The (Lambeth) Headquarters of the London Fire Brigade. 1937-2007.

Located on the Albert Embankment. SE1 the building was the bespoke headquarters of the London Fire Brigade from 1937 until 2007.

This is not simply a case of nostalgia, not least because the former HQ, in Lambeth, still stands. Although, today, is does remain predominately empty! I am writing this reflection as I remain, shall we say, niffed. In fact I could describe my feelings as more than just niffed. I always thought the LFB ‘bean counters’ decision (aka Sir Ken Knight-the then Chief Officer) arcane. It was an ill-founded decision at the time and nothing has changed my views since then. The Lambeth site was crudely seen as a cash-cow. It was the equivalent of selling off the family silver…Well a lot of good that did them!

Opened by King George VI in 1937 the building now just houses Lambeth fire station and a specalist operational team. 

Now I don’t pretend to understand the machinations of local authority finance but what so called ‘intelligent’ person moves out of their rent free accommodation to get landed with a multi-million pound lease! Plus they then incur the additional cost of refurbishment to make the new place, the former post office sorting office in Southwark, fit for purpose? Not the first time that the ‘bean counters’ have wasted millions of pounds to see a minimal return in respect of enhanced Brigade facilities and achieving long term value for money. But don’t start me off on Southwark and the defunct ‘fire-house’ otherwise this will go on forever…

So I am sad at the demise of the LFB’s Lambeth headquarters? You bet I am. For some old firemen the ‘big house on the river’ holds no special place for them. It was a place for the ‘occifers’ to mix and strut their stuff. But for many both the fire station and the HQ hold special memories. Some just passed through Lambeth, others were stationed there for all their careers and cracking firemen/firefighters they were too. For others it was their home. A place where they grew up in the residential accommodation. It was a place of competitions; of annual reviews; of promotion boards or Honours and Awards Committees; and for a few the venue for a discipline tribunal. Some even undertook their recruit training at Lambeth as recruits trained there from 1937 until the late 1950s.

LFB recruits taking part in hook ladder training at Lambeth, the Brigade’s recruit training venue. Having reached the top of the tower with a single hook ladder, the recruits learnt the two-man hook ladder drill. 
 A Lambeth recruit training squad at their passing out.

So whether you loved Lambeth or loathed it, worked in Brigade Control, the fire station, or the headquarters complex, something to explain what the London Fire Brigade once had and what it chose to discard….but, so we are informed, it may still not be too late! There are redevelopment plans afoot, yet to be formally approved. So who knows?

In the meantime some facts and history about the London Fire Brigade’s iconic Lambeth HQ for your reading pleasure.

The former London County Council-London Fire Brigade headquarters was built on part of the original Dolton & Watts Pottery site that was in operation from 1826 till 1934. However Lambeth during the medieval period was probably just open farmland and marshland.

The London County Council sought a suitable site for its new fire brigade headquarters as early as 1930 to replace the outdated, Victorian, Southwark headquarters. On the 5th March 1935 the Council approved the 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, 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 steel framework for the ‘new’ HQ complex nears completion in 1936.

The design brief was for a main block of ten floors and basement comprised of; a seven bay appliance room, watchroom, breathing apparatus room, control room, gymnasium and canteen, first floor station accommodation, offices and timber panelled double billiard/snooker room, second floor administration section, large conference room and offices for the Chief Officer, senior officers, district officers and sub- officers. On the third floor were general administration, records, waiting room and Station Officers. On the fourth floor, residential quarters for the Chief Officer and senior (principal) officers. Fifth floor was residential quarters for the senior district officers and two station officers. The sixth floor accommodated the residential ADO South, District Officer and a Station Officer. On the seventh and eighth floor residential quarters were provided for the Headquarters ADO and four Station Officers. Access from the top of the building to the appliance room for fire calls was via four sliding poles.

A Brigade museum was located with the building and a dedicated memorial to those that lost their lives in the course of their duty was provided in the main entrance lobby. To the rear of the main building where balconies on the first, second and third floors that would accommodate 800 people to watch the weekly brigade drills held in the headquarters drill yard, which was 230 feet long and 110 feet wide. Placed in the easterly corner of the drill yard was the 100 foot tall, nine storey, drill tower with its smoke chamber and internal wet hose hoist. At the west end of the drill yard was the covered band stand.

Designed by Mr E.P. Wheeler of the London County Council’s Architects Department, the front of the main building incorporated central stone reliefs by Gilbert Baye with gold mosaic backgrounds for the 1st to the 3rd floors. The interior also possesses highly decorated internal reliefs in a similar style. The purpose built headquarters steel framed structure was faced in brown brick laid in English Bond with the ground and first floors and the top of central tower faced in Portland Stone.

The rear block, of four floors, was designed as the Brigade’s new training school for its recruits, lecture rooms, space for brigade appliances and staff cars and residential quarters. Behind this building were the Brigade workshops, mostly of two floors and giving an area of 43,000 square feet. Incorporated into the deign brief was the erection of a new fireboat pontoon and prow located directly opposite the headquarters station on Lambeth Reach.

