A seat by the fire

The Great Fire of London. Or at least, one of them.

London is no stranger to blazes. Even prior to the now-legendary Great Fire of London of 1666, there had been at least twelve major conflagrations that had destroyed or at least very seriously damaged the city.

This was something of an occupational hazard in a city so crowded and crammed together, and it wasn’t helped by the fact that regulations were so poorly enforced. In theory, it was illegal to build a house out of wood with a thatched roof. In theory, businesses that were a fire hazard were illegal within the city walls (hence the East End, where those things could legally be put). In practice, as you might imagine by my sneering italics, neither of those laws were enforced with any great enthusiasm.

There were firefighting provisions of a sort. Watchmen, employed by the parishes, were expected to keep an eye out for blazes. However, as I have previously mentioned, those chaps weren’t exactly the most dynamic of fellows. Similarly, citizens were expected to form impromptu fire brigades, which were generally pretty effective in the case of small fires – the prospect of losing your house is a great motivator. The favoured method was to use hand-powered fire pumps (such as the one modelled above left) or, where that failed, to demolish houses and thus create firebreaks. If your chimney was on fire, the most common advice was to fire a gun up it. For some people, that’s the solution to everything.

What the Great Fire highlighted was what King Charles II (seen on the right) had been saying for years – that this sort of thing was all very well in the case of small blazes, but in the case of larger ones it was utterly useless. Indeed, during the fire, Rev. Thomas Vincent complained that “London, so famous for its wisdom and dexterity, can now find neither brains nor hands to prevent its ruin.”

Charles, despite being a well-known playa, was not without wisdom when it came to firefighting. He had been one of the louder voices prior to the fire calling for the stricter enforcement of building regulations. During the conflagration, he overruled the rather useless Lord Mayor  and placed fellow firefighting nerd the Duke of York in charge. He himself took a major part in both directing operations and dousing the flames. I presume he wasn’t dressed like he is in that picture, but it would be funny if he was. Following the fire (and indeed, during it), he arranged for operations to temporarily accommodate displaced inhabitants of the city and to bring food to the ruins. Admittedly this was in no small part due to the fear of riot – Charles was pro-Catholic, which had made him a lot of enemies in Protestant London, and there were plenty of people eager to blame the blaze on Catholic conspirators (so much so that when the Duke of York later converted to Catholicism, records of his own heroic efforts were deliberately distorted to make him look like one of the arsonists).

Oddly enough, though, it wasn’t Charles’ firefighting enthusiasm that led to the beginnings of the modern fire brigade, but the commercial incentive. Isn’t that so often the way?

Nobody is entirely sure who invented fire insurance, but the most likely candidate was Nicholas If-Christ-Had-Not-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Hadst-Been-Damned Barbon (remember what I said about how London was a Protestant city?). What Barbon offered was a service whereby if you bought insurance with him, his men would fight any fires that broke out on your property and, if they failed to save it, would rebuild it. The idea was eagerly embraced, and soon there were several other companies offering the service. Homeowners so covered would hang a plaque (like the one above) on the wall in the event of fire.

This was in theory a great idea, but the problem was that insurance companies would only fight fires in buildings that they covered. So if No. 2 was covered, but No. 4 wasn’t (not that houses would have been numbered back then, but you know), the street might still burn down. So in the 18th century, the insurance companies cooperated to bring in a new system. The first fire brigade to arrive and quench the flames would get a reward. Good idea, yes? Well, in practice what it led to was a lot of punch-ups between fire brigades over who got there first, to the detriment of property in the vicinity. There were even instances of rival fire brigades deliberately sabotaging each other’s equipment in order to prevent their enemies claiming the cash.

In 1833, eventually some semblance of order was achieved with the foundation of the London Fire Engine Establishment under James Braidwood, an Edinburgh gentleman who agitated for the founding of a proper civic fire brigade (such as the one he had headed in Edinburgh, in fact). The LFEE played a prominent role in attempting to save the Houses of Parliament the following year, despite the fact that, as Braidwood pointed out, they were under no obligation to save the uninsured Parliament buildings. The Duke of Wellington, who was undoubtedly a great military commander but as a politician was a bit of a dick, opposed the concept of a proper fire brigade on the grounds that it would reduce public vigilance. The same man also opposed mixed-race marriages in India and believed railways should be discouraged because they allowed working class people to move about.

Braidwood was killed in the line of duty on 22nd June 1861, when a fire broke out on Tooley Street. This blaze would engulf the waterfront from London Bridge to where Tower Bridge now stands, and was the largest blaze the city had seen since 1666. Like Charles II, Braidwood believed in strategic firefighting, and so to that end advised that getting to the heart of the fire. In so doing, Braidwood was crushed by a falling warehouse.

His death was, however, not in vain. His passing was the cause of national mourning, and led to renewed demands for a civic-funded fire brigade. The loudest calls for reform came from the insurance companies, who under the LFEE’s policies had to fight fires regardless of whether the property was insured or not, and were thus effectively paying for everyone else’s safety. At last reason prevailed, and London got its fire brigade on January 1, 1866. Took us long enough – Liverpool, Manchester, Cardiff and the aforementioned Edinburgh already had brigades in place. Still, we got there in the end.

Anyone for toast?

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3 Comments

Filed under 18th century, 19th century, Buildings and architecture, Disasters, East End and Docklands, Geography, History, London, london bridge, Medieval London, Notable Londoners, Politics, Stuart London, The City, Westminster

3 responses to “A seat by the fire

  1. Pingback: “Let not poor Nelly starve…” | London Particulars

  2. Pingback: Thomas Willson and the Pyramid of Death | London Particulars

  3. Pingback: I Predict a Riot | London Particulars

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