a short distance away on the Victoria Embankment, to a Whaler Race on the Thames. With the exception of the War years the Whaler Race was held every year after that. By 1911 a crew from the Metropolitan Police River Police joined in the annual race. By 1923 a team from the Royal Naval Reserve brought the competing crews to four.

The upper Thames and a London firemen rowing crew prepare to race. 1930s.

Prior to the start of the First World War in 1914, London’s firemen had held a regatta on the River Thames. Competition between station crews had been popular in the London fire brigade for years. Pathe` Newsreels records various forms of competitions taking place at the turn of the century at the London Fire Brigade’s  headquarters in Southwark Bridge Road. These competitions, against the clock, included both Pump competitions, wheeled escape competitions. By 1918 Pathe` had even recorded footage of the London firemen’s Thames regatta.

August 1932. Batterseacrew from the fire-float Delta; winners of London Fire Brigade championship rowing fours for the third time in succession. Photo credit; Miller-Topical press agency.

Tragically 1918 was the same year in which Fireman Edward T Woolf, who was stationed at the Cannon Street fire station, drowned whilst practicing for a regatta off Chelsea Reach, near Pimlico in Westminster. His boat capsized and its crew of four fell into the Thames. Whilst three of the crew struggled to the nearby foreshore Edward Woolf never surfaced. His body was later recovered from the murky waters of the Thames.

From 1904, until the Second World War, the London Fire Brigade was divided into six districts, A to F. Firemen rowed representing for their respective districts. These districts later were reorganised into just four Divisions (A-D) after the War, and when the fire service returned to Local Authority control in 1947. The format of the Whaler races essentially remained unchanged for the next seventy years or so. Divisional competitions, followed by the Brigade inter-divisional competitons and the winners representing the Brigade in the Fishmongers Cup race. Teams of five, together with a coxswain, each rowing the one and half ton clinker-built naval whalers.

The Lambeth headquarters-circa 1937-showing the river station. Picture credit; London Fire Brigade.

With the opening of the new Lambeth, London Fire Brigade headquarters, located on the Albert Embankment, and its new river fire station a regular Thames whaler race course was established in 1937. The starting point was mid-stream and directly opposite Lambeth river station. The crews rowed the one mile six hundred yard course downstream to HMS President, the finish line. In the wake of the whalers a flotilla of spectator craft followed the crews. The sound of cheering and their yells of encouragement echoing across the river.

The London County Council had funded the impressive Royal George Trophy, to commemorate King George VI opening the new headquarters the same year. With the winners name inscribed on the trophy, it was kept on public display in the main entrance lobby and Memorial Hall in glass fronted cabinets. Cabinets which were filled with a striking collection of silverware that had been presented to the Brigade and the Brigade’s competition cups and various shields. The annual Brigade whaler race winners also each received an engraved pint sized tankard whilst the runners up took home a half-pint tankard.

The races traditionally took place on a Saturday afternoon, but training for the event on that stretch of water took place at any time the individuals could get together on the Thames. The winning Divisional crews were frequently granted special leave, when on duty, to get in extra training, especially if their Divisional Officer thought his team had a good chance of winning that year. The Brigade winners were certainly given some leeway to increase their performance. After all the Brigade’s reputation was at stake.

It was not unknown for furtive figures to be seen skulking along the riverside  trying to see how the opposition were performing in training, especially the Metropolitan Police river service with whom the Brigade battled for supremacy. 

Just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers, one of the twelve great livery companies of the City of London, donated a magnificent challenge cup for the annual inter-service whaler race, hence the current name of the race being the Fishmonger’s Cup. The Fishmongers Cup become a popular highlight in friendly inter-service rivalry. After 1947 the London Fire Brigade had established itself in a dominant role, and became the first crew’s to achieve more than three consecutive victories.

1939. Rowing boats was an operational necessity too. Getting hose ashore from the Massey Shaw fire-float, as here at the major fire at Carron Wharf, Upper Thames Street.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s the LFB won the Fishmongers Cup more times than it lost it. By the 1970s the Bridge’s winning crew were engaged in wider rowing competitions too. They held a commendable record in the Ports Jubilee Regatta Whaler Races.

1952. The winning crew of the Brigade whaler race, taken at the Lambeth river station. Photo credit; London Fire Brigade.
The naval whaler, the Brigade’s preferred racing boat with the 1964 winning crew, including Brian Peck (Brixton) and Cliff Lewis (Brigade headquarets) picture at Lambeth Reach by the Lambeth headquarters river station. Photo credit; London Fire Brigade.

Not satisfied with just whaler racing in the early 1970s the Brigade established the marathon skiff race. The skiff were slightly shorter and lighter than the whalers and made of fibre-glass, not timber. This was a thirty-one mile slog from the Lambeth headquarters to Eel Pie Island, Twickenham. And back. A good winning time was in the region of five and a half hours non-stop rowing, a time that eroded as the race progressed over the years. Eight to ten teams entered the annual event, some Divisions being less than enthusiastic about rowing on the Thames than others. However, for those that did they could all guarantee one thing; blisters on their hands and backsides, and very aching limbs by the end of the marathon pull. Competition was keen amongst the teams. It is a testament to the endurance, strength and stamina of the competitors that in a particular race that decade only sixteen minutes separated the winning crew, in a record time, and the tenth crew that brought up the rear.

Firemen in rowing boats did have a far more serious side too, no more so than at the Lambeth’s River fire station where its crew were occasionally required to pull for all that they were worth for a much different reason. When someone’s life depended on their combined skill and the speed in reaching them in time in the fireboat’s skiff. The skiff was normally attached to the fireboat, and was towed behind it whenever proceeding to a fire or special service call on the river. However, the practice with anyone reported to have jumped into the Thames in the vicinity of the river station was that some of the fireboat’s crew jumped immediately into the skiff and rowed to the person in the water, whilst the fireboat started up her engines, cast off and backed up the skiff crew. It was a system that worked and lives were saved because of it.

Firemen rowing on or along the River Thames had occasionally more to do with just racing each other. It actively involved raising money for charity. Very occasionally it involved more than just the River Thames. Three teams of south London firemen, mainly from Brixton fire station undertook such a challenge in August 1981. They rowed a naval whaler from Paris to London in relays and hopefully, in the process, row themselves into the record books in addition to raising thousands of pounds for two national well known charities.

Their efforts had to be independently adjudicated. Two sea-faring men had come forward to take on the task. One was a Master Mariner from the International Marine Organisation and the other was Lieutenant Commander Mike Bedwell of the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR), from HMS President (then still based in the heritage ship, moored alongside the Victoria Embankment. The RNR were the owners of the naval whaler used for the exploit.

Mike Bedwell published a report of his first contact with London Firemen in both his own in-house magazine and the award winning magazine of the London Fire Brigade. This is an abridged version of his original story.

“ ‘Your sleeping space is a bit primitive but it’s all been swept out.’ I had to take Station Officer Dave Pike’s word for the swept bit, for the primitiveness of the penthouse area of Brixton fire station extended to the wiring which makes a gallant, but vain, attempt to bring amps to dark places.

However it was only to be for one short night since at the crack of dawn we had to be on the 6.30 a.m. SEALINK Dover to Calais ferry. All this in preparation for the London Fire Brigade’s self-inflicted challenge of rowing one of the Royal Naval Reserve’s whaler’s back from Paris into the heart of London. I got in on the act as both an interpreter and, more importantly, as an adjudicator for the Guinness Book of Records, whose pages the firemen hoped to grace.

The following day started at 3.00 a.m. An hour only made possible by my first taste of firemen’s coffee and their style of banter, which I was to become all too familiar with in the succeeding days. I meet David Bruce, my fellow adjudicator who owned up to being a Master Mariner and was therefore a natural for taking charge of the Calais-Dover-London legs. I was also introduced to the delightful Henrietta, employed as a second interpreter and luscious leavener of this otherwise all male loaf.

The journey to Paris went like clockwork, thanks largely to the generosity of Sealink, the main sponsor. The co-operation of the French police and firemen. We benefitted from the French firemen’s hospitality when we stayed, as their guests, in the biggest ‘sapeur pompiers’ barracks in Paris. That evening we were treated to a meal that was light years away from my previous evenings foray to a Brixton chippy.

Crossing the English Channel-The London Fire Brigade rowing crew nears Dover on its epic event.

Memories of the rest of the week became increasingly blurred as the marathon row progressed. Raw details were of course recorded in the official log, maintained by David Bruce and myself: times under way, in and out of locks, changes of crew, (a maximum of fifteen rowers formed the three crews, rowing in relays).

The French waterways was usually interesting, never stupendous and sometimes monotonous. Most of the locks were large commercial affairs, only on the Canal de Calais did we encounter a do-it-yourself English style lock. Elsewhere the locks were somewhat inhuman monuments of hydraulic architecture watched over from Heathrovian control towers with whose countless steps we interpreters became all too familiar. Often we were required to sweet-talk the lock keeper into allowing us priority over other commercial craft, a task which was made easier with the French tolerance of ‘crazy English’ and by the thoroughness with which Dave Pike had done his homework on letter-writing and jacking up presentation plagues.

It was the people rather than the place that made the event so special. There can be no occupation that transcends nationality more than that of the fireman and the camaraderie that was so evident between the Londoners and their French opposite numbers was enough to melt the most chauvinistic heart. More than once I was in one of the escorting vans when we found ourselves outside a fire station. In fact by the end of the week I was beginning to believe it was no coincidence. Within minutes we would have our feet under the table with people we had never meet before. Helmets would be exchanged, equipment would be demonstrated, corks would be drawn and perhaps most welcome of all to a reluctant camper like myself, hot showers could be taken.

The small village near Noyon and an impromptu stop and Champagne reception with the local Mayor.

For those lucky enough to be in the whaler at the time, Messrs Dolezal, Bryant, Pryke, Pike and Rance plus yours truly, the most treasured memory must be our arrival at a small village near Noyon. It was towards evening and we were behind schedule but the local part-time ‘pompiers’ had turned out in their best bib and tucker to line the approach to the next lock. It would have been churlish to have refused the Champagne that, after the obligatory mayoral words, awaited us.

But my final words must be for the rowers themselves and here there is no need to exaggerate. Their unconventional technique and style might raise an eyebrow on the least anchor-like of naval faces, but for sheer guts, stamina and determination no praise is too high. One day they were struggling through the very disturbed waters of the Canal du Nord under an unkind sun, the next toiling through the Canal de Calais, who’s neglected, weed infested water had the consistency of undercooked packet minestrone. Finally, of course, came the biggest challenge of the Channel and the River Thames, which was accomplished under tug escort in something under 34 hours of non-stop relay rowing, a third of them plugging adverse currents which for one frustrating hour allowed less than half a mile to be covered.

All this was done not under the cloistered steak-for-breakfast regime with which Oxford crews prepare for their annual paddle but in expedition conditions where sleep was often short and the food, for all the valiant efforts of the chef, Bob Irwin, was notable more for its carbohydrate than its protein. Minor tension were inevitable but these were released in an unremitting earthy and stoical humour that was designed to sting but never to injure. It was both an honour and a privilege to see at close quarters the type of individuals that make London’s fire brigade.”

By the new millennium the rowing traditions between the emergency services were in serious, and terminal, decline. It was a combination of service cut-backs and the decline of the whaler rowing boats themselves. The London Fire Brigade no longer boasts any ‘heavy’ boat section and the Fishmongers Cup has not been competed for in over a decade or more. The last Fishmongers races were competed for using Thames Cutters as no one could find four matched Whalers. The last of the emergency services to maintain a whaler were the Metropolitan Police’s heavy boat club. Even that finished when their key people retired.

Firefighters rowing on the Thames in whalers is now nothing but a distant memory. It is yet another example of a fine Brigade tradition that has become little more than a hazy reminiscence in the minds of retired river firefighters. Sadly, it also something that probably won’t features very highly in the Brigade’s own recalling of its history.

The Bishopsgate Goods depot blaze.  December 5th 1964.

In the final months of the London County Council’s London Fire Brigade, the Brigade faced its biggest challenge in terms of a post WWII blaze. In fact the fire at the Bishopsgate goods depot, located by Commercial Street E1, and on the eastern side of Shoreditch High Street, was one of the biggest peacetime fires in Britain. It caused five million pounds worth of damage and killed two HM customs officers working at the site. This massive fire also stretched the resources of the then London Fire Brigade to the full.

Although it was classified as a 40 pump fire, at its height more than 45 pumping appliances, 10 turntable ladders and 13 other specialist fire engines, with 235 London firemen were fighting this conflagration. The blaze travelled at an astonishing speed and quickly engulfed the huge British Rail depot. The depot, with its main building of two and three floors, covered an area of approximately 350ft (107 metres) and was some 600ft (183 metres) in depth.

Bishopsgate Goods Depot had started life as Bishopsgate Station. It had opened in 1840 as a passenger terminal providing a passenger route between London, Ipswich, Norwich and Colchester. The station had closed to passenger traffic in 1875. It reopened six years later as Bishopsgate Goods-yard, a major freight station serving the eastern ports of England.

The premises had been constructed in two stages. The main portion being completed around 1880 and the remainder finished about 1914. The depot generally had brick load-bearing external walls and the floors are supported internally by unprotected cast-iron columns at the first and second floors and by brick arch construction at the ground floor.

Bishopsgate’ main buildings continued through ground floor arches under the marshalling yard and ended in a fruit bank platform at main rail level which is covered in by a canopy. The whole of the depot was connected by open staircases. Floors were also connected by lifts and various hoists. The main building, which formed a vast cube, in one undivided cell, measured over 10.5 million cubic feet (300,000 cubic metres).

By the twentieth century the depot was used for the handling and storage of the wide variety of commodities transported by the then British Railways. On the day of the fire the occupancy of the depot was: The ground floor (main railway line level); general storage and handling of goods (including drinking/potable spirits in the “vulnerable (at risk) arches”, plus mess rooms and offices. Some arches, which faced the public street, were let as shops.

On the first floor, loading banks with railway lines between; vehicle roadways and ancillary offices. Storage at this level was contained on the banks, inside railway wagons and road vehicles in the cage store. This store for undelivered goods. It being some 15-17ft long, 8-9ft wide and 8ft high (5 metres x 3metres x2.5 metres). It was constructed on a wooden frame; the lower part of sheet steel, the upper portion is expanded metal lined with hardboard and cardboard. The top was covered by a tarpaulin. Entry into the cage by a double door.

On the second floor; a warehouse floor and at the eastern end of which was a large partitioned area which formed a Customs cage. At the time of the fire the two unfortunate HM Customs and Excise Officers were on duty in a Customs Office at the northeast corner of this floor.

At the time of the fire the depot contained various rolling stock and road trailers comprising 112 British railway wagons (average 2.5tons content weight). 17 continental ferry wagons; 17 (between 8—I0 tons content weight) 140 3 to 6 ton road trailers: 140.These were located throughout the first floor. The rail wagons contained various goods, including fruit, machinery, biscuits, surplus clothing and general goods. The warehouse and customs cage contained large quantities of general merchandise and included plastic articles, toys, etc.; bales of carpets; synthetic fabrics and furs in cartons; baskets; leather handbags, glassware.

The first call to the Lambeth headquarters fire brigade control room that Friday morning was from a passer-by dialling 999 from an exchange telephone at 0620. They reported a fire at the ‘Bishopsgate Goods Depot.’ Four minutes later a second call was received by exchange telephone to a fire in the vicinity of the Goods Depot, Bishops-gate. A further six other calls were received by Lambeth’s Brigade control reporting the fire. The last was received at 0658.

Although this picture is dated two years later (1966) it shows the layout of the new ‘state of the art’ Lambeth basement control room at the Brigade headquarters, located on the Albert Embankment. SE1.

The first attendance came from Shoreditch and Whitechapel fire stations. The new state of the art basement control room at Lambeth had only just been completely refurbished and modernised.  This was to be its first major test by fire, literally. The Brigade Control officers now dispatched fire engines via teleprinters, something that had been introduced in 1963 across the LFB fire stations and into the four Divisional headquarters.

Shoreditch turned out from its brand new fire station, located in Shoreditch High Street, having vacated its former Victorian built fire station in Tabernacle Street.  The fire appliances ordered in response to that first call were Shoreditch’s pump-escape and pump, and the pump and a turntable ladder from Whitechapel. As those appliances arrived at the incident, and on receipt of the second call at 0624, the pump-escape from Whitechapel was ordered on.

The new Barbican fire station.

Fire cover in the City of London was changing. On 6 November 1963 the LCC’s Fire Brigade Committee had agreed a report on the City’s fire cover. A new Barbican station was to replace both Redcross St and Bishopsgate and also a new station was to be built in Upper Thames St that would replace both Whitefriars and Cannon St. Construction of the new Barbican was commissioned around the same time as the Shoreditch station, but planning and land acquisition issues meant it was not possible to start the proposed new Upper Thames St station. The Redcross St fire station was closed in February 1964 but its PE and personnel transferring temporarily to Cannon St but retained their station identity of B33. 

Shoreditch fire station and Divisional headquarters.

It had been expected that the new Barbican station would open before the new Shoreditch but in the event Shoreditch opened first on 4 November 1964. Clerkenwell’s Emergency Tender (ET) moving to Shoreditch in 6th November and B Divisional HQ was relocated from Clerkenwell on 7th November. It had been determined that Bishopsgate fire station would closed in advance of Barbican opening. It closed on 10 November 1964, its appliances being relocated to the new Shoreditch as second (or B) pump and its PE temporarily to Clerkenwell, again as second pump.

When those first appliances from Shoreditch arrived at the entrance to the Depot at Shoreditch High Street, the Station Officer in charge saw vast quantities of smoke issuing from the windows on the first and second floors. As the appliances drove along the road smoke was seen to be issuing from all the first floor windows and, to a lesser degree, from the windows on the second floor. The first appliances had pulled up adjacent to the canopied loading bank and the Station Officer made his way, on foot, to the loading bank and entered the building.

With some considerable difficulty he managed to progress about 25 yards into the building, parallel in direction to Bethnal Green Road. He saw in front of him, and to his left, a wall of fire and the smoke apparently extending from the Shoreditch High Street end of the building. He was unable to see across the cavernous depot floor area, to the Quaker Street side of the building, because of the high volumes the thick dense black smoke.

Upon returning outside, and only five minutes after the first call was made, he gave instructions that a priority message be sent to Brigade Control, making pumps 10. He then got his crews to get two jets to work into the building and near to the loading platform. The internal British Rail hydrant was set into for their initial water supplies.

The Bishopsgate goods depot fire. 1964. Radial branches were brought into use such was the intensity of the fire.

As the pump from Whitechapel arrived and drove up Wheler Street Hill to the Shoreditch High Street entrance, its Station Officer saw that fire had spread throughout the building and that beyond the front bank loading platform the depot was well alight for so far as he could see. He also noticed that BR depot staff were attempting to tackle the fire with a jet and working from an internal hydrant in front of the depot offices.

Shoreditch’s Station Officer, having given instructions for the positioning of the first two jets, quickly returned to the gate by which he had entered and was met by a Security Officer. He was told that lighted embers were falling from the first floor to the ground floor by way of an open lift shaft. The crews of the initial reinforcing appliances were instructed to deal with the falling burning brands and a jet was got to work on the first floor.

