The Great Fire of London was a severe blow to the city and fire insurance brigades were developed as a way to deal with future fires. Much later, independent insurance brigades joined together to form the London Fire Engine Establishment (LFEE).
To insure a building, people paid a premium to an insurance company. These companies made a lot of money from the scheme and used it to start their own fire brigades.
Firemarks were used to distinguish between, and advertise different insurance offices, and were placed on the outside of an insured building.
Brigades would use the firemarks to identify whether a certain building was insured by them. When a building was on fire, several brigades would attend and if they did not see their specific firemark on the building, they would go away and leave it to burn.
Equipment was still very basic but in 1721, Richard Newsham patented a ‘new water engine for the quenching and extinguishing of fires’. This pump could provide a continuous jet of water with some force, something that had not been possible before.
The firemen, of the time, had little training and wore brightly coloured uniforms to distinguish themselves between the different brigades. During large fires they would become very tired through continual pumping of the appliances, and would offer bystanders ‘beer tokens’ in return for their help.
In 1833, 10 independent insurance companies joined together to form the LFEE. In this way they could provide the public with a more resourceful and effective fire service.
James Braidwood was the Chief Officer of the LFEE for 28 years. He was an experienced fireman from Edinburgh and took the job very seriously. He introduced a uniform of grey jacket and trousers with knee high boots and black leather helmet.
Braidwood became a well-loved and popular character for all his hard work and research into firefighting and prevention.
Firemen, from the insurance brigades and the London Fire Engine Establishment, would put out the fires but did not provide much in the way of helping people to escape. In 1828 the RSPLF was formed to provide escape ladders which were put on street corners at night and kept in churchyards during the day.
The wheeled escape ladders could reach up to 60 feet high, and conductors had to undergo training for two to six months to work the ladders. The ladders were given to the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1867.
The fire at Cottons Wharf on Tooley Street, on 22 June 1861, was seen as the greatest fire since The Great Fire of London and took the life of James Braidwood.
Smoke was discovered at a warehouse storing hemp and jute, and within 30 minutes, the fire was raging, and spread quickly to surrounding buildings. This was mainly due to the fire resistant doors being left open in the haste of workmen leaving.
When the Fire Brigade arrived, there was a roar of fire and a wall collapsed onto James Braidwood, killing him instantly. The fire lasted for 14 days.