Fire boats

have a long history serving London and keeping it safe.

The earliest fire-floats

The term fire boat is a relatively new term. For most of their history they were called ‘fire-floats’. The Insurance Companies, that provided London’s fire brigades prior to 1833, had introduced the first fire-floats. In truth they were manual fire engines carried on large rowing boats. London saw the arrival of the first-fire float as early as 1765. It was built for the Sun Fire Insurance Company. It was followed by other fire-floats as more insurance companies added a floating engine to improve their firefighting abilities. 

Firefighting on the river

‘A fire boat was designed to be a floating pump that would never run out of water.’

Victorian technical developments

With the creation of the London Fire Engine Establishment in 1833, under Superintendent James Braidwood, the fire-floats were transferred to the new fire brigade. The largest two floating engines required between 60 and 80 men to operate their manual pumps. By 1852 the larger of the two was adapted to work by steam, an experiment that proved successful at the time, at a cost of £3,000.

The purpose of the fire-floats was a simple one, to direct jets of water at a riverside blaze where access by land was impossible. In addition, they also supplemented water supplies to firemen working from either moored craft or on the river foreshore. London’s two oar-propelled craft were located by South Bridge (the larger Upper float) and the Lower float was berthed off King’s Stairs, Rotherhithe, both on the south side of the river.

Fireboat Alpha c.1920

Braidwood died at the Tooley Street fire in 1861, a fire so severe it scorched the fire-float moored mid-stream fighting the blaze. However, on the river little changed as the steam self-propelled fire-floats were not deemed successful and they continued to be towed by fire tugs.

It was the new Chief Officer (another Captain-but a former Royal Navy captain), Capt. Lionel De Latour Wells (1896-1902) who introduced a vessel which had both pumping and propelling machinery in one hull. It was a new age in London’s fire-floats. Built to Well’s design, and commissioned in 1900, the Alpha II was the first of four-vessels brought into service between 1900 and 1912. The other craft being Beta II, Gamma II and Delta II.

Early 20th century developments (pre-1937)

In 1925 Beta III was placed into service and in 1935 was joined by the Massey Shaw. Prior to the First World War, the Brigade had three ‘floating stations’; Cherry Gardens in Rotherhithe, Blackfriars at the Victoria Embankment, and Battersea which was located at Battersea Bridge.

Lambeth river station

With the opening of the new Lambeth headquarters in 1937 Battersea river station was shut and its boat transferred to the new Lambeth river station. Charing Cross river repair depot was also closed. All fire-float repairs, and maintenance, were undertaken by the marine engineers at the new Lambeth HQ workshops. In 1938 Lambeth river station received the new high-speed fire-float, the Braidwood.

Lambeth’s river fire station retains a unique feature amongst the one hundred plus fire stations that make up the London Fire Brigade. It has no fire station ground. The fire boat simply maintains its primary function of being a floating pump and acting in support of the land-based crews and, when required, acting as a rescue craft.


The fireboat pontoon at Lambeth

When Lambeth’s fireboat pontoon originally opened, together with the new headquarters building in 1937, it was two simple huts on a pontoon where the boat crews would spend their day shifts, returning to the land station to eat their meals and to sleep in the large dormitory on the fire stations’ first floor.

In the intervening years the two huts were replaced by two slightly larger prefabricated single storey buildings. But by the early 1980s both the pontoon and its buildings were in urgent need of replacement. Today’s river firefighters have their own self-contained, purpose built, standalone floating fire station.

Expansion during the Second World War

Due to the outbreak of the Second World War, in September 1939, London Fire Brigade had recruited some 23,000 auxiliary firefighters, many joining its river service and crewing the Home Office boats and converted fire-barges. In 1938 twenty auxiliary fire-floats were ordered and in 1939 ten more were placed into service. In addition, the Brigade had four Thames barges, each barge carried four 1000-gallon (4,500 litre) Dennis fire pumps. The barges could move in all directions, manoeuvred by jets of water from two of the pumps.

Massey Shaw and the Dunkirk mission in 1940

In May 1940 the Massey Shaw was despatched to France to assist in the historic evacuation from the Dunkirk beaches.  Its crew comprised both volunteer regulars and auxiliaries, with a naval officer in command. The Massey Shaw joined the fleet of ‘Little ships’ and made a number of crossing from Ramsgate to Dunkirk. The fire-float not only saved many from the beaches but rescued 39 severely injured soldiers from a French ship that had hit a mine in the English Channel and sank.

Massey Shaw would receive two singular honours. She was the only civilian small ship to be mentioned by Vice-Admiral Ramsey in his despatches and following their actions three members of the Shaw’s crew were awarded national gallantry honours.

National Fire Service 1941-1948

In August 1941 the fire service across the United Kingdom was nationalised and the NFS was created. This was when the name ‘fire-float’ was changed to ‘fireboat’. Both Gamma and Delta saw service during the Second World War in the newly created Thames River Formation. The formation comprised some seventy craft and they were the first to be equipped with radio communications.

Members of the Thames Formation were among the last to be awarded national gallantry awards after two vessels collided and caught fire on 7th January 1945. One British Empire Medal and nine King’s Commendations for Brave Conduct were present to the crews in respect of their actions that day.

On the 1st April 1948 the London Fire Brigade reverted to local authority control (London County Council) as did its fireboats.

Changes in fireboat operations after the Second World War

It would be almost 20 years before London had a new fireboat. The ‘Firebrace’ arrived at Lambeth in 1961, replacing the aging Braidwood and joining the Massey Shaw as the capital’s two fireboats. In the years that followed there was a significant change in the nature of the risks on and alongside the River Thames. The Brigade reviewed its fireboat provision.

With the Massey Shaw already decommissioned the Firebrace followed suit in the mid-1970s. Two craft, of an identical design, were purchased, the Fire Hawk and the Fire Swift. At just under 14 metres in length the boats carried light pumps to supply its small monitor mounted to the prow. The ‘Hawk’ covered the upper Thames and the ‘Swift’ was stationed at Greenwich pier, down-river. Subsequently the downriver station was closed. The Brigade’s only remaining fireboat station remained at Lambeth.

In April 1985 London Phoenix was placed into operational service. The Phoenix was built as a catamaran. At 18 metres long and seven metres wide, her twin diesel marine engines delivered six hundred and twenty horsepower. A water salvo could be discharged from her four deck monitors fed by her two fire pumps, capable of pumping nine thousand litres per minute. With her vivid colours, and a top speed of 12 knots, she stood out amongst the myriad of Thames craft. The Fire Hark was retained as the reserve fireboat. 


Fireboats today

In 1999 the Brigade took delivery of its current generation of fireboats, the Fire Dart and the Fire Flash. These craft designed to attend a wide range of emergencies along the river and riverside properties. are also capable of responding to other lifesaving tasks on the river. With one of the fireboats on immediate standby, the second is held in reserve and used for training.

The Brigade has recently commissioned its new generation of fireboat and they will become part of the newest chapter in this long-lasting and successful story.

This article was researched and written by museum volunteer David P.