In Greek mythology mention is made of Prometheus who taught men architecture, astronomy, mathematics, writing, the care of domestic animals, navigations, the art of prophecy, working in metals, and most precious gift of all, the use of fire which he stole from heaven against the will of Zeus,


Though fire was to precious to be refused, in accepting it man took an enemy within his household.


Perhaps because of its heavenly origins, fire remains unreconciled to slavery. Again and again throughout history the fire that boiled the domestic pot has been the origin of a conflagration which laid a city in ashes.


Even today, the forest fire, with men and animals fleeing before the flames, conjures up an image of terror. It is also significant of man’s fear of fire that Hell by many is pictured as a place of flames.


While men lived in isolated homesteads and small communities fire fighting could be left to those immediately threatened and such of their neighbours as came to their assistance out of friendship or self interest. But as soon as human beings began to live in large settled communities, some sort of communal provision for preventing fires and dealing with outbreaks when they occurred became necessary. There was probably some sort of Fire Brigade in all the great cities of antiquity but it is not until the days of the Roman Empire that we begin to know much about how man fought fire.


Roman Fire-Fighters


In 300 B.C. bands of slaves, the Familia Publica, were stationed around the walls and gates of Rome to watch for fires.


Really organised fire fighting began in the reign of the Emperor Augustus who organised the “Corps of Vigiles” which protected Rome for 500 years.


These professional firemen who also carried out police duties were organised in seven regiments, each of seven companies. The regiments each numbered a thousand men, excluding officers. Each regiment was responsible for two of the fourteen wards into which the city was divided and although the first fire stations were requisitioned houses, later large significant barracks were built, luxuriously appointed with shrines, statuary, mosaic paving, heating apparatus and marble baths.


The vigiles were equipped with ladders, ropes, picks, saws, axes and buckets. They also had “squirts” (like large siringes) which could throw water for a short distance; made use of wet blankets which they spread on walls to prevent the fires spreading and wicker work mats which were probably used for rescue operations. In fighting fires however their main reliance was on the human-bucket chain, that old device by which buckets of water were passed on from hand to hand from the source of supply until they could be poured directly on the flames by men on ladders.


The people of Rome called the Vigiles ‘Sparteoli’ (literally ‘tarred bucket men’). The Vigiles were unpopular among some of Rome’s inhabitants because of their second role as policeman.


As an inscription dedicated to Severus and Caracalla discovered in their premises shows they were empowered both to judge and execute punishment on certain types of offenders.


The translation runs as follows:


“Severus and Caracalla Emperons of Juniun Rufianas, Brigadier General of the Vigilies: Greeting! You are hereby authorised to punish with the rod or cat-of-nine-tails, the janitor or any of the inhabitants of a house, in which fire has broken out through negligence. In case the fire should have been occasioned not by negligence but by crime you must hand the incendiaries to our friend, Fabius Septimianus Cilo Prefect of the City.


Remember also that one of your duties is to recover runaway slaves and return them to their masters;


It is reasonable to assume there was a Fire Brigade in London during the Roman era but it is probable that this was attached to the Roman Army.


Then came the fall of the Roman Empire and the disappearance of the Vigilies and for a thousand years there were no well organised fire brigades. For the superstitions of our fore-bearers made them afraid to fight fire.


There is nothing in the British records about fire precautions or fire fighting until the reign of King Alfred, better known in history for his burning of some cakes.


King Alfred passed a law which required every householder to ‘cover his fires’ at nightfall to reduce the chances of accidental conflagrations.


When William the Conquereor came to England he maintained this law and reinforced it with heavy penalties, and the introduction of the curfew bell.


Though the word has now taken on a different and more sinister meaning ‘curfew’ is of course the anglioised ‘Couv-re-Feu’ meaning ‘cover the fire’. The purpose of the bell ringing was to prevent anyone pleading ignorance of the time as an excuse for failing to observe the law.


Tradition dies hard and I wonder if the ‘putting down of bells’ still a feature of sounding the alarm, alerting present day firemen is not a carry over from these times.


