Disaster on the Albert Embankment.  Wednesday 30th January 1918.

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.

Firemen at theVauxhall fire station-located on the Albert Embankment.

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.

The Kennington fire station-Renfrew Road. The second station to attend the call on the Albert Embankment.

Clapham – the Superintendent station of the local district.

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 London Fire Brigade funeral procession makes it way to the Kennington church.
St Mark’s Church-Kennington.

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”.

Those who perished were:-

No.100. Sub-Officer William.E. Cornford. No.80 Clapham.

No.616. Fireman Edward.J. Fairbrother.     No.87 Kennington.

No.718. Fireman William.E. Nash.             No.87 Kennington.

No.944. Fireman John.W.C. Johnson.        No.94 Vauxhall.

No.1087. Fireman Arthur.A. Page.             No.94 Vauxhall.

No.1174.Temp.Fireman James.E. Fay.      No.87 Kennington.

No.151. Sub-Officer Walter.W. Hall.    No.94 Vauxhall.*

(*Who subsequently died from his injuries.)

Those injured were:-

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.’


  1. 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.

Major Morris. M.C. London Fire Brigade.

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

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

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

The Stratford works of the Great Eastern Railway Post WWII.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Design plans of the Massey Shaw fire-float.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Divisional Officer Gamble-Deputy to the Chief Officer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hop warehouse fire-Southwark Street. October 1920.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arthur Reginald Dyer-LFB Chief Officer.

Competitions in London’s Fire Brigade.

Possibly the origins of London fire brigade competitions lay in the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB)? To be honest, I have no real way of knowing as reference to them is rather scarce! Probably the earliest competitions came with the London Insurance Companies and the various brigades racing to the scene of a fire and trying to get to the latest blaze first! Capt. Eyre Massey Shaw (the first Chief Officer of the MFB) was certainly aware of fire brigade competitions when, in 1881, he witnessed the New York brigade competition on his famous American tour. But they were, in fact, more horse races, with the teams of horse-drawn fire engines competing against each other. The idea would eventually come to London but not on Shaw’s watch. He just returned to London with the American idea of introducing firemen’s poles. They soon became a popular feature in all his London fire stations.

Up until 1889 men of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade were not permitted to take part in any national fire brigade competitions, partly because of the unfair advantage they had as the UK’s premier fire brigade. The idea of these professional MFB men sweeping the board, and collecting all the trophies, did not sit well with the competition organisers. After Shaw’s retirement in 1891 neither the disgraced MFB Chief Simmonds, or his much-revered replacement Capt. Wells (1896-1903) appeared to encourage their men into such competition ‘trivialities’.

But by the brigade’s change of name in 1904 (when it was formally named as the London Fire Brigade) the idea of the benefits of inter-station competitions grew both in momentum and popularity. They would involve both land and water races, with both professional skills and sporting prowess gaining impetus. In the space of a few short years’ competition became part of the LFB’s way of life for its firemen, and whilst the age of the horse-drawn engine was in decline the racing of the wheeled escape cart crews had entered the annual LFB calendar.

1912-Kingsland Road fire station. Their horses won the International Horse Show in their category.

Under the brigade’s sixth Chief Officer-Lieut-Commander Sampson Sladen, it is fair to say the idea of regular brigade competitions had become firmly established. By 1905 a new competition was initiated; the turnout competition. A cup was awarded to the winning team with the fastest response to the station alarm being sounded. The competition would continue until the late 1960s. The Brigade Regatta, a Thames River race, would become one of the longest running LFB competitions, morphing into the inter-divisional/brigade whaler race, and later still the inter-services Fishmongers Cup. It finally fell off competition shelf in the late 1990s when support by the Brigade for those entering competitions went into terminal decline. (By then, most of the former competitions had already been consigned to the brigade’s history book!)

In 1912 the annual escape competitions were initiated with the finals held at the Southwark headquarters and a cup awarded to the quickest station crew. The first winners being Southwark; who were able to raise their ladder and climb into the four-storey tower to extinguish an imaginary fire in 41 seconds! The pump competitions followed as did the LFB entering their teams of horses in the International Horse Show in London.

Despite the onset of the first World War in 1914 it did not diminish the williness of stations, or individuals, to take part in competition. Not least was the growth in sporting competitions, with road races, boxing matches and the annual athletics meeting taking place at one of London national stadiums, but most notably at the White City.

With the arrival of Arthur Dyer in 1918 as Chief Officer competitions moved up a gear. Dyer was a keen sportsman and highly competitive. He saw the merit in competitions and would eventually add a fireman’s technical quiz to the annual LFB calendar.

The London Fire Brigade regatta on the River Thames. It would lead to the inter-divisional Whaler races and Brigade finals
16th August 1919. London firemen watching the races at the London Fire Brigade Sports at Herne Hill, south London.
(Photo by A. R. Coster/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
1920 and the Brigade finals of the pump competition held at Southwark HQ.
1920 and firemen roll up their hose during the Brigade finals of the pump competition held at Southwark HQ.
1931-The finals of the pump-escape competition at the Southwark HQ. Firemen, using dummies, have to rescue casualties
from the third and fifth, by carry-down and lowering line, tower in the fastest time.
1935-The finals of the pump-escape competition at the Southwark HQ. Firemen, using dummies, have to rescue casualties from the third and fifth floors, by carry-down and a lowering line, in the fastest time.
1935. Station No 1-Southwark-winners of the Brigade pump-escape competition held at the London Fire Brigade Southwark HQ.

Up until 1937 all Brigade finals of the various skill competitions were held at the Southwark HQ in Southwark Bridge Road. But the HQ founded by Capt. Shaw in 1878 was considered passed its sell by date. The current Chief, Major Morris. MC. had secured agreement with the London County Council to build a new, bespoke, headquarters station on the Albert Embankment. SE1. Lambeth would be the home of all future pump and pump escape finals until the 1960s and 70s.

1935. The Brigade finals of the pump competition at the Southwark HQ.
1937. The Lambeth fire station crew, first winners of the pump-escape competition held at the new Brigade HQ. Albert Embankment. SE1.
1938 and the Brigade competition final held at the Lambeth HQ.

It took the Second World War, in particular the Blitz from September 1940 to May 1941 to suspend the LFB’s competitions. However, it was only a temporary lull and with the creation of National Fire Service in August 1941 various pump competitions continued to be held in the enlarged London Brigade, with finals held at the Regional Lambeth HQ. It was also a time that the Home Office introduced the first Manuals of Firemanship. In the years that followed a technical quiz competition, based on answers from the manuals, took on a national focus with regional finals and a UK national winner. (To my knowledge London has always been a runner-up, never a winner.)

Post war the LFB returned to local authority control (LCC) and the range of competitions both on land and the Thames returned to the Brigade’s regular annual calendar. In addition, the Brigade’s sports associations added competitions involving athletics meetings, swimming galas and the occasional inter-divisional boxing tournament. There were also Divisional football and rugby teams, each addingplayers to the respective Brigade team, whilst station volleyball reached international status. The LFB team playing continental fire brigades.

1951-52. Manchester Square fire station- pump competition Brigade final winning crew.
1952. The winning crew of the annual Brigade whaler race. The race started at the Lambeth river station pontoon and finished at
HMS President, moored on the Victoria Embankment.
1957. The London Fire Brigade’s Internation Volleyball team (in vests) playing the Paris fire brigade at the Lambeth HQ.

Tragically, on the 17th March 1961, the death of a Battersea fireman practising for the Brigade pump-escape competition at Brixton fire station (SW London) brought about an immediate hiatus to those particular competitions. He and a colleague fell from the escape ladder. Fireman Hunt died at the scene and fireman Maloney, also from Battersea, suffered serious injuries. These competitions were never reintroduced into the London Fire Brigade.  

It was as a teenage fireman, arriving at Lambeth in January 1967, I discovered that there was a lot more to station life than just cleaning, regular drills and waiting for the inevitable fire and other emergency calls. There was taking part in, and aiming to win, Brigade pump competitions. For some this was clearly a religious calling, especially the watch govnors’ whose whole life seemed to centre on this particular event. Lambeth’s Blue Watch govnor was one such animal. He would go to the most extraordinary lengths to give his team every possible advantage. Dedicated lengths of hose would be washed and ironed, by hand, so as to make them run out smoother and faster!

1967. A pump competition crew in the Lambeth drill yard.

Devoted competition men would rip their fire tunic linings out to make them lighter. Standpipes were modified to make them fit on the hydrant quicker. Even the hose coupling lugs were dismantled and oiled to make them rotate and release faster. Every minute part of the pump drill underwent scrutiny to achieve the maximum possible time advantage.

However, the actual competition was a relatively straightforward and simple affair, albeit physically demanding. A four-man pump crew had to start, sitting on their appliance (the pump), dismount and set into a hydrant; run out two lines of hose; knock down two targets with their jets of water; before making up all the gear and return it to a marked area on the drill ground, before re-mounting their appliance and drive it over a finish line in the fastest possible time.

