It remains the London Fire Brigade’s worst peace-time disaster.
At about 3.44 a.m. that a call was received by ‘stranger, to a private house alight on the Albert Embankment near Lambeth Bridge. The motor-escape and pump from No.94 station Vauxhall, located near Vauxhall Bridge, together with 10 men and the motor-pump from No.87 station Kennington, which stood in Renfrew Road off Kennington Lane, with 6 men responded.
The LFB then operated on three levels of ‘make-ups’, a home call; a district call and a Brigade call. At 3.55 a.m., a “home call” message was sent to the superintendent station (No 80- Clapham) with a message stating that “a building of three floors about 40 x 40 ft. used as Pepper Mills alight, one hydrant in use.” In response the motor pump from No.3 station Westminster, in Greycoat Place with 6 men was ordered and Superintendent J Barrows-Hall attended with No.80s motor car, Sub Officer Cornfield and a driver.
On Superintendent’s Barrows-Hall arrival he found the upper floors of a building, which was used as cattle food manufacturers, well alight and that part of roof and upper floor had fallen in. With the fire practically extinguished he sent the ‘stop’ message and returned one motor pump’s crew. By 5.34 a.m., owing to a considerable amount of turning over to be done, a further message was dispatched stating that the remaining appliances would be detained for a time. A short while later he sent another message asking for a Sub-Officer and four men to be sent on (as relief) with a view to the initial appliances and himself returning home.
At around 5.45 a.m. Barrows-Hall was on the ground floor when he heard a cracking noise. He immediately cleared everyone out of the building. However, owing to the fog and the still present smoke, the front of the building was hardly discernible. A jet from a hydrant was still being used up the wheeled escape ladder. He went to the front of the building with the firemen with a view of making up and removing the escape ladder when suddenly he heard Sub-Officer Cornford call out, “Look out Sir” before he saw the front of building collapsing.
The wall extended some 45 ft. along the road fronting the river, up to the corner of Broad Street (later Black Prince Road). Barrows-Hall, in his statement, “Called out, drop everything and run”. On the escape were four of the victims. These and three others were buried beneath a mass of debris. The escape was reduced to matchwood.
A survivor sent a message to the effect that the building had collapsed and that several firemen were buried and ambulances were required. Injured, Barrows-Hall gave instructions for the debris to be searched for the bodies. Divisional Officer ‘South’, Messrs. S.G. Gamble, who later became the Deputy Chief Officer, attended and oversaw the recovery operations. On hearing of the nature of the Superintendents injuries ordered him home. He was later examined by the District Medical Officer placed on the sick list. His nature of illness was recorded as “Injury to Legs”.
Superintendent J.Barrows-Hall. “E” District HQ. Clapham.
Station-Officer E.Partner. No.87. Kennington.
At the subsequent funeral procession and service, held at St Mark’s Church, Kennington conducted by the Bishop of Southwark, the following week the procession was led by the Band of the London Volunteer Rifles together with a detachment of men from that regiment. The flag draped coffins, carried on motor pumps, and were led by the Chief Fire Officer and Divisional Officer’s North and South. Messrs Dyer (appointed Chief Officer later that year) and Gamble. Attending the service was Lord Crewe, Chairman of the London County Council, representatives of Government and Civic dignitaries and Lieutenant-Colonel C.J. Fox of the London Salvage Corps. There was an outpouring of public support as the procession later proceeded to the Highgate Cemetery were the burials took place in the ‘Firemen’s Corner.’
The building stood on the exact site that later became the Headquarters on the London Fire Brigade after the HQ was moved from the former Metropolitan Fire Brigade HQ in Southwark Bridge Road. The fire occurred in a cattle food manufactures owned by J.H. Branton and Company, which stored spices and ingredients in the production of cattle feed.
Although the men’s names were recorded on the Roll Of Honour in the Headquarters main entrance Memorial Hall, there was never a plaque erecting on the building to record the men’s names and the greatest loss of a life by London firefighters at one incident in peacetime. In a tragic coincidence an eighth fireman (Henry Berbidge Summers) died the same day in a fire station related accident.
Its1968 and the end of London’s ‘junior fire-bucket’ scheme.
In March 1968 the Conservative controlled Greater London Council (GLC) cancelled the scheduled April intake of Junior Firemen because, as a result a review of its financial commitments, it had decided that an immediate increase in the numbers of junior firemen under training could not be justified. Two months later the Council decided to close the Junior Firemen’s Residential College at Swanley, and in June, they decided to end the junior firemen training scheme and not even attempt to continue it on a non-residential basis.
In taking this action London has shown just how quickly a fire authority can block or indeed reverse progress in order to effect, in the short term, a financial saving. This retrograde decision was opposed in the Council chamber by the Labour opposition and before the (Fire Brigade) Union.
