Story Of London

London Fires – The Metropolitan Fire Brigade: II

In the second instalment of our article on the work of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, our reporter begins his tour of the Brigade the headquarters at Winchester House in Southwark. He introduces us to the ingenious methods for opening the fire station doors on “a second and a half” and the different methods of carrying rescued male and female persons down the escape ladder so that a lady’s modesty is protected.

CHAPTER TWOStanding in the very entrance, we had already remarked two engines. The folding, automatic doors are closes in front of these machines. One, a steamer, is being nursed by means of a gas tube to keep the fire-box warm. When the fire-call rings there is not time to begin to get up steam. The well-heated interior soon acts in response to the quickly lighted fire as the engine starts, and by the time our steamer reaches its destination steam is generated. A spare steamer is close at hand.Very bright and clean is the machine, which in a way puts it usual ally, the “manual,” in the shade; though at present the latter kind are more numerous, in the proportion of seventy-eight to forty-eight. Turning from the engines, we notice a row of burnished helmets hanging over tunics, and below those, great knee-boots, which are so familiar to the citizen. When the alarm is rung, these are donned rapidly; but we opine the gates will occupy some time in the opening.Our guide smiles, and points out two ropes hanging immediately over the driving seat of each engine.”When the engine is ready the coachman pulls the rope, and the gates open of their own accord, you may say. See here!”He turns to the office entrance, where two ropes are hanging side by side. A pull on each, and the door leading to the backyard open and unfold themselves. The catch drops deftly into an aperture made to receive it, and the portals are kept open. About a second and a half is occupied in this manoeuvre.We consider it unfortunate that we shall not see a “turn out,” as alarms by day are not usual. The superintendent looks quizzical, but says nothing then. He gives instruction to our guide to show us all we want to see, and in this spirit we examine the instrument room close at hand.Here are fixed a number of telephonic apparatus, labelled with the names of the stations:- Manchester Square, Clerkenwell, Whitechapel, and so on, five in number, known by the Brigade as Superintendents’ Stations, A, B, C, D, E Districts. By these means immediate communication can be obtained with any portion of the metropolis, and the condition and requirements of the fires reported. There is also a frame in the outer office which beards a number of electric bells, which can summon the head of any department, or demand the presence of any officer instantly.It is extraordinary to see the quiet way in which the work is performed, the ease and freedom of the men, and the strict observance of discipline withal. Very few men are visible as we pass on to the repairing shops. Here the engines are repaired and inspected. There are eleven steamers in the shed, some available for service, and so designated. If an outlying station require a steamer in substitution for its own, here is one ready. The boilers are examined every six months, and tested by water-pressure up to 180 lbs., when it “blows off.”Passing down the shed we notice the men – all Brigade men – employed at their various tasks in the forge or carpenters’ shop. Thus it will be perceived that the head-quarters enclose many different artisans, and is self-contained. The men were lifting a boiler when we were present and our artist “caught them in the act.”Closer to the entrance is a high “shoot” in which hang pendant numerous ropes and many lengths of drying hose. The impression experienced when standing underneath, and gazing upwards, is something like the feeling one would have while gazing up at the tops of the trees in a pine wood. There is a sense of vastness in this narrow lofty brick enclosure which is some 70 ft. high. The hose is doubled in its length of 100 ft., and then it drains dry, for the moisture is apt to conceal itself in the rubber lining, and the and in the nozzles and head screws of the hoses.No precaution is neglected, no point is missed. Vigilant eyes are everywhere; bright responsive faces and ready hands continually in evidence, but unobtrusively.Turning from the repairing shops we proceed to the stables, where we find things in the normal condition of preparedness. “Be ready” is evidently the watchword of the Brigade. Ready, aye, ready! Neatness and cleanliness are here scrupulously regarded. Tidiness is the feature of the stables. A pair of horses on either side are standing, faces outward, in their stalls. Four handsome, well-groomed, lithe animals they look; and as we enter they regard us with considerable curiosity, a view which we reciprocate.Round each horse’s neck is suspended his collar. A weight let into the woodwork of the stall holds the harness by means of a lanyard and swivel. When the alarm rings the collar is dropped , and in “half a second” the animals, traces and splinter-bar hanging on their sleek backs and sides are trotted out and harnessed. Again we express our regret that no kind householder will set fire to his tenement, that no nice children will play with matches or candle this fine morning, and let us “see everything,” like Charles Middlewick. [Hero of H J Byron’s “Our Boys.”Once more our guide smiles, and passes on through the forage and harness-rooms, where we also find a coachman’s room for reading, and waiting on duty.It is now nearly mid-day, and we turn to see the fire-drill of the recruits, who, clad in slops, practise all the necessary and requisite work which alone can render them fit for the business. They are thus employed from nine o’clock to mid-day, and from two till four p.m. During these five hours the squads are exercised in the art of putting ladders and escapes on the wagons to convey them to the scene of a fire. The recruit must learn how to raise the heavy machine by his own efforts, by means of a rope rove through a ring-bolt. We had an opportunity to see the recruits raising the machine together to get it off the wagon. The men are practised at leaping up when the vehicle is starting off at a great pace after the wheels are manned to give an impetus to the vehicle which carries such a burthen.But the “rescue drill” is still more interesting, and this exhibited the strength and dexterity of the firemen n a surprising manner. It is striking to notice the different ways in which the rescue of the male and female sexes is accomplished. The sure-footed fireman rapidly ascends the ladder, and leaps upon the parapet. The escape is furnished with a ladder which projects beyond the net. At the bottom a canvas sheet or “hammock” is suspended, so that the rescued shall not suffer from contusions, which formerly were frequent in consequence of the rapid descent.One fireman passes into a garret window and emerges with a man. He makes no pause on the parapet, where already, heedless of glare and smoke and the risk of a fall, he has raised on his shoulders the heavy, apparently inanimate, form, and grasping the man around one leg, his arm inside the thigh, he carries him steadily, like a sack of coals, down the ladder as far as the opening of the bag-net of the escape.Here he halts, and puts the man into the net, perhaps head downwards, he himself following in the same position. The man rescued is then let down easily, the fireman using his elbows and knees as “breaks” to arrest their progress. So the individual is assisted down and not permitted to go unattended.The rescue of a female is accomplished in a slightly different manner. She is also carried to the ladder, but the rescuer grabs both her legs below the knees, and when he reaches the net he places her head downwards and grasps her dress tightly around her ankles, holding her thus in a straight position. Thus her dress is undisturbed, and she is received into the folds of the friendly canvas underneath, in safety.