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- Fires and Firemen - 4/6 -


months. Mr. Braidwood, in his evidence before a Committee of the House of Lords in 1846, stated that it was his belief that by long exposure to heat, not much exceeding that of boiling, water, or 212°, timber is brought into such a condition that it will fire without the application of a light. The time during which this process of desiccation goes on, until it ends in spontaneous combustion, is, he thinks, from eight to ten years--_so that a fire might be hatching in a man's premises during the whole of his lease without making any sign!_

Under the heads "Incendiarism," "Doubtful," and "Unknown," are included all the cases of wilful firing. The return Incendiarism is never made unless there has been a conviction, which rarely takes place, as the offices are only anxious to protect themselves against fraud, and do not like the trouble or bad odor of being prosecutors on public grounds. If the evidence of wilful firing, however, is conclusive, the insured, when he applies for his money, is significantly informed by the secretary, that unless he leaves the office, _he will hang him_. Though arson is no longer punished by death, the hint is usually taken. Now and then such flagrant offenders are met with, that the office can not avoid pursuing them with the utmost rigor of the law. Such, in 1851, was the case of a "respectable" solicitor, living in Lime Street, Watling Street, who had insured his house and furniture for a sum much larger than they were worth. The means he adopted for the commission of his crime without discovery were apparently sure; but it was the very pains he took to accomplish his end which led to his detection. He had special]y made to order a deep tray of iron, in the centre of which was placed a socket, the tray he filled with naphtha, and in the socket he put a candle, the light of which was shaded by a funnel. The candle was one of the kind which he used for his gig-lamp, for he kept a gig, and was calculated to last a stated time before it reached the naphtha. He furtively deposited the whole machine in the cellar, within eight inches of the wooden floor, in a place constructed to conceal it. The attorney went out, and on coming back again found, as he expected, that his house was on fire. Unfortunately, however, for him--if it is ever a misfortune to a scoundrel to be detected--it was put out at a very ear]y stage; and the firemen, whilst in the act of extinguishing it discovered this infernal machine. The order to make it was traced to the delinquent; a female servant, irritated at the idea of his having left her in the house to be burned to death, gave evidence against him; he was tried and convicted, and is now expiating his crime at Norfolk Island. Plans for rebuilding this villain's house, and estimates of the expense, were found afterwards among his papers.

The class "Doubtful" includes all those cases in which the offices have no moral doubt that the fire has been wilful, but are not in possession of legal evidence sufficient to substantiate a charge against the offender. In most of these instances, however, the insured has _his reasons_ for taking a much smaller sum than he originally demanded. Lastly, we have the "Unknown," to which 1323 cases are put down, one of the largest numbers in the entire list, though decreasing year by year. Even of these a certain percentage are supposed to be wilful. There is no denying that the crime of arson owes its origin entirely to the introduction of fire insurance; and there can be as little doubt that of late years it has been very much increased by the pernicious competition for business among the younger offices, which leads them to deal too leniently with their customers; or, in other words, to pay the money, _and ask no questions_. It is calculated that _one fire in seven which occur among the small class of shopkeepers in London is an incendiary fire_. Mr. Braidwood, whose experience is larger than that of any other person, tells us that the greatest ingenuity is sometimes exercised to deceive the officers of the insurance company as to the value of the insured stock. In one instance, when the Brigade had succeeded in extinguishing the fire, he discovered a string stretched across one of the rooms in the basement of the house, on which ringlets of shavings dipped in turpentine were tied at regular intervals. On extending his investigations he ascertained that a vast pile of what he thought were pounds of moist sugar, consisted of parcels of brown paper, and that the loaves of white sugar were made of plaster of Paris. Ten to one but the "artful dodge" which some scoundrel flatters himself is peculiarly his own, has been put in practice by hundreds of others before him. For this reason, fires that are wilful generally betray themselves to the practiced eye of the Brigade. When an event of the kind is "going to happen" at home, a common circumstance is to find that the fond parent has treated the whole of his family to the theatre.

There is another class of incendiary fires which arise from a species of monomania in boys and girls. Not many years ago, the men of the Brigade were occupied for hours in putting out no less than half a dozen fires which broke out one after another in a house in West Smithfield, and it was at last discovered that they were occasioned by a youth who went about with lucifers and slily ignited every thing that would burn. He was caught in the act of firing a curtain in the very room in which a fireman was occupied in putting out a blaze. A still more extraordinary case took place in the year 1848, at Torluck House, in the Isle of Mull. On Sunday, the 11th of November, the curtains of a bed were ignited, as was supposed, by lightning; a window-blind followed; and immediately afterwards the curtains of five rooms broke out one after another into a flame, even the towels hanging up in the kitchen were burnt. The next day a bed took fire, and it being thought advisable to carry the bed-linen into the coach-house for safety, it caught fire three or four times during the process of removal. In a few days the phenomenon was renewed. The furniture, books, and every thing else of an inflammable nature, were, with much labor, taken from the mansion, and again some body-linen burst into a flame on the way. Even after these precautions had been taken, and persons had been set to watch in every part of the house, the mysterious fires continued to haunt it until the 22d of February, 1849. It was suspected from the first that they were the act of an incendiary, and upon a rigid examination of the household before the Fiscal-General and the Sheriff the mischief was traced to the daughter of the housekeeper, a young girl who was on a visit to her mother. She had effected her purpose, which was perfectly motiveless, by concealing combustibles in different parts of the house.

