London Fire Brigade

LFB 150: Remembering Butler's Wharf 1931, the Brigade's coldest fire

07 March 2016

As we celebrate our 150th anniversary we're looking back at some of the most significant and some of the more unusual incidents that have taken place since we were formed in 1866.

Firefighters, over the years, have had to be prepared to deliver their fire and rescue services in all kinds of weather conditions. One such fire in our history is the Butler's Wharf fire of 1931.

'The Brigade's Coldest Fire'

On 7 March 1931, the weather was particularly challenging. Weather reports read "moderate or fresh east or north east winds; bright intervals; snow showers; very cold" – it later turned out to be the day of 'the Brigade's coldest fire'. 

In Southwark, at the then headquarters of the Brigade, firefighters read the same forecast, meanwhile, in a warehouse at Butler's Wharf near London a fire was in its infancy.

The Brigade was called to the fire shortly after 1000 and around 70 fire engines and more than 1,100 firefighters arrived to see Shad Thames under a cloud of black smoke.

The seven-storey warehouse contained large stocks of tea and rubber and the fire continued to burn all day and night with an acrid smell of burnt rubber lingering in the frozen air.

The fireboats Alpha and Beta made their way towards the wharf and the firefighters attacked the blaze from all sides - they even used the cargo ship named Teal as a standing platform.


'One of the biggest fires ever'

They managed to confine the fire to a single warehouse but it was a long time before they managed to quench the flames.

An officer on the scene is reported to have said it was "one of the biggest fires the Fire Brigade had had" and that he didn't think the fire would be "completely extinguished for several days".

Intense cold and heat

It was, however, the unbearably cold conditions that made it so difficult to tackle the fire. Water froze as it ran down the walls and sheets of ice spread across the roads, making any movement potentially hazardous.

The temperature was so low that all branches of hoses had to be wrapped in fabric otherwise it would have been impossible to hold them.

Hampered by the severe weather, it took the firefighters two days to finally extinguish the blaze and the cost of the damage was estimated to be around £250,000.

Several firefighters were overcome by fumes and others suffered from the intense cold, having had to hack away at icicles and hold on to hoses with their bare hands.

Experiences at fires like this have brought about changes in what our firefighters wear today.