The pump-escape was from Cannon Street arrived at 0630. It had a Station Officer in charge. He immediately gave instructions to his crew to supply water to the pump from Whitechapel. He saw that the whole building, including the roof, appeared to be well alight. Drums of liquid were bursting and the walls at the Commercial Street side of the building were beginning to crack. The combined efforts of the crews of the two appliances from Whitechapel and Cannon Street enabled three jets to be quickly got to work on the fire from the front loading bank.

The Bishopgate goods deport fire. 1964.

Shoreditch’s Station Officer had meanwhile returned to his own crews, who had by now got one jet to work and were laying out their second, when there was a loud explosion. He noted it came from second floor and in a position that appeared to be to his front and to the left. This first explosion was followed by a number of minor ones also apparently coming from the second floor. He made pumps 20.

Immediately following the explosions fire spread at great speed along the lines of the goods wagons and loading platforms on the first floor and in the warehouse on the floor above. It spread so quickly that the crews had to break the hose connections and move both appliances to prevent them from becoming involved in the fire. As it was the appliances were severely blistered but their operational performance was not impaired. Both were able to play an extremely useful part in the subsequent firefighting.

As the appliances were being repositioned, fire broke through the roof of the building and a further assistance message was sent, making turntable ladders three.

Divisional Officer Frederick (Fred) Lapthorne. London Fire Brigade.

Divisional Officer Fredrick (Fred) Lapthorn was the senior officer in charge of the B Division. He arrived together with the reinforcing appliances at around 0630. He was quickly joined by the duty Assistant Division Officer, ADO Lloyd. Fred Lapthorn went to Wheler Street Hill side of Bishopsgate whilst the ADO took the the Bethnal Green Road side of the building. As he got to Bethnal Green Road he saw fire through the windows on both the first and second floors for about 300ft on that side of the building, ADO Lloyd returned to the Shoreditch High Street end at first floor level to see that about four-fifths of the first and second floors were a mass of fire; fire which was spreading rapidly towards the loading bank.

At 0636 DO Lapthorn sent an informative message which gave, in graphic but brief details, a picture of the dire situation. A message which told that the vast building was very well alight. Seven minutes later he made pumps 30 and turntable ladders 5. At this point both DO Lapthorn and ADO Lloyd realised that the situation within the building was rapidly becoming untenable for their firemen and all crews were withdrawn to positions outside the building.

The Bishopsgate goods depot fire. 1964.

At about 0645 the first of a series many major wall collapses occurred on the Bethnal Green Road side of the building. The debris completely obstructing the inclined road. Fortunately there were no personnel or appliances at work on the inclined road. There were, however, appliances, including two turntable ladders, and personnel at work in Bethnal Green Road. Urgent steps had to be taken to move the appliances to safety. This was accomplished only minutes before a further major collapse on this side of the building partially obstructed Bethnal Green Road.

The fire at Bishopsgate Goods Station on Shoreditch High Street, 5th December 1964.
Two customs officials lost their lives in the fire. (Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

With the Brigades principal officers arriving from the Lambeth headquarters and Brigades major control unit set up, first the duty Assistant Chief Officer took charge before the Deputy Chief took command. From this time onwards it became apparent that all fire-fighting would have to be carried out from the perimeter of the building. Further requests for reinforcements were sent. Pumps were made 40 and the turntable ladders increased to 10. Additionally 10 radial branches were also ordered.

Firefighting was also hampered by a strong north-westerly wind. The adjacent properly in Quaker Street, on the south side of the fire, was menaced, both by radiated heat and by a large quantity of flying embers. A number of fires broke out but these were successfully dealt with and no serious damage occurred.

The firemen’s jets were concentrated at Wheler Street with the object both of stopping the spread of fire along the south side of the goods depot and protecting the property in Quaker Street. The turntable ladders were positioned at vantage points on both sides of the building and these were as soon reinforced by the arrival of the radial branches.

Further jets were got to work at the main rail entrance to the depot and as the fire was contained these jets were worked progressively into the building. However, great care was required owing to the very dangerous condition of the structure of the building. At the height of fire-fighting operations 21 jets and 14 radial branches were at work.

The Bishopsgate goods depot fire. 1964. Radial branch in use.
The Bishopsgate goods depot fire. 1964.

One and half hours after the first call the danger of any further spread of fire had been overcome. By 1029 a ‘stop’ message was sent to Brigade Control indicating that the fire was under control. Crews to remain in attendance cooling down the debris over the next 36 hours to ensure that there was no re-occurrence of fire.

In the aftermath of the blaze. Bishopsgate good depot. December 1964.

Shoreditch’s Station Officer twice made enquiries in the early stages of the fire as to whether any persons were in the building. On the first occasion he was informed by a British Railways policeman that he “did not know”. Shortly afterwards, and in response to the same request, he was shown by a security officer a group of employees who were in no apparent danger. The first indication that persons might be involved was given to the Brigade’s Control Unit staff and the officer-in-charge caused a message to be sent to all senior officers over the walkie-talkie network at 0713. The message indicated that information has been received that two customs officers were resident at the Sclater Street end of the building.

There was confusion as to whether the men had left the building before the fire and gone home. It was learned that there had been three HM Customs Officers in the building the previous night; one of whom had left at about 0300.

By the time the first indication that there was a possibility that the men were missing, the fire had involved the whole of the building and the portion of the building housing the customs office had already collapsed. It was impossible at that stage to enter and search the building.

As soon as conditions allowed and despite the quantity of debris and the instability of the structure a search of the building was commenced. At 1220 the two men, both fatally injured were located in the debris and in a position some 200ft distant from their office. Firemen removed the men’s bodies.

London Fire Brigade ‘relief’ crews remained on site until the early evening of the 12th December, eight days after the fire started, when the incident was closed down.


  1. The destruction of all material evidence by the fire makes it impossible to decide the probable cause of the fire. The Goods yard and depot was rendered unusable. Over the next 40 years, the site became derelict and was made safe by a major demolition project in 2003-4.
  2. Some difficulties were experienced in obtaining enough water during the early stages of the fire but these were quickly overcome as reinforcing crews got to work. Despite the very large volumes of water used in fighting the fire there was no shortage
  3. Although this fire was apparently first seen by railway employees to be in the ‘brought back’ returns cage on No. 3 bank, it was considered by the Brigade’s Fire Prevention officers that the fire could not developed and have spread in the way it did if the fire had originated in this position. What was considered more probable is that the fire started on the warehouse floor above and the ignition in the returns cage resulted from burning debris falling from the floor above, either by burning through the floorboards or by falling down the adjacent hoist shaft and ricocheting into the cage.
  4. The explosions. At an early stage, while BR employees were tackling the fire, there were reports of ‘flashes of flame’. These may have been caused by the ignition of cartons containing numerous books of matches (240 per book) or cartons containing plastic aerosols of hair lacquer. Further explosions were also reported at both the track level and in the warehouse and were attributed to the bursting, due to heat, of drums of oil and numerous other containers.

The sequence of make-up messages.

0620: Time of call. (Six further calls received.)
0625: Make Pumps 10
0629: Make Pumps 20
0630: Make TL’s 3
0643: Make Pumps 30, TL’s 5
0657: Make Pumps 40
0700: Make Turntable Ladders 10. 10 addition radial branched required

1029: Stop message sent.

Station attending. (PE = pump-escape. P=pump. TL=turntable ladder. ET= emergency tender. HLL=hose laying lorry. BACV= breathing apparatus control van.)

A1 Manchester Square P TL. A3 Camden Town PE P. A4 Euston PE P TL ET. A5 Soho P TL
A7 Knightsbridge HLL. A10 Kensington P. A14 West Hampstead TL.

B20 Clerkenwell PE P P* (*Bishopgate’s former PE). B21 Islington PE. B23 Kingsland PE TL.B26 Bethnal Green PE P. B27 Shoreditch PE P ET P* (Bishopgate’s former P). B28 Brunswick Road TL
B29 Burdett Road PE P. B30 Whitechapel PE P TL. B31 Shadwell PE P. B35 Cannon Street PE TL ( plus B33 Redcross Street PE at B35). B36 Whitefriars PE P. B37 Holloway PE P.

C40 New Cross TL. C42 Deptford PE P. C43 East Greenwich P. C49 Lee Green HLL.

D60 Clapham P (ordered to Lambeth to collect the radial branches from the ET)
D61 Lambeth PE P CU. D62 Southwark PE P. D63 Dockhead PE P. D65 Peckham PE P
D66 Brixton P. D70 Wandsworth TL

‘B’ DHQ BACV-Shoreditch
‘C’ DHQ BACV-New Cross

Plus the AFS Pumps from Euston, Belsize, Kingsland, Whitechapel and Greenwich.

Fire at Bishopsgate goods depot, London 5 December 1964

The case of the peculiar out-duty.

NOTHING WAS WORKING OUT for Olly as he had intended. A recently qualified ‘Proto’ breathing apparatus (BA) fireman, he served at a busy inner London fire station. In fact, Olly was one of the very first to undertake the Brigade’s extended and improved breathing apparatus courses, something which had been introduced in the summer of 1960 in the wake of the death of two London firemen at the Smithfield Meat Market fire in 1958. The two men had entered a smoke-filled basement in BA and never came back out alive.

Illustrative image only. The Smithfield meat maket fire in 1958. Two of those first to responded never came out alive.

Now not only was Olly working a night duty on All Hallows eve, when he had hoped to take his wife and two young children to the special evening family service at his local church, but he was to miss the special mess supper too. His request for a night’s leave had been declined. Olly’s name had been entered on the roll call board as riding BA on the back of the pump when he had wandered into work at around 5.30 p.m. However, when his name was called out at the 6.00 p.m. roll call it had nothing to do with riding the pump. He was ordered to ‘stand-by’ for the watch at the dock-side fire station on the far side of the Division. He wouldn’t get to enjoy the quarterly mess dinner, something all the watch chipped in for and which the talented mess manager was busily preparing when Olly passed the kitchen, carrying his kitbag, on his way out of the station to perform this unwelcome out-duty.

Illustrative image only. The LFB HQ and station (including the river station) Albert Embankment SE1.

It was a Sunday night. One free of normal evening work routines. There was something of a festive mood across the watch: an anticipation of the special meal, with laughs shared and a glass of beer enjoyed with their dinner. Beer was something the guvnor only allowed at these infrequent events.

Olly crossed the station yard and placed the kitbag, with his black fire helmet tied on top, in the side-car of his trusty motorcycle combination. As he was preparing to depart there was relief on the faces of other firemen on the watch that they had avoided the unfortunate out-duty. It was all the luck of the draw. Olly’s name was simply next up on the rota.

Olly was an extremely likeable man. He had been keen to learn. He listened to what he was told by the more senior hands. Now in his third year, he was also a respected member of the watch. He had a couple of decent BA fires under his belt. Even so, the ‘old sweats’ would still much prefer to cough up lumps of soot rather than put on a ‘sissy’ BA set at a fire unless they were ordered to do so by their Station Officer, who was simply called ‘Guvnor’.

The guvnor ran a tight ship. Although not an overly friendly man, he was not considered a harsh taskmaster, rather someone who was both firm and fair. More importantly, he was thought of as a first class fire officer. On the fire-ground his word was law. His operational judgement was considered sound and highly regarded by rank and file. Now, much to Olly’s amazement, his guvnor strolled over to him as he prepared to kick-start his motorbike.

“Take care, old son,” said his Station Officer. “That station can have some surprises if you are not careful.”

With that the Station Officer turned around, walked back into the station and was gone. His words played on Olly’s mind as he navigated his way across the Division on the almost deserted Sunday evening streets. The ‘old man’ – not that Olly would ever say that in ear-shot of his guvnor – had never spoken to him before when he had done an out-duty. In fact, he did not say much to Olly at all, unless it was to bark an order at a fire or to shout an instruction on the station’s drill ground.

Moving closer to the river, the buildings started to change in appearance, reflecting the former use of the area. The once busy general warehouses and wharves had fallen on hard times in recent years. But the cobbled side streets gave the place a timeless quality. One where the Victorian workers, who once filled the streets, would have felt right at home had their spirits returned to pay a visit. Something Olly thought was a strange thing to think of. Even as a churchgoing man, he firmly believed that once you’re dead, you’re dead.

The autumn river mist was thickening. It was sweeping into the surrounding narrow streets. It gave everything a surreal feel. One might even be forgiven for thinking it was all a tad spooky – if one were that way inclined. Olly was glad he was not heading over to Whitechapel; the thought of Jack the Ripper stalking similar streets gave him a sudden shiver.

Then in the distance light shone out onto the street. It was the light from the open appliance room of his stand-by fire station. It was one of many such London stations that had no rear entrance. Everything had to pass through the appliance room to get into the rear, rather claustrophobic, yard. This was where he could park his motorcycle combination.

Illustrative image only. An LFB dockland fire station on the south of the river.

As he drew nearer both sets of doors were wide open. Olly assumed that the station had had a ‘shout’. Not many station crews would delay their turn-out by stopping to shut the appliance doors before proceeding onto an emergency call, despite the fact that they were required to do just that. Clearly this was one such station. What Olly had not expected to see was the unfamiliar fire engine, a pump, standing there in the station! Parking his bike in the rear yard he walked back towards the appliance room. He had ridden his bike wearing his fire-gear, exchanging only his fire helmet for his favourite leather crash hat and flying goggles, something he always wore whenever riding his beloved motorcycle. He immediately noticed something strange about the fire engine, something he had not noticed before. “Bloody ’ell,” he thought, “they must really be scraping the bottom of the barrel for spare appliances these days.”

The engine was red enough and it carried all the requisite ladders, but it could easily have come from a museum. He walked past it and into the station watchroom situated in one corner of the appliance room. It was where the three-man crew stood in complete silence. They all had the look of ‘old’ hands, each in their late 40s. None looked overjoyed to see him arrive.

“I am here to stand by for the watch,” said Olly.

“They’re out and have picked up a job down the road,” said the Sub Officer. The other two firemen did not give Olly a second glance; one of them looked strangely familiar.

“That’s a crap machine you have been given,” commented Olly, hoping to lighten the mood. He failed.

“It will do us,” said the Sub.

Illustrative image only-The rear of a 1950s LFB pump with its Proto Mark IV breathing apparatus sets.

Olly gave up on the conversation but could not help feeling a distinct chill. He put this down to riding his motorbike to this station in his fire tunic. He looked over at the watchroom desk. The station log book lay open on the top of the desk. He noticed that nobody from the crew had booked on duty in the watchroom nor had they booked in the peculiar-looking London Fire Brigade pump at the station as required. Not wishing to make a fuss, he made a note on the watchroom message pad stating what time he had arrived at the station, 6.45 p.m., together with the station name he had come from. Any further attempt by Olly at conversation was interrupted by the old, breathless, man who came running into the station.

The old man saw the others standing in the watchroom and rushed in. He started speaking before he got through the door. In fact, he was shouting more than speaking and to no one in particular.

“There’s lots of smoke coming from the warehouse around the corner.”

The only one to respond was the Sub Officer.

“Calm down, old chap, we are on our way. You,” – meaning Olly – “ride with us”.

Olly had ridden his motorbike wearing his belt and axe so putting his fire helmet on he found himself sitting on the rear of the pump as the engine roared into life. The driver seemed to know where to go without a word being said. Certainly, the old man had not given a precise address. The fire engine turned left out of the station and within a short distance turned right into a riverside alley. Even to Olly it was clear that they had a working job on their hands. Thick, billowing, brown smoke was coming from the upper loophole openings of a warehouse. Inside the warehouse the sound of burning timber, crackling angrily, could be clearly heard whilst above the five-storey building, reflected in the swirling mist, was an angry red and orange glow.

Olly had expected the Sub Officer to reach for the appliance radio, to send a priority message requesting immediate reinforcements. But there was no radio. “Some bloody spare appliance this is,” thought Olly. Instead, the Sub Officer turned to the driver and told him to find a public call box and make a ‘fire-flash’ call (a fireman’s 999 call) and ‘make pumps six’. Jumping down from the engine the Sub Officer kicked open the locked side entrance door. Inside there was a short landing which led directly onto the wooden internal staircase that gave access to the upper floors. Further along the hallway another staircase led down to the sub-basement.

“Right, you two; get your sets on and have peek downstairs. I am going to have a quick shufti up above.”

With that, and seemingly impervious to the thick acrid smoke, the Sub Officer made his way up the flight of stairs. Even before he was halfway up, he disappeared, lost to view in the churning smoke. The next thing that Olly noticed was that the Proto breathing apparatus set he was using was not like the one he had trained on or used back at his own station. His was the Mark V Proto set. What he was now throwing over his shoulder was the BA set that preceded it. It had a leather and canvas harness. But in all other respects he was familiar with it and how to start it up. Which was just as well as his “oppo” was looking as though he had no intention of waiting for Olly. Olly recalled the words of his BA instructor who said that steady, slow hand clapping was once the distress signal if BA men ever got into difficulties. Olly thought that a useful thing to remember right now.

Illustrative image only-A London fireman wearing his Proto breathing apparatus set.

As the pair entered the warehouse the smoke got thicker. Even with their battery-operated CEAG lamps turned on, the visibility was almost non-existent. Using the open wooden staircase, the pair headed down into the sub-basement. As they stepped onto the floor a sudden violent rumble somewhere overhead seemed to shake the building to its very core. They felt the vibrations rise up through their fire boots. Next followed a loud whoosh as escaping hot gases and fierce flames exploded through the roof into the night sky.

The upper floors started to collapse, one on top of the other. The deafening sound filled their heads as tons of falling masonry, and other debris, came crashing down. Olly made a dive to his left. His BA colleague dived to the right. Everything went black followed by an unexpected stillness. Shaken, but uninjured, Olly found himself trapped in a small alcove. A half-lit, barred window, just below the ceiling, was level with the outside pavement. The entrance to the room blocked by a wall of debris. Then something broke the dust filled silence. He listened intently, then he heard it again. It was coming from the other side of the fallen debris. It was the unmistakable sound of slow regular hand clapping. Clap…clap…clap.

Back at the fire station the pump-escape and pump had returned from the false alarm at the far end of the station’s ground. It was whilst they were reversing into their respective bays that the Station Officer walked into the watchroom and discovered the old man sitting in the dutyman’s chair. He was still trying to regain his composure after all that evening’s excitement.

“What are you doing here?” demanded the officer.

“I came to report the fire” said the old man, clearly offended by the officer’s attitude.

“What bloody fire?” insisted the officer.

“The one that your other engine is attending,” shouted back the old man, now irritated that his act of civic duty was being questioned in such an aggressive fashion.

By now the dutyman had entered the watchroom and passed the Station Officer Olly’s note which he had found on the watchroom desk.

“Book us back,” said the officer, “and ask Control why they sent a stand-by appliance here to cover our station.”

The dutyman did as instructed. He looked bemused as he informed his guvnor that no stand-by machine had been sent into the station. The Station Officer looked menacingly at the old man.

“Now you tell me exactly what happened and what you saw.”

Which the old man did. Reiterating his tale, adding that he was surprised that the firemen never asked him exactly where the fire was. He added that one of the firemen took off a motorcycle helmet, put on a fireman’s helmet before he got on the fire engine. It was then that Olly’s kitbag was noticed in the corner of the watchroom.

“Search the whole station,” demanded the Station Officer.

The two crews quickly completed their task – “Nothing, Guv.” – as they ran back to the watchroom to report.

“No one here except this old bloke,” commented the Sub Officer.