At a time when it was difficult to relight a fire once it had gone out this early fire prevention law was naturally very unpopular and was abolished by Henry I. Throughout the middle ages in England however, there was a requirement that every householder should keep a bucket of water ready, and if a fire occurred, proceed with his bucket to the point of danger.




One early Sunday morning in September, 1666, the turning point of fire fighting history occurred. Fire raged throughout the city of London for five days, destroying 13,000 homes, 87 churches, including St. Paul’s, and countless other buildings. 373 acres lay in ashes.


When the fire broke out in a baker's shop in Pudding Lane there was nothing to fight it with but buckets, swabs, hooks to tear at the hatch and squirts similar to those which had been in use in the time of the Romans and operated by three men; two to hold and direct the squirts, the third to work the plunger. These two quart hand squirts were slow to refill and capable at best of throwing their contents a short distance.


The tottering old houses along Pudding Lane were timber built and bone dry. Often the wood was smeared with pitch and the storeys projected out one above the other so that the gables of the houses almost touched. The streets in this section were the narrowest in the city and even small carts would not pass. Across the lane the yard of the Star Inn was strewn with straw and fodder. In the back yards of many homes dryers, brewers and soap boilers plied their trades and the refuse from their crafts left heaps of fuel for the flames.


In the end the Great Fire was only contained when, in terms of London fire-control measure of 1583, the military intervened and created a fire belt by demolishing a broad swath of buildings. But when it was over people awoke to the universal threat of fire. Superstitions were forgotten.


In December 1666, the City Council of London ruled that all homes were to be built of brick and stone henceforth, and dangerous trades could no longer be pursued in the courtyards.


A year later the author of a book of instructions on how to prevent fires advised that on the highest steeple should be placed a Sentinel "whereby he may look out all over the town, and every two hours of the night, he plays half an hour upon a flageolet, being very delightful in the night and he looks around the city, if he observes any smoke or fire, or danger of fire, he presently sounds a trumpet and hangs out a blood flag towards that quarter of the city where the fire is!!




In London after the Great Fire some skilful citizen was appointed each year to wait on the Lord Mayor at fires to give advice on which houses should be blown up to prevent the flames spreading.


In the provinces the fire engine was in the care of the Mayor who decided whether it should be used. In 1707 it was made obligatory on the church warden to take over the responsibility for fire protection, and his parish engines were locked up in the parish church.


In the church warden we see one of the principal officials of the parish essentially a representative of the people, the Vestry.


The vestries were not really capable of providing adequate fire protection. The number of fires increased, and became more disastrous to life and property. The fire insurance companies, compelled to pay out on many claims began to provide their own protection. They purchased fire stations and employed firemen – an arrangement which has not yet entirely died out, their modern counter part being the insurance salvage corps in Liverpool, London and Glasgow.


Therefore, side by side with the parish firemen under the church warden we find other firemen working exclusively for the insurance companies.


Fire Insurance Companies originated in London when a group of London Merchants formed a ‘friendly society’ the aim of which was to spread risk and provide compensation for any member who suffered loss from fire damage. The scheme was so successful that it was decided to extend its benefits to the general public when the response was so great by the turn of the century, several fire insurance companies were in operation in the English capital. Among the earliest were the Pheonix, The Hand in Hand, The Royal Exchange and the Sun. Similar organisations also sprung up in the larger English provincial cities as well as in Scotland – the most famous of the Scottish companies being the Caledonian.


The Fire Insurance Companies issued their policy with metal plates called fire marks usually of copper or lead. These were embossed with the Company’s sign or motif and the number of the relevant policy. Plates were fixed to the front of the buildings and brightly coloured so that they could be readily identified. At first, to limit their losses, the Insurance Companies organised salvage squads but soon these squads developed into fire brigades, equipped with the most modern fire fighting equipment then available. The men who manned them were of course, part time or auxilaries, like the firemen under the church warden.


Despite their excellent equipment, the Insurance Brigades held obvious deficiencies. Like the parish fire fighters their men were untrained and, worse still, there was no statutory requirement that they should attend or deal with any fire in which their company had not a financial interest.


