Early History of Firefighting to 1905
Written by © Noel E Smith of Rake Lane Wallasey and reproduced with his permission
Also my thanks to the 'Museum of Police in Cheshire' (John Howard)
at: http://www.museumofpolicingincheshire.org.uk/ for their kind assistance
This is part one of a greater narrative involving Wallasey Fire Brigade on The Wirral
Firefighters have existed for many years. In about 510 to 82 BC bands of slaves were used to fight fires. They were called Familia Publica who were stationed by the City Gates and along the walls. The first Firefighters would have used leather buckets but it was not until Emperor Augustus took measures after many buildings were destroyed by fire in Rome in AD 6 that he set about organizing the first highly trained Fire Brigade, the Corps of Vigiles. They were each responsible for an area of Rome, there being 14 areas in all. There were 1,000 men in each area under the command of a centurion. The men had to be prepared to serve for 26 years but they could leave after six. Small houses were built for them. Their duty was to patrol the streets of a night acting as a sort of policeman during the hours of darkness and they were equipped with an axe and bucket. These were the forerunners of the Policemen in this country many years later. The Vigiles would use water bags which were made of animal skins and could be thrown into the fire. They also cut down branches from the nearby trees and used them as beaters. With their long hooks, they were able to pull away burning material from the roofs and walls. They had Dolebrae or pick axes to break down doors and the like; blankets were dipped into water and thrown over the flames; ladders or scalae were used to rescue people from upper windows. They used a simple type of pump and were later equipped with large brass syringes known as 'squirts' which two men held while the third operated the plunger. The Corps were divided into 'cohorts' or companies which were comlmanded by a 'Syphonarius' who was in charge of the pumping appliance. Other titles were aquarrus' - this was a water carrier who kept the pump or 'siphos' and 'uncinarius' - a hook man.
In this country a bell would be rung when there was a fire. The Fire Bell was used at Canterbury in AD 4. Church bells were also used to muster villagers to the fire which would ring the bells in reverse peal. Firefighting commenced in Britain during the reign of King Alfred and in Norman times there was a nightly curfew bell which when rung the inhabitants had to cover their fires. This was known as Couvre Feu from which we get the word 'curfew'. This law was not popular with householders and was repealed in the time of Henry I (AD 1100 - 1135). They were, however still obliged to keep a bucket of water by the fire. The Great Fire of London was responsible for the loss of 3,000 lives in all, many being trapped on London Bridge as the fire spread from both ends.
Steps were taken to prevent fires and controls were introduced. The first wheeled fire engine was developed by Alan Plater as early as 1518. Buckets and squirts were the norm of the day for most parts of the country followed by the simple hand-operated pump. A fire engine of sorts was paraded in the City of London's Lord Mayor's Show in 1548. In 1625, Roger Jones patented a fire appliance and a two-man manual engine was produced in the following year. It did not have wheels so had to be carried like a stretcher with the aid of poles and shoulder straps. In 1652 the City of Exeter obtained a fire vehicle. The second Great Fire of London happened in September 1666 with colossal results. Well over 13,000 houses were burnt to the ground as well as 89 churches and 52 halls. St Paul's Cathedral, the Guildhall and other prominent buildings went up in flames. Countless thousands of folk were left homeless but casualties were few. The fire lasted for four days. It all started in a baker's shop in Pudding Lane while the baker, Mr Frayof, was asleep in bed he was awakened by a man knocking and shouting. The baker and his family managed to climb on to the roof and escape but their maid servant, who was too afraid to follow, perished being one of the first persons to die as a result of the fire. The good thing that came out of the fire was the fact it cleared away the diseases of the Great Plague that had ravaged London in 1665.