“Exactly where was this fire?” asked the Station Officer, now in a far more conciliatory tone.

“The warehouse in Druids Alley, just around the corner,” said the old man.

“Put the bells down dutyman, we’re going,” ordered the officer.

The Station Officer made pumps ten, turntable ladders two even before he got down from the pump. The upper floors of the warehouse were totally ablaze. Olly had managed to smash a pane of glass but could only reach high enough to stick his hand through the jagged opening to attract attention. No one noticed him at first, there too much going on. The attack on the fire was gathering pace, with each additional fire engine crew adding to the overall weight of attack. Finally, two of the pump-escape’s crew noticed the hand sticking out of the broken window. They worked feverishly to prise away the stout iron window bars. Removing two gave sufficient space for Olly to be lifted up and out, but not with him wearing his breathing apparatus set. Taking a deep breath of the life-giving oxygen, he lifted the set over his head and dropped it to the floor. The men hauled Olly to safety.

Olly’s first words were not, “Thank you,” but, “Get the others out, they are still inside.”

“What others?” said one of his rescuers.

“We were the first two fire engines here. There was no one else around! That old bloke must have got it wrong and just saw you run round here on your own.”

Olly was too confused and shocked to argue. But to his credit the Leading Fireman, who helped Olly out of the sub-basement, passed the comments on to a senior officer. That was when the ‘mire’ hit the fan. A full roll call was ordered but no one was found to be missing or unaccounted for.

Illustrative image only-A London dockland warehouse fire.

With the first of that night’s reliefs ordered and in place Olly returned, on the pump, to the station some hours later. No sooner had he stepped off the engine than he was ordered by the Station Officer into the watchroom to be interviewed by a senior officer from the Divisional HQ. An Assistant Divisional Officer sat in the dutyman’s chair. The officer was both senior in rank and in his length of service. His fire tunic smelt of the acrid smoke from the warehouse blaze where he had just come from. He had a brusque and off-hand reputation on the fire-ground and was known to be fond of using the odd expletive to those who were slow to react to his commands. But all Olly saw was a more human side of this man’s character.

“I have already spoken with the old gentleman who gave the ‘running call’, son,” said the senior officer. “I just need to hear your side of the story.”

So, Olly told him – everything, from beginning to end; from his arrival and the strange looking pump, right up to his rescue from the cellar. It was whilst the senior officer was on the phone to the control room that Olly noticed the small memorial plaque on the watchroom wall. It recorded the deaths of a Sub Officer and one fireman on the night of 31 October 1949 whilst standing by covering the station. Olly felt he had nothing to lose so asked the senior officer what had happened.

Illustrative image only-A London Sub Officer rigging in his breathing apparatus set.

“Their pump stood by here, as the plaque says. They picked up a call to a fire in Druids Alley. It was well alight when they arrived. Whilst the Sub went up the stairs to investigate the extent of the fire the floor collapsed and he was killed outright. The driver who ran for the phone box went the wrong way. By the time he got back there was nothing he could do. The other lone fireman had gone down in the basement in BA hoping to locate the Sub Officer. He became trapped by fallen debris. It was impossible for anyone to reach him although the driver said he heard the man’s regular slow hand-clapping for help. But no one can be certain what the driver actually heard. The trapped fireman’s oxygen eventually ran out and his body was recovered the following day. It was said that it was the deaths of his mates which led the driver to take his own life.”

“Why is his name not recorded here?” asked Olly.

“He was your guvnor’s elder brother and it was his wish not to have the name added,” replied the ADO.

“So what now?” asked Olly.

“Nothing,” said the man behind the desk as he closed his notebook.

“My report will say you responded to the running call whilst the station’s two machines were attending the false alarm. You acted in the finest traditions of the service and no more will be said about it. Understand?”

But Olly didn’t understand. So much went through Olly’s head as he lay on his bed, unable to sleep. The new day brought him no new cheer. At the change of watch he got back on his motorbike to return to his base station. However, he could not return without one last look at the scene of the previous night’s happenings.

All the reliefs had now departed. The alley was deserted. The warehouse was a smouldering ruin. The overpowering smell of burnt wood and debris filled his nostrils as he parked his motorcycle at the end of the eerily quiet turning. He looked around and saw the street level window, its missing iron bars indicating the place he had been pulled to safety.

He knew what had happened. It was imprinted in his brain. But he needed to see if the old leather-harnessed Proto set still lay on the floor where he left it. However, the sub-basement was more akin to a swimming pool, filled with the thousands upon thousands of gallons of water used to contain and then extinguish the fire. But he looked in anyway, drawing ever closer to the opening. It was deathly silent… or so he thought.

It was then he heard a sound. Then he heard it again. Olly’s heart started pounding as he turned an ashen white. He knew that noise. He had heard it before. It was unmistakable. It was the sound of someone clapping their hands together; slowly, repeatedly. Clap… clap… clap…

As Olly stood the clapping became louder. Its clamour filled his head as he ran for his motorbike. Even his bike’s powerful engine noise could not silence the rhythmic sound. Its regular distress signal followed Olly as he drove away at speed through those narrow, deserted, streets…

(A fire brigade fiction)

The London Fire Engine Establishment. 1833-1866.

It had taken the insurance companies a whole year to come together to form one London wide fire brigade, the London Fire Engine Establishment (LFEE). The Brigade came into force in January 1833. This amalgamation of the former insurance brigades helped to remove some of the chaos that had up to then been occurring at fires. It was the capital’s first unified fire brigade.

London Insurance Company firemen, from different offices, combine their brigades to tackle a fire at the southern end of Blackfriars Bridge. ‘Fire in London’ – 1808. Various horse drawn ‘manual’ fire pump hand being used to fight the blaze. Picture credit.-coloured etching by Thomas Rowlandson. Image in the Public Domain.

The London Fire Engine Establishment’s (LFEE) first Superinten­dent was to be James Braidwood. He had been enticed to come to London to lead this new brigade at a salary of £400.00 p.a. Most of the London insurance companies saw the benefit of mutual co-operation, and the successful working of the fire brigade force in Edinburgh. Braidwood was their natural choice to command the London Fire-Engine Establishment.

Initially the companies to combine were the: Alliance, Atlas, Globe, Imperial, London Assur­ance, Protector, Royal Exchange, Sun, Union, and Westminster. They were later joined by the: British, Guardian, Hand-in-Hand, Norwich Union, and Phoenix. Only two fire-offices from London chose not to be involved with the LFEE. The insurance brigades, had amalgamated under the LFEE banner with the Brigade managed by a Committee comprising of a director from each of the contributing fire offices.

This Insurance Companies Committee, who paid for LFEE in agreed proportions, divided London into four fire districts. They were:

1st, eastward of Aldersgate Street and St. Paul’s.

2nd, westward to Tottenham Court Road and St. Martin’s Lane.

3rd, all westward of the 2nd district.

4th, south of the river.

London of 1833-The headquarters of the London Fire Engine Establishment being located in Watling Street, City of London.

In each of four districts the Committee established fire engine stations with about three stations to each district. At each station were one, two, or three engines, according to the importance of the station. The most easterly station was at Ratcliff, and the most western near Portman Square. At these stations were the total brigade complement of thirty-five engines and the brigade’s force of around ninety men under the sole direction of the Brigade’s Superintendent Braidwood. There was no deputy.

1833-Notice of the London Fire Engine Establishment fire stations with a 24 hour cover.

The brigade’s two fire floats were still the oar propelled craft with manual pumps. One, pumped by 90 men, was located by Southwark Bridge (Upper float), the other, pumped by 45 men, was stationed off King’s Stair in Rotherhithe (Lower float), on the south side of the Thames. The LFEE firemen were clothed in a matching uniform. They were recruited with reference to their “expertness and courage at fires”. A nominated number of the firemen were required to be ready at all hours of the day and night. Their engines available to depart at a minute’s notice in case of a fire. It was, as a rule, stipu­lated that when a fire occurred in any one district, all the men and engines of that district would attend to the address given, together with two-thirds of the men and engines from each of the two adjoining districts, with one-third from the one most removed from it. However this arrangement was modified according to the extent and size of a fire, or the number of fires which may be burning across London at one time.

Lithograph print of one of the LFEE rowing fire-floats.

Braidwood brought to London his new ideas and original tech­niques to his new Brigade. He encouraged the idea of getting into a building to fight a fire and not the insurance brigade’s previous practice of the ‘long shot’, a hose played at a distance from the outside of the building. He also insisted that no fireman should ever enter a building alone, and that there should always be a comrade to assist in case of an accident or if the colleague collapsed due to the heat or fumes.

Some writers have not been overly kind, or fair, to Braidwood commentating on his alleged delay in the introduction steam fire engines on fire floats. It was noted by some that despite the growth of the newly invented steam pumps Braidwood was a traditional­ist when it came to maintaining the manual fire engines he used. For many years the introduction of steam pumps into the LFEE was delayed. In fact Braidwood was sympathetic to the purchase of a steam fire engine mounted on a float and submitted a favour­able report seeking the Committee’s approval for its purchase. It was the Committee who rejected the proposal arguing, once again, that they considered it expensive and felt the steam pumps deliv­ered greater pressure than the manuals, therefore the firemen’s jets would cause too much water damage and deter the firemen from getting close to the fires.

The manually operated fire engines of the early nineteenth century were themselves both heavy and cumbersome. They were also expensive to operate, with up to twenty men, ten on each side, to work the pump handles up and down. He did expand the float engines on the Thames. They were long, wide oar powered boats, many pumpers were required to operate the pumps the fire-floats carried. There was the additional problem of not only paying the pumpers but ferrying relays of pumpers from the shore to the floats. At a fire in Tooley Street in 1837 the LFEE manual fire-float had required three hundred and thirty-three pumpers to work the pumps during the course of the fire.

The first high profile test of the new London brigade came when the force was less than two years old. On Wednesday 16th October 1834 the Palaces of Westminster caught fire. By the late Georgian period, the buildings of the Palace of Westminster had become an acci­dent waiting to happen. The rambling complex of medieval and early modern apartments making up the Houses was by then largely unfit for purpose. Complaints from MPs about the state of their accommodation had been rumbling on since the 1790s, and reached a peak when they found themselves packed into the hot, airless and cramped Commons chamber during the passage of the Great Reform bill.

On Wednesday 16th October 1834 the Palaces of Westminster caught fire.

Throughout the day, a chimney fire had smouldered under the floor of the House of Lords chamber, caused by the unsupervised and ill-advised burning of two large cartloads of wooden tally sticks (a form of medieval tax receipt created by the Exchequer). At a few minutes after six that evening, a doorkeeper’s wife return­ing from an errand finally spotted the flames licking the scarlet curtains in the Lords chamber where they were emerging through the floor from the collapsed furnace flues. There was panic within the Palace but initially no-one seems to have raised the alarm outside. A huge fireball exploded out of the building at around 6.30pm, lighting up the evening sky over London, and immedi­ately attracting hundreds of thousands of people.

The damage to the wrecked and uninsured Palace was estimated at two million pounds. No-one, however was prosecuted, though the public inquiry which followed found various people guilty of negligence and foolishness. Braidwood was praised for his lead­ership and the standing of his LFEE force greatly improved. Yet despite the fire Braidwood still refused to consider steam fire engines. Plans for a floating steam fire engine were submitted by Braithwaite (the inventor of the land steam fire engine) in 1835. The plans were rejected.

However, a large riverside fire occurred some months later and Braidwood had a mini revolt with the pumpers he had on-board one of the oar powered fire-floats. They demanded more beer, the payment for the pumpers, and stopped pumping several times. As a result Braidwood finally had a steam pump fitted to the float. Initially it was driven using the jets of water as its propulsion system but this did not prove successful. It was a tug that was used to tow the float to the fire. The savings made by not having to pay pumpers meant building a new steam fire-float a financially viable option. London finally had its first water-borne steam fire engine.

A drawing of a fire brigade fire float and tug heading to a riverside blaze in the distance. The fire float was a fire pump mounted in a barge that could supply water to the land via hoses or direct water onto a blaze from jets mounted on the barge. The tug transported the fire float to the scene of the fire.

Throughout its tenure the LFEE remained a private body over­seen by the insurance companies, although it was seen as the public fire service for the whole of the then London area. In an LFEE advert, published on 1st January 1833, it announced their goal was to provide better fire protection to the inhabitants of the ‘Metrop­olis’. James Braidwood led a force that consisted of 80 watermen (firemen) and operated from 19 fire stations.

Formed in 1833, the LFEE was London’s first properly organised fire brigade, having taken over from the various Insurance Company fire brigades. It had 19 fire stations with James Braidwood as its Superintendent (ChiefOfficer). Here a LFEE fireman poses in his uniform with the black ‘Braidwood’ style helmet.

Braidwood had instituted formal training programs for his firemen, and required that they have working knowledge of the district that they were appointed to. The LFEE was considered to be an efficient organ­isation. Braidwood a formidable leader of his men. However, the large insurance offices did not consider the protection the Brigade provided adequate for the City of London, and preferred fire protection to be publicly funded. London was rapidly expand­ing and so was the cost of protecting the Metropolis from fire.

Today banner news headlines of sensational news stories is the norm. However, it is not such a recent innovation. Even back in 1841 this style of news reporting was being produced by both weekly journals and especially the daily newspapers. This is a flavour of the “Latest Particulars of the Awful Fire and Total Destruction of the Tower of London on the Night of Saturday 30th October 1841, “by J T Wood, printer and publisher of Fore Street, Cripplegate, London.

In Mr Wood’s view, this was “the most alarming and destructive fire that has occurred within the memory of the present age”. In the midst of the general confusion”, says Wood, “we could but remark on the absolute sublimity of an element let loose, roaming at discretion, from building to building the fire seemed to rejoice to madness, emitting light and heat which astonished…” 

The fire was, in fact, first noticed at about half past ten on the evening of the 30th October 1841, by a sentinel on duty near the Jewel Office. He raised the alarm by firing his musket and the entire battalion of the Scots Fusilier Guards turned out. Flames soon burst out from windows of the Round Tower. Colonel Auckland Eden, the Officer Commanding, directed the troops to turn out the nine Tower manual engines. These were soon supplemented by the LFEE fire brigade engines. The Round Tower was rapidly consumed and the fire had spread to the Armoury roof. Braidwood’s firemen carried their hoses from two of the brigade engines into the Armoury and trained them on the ceiling and walls, but they had to leave hurriedly when the ceiling began to give way.

Efforts of the firemen and soldiers to put out the fire were hampered by the fact that the water tanks under the Tower contained very little water. Also, the Thames was at low tide, so that when eventually Braidwood’s floating engines arrived and moored off the Traitor’s Gate, his men had over 700 feet of hose to lay out and could do little but supply water to the fire engines nearer the fire. 

1841. The Tower of London fire.

Efforts of the firemen and soldiers to put out the fire were hampered by the fact that the water tanks under the Tower contained very little water. Also, the Thames was at low tide, so that when eventually Braidwood’s floating engines arrived and moored off the Traitor’s Gate, his men had over 700 feet of hose to lay out and could do little but supply water to the fire engines nearer the fire. 

At about two o’clock, a rumour spread about that a large magazine was attached to the Armoury and some of the crowd dispersed hurriedly, fearing an explosion. This was apparently occasioned by the loud roaring of the flames, which went on until about 2.45am on the 31st October, when the fire began to abate and the firefighters were able to get nearer to the ruins. 

By about four o’clock in the morning of the 31st October, the fire was out in most places although the ruins smouldered for days. There was one fatal casualty, a fireman who was killed by falling masonry. Almost everything was destroyed.


The aftermath of the disasterious Tower of London fire. 1841.

Immediate steps were taken by the Government to find the cause of the fire and to examine the conduct of officers and troops but there is no reason to think that the fire was other than accidental. Probably it was caused by the armourer’s forge in the Round Tower, or the flues of the stoves there.

At about two o’clock, a rumour spread about that a large magazine was attached to the Armoury and some of the crowd dispersed hurriedly, fearing an explosion. This was apparently occasioned by the loud roaring of the flames, which went on until about 2.45am on the 31st October, when the fire began to abate and the firefighters were able to get nearer to the ruins. 

By about four o’clock in the morning of the 31st October, the fire was out in most places although the ruins smouldered for days. There was one fatal casualty, a fireman who was killed by falling masonry. Almost everything was destroyed. 

Immediate steps were taken by the Government to find the cause of the fire and to examine the conduct of officers and troops but there is no reason to think that the fire was other than accidental. Probably it was caused by the armourer’s forge in the Round Tower, or the flues of the stoves there.

The Tooley Street fire would bring Braidwood’s reign to a tragic end. James Braidwood had proved himself to be a well-respected leader of his men. He was popular with the public too. He was a quiet man, in fact he was described as a gentle character with a devoted wife and family when he was not waging battle against many of the major fires to confront the City of London and area of the LFEE brigade. He was also loyal to his employers, the insur­ance companies. He kept his eye on the ball throughout his career in London, a frequent visitor to his fire stations, he also attended tests and trials of the new fire engines and fire equipment. However he was also a cautious man, taking time to consider these new developments before making changes to previous practices.

The London Fire Engine Establishment firemen attack the fire but were totally dependent on volunteers to work their pumps.

On the 22 June 1861 it may have well have been an average day for Braidwood. What he was engaged in prior to the outbreak of fire in Tooley Street remains a matter of conjecture, and is of little concern to what followed. It had been a hot summer day in London. Scovell’s warehouse was located on the river’s edge in Southwark, adjacent to London Bridge. The hot day may have been the reason some of the substantial iron, fire-proof, doors had been opened and allowed air to flow between the storage areas on various floors. What is known is that the doors should, in fact, have remained closed. The warehouse contained vast quantities of hemp, cotton, sacks of sugar, wooden casks of tallow, bales of jute, boxes of tea and spices.

Later reports would suggest the fire, like most fires, started small. Bales of damp cotton giving rise to very higher tempera­tures until the threshold arrived where spontaneous combustion occurred. As the flames rose and spread so the fire consumed ever more goods. With the iron doors not containing the blaze it soon spread beyond its point of origin.

The great fire of Tooley Street-1861.

The alarm was finally raised around five o’clock in the after­noon. It became immediately apparent that the fire had a firm hold on Scovell’s wharf and was spreading to the adjoining Cotton’s wharf, and it would eventually consume both Hay’s and Cham­berlain’s wharves too. Braidwood was quickly on the scene from Watling Street and had twenty-seven horse drawn engines, one steam engine, his two fire-floats and one hundred and seventeen firemen and officers, plus fifteen drivers fighting this conflagration on the south side of the River Thames. The fire had such a hold that water from the firemen’s hose evaporated before it even reach the boundary of the fire. Burning tallow, oil and paint flowed onto the river, almost consuming one of the fire-floats. The winds and thermals caused by the fire, aided by the Thames currents, sucked small boats into the flames.

Braidwood was not fighting the flames unaided. Capt. Hodges had brought his private fire brigade to assist Braidwood in his endeavours, his two steamers working alongside the LFEE’s solitary steamer. Hodges’s firemen was joined by other private brigades before parish manual pumps were rushed to the Thames-side conflagration too. Sadly these parish pumps did little to help the situation, poor training and even poorer leadership of their crews only added to the confusion and nuisance their arrival caused.

