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- Fires and Firemen - 1/6 -

The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art Vol XXXV.--No. I May, 1855.

1: Fires and Firemen Annual Reports of Mr. Braidwood to the Committee of the Fire Brigade [From the Quarterly Review]

Among the more salient features of the Metropolis which instantly strike the attention of the stranger are the stations of the Fire Brigade. Whenever he happens to pass them, he finds the sentinel on duty, he sees the "red artillery" of the force; and the polished axle, the gleaming branch, and the shining chain, testify to the beautiful condition of the instrument, ready for active service at a moment's notice. Ensconced in the shadow of the station, the liveried watchmen look like hunters waiting for their prey--nor does the hunter move quicker to his quarry at the rustle of a leaf, than the Firemen dash for the first ruddy glow in the sky. No sooner comes the alarm than one sees with a shudder the rush of one of these engines through the crowded streets--the tearing horses covered with foam--the heavy vehicle swerving from side to side, and the black helmeted attendants swaying to and fro. The wonder is that horses or men ever get safely to their destination; the wonder is still greater that no one is ridden over in their furious drive.

Arrived at the place of action, the hunter's spirit which animates the fireman and makes him attack an element as determinedly as he would a wild beast, becomes evident to the spectator. The scene which a London fire presents can never be forgotten: the shouts of the crowd as it opens to let the engines dart through it, the foaming head of water springing out of the ground, and spreading over the road until it becomes a broad mirror reflecting the glowing blaze--the black, snake-like coils of the leather hose rising and falling like things of life, whilst a hundred arms work at the pump, their central heart--the applause that rings out clear above the roaring flame as the adventurous band throw the first hissing jet--cheer following cheer, as stream after stream shoots against the burning mass, now flying into the socket-holes of fire set in the black face of the house-front, now dashing with a loud shir-r against the window-frame and wall, and falling off in broken showers. Suddenly there is a loud shrill cry and the bank of human faces is upturned to where a shrieking wretch hangs frantically to an upper window-sill. A deafening shout goes forth, as the huge fire-escape comes full swing upon the scene: a moment's pause, and all is still, save the beat, beat, of the great water pulses, whilst every eye is strained towards the fluttering garments flapping against the wall. Will the ladder reach, and not dislodge those weary hands clutching so convulsively to the hot stone? Will the nimble figure gain the topmost rung ere nature fails? The blood in a thousand hearts runs cold, and then again break forth a thousand cheers to celebrate a daring rescue. Such scenes as this are of almost nightly occurrence in the Great Metropolis. A still more imposing yet dreadful sight is often exhibited in the conflagrations of those vast piles of buildings in the City filled with inflammable merchandise. Here the most powerful engines seem reduced to mere squirts; and the efforts of the adventurous Brigade men are confined to keeping the mischief within its own bounds.

When we recollect that London presents an area of 36 square miles, covered with 21,600 square acres of bricks and mortar, and numbers more than 380,000 houses; that all the riches it contains are nightly threatened in every direction by an ever-present enemy; that the secret match, the spontaneous fire, and the hand of the drunkard, are busily at work, it is evident that nothing but a force the most disciplined, and implements the most effective, can be competent to cope with so sudden and persevering a foe.

As late as twenty-two years ago there was no proper fire police to protect the Metropolis against what is commonly called the "all-devouring element." There was, it is true, a force of 300 parochial engines set on foot by Acts which were passed between the years 1768-74--Acts which are still in existence--but these engines are under the superintendence of the beadles and parish engineers, who are not the most active of men or nimble of risers. It may easily be imagined, therefore, that the machines arrived a little too late; and, when brought into service, were often found to be out of working order. Hence their employment did not supersede the private engines kept by some of the insurance offices long prior to their existence. On the contrary, owing to the increase of business which took place about this time, the different companies thought it worth their while to strengthen their former establishments, and this process continued while the parochial engines, with a few honorable exceptions, were dropping into disuse.

About the year 1833 it became evident that much was lost, both to the public and to the insurance companies, by every engine acting on its own responsibility--a folly which is the cause of such jealousy among the firemen at Boston (United States), that rival engines have been known to stop on their way to a fire to exchange shots from revolvers. It was therefore determined to incorporate the divided force, and place it under the management of one superintendent, each office contributing towards its support, according to the amount of its business. All the old established companies, with one exception,[*] shortly came into the arrangement, and Mr. Braidwood, the master of the fire-engines of Edinburgh, being invited to take the command, organized the now celebrated _London Fire Brigade_.

[*] The West of England Fire-Office, which retains the command of its own engines.

