By Vinny Del Giudice
Editor, London Fire Journal
On July 9, 1861, the steamship Arago arrived in New York from England with a newspaper correspondent’s report on a conflagration at Tooley Street, London.
The blaze, which broke out June 22 and burned for days, claimed the life of James Braidwood, superintendent of the London Fire Engine Establishment.
Braidwood, admired far and wide for his skill and bravery, pioneered the modern fire service.
The former fire master of Edinburgh shaped London’s disorganized and undisciplined insurance company-sponsored brigades into an effective force.
In his 28 years at the helm in London, Braidwood accomplished more in the field of firefighting and fire prevention than anyone before him - even kings and parliament.
Braidwood was a Scot.
In organizing Edinburgh’s fire force:
The book was considered ground-breaking and led to Braidwood's appointment as superintendent of the London Fire Engine Establishment in 1833.
His new brigade was funded by London’s insurance companies and staffed by 80 full-time fire-fighters at 13 stations who wore a functional grey uniform -- designed by Braidwood -- with knee-high boots and black leather helmets.
Men who had served in the Royal Navy received preference in hiring for their discipline, strength and training.
The new brigade faced a major challenge when the Houses of Parliament burned on Oct. 16, 1834.
The blaze started in a basement furnace and spread rapidly.
Seeing the fire was well-advanced, Braidwood directed his force to concentrate on saving Westminster Hall and checking the spread of the flame to other structures.
In that, they succeeded.
Even so, the fire was considered a national tragedy.
In the aftermath of blaze, Braidwood pursued an aggressive effort to reduce the numbers through safer building construction.
In a letter to the Times of London newspaper, [fire.org.uk] Braidwood wrote:
The causes of the fire proceeding so rapidly in the work of destruction I believe to be as follows:
1 The total want of party walls.
2 The passages which intersected the building in every direction and acted as funnels to convey the fire.
3 The repeated alterations in the buildings which had been made with more regard to expedient then to security.
4 The immense quantity of timber used in the exterior.
5 The great depth and extent of the buildings.
6 A smart breeze of wind.
7 An indifferent supply of water which, though amply sufficient for any ordinary occasion, was inadequate for such an immense conflagration.
8 My own and the firemen's total ignorance of the localities of the place. In fires in private dwellings, warehouses, or manufactories, some idea may generally be formed on the division of the inside of the premises from observing the appearances of the outside, but in the present case that rule was useless.
The primary role of the London Fire Engine Establishment was the protection and salvage of property as it was funded by the insurance industry.
Life safety was of secondary concern.
In 1836, the Society for the Protection of Life from Fire was organized separate of Braidwood's brigade to place wheeled ladders throughout London.
The wooden "escapes" could reach as high as 60 feet.
The cumbersome but effective apparatus were operated by "conductors" who were employed by the society and underwent months of training.
(The use of wooden escape ladders continued into the 1970s and 1980s on motorized vehicles).
The firemen of London Fire Engine Establishment and the Society for the Protection of Life from Fire worked closely throughout the Braidwood era.
In 1854, for example, they conducted a number of rescues in a blaze at Raggett's hotel in central London while Braidwood directed the fire-fighting.
Braidwood's final fire at Tooley Street broke out at Cotton's Wharf, a six-story warehouse storing hemp, jute, cotton and other commodities.
According to a sketch of Braidwood:
Braidwood's funeral procession stretched for a mile and a half through London with thousands in attendance.
Church bells tolled and public houses remained open through the night.
On the 150th anniversary of the Tooley Street Fire, the London Fire Brigade published the following account on its website:
By 6 p.m., 14 fire engines, including a steam fire engine and the floating engine, were all at the fire. The fire spread quickly throughout the workhouses as the iron fire doors, that separated many of the storage rooms, had been left open.
It is believed that if they had been closed, as recommended by James Braidwood the Superintendent of the LFEE, the fire may have burnt out, avoiding disaster.
It has been suggested that the fire was so fierce because the firefighters couldn’t get a supply of water for nearly an hour.
This was made even more difficult as the Thames was at low tide.
Whilst the firefighters were tackling the blaze Braidwood noticed how tired they were getting and ordered that every firefighter receive a ‘nip’ of brandy.
While he was assisting one of his firefighters the front section of a warehouse collapsed on top of him, killing him instantly.