It was seven in the evening when one of his men reported the fire-floats were scorching and was seeking Braidwood’s instruc­tions. Braidwood made his way to the river bank by way of a narrow alley off Tooley Street to see what the situation was for himself. On the way he paused to give aid to one of his men who had gashed his hand. Braidwood removed his red silk Paisley neck silk to use as a bandage to bind the man’s bleeding hand. Moving on towards the river, and accompanied by Peter Scott, one of his officer’s, a warehouse wall many stories high suddenly bulged and cracked before giving way completely. It fell with a deafening noise, killing both Braidwood and the officer instantly. The efforts by his men to save the two were fruitless, but they tried anyway until beaten into a retreat by the relentless fire. Given the contents of the warehouses it is hardly surprising that explosions occurred, these projected flaming materials far and wide, setting fire to other warehouses and buildings. Braidwood’s death was said to have created confusion and disorganisation at the fire since there was no one appointed to lead in his absence.

The fire burned for another two days, totally out of control. Tides ebbed and flowed. On the high tides the fire-floats could move closer to the blaze but whatever progress they made was mitigated when the tide went back out and they had to move back towards mid-stream to direct their hoses. For over a quarter of a mile the south bank of the Thames was ablaze. Braidwood’s body, and that of his companion, lay under the hot brickwork for three days before they could be recovered. Whilst no other firemen perished in the fire it claimed the lives of four men on the river attempting to collect tallow.

The Tooley Street fire spreads to the surface of the Thames. 1861.

James Braidwood was buried at Abney Park Cemetery on 29 June 1861. He was buried alongside his stepson, who was also a firefighter and had been killed in a fire five years prior. The funeral procession was a mile and a half long and shops were closed with crowds lining the route. As a mark of respect, every church in the city rang its bells. The buttons and epaulets from his tunic were removed and were distributed to the firefighters of the LFEE.

Braidwood’s funeral procession reaches Albany Park cementary. 1861.

The death of Braidwood left the LFEE bereft of any natural successor from its own ranks. The insurance company had not appointed a deputy. It seemed that they had considered Braid­wood immortal. They once again looked outside the capital for a suitable replacement. They found one in the guise of a certain Captain Eyre Massey Shaw, late of the North Cork Rifles. It was a commission that Shaw had resigned from the year before the Tooley Street fire, when in 1860 he was appointed Chief Consta­ble of Belfast.

Shaw took the job. Born in 1830 he was thirty-one when he arrived at Watling Street, the LFEE headquarters station, to take charge of the Brigade in the latter part of 1861. Shaw had had a mixed background. He was the son of a General. With a view to entering the Church he had studied at Trinity College, Dublin only then to enter the army. He was a man who loved the water and was considered to be a competent sailor. Donning the mantle of the LFEE’s new Superintendent he inherited the eighteen land stations of the LFEE and its two fire-floats. His brigade covered the ten square miles of central London and the City of London, an area that formed the greatest risk for the insurance companies. A useful indicator of the workload of the fire brigade is provided by Shaw himself in his annual report for 1861.

Fires in 1861. Totally destroyed 53. Considerably damaged 332. Slightly damaged 798. Total 1381

Two to six miles from nearest station 20.

Hazardous trades 25.

Number of buildings destroyed 113.

At great fire, e.g. Tooley Street. 33.

Fires at private houses 196

Totally destroyed 2

Considerably damaged 25

Slightly damaged 169

Fires at lodgings 115

Slightly damaged 105

Fires at churches 5

Fires at hospitals 1

Fires at places of entertainment 2

Fires at unoccupied premises 11

Slightly damaged 9

False alarms 19

Chimney alarms 137

The Fire Brigade, with 120 its skilled ‘workmen’, 36 engines, 18 stations and 2 floating engines is maintained at an expense of close upon £25,000 a year by the various fire-insurance offices who contribute in a rateable proportion on their business. The manage­ment is vested in a committee, which contains one representative from each office. (Cruchley’s London in 1865: A Handbook for Strangers.)

The insurance companies finally sent a note to the Home Office in 1864, giving notice that they had decided to discontinue with the LFEE. The writing was on the wall for the LFEE, the ques­tion for the Home Secretary was what to do next. He had already charged Capt. Shaw, via the insurance companies controlling board, to come forward with ideas.

Finally, after a very long time, with several schemes submitted by Shaw, the Government passed into law the Metropolitan Fire Brigade’s Act in 1865. At the end of its last year, prior to being taken over by the MBW in 1865, the LFEE had at its seventeen stations and one-hundred and thirty-one black-clad firemen, with two floating steam pumps, two large horse-drawn steam pumps, six small horse-drawn steam pumps and thirty-three small horse-drawn manual pumps. The Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) came into being on the 1st January 1865. Its first Chief Officer was Capt. Shaw.

Major Morris. M.C. London Fire Brigade.

Major CYRIL CLARKE BOVILLE MORRIS, C.B.E., M.C. was an authority on fire protection appliances in addition to being the Chief Officer of the London Fire Brigade from 1933-1938.

Major Cyril Clarke Borille Morris, Chief Officer of the LFB from 1933 to 1938. Date: 1937.

Cyril Morris was born in 1882 and educated at Haileybury College which was a major boys’ public school in the Victorian era. Located in Hertfordshire it was founded by the East India Company. At 17 he started work in the Stratford works of the Great Eastern Railway from 1899 to 1902 when he continued with the Company as a draughtsman before promotion to the positions of locomotive inspector and assistant in the locomotive department.

The Stratford works of the Great Eastern Railway Post WWII.

Mr Cyril Morris was elected a Graduate of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 1902 and transferred to Associate Membership in 1908. (He achieved Membership in 1914.)

The then Headquarters of the London County Council in Spring Gardens.

Morris, aged 26, applied to the London County Council to join the London Fire Brigade. Successful at his interview he was appointed as a ‘direct entry’ officer in 1908. (It was the same year that the LFB buried Sir Eyre Massey Shaw, the first Chief Officer of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (1866), which had been renamed the London Fire Brigade in 1904.

1908. The funeral procession of Sir Eyre Massey Shaw from 114 Belgrave Road, Pimlico. Westminster. The year Cyril Morris joined the London Fire Brigade. Picture credit-London Fire Brigade.
1908- Assistant Divisional Officer C.C.B. Morris one of the four principal officers under the command of Chief Officer Hamilton taken at the London Fire Brigade headquarters in Southwark Bridge Road. SE1. Mr Gamble, never achieved Chief Officer rank whilst Sladen. Dyer and Morris did. Picture credit-London Fire Brigade.

However, after six years of holding the post of assistant divisional officer, Morris was granted a commission in the Army Service Corps at the outbreak of war in 1914. He served with distinction in France with the Royal Army Service Corps. He was subsequently deputy assistant director of transport with the rank of Major and was awarded the Military Cross. (The Military Cross was first instituted on 28 December 1914 as an award for gallantry or meritorious service for officers.) He was also the holder of the 1914 Star with bar and awarded the Royal Humane Society’s Bronze Medal in addition to being ‘Mentioned in Dispatches’.

In 1914 Morris joined the Royal Army Service Corps. He was later appointed the deputy assistant director of transport with the rank of Major. He was awarded the Military Cross in recognition of his act (or acts) of exemplary gallantry during active operations against the enemy.

He, now Major Morris, was recalled to the service of the London Fire Brigade in 1917 and in the following year was promoted to the post of Divisional Officer (South). He would rise to the post senior Divisional Officer, based at the Southwark headquarters and became the deputy to Arthur Dyer-Chief Officer.

One of Morris’s more noteworth incidents was that of the sailing barge ‘Dorcas’. The incident occurred in August 1920. The ‘Dorcas’ was a two-masted wooden spritsail sailing barge built in 1898. The single-decked vessel had her hold separated from the forecastle and master’s cabin by wooden bulkheads. There were two access hatches, one fore hatch by the forward side of the mainmast and the main hatch near the stern. At eighty-five feet in length and eighteen and half feet in breadth she had a draft of almost six feet. With a gross tonnage of sixty-six tons the Dorcas was registered at the Port of Dover.

Two-masted wooden spritsail sailing barges on the Thames, typical of the ‘Dorcas’ craft involved in the fire.

The ‘Dorcas’ had left Sandwich around midday on the 12th August, 1920. A crew of three were under the command of the master, Mr. William Hallett. ‘Dorcas’ was carrying 450 empty steel barrels which had contained petro­leum spirit. The upward voyage was uneventful. She arrived at the wharf in Silvertown early afternoon of the 13th August. Once docked the unloading of the empty barrels commenced. Suspended at nightfall it resumed the following day and was completed about 8 o’clock that morning. Once the unloading was finished the loading of full barrels of petroleum spirit started. This continued until completed. Altogether 450 barrels (some of 40 gallons others of 50 gallons capacity) were loaded on to the Dorcas. 370 were placed in the hold and leaving 80 stowed on the deck. Late afternoon on the 14th August, with the stowing below deck completed, the main hatches were put on then covered with tarpaulins and battened down.

At 2.30 a.m. on the 15th August the ‘Dorcas’ cast off and proceeded down the River Thames under sail on an ebb-tide. After leaving the wharf the mate lit the navigation lights in the forecastle and placed them in position. The swinging lamp in the cabin was also lighted. The mate took the wheel, and the master seated himself on the port side of the fore hatch. The cook was called by the master a little after 3 a.m. and ordered to get breakfast ready. He was in the after cabin engaged in doing this when an on the barge explosion occurred about 3.15 a.m.

At the time the ‘Dorcas’ was mid-stream, between North Woolwich and the Royal Dockyard, Woolwich. From the subsequent evidence of the mate the explosion appears to have occurred in the hold. The master, who had been seated on the hatch covers, was blown overboard. He was not seen alive again. A search was made by the Metropolitan River police and the mate. (His body was later recovered by the police on the 19th of August from the fore­shore of the river at Barking Reach.) The mate was blown from the wheel. He lost consciousness and when he recovered found himself lying on the starboard quarter of the deck. The cook, who had been in the cabin below was cut on his head broken glass. As he scrambled on to the deck he saw flames coming from the fore hatch. The mate, on recovering conscious­ness, noticed the fire coming aft, along the deck, from the hold. He hauled the skiff, which was towed behind the ‘Dorcas’, and helped the cook into it.

The ‘Dorcas’ was ablaze from stem to stern. Under the influence of the tide and the wind she drifted down and across the Thames towards the southern landing stage of the Woolwich Ferry, where the steam ferryboat ‘Hutton’ was moored. After colliding with, and setting fire to, the ‘Hutton,’ she continued to drift down the river to the West Wharf of the Royal Arsenal, setting fire to the sailing barge ‘Darrant’ and seven other dumb barges.  Finally, the Dorcus was secured by a grappling hook and chain to the wharf, where she continued to burn until she finally sank in the early morning of 15th August.

Woolwich, one of the last fire stations to be built by the MFB in 1887 prior to the creation of the London County Council. Located in Sun Street (later renamed Sunbury Street), Woolwich, SE18, the station is Grade II listed and was closed in 2014. It remains standing and now provides resident accomodation.

The first fire station to be summoned to the scene of devastation was Woolwich. When its two motorised fire engines turned out the crews were confronted by a widespread disaster scene. Divisional Officer Major Morris was the first senior fire brigade officer to arrive. He was greeted with the news that the Dorcas was still mid steam and setting fire to several barges. The Brigade’s fire-float was standing by but her crew were unable to get a wire-hawser aboard and take her in tow on account of the ferocious heat being radiated by the blaze. This turned out to a very lucky escape for the fire-float crew and their craft. Morris was faced with an evolving disaster scene that was continu­ing to engulf both river-side buildings and vessels moored on the foreshore. Morris sent back an urgent message to the Southwark Headquarters;

Brigade Call for Woolwich Arsenal. It is a petrol barge well alight near the quay and threatening Woolwich Arsenal.”

The ‘Brigade Call’ brought forty pumps, the emergency tender and the Chief Officer, Arthur Dyer, rushing to the scene. The fire-float ‘Beta’ from the Cherry Garden pier was already on station and a second fire-float (‘Gamma II’) from the Blackfriars River station was ordered addition­ally. With the Chief Officer in charge, he had his motor fire engines and the two fire-floats made every endeavour to subdue the fire. Their efforts were seriously hampered by several further violent explosions. These were caused by the petrol barrels expanding and rupturing owing to the intense heat. Such was the intensity of the fire it damaged three of the Brigade’s motor fire engines.

Two ware­houses, a stationery store and some railway trucks in the vicin­ity of the wharf were scorched by the radiated heat. Much of the escaped spirit had spread over the surface of the water. This was greatly increased when the ‘Dorcas’ sank. A wide area of the Thames, by Woolwich Reach, was in flames, flames which eventually burnt themself out.

A Board of Trade inquiry followed. Despite the detailed evidence given, and the opinion of expert witnesses, the Inquiry found no evidence to justify a definite cause of the accumulation, in the hold, of vapour of petroleum spirit. The Inquiry was satis­fied that once afloat, and away from the wharf, the crew almost entirely disregarded every usual precaution against fire or explosion. They smoked, struck matches, used naked lights, and cooked food as a matter of course. The Inquiry found it was conceivable that flammable vapour may have been ignited and the flame spread to an explosive mixture in the hold. In seeking the cause of the explosion, the Inquiry found this possibility cannot be entirely disregarded.

If any member of the crew was smoking at any time it is clear that none of the others would have taken any particular notice of it as it was commonplace. The two surviving members of the crew stated that the master was a regular smoker and always carried matches. They also agreed that just before the explosion he was sitting on the fore hatch through which, as mentioned, the force of the explosion was directed. Both said that they did not see if he was, in fact, smoking as he sat there. When his body was found there was, in his pockets, a pouch of tobacco and the bowl of a pipe, without a stem and useless for smoking. The Inquiry made the infer­ence that when the explosion occurred the master had his matches and his pipe out of his pocket and that they were blown away by the explosion. In the opinion of the Court of Inquiry this was the most probable cause of the disaster and he brought about his own demise.

In Senior Divisional Officer rank Morris was awarded the Kings Police Medal (KPM) in January 1924. (The King’s Police Medal was introduced in 1909 to recognise, among other things, bravery by police and fire service personnel whilst in the course of their duties.) Now the Brigade’s deputy Chief, Morris was awarded the his KPM for distinguished services. Fireman Henry Stancliff Leedom, who appear in the same supplement of the London Gazette was awarded his for Gallantry. They were two of only twenty London Fire Brigade personnel ever to receive the KPM (later renamed the Kings Police and Fire Servive Medal). Only 77 such medals were issued to UK fire brigades between 1909 and 1954.

Major Morris had shown himself to be a natural leader of men, he was also an accomplished engineer. Appointed Chief Officer he brought his considerable talents to bear in the reorganisation and re-equipping of the London Fire Brigade. Major Morris may well have been small in stature but he was big in creative ideas and getting them delivered.

During his five years tenure as Chief Morris brought about an array of progressive change. The introduction of the hose laying lorry, that could lay (at speeds of 20 mph) twin lines of two and three quarter inch hose was due to Morris was but one. He also oversaw the introduction of the first dual purpose appli­ances in 1934. These sleek, open topped, fire engines made by Dennis of Surrey could carry either the fifty foot wheeled escape ladder or an extension ladder and hook ladders. It was equipped with a hose reel tubing and carried a ‘first aid’ firefighting water tank. Additionally Morris introduced the Brigade’s first enclosed breathing apparatus carrying pumps. to much public fanfare when, in February 1935, Herbert Morrison, then Chairman of the London County Council put the London Fire Brigade in the world ranking of forward thinking fire brigades.

The first enclosed breathing apparatus carrying pump pump introduced in 1934. One of many of Morris’s changes to the LFB fleet.
Morris’s design for the Brigade’s first hose laying lorry which was based at the Southwark headquarters in Southwark Bridge Road SE1. Picture credit-London Fire Brigade. Circa 1933.

In 1934 the political complexion of the London County Council (LCC) changed. The Labour Party controlled the LCC for the first time and therefore it controlled the Fire Brigades Committee too. But the Committee had already agreed the building of a new fire brigade headquarters as early as 1930. The LCC had sought a suitable site to replace the outdated, Victorian, Southwark Bridge Road headquarters. On the 5th March 1935 the Labour controlled Council finally approved Major Morris’s proposals to build a bespoke, and showcase, LFB headquarters complex on the Albert Embankment at a cost, estimated at £280,000.

Its total cost, when fitted out, actually came to £390,000. With the site cleared, building works commenced in May of 1935. The Brigade headquarters complex was divided into two blocks. It was reported at the time to be, “The most efficient unit of its kind in existence.”

The first cork helmet to replace the LFB brass helmet was cherry red! It did not find favour with London’s fireman and was replaced by Morris after he went to the Design Council to find design and specification befitting his men. It meet wide spread approval.

Possibly the most noticeable change, from the publics’ point of view, was that London firemen no longer wore their famous brass helmets, or the officers silver helmets. The changeover was phased in but metal was eventually replaced by a cork and leather helmet with the LFB crest embossed in gold on the front. The brass helmets were last worn en-masse on the formal opening of the new Lambeth headquarters in 1937.

The opening of the new Brigade headquarters and fire station on the Albert Embankment. SE1. The last occasion the London brass fire helmet was worn en-masse. Major Morris escorts His Majesty King Geoge VI and Queen Elizabeth at the formal opening of the headquarters on the 21st July 1937. Picture credit-London Fire Brigade.

By 1936 the London Fire Brigade was increasingly being called upon to assist in a wide variety of accidents across the metropolis, incidents which there appeared little or no risk of a conflagration breaking out. It was because of this reason that Morris found it desirable to add another new fire engine to the Brigade’s fleet. He devised the Brigade’s version of a breakdown lorry, although they were in common use as a commercial towing vehicle around the Capital, hot cutting equipment was added to the breakdown lorry’s inventory. Constructed by Dennis Brothers of Guildford it had a turntable crane capable of dealing with an 8 ton load. Initially stationed at the Southwark headquarters it was transferred to the new Lambeth headquarters station together with one of the Brigade’s two emergency tenders. Not the swiftest of fire engines the breakdown lorry was capable of maintaining a speed of 48 mph, on the level, whilst a gradient of one in six it could negotiate, with full load, at 12 m.p.h.

Morris’s design of the new Brigade breakdown lorry, seen here at the Southwark headquarters drill yard, and which had both an operational role as well as used in the recovery of fire engines that had broken down and were towed to the Brigade’s own mechanical/vehicle workshops. Picture credit-London Fire Brigade. 1936

Outside of Morris’s control were the countries continued finan­cial difficulties. London firemen, and further afield, had secured a trade union by this time, first called the ‘Firemen’s Trade Union’ but it was soon changed to the ‘Fire Brigades Union’ to avoid confusion with the Union of Ships’ Stokers and Railway Firemen. Prior to his appointment as Chief, London’s firemen had been forced into a ten percent wage cut in line with that imposed on the police. Some of the firemen’s’ conditions had improved however. Their Firemen’s Pensions Act of 1925 provided a pension of one half pay after twenty five years’ service, and two thirds pay after thirty years’ service. Additionally, it also provided for the payment of a pension where retirement was necessitated by an injury received on duty or by ill-health. Although with the normal retirement age of a firemen at fifty-five years of age and average life expectancy in the 1930’s for men being sixty, not very many retired firemen carried their hard-earned pension into old age!

For the firemen themselves the highest standards of physical fitness continued to be required. Of all the applications made for entry, normally only two percent were accepted. In the 1937 intake from the two thousand seven-hun­dred and seventy-one applicants only fifty were enrolled.

