"Heroes with grimy faces" - Sir Winston Churchill

"Heroes with grimy faces" - Sir Winston Churchill

October 02, 2008

THE GREAT FIRE

In the days before the London Fire Brigade, the Great Fire of London raged for five days during September 1666 - demonstrating the inadequacy of informal bucket brigades.

The conflagration started at the king's bakery on Pudding Lane.

According to the London Fire Brigade's web site, flames destroyed 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches and a variety of other buildings - including The Royal Exchange, The Guild Hall and the original St. Paul’s Cathedral.

``The death toll was six people, yet a great many others died through indirect causes,'' such as exposure during the harsh winter that followed, according to the brigade's web site.

Just the same, ``There were some benefits of the fire,'' the web site said. ``One of these was that the black plague which had killed many people was eliminated by the burning down of diseased, rat-infested properties.''

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From Port Cities web site

Towards the end of the 17th century, an insurance industry began to develop in London. One branch of the industry became involved in offering fire policies to owners of buildings. Before long, the insurance companies employed their own fire teams - recruited from the Thames watermen - to put out fires at properties they insured.

To distinguish which buildings were covered by their policies, insurance companies devised 'fire marks' - special metal signs to be placed on the facades of insured buildings.

Unfortunately, private enterprise was not really up to the task of protecting the public. As insurance companies were interested in protecting only their clients, they would usually ignore any properties not insured or insured by other firms.

Even when a company's fire crew did turn up at a blaze, they would often leave the building to burn. Although various compromises were reached, it was not a satisfactory situation.

It took more than a century before it became clear that the free market in fire fighting was not providing adequate protection. In 1833, 19 insurance companies banded together to form the London Fire Engine Establishment.

It was headed by James Braidwood, who had pioneered a similar initiative in Edinburgh. The Establishment had 80 full-time officers, popularly known as 'Jimmy Braiders'.