It sounds easy but it was much more complicated due to the time penalties. The senior officers, acting as judges, would add seconds for any technical error that any member of the pump crew made. Drop a hose; penalty points. Miss a target; penalty points. Not under-running the hose correctly; penalty points. Then there was the burden placed on the pump operator. Too little pump pressure and you could miss the target; too much and there’s a danger of losing control of the branch. Months of arduous, and demanding, training could be in vain, all because of a momentary loss of concentration.

Underhand tactics were not unheard of either. Pump crew’s competition hose mysteriously going missing! Hose couplings were sabotaged so they would not connect properly. Strange furtive figures, lurking around the fire station back gates, could be seen spying on the opposition practising their competition drills. The individual, making notes, looking remarkably like the team trainer from a nearby fire station.

The Divisional watch related elimination rounds would start the competition season. These were followed by the Divisional finals where the fastest three crews ran off against each other. One winning team from each of the eleven Divisions progressed to the Brigade pump competition finals, held each autumn, in Lambeth’s yard at the Brigade Headquarters. Supporters filled the tiered balconies, cheering on their particular crew or Division. Competition was always keen. The team’s enthusiasm spurred on by the chanting of their supporters, chanting that would have done credit to any London local football derby.

As someone fresh from training school, and built like a racing snake, I was picked for the Red Watch team that year. Despite our best efforts and winners in the Red Watch run offs we never reached the Brigade finals. (Our chances not helped after our prized competition hose went missing!). We were well beaten by Lambeth’s Blue Watch. We fared no better the following year (1968) when a new Brigade record time was set by Edmonton’s Blue Watch, of one minute 47 seconds, from dismounting to passing over the finish line. A truly remarkable time. It was a record that was to remain unbeaten. Lambeth’s Blue Watch, with their bellowing govnor Alan Jackson, urging them on, gave an excellent account of these themselves being only 1.8 seconds behind the winners. (The Jackson brothers were both pump competition aficionados. His elder brother Peter led his Brixton crew to win the Brigade finals in the early 60s.)

Station Officer Peter Jackson (standing) with his Brixton pump competition Brigade winning crew in the early 1960s


When our govnor was not trying to encourage some of the watch to enter the pump competition, he was putting others in for the Brigade’s technical quiz competition. Another annual event and being the junior buck, it seemed I had an automatic pass into everything that others had to actually volunteer for!

1964. Burdett Road fire station winning technical quiz competition team (standing) with the Brigade senior officers who adjudicate and Mr Cunningham-Deputy Chief Officer (middle) who was the question master.

The technical quiz competition led to onto national UK finals. London’s winning team would represent the Brigade in the southern counties district, which covered some ten different surrounding fire brigades. All the questions were drawn from any of the Manuals of Firemanship, which ran to eleven books. Thousands of pages and tens of thousands of potential questions. If you learnt all the answers to the questions there was not one promotion examination you could not pass. Our Red Watch Lambeth team managed not to get kicked out in the first rounds but we got nowhere near the Brigade finals. This was won by an exceedingly knowledgeable Battersea team. Battersea later went on only to be narrowly defeated by Bournemouth Fire Brigade in the District finals.

In the late 1960s the Fire Brigade Union was not a fan of the pump competitions. By 1970 the Chief Officer, now Joe Milner, found himself increasingly embroiled in more and more matters involving industrial unrest across the Brigade. The pump competitions became a casualty of this and they were stopped in favour of one and two-man competitions. It was the final straw in the long running era of skill competitions and, by the time of the first national firemen’s strike in 1977, there was little appetite for competitions from those at fire stations.

In today’s London Fire Brigade, if there is enthusiasm for this style of competitive activity there appears little eagerness from those in the managerial driving seat to promote it. Competitions do exist on the national scene but the freedom to give time off, with pay, for those undertaking such activities belongs to a time long gone by. These are different times with different rules. For London’s modern firefighters these former competitions are now just an entry in its historic past.    


How I loved a sewer visit. It is not everyone’s cup of tea I know, in fact it was rather like our hook ladders; a love or hate it thing; only here instead of going up you’re going down and normally wearing a ‘Proto’ oxygen breathing apparatus (BA) set.

It’s the late 1960s and I’m on Lambeth’s Red Watch. With four year’s operational experience under my belt I considered putting in for an emergency tender (ET) course. It was something I didn’t wanted to rush into as I felt it was necessary to get some decent BA jobs under your belt before making such a move. Historically, London Fire Brigade ET crews were generally held in very high esteem and were expected to ‘deliver the goods’ at any difficult BA job or at special operations requiring BA. That was in addition to their wider specialist rescue role. This ‘gaining experience’ view was not always shared by other watches at Lambeth. Some equally young firemen (I was only 22) put in for their ET course as soon as they had passed out in Proto BA. They argued that they would gain the necessary experience by riding the ET. This was not a view held by the Red Watch’s ET men, the very firemen I would ride along-side if sucessful on the examable course.

By the late 1960s the ET crews were seen by many senior officers as “Leete’s commandos.” In the 1950s the Brigade only had two; one at Lambeth and the other at Clerkenwell. These crews would have to combat their individual fears of hot confined humid spaces, face the risk of a sudden unexpected explosion of flammable gases or liquids whilst still working as an elite crew. They supported, and contributed, to the combined efforts that gave fire-ground crews their unique synergy.

Lambeth’s emergency tender crew showing its array of equipmen in the mid 1950s.

Occasionally it was their skill that could make the difference between life and death in the rescue of a trapped BA fireman. In such situations it required every ounce of the ET crews’ combined expertise. It was not the place for a mere novice, a view of those that rode Lambeth’s ET on Red’s. So, it was with their blessing that I put in for the next possible course nomination. The course came through almost immediately, supported by my guvnor’s endorsement, but not before our monthly salary slips changed from pounds, shillings and pence (£. s. d) to pounds and pence on Monday 15th February 1971.

I attended the Southwark Training School for my three week ET course. Southwark was then the centre of all the Brigade’s ET training. It serviced the seven Greater London ET stations’ qualification needs. The course incorporated intensive BA training and covered the rigorous and demanding roles expected of its crews, this included visits to specialist installations and premises. One of these visits was to the London’s sewer system. Later on in my my career taking crews on a sewer visit became a bit of a party piece when I was stationed at Southwark, West Norward and Brixton fire stations.

Southwark, the London Fire Brigade’s home for the training of its emergency tender crews, as here in the 1920s.

We were taken to Southwark’s Cornwell Road, adjacent to the South Bank, where we were greeted by the ‘Ganger’ of one of the then GLC’s sewer crews. We were soon introduced to their subterranean world. The sweaty brickwork of the tunnel closed in on us no sooner than we squeezed down through the open manhole cover opening and descended the vertical metal ladder, a ladder that took us thirty feet below London’s streets. The hot and humid smell of detergent contrasted with the cold flowing water around our feet. This first visit was without any BA, a familiarisation of this strange, and at times, amazing place the sewer men spent their working day. With each step the dull turgid screen of mist parted to allow us through. Shafts of light from our torches picked out the glistening highlights of geometrical lines of brickwork, creating their own claustrophobic son-et-lumiere with each step we made. Distorted shadows transformed us into phantoms wandering in an aquatic underground maze.

We were wading along the tunnels in single file. Cold greyish water flowed eastwards and at knee height pushed against the backs of our waders, urging us on. We could not walk upright, the egg-shaped tunnel was only five foot high. Cramped, we moved at a stoop, the shadows mirroring our movements on the brickwork. After a while the Ganger, at the head of the file, turned around.

Typical flushers in a London sewer.

“Keep in your place,” he said, “and if you get lost, then don’t start doing anything clever like trying to find us. Just stay where you are, we’ll find you.”

The Ganger was the head of a team of five flushers. They spent their working hours cleaning the bowels of London. He had on heavy waders that came up to his waist. Beneath them he wore thick thigh length woollen socks like leg warmers. Above the waders and the leg warmers he was garbed in a blue jacket, kept in place by a belt and the all-important safety harness. Although the tunnel we were trudging through was egg-shaped, the sewer bed was flat covered by a layer of sediment that felt like sand and grit; our boots sank into it with every step.

“That’s what we call muck down here,” the Ganger said. “It’s full of little pockets of gas, waiting to overpower the unsuspecting sewer worker. That’s why if you ever get called to get us out of one of these tunnels only ever come down in your breathing apparatus, otherwise we will all be in the shit, literally.”

From that simple inconspicuous manhole cover we had entered just one of the very many miles of sewers running through the metropolis. Twisting and turning, beneath the roadways, fifteen hundred miles of neo-gothic sewers run below London streets, some much smaller than the ones we were in that day. Others were almost like caverns; storm relief sewers that direct away millions of gallons of rain water, thus protecting the capital from potential flood damage, during torrential rainfall.

On our second visit we were wearing Proto breathing apparatus sets. A different manhole this time and located near the Elephant and Castle. After a forty foot descent we entered a tunnel no taller than four foot tall. Our backs started to ache within the first 100 feet. The bottom of our breathing bags dragging through the sewer water. As we negotiated this subterranean waterway we were conscious that a rain cloud bursting some miles away might quickly fill these tunnels with torrents of water. Easily sweeping away the unwary worker. The only protection against this possibility was the ‘Top-man’, and his two-way radio, who gave regular weather forecast updates. Which for those working below could mean the difference between life and death.