Dyer had already secured the building of a new fire brigade headquarters in principle and Major Morris, under the new LCC administration carried through with the plans. The Fire Brigade’s Committee had also agreed the building of a new fire-float station and a fire-float the replace the Delta that had launched in 1913.

Design plans of the Massey Shaw fire-float.

The Massey Shaw was launched in 1935 by Mrs Morris on the Isle of Wight to much fanfare. The Massey Shaw had a pumping capacity of three thou­sand gallon per minute compared to her sister craft’s (Beta III) two thousand gallons per minute. Both fire-floats would combine with the Gamma to fight the blaze the blaze of the decade and which Morris took charge of.

Mrs Morris at the launching of the Massey Shaw fire-float. Picture credit-London Fire Brigade. 1935.

On the 25th September 1935 the fire-float Beta III was moored alongside the Cherry Garden Pier in Rotherhithe. The pier, as today, is located in the now defunct ‘Port of London’, just down­stream from Tower Bridge on the Thames’ south bank. On the immediate opposite riverbank lay a range of imposing wharves and warehouses that included the Colonial Wharf. This nine-storey warehouse was full of crude rubber and other highly combustible products and it burned for four days. During which time a number of explosions took place. Sixty pumps, twenty special appliances and three fireboats, manned by some 600 firefighters fought this huge blaze.

The fire had been discovered by an employee working on the fifth floor of the warehouse. The first call was given by exchange telephone direct to the Whitechapel Fire Station at 3.28pm. A second call was given by a passer-by on the south of the river at 3.35pm to the firemen crewing the Beta III at their Cherry Garden Floating ‘D’ Station. Fire engines from Whitechapel, Shadwell and the Beta III immediately headed to the scene. Five minutes later a ‘home call’ message was sent back from the fire and other local stations were dispatched to the developing Wapping High Street blaze. At 3.48, twenty minutes after the first call was made, a ‘district call’ was sent. This brought in all the surrounding fire engines of the division. Fire engine’s from the now forgotten City of London’s fire stations of Red Cross Street, Whitefriars, Bishop’s Gate and Cannon Street rushed towards the great pall of smoke rising from the eastern side of Tower Bridge. The Massey Shaw fire-float was summoned from Blackfriars, as were additional turntable ladders. The Chief Officer Major Morris left his Southwark Headquarters in his staff car heading towards the incident.

Even by the standards of the time it was a fire of massive proportions. Although street hydrants were used to some extent the brigade pumps mainly obtained their water from the nearby Hermitage Basin and Wapping Basin, and the Port of London Authority offi­cials took special steps to ensure the locks were kept filled with water. The fire burned so fiercely it spread rapidly to the adjoining warehouse on the eastern side. A warehouse also stocked with crude rubber. Spreading to the top floor the fire soon burned through the roof, on which was mounted a large crane. As the roof fell in, the crane collapsed and fell onto barges moored in the river below. Large parts of the walls of both warehouses collapsed. Three of the barges were sunk, but one was subsequently re-floated.  The fire was surrounded by 9.45pm that day, however it burned fiercely throughout the night, and seriously threatened the adjoin­ing warehouses on both sides. Early the next morning, the front wall of the building partially collapsed into Wapping High Street. Shortly after 7.00am there was a violent explosion in Colonial Wharf which brought down its side wall and severely damaged the roof of the adjoining warehouse on the east side, but a barrage of jets prevented the fire from securing a hold on that warehouse. The fire continued to burn all day.

Fire at Colonial Wharf, Wapping, East London, on 29 September 1935, with billowing black smoke. In the foreground is a French ship, the Gatinais of Rouen, and on the right can be seen a fire-float and LFB firemen in action and working from the River Thames. Date: 1935

The fire was reported upon widely, both at home and abroad. Pictures of the fire-floats at work accompanied many of the arti­cles and news stories in the press. The fire caught the public’s imagination and the heroic efforts of London’s firemen in dealing with it.

Colonial Wharf, at 60 pumps, was not the only colossal fire to attract the national interest during Chief Officer Major Morris’s reign. Although a not in the LCC area the Crystal Palace fire of 1936 brought Morris from his Southwark headquarters to take charge in Sydenham. The Crystal Palace had been relocated from its origi­nal central London Hyde Park site to the South-east outskirts of London, an area covered by the Penge fire brigade and its one fire engine and complement of eight men. No one still knows, even after eighty years precisely why and how the Crystal Palace was set on fire. But on 30th Novem­ber, at six in the evening, the manager of the Palace, Mr Henry Buckland, noticed a red glow ablaze in a staff lavatory. He called the local firemen and told his workmen to extinguish the blaze before he went on with his duties. Within five minutes fire had swept across the Crystal Palace which eventually had to be evacu­ated.

The closest London fire engines attending were West Norwood, Perry Vale and Dulwich. They called for massive reinforcements. Major Morris would take charge of the seventy-nine London appliances and his two hundred and eighty-one firemen who attended the fire. A fire that dominated the London skyline as it burned throughout the night. Stories of arson abounded because of the large amounts of flam­mable material the gigantic structure contained, but the true cause may have been a terrible accident. The fire attracted thousands of spectators and Major Morris had to give the Duke of York a tour of the fire scene when he came to see the disaster for himself.

Major Morris with the Duke of York at the Cystal Palace fire. 1936.

At the ceremonial opening of the new London Fire Brigade Headquarters on the Albert Embankment, by His Majesty King George VI on July 21st 1937 it also marked the completion of the initial stage in the London County Council’s programme to provide London with an up-to-date fire alarm system. For the previous 37 years or so London has been protected by the “Brown” fire alarm system which has been rented by the Council from the Postmaster General.

Major Morris retired from the London fire Brigade 1938 after 30 years’ service. In his retirement he wrote to the Board of Trade regarding the need of both the Board and ship owners to take the views of Fire Officers in connection with the drafting and implementation of fire regu­lations affecting shipping. He pointed out that in his last five years of service the London Brigade had had experience with all sorts and conditions of ship fires in the Capital. There were some one hundred and fifty-seven in total, most involving the fire-floats, some requiring two or more of these craft.

He was awarded the Hawksley Premium prize in 1938. Morris was the author of a paper on “Organization and Mechanical Appliances of the London Fire Brigade”, which he presented in 1937. (Charles Hawksley was the President of The Institution of Civil Engineers. In his will he left The Institution the sum of £3,000, with a direction that the income should be applied in the provision of scholarships or prizes for proficiency in the design of engineering structures combining artistic merit with excellence of constructional design.)

In 1939 he was attached to the fire brigades division of the Home Office as director of training and two years later was appointed regional representative of the Ministry of Supply in the Eastern Area. He resigned this position in 1942 and also retired from representing the Institution on the British Standards Institution’s Technical Committee on Fire Hose Couplings, but continued to be engaged on work for the Home Office and was also in practice as a consultant. He also published his autobiography, entitled ‘Fire’ the same year.

Chief Officer Dyer retired in 1938 after a long and distinguished career. Aged 68 years old Morris died on the 31st October 1950.

The last and first.Leslie Leete; Chief Officer of the LCC-London Fire Brigade (LFB) and the GLC-LFB.

1962 and Leslie Leete is appointed as the new Chief Officer of the London County Council’s London Fire Brigade. Picture credit-London Fire Brigade.

In 1962 Leslie Leete, who had been the deputy Chief under Sir Frederick Delve, became the first Chief Fire Officer of the London Fire Brigade (LFB) to have served in every rank within the Brigade. He had joined the Auxiliary Fire Service in 1938. Starting as an auxiliary river fireman he later became a professional fireman in 1939 on the outbreak of war in the then London County Council’s (LCC)-LFB. In 1940 he, and so many others, had faced the horrors of the Blitz upon London. Leete was the LCC’s last Chief Officer of the LFB prior to the creation of the Greater Council London (GLC) in 1965 which made the LFB the largest municipal fire brigade in the world.

1951. As a Divisional Officer Leslie Leete attended the fatal fire in Eldon Street. A fire where three London firemen were killed.
1958. The Smithfield meat market fire during which two London firemen perished. Images of Leslie Leete at operational incidents are rare. Here, as deputy Chief Officer, he is escorting City of London officials in the company of an LFB officer. Picture credit-London Fire Brigade.

There are no records of outstanding feats of note for Leete just his steady rise through the ranks during the war years and then onto senior rank on the return of the National Fire Service to local authority control in 1948. It is possible, but not certain, that the files creating the National Fire Service’s London Region were dusted off when CFO (Designate) Leete took charge of the Brigade’s transition to the Greater London Council in 1964. The creation of the Greater London Council saw a unified London with surrounding fire brigades (the whole of Middlesex, parts of Essex, Kent, Surrey and taking over several smaller County Borough brigades) all coming together under the banner of the London Fire Brigade.

April 1965 and new Greater London Fire Brigade is created.
Chief Leete with his principal officers in April 1965. Immediately behind him [R] is Mr Mummery -deputy Chief and [L] Mr Cunningham-3rd officer. Picture credit-London Fire Brigade.

During his tenure as Chief he saw, and brought about, many innovative changes. Some driven by improvements in technology, others by the need for change. Not least amongst the changes was the introduction of more flexible mobilising arrangements and the removal of ‘manned’ watch rooms at every London station. This required a fireman to be on duty at all times and to receive calls not only from Brigade control room but answer signals from automatic fire alarms, direct fire telephones connected to the station and the ‘running calls’ from members of the public.

The A Divisional headquarters at Paddington showing the teleprinters linked to the fire brigade control rooms.

His reports to the LCC’s Fire Brigade’s Committee in 1963 brought about the adoption of a new mobilising scheme and the transmission of calls to the fire station by teleprinter. This allowed some 200 members of the brigade to be released to firefighting duties instead of sitting in the watchroom whilst the other firemen went out either on a call or performing outside duties.

Introduced in 1964 Junior Firemen getting a briefing at the scene of a major London blaze. The Junior Firemen could join at 16 years of age and, subject to ‘passing-out’ at the end of their training, were allocated fire stations on their 18th birthday. Picture credit-London Fire Brigade.

Leete had been the deputy Chief since 1953 and bore some responsibility for the breathing apparatus procedural failings following the major fires at Covent Garden, the Googe Street deep tunnels in 1956 and lastly the Smithfield Meat Market fire in 1958. A fire which saw two London firemen die because of the existing breathing apparatus practices. However, he with Delve moved forward operational improvements that later became national policy and which enhanced the breathing apparatus control systems of personnel at fires. The brigade also introduced automated warning devices on their Proto breathing apparatus sets which sound a whistle when the wearers only have 15 minutes of oxygen left and before their supply was exhausted.

Firemen attend the scene of a fire which broke out at Smithfield meat market in Central London. The blaze, at the premises of Union Cold Storage Co, broke out on 23rd January 1958 and burned for three days in the centuries-old laby rinth before it eventually collapsed. Some of the breathing apparatus control measures used at the time and later incoprporated into national practices. Picture taken: 23rd January 1958. (Photo by Barham/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

In 1963 the passing into law of the Railways, Shops and Offices Act brought 1000’s of new premises under the scrutiny of London Fire Brigade fire prevention officers. Premises controlled under the London Build Acts also had fire crews from fire stations undertake certain inspections. It became a regular part of fire station life for an officer and crew to go to the local factory to inspect fire prevention measures and gain local knowledge if a fire occurred.

Chief Leete conducting VIP visitors on an inspection of the headquarters fire station-Lambeth and here introducing Station Officer George Hunt and his Red Watch Lambeth crew. Picture credit-London Fire Brigade. Dated 1962. Picture credit-London Fire Brigade.

With the enlarge LFB, with its 122 fire stations and 285 pumping appliances, with most capable of carrying a 50 foot wheeled escape, the Brigade also had 29 100 foot turntable ladders, 6 foam tenders, 8 emergency tenders and an array of other specialist fire engines. The Brigade also had in its fleet a breakdown lorry, based at Clapham, and a canteen van at Lambeth which attended large fires.

Fire engines in the appliance room of the new Lewisham fire station and E Divisional headquarters. 1967. Picture credit-London Fire Brigade.
The Brigade’s canteen van based at Lambeth fire station. Picture credit-London Fire Brigade.

One year before Leete had also seen the introduction of Junior Fireman scheme into London after the initial scheme was started in the Kent Fire Brigade. Great emphasise was placed on the recruitment of suitable boys aged between 16 and 17 to undergo practical and technical training before passing out as firemen aged 18. Leete also oversaw the demise of the scheme too. It was abolished in 1969 on cost grounds prior to his retirement.

The Victorian frontage of the former Metropolitan Fire Brigade headquarters in Southwark Bridge Road. SE1.

Previously awarded the MBE, Lesley William Thomas LEETE was awarded the CBE in the 1965 New Year’s Honours list. His post nominals also included the Q.F.S.M. (Queens Fire Service Medal) and the O.St.J. (Order of St John).

One year after the successful establishment of the greatly enlarged LFB Leete oversaw the centenary celebrations in 1966 held at Lambeth. Attended by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and accompanied by His Royal Highness Prince Philip, the Queen also formally opened the new Brigade Control room at Lambeth, which at the time was state of the art.

Her Majesty the Queen together with Chief Leete on the formal opening of the new Lambeth fire brigade control room. Picture credit-London Fire Brigade.

After the 1969 Leinster Tower Hotel fire, where over 50 people were rescued from the hotel and without any fatalities, Leete issued the first ever special order, a Commendation, which described the fire as being “without parallel in the Brigade’s history for the magnitude of the task…and the excellence of the firefighting work performed”.

The Leinster Tower hotel fire. 6th June 1969.

For those that worked alongside him CFO Leete was an able and competent Chief. He was gifted with a cadre of principle officers, the likes of this deputy. Mr Mummery who had started life in the London Salvage Corps before joining the fire brigade at Finchley. A Company Officer during the early war he joined the Merchant Navy in 1943 where he remained until 1946. Returning to the fire service he rose through the ranks of the Middlesex fire brigade and appointed its Chief in 1973. Two other London officers’ of note were John Cunningham and the Alfie Shawer. Cunningham was a Leete contemporary, also joining in 1938. He had a distinguished Blitz war service record serving in South East London. A respected fire officer he was Leete’s deputy until 1965. He then became the Third Officer with the appointment of the former Middlesex Chief Officer to the Brigade.

Assistant Chief Officer A. S. Shawer, affectionately referred to as ‘Alf’.

Possibly Leete’s greatest asset was an operational fire officer, the late (many consider great) Assistant Chief Officer A. S. Shawer, affectionately referred to as ‘Alf’. As a LFB Column Officer (Station Officer) in the Blitz and then the NFS he led from the front in raids on the City and the East End of London. In 1944 he was twice COMMENDED for his rescue work in 1939 and 1944, the latter when a flying bomb buried five people beneath a building in The Highway. Stepney. Alf was awarded the KPFSM in 1952 and the MBE in 1958.

Alfie Shawyer had a reputation as a fire ground officer which was second to none in UK fire brigade circles. He was also an outstanding amateur boxer in the 1930s. He fought in middle weight, was ABA champion in 1933 and also the British Empire Amateur Champion in 1934. Fighting in Madison Square Gardens. NYC, in 1935 he won the famous Golden Gloves Tournament. He was later involved in training the British Boxing Olympics team.

Alfie died in in Tooting Bec Hospital on Thursday 13 May 1971 having retired five years ealier in 1966 and after 38 years’ service. Sadly, like so many of his contemporaries, this iconic and legendary ‘smoke-eater’ did not enjoy a long retirement. (The average life expectancy of any London fireman retiring at 55 meant few would see 68. Alf never did.)

Chief Leete at the London Fire Brigade Annual Review with Field Marshall Sir Gerald Templer prestenting a Commendation to Fireman David Pike (Lambeth). Picture credit-London Fire Brigade.

During his time as Chief Leete had seen 9 new London fire stations opened, including 3 divisional headquarters stations, namely Clapham, Paddington and Shoreditch.

The new Chelsea fire stations, one of the nine new stations opened during Leete’s reign. Picture credit-London Fire Brigade.

Leete retired in 1970, succeeded by Joseph ‘Joe’ Milner. Unlike Joe, Leete was never consider an approachable man by the rank and file, in fact he was somewhat aloof and considered, by some, somewhat of a snob! However his was a different age and Leslie Leete had grown up in it.

Leslie Leete died on the 31 August 1976 at his home in Luton.

The Tooley Street fire-

The 9th August 1971 was a Monday. It was a day that would go down in London Fire Brigade history.

The Bishopsgate goods yard fire in 1964. The closing months of the London County Council-London Fire Brigade. (Picture credit-London Fire Brigade)

The Broad Street (Bishopsgate) Goods Depot fire was, for the outgoing LCC/LFB, if not the most notable post-war fire it was the largest. The newly formed GLC/LFB got off to a blazing start with a 30 pump fire in a timber yard in April 1965. Next, the 30 pump blaze at Grocers Hall in the City of London in that September. The Bamberger’s timber yard conflagration, in Tottenham-north London, the following year required 50 pumps to combat the fire. Yet arguably, the London Fire Brigade’s most difficult peacetime fire happened in the very same part of Bermondsey which had seen London’s fire brigade creator, Superintendent Braidwood, killed in a riverside warehouse blaze. Tooley Street, SE1 was once again the scene of an intense inferno that tested London’s firemen and its officers to the full.

The early stages of the Wilson’s Wharf fire and viewed from the Tooley Street side. 1971.

The fire started in an unoccupied refrigerated warehouse at “Wilson’s Wharf”, Battle Bridge Lane, Tooley Street SE1. The brigade was in continuous attendance for three days. The fire streached the resources of the Brigade to its utmost. It proved to be one of the biggest, in terms of manpower, since the Second World War and was certainly one of the most difficult for the firemen to combat.

Some 300 operational personnel (excluding reliefs), very many senior officers and all the Brigade HQ’s principal officers attended the fire at some stage. Nearly 100 stations were involved, either directly or indirectly, and all types of ancillary vehicles were used. Even Instructors and breathing apparatus training staff, from the nearby Southwark Training Centre, attended in the latter stages, whilst two squads of recruits were employed to help make-up hose and collect other LFB equipment.

London firemen making entry to Wilson’s Wharf at the early stages of the fire. Extreme heat and toxic smoke would force them back.

For those unfamiliar with those times, or the area, by 1971 much of London’s, and certainly Southwark and Bermondsey’s, riverside warehouses and its dockside property was falling victim to vandalism and decay. The Tooley Street area was no exception. There were plans to redevelop the area by the London Dockland Development Corporation but this would take years to come to fruition. Work had started in the late 1960s to demolish many properties. Due to the solid construction of these Victorian buildings, some unscrupulous demolition contractors found that it was easier if they were accidentally burnt out first!  The local Dockhead and Southwark fire station crews were no strangers to empty or derelict warehouse fires.

The London Fire Brigade’s control officers in their basement control room and which covered the cenral London area. It was here they received the inital 999 call to Wilson’s Wharf and mobilised the crews and appliances to the blaze.