The FBU’s General Secretary led a deputation from the London Brigade Committee and put an excellent and hard-hitting case to the Fire Brigade Committee against the closure of the Swanley college. It was only at this stage that that the Union learned, that in addition to the financial considerations, it was being claimed that the educational standard of junior firemen entry was so disappointingly low, that even after training there was little, if any, difference between junior firemen standards, and because of recent improvements, that of young recruit firemen.
The background and short-sighted nature of the GLC’s decision to close Swanley College and now to abandon completely junior firemen entry can be gauged by the following brief facts.
College costs £200,000
Although London started its junior firemen scheme in 1964 the Swanley College has only been operating since early 1966. The initial costs of the college and adapted for junior firemen training was in the region of £200,000. It can accommodate 150 boys and since it opened between 70 and 90 boys have been under training at any one time. To date about 140 ex junior firemen are serving operationally and some 45 are still under training.
Apart from the general acceptance in the service that junior firemen entry was essential it seems logical to state that as the college has only been operating for two years it is far too early to draw conclusions as to its value.
If there is any weight in the claim that junior firemen entrants were not of a sufficiently high educational standard, how much consideration was given to the fact that a new educational curriculum was introduced in the autumn of 1967. This curriculum was aimed at bringing junior firemen up to graduate of Fire Engineer level at the age of 18 and was already, according to instructional staff, showing results.
The London Fire Brigade is at least 500 men under strength in the first six months of this year (1968). Recruitment into the Brigade was almost completely cancelled out by normal wastage through retirement, etc. It follows that if there have been no junior firemen scheme, the manpower deficiency would have been much greater and one is entitled to ask if London is serious about its manpower problem when it closes this avenue of recruitment.
In this connection would it not have been reasonable to weigh the saving of well over half a million pounds per year, which arises because of the manpower shortages against the cost of running junior firemen training at Swanley.
Note: Article credit- the FBU Firefighter issued in 1968.
Few national organisations have been stood down twice-but the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) holds such a dubious honour. The first time was in 1941, with creation of the National Fire Service (NFS). Then on the 31st March 1968 it was ordered to stand-down again after 20 years of peace time activity. This time it was final. The men and women of the AFS rode into fire service history.
Its origins came about in the 1930s when the likelihood of a Second World War was already being planned for in Britain. Although not widely publicised the then National Government, under Ramsey MacDonald, were considering what arrangements would be necessary to cope with enemy aerial attacks on its strategic population centres. The Home Office (then responsible for the Fire Service) held a series of seminars and secret planning meetings to deliver a strategy in the event of war and the subsequent fire attacks on the British mainland from the air. London was considered a particularly vulnerable target for such enemy action, not least because it was the nation’s seat of government and the City of London was crucial to the country’s financial and business interests.
London in the 1930s looked vastly different to the London of today. The river Thames provided easy access for shipping to its vast network of extensive docks and associated warehouses. The dockland warehouses, starting from Southwark on the south bank and Blackfriars on the north bank ran eastward to the Essex and Kent borders. It was recognised, at an early stage, that it would require a massive expansion of the existing fire brigade(s) to deal with fires involving London’s central maze of narrow streets, warehouses filled with combustible products such as oils and grains and its dockyards with acres of stacked imported timber. Failure to respond to such a challenge could leave London little more than a smoking ruin.
The AFS was formed on the 1st January 1938 and their numbers rapidly grew. A massive recruitment drive was launched. In London sixty London Fire Brigade (LFB) vehicles toured London’s streets alongside an AFS poster campaign and planes even flew the over capital trailing AFS recruitment banners. The Thames was also used to advertise this new fire force and the Brigade’s high-speed fireboat, the James Braidwood, flew similar banners seeking recruits to supplement the London Fire Brigade’s River service. The success of campaign attracted some 28,000 volunteers. Volunteers who would supplement the regular London Fire Brigade in event of war.
This was a major logistical exercise for both the London County Council (LCC) and the LFB. Not least of the problems was the area we now know as Greater London. Prior to the outbreak of war in 1939 it had at least 66 fire brigades! This included the London Fire Brigade, the largest, which covered the whole of the former LCC’s administrative area. Some of these other brigades were one fire engine outfits: those that only protected a small borough area. Others had four or five stations such as West Ham and the Croydon brigades. Quickly various buildings, and vehicles, were seconded into service to house and equip this basically trained corps of AFS firemen and women that had now greatly expanded London’s fire service.