London firemen on their ET course at Southwark-wearing the Proto oxygen breathing apparatus set and navigating the ‘Rat-run’ in Southwark’s BA chamber.

We practised the rescue techniques necessary to lift, carry and raise an Injured/unconscious sewer worker. Later in the comfort of the classroom we supplemented our practical experience by learning of the health and biological hazards such rescues can expose the rescuer too. These include Weil’s disease, spread by rats’ urine, the virus of which can get into the body through cuts and scratches and end up in the brain and in most cases leading to an unpleasant death. Hepatitis is more common but is not the only organic peril since other bacteria will cause a range of potentially life-threatening conditions. It is therefore vital that the washing and decontamination procedures are rigorously followed, after the crews return to street level. Just as potentially lethal are the reaction of different chemicals mixing in the sewer system possibly producing a cocktail of toxic gases. Hence the importance of the sewer safety lamp which has been designed to warn of its presence.

The ET course was very “hands on”. We lifted, pulled, cut, spread with the full range of rescue equipment the ETs’ carried. We also visited various lift installations and learnt how to recognise the differences between electrical, mechanical and hydraulic systems. How to shut them down and hand-wind the lifts; how to open or remove lift doors and release the “dead” brakes so that we would be able to move a lift either up or down. These explorations covered the London Underground system too; we learnt the lifting points on varied rolling stock, how to isolate the electrical power supply to the tracks. We went beneath escalators; we entered cold store refrigeration plants (where the hairs in our nostrils froze solid within seconds). We performed drills wearing the full protective clothing only the ETs carried, and which will be the fireman’s only protection when dealing with serious leakages of toxic gases and refrigerants such as ammonia.

The sewer pipe in Southwark’s BA chamber-there was a small round sewer pipe too!

At the end of all this intensive course participants, Sub Officers, Leading Firemen and Firemen were extensively examined by the Training School ET senior officers. Every aspect of the course was covered. Attendance alone was no guarantee to gain a pass on this demanding course. A genuine camaraderie was established between us all. It helped ensure that the high standards expected were met. Finally, armed with our new skills and knowledge, we returned to our respective stations to put it all into practice, or so we hoped.

In the end I did actually attend two sewer incidents whilst riding the ET. One was in Brixton Road and the other in North London. Brixton Road was a sewer collapse and the lads from Brixton, under the command of their Irish born Station Officer, Declan Butler, did an exceptional job of extracting the injured sewer workers, whilst we just helped.

North London was a long way to travell from Lambeth and by the time we arrived it was done and dusted. Another good job done the local station crews. But the local sewer gangs around South London were always willing to give us a visit, although there were a few on the various White Watch crews I took along who did not share my enthusiasm for seeing what lay under their feet!

The only two London firemen to perish in a sewer incident. They had entered wearing ‘smoke-hoods’ and were asphyxiated. Their deaths brought about the change to self-contained ‘Proto’ breathing apparatus.

Today’s London firefighters, wearing the breathing apparatus that they would wear when committed to any sewer incident.

A history of breathing apparatus in London’s fire brigades.

The plip-plop of mica in the breathing tubes.

Smoke hoods.

It might come as a surprised just how early a system which allowed firemen to work in smoke was first used. In London early attempts to protect firemen, when entering smoke, were imported from France. A smoke-proof ‘dress’, that was created by M. Paulin, was one suggestion that found considerable favour.

Lieut-Colonel Pauline was the commander of the corps of Sapears Pompiers (fire brigade) in Paris. It was his design that crossed the Channel and adopted by its London equivalent force, the London Fire Engine Establishment (LFEE) in 1836. His invention was taken up by its Superintendent James Braidwood. Braidwood conducted his own tests and deemed them to be successful.

The smoke-hood, which covered the whole of the upper body, was made of leather. Enclosing the wearer’s head it reached down to their waist were it was secured by a belt. The arms reached down to the wrists and were secured about the cuffs by string. Two glass eye-pieces afforded the wearer uninterrupted vision.

Fresh air was supplied via a length of hose attached to the back of the hood. A bellows forced air into the hood with excess pressure escaping via the waist and wrists. As the air was being forced in it inflated the hood and prevented smoke from entering. Formally adopted, the hood was first used in anger at a fire in Basing Lane on the 22nd December the same year. Details of how many times it was actually used remains scarce but Braidwood’s reported to his Insurance Committee stated that its use in vaults, cellars or ships holds: “this dress is invaluable”.

Smoke helmet in a training drill at the MFB Southwark HQ.

Progress over the next 50 years can be regarded as limited but Capt. Eyre Massey Shaw (who took over from Braidwood after his death at a fire in Tooley Street) became the first Chief Officer of the new Metropolitan Fire Brigade. Progress with smoke hood development came around 1875 when he and a Professor Tyndall devised, and introduced, a ‘smoke cap’ which was, in fact, the first respirator. The earlier hoods were considered primitive. It was thought that a respirator would filter smoke and other gases and be effective under all conditions. It was not realised that the greatest danger to firemen, wearing such equipment, was oxygen deficiency! Nothing but a supplementary air supply, or oxygen, could do the job required.

Shaw next gave his blessing to Dr Fisher’s patent smoke mask in 1878. Made of light, imperishable, material, when dipped into hot water made it plastic. Placed on quickly it could be adapted to closely fit the fireman’s face. It was made with strong glasses covering the eyes and secured to the face by a buckled strap. The whole mask weighed only a few ounces and by Victorian standards was considered reasonably efficient.

Siebe Gorman smoke hood.

By 1900 a German company, Siebe Gorman, had supplied the brigade with an improved smoke helmet and accessories. It comprised a leather smoke helmet, double acting foot bellows air pump, canvas kit bag containing 120 ft of air hose, 120 ft. of security rope and body harness. They had introduced smoke helmets, based on the principle of a deep-sea diver’s breathing system. Air entered the helmet through breathing tubes, which were connected to a set of bellows at each side and operated by a second person. A neck curtain attached to the helmet was tucked into the fireman’s tunic, providing a reasonably air-tight seal. However, the equipment was very restrictive as firemen could only go as far as the air hose allowed.

In 1912 ten additional pairs of smoke helmets, of the self-contained type, were purchased to ensure it could be available in any part of London without undue delay. That said, in the Chief Officer’s report of that year “148 individuals were endangered at fires and of these 43 were rescued by firemen.” In the vast majority of cases firemen had, of course, to endure the punishing effects of smoke. His report made no mention if smoke-hoods made any material difference to the rescues carried out, or even if they were used?

With an increased use of motorised fire engines the following year a decision was made to purchase two additional, specialist, motorised fire engines (emergency tenders). One was under construction and would be allocated to the No 1 station at the Southwark headquarters. A second would be located at the Superintendent’s station of Clerkenwell once built.

The London Fire Brigade’s first emergency tender with its Proto wearing firemen
and located at the No 1 station-Southwark. (Photo circa 1914)

The brigade’s policy on smoke-hoods was they were allocated to thirteen fire stations; each with two hoods carried on a fire engine. Smoke hood training was restricted to a relative few firemen, only those serving at those stations. The brigade’s total stock of smoke-hoods stood at twenty six sets. However, there continued use was brought to a sudden end in 1913.

On the 13th March that year Firemen Robert. L. Libby and William McLaren died during an incident at Pembridge Villas. W11 near Notting Hill. The two men had entered a sewer wearing smoke hoods (it is assumed) to rescue a sewer worker, but that is not certain. What is beyond doubt is that the two firemen died. Both asphyxiated because of gas within the sewer. As a direct result of their deaths the efficacy of all the self-contained smoke hoods raised much nervousness about their continued use. Henceforth the practice of carrying smoke hoods was discontinued and they were removed from stations.

The Brigade urgently required a better system of breathing apparatus. Under existing UK legislation (1910 and 1911), it was compulsory for the vast majority of British collieries to have access to self-contained breathing apparatus. The London Fire Brigade took upon itself to adopt the mine rescue teams’ most successful system. It remained in use (albeit modified over time) for more than sixty years.

A early breathing apparatus course at the Southwark headquarters and training in the Proto set.

The first practical breathing apparatus set, for rescue and salvage work in coal mines, had been invented by Henry Fleuss, an Englishman. He had become interested in diving equipment whilst working for the P&O steamship company. His first apparatus, of 1879, was a primitive self-contained underwater breathing apparatus. Divers would carry a self-contained compressed oxygen supply, plus a contrivance to recover (regenerate) oxygen from exhaled carbon dioxide. Fleuss subsequently obtained patents and started his own company. He also collaborated with Siebe, Gorman & Co. of London, the premier makers of diving equipment. The Fleuss apparatus was adapted for use in mines. Enabling the wearers to survive in a poisonous atmosphere underground.

Austria and Germany had both been at the forefront of efforts to develop breathing apparatus for use in irrespirable atmospheres (underground) during the 1890s and into the 1900s. The first British models began to appear in the early 1900s. The ‘Proto’ was introduced in 1906, manufactured by Siebe Gorman.