Whereas the parish firemen under the church warden would tackle any fire within their boundary, the Insurance Company’s firemen were only allowed to interest themselves in fires which were destroying, or threatening to destroy, property which has been insured with their employers company.


This verse tells its own story:-


The engine thundered through the street,

Fire hook, pipe, bucket all complete.

And torches glared and clattering feet

Along the pavement flew.

The Hand in Hand the race begun,

Then came the Pheonix and the Sun,

The Exchange, where the old insurers run,

The Eagle ,where the new.




About the end of the eighteenth century the London insurance companies began to see that the keeping of separate brigades was not an economic proposition. They discussed pooling their fire equipment and men in an “associated engine establishment”.


The first stage in the pooling was the combination of three companies (The Sun, The Pheonix and the Royal Exchange) into what was called the London Fire Watch. Twenty five years later two more companies had joined them, and in 1833 (the year that is best remembered for the abolition of slavery in the colonies) the majority of fire officers had put their stations, engines, foremen, firemen and porters under one superintendent By now London's fire force had become known as the London Fire Brigade Establishment. For thirty-three years this Establishment was maintained entirely by the insurance companies.




A similar development was taking place in Edinburgh where they claim to have established the first municipal brigade in 1824. Edinburgh this year are celebrating their 150th Anniversary and among other items available is a booklet “Aye Ready” by Alexander Reid depicting the history of Edinburgh Fire Brigade and obtainable from the Firemaster, Fire Headquarters, McDonald Road, Edinburgh. The cost is 50p and the proceeds from the sale of this booklet will be donated to the Fire Services National Benevolent Fund.


James Braidwood was the first Chief Officer of this famous brigade, which was jointly paid for by the insurance companies and the city of Edinburgh. For eight years Braidwood trained his fire fighters until their efficiency was heard of in London. He was then asked to take command of the London Fire Engine Establishment and lost his life in 1861 during the destructive Tooley Street fire and was succeeded by Captain Shaw (later to become Sir Eyre Massey Shaw) from Belfast where he had been chief constable and chief fire officer.




Insurance companies did not undertake the responsibility of protecting life from fire. A separate organisation existed for this purpose. It was maintained by voluntary collections. They called it the Society for the Protection of Life from Fire. One of its undertakings was to supply and maintain escapes at some eighty stations in central London.


The police also helped in life saving at fires, being provided with jumping sheets. The men in charge of the Society’s escapes were called conductors. Some were seamen though most came from the building trades. The escape conductors were on duty from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. in the summer and the escape was parked in a churchyard or other suitable place and brought to the escape station at night. Each conductor was provided with a sentry box in which to sit whilst he was waiting for a fire call. In the same way as a fireman was not expected to save life, a conductor was officially expected to return to his station if there were no lives to save.




As Britain’s cities and towns expanded industrially so fire fighting became a bigger responsibility. At the same time the fire insurance companies were seeking to terminate the arrangement whereby they provided the publics fire protection. On January 1st, 1866, the companies’ London Fire Engine Establishment passed into oblivion and became the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, and paid for by the Treasury, the rate payers and the companies together. This development and the more rapid expansion of the capital's fire defences from this moment can be explained by the creation of the Metropolitan Board of Works which for the first time was given unified authority over fire protection previously vested in the many different parishes by the Metropolitan Fire Brigades Act of 1865. The Board also took over the men and plant of the Society for the Protection of Life from fire.

Elsewhere also the cities and towns had been taking over the brigades of the insurance companies, though as recently as the period before World War I some insurance brigades continued to exist in addition to the salvage corps already mentioned which still exist in London, Liverpool and Glasgow with an impressive new building in Maitland Street, which is well worth a visit.