The iconic LFB Headquatarters building and the original river station on its floating pontoon . The fireboat’s tender can be seen on the right as it moves up river towards Vauxhall Bridge. 

The tender of Gee, Walker and Slater Ltd, of £14.825, was accepted for the ground works and construction of the ‘raft’ foundations. They completed their work the same year-1935. Archibald Dawnay and Sons won the tender for the main construction of the steel frame work at a price of £20,688 10s 4d. Both contractors stipulated that all materials were supplied wholly by British Empire origin or manufacture.

April 1937 saw the partial occupation of the new Lambeth fire station and the closure of the Vauxhall fire station, also located on the Albert Embankment, Waterloo fire station in Waterloo Road, and Battersea river station. May saw the formal transfer of the Brigade Headquarters from Southwark to Lambeth with the new fireboat station opened shortly afterwards.

On the 21st July 1937 the London Fire Brigade headquarters was officially opened by King George VI together with Her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth. It was one of the social highlights of that summer with a display of fire drills and rescue work together with an inspection of the men and their appliances. It was also the last occasion that such a parade would see the brass helmet worn en-mass as it was being replaced by the new style cork helmet.

King George VI, accompanied by Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth, in the presence of the Chief Officer- Major Morris. MC. on  formal opening of the new headquarters.

By August the same year both the Workshops and Brigade Training School were occupied and recruit training commenced at Lambeth. The Brigade also took out long term leases from British Railways (Southern) on the railway arches at the rear of the Workshops as additional facilities and a Band Room.

In March 1938 recruiting in London for the Auxiliary Fire Service started. War was considered imminent. Major Morris, London’s Chief Fire Officer, who had overseen the building of the Brigade’s new headquarters complex, retired in June 1938. He was succeeded by the Deputy Chief, Commander Aylmer Firebrace. RN. (He was later knighted for his outstanding contribution in the establishment and leadership of the National Fire Service).

In April 1940 Lambeth opened its new underground fire brigade control room. It was constructed to withstand a direct hit from a high explosive bomb and also to render ineffective a poison gas attack. The control room, which had its own reserve generator of lighting and forced ventilation, was also sealed by water tight doors. Above ground the ‘snorkel’ tower (which also provided an emergency escape route) was built in the shape of an obelisk and designed to pierce any debris from any building that might fall upon it.

The Lambeth Brigade Control room.

During the war years (1941-45) and post war until 1948 Lambeth was the Regional Headquarters within the National Fire Service structure. In 1948 the fire service reverted to local authority control and the LCC-LFB was reformed under Chief Officer Frederick Delve.

The Roll of Honour, in the main entrance to the headquarters building, where the names of all London firemen and firefighters who died in the line of duty are recorded.

In the early 1950s the London County Council erected the Firefighters Memorial in the main entrance lobby of the Brigade Headquarters to record the names of the London firemen and firewomen, both regular and auxiliary, who perished in the line of duty as a result of enemy action in London and the UK in World War Two.

The London Fire Brigade war memorial, erected to members of the Fire Services who lost their lives during the Second World War. Seen here at the conclusion of the dedication and unveiling ceremony, 10 April 1956, with additional flowers placed by relatives and friends. Date: 1956

In 1965 Brigade HQ became the headquarters in the enlarged London Fire Brigade with the creation of the Greater London Council. The following year the Headquarters hosted the Centenary of the London Fire Brigade, an event attend by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. The Queen also formally opened the refurbished and modernised Brigade Control (M2FH).

The building of the Brigade’s Command and Mobilising Complex (CMC) saw the demolition of the defunct bandstand and the Officer’s Club. After many delays it was formally opened in the early 1990s. (The disused CMC building, forming the southern extent of the site fronting onto Black Prince Road and is not Grade II listed.)

Lambeth’s main building was listed on the 2nd December 2002 as being Grade II. The Drill Tower (also designed by E.P. Wheeler) was separately listed as Grade II at the same time as the HQ building.

The London Fire Brigade Headquarters was transferred to its present Southwark location (the former Post Officer sorting office) in 2007. There are plans afoot for a redevelopment of the Lambeth site and possibly a new home for the Brigade’s presigious museum after the Brigade management sold off the historic Southwark site and shut down the former Brigade museum! Its many unique and iconic artifacts and memorabilia locked away from public’s gaze and placed in storeage. The future of Lambeth still remains uncertain.

The Lambeth, former headquarters site, today. Photograph couresty of Nigel Saunders.

One thought on “The (Lambeth) Headquarters of the London Fire Brigade. 1937-2007.

  1. So sad to see this lovely building standing empty, all those that had a hand in its closure should be ashamed of themselves. This building could still be used as headquarters, bring the training back and under the management of brigade personnel instead of farming it out to private enterprise

    Liked by 1 person

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