The Proto


It was a self-contained system, consisting of a cylinder of oxygen and an air reservoir or breathing bag containing an absorbent. This removed the exhaled carbon dioxide it was mixed with a fresh supply of oxygen from the cylinder and reused. The apparatus included a separate mouthpiece through which to breathe, a nose clip and rubber goggles to protect the eyes. Although requiring special training, it was swiftly adopted by the Brigade and issued to the first emergency tender crews.

The benefit of this new breathing apparatus for firemen was that several could now work together as a team when wearing the oxygen sets. By 1916, there were some 913 Proto sets in use across Britain. The London Fire Brigade only account for around 2% of that total. The age of the smoke eating fireman remained the order of the day.

The outbreak of the Great War in 1914 had a number of significant impacts on the Brigade, not least the number of firemen, and officers, who returned to the ‘colours’ either as reservist or volunteered to fight for King and Country. With the War effort there was no funding available to see an expansion of breathing apparatus to more London fireman. According to the Brigade’s summary of stations and appliances published in 1919 it still only had the one petrol motor emergency tender and 36 sets of Proto breathing apparatus which, interestingly, were still referred to as ‘smoke helmets’!

1919 saw the promotion of Arthur Dyer to become the Brigade’s Chief Officer. The continuous duty of firemen had been approved to be changed to a two watch system the following year and with it the number of breathing apparatus trained firemen doubled. The second emergency tender was finally placed into service. Although in looks it took on the appearance of an adapted fire engine that remained open to the elements. The Proto set was proving its worth, although from the wearers point of view it was prone to overheat and the oxygen supply was painful to inhale. Dyer proved himself to be a remarkable Chief Officer, a more than competent fireman and leader of his men. However, it is worth noting that there was no general expansion in the acquisition of, or the use of, breathing.

The ‘open’ emergency tender and crew of station 66-Clerkenwell.

Cmdr. Aylmer Firebrace RN. joined the London Fire Brigade as an officer entrant the same year Dyer was appointed Chief Officer. Firebrace would rise, not only to command London prior to the outbreak of WWII, but would lead the British fire service during the conflict. In 1941 he was instrumental, along with his deputy Frederick Delve, in establishing the UK’s National Fire Service. Reflecting of his early years of service he had these comments regarding attitudes to breathing apparatus.

BA wearing London firemen of the late 1920’s and 1930s when the brass helmets were phased out and the new black cork helmets took their place.

“Fireman can, of course, be protected from smoke by the use of breathing apparatus, but we are not yet in the era; though with the advance in science it is bound to come. A time when every fireman has his own personal set of really light, efficient apparatus.” “But the apparatus is bulky and heavy, some thirty-one pounds, and a handicap to firefighting activity.”

Top: BA training at the Southwark headquarters.
Lower: The first enclosed BA carrying pump at the Southwark headquarters.

However, Firebrace was swift to praise the performance of his BA firemen too. He reported on the quick thinking of a BA crew who saved the lives of two sewer men. An emergency tender crew had been summoned to rescue two men overcome in the sewer some 140 ft. below ground level. The gas-plant used for pumping fresh air into the sewer, whilst the men worked below, failed. First descending and then walking half a mile through sewage the team discovered two in a state of collapse. The Sub Officer leading the team detailed two men to carry one of the casualties to the entrance and fresh air. He carried the other man unaided. On his return he noted the man had stopped breathing. Filling his Proto breathing bag with oxygen he then disconnected the oxygen cylinder from the set and administered oxygen to the unconscious man. As the man’s breathing grew stronger he was carried to the entrance and raised to the surface. Both men survived their ordeal. Firebrace’s comment on the extraordinary rescue was; “Only a stout-hearted man, complete master of his equipment, would have done this.”

An emergency tender and crew of 1936.

It was not until 1934 that progress in the greater availably of breathing apparatus was felt across the brigade. Under its new Chief Officer, Major Cyril Morris MC. the London County Council’s Fire Brigade Committee approve the reorganisation of the brigade. In addition to improved appliance design and the introduction of dual purpose fire engine with 50 ft. wheeled escape the brigade introduced ten enclosed breathing apparatus pumps, each carrying thee Proto sets.

The BA room of the new headquarters station at Lambeth. 1937.

In 1937 the new headquarters of the London Fire Brigade was formally opened by King George VI accompanied by Queen Elizabeth.  The bespoke, state of the art headquarters saw a dedicated brigade workshops incorporated into the design and Lambeth became the Brigade’s training school, both for new recruits and for breathing apparatus training. A smoke and heat training facility was included in the specification and was located in the basement under the main yard.

Lambeth fire station had the latest enclosed, BA carrying, limousine pumps plus one of the two emergency tenders. On the 12th July 1938 a serious leakage of ammonia occurred at the Eldorado ice cream factory in Stamford Street, SE1. An incident which resulted in questions being asked in Parliament. Yet whilst the growth in acquiring breathing apparatus continued firemen had no gas-tight clothing to protect them from the dangerous effects of chemicals, most notably ammonia. A gas that has very unpleasant effects on the skin, attacking any places on the body liable to perspiration.

The ammonia escape involved much of this extensive factory. An escape of gas that would see 60 people removed to hospital for treatment, 15 of whom had to be detained. With Lambeth and Southwark’s crews summoned it fell to the emergency tender crew, whose Proto sets could be adapted to take full-faces masks, to take a briefing from the factory engineers to shut off the supply. With limited body protection the fireman had to smear a thick coating of ammonia resistant ointment to their necks, ears and hands before entering the white ammonia mist. It would not be until the 1950s that the Brigade were equipment with gas tight suits (Delta suits) to wear when dealing with such incidents.

Preparations for war had started in the mid-1930s. The enrolment in excess 25,000 Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) firefighters, both men and women, expanded the service across London to previously unseen levels. In 1937, the government passed legislation to enable the establishment of an AFS of volunteers to support the regular fire brigades in the event of war. By September 1939 the AFS had over 200,000 members, some of whom were equipped with pumps pulled by cars, or London taxis painted grey, as fire engines were in such short supply. However, the use of breathing apparatus remainded the domain of the regular London firemen.


Following the declaration of war there followed a considerable lull when the anticipated enemy attacks on the UK, and in particular London, never materialised. Termed the ‘phoney war’ AFS firefighters received both press and public ridicule and were frequently referred to as ‘war dodgers!’ However, both regular firemen and the AFS firefighters were at the forefront of danger with the start of the Blitz in September 1940. Throughout that time, and until the creation of the National Fire Service (NFS) in August 1941, London’s regular firemen maintained all BA duties.

Breathing aparatus training at the Lambeth headquarters. 1940s.

With the formation of the NFS the Siebe Gorman Salvus Mk VI breathing apparatus was a light oxygen rebreather set introduced into the London Region (NFS) and many of these sets supplemented the Proto sets across greater London’s fire stations. Their cooler boxes were marked ‘NFS’. Designed to last 30 minutes in an irrespirable atmosphere although it worked on the same principles of the Proto IV sets they were not interchangeable.

King George VI talking to BA fireman at the Lambeth headquarters. NFS.

The general design and layout of the Proto breathing apparatus sets up to, and including, the Mark IV had not changed to any great extent. Improvements were made with each successive ‘mark’ and these included such things as the change from caustic soda to ‘Protosorb’ and the introduction of a small breathing bag, and the carrying of the pressure gauge in a pocket on the shoulder instead of in front of the breathing bag.

BA instructor wear his compressed air set, firemen exiting the smoke chamber
in Proto. NFS. Circa 1942.

Additionally, during this time another type of breathing apparatus came upon the scene. Compressed air sets were developed during the Second World War and the LFB, part of the NFS, tested some of the early versions at the Lambeth headquarters. Photographic evidence shows the ‘Roberts’ set in use in a training role. If they were accepted into general operational service the records of when and where are scarce. Clearly some were used by BA instructional staff conducting Proto BA training at the Lambeth headquarters, but the outcome of trials are vague.

Return to Local Authority control

On the first April 1948 the London Fire Brigade returned to local authority control, the London County Council. The Brigade, in common with others, came under the supervision of the Home Office regarding its standards of efficiency, appliances and equipment, including breathing apparatus. Recovering from the war left the Brigade in a very poor financial state. No new stations would be built before 1956. Some stations still ran with NFS appliances and the BA carried comprised a mix of both Salvus and Proto sets. The two emergency tenders retained their Proto sets and a couple of compressed air sets.

Gordon Smith was a post war London fireman. He was stationed at the Bishopsgate station. He shares some of his experiences of BA from those times.

 “I recall, most of my training was done at my home station, Bishopsgate. First it was verbal and written questions on the Proto breathing apparatus. The capacity of the cylinder and the pressure, the flow rate in litres, the duration of the oxygen at two and a half litres per minute. Then the Protosorb, the coolant, the various valves, the donning procedure, the mouthpiece, nose clip and goggles also the entrapped procedure.