Parish firemen and their hand engines and the life saving escapes, and the men who manned them, were all absorbed into the new municipal brigades. No longer could a towns fire defence consist of a wheelbarrow, a stand pipe, a length of hose and a branchpipe, with the firemen in charge of the barrow “an ancient and rather feeble town scavenger” as was said to be the case in Redear in 1891. Hand engines and escapes were put to reserve and in their place was substituted an increasing number of horse-drawn steam engines which became popular in the second half of the century. Telephone replaced telegraph communication and went ahead by leaps and bounds. Street fire alarms appeared. The old leather delivery hose made from steer or heifer hides with copper rivets and washers was disappearing and being replaced by canvas hose.


Of Prime importance to firemen in this period of quick expansion of the fire services were his horses. The horse was the motive power upon which he depended — upon which other peoples lives depended. With the introduction of horsed steam engines and horsed escapes the firemen became more mobile.


It is worthy of note that there was great opposition to the first steam fire engine of 1830, the boiler of which resembled that of a locomotive of the time, weighed altogether two and a half tons, and threw water to height of ninety feet. It was not until 1852 that the opposition had sufficiently died down to allow of the general adoption of steamers.


In 1903 the first petrol motor fire engine in the world was introduced by Merryweathers, the famous British firm of fire engines. Seven years later we find firemen on motorcycles, sometimes with manual pumps on the sidecars or sidecars carrying hose and an escape ladder. In 1910 came the first electrically propelled fire tender which carried twelve firemen, thirty five gallons of water and one hundred and twenty five feet of rubber hose, and a set of telescopic ladders.


From handcarts to horse-drawn steam engines, then steam propelled pumps, petrol motors and electricity to water drops and being taken to the scene of the fire by helicoptor or parachuting from the skies – with remote controlled fire fighting appliances now a feature of the times.




In our rural communities however, those typical British characters, the volunteers and retained firemen, still carry on much about the same as before. True their equipment has improved, their technique and training are better. No longer is the church warden responsible for fire protection in the parish nor does the vestry “engine keeper” race to win his 30/-. But the rural fire appliance is still manned by the local butcher, baker and blacksmith, who receive varying fees for their turnouts. Though in the main they fight that treacherous enemy, fire, just because the job needs done.




Some authorities up until World War 2 employed police-firemen, other authorities were in the habit of using firemen as auxiliary policemen for many duties which brought them into conflict with the public. But sometimes the authorities went to far. In one incident the chief constable used his police-firemen and fire engine for the purpose of making a surprise betting raid on a public house. An influential Fire Service Journal deplored this action because it must tend to lower the tone of the brigade as well as lessen its popularity.


We hear so much today of football rowdies. Some fans in April 1900, became so excited over an important match at Hampden Park that they started a few fires. Out came the firemen with nine appliances but they were given a very hostile reception, the firemen were attacked and several injured, hose was cut and the appliances were damaged. A station officer had several ribs broken.




Not that a fireman’s life was continually made adventurous by fighting football fans. Generally speaking his was a hermetically sealed existence. A fireman was often born a fireman in the literal sense. His first breath in this world would be drawn in Fire Service Quarters over a station.


He would later follow in his father’s footsteps and don Fire Service uniform. As a young man much of his courtship would be done in the Service time as he had barely any off duty time. At his wedding he would leave the church under an archway of firemens axes provided by his comrades. Then for the next thirty years perhaps, if he escaped injury or death, his daily work would consist of a round of fire fighting proper, together with a large number of jack-of-all-trades tasks.


His round of duty would only be pleasurably broken by strictly service engagements — fire tournaments, brigade annual dinner etc. In middle age he could look forward to the proud day when he would have pinned to his uniform a long service medal. When his hair was white and the best years were over, he would retire on a small pension. If on the other hand he died in harness as he might well do, the Service would claim him to the last — he would be buried with full Fire Brigade honours, his coffin carried on a steamer which had itself been dressed in black crepe. And such was the nature of the man that he would have asked no more fitting end.


The following is an extract from a Fire Service Manual:—

“Funeral Procession. The procession will be formed up and moved off in the following order:—

                      Firemen.                                           Officers.                                 Hearse

                Officer                                                                    O.C.   or   Mourners

                      Firemen.                                           Officers.                                 Engine.