The most ludicrous conflagration that perhaps ever occurred was that at Mr. Phillips's workshop, when the whole of his stock of instruments for extinguishing flame were at one fell swoop destroyed. "'Tis rare to see the engineer hoist with his own petard," says the poet; and certainly it was a most laughable _contre-temps_ to see the fire-engines arrive at the manufactory just in time to witness the fire-annihilators annihilated by the fire. A similar mishap occurred to these unfortunate implements at Paris. In juxtaposition with this case we are tempted to put another, in which the attempt at extinction was followed by exactly the opposite effects. A tradesman was about to light his gas, when, finding the cock stiff, he took a candle to see what was the matter; whilst attempting to turn it the screw came out, and with it a jet of gas, which was instantly fired by the candle. The blaze igniting the shop, a passer-by seized a wooden pail and threw its contents upon the flames, which flared up immediately with tenfold power. It is scarcely necessary to state that the water was whiskey, and that the country was Old Ireland.

Spontaneous combustion is at present very little understood, though chemists have of late turned their attention to the subject. It forms, however, no inconsiderable item in the list of causes of fires. There can be no question that many of those that occur at railway-stations, and buildings, are due to the fermentation which arises among oiled rags. Over-heating of waste, which includes shoddy, sawdust, cotton, &c., is a fearful source of conflagrations. The cause of most fires which have arisen from spontaneous combustion is lost in the consequence. Cases now and then occur where the firemen have been able to detect it, as for instance at Hibernia Wharf in 1846, one of Alderman Humphreys' warehouses. It happened that a porter had swept the sawdust from the floor into a heap, upon which a broken flask of olive-oil that was placed above, dripped its contents. To these elements of combustion the sun added its power, and sixteen hours afterwards the fire broke out. Happily it was instantly extinguished; and the agents that produced it were caught, red-handed as it were, in the act. The chances are that such a particular combination of circumstances might not occur again in a thousand years. The sawdust will not be swept again into such a position under the oil, or the bottle will not break over the sawdust, or the sun will not shine in on them to complete the fatal sum. It is an important fact, however, to know that oiled sawdust, warmed by the sun, will fire in sixteen hours, as it accounts for a number of conflagrations in saw-mills, which never could be traced to any probable cause.

By means of direct experiment we are also learning something on the question of explosions. It used to be assumed that gunpowder was answerable for all such terrible effects in warehouses where no gas or steam was employed; and as policies are vitiated by the fact of its presence, unless declared, many squabbles have ensued between insurers and insured upon this head alone. At the late great fire at Gateshead, a report having spread that the awful explosion which did so much damage arose from the illicit stowage of seven tons of gunpowder in the Messrs. Sisson's warehouse, the interested insurance companies offered a reward of 100l. to elicit information. The experiments instituted, however, by Mr. Pattinson, in the presence of Captain Du Cane, of the Royal Engineers, and the coroner's jury impanelled to inquire into the matter, showed that the water from the fire-engine falling upon the mineral and chemical substances in store was sufficient to account for the result. The following were the experiments tried at Mr. Pattinson's works at Felling, about three miles from Gateshead.

"Mr. Pattinson first caused a metal pot to be inserted in the ground until its top was level with the surface; and having put into it 9 lbs. of nitrate of soda and 6 lbs. of sulphur, he ignited the mass; and then, heating it to the highest possible degree of which it was susceptible, he poured into it about a quart of water. The effect was an immediate explosion (accompanied by a loud clap), which would have been exceedingly perilous to any person in its immediate vicinity. The experiment was next made under different conditions. The pot into which the sulphur and nitrate of soda were put was covered over the top with a large piece of thick metal of considerable weight; and above that again were placed several large pieces of clay and earth. It was deemed necessary to try this experiment in an open field, away from any dwelling-house, and which admitted of the spectators placing themselves at a safe distance from the spot. The materials were then ignited as before; and when in the incandescent state, water was poured upon the mass down a spout. The result was but a comparatively slight explosion, and which scarcely disturbed the iron and clods placed over the mouth of the vessel. Another experiment of the kind was made with the same result. At length, a trial having been made for a third time, but with this difference that the vessel was covered over the top with another similar vessel, and that the water was poured upon the burning sulphur and nitrate of soda with greater rapidity than before, by slightly elevating the spout, the effect was to blow up the pot on the top into the air to a height of upwards of seventy feet, accompanied by a loud detonation. With this the coroner and jury became convinced that whether or not the premises in Hillgate contained gunpowder, they contained elements as certainly explosive, and perhaps far more destructive."


Fires and Firemen - 4/6

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