Garages, filling stations and schools, empty since the mass evacuation of children, were taken over and adapted as AFS fire stations. Some 2,000 London taxis were brought into service and used to tow trailer pumps. The London taxis were large enough to carry a small crew, hold a ladder on top and with the hose stored in the luggage compartment, plus pull a trailer pump. However, the accommodation was frequently poor at best. The new volunteer firefighters spent many hours making good their bases and even building their own wooden beds. In addition to this they erected brick walls over windows and sandbagged entrances to protect themselves from blast damage.
Basic training was provided by LFB firemen. Detached from normal firefighting duties, they put the new AFS recruits through 60 hours of practical and theoretical lessons. Whilst some women chose to undertake dispatch rider (motorcycle) messenger duties and others opted for motor driving, most were trained in ‘watchroom’ duties and the necessary procedures for mobilising fire engines and pumping units. Everyone underwent basic firefighter training. They were, of course, civilians. They had volunteered from every trade and profession, from every walk of London life. Office workers, labourers, lawyers, tailors, cooks, and cleaners they had taken up the call to join the AFS.
The AFS recruits were divided into different categories. This was based on their physical capabilities, their age, gender, and skills. Men considered Class B performed general firefighting duties. B1s worked only on ground level, either pump operating or driving. Others, recruited from trades on the Thames, were classed for River Service work and whilst women would be in the thick of it none performed actual frontline firefighting duties. (Although falling bombs did not discriminate those women delivering petrol to the firemen and those fighting the fires.) The youngsters, under 18 years of age, became messengers equipped with either motorcycles or pedal cycles. Those auxiliaries who became full-time firefighters on the outbreak of war received a weekly wage. Firemen earned £3 per week; women got £2. Those aged 17–18 received £1-5 shillings and the 16–17-year-olds got £1 a week.
The AFS’s baptism of fire came on a 1940 September evening, the 7th. With basic training, and as yet untried, the auxiliaries were dispatched to the first big raids of the war. The official WWII publication Front Line 1940-41 recorded what happened that fateful night. “The auxiliaries, four-fifths of them with no prior experience of actual fire-fighting, faced the greatest incendiary attack ever launched…”
By midnight on the 7th there nine fires in London rating over 100 pumps. In the Surrey Docks were two of 300 pumps and the other 130 pumps. At Woolwich Arsenal the count was 200 pumps; at Bishopsgate Goods Yard another 100-pump fire. Such was the intensity of the enemy bombing that these fires all became conflagrations. The intensity of the radiated heat from the Surrey Docks blaze was such that the fire-float Massey Shaw, moored on the opposite bank (a distance of 300 yards) had her paint blistered! By the end of that first month 50 London fire-fighters had perished in action. 500 others were injured and many invalided out of the service. Almost overnight the previously lampooned and derided AFS were popular heroes. Many crews, returning from blazes, wet and exhausted were cheered by passers-by in the street.
As the raids intensified in the following months the number of fires were measured in the 10s of 1000s. In December of 1940 bombing reached a climax with the concentrated bombing of the City of London. With the Thames already at a low tide, water supplies were cut off for a while the men and women of the AFS got on with their job. Their courage helped to save St Paul’s by using all kinds of improvised fire engines and hauling heavy trailer-pumps to provide water supplies whilst AFS women delivered petrol supplies, acted as dispatch rider messengers, and staffed the control rooms and station watchroom’s, all under enemy fire. Then in the new year (1941) with a widening of the enemy bombing campaign AFS conveys travelled to far flung cities, such as Coventry, Portsmouth, and Southampton, to provide much needed fire-fighting reinforcements.
AFS wartime heros.
AFS fireman Harry Errington. GC.
Harry Errington was born in Soho. After attending Westminster free school, Harry won a trade scholarship to train as an engraver his mother, fearful, the craft would adversely affect his health, Harry went to work for his uncle’s tailoring business instead. Now a master tailor. He was also a volunteer Auxiliary London fireman working in his beloved West End. Just before midnight on the 17th September 1940, together with other AFS men, he was in the basement of a three-storey garage in Soho. It was used as a private air raid shelter and rest area for the fire service personnel. A bomb hit and all three floors collapsed. The resultant explosion killed some 20 people, including six London firemen.
In the Supplement to the London Gazette (issue No 35239, on the 8th August 1941, pg. 4545.) it was announced; The KING has been graciously pleased to award the GEORGE CROSS to Auxiliary Fireman Harry ERRINGTON. He showed great bravery and endurance in effecting the rescues, at the risk of his own life.
Only three such awards were made to fireman during the Second World War; Harry was the only AFS London fireman so honoured. He received his GC from King George VI in October 1942.
AFS Firewoman Gillian Tanner. GM.