If a band and members of Friendly Societies are also present they will form up at the head of the procession, in front of the Brigade. If there are engines present and they are utilised for carrying wreaths, etc., they should follow behind the O.C., and in front of the hearse or engine.


When the body is carried on a horsed engine, a Sub-Officer and a Fireman will be told off for duty at the brakes. Black rosettes on the outside of horses head-bands only, and the coachman’s whip to be dressed with a small bow of crepe. Steamers attending the funeral to be dressed with a 9 in. band of crepe round the brass funnel”.


It is true that his calling and conditions made him a slave to the service eternally subject to the tyranny of the bells, but firemen, as badly off as they were, were not exploited with such callous indifference as were other broad sections of the working class of these times. Firemen were never members of the ragged-trousered army, such a tragic yet socially significant force in nineteenth century Britain,


The paradox was that in this period the fireman was perhaps more highly regarded by the general public than at any other before or since.


The famous John Burns, M.P., by now President of the local Government Board, spoke for the general public when he said of the London Firemen in August 1912:—


The fireman is perhaps the most picturesque and possibly the only dramatic figure left in the diminishing histrionic life of London. He is a popular figure the ideal of the children whose life he so frequently saves, and consequently the darling of the mothers. He is to be envied. He has all the glory of war without the tragedy of inflicting death. Every day he receives the crowning mercy of saving life. The glamour of the conflict of his, not for destruction but for salvation.

Firemen have had a long and eventful history, a history of unparalleled selflessness in their service to the public, whom they so ably and gallantly protect.


As for their future, let us shout as the people shouted when fire rained down from the skies in the blitzes of 1940-41 “Good luck firemen”. For the goodwill and the support of the people is fundamentally the greatest asset they can have in any hour of need.




The Fire Brigade Act 1938, placed responsibility for providing fire fighting services on the councils of all burghs and counties in Scotland. At the outbreak of war in 1939 there were twenty whole-time brigades and 165 part-time brigades in Scotland, employing some 600 whole-time and 1,800 part-time firemen.


The government at this time were recruiting auxiliaries to expand the existing Service and mobilised two days before the war broke out in September 1939, the auxiliaries now served beside the professionals many of whom were opposed to the Auxiliary Fire Service.




If facts alone would suffice all that need be said is that in the last sadistic mass raid by three hundred of the German Luftwaffe bombers on London in May, 1941, there were two thousand five hundred pumps engaged in quelling the two thousand one hundred and fifty four fires which started at 11 p.m. continued throughout the moonlit night until 5.30 p.m. the following day, when they were either water controlled or had burned themselves out. Five large trunk water mains were severed, and five of the city’s telephone exchanges put out of action, and that was only one raid.


But facts alone will not tell the story, nor can facts describe the incredible endurance, audacious courage and the comradeship demanded and received from the men and women who were the uniform of the Fire Service. No one sneered now about the untried firemen in the “darts brigade’. When the firemen went into action now, they went in with the cries of thankful people ringing in their ears, “Good luck firemen” said the voices in the street.


The firemen’s terrible experiences in those blitzes had a considerable effect on that problem of auxiliary versus the professional. After many months of working together in the same blitzed cities differences were eliminated. In those nightmare blitzes there were neither professionals nor auxiliaries. There were only firemen.




It was almost two years after war had been declared that the Government became convinced that the fire service as run by local authorities could no longer deal efficiently with the national problem of how to protect the people from fires caused by mass air raids. So it was decided to refashion the service, to nationalise it — to call it the National Fire Service.


The change-over was a gigantic task. There were one thousand four hundred fire authorities, many of which had both regular and A.F.S. brigades. The firemen in these many stations had to be welded together into one big defensive body under a central authority.


The hundreds of little brigades in England and Wales became forty odd fire forces, operational through the twelve Civil Defence Regions under one unified control. In Scotland there were another half dozen fire forces.


The changeover took thirteen weeks. It officially occurred on Monday, August 18th, 1941, but it was not announced to the public until a month later in case the Nazis took advantage of it.




On the return of the fire service to local authority control under the Fire Service Act, 1947, the Scottish Home Department grouped the 140 Fire Brigades in Scotland within eleven large organisations.