In most English villages fires had to be put out by use of the humble bucket. A line of people would pass them along from the source of water - a horse-trough, pond or brook. Acts of 1707 and 1714 required every parish to provide horse-drawn engines, hoses and ladders. With all probability, the first fire engines were those of 1707 (Hand-in-Hand), 1716 (Sun Fire Office) and 1720 (Westminster Fire Office). A Volunteer Fire Brigade was established at Chester in 1709 and a Fire Engine House was built for five hand-operated pumps. A new one was built in 176l and soon there were thirty firemen.
Some old churches have interesting relics. For instance, at Worlingworth in Suffolk there is an ancient fire engine of 1760 and at Kislingbury Northamptonshire, there are eight fire  buckets bearing the date 1743. Other churches have long fire-hooks that could be borrowed for pulling down the burning thatch from the cottages in the village. Rewards were offered to the first fire engine to arrive at a fire. Scottish cities took measures in setting up fire regulations in the early 1800s establishing proper fire brigades. Normally brigades did not charge for attending a fire but Manchester Council allowed their brigade to make a charge of £15. In 1824, the insurance company fire brigades in Edinburgh came under central control forming the Edinburgh Fire Engine Establishment with James Braidwood in command. The men wore blue jackets and canvas trousers, leather helmets styled on the pattern of the New Zealanders and an additional leather flap hung over the back of the helmet to prevent falling matter injuring the Fireman. London Fire Brigade dates from 1833. Prior to that date, brigades were maintained by insurance companies to protect properties that were insured by them against fire. One of the first companies was that of the Hope Insurance Company whose firemen dressed in red and blue with helmets made of leather for head protection. James Braidwood left his post in Scotland to become Superintendent of the newly formed London Brigade. Other brigades followed within five years. The blue clad men of the Sun Insurance Comp any were well-known by their large badge of a face of a shining sun with the word 'Sun Fire Officer' above. This company is now the Sun Alliance Insurance Group. They had Liverpool offices in Bank Buildings and Craig's Court in 1807. Mr C Pole was agent for the office at 7 Old Church Yard.
The insurance companies would fix a badge and number of the policy on the wall of insured buildings. These were originally made of lead but were changed to copper or iron. Examples of these can be seen in Chester. Their brigades were equipped with handcarts, ladders, leather buckets and squirts. Merryweather produced hose and ladder carts which were hauled manually and used by the insurance companies. They carted a short extension ladder, a couple of squirts and about a dozen leather buckets. A later model carried a hydrant stand-pipe and a reel of canvas hose. The oldest of these insurance brigades was the Amicable Contributionship (Hand-in-Hand) which was founded in 1696. The Phoenix, Sun Fire Office and Royal Exchange Assurance Company combined to fight fires in 1791 and were joined in 1826 by the London Assurance. The Firemen were part-timers but soon became fulltime.
An 18th Century act ordered the churchwardens to maintain at least one engine in every parish, and ladders to aid escape. They were also ordered to fix stop blocks and fire plugs at convenient distances upon all the main pipes in the parish, to place a mark in the street where they could be found, and to have a key ready to open the plugs, so that water might be easily obtained in case of fire. In 1829 John Braithwaite and John Ericsson built the first Steam Fire pump which was able to pump 150 gallons a minute and had a great advantage in winter as they did not freeze up. This invention did away with having men on hand-pumps who would often cut the hoses because they feared that they would lose their beer ration.
Not all small towns and villages had fire engines but relied on the humble hose-cart where the hose was wound around a pair of wheels or the axle. Stand pipes, branches, buckets and perhaps a ladder made up the equipment. Smoke was always a problem when fighting fires as the men could be suffocated and as early as the eighteenth century smoke masks were invented. These were a hood that had a snout attached to a length of pipe for fresh air. The French produced a coat with hood attached and a window to enable the Firemen to see what he was doing. A belt around the waist made the top of the coat airtight with a pipe attached to this portion which ran to a bellows unit that was activated for the flow of fresh air. This was known as the 'Pauline Apparel'. Another mask that was used in the 1800s was the 'Roberts' hood and mouthpiece. The leather hood was made airtight around the neck by means of padded cotton and from the helmet hung a sort of pipe of some 30 inches in length with a trumpet-shaped bell at the end which held a filter formed from a sponge that was soaked in water. The pipe had a couple of tabs attached with button holes which enabled the equipment to be fastened to the buttons of the tunic.
