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July 13, 2005



"It was very cold down there and you were cold, even though you were sweating. That was fear."

Photo: Fire Brigades Union

Photo: Private collection

Photo: Private collection
Photo: London Fire Brigade

A tragic fire at London's central market prompted the fire brigade to alter its policy on firefighter breathing apparatus and replace oxygen sets with compressed air breathing apparatus.

The blaze at Union Cold Storage Co. at Smithfield Market broke out on Jan. 23, 1958 and burned for three days, starting in a labryinth of meat lockers lined with flammable insulation - cork affixed by tar. The meat, fat and grease no doubt provided ample fuel. Flames eventually gutted the market floor and toppled the roof.

The magazine Fire Engineering said:

"The underground snail-like progress of the firemen operating in the smoke and heat-charged tunnels took heavy toll of personnel. Man after man was dragged to the outer air, the most seriously affected given oxygen, after which some returned to duty—and some went to hospitals—30 of them to nearby St. Bartholomew’s for treatment. About 800 cylinders of oxygen were used during the first day."

Sadly, Station Officer Jack Fort-Wells and Firefighter Dick Stocking from the Clerkenwell Fire Station, both wearing old-style ``Proto'' apparatus, died in the cold storage lockers in the early stages of the battle, which was ultimately waged by 1,700 firefighters and 389 appliances. About two dozen firefighters were injured at ``Smithfield's."

The United Press news agency, in a dispatch published the next day in The New York Times, reported that ``the fire spread through two and a half acres of underground passages.''

According to the web site Emergency Services Centre:

"When the first pumps arrived, thick acrid smoke was pouring out of the market's maze of underground tunnels leading to cold storage rooms. One of the first crews to enter in Proto breathing apparatus sets was that from the local station, Clerkenwell. A Station Officer and a fireman headed down into the dense smoke, never to be seen alive again. Soon after their entry into the basement, they were buried under a collapse of frozen meat packets and although only yards from an exit and fresh air, their oxygen eventually ran out."

A firefighter who knew Fort-Wells described him as ``one of the old `smoke eaters'" who ``would not give up'' hunting for the seat of a fire.

In the aftermath of fires at Covent Garden Market in 1949 and 1954, the London Fire Brigade had already taken steps aimed at better managing the use of ``BA teams'' by requiring control points and control boards to track firefighters entering a hazardous environment.

One account of the disaster said the control board at the Smithfield helped the fire brigade determine two firefighters were missing, but another account said the control board wasn't set up when Fort-Wells and Stocking entered the market.

In February 1958 - ``due to the outcry over the recent deaths of firemen'' - the British Home Office establsihed a Committee of Inquiry into the operational use of breathing apparatus, according to an artile entitled ``The History of BA in the British Fire Services" and published on the Fire Net International web site.

By June, the committee had developed a new set of procedures and asked 12 fire brigades to participate in a trial program.

In October, the government issued ``Fire Service Circular No. 37/1958'' detailing the findings of the Committee of Inquiry and recommending, among orther things, that all British fire brigades establish control procedures for recording and supervising breathing apparatus wearers as well as standard procedures for firefighters wearing breathing apparatus.

Over the decades, the procedures - as well as the breathing apparatus - have evolved to offer a greater margin of safety in a very dangerous business.

John Bishop, the acting station officer at Whitefriers Station, was among those to arrive at the market shortly after the engine from the Clerkenwell Station, and he said: ``There was no sign of flames, just lots of smoke, but conditions were getting worse.''

Bishop's account of the tragedy - obtained from an October 1999 article based on a Channel 4 television series and Gavin Weightman's book "RESCUE - The History of Britain's Emergency Services" - follows:

"It was a maze and we used clapping signals. I was going down the center and I'd send men down a passageway here and there. You would walk along one step at a time, with the back of your hand in front of you in case you walked into something red-hot, making sure you were not going to fall down a hole. All we could find was passageways with meat packed either side from floor to ceiling. The smoke got thicker - you could eat it; black oily smoke. It was very cold down there and you were cold, even though you were sweating. That was fear."

A special service was held Jan. 23, 2008 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the fire.

Deputy Commissioner of London Fire Brigade Roy Bishop, Superintendent of the Smithfield Market Robert Wilson and Smithfield Market Tenants’ Association Deputy Chairman, Mark Twogood laid wreaths the City of London Corporation’s Smithfield Market. Other members of the Brigade joined traders and workers, including those who witnessed the fire - which raged for four days.

