London Fire Brigade

Current exhibitions

The Birth of the Brigade

The birth of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) in 1866 signified a period of change for London's fire service because from 1 January 1866 the MFB began operating as a public service.

Before 1866, a system of insurance company fire brigades and parish pumps worked to extinguish fires, with the Royal Society of the Protection of Life from Fire responsible for rescuing those trapped at an incident.

With its formation, the MFB took over the responsibilities of these organisations.

This exhibition explores what it would have been like to be a firefighter of the MFB 150 years ago. 

Captain Sir Eyre Massey Shaw

Captain Sir Eyre Massey Shaw became Chief Officer of the MFB and introduced significant changes.

He established a rank system, introduced a new uniform, built new fire stations, and experimented with advanced technology to improve the service.

Shaw also wrote extensively about fire protection and warned about the fire hazards of theatres, a high fire risk during the Victorian era.


Shaw wanted the new Brigade to deliver an efficient service and he decided to recruit exclusively from the navy.

He felt that sailors were highly disciplined and were strong, hardy and could work both day and night - as firefighters were on call 24 hours a day.

Shaw argued that a sailor could be ready for duty in a few months and this usually took a minimum of six months for non naval staff.

Recruits had to prove their strength by raising a fire escape ladder, single-handed with the tackle reversed - the equivalent of lifting a straight 244lb weight.

Trainee firefighters would then spend three months at the training school, where they would learn drills and practise exercises, learn about engines, use knots and were taught how to hold the jumping sheet.

When Shaw first started he had 1,000 people waiting to join and had no problem with recruiting. However the long hours, lack of pensions and little free time proved too challenging for some.


Firefighters of the MFB wore a tunic, cloth trousers, leather boots, a belt with pouch and axe and a brass helmet.

Their work wear consisted of a duck jacket, duck trousers and a round cap similar to a sailor's cap.

The distinctive brass helmet worn by firefighters was inspired by the French 'Pompiers'.

They had a front peak and a back peak to protect the head and the ears were cut away in order to help hearing.

The helmets were made in pieces so should one section break it could be unscrewed and replaced.

Shaw wore a silver helmet and silver buttons to signify his rank.


Shaw was very keen to modernise methods of firefighting and decreed that each fire station should have at least one steam fire engine.

They were more powerful and economical than the manual pumps that had been used previously, and with the size of London ever increasing and becoming industrialised, more advanced firefighting technology was essential.

However, steam fire enginers were heavy and early designs required up to three strong horses to pull them.

Rails were often fitted into the sloping floors of fire stations to allow the engines to gather speed to get 'on the run' and to be pushed back on their return 'off the run'.

The advancements during the Victorian era were instrumental to the development of the Brigade, which in turn have been crucial to the continual improvement of London's fire service today.  

Where is it?

The exhibition can be found at our headquarters at 169 Union Street, London SE1 0LL.



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