In the 19th Century, the Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire operated a system of escape ladders across London.
Established in 1836, the rescue service - independent of the London Fire Engine Establishment - became operational in 1843, when six stations opened, each staffed by a sole fireman in a sentry box called a ``conductor.''
The escape ladder service was so successful that the number of stations outnumbered those of the regular fire brigade. By 1866, the number of rescue stations had increased to 1866, according to Haydn's Dictionary of Dates and Universal Information.
``In 1858, 504 fires had been attended, and 57 persona rescued,'' Haydn's said in its report on the society. ``In 1861, it was stated that 84 lives had been saved by the society's officers. In 1866, 695 fires had been attended, and 78 lives saved.''
Euston to Clerkenwell
In 1846, the Mechanics Magazine reported:
``The Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire, since it was remodelled in 1843, has been progressing in usefulness, and consequently in public favour. The society has for some time past maintained twelve stations, at regular distances, from Eaton-square, Pimlico, to St. John-street, Clerkenwell.
``At each station there is a fire-escape and conductor, who is provided with a crowbar, axe, and rattle ; and it is the duty of each conductor to be with his machine (in the management of which he is well instructed) throughout the night, and to proceed with the same to a fire immediately on the first alarm.
``The report for 1845 is not yet published, but by reference to that for the former year it appears that one or more of the society's fire-escapes attended eighty fires, and happily saved the lives of ten persons, who, it is confidently believed, would have perished but for the timely aid thus offered to them.''
Nonetheless, the machines had their drawbacks.
In the 1860 publication ``The Fireman's Own Book,'' author George P. Little wrote:
``The truth is, that most such require too much adjustment at the critical moment when their services are wanted; either they are in the hands and under the management of those who are too much agitated to do them justice, or they have to be brought from a distance, and to undergo a long process of adjustment.''
The Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire merged with the fire brigade in August 1867.