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This page last modified on Monday, March 17, 2008
Everybody loves a good fire. Suburban gardeners gleefully burning their horticultural
rubbish with no regard for their neighbours' ire. Torquemada sanctimoniously roasting
heretics, children taking their first steps in arson on November 5.
Nor is the passion confined to the lower or middling orders. Edward VII when Prince of
Wales, had his own fireman's outfit of helmet, axe and bell at the Chandos Street Fire
Station, near Charing Cross.
When a large fire broke out, his friend, Captain Sir Eyure Massey Shaw, chief of the London
Fire Brigade would send a special vehicle to the royal residence and Edward would be only
too ready to lend a hand with the fire-fighting - injudiciously distributing cigars to his more
There was hardly any important conflagration - as they preferred to call it then - in London
between 1860 and 1914, at which the socially sensitive would not be able to note the
attendance of at least a couple of peers, a brace of baronets and the odd knight.
This was the golden age of London firefighting, when the gleaming machines, belching
smoke from the steam engine which powered the pump, were pulled through the streets at
12 mph by horses hired from the omnibus firm of Thomas Tilling. The brass-helmeted
firemen shouted at the top of their voices: "Hi-ya-hi" - an old shanty cry - to clear the traffic,
Bells were not introduced until 1906.
Some savour of the magic and glamour of fire fighting can be gleaned from an exhibition
called London's Architecture and the London Fire Brigade 1866-1938
In the first four years of the brigade's existence the number of fire stations rose from 19 to
53. These early stations - two survive, one at Clapham Common, the other at 97 Southwark
Street - were often modest enough. They provided room for one officer, six married men,
three single men, one coachman (the driver of the engine) and four horses.
But they became grandiose, monuments of civic pride, with strong angular out-lines,
intricate detailing, and crenellated and efficiency - for many years only ex-sailors were
allowed to join the brigade - the men had to live in and were on continuous duty for three
and sometimes five days, when they were not allowed to take off their uniforms.
One of the chief officers, Rear-Admiral James de Courcy Hamilton, ordered that men who
became fat would not be promoted. Pay was poor, compensation appalling, £10 was paid for
the loss of a limb, and a widow was granted £20 a year.
Higher up the scale things were different. When, in 1878, a new headquarters was built for
the brigade in Southwark Bridge Roadm, Captain Eyre Massey Shaw insisted that next to it
a house should be built for himself, with a minimum of 20 rooms he was driven to all fires
in a luxurious brougham with two coachmen.
It is Shaw's personality which dominates the exhibition, just as it has dominated the history
of the London Fire Brigade.
More than six foot tall, with an impressive goatee beard, he became a familiar figure in
London society and was featured by Gilbert in lolanthe.
His most surprising monument is the appearance of the Natural History Museum in South
Kensington. The architect had designed it to be dominated by two great central towers, but
the government, in a fit of economy decided they should not be included. Shaw insisted
that they should - to hold reservoirs of water for fighting fires within the building. They are
still there today
This newspaper article was by Bernard Denvir, undated but probably around 1938
LIFE IN THE LONDON FIRE BRIGADE
shown in an exhibition around 1938