Story Of London

London Fires – The Metropolitan Fire Brigade III

In the third instalment of our article on the work of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, our reporter tells us why sailors make better firemen than landsmen, muses on the varied history of the Bishop of Winchester’s palace, and visits the sad little museum to the heroes that died fighting London’s fires. Having being thrilled by a “turn-out” he hopes to interview the famous leader of he Brigade – Captain Shaw.

CHAPTER THREEThere is also a “jumping drill” from the windows into a sheet held by the other men. This course of instruction is not so popular for it seems somewhat of a trial to leap in cold blood into a sheet some twenty feet below. The feat of lifting a grown man (weighing perhaps sixteen stone) from the parapet to the right knee, then, by grasping the waist, getting the limp arm around his neck, and then, holding the leg to rise up and walk on a narrow ledge amid all the terrible surroundings of a fire, requires much nerve and strength. Frequently we hear of deaths and injuries to men of the Brigade, but no landsman can attain proficiency in even double the time that sailors – the latter are so accustomed to giddy heights, and to precarious footing.Moreover, the belt, to which a swivel hook is attached, is a safeguard of which Jack takes advantage. This equipment enables him to hang on to a ladder and swing about like a monkey, having both hands free to save or assist a victim of the fire or one of his mates. There is a death-roll of about five men annually, on the average, and many are injured, if not fatally yet very seriously, by falling walls and such accidents. Drenched and soaked, the men have a terrible time, the they richly deserve the leisure the obtain.This leisure is, however, not so pleasant as might be imagined, for the fireman is always on duty; and, no matter how he is occupied, he may be wanted on the engine, and must go.Having inspected the American ladder in its shed, we glanced at the stores and pattern rooms, and at the firemen’s quarters. Here the men live with their wives and families, if they are married, and in single blessedness, if Love the Pilgrim has not come their way. Old Winchester House, festooned with creepers, was never put to more worthy use than in sheltering these retiring heroes, who daily risk their lives uncomplainingly. Somewhat different now the scenes from those when the stately palace of Cardinal Beaufort extended to the river, and the spacious park was stocked with game and venison. As our conductor seeks a certain key we must muse on the old time, the feasts and pageants held here, the wedding banquet of Jane and James Somerset, when the old walls rang with merry cheer. Turning, we can almost fancy we perceive the restless Wyatt quitting the postern-gate, leaving fragments of the mutilated books of Winchester’s proud bishop. These past scenes vanish as our guide returns and beckons us to other sights.Of these, by far the most melancholy interest is awakened by the relics of those brave firemen who have died, or have been seriously injured, on duty. In a cupboard, in a long, rather low apartment, in the square of the inner quadrangle of the building, are a number of helmets; bruised, battered, broken, burnt; the fragments of crests twisted by fire, dulled by water and dust and smoke. Here is a saddening record indeed. The visitor experiences much the same sensations as those with which he gazes at he bodies at the Great Saint Bernard, only in this instance the cause of death is fire and heat, in the other snow and vapour, wind and storm; but all “fulfilling His word,” Whose fiat has gone forth, “To dust shalt thou return.”Aye, it is a sad monument when on canvas pad we see all that remains of the brave Fireman Jacobs who perished in the conflagration in Wandsworth in September, 1889.It was on the 12th of that month that the premises occupied by Messrs. Burroughs and Wellcome, manufacturing chemists, took fire. Engineer Howard and two third-class firemen Jacobs and Ashby, ran the hose up the staircase at the end of the building. The two latter men remained, but their retreat was suddenly cut off, and exit was sought by the window. The united ladder-lengths would not reach the upper storey, and a builder’s ladder came only within a few feet of the casement at which the brave men were standing calling for a line.Ashby, whose helmet is still preserved, was fortunately able to squeeze himself through the bars, drop on the high ladder, and descend. He was terribly burned. But Jacobs, being a stout man – his portrait is hanging on the wall in the office waiting-room in Southwark – cold not squeeze through, and he was burned to a cinder, almost. What remained of him was laid to rest with all Brigade honours, but in this museum are his blackened tunic-front, his hatchet and spanner, the nozzle of the hose he held in his death-grip. That is all! But his memory is green, and not a man who mentions but points with pride to his picture. “Did you tell him about Jacobs?” is a question which testifies to the estimation in which this brave man is held; and he is but a sample of the rest.For he is not alone represented. Take the helmets one by one at random. Whose was this? Joseph Ford’s? Yes, read on, and you will learn that he saved six lives at a fire in Gray’s Inn-road, and that he was in the act of saving a seventh when he lost his life. Poor fellow!Stanley Guernsey, T. Ashford; Hoad; Berg, too, the hero of the Alhambra fire in 1882. But the record is to long. Requiescant in pace. They have done their duty; some have survived to do it again, and we may be satisfied. . . . Come away, lock the cupboard, good Number 109. May it be long ere thy helmet is placed with sad memento within this press.Descending the stairs we reach the office once again. Here we meet our Superintendent. All is quiet. Some men are reading, others writing reports, mayhap; a few are in their shirt-sleeves working, polishing the reserve engine;a calm reigns. We glance up at the automatic fire-alarm which, when just heated, rings the call, and “it will warm up also with your hand.” See? Yes! But suppose it should ring, suppose -Ting, ting, ting, ting-g-g!What’s this? The call? I am at the office door in a second. Well it is that I proceed no farther. As I pause in doubt and surprise, the heavy doors swing open by themselves and almost as noiselessly as the iron gate which opened for St. Peter. A clattering of hoofs, a running to and fro for a couple of seconds; four horses trot in, led by the coachman; in the twinkling of an eye the animals are hitched to the ready engines; the firemen dressed, helmeted, and booted are seated on the machines; a momentary pause to learn their destination ere the coachman pulls the ropes suspended over head; the street doors fold back, automatically, the prancing, rearing steeds inpatient, foaming, strain at the traces; the passers-by scatter helter-skelter as the horses plunge into the street and then dash round the corner to their stables once again.”A false alarm?”
“Yes, sir. We thought you’d like to see our turn out, and that is how it’s done!”A false Alarm! Was it true? Yes, the men are good-temperedly doffing boots and helmets, and quietly resuming their late avocations. They do not mind. Less than twenty seconds have elapsed, and from a quiet hall the engine-room has been transformed into a bustling fire station. Men, horses, engines already and away! No one knew whither he was going. The call was sufficient for all of hem. No questions put save one, “Where is it?” thither the brave fellows would have hurried, ready to do and die, if necessary.It is almost impossible to describe the effect which this sudden transformation scene produces; the change is so rapid, the effect is so dramatic, so novel to a stranger. We hear the engines turning out, but to the writer, who was not in on the secret, the result was most exciting, and the remembrance will be lasting. The wily artist had placed himself outside, and secured a view, an instantaneous picture of the start; but the writer was in the dark, and taken by surprise. The wonderful rapidity, order, discipline, and the exactness of the parts secure a most effective tableau.After such an experience one naturally desires to see the mainspring of all this machinery, the hub round which the wheel revolves – Captain Eyre M. Shaw, C.B. But the chief officer has slipped out, leaving us permission to interview his empty chair, and the apartments which be daily occupies when on duty in Southwark.