Then would come the practical side. The wearing of the set under heavy smoke conditions, which was simulated by tying a black silk blindfold over your eyes. Then you would search a large room or series of rooms for a simulated victim. Generally you would search a space by maintaining contact with the wall, until you got back to your entry point, then diagonally from corner to corner. When you walked, or rather ‘shuffled’, you moved one foot cautiously ahead, testing the floor, then the other leg, in an outward sweeping movement, forward until it was beside your other foot.

If you hadn’t gone through the floor by then you took another step. Of course, our guvnor liked to make it a little more exciting so a few hazards were added. When searching the drill yard the boards would be lifted from the suction pit, drain covers would be missing and there would someone creeping up behind you who would crack open your bypass valve, to simulate that you had hooked it on something. All this training could take a good six months to complete to the satisfaction of the watch Station Officer.

For the training the BA had to be taken ‘off the run’ (unavailable). It could be two hours before we could put it back operationally. We only had two Proto sets and one Salvus set on the Pump. There was no BA on the open PE. There may have been a more authoritative BA testing unit somewhere in 1948 but I don’t remember where?  I seem to remember entering a system of concrete piping wearing BA, maybe the Lambeth headquarters, where it was necessary to crawl on all fours before meeting an obstruction. Then it was necessary to loosen the breathing bag and push it ahead of you and over the obstruction so you could then squeeze yourself over it. There was a heat source to make it more challenging.”

In December 1949 he attended the ill-fated Covent Garden fire. He was one of many sent below ground to fight the blaze.

If we had already been exposed to smoke, which was the norm, before we rigged we would take a few breaths of oxygen through the mouthpiece before putting on the nose-clip, to clear our lungs. Our BA was the Proto one hour set including its cylinder containing 6 cubic feet of oxygen at 1800 psi. If you became trapped you were taught to turn off the main valve and use the bypass valve to supply the bag with the oxygen needed.”

The Salvas sets (breathing bags at their sides) at the fatal fire in
Covent Garden, December 1949. Station Officer Charles Fisher
died in the basement whilst wearing his Salvus BA set.

Mark IV Proto sets in the early 1950s.

The BA ‘Bowler’.

In the mid-1950s the Chiek Officer, Frederick Delve, introduced a new style fire helmet for the BA riders of the Brigade’s two wemergeny tenders, based at Clerkenwell and Lambeth fire station. Due to its shape it was soon nicked-named the ‘bowler’.

The LFB’s BA helmet the bowler.

Whilst the helmet proved poplar with the firemen, especially when working in confined or restricted spaces with breathing apparatus, the helmet fell foul of the national standards governing the style and specifications of UK firemens helmet design. It was considered it lacked adequate neck protection, which the standard issue helmet afforded.

1956. Fireman Les Porter, an ET fireman from Lambeth, wearing the new style ‘bowler’ BA helmet.

By the late 1950s the Brigade had to withdraw the helmets from operational use due to the conflict with national helmet design.

An ET crew, wearing their ‘bowlers’ standing by with a station BA crew at the Smithfield Meat Market fire in 1958.

1958. A BA watershed

In January 1958 a massive fire swept through the Smithfield Meat Market in the City of London. Such was the intensity of that fire that it spread through two and a half acres of underground passages before involving the upper floors. Finally all BA crews were forced to withdraw and they had to surround the blaze. A blaze which lead to the collapsed of the old market buildings. It was a fire that was ultimately fought by 1,700 firemen and officers. Some 389 fire engines and ancillary vehicles attended the incident. Two dozen firefighters were injured at ‘Smithfield’s’, two tragically died.

In the early stages of the fire firemen wearing Proto breathing apparatus were committed into the basement to seek out the fire and extinguish it. John Bishop was an acting Station Officer and one of those first on the scene. His pump’s crew were one of scores to enter the Smithfield basement. This is his own story:

“It was a maze and we used clapping signals. I was going down the centre and I’d send men down a passageway here and there. You would walk along one step at a time, with the back of your hand in front of you in case you walked into something red-hot, making sure you were not going to fall down a hole. All we could find was passageways with meat packed either side from floor to ceiling. The smoke got thicker – you could eat it; black oily smoke. It was very cold down there and you were cold, even though you were sweating. That was fear.”

The re-drawing of breathing apparatus procedures.

Following Smithfield reports were submitted to the Fire Brigade Committee of the London County Council by Chief Officer Delve. Once again lessons were to be learned, lessons that could not be ignored. Some of the problems at Smithfield, regarding BA procedures, had occurred at two previous fires at Covent Garden. A revised LFB procedure was set up in 1956 following the second fatal Covent Garden Fire. This involved the provision of a BA Control Point. At Smithfield it was located in Charterhouse Lane. It detailed a record of the entry of men wearing BA into the incident however, the BA Control Point consisted of no more than a simple blackboard and white chalk. It recorded: name, station/location, time of entry and time due out.

As basic as it was it proved invaluable. It indicated, later, in the incident that two men were missing and overdue. However, following the tragic loss of life at Smithfield there were concerted calls for a more comprehensive schedule of BA procedures to be formulated. These calls came from Delve himself, his deputy Leslie Leete and Mr John Horner, General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union.

A blackboard and white chalk serves as the BA control board at the Smithfield fire. It monitored crews locations
and not individual BA wearers.

Later that same year a Fire Service Circular (FSC) 37/1958 was issued. It detailed the findings of the Committee of Inquiry and recommended the following:-

  • Tallies for BA sets;
  • A Stage I and Stage II control procedure for recording & supervising BA wearers:
  • The duties of a control operator:
  • The procedure to be followed by crews:
  • A main control procedure.

In the accompanying letter to the circular Brigades were requested to report their observations and recommendations in light of experience by the end of November 1959. There was at the time no specifications for the design and use of guide or personnel lines. It was considered that more experience had to be gained! Recommendations were, however, made in respect of a specification for a low cylinder pressure warning device and a distress signal device.

Finally, and in light of the views of Fire Brigades following Smithfield and based on their own experiences, it was clear that the use of BA would require more men to be better trained in its use and the safety procedures. Subsequent guidance on the selection of BA wearers was provided in FSC 32/1960 after agreement at the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council on 27 July 1960. It recommended:-18 months operational service before BA training. A possible age limit for wearers. Standards of fitness. Two BA wearers per appliance equipped with BA.

BA controls procedures being demonstated together with the ‘Southhampton’commications equipment. The images shows Stage II procedure with an ’emergency’ crews standing by (D61).

Smithfield brought about the introduction of the Mark V Proto set. The set saw some major changes. The weight of set was reduced by 6 lbs (2.7 kilos) down to about 27 lbs (12.2 kilos). The reduction was achieved by the use a terylene fabric for the breathing bag and harness and using alloy steel for the oxygen cylinder. Additionally there were changes to the filter, valves and the by-pass valve. The main valve became the only valve operated by a hand wheel and it was no longer possible to confuse the controls. There was also a push button operated by-pass valve and an automatic relief value on the breathing bag.

In the late 1950s gas-tight suits were added to
emergency tenders. They were worn in conjunction with
the MarkV Proto set.

Besides the changes to BA procedures the brigade increased its complete of emergency tenders by 100%. The additional tenders were placed a Greenwich and Euston fire stations. Additionally when a ‘BA required’ message was received by the control room two emergency tenders were dispatched to the incident. In some instances, dependent on the risks, additional breathing apparatus was sent at the time of the original call.  A typical example was a ship fire.

On Boxing Day 1960 a call was received to a fire on the Motor Vessel ‘Twin’, moored at Hercules Wharf in Poplar. E14. The 999 call was received at 9:25 p.m. and was on Brunswick Road ground. Its pump escape and turntable ladder together with Burdett Road’s pair joined the ET’s from Clerkenwell and Greenwich, plus Lee Green’s hose laying lorry as the initial attendance. Additionally West Ham’s (a separate, adjoining, fire brigade) emergency tender was sent together with a breathing apparatus control vehicle from Clerkenwell (the Divisional Headquarters) and the major control unit from the Lambeth headquarters. The incident also attracted two senior officers from Clerkenwell.

The officer in charge made an immediate attack on the fire committing his BA crews in the knowledge he had speedy BA reserves at hand if required. Neither did he require additional fire engines to deal with the incident. At 10.10 p.m. the fire was under control. His stop message gives an indication of the severity of the fire.

Stop for the MV Twin. Hercules Wharf. Severe damage by fire to 3 crew cabins on starboard quarters, water from 2 jets and hosereel from 1 pump from hydrant. 6 x Proto BA.

In late 1962 Leslie Leete became the LFB’s new Chief Officer. Among his initial actions was the return of the Brigade’s training school to Southwark. It would be the hub of all recruit, BA and ET training until the creation of the Greater London Council (GLC) in 1965 and an enlarged London Fire Brigade. The arrival of the GLC saw the part or whole amalgamation of the fire brigades surrounding the outgoing LCC’s London. Almost all of the former Middlesex brigade (which after London was the second largest brigade in the UK) was absorbed. The Brigades of East and West Ham together with Croydon were taken in wholesale.  Not all the appliances or equipment taken over were of the same pattern. BA sets were one such issue with Kent having some Salvus sets and others running with Proto Mark IV sets. Croydon fire brigade had moved entirely to compressed air sets. Fortunately those firemen familiar with Proto just required familiarisation with London’s Mark V set. As part of the transition Proto Mark V sets replaced the other inherited BA sets. In addition three emergency tenders were acquired, one each from Middlesex, Croydon and West Ham, bringing the Brigade’s fleet of ET’s to seven.

