In 1862 insurance companies told the government that they were unwilling to be responsible for London’s fire protection as the cost of compensation was becoming too high. The government decided that the Metropolitan Board of Works would take control.
The Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) was formed in 1866 and was controlled by the Metropolitan Board of Works, who was responsible for protecting all life and property from fire throughout London.
Captain Sir Eyre Massey Shaw took over the Brigade after James Braidwood died, and changed it significantly. He established a new rank system and uniform, built new fire stations and employed new technology to improve the service.
Shaw was well known throughout society for the work he was doing. He was friends with the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) who enjoyed being taken out to the scene of large fires.
In 1889 the London County Council was formed and took away Shaw’s sole control over the Brigade. After 30 years of service he retired in 1891.
During Shaw’s service he used new technology to improve firefighting. He bought steam fire engines which could pump 300 gallons of water a minute. They were well equipped for putting out fires, as long as the boilers were kept warm enough to raise the steam.
Before 1879 a messenger was the only way to inform stations of fires. Shaw had 40 fire alarms erected throughout London and started using the telegraph system, which speeded up the response to fires.
Basic breathing apparatus was also introduced allowing firemen to enter fires without inhaling the smoke. It relied on bellows, an air pump and a filter but was dangerous because the air pipes could accidentally get caught or cut.
Massey Shaw would only recruit sailors as he believed that after a seaman’s training they would have learnt discipline and be strong and hardy. They were tested for their strength and health and spent three months at training school before joining a station.
Life as a Victorian fireman was hard. They worked long hours, day and night, lived at the fire station and were paid low wages with no pension.
Theatre fires were very common in Victorian times because of the gas lamps used to light the stage. In 1881/82 Shaw was requested to conduct an inspection of theatres and make recommendations for their protection.
Just after finishing his report, the Alhambra Theatre burnt down and as one of the walls collapsed it killed two of Shaw’s men and nearly killed the Prince of Wales.
Shaw’s article Fires in Theatres recommended that all walls in theatres should be of strong construction, that there should be enough exits for people to escape, and that theatres should have a good water supply. He also devised the theatre fire curtain (still in use today) which would be made of metal and if a fire started it could divide the theatre from the auditorium.