London Fire Brigade

Early fire brigades

Fire insurance and firemarks

The Great Fire of London was a severe blow to the city and it cost millions of pounds to rebuild. As a result, fire insurance brigades were developed as a way to deal with future fires.

People paid a fee to an insurance company to insure their property against damage. The most common risk at this time was fire. The first insurance company was named Phoenix, after the Greek mythological bird that rose from the ashes, and was established by Nicolas Barbon.

Building insurance was very profitable and many more insurance companies were set up with the insurance companies establishing their own fire brigades. These brigades were sent to insured properties if a fire occurred to minimise damage and cost.

Firemarks were used to identify - and advertise - different insurance companies. They were placed on the outside of an insured building and brigades would use these firemarks to determine whether a building was insured by them. If a building was on fire, several brigades would attend; if they did not see their specific firemark attached to the building, they would leave the property to burn. You can still see some old firemarks on buildings today.

As well as firemarks, firefighters wore brightly coloured uniforms to distinguish themselves from rival insurance brigades. However, firefighters received little training and the equipment used remained very basic. 

Beer tokens

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.

During particularly large fires, firefighters would become very tired through continual pumping of the equipment. As a result they would offer bystanders 'beer tokens' in return for their assistance.

Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire

The Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire (RSPLF) was formed in 1828 to help people escape from burning buildings by providing escape ladders. These ladders were kept in churchyards during the day and placed on street corners at night.

Wheeled escape ladders could reach up to 60 feet high and conductors had to undergo training between two and six months to safely operate the ladders. Some models had a canvas chute so that ladies could slide down without showing their ankles.

London Fire Engine Establishment

In 1833, 10 independent fire insurance companies united to form the London Fire Engine Establishment (LFEE) to provide the public with a more resourceful and effective fire service.

James Braidwood, an experienced firefighter from Edinburgh, held the role of Superintendent of the LFEE for 28 years. He introduced a uniform consisting of a grey jacket and trousers with knee high boots and a black leather helmet and gave the newly formed LFEE uniformity and efficiency.

Braidwood became a well-loved and popular character right up until his death in the Tooley Street fire.



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