Hook Ladders, love ’em or hate ’em?

LCC-LFB horse drawn steamer at hook ladder drill at the then London Fire Brigade-Southwark Headquarters. circa 1909

To some London firefighters they are simply the stuff of myth and legend. Another piece of defunct fire kit, along with the 50 foot escape ladders, Proto sets, that the old ‘soaks’ around the fire station would go all dewy eyed about when referring to them. But for those of a certain era, those who once called themselves ‘firemen’ they were a regular companion. And for a few a companion they were not overly keen to keep company with on a regular basis either. But regardless, if we weren’t testing them, checking them for incipient flaws, we were polishing the reinforced steel ring with the tiny bit of emery cloth which we kept tucked in the back pocket of our blue overalls, especially when the Sub Officer was on the prowl looking for those striving out of station work!

Hook ladder training of London Fire Brigade recruits at the then Lambeth training school. Circa 1950s.

There were the hook ladder drills; one man-one ladder, two men-one ladder, two men-two ladders. Hooks ladder(s) from the head of the 30 foot extension ladder, from the head of the escape ladder or from the head of the first floor ladder, tied onto the head of escape. Even used from the top of a 100 foot turntable ladder. The combinations were as versatile as the ladder itself. Of course the hook ladder was, like other ladders, a rescue ladder. So rescue drills were frequently incorporated into its training use. Firemen carrying a lowering line aloft across their backs before lowering a casualty underfoot. Station drills, combined Divisional drills and the annual Brigade reviews, a regular constituent was always the hook ladder.

It was a ladder that always demanded the utmost respect. Tragic losses had resulted from its use in training however, never operationally. As tragic as the deaths of London firemen were (they were not termed firefighters then) it was never because of a defective or a malfunctioning hook ladder.

Hook ladders scaling Lambeth’s nine storey drill tower in the 1930s.

All would train with then, get to know every square inch of its ash (free from knots) timber construction, its metal reinforcing rods, the pianoforte wire, the strengthened top three rounds, the shroud, the steel ring and not forgetting the hook itself with its eight teeth and six inch bill, that gave the ladder vits name. That said relatively few would bring all that training into play and get to use the ladder operationally, despite the secret desire of many to do just that.

Hook ladders also had their own companion, the hook-belts. You could tell a lot from the hook-belt, or rather the wearers of the said device. No’s 3 & 4 of the pump escape crew should always have worn them on any turn out to a fire call (and you could bet that at least one of the wearers was the stations young junior buck!). Some station watches, that took a lax approach towards such rules, would frequently raise doubts in the discerning eyes of others as to what else they might be lax about? (But let’s not go there…)

Testing the hook belt before use.

The hook ladders demise by the early 1980s was hotly debated. Its withdrawal from service lamented over by most at station level, barring those that were less than confident in its use. I was one that thought the removal for the ladder a grave error of judgement. A judgement made on the back of economic considerations and pressure from the Fire Brigades Union (who had a national policy for the ladders removal). It was an area where the Union and I agreed to differ-not that they listened to me much anyway…

During its time the ladder had a checkered history. It was first introduced because people (mainly young women) had died on the upper floors of a City of London office fire. A blaze that the normal escape ladder couldn’t reach. Its ultimate demise was, in part, due to the loss of firemen’s lives training with the ladder, but the ladder was a saver of life throughout its 80 year tenure. Now just another item of fire service history the debate continues between the detractors and the supporters of one the special items in the once firemens tool bag.

Hook ladder rescue-City Road. EC2. 1950s.

Those that perished.
17th September 1913. (Died 18th September-Fell from hook ladder)
Fm William H.E. Martin. Knightsbridge fire station.

3rd January 1933. (Died 5th January- Fatal injuries performing hook ladders.) Fm Arthur J. Stillman. Southwark HQ.

13th June 1935. Fatal injuries performing hook ladder drills.)
Fm Arthur J. Putt. Edgware Road fire station.

1st June 1956. (Fatal fall whilst at hook ladder drills)
Fm Ronald Stiles. Downham fire station.

Those that were saved.
1950. Fireman Dan Ival (Soho). Awarded a Chief Officers Letter of Congratulation for his actions in rescuing a badly burned man from the second floor by hook ladder at a fire in Gerrard Street.W1.

1955. Leading Fireman Dan Ivall and Fireman Beer (Knightsbridge). Were both awarded a Chief Officer’s Letter of Congratulation for the rescue of a woman from the rear fourth floor window using hook ladders and carrying a lowering line.

1961. Fireman Richard Errington (Holloway) was Commended by the Chief Officer for the hook ladder rescue he performed at a fire in Holloway.

1964. Sub.O Tony Lynham (Kentish Town) received a Chief Officer’s Letter of Congratulation for his actions in performing a hook ladder rescue and bringing to safety 5 children and a large woman.

