London Fire Brigade

LFB 150 - The history of horses in the Brigade

13 October 2016

It was around 2pm on 21 November 1921 when the doors of Kensington Fire Station opened and out rolled a succession of vehicles, among them a horse-drawn turntable ladder.

As the horses dashed off towards the high street, a brief silence fell over the gathered crowd.

"Those who heard the cry distantly fade away, realised that something had gone out of London’s life. The London Fire Brigade had had its last horsed turnout," said a Daily Telegraph journalist of the time.

Up until that point, horses had been an integral part of firefighting.

They had been used to pull fire engines since the formation of the London Fire Engine Establishment in 1833 and had continued in service long after the introduction of mechanised engines in 1907.

By the late 19th century, the majority of horses used by the Brigade were hired from Thomas Tilling Ltd, who owned many of the horse-drawn buses that operated throughout the capital at the time.

Firefighters race to the scene of a fire.

The Brigade used a specially bred horse due to the demands of the work.

Due to the demands of the work, the Brigade required specially bred horses that were strong and powerful, while also being able to cope with the chaotic conditions of the Victorian era.

The 'Brigade Grey', as the breed became known, would stand at 15 hands high and usually entered the service around five-years-old. The nags would generally serve until the age of 12. 

Working in pairs, the horses lived in stables at fire stations and had a designated officer called a 'coachman', whose role was to care for and harness the horses when a call came in.

Some of the newer stations had systems in place that would use pulleys to automatically lower the harness from the ceiling onto the horses' back when the alarm was raised, helping to speed the up the process of responding to emergencies.

Lucy and Nora were the final two horses used by the Brigade. A crowd gathered to see their final turnout.

'On the run'

The term 'on the run', which is still used by firefighters today, originated from the era of horse-drawn engines.

It originally related to a sloping section of floor, behind the fire station doors, which would assist the horses to get the fire engine rolling faster as it left the station, so when they went through the doors they were already 'on the run'.

Nowadays it simply means to be ready for action; 'off the run' means out of order.

The coachman wore a firefighter's uniform and was subject to the same disciplines as other firefighters.

Archive footage of the Brigade horses at work.

The coachman, who wore a firefighter's uniform and was subject to the same disciplines as other firefighters, would also be responsible for steering the fire engines to an incident and then leading the horses away to a safe distance.

Although motorised fire engines had been in use in the Brigade for several years, the enlisting of horses into the army to help in World War I meant the up-take became a priority.

This caused an additional problem as many fire stations had to be quickly rebuilt or relocated due to motorised fire engines being too big to fit through the station doors.

The last two horses used by the Brigade were named Nora and Lucy, and as they disappeared into the distance on that Monday afternoon in 1921, London Fire Brigade's horses were put out to pasture, literally.