London Fire Brigade

LFB 150: 1918 fire remains our darkest day

30 January 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.

On the 30 January 1918, seven firefighters tragically lost their lives when a building collapsed following a fire at the Albert Embankment. The tragedy remains the greatest single loss of London firefighters during peacetime.

The fire, in a three-storey warehouse, was reported at 3:44am. Over the next two hours, three fire engines, an escape ladder and around 25 firefighters and sub-officers attended the scene.

Although not a big fire the dense fog that day, combined with thick smoke, made it difficult situation.

Farewell: a public funeral was held for the men who died in the fire.

'Drop everything and run'

At around 5:45am, while trying to remove an escape ladder, Brigade Superintendent Barrow ordered everyone to "drop everything and run" as the building began to give way.

Sub-officer William E. Cornford (Clapham), Fireman Edmund J. Fairbrother (Kennington), Fireman William E. Nash (Kennington), Fireman John .W.C. Johnson (Vauxhall), Fireman Aurther A. Page (Vauxhall) and Temp.Fireman James E. Fay (Kennington) were all killed by falling debris when the front of the building collapsed.

Sub-Officer Walter W. Hall (Vauxhall) was severely injured and later died in St. Thomas's Hospital. 

Although the cause of the fire was unknown, it was thought to have been caused by rats gnawing through electrical cabling.

Tragedy: six of the seven firefighters killed during the fire. Missing from this newspaper clipping is the photo of Fireman Edmund J. Fairbrother

Official Brigade record

The following extract is from an official Brigade record, submitted by Superintendent Barrows, which recalls the deadly incident:

From – Superintendent The Divisional Officer, “E” District Southern Division. 30th January 1918.

Loss of Life at a Fire - Collapse of Building

I submit that at 3-44 a.m of this date a call was received by stranger to a private house alight at Albert Embankment, S.E., to which Motor Escape, Motor Pump and 10 men from No.94. Station Vauxhall and Motor Pump and 6 men from No.87. station Kennington responded.

At 3-55 a.m., a “home call” message was received, viz:- It is a building of three floors about 40 x 40 ft. used as Pepper Mills alight, one hydrant in use. No.3. Westminster Motor Pump and 6 men were ordered and I attended with No.80. Motor Car and 2 men.

On my arrival I found the upper floors of a building of three floors about 45 x 30 ft. (used as cattle food manufacturers) well alight, and part of roof and upper floor had fallen in.

The fire was practically extinguished by the use of two hydrants and 1 Motor Pump and the stop sent back accordingly.

At 5-34 a.m., owing to a considerable amount of turning over to be done, a message was dispatched to the effect that appliances would be detained for a time and a few minutes later another message asking or a Sub-officer and four men to be sent on with a view to the appliances and myself returning home.

At about 5-45 a.m. I was on the ground floor and in consequence of hearing a cracking noise, cleared everyone out of the building.

Owing to the ground mist and smoke, the front of the building was hardly discernible, a hydrant was still being used up the Escape, I went to the front of the building with the men with a view of making up and removing the Escape, when suddenly I heard Sub-officer Cornford call out “Look out Sir” and saw the building collapsing.

I called out “drop everything and run”, but was knocked down by the falling debris and part of the Escape, being subsequently extricated by our men from amongst the debris.

On making enquiry, I found that a message to the effect that the building had collapsed and that several of our men were buried and ambulances were requires had been sent back.

I gave instructions for the debris to be searched for the bodies of our men, then saw the Divisional Officer South who, on hearing of the nature of my injuries ordered me home.

I have since been examined by the District Medical Officer, and placed on the sick list, nature of illness “Injury to Legs”.
(Signed) ……..J.BARROWS

Coincidentally, the Brigade's former headquarters, built in 1936 and opened a year later, is situated on the Albert Embankment site where the tragic 1918 fire took place.

The names of the seven firefighters, along with others who have lost their lives during service, adorn a memorial inside the building.

Read more about our 150th anniversary