1966. Sub Officer Leonard Tredwell, Leading Fireman Leslie Hone, Firemen’s Norman Long, Colin Oliver, Christopher Richardson, Colin Wyatt and John Wyatt (Hendon) were each awarded a Chief Officer’s Letter of Congratulation for their actions at a fire in the Hendon Hall Hotel. A man was rescued by means of an escape and hook ladder.

1968. Fireman Robert Arrowsmith (Shoreditch) received a Chief Officers Letter of Congratulation for performing a hook ladder rescue of a man from a fire at Grimsby Street, East London in September.

Multipule rescues at the Leinster Tower hotel fire in 1969.

1969. Leinster Tower Hotel fire. Leading Fireman Gerald Fuller and Fireman Peter Mars (Paddington) for rescuing at least 15 people between them and using hook ladders to bring people to safety from the third and fourth floors. Both men were subsequently awarded the Queens Commendation for Brave Conduct. Leading Fireman Richard Ellicott (Euston) for the difficult hook ladder rescue of a man trapped at a third floor window. Firemen John Hughes and Paul Stephens (Manchester Square) for a hook ladder and line rescue of a man from a fifth floor and lowering the man to safety. Both men were subsequently awarded the Queen’s Commendation for Brave Conduct.

1969. Leading Fireman Robert Fielder, Fireman Michael Ruffell (Paddington) and Sub Officer Roger Winter (Westminster) received Chief Officer’s Commendations for a hook ladder rescue at the St Ermin’s Hotel fire in Caxton Street. Victoria in June. Using the hook ladder they brought with them they climber to the sixth floor and entered the room where the elderly man was suffering from heat and smoke. Sub Officer Winter was also searching for the man and had reached the fifth floor. Seeing the hook ladder he climbed to the sixth. The three men lowered the elderly man by line to ground level where he was treated and removed to safety. Leading Fireman Fielder and Fireman Ruffell were subsequently awarded the British Empire Medal for Gallantry.

Passer-bys photograph of the Fielder/Ruffell rescue at St Ermin’s hotel.

1969. Temporary Station Officer Charles Dixey (Dockhead) was Congratulated by the Chief Officer for his part in rescuing two men from a fire at Rotherhithe New Road in August. On arrival the Brigade found the upper two floors of the building alight and two men, at different windows, were trapped at the rear of the building. Using an extension and hook ladder so as to reach the men they helped one man to climb down to safety. Whilst reaching the second man Station Officer Dixey was burned when a lower window shattered and a heat blast caught him and the hook ladder, undaunted he carried on and helped the man down to safety.

1970. Fireman Keith Wheatley (Barnet) received a Chief Officer’s Letter of Congratulation for rescuing a man from a block of flats in Margaret Court, Barnet in May. Using a hook ladder Fireman Wheatley gained access to the flat via a rear window. Although there was dense smoke and very hot he searched the flat and found a heavily built man, overcome on the floor, by a burning settee. With considerable difficulty he managed to drag the man to the window and lift his head and shoulders so they were outside. The man was then carried down an extension to safety.

1970. Fireman Donald Maclean (Belsize) was awarded a Commendation and Sub Officer Colin Brum (Belsize) a Letter of Congratulation for rescuing a girl trapped by hook ladder at a house fire in Glenilla Road, Belsize Park in December. The operation was particularly difficult because of the nature of the windows, which were set back of a flat roof. Sub Officer Brum had to hold Fireman Maclean by the hook belt so the ladder could be pitched to the next level. A precarious climb but Fireman Maclean managed to reach the girl and assisted her back down the ladder to safety.

1971. Sub Officer Douglas Horsman (Kentish Town) received a Chief Officer’s Letter of Congratulation for the part he played in performing a hook ladder rescue of two women and one man at a fire in Maiden Road, Kentish Town in April. One of the women was pregnant and in considerable distress.

1971. The Chief Officer issued TEN Commendations following the serious and fatal fire at Hill’s Hotel, Kensington in May. Temporary Station Officer Ellis, temporary Sub Officer Levitt and Firemen Cannon and Austin, using hook ladders together brought down a woman trapped on a window sill difficult to reach at the rear of the hotel and who had collapsed and had to be carried down.

The scene at the Hill’s Hotel the morning after the fire.

1971. Temporary Sub Officer Colin Livett (Kensington). In less the 3 weeks Colin Livett earned a second Chief Officer’s Commendation for his actions in rescuing a man from the a hotel fire in Inverness Terrace, Bayswater in June. Arriving at the scene of the fire Temporary Sub Officer Livett and two other firemen went with hook ladders and lowering lings to the rear of the hotel. A man was seen trapped at a third floor window and the rooms below and above, together with the only staircase leading to the room, were alight. He used a hook ladder, through extremes of heat, to reach the man in a hazardous rescue operation. He persuaded the man to get on the hook ladder and guided him to eventual safety. Temporary Sub Officer Colin Livett was subsequently awarded the British Empire Medal for Gallantry.

1973. Fireman Derek Simpson (Ealing). Awarded a Chief Officer’s Letter of Congratulation for reaching a woman, trapped at a third floor window, by hook ladder at a fire at Fairlea Place, Ealing in October. He then calmed the woman down sufficiently so she come be assisted down an extension ladder.

