London Fire Brigade

LFB 150: Tragic Smithfield fire leads to operational changes

23 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.

Two firefighters lost their lives at a tragic blaze at Union Cold Storage Co. at Smithfield Market, which broke out on 23 January in 1958.

The fire burned for three days in the centuries-old labyrinth, which ultimately collapsed.

Jack Fourt-Wells and Dick Stocking

Station Officer Jack Fourt-Wells and Firefighter Dick Stocking from the Clerkenwell Fire Station, both wearing old-style 'Proto' apparatus, died in the basement cold storage in the early stages of the battle, which was tackled by 1,700 firefighters and 389 fire engines.

Around two dozen firefighters were also injured at the blaze.

The fire prompted the Brigade to alter its policy on firefighter breathing apparatus (BA) and replace 'Proto' oxygen sets with compressed air breathing apparatus.

BA boards were introduced after the Smithfield fire in 1958 so firefighters could keep track of who had gone into the fire and how long they could remain inside before their air supply ran out.

News report

According to news reports at the time, when the first pumps arrived, thick acrid smoke was pouring out of the market's maze of underground tunnels leading to cold storage rooms.

One of the first crews to enter in Proto breathing apparatus sets was that from the local station, Clerkenwell.

A Station Officer and a fireman headed down into the dense smoke, never to be seen alive again.

Soon after their entry into the basement, they were buried under a collapse of frozen meat packets and although only yards from an exit and fresh air, their oxygen eventually ran out.

A firefighter who knew Fort-Wells described him as  “one of the old `smoke eaters' who would not give up hunting for the seat of a fire.

Smithfield Anniversary

A special service was held on 23 January 2008 to mark the 50th anniversary of the fire.

The then Deputy Commissioner of London Fire Brigade Roy Bishop, Superintendent of the Smithfield Market Robert Wilson and Smithfield Market Tenants' Association Deputy Chairman, Mark Twogood, laid wreaths the City of London Corporation's Smithfield Market.

Deputy Commissioner Bishop said: "This is a landmark fire in the history of London and its fire brigade.

"It is important that we remember this tragic fire and honour the memory of the two London firefighters who lost their lives."

Read more about our 150th anniversary