At the present moment, then, the protection against fire in London consists, firstly, in the 300 and odd parish engines (two to each parish), which are paid for out of the rates. The majority of these are very inefficient, not having any persons appointed to work them who possess a competent knowledge of the service. Even women used now and then to fill the arduous post of director; and it is not long since a certain Mrs. Smith, a widow, might be seen at conflagrations, hurrying about in her pattens, directing the firemen of her engine, which belonged to the united parishes of St. Michael Royal and St. Martin Vintry, in the city. We question, indeed, if at the present moment any of the parish-engines are much better officered than in the days of widow Smith, with the exception of those of Hackney, Whitechapel, Islington, and perhaps two or three others. Secondly, there are an unknown number of private engines kept in public buildings, and large manufactories, which sometimes do good service when they arrive early at small fires in their neighborhood, although, singularly enough, when called upon to extinguish a conflagration in their own establishments, they generally "lose their heads," as the Brigade men express it, and very many instances have occurred where even the parish-engines have arrived and set to work before the one on the premises could be brought to bear upon the fire. The cause is clear. The requisite coolness and method which every one can exercise so philosophically in other people's misfortunes, utterly fail them when in trouble themselves. The doctor is wiser in his generation, and is never so foolish as to prescribe for himself or to attend his own family.

Thirdly, we have, in contrast to the immense rabble of Bumble engines and the Bashi-Bazouks of private establishments, the small complement of men and material of the Fire Brigade. It consists of twenty-seven large horse-engines, capable of throwing 88 gallons a minute to a height of from 50 to 70 feet, and nine smaller ones drawn by hand. To work them there are twelve engineers, seven sub-engineers, thirty-two senior firemen, thirty-nine junior firemen, and fourteen drivers, or 104 men and 31 horses. In addition to these persons, who form the main establishment, and live at the different stations, there is an extra staff of four firemen, four drivers, and eight horses. The members of this supplementary force are also lodged at the stations, as well as clothed but are only paid when their services are required, and pursue in the daytime their ordinary occupations. This not very formidable army of 104 men and 31 horses, with its reserve of eight men and eight horses, is distributed throughout the Metropolis, which is divided into four districts as follows:--On the north side of the river--1st. From the eastward to Paul's Chain, St. Paul's Churchyard, Aldersgate-street, and Goswell-street-road; 2d. From St. Paul's, &c., to Tottenham court-road, Crown street, and St. Martin's-lane; 3d. From Tottenham-court-road, &c., westward, 4th. The entire south side of the river. At the head of each district is a foreman, who never leaves it unless acting under the superior orders of Mr. Braidwood, the superintendent or general-in-chief, whose head-quarters are in Watling-street.

In comparison with the great Continental cities such a force seems truly insignificant. Paris, which does not cover a fifth part of the ground of London, and is not much more than a third as populous, boasts 800 _sapeurs-pompiers_: we make up, however, for want of numbers by activity. Again, our lookout is admirable: the 6,000 police of the metropolis, patrolling every alley and lane throughout its length and breadth, watch for a fire as terriers watch at rat-holes, and every man is stimulated by the knowledge, that if he is the first to give notice of it at any of the stations, it is half a sovereign in his pocket. In addition to the police, there are the thousand eager eyes of the night cabmen and the houseless poor. It is not at all uncommon for a cabman to earn four or five shillings of a night by driving fast to the different stations and giving the alarm, receiving a shilling from each for the "call."

In most Continental cities a watchman takes his stand during the night on the topmost point of some high building, and gives notice by either blowing a horn, firing a gun, or ringing a bill. In Germany the quarter is indicated by holding out towards it a flag by day, and a lantern at night. It immediately suggests itself that a sentinel placed in the upper gallery of St. Paul's would have under his eye the whole Metropolis, and could make known instantly, by means of an electric wire, the position of a fire, to the head station at Watling-street, in the same manner as the Americans do in Boston. This plan is, however, open to the objection, that London is intersected by a sinuous river, which renders it difficult to tell on which bank the conflagration is raging. Nevertheless we imagine that the northern part of the town could be advantageously superintended from such a height, whilst the southern half might rest under the surveillance of one of the tall shot-towers on that bank of the Thames. The bridges themselves have long been posts of observation, from which a large portion of the river-side property is watched. Not long ago there was a pieman on Londonbridge, who eked ont a precarious existence by keeping a good look-out up and down the stream.

Watling-street was chosen as the headquarters of the Fire Brigade for a double reason: it is very nearly the centre of the city, being close to the far-famed London Stone, and it is in the very midst of what may be termed, speaking igneously, the most dangerous part of the metropolis--the Manchester warehouses. As the Fire Brigade is only a portion of a vast commercial operation--Fire Insurance--its actions are regulated by strictly commercial considerations. Where the largest amount of _insured_ property lies, there its chief force is planted. It will, it is true, go any reasonable distance to put out a fire; but of course it pays most attention to property which its

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