In about 1840, Firemen started to wear shorter coats when the badge was worn on the chest instead of the arm and volunteer firemen would either pay for their own uniform or it was provided by public subscription.
The Liverpool Salvage Corps was established in 1842 being funded by the insurance companies with their headquarters in Hatton Garden. Their job was to recover goods and to minimise loss at commercial buildings as result of fire or other peril. In 1843 the Liverpool Warehouse Act was passed which aimed at making buildings less vulnerable to outbreaks of fire. Certain restrictions were made regarding window openings and wooden structures that had been erected too near the main buildings. To encourage owners of warehouses, the insurance companies offered lower premiums if they built their warehouses of inflammable materials. Flour mills and corn warehouses were then built of brick with small windows but they were still subject to fires.
In about 1850, Brigades started to replace their leather hoses with the canvas type. In 1858 Shand, Mason and Company introduced a heavily-built three Horse-Drawn Steam Engine and the prime Fire Engine manufacturing firm of Merryweather and Sons of London brought out their first Steam Fire Engine. They were, with Shand, Mason and another firm called Roberts and Baddeley, soon producing manual Engines which were also exported. Merryweather and Sons produced a Steam Engine in 1861 which they named 'Deluge'' The Horse-drawn Merryweather Manual Pumps were called 'Paxtons'. Over the next few years other fire engines appeared on the market. James Braidwood invented a fire escape for which he was awarded a silver medal by the London Society of Arts and the same body invited him to write an account of his mode of drilling firemen and dealing with fires. He was not only a skillful organiser, but he also possessed great presence of mind and an unusual amount of personal courage. During a severe fire at a warehouse in 1861 a terrible explosion took place resulting in the whole of the front of the warehouse collapsing causing the death of Braidwood and another fireman. Throughout the day of the funeral, the bells of the city churches boomed slowly. The queen sent a message of sympathy to his widow.
Police Brigades were set up in various parts of the country with the idea of saving money. The Chester Police had taken over the Fire Brigade in the city in 1803 and in 1846 they built a Fire Station in Northgate Street but by 1853 the Police resigned as Firemen as they found the work too onerous. They 'walked out' as they were expected to wash the engines during their off-duty hours. Eventually, the situation was sorted out. In 1863 the City of Chester Volunteer Fire Brigade was formed with seven Officers and 60 Firemen. The Brigade would not tolerate the men using bad language on duty and those heard doing so were fined five shillings. By 1870, the Chester Brigade had a Horse-Drawn Manual Engine and a Wheeled Ladder and in addition, a Hand- drawn Manual Engine. These were kept in a new Fire Engine House in Northgate Street. In 1895 the brigade bought a Merryweather Steamer. 50ft.Wheeled-Escapes were becoming common with Brigades around the country.
On the fire that glows
with heat intense
I turn the hose
of common sense
And out it goes
At small expense!
We must maintain our fairy law;
That is the main
on which to draw
In that we gain
A captain Shaw!
Oh, Captain Shaw!
Type of true love kept under!
Could thy Brigade
With cold cascade
Quench my great love, I wonder!
The above verses from Gilbert & Sullivan's Iolanthe (produced in 1882) were given to the fairy queen to sing the praises of Captain Shaw, the Superintendent of the London Fire Brigade and which delighted the London public. Even present day firemen receive advice from Captain Shaw, for the Manual of Firemanship, issued under the authority of the Home Office offers practical firemanship. Sir Massey Shaw wrote in his book Fires and Fire Brigades: "A fireman to be successful must enter buildings; he must get in below, above, on every side, from opposite houses,  over back walls, through panels of doors, through windows, through loop holes, through skylights, through holes cut by himself in gates, the walls, the roof; he must know how to reach the attic from the basement by ladders placed on half-burnt stairs, and the basement from the attic by a rope made fast to a chimney. His whole success depends in his getting in and remaining there and he must always carry his appliance with him, as without it he is of no use".