Gillian “Bobbie” Tanner delivered petrol to fire pumps in Bermondsey while the docks were being bombed during the Blitz in September 1940. On 3 September 1939, the day war broke out, 19-year-old Miss Tanner drove to London in her front-wheel drive BSA car from her home near Cirencester, in Gloucestershire, to see what she could do to help. The Women’s Voluntary Service directed her to the auxiliary fire service where she became a driver. This country girl, whose main past-time had been horse riding, was at first alarmed to hear she was being posted to Dockhead, Bermondsey, in south-east London. She recalled:
“There were two drivers allocated to Dockhead and I was the only one who had the heavy goods licence, so I had the canteen van and petrol lorry to drive,” she said. “You had the petrol in two-gallon tins and they were stacked on shelves around the lorry. I didn’t think about it at the time, luckily.”
“They took over a lot of schools and made them sub stations and they all had their own trailer pumps – I remember going to one not far from Tower Bridge and we were pouring petrol into the engine and it was red hot. I didn’t even think about the fact that one drop, and we would go up in smoke. You had a job to do and you got on and did it.”
Her citation read:
Awarded the GEORGE MEDAL. (L/G, 35058, 31st Jan 1941, pp. 610.)
Firewoman (Aux) Gillian Kluane TANNER. Six serious fires were in progress and for three hours Auxiliary Tanner drove a 30-cwt. lorry loaded with 150 gallons of petrol in cans from fire-to-fire replenishing petrol supplies.
By the spring of 1941 the war had shown that the UK fire service required a more co-ordinated response to deal with the conditions created by modern warfare. The government brought into being the National Fire Service (NFS), merging all of the former local brigades and the AFS under one umbrella. The NFS came into being on the 1st August 1941. This new body, the AFS with all 1,638 local authority fire brigades, totalled some 60,000 men and women. The NFS was organised around 40 Fire Forces, London Fire Brigade forming several of these.
During the Second World War 327 London firemen were killed. The vast majority of those killed were in the early years of the War, most notably during the Blitz and consisted of both men and women of the Auxiliary Fire Service. Many of the locations were they perished are remembered today by the erection of a memorial plaque. Their loss and their sacrific will not be forgotten.
The NFS operated until 1948 when, under the Fire Services Act 1947, fire brigades reverted to local authority control although with now far fewer brigades on a county or county borough council basis. The London Fire Brigade was returned to the London County Council, Middlesex was formed with its own fire brigade and counties like Kent had their own county wide brigade.
With the AFS absorbed into the NFS many continued regulars. Then in 1948 some even found a new career by staying within the Fire Service as peace time firemen.
After eight years in the wilderness, and one year after dissolving the NFS, the AFS was re-established in 1949. It became an integral part of the Civil Defence Corps (CDC)- a civilian volunteer organisation. The ‘Cold War’ and the threat of nuclear Armageddon had created the CDC which would mobilise and take local control of the affected area in the aftermath of a major national emergency; i.e., a nuclear attack.
In London the AFS vehicles, initially, were those that remained in government storage post WWII. From 1953 onwards, purpose bult AFS vehicles came on stream. They were issued painted ‘dark green’ and the era of the ‘green goddesses’ was born. They became a frequent sight on the streets of London. Selected London fire stations housed AFS engines and provided a training base for the crews. AFS crews were occasionally, when on the training nights, dispatched to large fires to gain first experience. The AFS staff trained to be available should they be needed in a national emergency. To this end several times a year they carried out large scale exercises especially in the relaying of large quantities of water over considerable distances. In 1966 AFS men and women came from far and wide to take part in a massive exercise staged in the Port of London. It marked the Tercentenary of the Great Fire of London. It would be their swan song!
Their second stand down came on the 16th January 1968. The Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, announced that the nation’s Civil Defense was to be placed on a care and maintenance mode. The AFS was disbanded on the 31st March 1968. It had survived on the perceived threat of ‘cold war’ fears of nuclear attack. Large scale exercises and mobile columns rehearsed for the probable dire effects of such a nuclear Armageddon or atomic holocaust! But the simple truth was that the radiation from a nuclear attack, the fallout, would have prevented AFS fire crews from getting within 50-100 miles of the scene and then being able to operate safely.
In London the Brigade hosted a farewell reception for the AFS at the Lambeth headquarters. The Chairman of the Greater London Council, Sir Percy Rugg, spoke of the people of the AFS who volunteered unselfishly and with no thought of themselves for the public good. London’s Chief Fire Officer, Lesley Leete (who started his career as a WWII AFS fireman) voiced his regrets at their passing.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.)
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.)
During his time as Chief Leete had seen 9 new London fire stations opened, including 3 divisional headquarters stations, namely Clapham, Paddington and Shoreditch.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 byA. 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 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.
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.
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.
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!
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”.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.