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"THE RESCUE" - 1855

"THE RESCUE" - 1855

July 13, 2005



Photo: Commercial Motor magazine

Until April 1984, London's insurance companies maintained their own private fire service - the London Salvage Corps - to protect buildings and goods from fire, smoke and water. While the corpsmen risked their lives just like the city's firefighters, the service was rocked by an arson scandal in the 1930s.

According to the Feb. 26, 1934 edition of Time magazine:

``At all great London fires for the past ten years, Londoners have seen inside the fire lines a tall, hearty figure in the black helmet and blue uniform of the Salvage Corps. He was Captain Brymore Eric Miles, chief of the insurance companies' special force to keep down unnecessary damage by fire & water. On his hefty chest glittered a row of medals, including the Military Cross and the Stars of Mons.

``How venal a heart those medals covered Londoners first discovered last November, at the end of a scandalous trial of a huge arson ring. Before he was sentenced to 14 years in jail, the ringleader, one Leopold Harris, testified that he had had nearly every Salvage Corps officer in his pocket. Of the ring's £500,000 annual takings in insurance, Captain Miles had received a paltry £25 a month for overlooking cases of suspected arson.

``Last week a jury in Old Bailey Court found brave Captain Miles guilty of `corruption and conspiring to pervert the administration of justice.' Grimly the judge sentenced him to four years in jail."


Besides London, insurance companies operated salvage corps in Liverpool and Glasgow in the United Lingdom, as well as major U.S. cities from New York to San Francisco. None are left. The New York Fire Patrol disbanded in 2006. One of the remaining salvage corps is in Asia. The Loss Prevention Association of India operates in Mumbai. The unit is stationed at Cotton Green and is ``on the hot line of the Bombay Fire Brigade,'' according to the association's web site.

According to the web site of the Houston (Texas) Fire Museum:

Regular firefighters jokingly referred to patrolmen as "diaper boys" because of the large tarpaulins. Patrolmen, however, entered burning buildings along with the firefighters and experienced their share of serious injuries and death. Salvage Corps usually rode with more men than rode on fire apparatus. There were fire patrols running with upwards of ten patrolmen.

Operations of London corps

The 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, published in 1911, featured an article on the London service. According to an online reprint:

The London Salvage Corps is maintained by the fire offices of London. The corps was first formed in 1865 and began operations in March 1866. The staff of the corps when first formed consisted of 64. Since that time, owing to the many improvements that have taken place in the system of dealing with salvage, and the increase in the work to be done, the corps has necessarily been strengthened, and the staff now numbers over 100.
The various stations of the corps are well placed, and the Metropolis has been mapped out so that when a fire takes place it may be attended to at the earliest possible moment.

The headquarters are situated at Watling Street, which is called the No. I station, and this station protects the City of London enclosed by the Euston Road, Tottenham Court Road, City Road and the river Thames; this is known as the B district. No. 2 station is at Commercial Road, and attends to the whole of the E. and N.E. portion of London to the N. of the Thames, and is known as the C district. No. 3 station, opposite the headquarters of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Station in the Southwark Bridge Road, protects the whole of S. London, and is known as the D district. No. 4 station, at Shaftesbury Avenue, is called the A district, and covers the West End and Kensington. Finally, No. 5 station, in Upper Street, Islington, guards the parish of Islington.

The working staff, which is mainly recruited from the royal navy, consists of the chief officer and a superintendent, foreman and crew of men at each station. The stations of the corps are connected by telephone with the fire brigade stations from whence the calls are received. In addition to the home staff, there is also a staff constantly employed during the daytime in inspecting docks, wharves, Manchester goods and uptown warehouses, and reports are made weekly to the committee.

Duties of the corps

The encyclopdeia also said:

Generally speaking, the work of the Corps may be divided into two distinct classes (1) services at fires; (2) watching and working salvage.

(1) Services at Fires form the most important feature of the work. Much depends upon the method of dealing with the salvage. If, for instance, a large Manchester goods warehouse was on fire in the top part, it would be very little advantage to the offices interested in the risk if the men were set to work removing the stock off the ground floor. The best method would be to cover up with tarpaulin all goods there, and prevent the water from collectingon the lower floors. It will be gathered that the most important work of the corps is to prevent damage to goods, and that water is mostly looked after. The damage from fire is left almost entirely to the fire brigade.

The traps, which immediately on receipt of an alarm proceed to the scene of the fire with their crew of men, carry every kind of appliance for the saving of goods from destruction by fire or damage by water, as well as lime-light apparatus for use in working after the fire has been extinguished, thus enabling the men to note the position of dangerous walls, &c.; and a portable coal-gas apparatus, which can be employed in the interior of buildings when the ordinary means of ifiumination has failed; in addition to ambulance appliances for emergencies.

(2) Working Salvage.When a fire takes place, a man is left behind in charge of the salvage if the property is insured; or if that fact cannot be ascertained, but it appears probable that it is, a man is left until the information is obtained later. The duty, if an important one, is divided into a day and night duty. This enables an experienced man to be sent on day duty to meet the surveyor, and to carry out his instructions regarding the working out of the salvage; and a junior man at night. The day man, if working out salvage, would employ a number of men called strangers, over whom he acts as a kind of foreman.

The working out may take the form of dividing up damaged goods into lots ready for a sale to be held by the surveyor, or of sifting over the debris to find remains of certain articles claimed for. If, for instance, a large fire occurred at a pianoforte manufacturers, and the debris was all in one common heap, the London Salvage Corps might have to arrange certain quantities of pegs and wires in order to give an idea of the number of pianos before the fire. The watching continues until the loss is settled, when the charge of the premises is given over to the assured.