The words, though penned many years ago are as true now as the day they were written. In 1866, by Act of Parliament 1865, the London Fire Engine Establishment eventually became the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (paid by the Government, County and insurance companies) in 1904 under the leadership of Captain Eyre-Massey Shaw who introduced the famous French brass helmet of the Sapeurs-Pompiers. The purpose of them being made of polished brass was so that they would shine in a fire. The same principal that the illuminative strips on the Firemen's tunics do today. The pattern used by English Fire Brigades had a peak back and front. The helmet had a leather interior and brass chin chain sewn on leather. The firemen of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade in Victorian times had been sailors as these were thought to be the best candidates for the Fire Service. They had a good devotion to duty and had been used to discipline. When they joined the Fire Brigade, they still used the seagoing terms such as 'watches', 'mess' and 'crews'. These terms are still used by the Fire Brigades in this country. The Firemen had a traditional call of "Hi-Ya-Hi" as they raced to a fire. This is said to be a call used by sailors of old. The Firemen started to wear blue uniform in place of the grey and a sailor's hat. Permission was given in 1867 for parishes to form Fire Brigades. Volunteer Steam Brigades were set up in the 1870s and the Fire Brigades Association came into being. Merryweather had brought out a Horse-Drawn Manual Pump in the 1870s that a Merryweather engine which was operated by, if possible, 30 men which was capable of producing 100 gpm at one stroke per second. In 1880, Shand Mason introduced a new patented escape and brought out a Horse-Drawn Steam Pump in 1893. The inch and three quarter jet could rise as high as 160 feet at a rate of 350 gpm.
It was a common sight to see a Fire Engine racing along the streets with smoke belching out of the funnel and the crew holding on to the rail. The turntable ladder was developed in 1892 by the German  company of Magris that could rise to 90ft. It was mounted on a horse-drawn vehicle. The Chemical Engines came in around about the turn of the century.
In 1904 the first motor fire engine was introduced. Manufactured by Merryweather with a Hatfield 500 gpm pump which was driven by the vehicle's engine. A 60 gallon water tank was on board and it carried a 50ft. wheeled escape. Dennis Brothers of Guildford had been bicycle manufacturers before entering the motor industry. They built their first fire engine in 1908 using a Gwynnes Pump. The centrifugal pump had a rotating vane instead of the usual pistons to develop the pressure. This appliance was purchased by the Bradford Fire Brigade. The sale encouraged Dennis Brothers to build fire engines using the powerful turbine Tamini pump which was capable of delivering 500 gallons of water per minute. The Aster engine was replaced with the White and Poppe engine. Early brigades would use a bugle or a post horn to warn the public and it was not until 1905 that a gong or bell was operated by an Officer on the Engine which became universal. The dark blue waterproof uniform became popular in the 1880s and the boots were of the Napoleon and Wellington style. Trousers were tucked into the tops of their boots. Brigades adopted the brass helmet of the London Fire Brigade in the place of, or addition to, the sailor-type hat.
In some instances, the  hat ribbon carried the name of the Fire Brigade in the same way the sailor had the name of his ship. The buttons of their coats were ornamented with two crossed hatchets. Some firemen wore a light cap under the helmet and carried a hank of rope. Each man had a number which was displayed on the left side of the chest. On the shoulders of the tunic there were epaulettes or strips of metal to protect the wearers when hit by falling objects. The Firemen then were on duty 24 hours a day for 14 days and nights, except when off sick. Every 15th day was free but they still could be called upon if there was a serious fire and more men were needed.
a follow on from this can be seen on http://www.wirralhistory.net/fire1.html regarding Wallasey Fire Brigade

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