1974. Station Officer Keith Hicks (Soho) and Temporary Station Officer Roy Dunsford (Knightsbridge) were both awarded a Chief Officer’s Letter of Congratulation for their efforts at a fire in Rathbone Place, off Oxford Street in April. A fierce fire was in progress on the top floor of a four storey building. A woman was seen shouting for help on the roof outside a top floor dormer window at the rear of the building. With access for other ladders impossible and the internal staircase impassable Temporary station Officer Dunsford, assisted by Station Officer Hicks and other firemen took a hook ladder to the rear of the building. Working from the flat roof of an adjoining building they managed to pitch the hook ladder to the parapet where the woman was trapped. Station Officer Hicks climbed the ladder, through considerable smoke and heat, and reached the woman who he discovered was in her late seventies. Shielding her from the heat he persuaded the woman, who was also in shock, to return to the ladder where Temporary Station Officer Dunsford was waiting to assist the woman down the ladder and back on to the adjoining building and safety.

1978. Acting Leading Fireman Christopher Shaw (Kentish Town) was Congratulated for his actions at a fire at Rectory Road, Stoke Newington in February. Called to a three storey terraced house fire, thick smoke was coming from the top floor and one person was believed trapped. Joined by two other firemen, who had brought a hook ladder with them, Acting Leading Fireman Shaw climbed the hook ladder and reached the man, but only after a difficult climb. The man was removed to hospital suffering from burns to his head and feet.

1981. Fireman Peter Bailes (Willesden) and Fireman Robert Webb (Wembley) were Commended whilst Station Officer Lionel Galleozie and Fireman Michael Walker (Willesden) received Congratulations from the Chief Officer for their actions at the fire at Redcliffe Walk, Chalkhill Estate, Wembley in February. A severe fire was affecting the fifth and sixth floors of a block of flats. Access to the fire was severely hampered by vehicles blocking the way and sloping and muddy grassed areas. Station Officer Galleozie and his crew together with Wembley’s TL and crew went to the rear of the flats and saw a number of people, cut off by fire, screaming for help from their flats’ balconies. The fire was getting much worse the Station Officer ordered another escape pitched to the fourth floor and a hook ladder pitched to the fifth floor. Fireman Webb took a hook ladder to climb to the fifth, reassuring people as he went. Now assisted by Fireman Bailes they passed three children and two adults out from the fourth floor to other fireman on the escape. The escape was pitch for the third time and Firemen’s Bailes and Webb went aloft carrying a lowering line. Fireman Bailes grabbed a hook ladder on the way up and pitched it from the head of the escape and climbed to the top floor. He and Fireman Webb lowered a woman and child to safety. With fire now affecting the balconies Webb and Bailes came down the hook ladder again to the fifth floor. In the meantime Fireman Walker had climbed and escape to the fourth floor and hook ladder to the fifth where he found a family trapped by fire. Station Officer Galleozie had followed him to the fourth floor was now sat astride the fourth floor balcony parapet. With the father placing one of his children on Fireman Walker’s back he went down the hook ladder where the child was taken by Station Officer Galleozie. The operation was repeated for the second child before the wife was assisted down followed by the father.

Hook ladder rescue. 1930’s

1982. Fireman Stephen Colman (Westminster) was Commended and Fireman Ian Nivison (Chelsea) received a Chief Officer’s Letter of Congratulation for their actions and rescues at the Shelavin Hotel fire, 98-100 Belgrave Road, Pimlico in March. A severe fire was in progress when the Brigade arrived at the hotel. With some 80 guests residents and debris flying from the upper windows firemen were told people were trapped at the rear of the hotel and children were on a small flat room, also at the rear. Using the short extension ladder on the flat roof and hook ladder from the head of that ladder Fireman Coleman, followed by Fireman Nivison climbed the ladders. Thick smoke and flames poured from a window overlooking the flat roof totally obscured the boy who was now screaming he was alight. With complete disregard for his own safety lunged through the smoke and flames and whilst reaching for the boy was completely enveloped in a ball of flame but still managed to retain his grip on the boy and pull him to the top of the hook ladder. Despite the intensity of the fire Fireman Nivison remained at the head of the hook ladder and took the boy from Coleman before carrying the boy down to a waiting colleague. He then returned to assist Fireman Coleman down the hook ladder. Fireman Coleman sustained severe burns to his hands and right knee during the rescue, was taken to hospital and detained. Fireman Stephen Coleman was subsequently awarded the Queen’s Commendation for Brave Conduct.

Lodon’s last hook ladder rescue-1983.

There were undoubtedly other acts of bravery using a hook ladder. Many went unreported, others attracted local congratulations from the Divisional Commander. By the mid-1980s all the hook ladders were withdrawn from operational service in the London Fire Brigade.

Pump escapes showing the pairs of hook ladders carried, in addition to the escape ladder and a first floor ladder, which could be tied to the top of the escape to give additional height.
Fulham Road. 1960s.