Fire! Fire! Fire! Anyone else know that old song about Mrs. O’Leary’s cow and the Great Chicago fire? It was great fun to sing around a camp fire. But fire in a crowded town like London was no laughing matter in the nineteenth century.
The reason dates back to the Great Fire of London in 1666. That fire destroyed two-thirds of the city. Afterward, people went to great lengths to make sure wooden buildings, and just about anything that was easily burnable, was eliminated. Wooden shutters were moved indoors, wooden window sills replaced with brick, and buildings were constructed with stone or brick exteriors and steps. Insurance companies offered property owners policies to protect their buildings from fires and requested that the owners affix a wall plaque (known as a fire mark) to show which company was protecting them.
Sounds like a good idea, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. Some people faked marks, hoping to be protected for nothing. Other marks were so similar, the fire brigades couldn’t tell which was which (especially when it got a little smoky, I’d think!). Some firefighters arrived at a burning building, only to refuse to put out the fire because they didn’t believe the building was insured by their company! The Custom House burned to the ground in 1814, and the Royal Mint in 1815.
In 1833, the insurance companies united their firefighters under one brigade, called the London Fire Establishment. They were commanded by James Braidwood, who had been chief of the first municipal fire service in Edinburgh in 1824. Called the “Jimmy Braiders,” they rushed to put out any fire, aided by manually operated pumps. These were huge, horse drawn wagons, and several men worked each side pulling down and pushing up the bellows on the pumps.
With only 80 Jimmy Braiders for an area with well over a million people, the firefighters often lost the fight. The old palace of Westminster burned down in 1834 when its heating boilers exploded, Lloyd’s Coffee House and the Royal Exchange incinerated in 1838, and the Grand Amory of the Tower of London went up in a shower of sparks in 1841. A particularly spectacular fire in 1861 set all of the waterfront aflame along the Upper Pool of the Thames. Braidwood himself lost his life fighting it, and the blaze wasn’t completely contained until 6 months later.
But whether 1861, 2001, or 2009, selfless firefighters like Braidwood continue to be heroes. Say a prayer for one today, will you?