Deputy Commissioner Bishop said: “This is a landmark fire in the history of London and its fire brigade. It is important that we remember this tragic fire and honour the memory of the two London firefighters who lost their lives.”

Tenants’ Association Deputy Chairman Twogood said: “The dedication shown by all those firemen involved in fighting the fire in this Market in 1958 epitomises the service which Londoners know the Fire Brigade is ready to deliver every day.”

Four years earlier, Clerkenwell firefighters paid dearly at a fire at Covent Garden on May 11,

``While fighting a fire in a warehouse containing fruit and vegetables, adjacent to Covent Garden, London, Station Officer Fred Hawkins and Fireman A E J Batt-Rawden, both of Clerkenwell Fire Station, lost their lives,'' according to Fire magazine. ``Sub Officer Sidney Peen, Leading Fireman Ernest Datlin, Fireman Kenneth Aylward, Fireman Charles Gadd, Fireman Frederick Parr and Fireman Daniel Stocking were all sent to hospital. Three of the injured required plastic surgery treatment.''



The comprehensive blog "Tales and Stories of the London Fire Brigade and its people" features an excellent account of the Smithfield Market fire, an excerpt of which is presented here - the incident log:

0218 Call to the Union Cold Store-Smithfield Street.
B20 (Clerkenwell) PE. P. ET
B36 (Whitefriars) P
B35 (Cannon Street) TL

0230. From Station Officer Fourt-Wells. Make pump four.
B36 (Whitefriars) PE and B33 (Redcross Street) P plus A4 (Euston) AFS Pump ordered. ADO Lloyd and DO Shawyer attending from B Div HQ (Clerkenwell)

O246. From DO Shawyer. Considerable amount of smoke issuing from basement store, market section. No fire yet. BA men searching.

0253. From DO Shawyer. Second ET required to stand-by.    D61 (Lambeth) ET ordered.

0255. From DO Shawyer. A building of 2 floors and basement, about 300 ft x 300 ft, part of basement alight.

0307. Ex Tele call to Lambeth Control. Fire Charterhouse Street. (DO Shawyer informed.)

0315. From DO Shawyer. Making an entrance at Charterhouse Street. 

0318. From DO Shawyer. Making entry from two different sides of the fire. Smithfield Street and Charterhouse Street. The fire has not yet been located. 4 additional pumps with BA required to stand-by. A4 (Euston) P from Clerkenwell. B32 (Bishopsgate) P from Whitefriars. B27 (Shoreditch) P and D62 (Southwark) P.

0325. From DO Shawyer. Fire located on Charterhouse Street side of incident.

0342. From ACO Cunningham at Smithfield Street make pumps 8.
A1 (Manchester Square) P from Clerkenwell. D64 (Old Kent Road) P from Whitefriars. B33 (Redcross Street) PE. B35 (Cannon Street) PE.  Brig HQ (Lambeth) CU. A1 (Manchester Square) HLL.

0347. From ACO Cunningham. 3 emergency lights required. Extent of fire still not known, access being made from all available points.

Deputy Chief Leete mobile to incident.

0356. CU arrived and in control. (R/T 20)

0408. From ACO Cunningham. Make pumps 12.
B37 (Holloway) P from Redcross Street. A10 (Kensington) from Clerkenwell. B29 (Burdett Road) from Whitefriars. D66 (Brixton) P from Cannon Street. (*On the make pumps 12; 4 PEs, 13 Ps plus 1 AFS pump would be in attendance.)

0433. From Chief Officer. Order CaV at once with refreshments for 100 men. (D61 Lambeth CaV ordered.)

0448. From Chief Officer. Second ambulance required at Smithfield Market.

0459. From Chief Officer. 10 BA pumps required as relief at 0600hrs.
(B21 Islington, B24 Homerton, B26 Bethnal Green, B31 Shadwell, C42 Deptford, C43 East Greenwich, C50 Lewisham, D63 Dockhead, D60 Clapham, A3 Camden Town.)

0500. From Chief Officer. Make ambulances 4.

0507. From the Chief Officer. Fm Stropp removed to hospital.

0514. From the Chief Officer Station Officer Fourt–Wells and Fireman Stocking (B20) overcome by smoke and removed to hospital by ambulance.