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London DisastersLondon's Fires - The Metropolitan Fire Brigade: IV
Posted on Dec 22, 2004 - 12:37 PM by Bill McCann

In the final instalment of our article on the work of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, our reporter visits the office of the fajmous Captain Shaw, the indomitable leader of the metropolitan fire Brigade. To his great disappointment, the Captain has slipped out. He has, however, a good look around the great man's office and is soon appraised of the details of the fires attended in the previous year and the career structure of the Brigade and the rates of pay for the firemen of the fourth class and the superintendents.


But the chief officer has slipped out, leaving us permission to interview his empty chair, and the apartments which he daily occupies when on duty in Southwark.

This unpretending room upstairs is plainly but comfortably furnished, though no carpet covers then floor, oilcloth being cooler. Business is writ large on every side. On one wall is a large map of the fire stations of the immense area presided over by Captain Shaw. Here are separately indicated the floating engines, the escapes, ladders, call points, police stations, and private communications.

The chair which "the Captain" has temporarily vacated bristles with speaking tubes. On the walls beside the fire-place are portraits of men who have died on duty; the chimney piece is decorated with nozzles hose nozzles of various sizes. Upon the table are reports, map of Paris, and many documents, amid which a novel shines, as indicating touch with the outside world. There is a book-case full of carefully arranged pamphlets, and on the opposite wall an illuminated address of thanks from the Fire Brigade Association to Captain Shaw, which concludes with the expression of a hope "That his useful life may be long spared to fill the high position in the service he now adorns."

With this we cordially concur, and we echo the "heartfelt wishes" of his obliged and faithful servants as we retire, secure in our possession of a picture of the apartment.

There are many interesting items in connection with the Brigade which we find time to chronicle. For instance, we learn that the busiest time is, as one would expect, between September and December. The calls during the year 1889 amounted to 3,131. Of these 594 were false alarms, 199 were only chimney on fire, and of the remainder 153 only resulted in serious damage, 2,185 in slight damage. These calls are exclusive of ordinary chimney fires and small cases, but in all those above referred to engines and men were turned out. The grand total of fires amounted 4,705, or on an average of 13 fires, or supposed fires, a day. This is an increase of 350 on those of 1888, and we find that the increment has been growing for a decade. However, considering the increase in the number of houses, there is no cause for alarm. Lives were lost at thirty-eight fires in 1889.

The personnel of the Brigade consists of only seven hundred and seven of all ranks. The men keep watches of twelve hours, and do an immense amount of work besides. This force has the control of 158 engines, steam and manual of all sorts; 31 and a half miles of hose, and 80 carts to carry it; besides fire-floats, steam tugs, barges and escapes; long ladders, trolleys, vans, and 131 horses. These are to attend to 365 call points, 72 telephones to stations, 55 alarm circuits, besides telephones to police stations and public and private buildings and houses, and the pay is 3s. 6d. per day, increasing!

From these, not altogether dry, bones of facts we may build up a monument tot he great energy and intense esprit de corps of Captain Shaw and his Brigade. In their hands we place ourselves every night. While the Metropolis sleeps the untiring Brigade watches over its safety. Whether at the head-quarters or at the outer stations, at the street stations, boxes, or escape stations, the men ar continually vigilant; and are most efficiently seconded by the police. But for the latter force the efforts of the firemen would often be cripples, and their heroic attempts perhaps[s rendered fruitless, by the pressure of the excited spectators.

We have now seen the manner in which the Metropolitan Fire Brigade is managed, and how it works; the splendid services it accomplishes, for which few rewards are forthcoming.. It is true that a man may attain to the post of superintendent, and to a house, with a salary of 245 a year, but he has to serve a long probation. For consider that he has to learn his drill and the general working of the Brigade. Every man must be competent to perform all the duties. During this course of instruction he is not permitted to attend a fire; such experience being found unsuitable to beginners. In a couple of months, if he has been a sailor, the recruit is fit to go out, and he is sent to some station, where, as a fireman of the fourth class, he performs the duties required.

By degrees, from death or accident, or other causes, those above him are removed or promoted, and he ascends the ladder to the first class, where, having passed an examination, he gets a temporary appointment as assistant officer on probation. If then satisfactory, he is confirmed in his position as officer, proceeds to headquarters, and superintends a section of the establishment as inspector of the shops, and finally as drill instructor.

After this service, he is probably put under the superintendent at a station as "engineer-in-charge," as he is termed. He has, naturally, every detail of drill and "business" at his finger's ends. The wisdom of such an arrangement is manifest. As the engineer-in-charge has been lately through the work of drill instructor, he knows exactly what is to be done, and every other officer is similar position also knows it. Thus uniformity of practice is insured.

There are many other points on which information is most courteously given at head-quarters. But time presses. We accordingly take our leave of our pleasant guide, and the most polite of superintendents, and, crossing the Iron Bridge once more, plunge into the teeming thoroughfares of the City, satisfied.



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