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Early fire brigades.

Did you know that there were no fire brigades before The Great Fire of London? Read on to discover how and why the first brigades were established. 
Great fire of London painting

It all started with The Great Fire of London

In 1666, London blazed for days. A long dry summer, densely packed homes, and flammable building materials were a recipe for disaster. A stray spark at a bakery on Pudding Lane became an inferno, and destroyed much of London – read the full story here. 

It was a huge financial blow to the city: the cost of the fire was estimated to be £10 million at a time when London's annual income was only £12,000. Many people were financially ruined and debtors' prisons became over-crowded.

Early insurance and the 'fire insurance' brigades

Savvy businessmen developed a product in reaction: insurance. 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 called Fire Office in 1667. It was established by economist and financial speculator Nicolas Barbon. Another early Brigade was called Phoenix, after the Greek mythological bird that rose from the ashes.

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 – thus the 'fire insurance' brigade.

Fire marks

Fire marks were used to identify – and advertise – different insurance companies. These marks were placed on the outside insured buildings.

If a building was on fire, several brigades would attend as quickly as possible. The different brigades would use the fire marks to work out if a building was insured by their parent company. If they didn't see their specific fire mark attached to the building, they would leave the property to burn. 

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

Did you know?
You can still see some old fire marks on buildings today – don't forget to look up as you walk around older parts of London. 


Fire engines and beer tokens

Ever wondered where the expression 'beer tokens' came from? Early firefighting. 

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. However, during particularly large fires, firefighters would become very tired through continual pumping of the equipment.

To keep up the water pressure, they would offer bystanders 'beer tokens' in return for their assistance.

Ladders on street corners

The Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire (RSPLF) was formed in 1828. Their objective? Helping people escape from burning buildings by providing escape ladders. The ladders were kept in churchyards during the day and placed on street corners at night. Special wheeled escape ladders could reach up to 60 feet high – conductors had to undergo training between two and six months to safely operate them.


Did you know?

In the 1900s, some fire escape ladders had a canvas chute so that ladies could slide down without showing their ankles.  

James Braidwood and the London Fire Engine Establishment

In 1833, 10 independent fire insurance companies united to form the London Fire Engine Establishment (LFEE). The objective? Providing the public with a more resourceful and effective fire service. On 1 January 1833, James Braidwood, an experienced firefighter from Edinburgh became the first Superintendent of the London Fire Engine Establishment. Braidwood introduced many firefighting principals that remain in use today, including uniforms that provide some form of personal protection, an emphasis on training and a scientific approach to tackling blazes.

Where does the story take us next?

The London Fire Engine Establishment later became the Metropolitan Fire Brigade and, eventually, London Fire Brigade. You can learn more about the modern fire brigade here, and about James Braidwood– and how he died in the Tooley Street fire – here