The first 999 call to a fire at Wilson’s Wharf was received at Lambeth’s Brigade Headquarters Control (M2FH). It was logged at 1448hrs; the asddress Tooley Street, Battle Bridge Lane, on Dockhead (B24) fire station’s ground. For the White Watch day shift that afternoon routines had been underway for nearly an hour; some stations performing drills, others considerably extending their lunchtime game of volleyball. Other stations the pump was unavailable for calls; either engaged in outside duties or ‘off the run’ waiting for a mechanical defect to be repaired at Lambeth workshops. So when the station bells went down at Dockhead, Southwark and Cannon Street only their pump-escapes were available. A turntable ladder from Barbican was also dispatched to make the augment attendance. Two minutes later a second call was received at the Lambeth control room and an additional pump was sent from Whitechapel and the fireboat ‘Firebrace’ from Lambeth river station were ordered on.

Dense smoke billows from the fire, deep within, Wilson’s Wharf Tooley Street..

Dockhead’s PE was on the scene in two minutes. On arrival, the Sub Officer in charge was met by the workman who had been using the oxyacetylene cutting set on the third floor of the warehouse complex. The Sub Officer ordered his crew to set into the nearest hydrant, supply a branch and effect an entry into the building by an external staircase situated at the warehouse’s western end. Southwark’s crew was ordered to don Proto breathing apparatus and the first assistance message ‘Make pumps four, BA required’ was sent at 1453hrs. At this time dense smoke was issuing from various openings at third-floor level but no flame was visible. Having dispatched the assistance message, the Sub Officer then went with the workman to search for alternative means of access to the building.

Station Officer Bill Williams, who was in charge of Cannon Street’s pump escape, discovered great difficulty was being experienced by the crews in getting into the building and the density of the smoke was rapidly increasing. He made pumps eight at 1502hrs.

The affected warehouse complex was located in the typically narrow streets that had provided access in south London’s original Victorian commercial dockside area. The property involved comprised of an irregular-shaped array of brick built buildings, six floors high and a basement. The site covered approximately 200 feet by 300 feet in area. It housed seven unoccupied refrigerated warehouses interconnected at each floor level. A disused refrigeration engine room was at the first-floor level of one warehouse, its machinery and plant having been removed previously. The complex was linked by enclosed bridges on the east side at second, third, fourth and fifth floor levels to warehouse and open bridges on the North side at second, third, fourth and fifth floor levels to some warehouses buildings. All of the windows forming part of the cold store, together with the loopholes above the ground floor except those leading to the communicating bridges, which were protected by double iron doors, had been bricked up and internally insulated, resulting in an impenetrable ‘windowless fortress’.

Wilson Wharf-Battle Bridge Lane, off Tooley Street. The area highlighted in RED indicating the extent of the final fire.

The complex, except for that part of the ground floor of one warehouse occupied by the tea merchants, had been vacant for about 18 months. The common basement extended throughout the whole complex of the warehouses. Concrete floors were at basement and ground floor level and timber floors above that. The upper floors were supported by rolled steel joists on unprotected cast-iron columns. With the exception of that part occupied by the tea merchants and the engine room the building was insulated with four inches of Onozote (a highly flammable expanded rubber covering) secured in place by two inch wooden battens, which were protected by a layer of one inch close fitting tongued-and grooved timber. The upper floors of one warehouse were used as a deep freeze. Here Onozote insulation was at least six inches thick. All of the piping forming part of the refrigeration plant was also lagged with Onozote.

Assistant Chief Officer Lloyd, of the GLC-LFB’s Southern Command, assesses the growing blaze within the wharf.

On that Monday a contractor, and one of his workmen, had been attempting to remove a disused air cooler on the third floor of the affected warehouse. The work entailed the removal of the Onozote lagging from the attached piping and necessitated the cutting of the flange bolts on the piping. This was carried out using oxyacetylene cutting equipment. Around 2.15 p.m. flame was seen shooting up from the adjacent wall at floor level. It was thought that a spark from the cutting operations had ignited the tape covering the Onozote insulation on the piping. An attempt was made to extinguish the fire with a fire extinguisher but conditions quickly became untenable. Whilst the workmen vacated the building and raised the alarm, and despite the severity of the fire, the contractor went back into the warehouse with two more extinguishers. He quickly realised that the situation was way beyond his control and his attempt to extinguish the fire was abandoned. He did however, at considerable risk, have the presence of mind to remove the cutting equipment to a position more remote from the fire.

The duty ‘B’ Division Assistant Divisional Officer responded to the incident on the first assistance message. He arrived as pumps were made eight and took charge. He ordered an additional branch, with a Proto BA crew, to try to force an entry at the third-floor level of the building on the eastern side via the covered bridge leading from an adjacent block. Dense smoke was now seen issuing from all openings at third-floor level and travelling to all parts of the complex. There were still no visible signs of fire but the heat was intense and crews were unable to make any appreciable penetration into the warehouse.

A jet, from the monitor of the turntable ladder, is directed into the blaze.

Strenuous further efforts were being made to gain an entry while heavy smoke now poured from all the openings on the third floor. None of the crews reported any sign of fire in spite of battling with intense levels of heat. The ADO’s attack plan was concentrated at third and fourth floor levels via the  interconnecting bridges, using crews protected by water jets from the TL monitor and from reinforcing pumps.

B Division Divisional Officer Samler took command at about 1520hrs. He initially requested two additional BA carrying pumps and continued with the existing plan of action, which was to concentrate on forcing entries into the premises at the third and fourth floor levels via the bridges leading from adjacent buildings. Water jets from the TL monitor and from pumps continued to be deployed to protect the crews engaged on these tasks.

Lines of hose fill the narrow lanes surrounding Wilson’s Wharf. 1971.

With the fire gaining in intensity pumps were successively increased to15 at 1533hrs; 20 pumps at 1555hrs; and 30 pumps TL’s 3 at 1616hrs. Command of operations was consecutively handed from the B Divisional Commander; Norman Rose to Deputy Assistant Chief Officer Hoare (Southern Command); then Assistant Chief Officer Lloyd (Southern Command); he was followed by the Deputy Chief Officer Harold Chisnell. Despite the most determined efforts of all the crews, and the additional resources, no meaningful penetration of the premises had been achieved. When Chief Officer Joe Milner arrived he assumed command at 1640hrs.

Chief Officer Joe Milner. London’s Chief Fire Officer 1970-1976.

At this stage conditions were becoming extremely serious. The complex layout of the premises, the exceptional thickness of the walls and the inadequacy of access points combined with the massive generation of smoke and heat was severely taxing the stamina of firemen and officers alike. It was proving impossible for non-BA crews to even hold their positions at such meagre access points. The number Proto breathing apparatus being limited to only three Proto sets carried, normally, on the pump. Additional Proto BA sets were carried on the Brigade’s emergency tenders (which had been increased to four). Only a third of the firefighters and officers had BA protection at the height of the blaze.

Water, supplied by the Brigade’s fireboat Firebrace, helps fight the blaze.

The tremendous heat build-up, and out pouring of thick smoke, posed major problems for crews struggling to establish a bridgeheads from which to counter the blaze. Attempts were made to ‘break open’ some of the bricked-up windows on the third floor with sledge-hammers and chisels, but little progress was made and this had to be abandoned. Contractors trying to break in using pneumatic drills had to been abandoned when the walls above them started to crack. Meanwhile, the BA crews were slowly being forced back by impenetrable smoke and the extreme heat. As a consequence the Chief decreed the fire ground should be divided into three sectors, North, South-East and South-West. Each sector was to be under the direct command of an Assistant Chief Officer while the Chief and his Deputy shared the task of walking around the sectors to co-ordinate operations.

Just 20 minutes after the Chief’s arrival conditions had deteriorated further still. Smoke was now issuing from virtually all the buildings in the complex. Temperatures inside were rising at a significant rate. It seemed evident that the fire could not be contained to the originating warehouse and would quickly spread to other buildings in the complex. If this occurred there would be a very possibility of fire and radiated heat being transmitted across Battle Bridge Lane, English Ground and Morgan’s Lane, affecting the surrounding buildings. If this occurred the Brigade could have faced with a conflagration of Blitz-like proportions: becoming a blaze of such a magnitude it would be ironically reminiscent of that experienced by James Braidwood, London’s first fire chief, at the fatal historical fire of 1861. A fire which brought about his own demise.

In consultation with his principal officers Joe Milner considered that only two courses were open to him;

Option One. To concentrate on subduing the fire in central warehouse and arresting its development to the adjacent. This would mean committing crews to extremely hazardous and punishing conditions; furthermore it would require a total commitment in the order of Eighty Pumps to achieve. This was due to the limited periods BA crews could be exposed to operate inside the premises. Such a decision would requiring constant regular reliefs and additional resources. It would also denuding large areas of London of any fire cover for a protracted period for what could only be viewed as an attempt to preserve semi-derelict property. (During the course of the Tooley Street fire the brigade dealt with 222 separate calls to other emergencies in the capital.

Option Two. To abandon the efforts to subdue the fire in central warehouse and to concentrate on surrounding the fire and confining the spread to the area bounded by Battle Bridge Lane, English Ground and the River Thames. The success of this course depended on allowing the fire to break through the roof of warehouse. With ventilation achieved it would reduce the lateral transmission of heat and smoke. The down side of this course of action being the danger that once the fire broke through, there would be a serious threat to surrounding property and adjacent area from radiated heat and flying firebrands.

Following discussion he chose the ‘ventilation’ option. At 1712hrs the radio officer in Brigade Control took the priority message were pumps were increased to a historic 50. The Officer of the Watch at Lambeth control organised the mobilisation of the next twenty pumps, then went about the task of arranging stand-by appliances to cover empty fire stations. The Brigade’s special cover stations retained their pump-escapes but there were lots of empty fire stations all over London. Restricted mobilising had been in operation since the make pumps 30, but another large fire in the Greater London area could see London fire cover reduced to desperate, possibly dangerous, levels.

The original, and exhausted, crews plus the new arrivals were deployed and concentrated on confining the spread of the fire to an area bounded by Battle Bridge Lane, English Ground and the river and the protection of the surrounding properties. Then at 1755 hours a violent flashover occurred. Three BA firemen, working in a covered bridge leading between two warehouses were injured. One suffered serious burns to his hands and face from the blast and was removed to hospital where he was detained. All other personnel were then rapidly withdrawn.

The biggest blaze of the decade was fought at Wilson’s Wharf, near Tooley Street, Southwark, in the summer of 1971. It was the same location that cost the life of London’s Fire Chief, James Braidwood in 1861. A number of firemen were seriously injured when a flashover occurred and others. like the fireman pictured, were affected by the toxic smoke from the disused cold store warehouse.

Fireman Stephen Jacob, from Cannon Street, witnessed this event. He later recalled it was like watching someone using a flame thrower from within the building and projecting it through the open doorway. The ball of flame containing large chunks of red hot debris. Superheated gases and flame belching out from within. He considered the crew involved were very lucky to have survived the blast which was largely due to their quick thinking and experience.

As the drama unfolded at Wilsons Wharf 1800hrs was the time of the shift change across London’s fire stations. But this was no normal day. Station routines had already been cancelled and Brigade Control circulated a message that all stations were to take an early supper in anticipation of multi-pump reliefs.

At Wilson’s Wharf it was evident that several floors in central warehouse had collapsed. Fire was now breaking through the building’s face at ground, first and second floor levels. By 1900hrs large cracks had opened up in the eastern and southern walls of the warehouse, belching flame and smoke thereby enabling crews to make better progress with their assault on the fire in the surrounding sections of the complex.

Deep into the night the battle to contain the blaze continued.

The complex business of releasing some of the day shift crews, who had been working under extreme pressure in difficult and dangerous condition was got under way by the Brigade’s major control unit crew. It’s Divisional Officer trying to balance getting crews away, get relief crews briefed whilst the fire still raged. Parked fire engines filled Tooley Street. Fresh crews were arriving whilst some were preparing to return weary crews to their stations. Some crews, tired, wet, grimy and smoke stained cradled cups of tea in their hands-grateful for the refreshment from Lambeth’s canteen van. Other, clearly exhausted, sat in the street, some dunking biscuits, whilst many having a well-earned drag on a roll-up or getting out their trusty pipe from an inside tunic pocket. Senior officers, looking equally weary, mixed freely with the firemen all unified in having fought a common foe. But the fight was not over yet.

The premises were being surrounded now by a combination of both White and Blue watch crews. Radial branches and ground monitors were operating from street level and from adjacent roofs and other vantage points. During this time and until 2300hrs, when the eastern wall collapsed, the fire continued to intensify but the ventilation provided by the cracks reduced the sideways spread of smoke and heat. Even after the collapse of the roof and walls of the central warehouse the fire continued to gather intensity and it was necessary to withdraw and redeploy some of the crews and equipment.

Lambeth’s PE and pump had gone on at make pumps 30. They were among some of the appliances released soon after 1800 with instructions to exchange crews and return to the scene of the fire.  Lambeth’s pump crew being one of the first reliefs. Detailed to relieve a day shift crew their crew of three, with Proto BA sets carried their shoulders, negotiated their way over the multitude of charged hose lines that lay entwined in the narrow access lane. It was a tribute to the accuracy of the hand drawn plan in the control unit that they found the crew working in the general area indicated.

As they neared their position, and passing under one of the overhead connecting walkways, they looked up to see two white helmeted figures emerge from the swirling mass of brown smoke coming from the warehouse. The Deputy Chief, Harold Chisnall- a former Middlesex fireman who had risen through the ranks and came into London on the formation of the GLC-LFB, exited the building coughing and spluttering as was the staff office who accompanied him. The Deputy leaned over the metal bridge, was violently sick, before regaining his composure and re-entered the warehouse doorway. Stooping low he disappeared in the smoke filled second floor with his Staff Officer bringing up the rear.

Deputy Chief Officer Harold Chisnell-Milner’s second in command.

The mixed cacophony of sound was punishing the firemens ears. Loud cracking of timber, the crashing of internal walls and the hum of major pumps working at high pressure. It combined with the thud of powerful jets striking the building. The sounds reverberating in the confined enclosed spaces. Sound that seemed to be trying to drown out the frightening sound of the actual fire but failing as the sound of roaring flames rose above everything else.

With the crew relieved, Proto sets started up, Lambeth’s crew entered the fray. The continuing development of the fire now threatened property fronting on to Battle Bridge Lane, the walls of which were already showing cracks. Battle Bridge Lane was only 20 feet wide at this point and should the fire have jumped this it would spread rapidly throughout this adjoining block of property which contained valuable stocks of combustible goods. Crews were redeployed to give the maximum concentration of attack to the buildings on the west side of Battle Bridge Lane and to subdue the fires in interconnected warehouses.

After six hours of a non-stop attack the situation seemed to have improved and the ‘fire surrounded’ message was sent. The day watch had all finally been relieved and the Blue Watch crews were re-deployed at this stage to prevent the fire from ‘jumping’ across the narrow Battle Bridge Lane to adjoining premises.

10th August 1971 and hose lines circle the wharf as the blaze is slowly brought under control.

Steady progress was made throughout the night and by 0600hrs on the 10th August the fire in the main buildings of the complex had been subdued and was confined to the top three floors of an adjacent warehouse at the junction of English Ground and Battle Bridge Lane.

Exhausted London firemen, many committed in oxyger Proto breathing apparatus,return to their home station as fresh crews relieve them.

Throughout the next day shift crews continued to attack these fires with jets until about 1100hrswhen the Deputy Chief ordered the use of high-expansion foam. This operation proved successful and by 1330hrsthe fire had been reduced to the fourth and fifth floors and entry had been effected by BA crews. Although heavy smoke was still being encountered, steady progress was made throughout the day and it was possible to send the ‘STOP’ message at 2038hrs on the second day. Some thirty hours after the fire had started. Fire crews remained on scene until the 11th August.

The firefighting operations at Wilson’s Wharf involved the use of 20 jets, 3 TL monitors, eight radial branches, and one Turbex High Expansion Foam unit and in excess of 200 one-hour Proto BA sets using an estimated 315 cylinders. The damage to the complex consisted of three-quarters of all floors severely damaged by fire, the remainder severely damaged by fire, heat, smoke and water, one half of the roof severely damaged by fire, heat and smoke.

All stations; all divisions; all commands; LSC.

From the Chief Officer.

Stop for Wilsons wharf, Tooley Street.

A range of unoccupied buildings

Of 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6 floors and basement

Covering an area of 200 x 300ft

2/3rds damaged by fire 1/2 of roof off

20 jets 8 radial jets 3 TL monitors high ex foam. BA Too 2038.

National newspaper reports, covering the blaze, said that three hundred firemen had fought the blaze of the century on the banks of the Thames and that three firemen were injured. There was little or no follow up news. The incident was not considered sufficiently news worthy despite the fact that the efforts of containing the conflagration took over 60 hours and it was only the actions of London’s firemen that prevent a blaze of truly catastrophic proportions. But new problems were about to confront the LFB. Two months on and the IRA commenced its terror campaign in London; starting with the BT Tower bombing on October 31st.

A man of his time.
London’s Chief Officer 1970-1976. Joseph ‘Joe’ Milner. CBE. QFSM.

They were the best of times; the worst of times.

The formative years of a young London fireman…

Cut away those fire brigade cliches, the London Fire Brigade nostalgia and what have you got? Most will say a mixure of memories from real people; recollections of real situations plus, reminiscences of the real ‘working’ life of the London fireman. It is some recipe. Much of our time at work was spent, well if not actually laughing then at least very happy. We were left, at times, wishing something would happen and then, occasionally, regretting it had!

Lambeth’s Dennis pump-escape. The first operational fire engine I rode at the age of 18 and 4 days old. The appliance was new to the LFB fleet but the equipment it carried would have been familiar to those who rode London fire engines in the 1950s. Picture credit-London Fire Brigade.

For those now deemed dinosaurs ours was a generation of smokey jobs, of snotty noses and blood shot eyes. The adrenalin rush when the bells went down, regularly followed by the ‘downer’ of arrriving at another shit’n rubbish shout. But you never, ever, took things for granted especially when the shit’n rubbish was going like a bastard and is involving surrounding property, sometimes even lives!

The refuse collection strikes in the early 1970s resulted in piles of rubbish and uncollected waste lying for weeks in London streets. Hundreds of rubbish fires were started which kept firemen extremely busy in addition to their normal workload. Picture credit-London Fire Brigade.

To be fair, ours was a generation of different rules. Some things we took for a certainty: Of putting on a cold wet tunic on those long winter nights: Of getting a wet arse because the seperate black leggings never actually covered your bum: Of ears acting as thermometers, when wearing a BA Proto set, and knowing you’re going to have to push yourself down (or up) through a heat barrier to reach the fire. Then there’s the coughing fit! Normally atributed to sucking up smoke, whilst crawling into a fire on your belly, because you’re not riding BA. Then, for the unlucky few like myself, who were not natural ‘smoke-eaters’ there were the terrible headaches whilst the carbon monoxide exited your system.

Slipping and pitching the wheeled escape. Picture credit-London Fire Brigade.

There were the straining sinews whilst expending the maximum amount of effort in the shortest possible time when pushing in a wheeled 50 foot escape ladder or lugging heavy, charged, lengths of hose up flights of stairs into the unknown. All delivered with the satisfaction of working as part of a well-oiled team and only very occasionally having a sense of unease knowing that some ‘skate’ was taking the ‘pee’ especially when it mattered!

We dinosaurs all started very much the same. We learnt our craft from those that came before us. From the people wearing black cork helmets and having bicycle lamps issued as firemen’s torches and when we all sat on fire engines that carried bells.