New fire authorities were created — the council of counties and of large burghs. With the exception of Glasgow (which became a fire authority on its own) the rest of the country was grouped into ten areas for each of which a combined fire brigade was set up and administered by a joint committee. The specific arrangements for providing fire services, the relationship between fire authorities represented on the joint committee and other matters consequential or incidental there to were set out in administrative schemes approved, by the Secretary of State.


The main duties placed on Fire Authorities under this and subsequent legislation will be the basis for the following talks under this Pilot Scheme.




In 1949 when there was fear of another war the auxiliary Fire Service was reconstituted but on a new organisational basis. This time it was fully integrated with the Regular Brigades and worked with the latter at incidents. Members of the Regular Brigades also took part in exercises with the Auxiliary force in which they broke out equipment in Home Office Stores to form mobile columns ready to move to any point of danger.


As the targets set for the recruitment of auxiliaries were not achieved, to ensure a sufficiently large force servicemen ware trained in fire-fighting techniques before demobilisation and for this purpose the training establishments were established, one at Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire, and the other at Washington Hall, Lancashire. The first named of these schools is now the main college in the world.


The first appliances available to the new auxiliary force were ‘leftovers’ of 1939-1945 war time equipment, but those were gradually superseded by new machines, known from their colour as "Green Goddesses”.


In 1968, when the Auxiliary Fire Service was again disbanded, most of their equipment was stored for use in any new emergency. The vehicles however are still occasionally called on by the regular brigades for training purposes and have been used on occasion as front line fire appliances.




The Fire Service has been subjected over the last decade to change. Committees were set up to inquire into, and make recommendations amongst other items: the principals which should govern the organisation of the fire service: the need for further fire prevention measures, duty systems, differentials, qualities and qualifications etc.


The most recent are the Report of the Departmental Committee on the Fire Service under the chairmanship of Sir Ronald Holroyd, May 1971.


The report of the Cunningham Inquiry into the Work of the Service, chairman Sir Charles Cunningham, November, 1971.


Then applicable to local authority employees, the Report of the Royal Commission on Local Government in Scotland, Chairman the Rt. Hon. Lord Wheatley, presented to parliament by Command of Her Majesty, September, l969.




The Holroyd Report commented that the efficiency of the Fire Service in the country would be enhanced if the number of Brigades was reduced. Taking Britain as a whole, the Committee considered that the optimum size of a brigade would comprise about thirty stations, corresponding to a range of about 1,100 to 1,300 men (two part-time stations would be considered for the purpose as equivalent to one whole-time station). Such a brigade would be sufficiently large to provide an adequate command structure while not exceeding a size at which the chief officer could retain a high degree of personal touch with his officers and men. Personnel control and supervision could not be exercised efficiently by the chief officer where the brigade area was geographically too large.




The White Paper on the reform of Local Government in Scotland set out to Government conclusions on the main issues. In brief it is proposed to create eight new regional authorities and two all-purpose authorities (Orkney and Shetland) which will have responsibility for fire services. It is expected that, in certain areas, joint arrangements similar to those now existing may have to continue. In particular, it is envisaged that Orkney and Shetland will continue to be linked with the mainland’s fire services and that operational considerations will also make it necessary for joint administration of the fire services over the South East and Borders Region.


Therefore it is envisaged that at 23.59 hours on the 15th May, 1975, the present eleven Fire Brigades will restructure to form seven new brigades and it is proposed that Lanarkshire Fire Brigade will become with slight boundary changes, a Division of the Strathclyde Fire Brigade. A Brigade with over 1,500 whole-time and 700 retained personnel manning 37 whole-time and 43 retained stations Providing fire protection for 2,562,000 of a population.


In conclusion having looked in the mirror of history it is a different matter looking into the crystal ball of tomorrow. Let us say “Good Luck” firemen as you meet another challange.






Copied from 9 typed foolscap pages of unknown origin. Written in 1974 (Edinburgh Fire Brigade paragraph), possibly by someone in Lanarkshire Fire Brigade.






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