Both breathing apparatus and emergency tender training returned to Southwark.

During the early 1960s an addition to existing Proto breathing apparatus came into service; compressed air (CABA). Supplied by Siebe Gorman the set was normally intended for the use of senior officers at major fires and where only short inspections of the progress/actions of Proto firemen was necessary. The set provided approximately half an hour of air, however, if the wearer was working hard the amount of time would be much reduced. The set comprised a full face mask, an air cylinder (carried vertically on the back) and the facility to allow the wearer to talk to other crew members.

The ‘rat-run’ at Southwark formed an intergral part of the practical training for BA courses.
Both heat and smoke could be added to this underground obstacle course.

At the end of the 1960s Proto BA remained the dominant set but there were three types of compressed air sets in use in the Brigade. The most common being Siebe Gorman but Roberts and Normalair sets had also been purchased.

In the last months of Leets’s service London had its worst post war ship fire. In August 1969 the SS Paraguay Star, moored at the Royal Victoria Dock. E 16 caught fire. Twenty pumps, a foam tender and both the Brigade’s fireboats (Massey Shaw and Firebrace) attended the refrigerated cargo/passenger ship (10,800 tons). The fire centred on the ships engine room and Proto crews experienced the most punishing heat and dense oily smoke whilst gaining access into the ship. As with many such protracted and involved BA incidents the BA Incident Box was summoned and spare oxygen cylinders sent to the scene. It facilitated BA wearers testing their sets, changing cylinders before being recommitted into the ship.

New era.

The arrival of the 1970s heralded a new era. An era where the arrival of a new Chief Officer brought change, especially in regard to breathing apparatus. The Proto set would be consigned to the history books and compressed air sets would replace them in a massive expansion of their allocation. Joe Milner had been the former Chief Officer of the Honk Kong fire service. When asked about his priorities on taking on the role of London’s new Chief he said that although helmets and clothing were some insurance against injury, not enough attention had been given to preventing the damage done to firemen’s lungs. In Hong Kong he had ensured that there was one breathing apparatus set for very two men on duty. London firemen were riding with a ratio of one set for every four men on duty.

Joe Milner (with pipe) talking to BA firemen at the scene of a north London blaze.

The new Chief Officer quickly established his authority, but anyone left thinking the ‘new broom’ was going to swept away the practices of the past overnight with a programme of rapid reforms were disappointed. He was also a very regular face on the fireground and proved himself a competent operational officer and swiftly won the respect of his men. He commanded from the front and in August 1971 directed firefighting operations at London biggest blaze of the decade at Tooley Street. The second of two post war 50 pump fires.

The vast, disused, cold store warehouse fire involved breathing apparatus from the off. The severest of conditions tested wave after wave of Proto firemen attempting to enter the building and seek the heart of the blaze. It was not the only thing being tested. The recently introduced, new style, BA guidelines were given their baptism by fire. Many of the exhausted Proto crews were affected by the excessive heat and humidity. Late in the afternoon a contractor’s acetylene cylinder exploded. The resultant flashover caught three BA firemen working from a covered Bridgeway. All were injured and one was rushed to hospital suffering serious burns to his hands and face.

Into the last days of the Proto sets…

By 1972 Joe Milner was really getting into his stride. It was the year that his promise of more breathing apparatus for firemen was delivered. The ‘Airmaster’ compressed air (CA) breathing apparatus sets were introduced initially into pump-escapes and proto sets carried on pumps. Later the Proto was reduced to two sets with two additional CA sets carried. Eventually four CA sets were carried on every front line appliance (PE and pumps). The ‘Airmaster’ was subsequently replaced by the phased introduction of the Siebe Gorman ‘Firefighter’ set around 1979.

1970s. LFB Compressed air wearers exiting from a major blaze at Ironmongers Row. London.

…after the wearing came the testing and maintenance of the Proto set back at the station.

Enter the compressed air ‘Airmaster’ sets.

With the growth in chemical incidents Milner also oversaw the introduction of a Chemical Incident Unit into the operational fleet. It attended both chemical incidents and was mobilised to all radiation incidents. Among its crews duties were the safe decontamination of BA crews committed to such incidents. Milner also added the word ‘rescue’ to the title of emergency tenders. Henceforth they were called ‘emergency rescue tenders’.

With the widespread allocation of compressed air breathing apparatus to all front line appliances its use was very much the norm rather the exception. The age of the ‘smoke-eater’ if not totally passed their days were numbered. BA became an integral part of the fireman’s everyday operational kit.

Shoreditch (C21) crews use BA sets where firemen once stood and took in the smoke!

Such was the importance of breathing apparatus to the fireman’s ‘job’ that the Fire Brigade’s Union cited it as a central plank in their case to secure a much overdue pay rises for firemen nationally. The case fell on deaf ears and the first national strike stated in November 1977. It would last until January 1978. Firemen across London, whilst on strike, carried their BA sets in their private cars to the scene of fires where there was a risk to life.

(London first woman firefighter joined the Brigade in 1982; the term fireman was officially replaced with ‘firefighter’ in all formal Brigade contracts by the late 1980s.)  

The 80s & 90s

In all instances serious fires underground were difficult, challenging and frequently dangerous. On every occasion breathing apparatus was necessity to extinguish the fire. A fire at the Oxford Street underground station was no exception. In November 1984 a blaze started in building materials stored in a closed-off passageway between the northbound Bakerloo and Victoria line platforms. It lead to many passengers being hospitalised with smoke inhalation. Such was the damage caused that the Victoria line had to be closed between Warren Street and Victoria for nearly a month. Something which gives an indication of the tremendous determination required of the BA firefighters in getting to grips with the blaze. (As a direct result a complete ban on smoking all sub-surface stations was introduced in February 1985.)

Kings Cross underground fire. November 1987.

On the 18 November 1987, at approximately 19:30 p.m. a fire broke out at King’s Cross underground station, a major interchange on the London underground. The fire started on a wooden escalator serving the Piccadilly line when at 19:45 p.m. it erupted in a flashover into the underground ticket hall. The fire would kill 31 people, including Station Officer Townsley from Soho fire station and injure 100, some critically. It was the most significant BA fire of the decade. Whilst the conditions endured by the firefighters were horrendous their compressed air breathing apparatus sets stood up to the challenges presented. However, a number firefighters were overcome with heat exhaustion. What was found wanting was the outdated fire kit of the firefighters, kit that had hardly changed since the arrival of the early Proto sets? As a direct result of this fire improved fire kit was introduced, kit that has continued to be modified and updated to the present day.

A new style automatic distress signal unit was introduced on all breathing apparatus sets in 1990. The device would operate when the wearer is immobile for more than 20 seconds.

An exhausted firefighter administered oxygen at the Gillender Street fire.

On 10th July 1991 two firefighters died whilst wearing BA at a major fire at Gillender Street, E3. Fire had broken out in a document storage warehouse in the early afternoon. Before the fire was brought under control 40 pumping and specialist appliances attended. The incident took over six to contain. It was during the course of firefighting operations that a BA team were instructed to lay out a BA main guide line to the scene of the fire on a second floor mezzanine. It was whilst carrying out this activity that two firefighters (Terence James Hunt and David John Stokoe) from Silvertown fire station lost their lives.

Their deaths resulted in an immediate inquiry and investigation not only by the Brigade, the Fire Brigade Union but the Health and Safety Executive. Such was design of the building and its structure the fire generated punishing conditions of intense heat and dense smoke making the incident particularly difficult.

The internal report identified a number of areas of concern both of basic ‘firemanship’; departures from procedures and practical problems with the use of BA. Not least of the matters identified was issues with Operation 91 (that covered all matters BA related). The report suggest areas of it required revision and amendment. It was stated that a longer duration breathing apparatus set would have been an advantage (EDBA) although at the time the Brigade was only evaluating such equipment.

Health and Safety Executive, at the conclusion of their investigation, took the unprecedented action of serving two improvement notices on the Brigade. It brought about a radical review of BA practices and the standing of its training regime. However, of note the Brigade’s investigation also highlighted areas of excellence? One was those mentioned were East Ham’s Emergency Rescue Tender crew whose actions and professionalism in attacking the fire greatly aided the headway in extinguishing it. Finally the commitment and professionalism of a large number of the firefighters and officers, in such difficult and complicated circumstances, was considered worthy of the highest admiration and praise.

But the issuing of the Improvement Notices acted as a watershed, particularly in regard to BA training at all levels.

ERT were rebranded as Fire Rescue units with enhanced rescue capability and extended duration breathing apparatus sets.

Southwark Training Centre received approval for a multi-million pound make-over and refurbishment in 1992. It’s the first major overall at Southwark since its creation by Capt. Shaw in 1878. A pilot study also starts on the creation of a bespoke, hi-tech, firehouse complex at Southwark and the creation of the Brigade’s first ‘real-fire’ training facility.