The engine below just happens to be Brixton’s, but it could be anyone’s. A fire engine carrying a ladder that, to us oldies, brings a certain wistfulness. There was one at every London fire station. It one of so many common bonds we share. All individual segments of a tale that made us who we are. It might come as a surprise but I don’t actaully live in the past but I feel so privileged to have lived that LFB past.

Brixton’s pump escape- 1969.

These were the heady days of Dennis and of boxy shaped fire engines. Engines with wooden ladders, some with big wheels, others had teeth, bills and hooks. Days of heavy, rubber lined, canvas hose and large, red, weighty hand-controlled branches named London!  Proto breathing apparatus sets came in two colours; blue and yellow. It was a black fire-ground uniform except for silver tunic buttons and a belt buckle plus the red plastic gloves! Ours was a uniform consisting of Melton woven material, leather and cork helmets. A uniform we once wore to fires. Days when we were told, ‘You stick with so and so. Do whatever he tells you and do nothing else’. Of old LCC fireman who taught you your craft. Of firemen with WWII medal ribbons on their undress uniform-of others who had also won them but said nothing.

Lambeth’s iconic Station Officer Jack Stacey-a true character and highly respected fire officer. A modest man who had signed up to join the Army at the start of WWII. He was part of the long-range desert patrol group (foreunner of the SAS) and conducted raids and sabotage far behind enemy lines, and operated in conjunction with the existing Long Range Desert Group (formerly No.8 Commando). They had looked for suitable recruits with rugged individualism and initiative. Jack fitted the bill perfectly, both then and in his London Fire Brigade career. Picture credit-London Fire Brigade.

The flat jobs were, in the main, in the LCC styled flats, the house jobs in old style brick housing stock They might have been anywhere in London; Hackney, Hammersmith, Holloway or Peckham. The next pictured happens to be ‘sarf’ of the river, and despite what you read the a common ‘stop’ message: ‘Small fire flat/house, hosereel. BA.’ Behind those five simple words was many a tale. Tales of smoke-filled room’s, easily involving the whole flat or house. Of horse-hair mattresses, or armchairs, producing smoke so thick you could cut it with a knife. Its distinctive odour filling nostrils as firemen crawled in low, sometimes on bellies pulling behind them the hosereel tubing and seeking the fires origin. So pernicious was the smoke its malignant effects could deprive the occupants of life and it frequently did. Adrenaline charged firemen always went the extra mile whenever the possibility of someone, especially a child, was believed involved.

Rotherhithe. Original LCC built council flats now-in the late 1960 and 70s-managed by the GLC and local borough councils. Picture credit. London Borough of Southwark

For the terraces, be they two-storey or the bigger three and four storeys, many where in multi occupancy. Regardless, the smoke and its consequences were no respecter of colour or creed. Fireman rushed in where others were rushing out. Their coughing and spewing part of the price of getting in low with a hosereel jet whilst others, with streaming eyes. checked around to make sure everyone, that should be, was out and safe.

Fire at Perrins Court, Hampstead. Two girls jumped 25 foot as fire swept through the building. Tragically one of the girls later died in hospital. 12 April 1974.

The melton tunics acted like blotting paper, soaking up both water and the stench of the smoke. Its lingering reek filling the gear room with its unique aroma at the end of the shift. And with the drama resolved, not always with the fire out, the guvnor sends his simple message. The crews, with sore eyes and snotty noses, tick off yet another ordinary ‘bread and butter’ job.

Dark days.

For me, who was once a London fireman, the Grenfell Tower fire remains off the scale! It started as one of today’s London firefighters ordinary ‘bread and butter’ jobs. A job that went ‘tits up’! Through no fault of their own, London firefighters are still ‘left holding the baby’ for the consequences of tower block fire covered in highly flammable cladding despite the fact that for so many it meant getting struck in close up and personal. Clearly those on today’s frontline maintain the same pride in the LFB I will carry to the grave even when there were dark days…

The details of the 1969 explosion, and its aftermath, one that killed six, five of whom were East London firemen were there to read in the watchroom teleprinter message book. Stark messages, in its typical scant fire brigade speak, were repeated across the Brigade . The Chief Officer’s message announced ‘with the deepest of regret etc’… Deaths that seemed all the more poignant by the fact that they had died at an incident which appeared, at the outset, to be almost trivial.

At Lambeth, that evening, a Brigade Headquarters principal officers’ car driver, the late Johnny Guy, added grim details to the briefest of information given out on the official teleprinter messages. He told of his small part in the extraction of some of the bodies from the oil laden sludge in the partly demolished oil tank farm at Dudgeons Wharf.

It was on that fateful Thursday morning, the 17th July, that Millwall’s pump escape and pump, Brunswick Road’s pump, a foam tender from East Ham together with the fireboat Massey Shaw that were dispatched to Dudgeons Wharf on the Isle of Dogs at 11.22 a.m. A small fire had broken out in one of the huge oil storage tanks at Dudgeons Wharf. An expansive former tank farm site situated between the riverfront and Manchester Road. The tank in question, which was empty but not purged, had a capacity of twenty thousand gallons. The demolition workers believed they had actually put the fire out. The land fire crews, which totalled twelve in number, arrived to make sure it was. Meanwhile the Massey Shaw fireboat was en-route to the scene from Greenwich.

What later became common knowledge was that the Dudgeons Wharf disaster was caused by a workman hot cutting away an inspection cover securing bolts on an oil tank. An oil tank that had contained flammable substances. Although the affected tank was marked ‘light oil and linseed oil’ the lettering was indistinct. There was certainly no warning of the potential dangers to firemen having to deal with a fire within them. The national papers, the following day, gave fitting tributes and reported, “They died simply doing the day-to-day job of a London fireman.”

What the papers didn’t report at the time was the lead-up to that awful July day in 1969. It was in 1951 that commercial operations had stopped at Dudgeon’s Wharf. It remained empty for many years before any demolition work actually commenced. By 1967 the company owning Dudgeons Wharf tank had no further use for it. But unable to find a suitable buyer they decided to demolish it, clear the site and sell the land for development. Despite two large and experienced demolition companies tendering for the demolition contract it was awarded to, what effectively was, a one-person contracting company. Whereas the larger companies would have required the tank farm owners to clear the site of accumulated refuse and receive assurances that the tank farm vessels were thoroughly clean inside the small scale, inexperienced, contractor was prepared to take on the job as seen. It was for that reason he was awarded the demolition contract!

It was during the subsequent public inquiry, conducted by A. W. M. Davis QC, into the fatal disaster that the attitude of the demolition contractor and that of the scrap dealer, to whom it was planned to sell the salvaged was metal, was found to be purely a commercial one. Even the site owners gave safety a low priority.

The funeral service, at West Ham Parish Church, was held for the other four and when the procession reunited the five comrades started their final journey to the City of London Crematorium and Cemetery in Manor Park.

The East End went into mourning following this tragic loss. Hundreds of firemen from all over Britain arrived the following week for the funeral of their comrades: from Millwall, Sub Officer Michael Gamble and Firemen Alfred Smee; from Brunswick Road, Firemen John Appleby and Terence Breen; and from Clerkenwell fire station Fireman Trevor Carvosso – who had volunteered to stand-by at Millwall.

City of London Crematorium and Cemetery in Manor Park.

On the 29th September, the same year Acting Leading Fireman Michael Lee was killed at a fire in Goswell Road. EC1. Like myself he was a former Junior Fireman. Only a year seperated our ages. The month before disaster could have repeated itself when nine London firemen were injured in a gas expolsion in East London. In the first five years of my service 10 London firemen died in the line of duty. Seven at operational incidents, three from on duty accidents. In modern peacetime, post WWII, the 1960s remains the worst decade for LFB fatalities.

2nd August 1969. Mile End Road/Burdett Road. 9 London firemen and 2 Metropolitan policemen were
injured in a gas explosion.


In age before ‘PC’ we simply called them ‘Methy’s’. Homeless people who lived on the streets and, in the main, drank cheap liquor such as British Ruby Wine and, it was said, methylated spirits! Their fires, either caused by them or the lit fires to keep warm, were a frequent shout. Occasionally they were the beginning of a much bigger blaze, especially when they chose to occupy a derelict warehouse or factory.

Southwark firemen assist the London Ambulance crew remove a homeless man to Guy’s Hospital after a fire in a derelict shop fire in London Road. SE1.

The fires, large or small, also resulted in regular rescues of those overcome, normally by smoke, but others were just ‘dead’ drunk! In many slum clearance areas, but especially around the Elephant and Castle prior to its redevelopment in the early 70, hardly a night went by when we weren’t pulling a ‘methy’ out of some smoky job; normally with them not wishing to leave or even rescuing an unfortunate, unconscious, man and giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. (There were very few homeless women then.) Sadly, some never made it. Their death becoming another fire statistic and given a simple paupers grave in the local council graveyard.

However, one such man did teach me a valuable life lesson. Living in a Kennington back street it was a frequent shout as people reported the small fires in the derelict houses awaiting clearance. We had meet this man maybe half a dozen times, and me still being the junior buck, I was normally tasked to escort him out of the house even we all knew he would return as soon as we left the scene to relight his fire. He was very well spoken and amoung his few treasured possession were some books in French and Latin (my Sub-told me it was Latin!).

This way of life was all very new to me. One night he managed to set the derelict house properly alight! I was again his minder whilst the others put the fire out. It turned out the man had been a college professor, the death of his wife meant his world fell apart and he turned the man to drink, ending up living on London’s streets. It was not unknown of some riding fire engines to treat the ‘methies’ like vermin or, at best, a bloody nuisance. However, this old bloke had a way about him, you might call it a dignity…My lesson was to not to judge a book by its cover. I didn’t always succeed but reminded me there are individual stories behind those we simply referred to as ‘methy’s.

Brixton Hill. SW2.

It’s 1967 and I am sitting in the rear of Lambeth’s pump. We were ordered to a shout in support of Brixton’s pump-escape and pump crews’ and a ‘person’s reported’ fire on Brixton Hill. I was a total ‘make-weight’, no experience, and a very ‘junior’ buck.

Brixton’s Red Watch were a tour de force. Old, steady, experienced LFB hands. Some were ex-army and one former Royal Navy sailor. Tony Sowerby was their ‘junior buck’. Like me a former Junior Fireman but with almost two years’ service now. On our arrival there was a serious house fire, one involving children. Brixton’s crews were fully committed. Lambeth’s pump crew seemed to know exactly what was required to be done and immediately set about doing it. I was left standing there like a spare-part!

Brixton’s Red Watch- Tony Sowerby 4th from the left of the picture. Acting Station Officer ‘Nobby’ Clarke in charge. Picture credit-London Fire Brigade.

Blackened, crazed, gazing at the front first and second floor windows gave a clue to the extreme heat inside. One of Brixton’s experienced hands was vomiting on the door step. A clue to the vile smoke that filled the house as I walked up to the front door to peek inside. Three with BA, the others without, the house seemed full of firemen. Firemen desperately searching for the missing children whilst fighting the fire.

Suddenly there was a commotion coming down the stairs. Shouted orders and some confusion too. Sowerby is holding a one child and I am given another as the fireman about turns and heads back into the smoke filled house. Sowerby cradles his child wrapped in something, I can’t recall what. The toddler I am holding is covered with grime and is smoke stained. Neither child is breathing but neither Sowerby nor I wish to believe the children are dead. They can’t be. We find ourselves on the back of an ambulance being driven at break neck speed, under police escort, to Kings College Hospital in south London. Neither of us stop trying to revive the unmoving children. The ambulance man in the rear, monitoring our progress, tries to hold us steady.

“Keep going lads” he encourages.

The arrival at ‘King’s’ A&E sees an initial frenzy of activity. The children are taken from our arms and carried inside. We seemed to wait for ages but in reality it was a short time. The doctor’s face told us what we never wished to hear. The children never made it. He thanked us for our efforts, which counts for nothing when you fail!

It was the police car that returned us to the fire scene. There was a palpable sense of loss in the firemen’s faces. Their blood shot eyes, snotty running noses and blacked faces telling its own tale of their determined efforts to rescue the two children. Sowerby and I say nothing. Not to each other nor to anyone else either. We try to avoid the faces of the other firemen. Brixton’s guvnor calls us to one side. He was a big, gruff, powerful man and tells us we were already fighting a losing battle. We could not have done anything more than what we did. However, it was not his words that mattered it was the nods and a wordless pat on the back from firemen. Firemen who I was in awe of and which showed a compassion, a sympathy and benevolence that this eighteen year old had not seen, or ever experienced, before. You could see the genuine sadness in their eyes that their efforts, this time, had been in vain.  But they left me feeling that they would do it all again in a heartbeat to try and save a life. It was because of them (and so many more that followed them) this still sticks. I knew I had made the right choice to be a fireman. It was a feeling that lasted for the next thirty plus years.

The rank of fireman may, in the opinion of some, be a humble one but they know the work which a fireman had to do, in all its guises. To be able to climb up, get down, to crawl in and use your senses when common sense tells those getting out to run even faster. We young firemen learnt our craft from people called FIREMEN. The senior hands who took and believed in this noble calling.  A proudest moment was to save a life. Yet we were full of pride when told by these ‘old’ hands “We’ll make a fireman of you yet son”.

1968. Lambeth’s pump escape and turntable ladder at a Vauxhall Walk fire. ‘Small fire in flat. Hosereel. BA’

‘Small fire flat-hosereel.’

These were different times. Times when we sent messages over the R/T, more often than not underplaying what was actually happening. Small was a relative term. If it hadn’t spread up, down or sideways, it was normally the ‘stop’ message of choice for so many London ‘old school’ guvnors. Occasionally, they might add two simple letters after it which said ‘BA’.

It didn’t matter if two or more rooms were well alight, providing no life risk was involved, ‘small fire flat’ seemed to tick their stop message box! Whilst the message might have been a simple one, for those getting low and crawling in the task was anything but straightforward. The taint of horsehair filled mattress would hang heavy in the air. As families updated their homes foam filled furniture became their preferred choice. In either event the noxious, foul, horrible and injurious smoke drove those crawling in with the hosereel down to the floor. What the smoke failed to do then the heat barrier would try its very best to do exactly the same thing. All the while, the smoke you could cut with a knife, gave its own signature of a small fire.

For the fireman edging into the flat, sometimes clambering, frequently struggling to inch forward, their eyes watered from stinging fumes and lungs getting a dose of harmful smoke, they were encouraged to get in with a range of expletives that could make a Billingsgate fish porter blush! The hosereel might be two or occasional would disguise itself as pip-squeak jet. Often the ‘stop’ message was sent as an act of faith. The faith of the guvnor in his crew, a crew who had yet to actually put the fire out! When the fire was covered, to the informed observer, came the next clues that this was a little ‘job’ The pump delayed for a few hours turning over and cutting away or the London Salvage Corps (LSC) requested to ‘secure the premises’. This had little to do with putting a padlock on the front door but rather sheeting up the fire affected windows.

Station work.

Once, at any London fire station, you could divide the average working day of a fireman life into thirds They would consist of drills, volley ball and station work. Which, if you were lucky, might be interrupted by a ‘shout’ or two. Our blue work overalls (No 4 rig for the purists out there) were worn in a range of hues, depending on their age, and were the normal rig of the day. Even at station drills only shoes were exchanged for ‘boots and leggings’ but overalls, together with your soft cap, remained the accepted rig.

The firemen at Euston fire station restowing a pump-a Home Office, former Auxiliary Fire pump, which were ofter placed into service due to the dire state of the reserve appliance fleet!

At Lambeth it was the Sub Officer who had day-to-day responsibility for the detailing the morning or afternoon station work routines, including appliance and equipment maintenance; outside station work, or station drills. The leading firemen monitored the progress of station work, or appliance maintenance, throughout the day.

It was a long-standing tradition on Lambeth’s Red Watch that the very senior hands were excused certain station routines, but in particular station cleaning. As the mere sprog I had no such privileges and certainly not as their youngest ever junior buck. I soon built up an intimate relationship with cleaning every corner of the Fm’s toilet. At Lambeth this was the size of large public lavatory. Two long troughs of separate, full length, urinals, six crapper booths and an adjoining multi-sink fireman’s washroom. I would eventually get ‘promoted’. I moved onto cleaning the junior officers’ toilets; but only after a next junior buck had arrived on the watch.

Fireman Ken Thorne (and myself) at the Old ‘folks’ Christmas party held annually by Lambeth’s Red Watch at the headquarters station. Ken was the station’s senior hand and only ever drove the Emegency Tender. A consummate and respected fireman he joined the LFB, in the AFS, in 1938. The winner in both Brigade pump escape and pump competitions in the 1950s he was a giant of a fireman and human being too.

But in my four years at Lambeth I never reached high enough in the pecking order to polish the locker room floor or, the very best job of all, the iconic Lambeth billiard/snooker room floor, with its two full size snooker tables that sat in this majestic timber panelled room. Here framed photos of Lambeth’s winners of the Brigade’s Pump and Pump Escape competitions hung in pride of place from the walls and a young, handsome looking, Ken Thorne; Taff Webber and Bill Skipsey, (both now serving on the fireboat), looked down on a room that hadn’t changed a jot in appearance since the Headquarters first opened in 1937.

Lambeth’s, central, main corridor ran almost the whole length of the headquarters building. It was named the ‘golden mile’ and was cleaned daily. Occasionally I would be extended the honour of scrubbing, then polishing the ‘golden mile’. But not with the Electrolux floor polisher, reserved for the more senior hands and the floors of the locker and billiard room. No my polishing implement was the bumper… the weighty breeze block on a stick. Given an application of liquid polish the bumper was pushed and pulled the length of the corridor. The sweat soon started to pour as our collarless shirts took up the excess perspiration. Pushing a bumper was a serious work-out and not for the faint hearted. I was always told there were many naval traditions in the fire brigade and that bloody bumper was akin to holy-stoning the deck of on a ship of the line.

But the one aspect of station cleaning that was always welcome. It was a real joy. The weekly scrub-out of Lambeth’s seven-bay, tiled, appliance room floor. Our scrub-outs were always carried out on a Friday. The rota system meant that we got to scrub out twice every six weeks. With the vast appliance room cleared of its fire engines, senior officers’ cars and the Brigade’s control unit and parked in the drill yard the metal drip trays were finally pulled clear. Then we all armed ourselves with a bass broom. With the surface of the appliance room floor thoroughly soaked from a jet fixed to a hydrant in the station yard comprox was poured onto the wet surface and we scrubbed the floor. We worked in a long line across the width of the appliance room, pushing our brooms from one end to the other and mixed the comprox with the water.

The water, the comprox and the sweeping action brooms resulted in a blanket of white soapy foam that covered the whole appliance room floor. It was incredibly slippery, especially on the grooved tiled floor of Lambeth’s appliance room. It became a great surface on which to play the brigade’s version of ‘ice hockey’. Using a large bar of carbolic soap as the puck, bass brooms as hockey sticks and fireboots as ice skates we had thirty minutes, or so, of unrestrained rough and tumble as we slid about trying to hit the “puck” from one end of the appliance room to the other. The junior officers often joined in this frivolity and passing senior officers would gaze in at our game, privately wishing they too could let their hair down and pick up a broom.

Lambeth’s empty appliance room-great venue for ‘Comprox’ hockey on a Friday.