The findings of a radical review of the LFB’s firefighter recruit training syllabus is agreed. Recruits had previously be trained in BA at the end of their course and prior to going to their stations. They now received that training at the mid-point, thereafter performed practical ladder drills wearing BA and following BA procedures. Recruits finished their basic training with a visit to the Fire Service College-Morton in Marsh to undergo ‘real fire training’ which was assessable.

A mobile heat and smoke training unit was introduced and made available to enhance station BA training.

Into the new millennium

2002- a change of fire kit but the task of getting in with BA remained the same.

After 12 years of research and development, in 2003, (and at a final cost of £22 million) the ‘Firehouse’ at the refurbished and modernised Southwark Training Centre goes live. It lasted less than two years! After a second fire in the complex it was necessary to stop all ‘real fire training’. The facility could only be used for ‘cold’ BA training. It was later demolished when the whole of the Southwark site was sold and the vast majority of Brigade training had been outsourced.

Not all was smothing sailing regarding BA especially if you happened to be a woman firefighter. There were serious issues of adequate PPE. Some women had to make do with ill-fitting kit. Not least were incorrectly fitting helmets, tunics and BA facemasks. The Brigade undertook to work nationally to provide ALL firefighters with the best possible gear regardless of size, gender or ethnicity.

At the same time the Brigade undertook improvements to its Fire Rescue Unit (FRU) fleet. They were to be increased from five to seven with enhanced essential specialist equipment in addition to their BA role. In December 2003 25 Draeger extended duration sets relaced the old sets on the FRU’s. They would extend a firefighter’s working time to a nominal 75 minutes. In addition the set was fitted a bodyguard intergrated pressure gauge which provided digital information toalart the wearer when to get out when conditions became unsafe.

In 2004 London saw the creation of the ‘London Resiliance Forum’. It meant, in practical terms. that more money was allocated to special clothing and equipment to make sure specially trained firefighters are able to deal with any kind of disaster.

BA Telemetry

(The process of recording and transmitting the readings of an instrument.)

In 2010, following research, it was established it was possible to interference (with the telemetry component of breathing apparatus) using a mobile handset, dongle or other 4G mobile device within a certain distance. This allowed live and relevant data to be transmitted and received between a remote monitoring point and the breathing apparatus wearer for the first time.

The LFB introduced telemetry procedures for their BA equipment. The telemetry was incorporated in BA command and control and BA equipment procedures.

Standard Duration Breathing Apparatus (SDBA)

The Brigades current standard duration breathing apparatus has only one cylinder. The set weighs about 15kgs. When a firefighter is breathing normally a SDBA they should get about 31 minutes of air time. But, if the firefighter is working hard and breathing heavily the cylinder won’t necessarily last that long.

Extended Duration Breathing Apparatus (EDBA)

To use extended duration breathing apparatus firefighters must have completed specialist training. EDBA sets have two cylinders and weigh around 23kgs.

A firefighter in EDBA should get 47 minutes of air time. But the same rules apply if the firefighter is working hard and breathing heavily.

EDBA is usually brought out when firefighters have to travel longer distances using breathing apparatus, like a train stuck in a tunnel.

Since the Smithfield fire (1958) whenever firefighters are committed using breathing apparatus a Breathing Apparatus Entry Control (BAEC) is established. The system tracks who’s gone in and who’s come out.

(Note. 1.Currently there is one contract in place with Dräger Ltd for the supply of component parts for BA, cylinders and telemetry equipment. This is due to expire on 1 July 2021. 2. The disparity between the duration of the EDBA set (75 minutes and 45 minutes) is not easy to explain. The current duraton is given at 45 minutes.)



The fire at Grenfell Tower on 14 June 2017 took the lives of 72 people. It left hundreds more with both physical and psychological injuries. Whilst firefighters are trained to respond to fires in residential high rise buildings this incident was of a scale and rapidity that was exceptional. Those failures created a set of conditions not previously experienced by the Brigade. It provided unique challenges for the Brigade and none more so than in its use of breathing apparatus.

The first on the scene, although experienced, were not of senior rank. They faced with a situation for which they had not been properly prepared or trained. In the resulting, ongoing, public inquiry it was established none seem to have been able to conceive of the possibility of a general failure of compartmentation or of a need for mass evacuation. The Inquiry looked, in microscopic precision, at the actions of individuals almost minute by minute. A few were found to be wanting but in publishing an interim report the Chairman, a retired High Court judge, to pains to state;

“The firefighters who attended the tower displayed extraordinary courage and selfless devotion to duty.”

Grenfell-where London firefighter BA crews put themselves in harm’s way-only to do it again
at the Grenfell Inquiry when individual actions were placed under a micoscope.

In the aftermath the LFB, following its examination of the breathing apparatus and telemetry data gathered was able to identify the composition of all the BA teams deployed into Grenfell Tower. A detailed analysis of the data, including a comparison of the effectiveness of SDBA and EDBA in such circumstances was commenced in 2019 to identify learning that may inform operational procedures and / or the design of BA equipment in the future.

The training of all station-based firefighters begun the same year. Babcock Training Services (The LFB’s training provider) delivered half day briefings on fire safety in high-rise premises including elements of construction, compartmentation, firefighting facilities, evacuation strategies and ventilation systems. A computer-based training package and one day face-to-face training session covering fire safety in commercial premises is scheduled to take place in the financial year 20/21. Following Grenfell, and as the Brigade’s outsourced training arrangements have been in place for a number of years, the LFB commissioned an independent review of training by Ribband Star Consultancy Limited. A report was presented to Commissioner’s Board on 9 October 2019.

After Grenfell, the Brigade also began investigating the use of fire escape hoods to mitigate the risk of smoke inhalation for occupants attempting to escape or being rescued. The hoods were introduced in November 2018 and provide up to 15 minutes protection for the wearer. The hoods are attached to every BA set. They have used to assist in the rescue of 25 members of the public at October 2019. Investigations are taking place to see if additional fire escape hoods could be provided in designated grab packs on frontline appliances and used on occupants in the event an evacuation.

Problems with BA policy were discovered. A preliminary report to the LFB Commissioner noted that some elements of BA operations were not fully aligned to the Brigade’s operational procedures as set out in its operational BA policy.

The Brigade has since replaced its bi-annual two day BA course and the bi-annual half day confirmation of BA skills course. From April 2019 firefighters receive a new annual two day firefighting course; designed to increase firefighter awareness and understanding of tactical ventilation, scene survey, weight of attack and the importance of correct BA procedures.

The outcomes of its BA analysis will inform the development of operational procedures and BA equipment in the future. The Brigade is also investigating a number of events related to BA operations including the removal of personal facemasks to provide air to residents seeking to evacuate the building via the compromised stairwell, leading to exposure of the products of combustion.

Working with Imperial College they hope to establish an independent long term respiratory health study for firefighters who attended the Grenfell Tower incident. This study has the support of the Fire Brigades Union and is the largest of its kind to date, into the potential long-term effects of firefighting.

The Grenfell Tower Inquiry was suspended in March 2020 “until further notice” following the escalation in the country’s response to the growing coronavirus crisis. The history of the LFB’s continues to be written.

The story of London’s fire brigade breathing apparatus progress continues…

An iconic image of London firemen wearing their Proto sets.

In memoriam

18th March 1913. Pembridge Villas.  W11

Fireman Robert L. Libby

Fireman William McLare

20th December 1949. Covent Garden Market. WC2.

Station Officer Charles Fisher

22nd July 1956. Kensington High Street.

Leading Fireman Frederick Willoughy

23rd January 1958. Smithfield Meat Market. EC1.

Station Officer Jack Fourt-Wells

Fireman Richard Stocking

8th March 1968. Kings Road. SW3.

Fireman Brian O’Connell-Hutchings

Fireman Colin Comber

26th January 1980. Regent Dock Canal.

Leading Fireman Stephen Maynard

30th April 1981. Broadway, Wimbledon.

Fireman Anthony Marshall

27th April 1981. St Georges Hospital. Tooting

Fireman Barry Trussell

10th July 1991. Gillender Street.E3.

Firefighter Terence Hunt

Firefighter David Stokoe

20th July 2004. Bethnal Green Road.

Firefighter Bill Faust

Firefighter Adam Meere

The London Fire Chief who never was. Mr Sidney Gompertz GAMBLE. Second Officer of the London Fire Brigade.

For whatever reason the London County Council (LCC) authorities passed over Sidney Gamble whenever the matter of his possible appointment to the Brigade’s Chief Officer Post came before them. It bemused many, both in the service and beyond it, not least Sidney Gamble himself! Although he never commented upon his disappointment at non-selection, publicly at least. Gamble just got on with his job of guiding the Brigade, and the various men actually appointed to the position of Chief Officer. Gamble’s CV was truly impressive, far more so than some of those whom he reported.

The younger Gamble in his early years in the
Metropolitan Fire Brigade.

Gamble was not a Londoner. He was born in Grantham on the 20th September 1854. As a child he was weaned on firefighting. The eldest son of Alderman Gamble, who was both a supporter and activist in the Volunteer Fire Brigade of the town, in his boyhood days Gamble attended many fires in the borough. At the age of only 19 he became the Deputy Superintendent of the Borough of Grantham Fire Brigade. Gamble had qualified as an architect and surveyor and was, prior to his appointment to the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, the Borough Surveyor of Grantham as well as the Chief of Grantham Fire Brigade.

When it came to being appointed Chief, or not in Gamble’s case, this highly competent man appears to have been just plain ‘unlucky’.  He was in the ‘wrong place at the wrong time’ or ‘tarred with the same brush’. Both phrases that seemed to haunt the unfortunate Gamble when it came to securing the position of London’s Chief Officer, a position that can justifiably argued that was his for the asking.

Gamble, aged 38, arrived at the then Metropolitan Fire Brigade headquarters in Southwark Bridge Road in the February of 1892, a year after the first Chief Officer, Capt. Massey Shaw (now Sir Massey Shaw) retired. Officer appointments to the Brigade were made by the LCC’s General Purposes Committee. It was they who appointed Gamble as the Brigade’s ‘second’ officer (deputy Chief). Their choice of another Army officer to replace Shaw was rejected when presented to the full Council. Instead they chose Mr J. Sexton Simonds who had been Shaw’s deputy. His five reign came to an acrimonious end due to some ‘dodgy’ dealings on his part. Asked to resign Simonds refused so the LCC sacked him, paying him a gratuity of £1650.

Sadly Gamble paid the price of his former Chief money making scheme. So incensed where the LCC over Simonds behaviour they refused to consider any member of the Brigade for the vacant Chief’s post, even though Gamble was in effect ‘minding the shop’ whilst a new Chief Officer was being sought. In the end Capt. Wells (RN) was appointed in November 1896 and it turned out to be a wise choice that was until the Queen Victoria Street fire in which nine people died.

On the 9th June 1902 a waste paper basket caught fire in a workshop on the top floor of a city building. It was a premises owned by the General Electrical Company. With the spiral wooden staircase quickly ablaze, thirteen typists and packers, all girls, were trapped. The Brigade’s escape ladders, at 50 feet, were too short to reach the upper floors and as a result some of the young women jumped to their deaths rather than be consumed by the fire. There was a public outcry, fuelled by erroneous reports in the newspapers. The ‘Daily Mail’ declared that “Captain Wells must go”.

Calling of the fire brigade was delayed, and when they arrived heroic efforts were made to save the trapped people. Station Officer West, from the Watling Street station, lowered himself down from the roof on a telegraph cable and saved two lives. Two more were saved using the ‘long ladder’ a 75 foot wheeled escape dispatched from the Southwark headquarters. However eight young woman and a young man, who had tried to help, perished in the blaze.

Escape ladders and a hook ladder being used in training at the
Southwark headquarters station.

The subsequent Coroners Inquiry, held at the City of London’s Guildhall the Brigade was exonerated. Despite the jury’s unanimous findings the LCC and the MFB came under steady attack. The finger of blame being pointed at Capt. Wells who was accused of being hostile to change, that despite Wells bringing into service a radically improved fire-float into service. Hook ladders were introduced into the Brigade as a direct result of that fire, an introduction that saved many lives. Station Officer West was awarded the MFB’s Silver Medal-the equivalent of the fireman’s VC.

But the toll told on Capt. Wells and he resigned the following year. Once more the Brigade and the London insurance companies, who held Gamble in considerable esteem, lauded praise on him and cheered for him to take over. The LCC had other ideas and once again bypassed Gamble and appointed yet another ‘officer and a gentleman’.

The LCC appointed James de Courcy Hamilton, a Captain in the Royal Navy. He is widely credited with being a Rear Admiral but Captain Hamilton was only promoted to rear-admiral on the retired list in 1910 and after he had left the Brigade to run the Army and Navy Stores. Hamilton may well have looked the part of a Chief Officer but it was widely considered that he knew little of fire brigade matters when he started and his knowledge was little increased when he left. It was to Gamble, and the Brigade’s Superintendents, to look after the Brigade and to drive it forward. Whilst Hamilton is credited with increasing the number of the Brigade’s motorised appliances (it had only one motor steamer when he was appointed and six motor escapes and various other motor vehicles and appliances when he left six years later) it was Gamble that remained the power behind the throne and the real force for change. The first turn-table ladder was introduced in 1905 and that was horse drawn.

The name of the brigade was changed in 1904, a name the London Fire Brigade retains today.

Gamble was 55 when in 1909 the LCC General Purposes Committee was seeking to appoint yet other new Chief. Once again they selected an outsider and yet again their decision was overturned by the full Council. Gamble clearly did not have friends in high places. They had selected Commander C V de Morney Cowper* (RN) but with their selection overturned Mr Gamble would appeared before the Board for the final time. (*Cowper died on 28th June 1918 when his ship was sunk by torpedo fired by a German submarine 130 miles from Cape Vilano off the coast of western Spain.).

It was clear that the LCC Committee members were taking no chances on an ordinary fireman like Gamble. Everybody who knew anything about the internal organisation of the London Fire Brigade that by this time the Fire Brigade Committee would see fit to glance at the man in their service who was experienced and fit, and in every way suitable for the job. Mr Gamble was the Brigades most eligible candidate. He had years of experience of fighting fires and he was an enthusiastic fireman in theory and practice. He was brave to a fault, but was always ready to lead his men at the fiercest and dangerous point. If he was to be found at a fire it would be in the danger zone and where the flames were most intense.

Presentation of long service medals at Southwark HQ, showing C.O. Sladen (Lieutenant Commander RN) and D.C.O. Mr Gamble. Date: 1915

However, Lieutenant Commander Sampson Sladen, aged 41, who had joined the Metropolitan Fire Brigade in 1899 as a direct entry officer and was the Brigade’s Third Officer pipped Gamble to the post. The irony being that Sladen was so certain the Gamble had got the job he warmly congratulated him before being called back before the Committee and told of his appointment as Chief Officer. Sladen was judged, throughout his career, as a ‘committee man’ and again Gamble was left to ‘mind the shop’. Sladen was never able to obtain the full confidence of his officers or his men, with his loyalty siding on that of the LCC and not the Brigade. It was an issue that ultimately led to his resignation in 1918 and after the War. Sladen did not give support to the much needed improvement in firemen’s’ conditions which the now active Fire Brigades Union were pursuing.

The First World War had an immediate impact on the Brigade. Almost a third of its strength was depleted. Some firemen and officers who were reservists, were recalled to their colours, others left the Brigade and volunteered to fight at the front. So short of men was the Brigade that its force was supplemented by the London Rifle Volunteers.

Typical London Fire Brigade fire emgine in use in London during WWI. 1914-1918.

Gamble, now 60, took a major operational role, a role he never shirked, in responding to the attacks upon London. The first of which came in September 1915. During the enemy attacks on London two-hundred and twenty-four fires and other incidents were caused by enemy action and were attended by the London Fire Brigade. Thankfully only a few bombing attacks resulted in major fires. That said 138 persons were rescued, for which members of the Brigade were awarded 47 Medals of the British Empire (BEM), 3 King’s Police Medals, 1 Silver Medal and 43 Commendations. Thirteen members of the brigade received injuries, from which 3 died: Firemen J. S. Green, C. A. Henley (both decorated posthumously) and Fireman A. H. Vidler, and 3 were invalided from the brigade. One of those injured was Gamble, although the extact details are not know. However his injury would lead to him being invalided out of the service.

Gamble (with goatie beard) in the latter days if his service overseeing an equipment inventory.
London Fire Brigade.

In the 1917 New Year’s Honours, the same list that Temp Major Morris was award the Military Cross, Sidney Gamble and Arthur Dyer, both Divisional Officers in the Brigade, were awarded the Kings Police Medal (KPM). Deputy S. G. Gamble was medically retired on the 22 February 1918. Gamble was aged 64 and had completed 26 years’ service.

Announced in The Times | February 13, 1917.

His Majesty has been graciously pleased to award the King’s Police Medal to the following officers of Police Forces and Fire Brigades in the United Kingdom, the Empire of India, and his Majesty’s Dominions beyond the Seas:-


SIDNEY COMIERTZ GAMBLE. Divi. Officer. London Fire Brigade. Second officer of brigade since 1892. Has displayed exceptional zeal, courage and ability. Frequently injured on duty.”

Gamble had served all his 26 years as the deputy chief of the Brigade. He remains the longest served deputy Chief Officer in its history. Would things have been different under his command; who knows? What is beyond doubt, given the endorsements and comments of both rank and file and fire service professional of the time, is that Gamble was a consummate leaders of his men and tour de force as a firefighter. He remains the Chief Officer that London never had.

In retirement Gamble published a book; ‘A practical treatise on outbreaks of fire being a systematic study of their causes and means of prevention.’ (1926). The life of Gamble, in his latter years, remains rather a mystery although he was a regular attendee at the LFB ‘Roundtreads’ annual reunions according to their records.

Hook Ladders, love ’em or hate ’em?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Testing the hook belt before use.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Multipule rescues at the Leinster Tower hotel fire in 1969.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hook ladder rescue. 1930’s

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

Lodon’s last hook ladder rescue-1983.

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

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