As the suds slowly disappeared so the surface lost its slimy veneer and the game was over until the next scrub-out. Now it was just a matter of cleaning off the grime and stains by washing the appliance room clean with jets of water. This, more often than not, resulted in the inevitable water fight. But especially so on hot summer days when the temptation to give someone a thorough soaking became overpowering. Occasionally it all got out of hand, or rather the jet did, and a passing bus would get a dousing too, much to the annoyance of the guvnor who had to mollify an irate bus inspector from the local bus depot.

The new Lambeth headquarters when opened in 1937. The Lambeth fire station accommodation, on the first floor, had remained the same ever since. Picture credit. London Fire Brigade.

It was an era when us young boys ‘learnt by rote’. We carried that message into the 80’s, some more successfully that others and always reliant on those crawling in with the hosereel. I have no idea what today’s firefighters would think of our dinosaur attics-but they were special times. Glad to have been part of them. It doesn’t matter if you call yourself a London fireman or a firefighter. It remains a badge I wear with pride.


Wrong place-right time. Receiving a ‘pat’ on the back from Fielf Marshall Geradd Templer at the 1969 Annual Review.

Arthur Reginald Dyer-Chief Officer of the London Fire Brigade-A man of his time.

In 1928 a funeral took place, that of Mr John Herbert Dyer who had served with the Alton fire brigade for over 50 years and had eventually became their Chief Officer. He was a founding member of the National Fire Brigades Union (1887). He would become a Union Vice-President and was subsequently awarded several foreign decorations for his outstand contribition to the NFBU. (Which should not be confused with the Fire Brigade Union that was formed in 1928.) He was also the father of one Arthur Reginald Dyer, who between 1918 and 1933, was the London Fire Brigade’s Chief Officer.

A gathering of the National Fire Brigades Union at the London Fire Brigades headquarters-Southwark. Circa 1912.

Arthur was born in Alton in 1877. By his early twenties he had worked with pupillage training with the fire engine manufacturers Merryweather & Son at Greenwich for two years, followed by a further year of study at King’s College, London before travelling to the United States.

He joined the British Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company Ltd in January 1900 at their works in Pittsburgh. Having spent one year in their electric works, and one year in the machine company’s works, he was involved with the manufacture, erection and testing of large gas and steam engines. Returning to England in March 1902, he spent the next two years attached to the mechanics staff of the British Westinghouse Company where he was engaged in installing gas engines for the Birmingham Small Arms Company under Messrs Henry Lea & Son, consulting engineers.

In 1904, the year of his marriage, he applied to join the London Fire Brigade (LFB) as a direct entry candidate. Aged 27, notices of Dyer’s marriage listed him as an Associate Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers. The London County Council (LCC) Selection Boards was impressed with the Dyer and he was appointed as an Assistant Divisional Officer. A principal officer rank within the Brigade.

1904. The London Fire Brigade’s principal officers (front row seated) with the Superintendents standing at the rear.

Arthur Dyer, born a Victorian, would become one of the most successful Chief Officers of the LFB. He was an exceptional leader of his men. One that was highly respected by both rank and file, something that was attritubed to his noteworthy courageous actions. An officer who lead from the front. Awarded for his bravery he was seriously injured, more than once in the line of duty. By any measure he proved himself to be an outstanding LFB officer. He ranks amongst the finest of the LFB’s Chiefs. During his fifteen years at its head he brought about some exceptional challenges. Was he a unique man? Is is not for me to say, but it was a remarkable career.

At 31 years of age he started his 29 year career before being promoted to Divisional Officer (North) in 1909. That was the same year a new LFB Chief Officer was appointed; Lieut-Commander Sladen. RN. Sladen was not a ‘hands-on’ Chief Officer. He was however considered very much a LCC Committee man but never obtained the full confidence of either his officers or his firemen. A man who never really made the transition from the Royal Navy into the London Fire Brigade culture. It is reported that he once attended particular large fire and fully expected his men to stop fighting the blaze and parade whilst he issued his instructions! Thankfully, it was Sladen’s more than able deputy, Sidney Gamble (later Dyer) who protected the man’s reputation by their own leadership qualities. Both men having carved out reputations as a capable fire-fighting officers and highly respected by their firemen.

Divisional Officer Gamble-Deputy to the Chief Officer.

Dyer was deemed a cool and determined man. A firm disciplinarian, and a good sport, he was also board minded and far seeing. He took the keenest interest in the welfare of his men and their sports. A capable sportsman himself there was not a branch of the Brigade’s Athletic Association he did not take a personal interest in, particularly boxing, fishing, walking and running.

Dyer’s brigade of 1908. As the Divisional Officer North-residing at Euston fire station-he covered the area north of the Thames but could/did attend major fires anywhere in the Brigade area when required.

Operationally he never let his men venture where he would not go himself, and was known to personally try out a position of danger before placing firemen with hose lines in it. Dyer was highly commended for his actions in helping save the lives of two children from a south London fire. He and Senior Superintendent Moore were attending a burning oil shop and Dyer assisted Moore in a daring rescue. Moore was awarded the Silver Medal, the Victoria Cross of the London Fire Brigade. Dyer’s actions resulted in the presentation of the London County Council’s Distinguished Conduct Medal. Such was Dyer’s determination to lead from the front that during his career he was injured seriously five times in fire-fighting operations including at the Siege of Sidney Street in 1911.

Rescues at a Fleet Street fire on the 21st September 1912.

As the Divisional Officer (North), Dyer resided at Euston fire station. He and the Divisional Officer (South) {Major Morris} answered only to the Chief Officer and his tenure from 1909 until 1918 Dyer took charge of some of London’s most problematic fires of the time, including many of the resultant 224 fires due to enemy air raids on London during WWI. Not least of them when on Tuesday 7th September 1915 fifty sets of premises were damaged and set ablaze. In the City no fewer than twenty-two pumps fought the fires in Wood Street and Silver Street and the loss of property amounted to over half a million pounds.

Dyer was seriously injured during firefighting operations at the Sidney Street seige and aftermath. One of many injuries
during his career on the London Fire Brigade.

In 1911 Dyer was the officer in charge if the fire-fighting operations at the Sidney Street siege in east London. On Friday 19th January 1917 Dyer led the Brigades considerable response to the Silvertown explosion. Although outside London and in the West Ham fire brigade area London, who were already busy dealing with the many calls arising from the disaster in East and South-East London, the most severe being the ‘great fire’ at the Phoenix Wharf, East Greenwich, where over 9 million cubic feet of gas was destroyed and a gas holder collapsed as a result of the concussion effect of the Silvertown explosion.

Two London firemen were killed in this Southwark blaze-a short distance from the Southwark LFB headquarters station.
On the 9th August Dyer took charge of the Charlton Hotel fire in the Haymarket.

Although Dyer was formally appointed Chief Officer in June 1919, he had been carrying out the duties of acting Chief Officer since December 1918 following Sladen’s sudden resignation. Sladen had faced public criticism for losing the confidence of his Brigade due to inability to command it. Dyer was appointed Chief Officer both of the London Fire Brigade and the London Ambulance Service. Taking up his post he moved back into the Southwark Headquarters. However, his earlier days were challenging. He commanded 82 land and river fire stations.

The published picture of Arthur Dyer upon his taking the position of Acting Chief Officer.
Arthur Dyer’s Southwark London Fire Brigade headquarters building, and the extended Southwark fire station which opened in 1911. Built for the Metropolitan Fire Brigade it opened in 1878 and was located in Southwark Bridge Road SE1. Southwark remained the Brigade’s headquarters until the headquarter’s relocation to the new Lambeth site on the Albert Embankment in 1937. (The arched frontage, with the spired tower, was demolished in the late 1960s by the Greater London Council.) Circa1920. Picture credit-London Fire Brigade.

London’s major fires, classified as ‘Brigade Calls’, were a frequent occurrence for the new Chief Officer. In fact it is highly likely that Dyer faced some of his greatest challenges both in combating some of the largest, peacetime, fires in recent times and being an agent of change. Not least amongst these changes were the introduction of the two watch system and the continued extensive motorisation of the brigade’s operational fleet. This lead to the rationalisation of London’s fire cover by Dyer (due to the introduction of motorised fire engines) and which would see 15 of his fire stations close.

In 1920 Dyer hosts a Royal visit by the Prince of Wales (later crowned Edward VIII) to the Southwark Headquarters.
The Prince of Wales makes a presentation to Superintent Crowe (North-based at Euston) under the watchful gaze of Chief Arthur Dyer at the Southwark headquarters during the Royal visit. 1920.

However, Dyer also presided over a considerable fire station modernisation programme and new builds. In 1921 the London Salvage Corps handed over its Shaftesbury Avenue station and Soho was born. In the same year the very last horse drawn fire engine, a turntable ladder, was withdrawn from service. By 1923 the extension to Euston was completed and agreement was reached on the rebuilding of a new Peckham fire station adjacent to the existing station. Prior to his retirement in 1933, Dyer had overseen the opening of the new Whitechapel fire station plus the creation of a new sub-station in Downham.

An historic and sad occasion for the London Fire Brigade in November 1921, when the Brigade said farewell to the last pair of horses (together with their horse-drawn fire engine) used in the capital seen here at Kensington Fire Station. Date: 1921

Operationally, within the space of eleven days in October 1920 Dyer commanded two of London’s fiercest fires in decades. The first was the Hop Exchange in Southwark Street, SE1.So severe was the fire that within minutes a ‘Brigade Call’ had forty pumps, four turntable ladders and other special fire engines battling the flames. After two hours the fire was deemed subdued and only four fire engines remained. At 2.20 a.m. a dust explosion occurred in part of the building which had been saved. The explosion blew out the rear upper floors. Fire ravaged the whole of the central and westerly end of the six floors and once again Dyer was commanding over forty pumps. It was not until the 11th November that the Brigade finally left the scene.

The Hop warehouse fire-Southwark Street. October 1920.

Lower Oliver’s Wharf caught fire on the 31st October. The first crews to arrive found the second and third floors alight and fire was issuing from the roof at the rear. After entering the building the officer in charge noticed strong fumes and ordered the immediate withdrawal of crews from the ground floor. No sooner that they had exited than a massive explosion blasted windows, doors from the ground to second floor into the street. The resulting falling debris caused both many casualties and three firemen fatalities. The fire proved very difficult for Dyer to deal with owing to highly flammable nature of the rubber stocks which filled the warehouse. Again forty pumps and three fire-floats were engaged extinguishing this fatal blaze.

Lower Oliver’s Wharf caught fire on the 31st October 1920.

In 1917 Dyer had welcomed back into the Brigade Major Morris, who had been awarded both the Military Cross and the Royal Humane Society’s Bronze Medal for meritorious actions during WWI. He had been recalled to the Brigade and in the following year was promoted to the post of Divisional Officer. Dyer also welcomed Major Frank Whitford Jackson as a direct entry officer. Jackson had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order for Gallantry and was considered to have had a noteworthy ‘War’. They, together with Divisional Officer Aylmer Firebrace, who had replaced Dyer at Euston, would provide London with its Chief Officers for the next 25 years. Announced in ‘The Times’ on February 13,1917 following the award of three King’s Police Medals to members of the London Fire Brigade for gallantry appeared the name of “ARTHUR REGINALD DYER. Divi. Officer. Conspicuous gallantry in attempting, to save a child by climbing up the front of burning premises by a hook ladder attached to an insecure balcony. Has twice previously shown conspicuous courage, and as a Divi. Officer shows marked ability.”

The director of the Berlin Fire Brigade showing a mechanic turntable ladder to his guest, Arthur Dyer from the London Fire Brigade. Photographer: Alfred Gross – Published by: ‘Berliner Morgenpost’ 23.04.1931
Chief Arthur Dyer upon his retirement from the London Fire Brigade at his Southwark headquarters. 1933.

Dyer retired from the London Fire Brigade in 1933 and was replaced by Major Morris. MC.

At the age of 73 Arthur Dyer. KPM.  died at his home in Filsham Road-St Leonards, where he had moved to after retirement. He loved Hastings and was a keen sea fisherman becoming a member of both the East Sussex Club and the St Leonards Sea Angling Club. His funeral was befitting someone of his standing. His coffin, drapped in a Union Flag, was borne on a fire engine of the borough brigade. His guard of honour were 17 firemen and local officers from Hastings, six of whom acted as bearers. Among his mourners were his son, Major H B Dyer and daughter. Two former London Chief Officers, Sir Almer Firebrace and Major F W Jackson led the party of many fire service representatives. Arthur Dyer was cremated and his ashes scattered in the Garden of Remembrance.

Arthur Reginald Dyer-LFB Chief Officer.

They were uncomplicated times.

They were uncomplicated times. We were never knowingly complacent nor were we smug and certainly not Gung-ho!

The Greater London Council superseded the London County Council in April 1965 and retained control of the London Fire Brigade.

People who were around then will have they own take on those ‘memorable’ years in the London Fire Brigade (LFB) regardless of whether they were riding in the back of, or in charge of, the fire engine. Reading this now you do so with the benefit considerable hindsight. A hindsight which took us back to the 50s and the latter days of the LCC-LFB. By the late 60s the age of the ‘smoke-eater’ was rapidly fading, not that I was never considered a smoke eater!

Lambeth fire station Pump-escape. The first operational engine I ever rode.(Picture credit-London Fire Brigade)

That misused word ‘dinosaurs’ is frequently used by today’s firefighters (and even recent LFB retirees) to describe us ‘ancient’ ones. We who once wore a predominantly black fireman’s uniform and worked in the LFB. Today, the fact is a simple one- the Brigade has changed (beyond recognition to many of us old firemen). Such is the power of progress with its new kit, new ways and a new order of doing things. However, some things never change. Fires are just as hot (and remain as potentially dangerous) as they always were. Whilst some of the tactics appear to have altered the basics remain: put enough water on it and it goes out!

Lambeth fire station’s pump-escape pictured on Lambeth Palace Road, SE1, in September 1967, with the Houses of Parliament in the background. (Picture credit-London Fire Brigade)

Our mentors, and the fireground gurus, of the mid 60s were rapidly riding off into their own sunset, yet for those junior bucks (like me) who were prepared to listen and learn these lessons they would live with many of us for the remainder of our careers. Hands-on training and experiences that was carried on, and passed down, to the next generation of LFB newbies by a generation who had rode fire engines with bells and carried wooden ladders (some with wheels): plus 13-foot ladders you wore a belt to climb and equipped with oxygen (Proto) breathing apparatus (BA) sets.

Station hook ladder drill at Euston fire station.

A unique sound of those Proto BA sets was the ‘plip-plop’ of mica valves rising and falling in the breathing tubes. God how I loved that BA set. Not that we had a choice as it was all we had, except for a few compressed air carried on the ET’s and one set carried on each of the Divisional BACV for the use of senior officers.

They were the day’s when your ear’s told you how bloody hot it was! Regardless of blue or yellow breathing bags they were a trusted companion. They frequently made the difference between life and death when thrown over a fireman’s shoulders, the mouthpiece stuffed in and turned on for a snatch rescue contary to proper procedures. Other times it was a more thoughtful process, like when you were required to enter a smoke filled warehouse or penetrate a serious basement fire.

BA firemen recharging their sets before being recommitted to the Lyons Maid fire, in Stamford Street, Southwark, London SE1, on 24 April 1968. (Picture credit-London Fire Brigade)

The Proto BA googles left rings around your eyes. The pressure from nose clips left indentations on snotty, dripping, noses. BA head harnesses were stored in the location of choice; the inside of a cork helmet or a Melton fire-tunic pocket, until needed. The Divisional weekly BA drills, if you were ET, and monthly drills if your three BA sets were just carried on a pump soon had sweat running down faces as you rescued heavy dummies or pulled sand filled hose through the rat-run whilst doing the BA shuffle and moving through stinking chemical smoke.

Occasionally at fires you crawled in on bellies, even in BA. The standard issue red plastic gloves no protection from the extremes of heat or sharp projections. All the while knowing that if the ‘shit hit the fan’ and a BA fireman’s worse fears of getting lost or trapped in smoke the set gave you a safety margin. A margin that might just save your life! A benefit paid for by the lives of the firemen who went before you. And after, the chatter and shared laughter whilst you service the BA set before putting it back on the engine, ready to do it all again.

A north London terraced house fire in the GLC-LFB. (Picture credit-London Fire Brigade)

By the 1970s we were changing. When did the LFB not change? A new broom greatly improved our BA complement. But it came with a price tag however, one that some thought a too heavy price to pay because we said goodbye to the Proto set! But saying goodbye to much respected kit would become a frequent occurrence during the next decade. YELLOW became the colour of choice fpr helmets and leggings. Tragically, some of the changes came with the highest of prices, like the replacement of the old Melton tunics, the plastic gloves, and the cork helmets worn to fires in the wake of the King’s Cross underground fire.

1970’s and with yellow helmets, yellow leggings and compressed air breathing apparatus sets the fires were just as hot and dangerous as thet always were. (Picture credit-London Fire Brigade)

But as one who once rang the bell on the engines, our ‘bread and butter’ knowledge was always gained on London streets. Some streets far more prestigious than others, whilst others carried risks that had you scratching your head! Whilst some fires were ordinary, all were capable of testing a fireman’s skills when that call turned out to be a working shout. 

Those wearing the silver buttoned black fire-tunics, cork helmets and black leggings could easy find themselves being tested on everyday fires. This was long before real-fire training was invented. Some might even argue these fires were far superior because they allowed us young ‘apprentices’, the probationer firemen, to learn on the job.

Of course, all burning buildings are naturally hazardous, some even deadly. But for our ancient generation they provided a wonderful ideal training aid too. You never presumed a derelict was just a derelict. Neither was an occupied building always unoccupied! It was always a mistake to take things at face value. The potential for ‘if it can go wrong, it probably will’ guided many of my generation for never taking anything for granted. Only the foolish did so…

The regeneration of inner London provided hands-on training for many a young London fireman as derelict buildings were ignited and left to burn.

Learning was always on-going. Exchanging experiences with your opposite numbers, particularly those you respected, added to your own knowledge. Having a post working job chat was never considered a bad thing-especially when we gathered around the mess table or in the TV room. 

The term fireman (or today’s firefighter) may, in the opinion of some, be a humble one? But we know the work they do, in all its guises. Today, are clearly different times and have different challenges especially when gaining the operational experience compared to our past generation. So whilst we had to climb up, get down to crawl in and combat the fears thats telling those getting out to run faster; today’s firefighter can legitimately be termed a technician, given the amount of kit the modern engine carries and which they are expected to be competent with.

Picture Credit David Nathan

For the LFB retirees of our ilk, we all probably had one ambition when joining the LFB, and that was to be worthy of the title ‘fireman’. It was a rank we all started with but that one simple word carried with it so much more than just a rank. We learnt our craft from people called FIREMEN, the senior hands who took and believed in this noble calling.  Our proudest moment was always to save a life. Yet we were full of pride when told by these ‘old’ hands “We’ll make a fireman of you yet”. For us this was part of our fireman’s story.

The Queen meets London firefighters following the Grenfell fire in 2017. (Picture credit The Times)

I am not sure how these words transcribes to today’s people, although I am sure they must. Surly any firefighter is still a firefighter? The values they believe in has not changed that much, or has it? Ours were once simple tenets; to fight fire, save life and to render humanitarian services. Today’s fire service exists in complicated and changing times and yet the image of these two firefighters tells a tale I immedately connect with and understand. Whilst the uniform has changed what make a firefighter who they are remains undiluted.