Author Archives: Museum Administrator

Post-War & Modern-Day Fire Fighting Timeline

 

 

 

 

Scrapbook of the time prepared by Chris Phillipson covering the 1950s onwards, shows the fire-fighters at Station Echo 79 (now known as Station 85) – Saffron Walden regularly attending events such as the Carnivals and Essex Shows at Audley End Park. The local brigades often took part in local talks and demonstrations.  They had floats at the hospital carnivals and marched in the Remembrance Day parades.  Held annual meetings and many social events, including formal dinners and long service medal ceremonies.

1961

  • Rumsey’s Furniture Shop.  In February, fire broke out at Rumsey’s shop on the corner of King Street and the High Street. The shop was badly damaged and it was estimated that over £100,000 worth of stock had been lost.  However, through the heroic efforts of staff, the shop was open again and re-stocked within a week.
  • Littlebury Tanker crash .  A tanker containing 9 tons of highly explosive propane gas careered info a house and burst into flames. The flames were reportedly 40ft high and 25 firefighters were involved in getting it under control. The road was closed and surrounding properties including the Falcon pub were evacuated. It was believed that heavy rain had softened new tarmac on the road, which led to the tanker overturning.
  • Saffron Walden Steam Laundry, Gold Street – damage estimated at over £50,000 was caused as fire gutted the laundry building. It took 3 brigades less than an hour to get the fire under control, but 12 hours to stop it smouldering, using water from the nearby swimming baths. Fragments of the laundry’s asbestos roof were found afterwards in Bridge Street, and there had been concerns that the fire would spread to a garage close to the laundry. .

1965

  • Railway Crash, Great Chesterford – a train loaded with new cars crashed into the back of another train on the main Liverpool Street to Cambridge Line.

1969

  • Rose & Crown Hotel – tragic fire in which 11 lives were lost, which fundamentally changed fire regulations and the town’s historic market place (SEE FOLDER 2).       

1969

  • Rose & Crown Hotel – tragic fire in which 11 lives were lost, which fundamentally changed fire regulations and the town’s historic market place.

1970

  • Severals Farm, Arkesden – two tons of potatoes and half a ton of baled straw were destroyed in the fire, but thankfully there was no loss of life.

1971

  • Southern’s Tobacconist and sweet shop in King Street caught fire, but it was caught in time before it spread to any neighbouring buildings.

1977

  • To celebrate the Silver Jubilee, Station 79 firefighters and reporters from the Weekly News climbed onto a decorated fire engine for a celebratory parade. The fire-fighters also created a model fire engine and competed in the soapbox derby event.

1984

  • Saffron Walden Fire Station received a major facelift costing £136,000, as the old ambulance station was pulled down, and a new garage was built to house the two fire engines and an improved smoke chamber was erected.

1989

  • Workmen renovating the old Hospital to create the new district council offices, set fire to the roof, destroying 85% of it, rectifying the damage postponed the council’s move to the new building until 1990.

1991

Firemen Fight Against the Ice

Just days before Christmas, severe ice froze the uniforms of firemen solid as they fought to save the 15th century Clavering Guildhall and the family inside. Crews from Saffron Walden, Stansted, Thaxted and Newport struggled to get water from the nearby hydrant which had frozen. They ended up using water from a neighbouring property’s swimming pool, smashing their way through nearly a foot of ice to get to the water. Sadly the roof of the historic Guildhall collapsed, but thankfully the family escaped unharmed and the fire was stopped from spreading to adjoining properties.    

1999

Masonic Hall

A commemorative plaque commemorates the rebuilding of the masonic hall on Church Street after a tragic fire there on the 10th July 1999.

Saffron Hotel

A fire at the Saffron Hotel in 1999 brought back bad memories for many of the 1969 Rose & Crown fire. Fortunately, after 90 minutes the fire was brought under control and contained in the kitchen.

Korean Air 747 Jumbo Jet

Air crash at Stansted airport 12th December 1999

Conclusion

Fires remain a regular aspect of local life, as documented in local print and social media.  Newport News has a regular detailed feature about the Newport Fire Brigade’s activities, which show that these days fire brigades attend a much broader range of incidents particularly complex road traffic accidents as much as they deal with outbreaks of fire. 

The Great Fire at Little Chesterford

On the 7th April 1914, a fire broke out at Bordeaux farm in the parish of Littlebury.  Newspaper reports at the time suggested that in high winds, sparks from a traction engine caught light to some dry thatch.  The flames rang along the river path to Little Chesterford and then spread rapidly across the village.  Many of the timber framed thatched properties were burnt to the ground whilst the ones built using clunch (chalk bedded in rammed powered chalk) fared better.      

The fire also highlighted the lack of effective fire-fighting equipment and poor communication that existed between local fire fighters. Littlebury had no fire pump, whilst Little Chesterford had only a small portable one for estate purposes.  The closest fire engine was based at the Mill in Great Chesterford, but it took over half an hour to attend once the alarm had been raised.  The Saffron Walden brigade was hampered in its efforts to attend, as they reportedly “lost their coal on the journey to the fire.”  Eventually additional brigades from Hinxton, Audley End estate and Sawston attended as well as the police, but the response had sadly come too late to save many of the properties.    

Within 30 minutes of the fire starting it had already destroyed 2 farms, 2 pubs (The Crown and The Bushel & Strike) and 9 houses, leaving 43 out of 100 villagers homeless. The fire had taken everyone by surprise and spread so quickly that the alarm had been raised too late to make a difference.   The town’s labourers working in the fields saw the fire spreading at huge speed, they returned home to find their wives and children making frantic efforts to save themselves and their belongings.

Newspaper reports from the time tell the dramatic story of 100 year old Mrs Law who was rescued from her burning first floor room by Stacey Dyer and her son, who lifted her into a wheelbarrow and got her quickly to safety. Stacey Dyer was reportedly scarred on his face for the rest of his life following his heroism.  It must have been pandemonium as villagers and their animals ran from the flames.  One baby was missing for 2 hours before it was found safe.      

Photographs show the village roads strewn with salvaged furniture and crowds gathering shocked by the scale of the fire and how quickly it had spread. The landlady of the Bushel and Strike (Pampisford Brewery) hastily prepared a shed so that they could continue to serve drinks to their shell-shocked customers.  A fire relief committee was established and the village reading room was used as a shelter for the homeless and store for their surviving belongings.  A fundraising campaign was advertised in the Daily Mail Newspaper. However, not everyone appreciated outside help, with Reverend John Stewart, vicar of both Chesterfords quoted in a subsequent edition of the newspaper as saying:

“We’re a proud people and like to help ourselves. Tell all the kind people who want to send money that we thank them, but do not need their help.”

Cheques from the Daily Mail campaign were reportedly returned to their senders! Archive material suggests local gentry stepped in and helped with the rebuilding work and financial loss.  Lessons were learnt following the fire, as all the local brigades vowed to work on better communication and to pool resources.

 

“A brigade second to none, but often fighting a losing battle” Late 19th Century – 1930s

The fire brigades struggled to contain many of the fires they encountered in the 19th century due to lack of water supply and the hoses often being too short.

In the early days communication was a problem – a fire bell was sounded at the Gas Works – it took a long time to raise the alarm fully and get the fire brigade out to the fire. 

 

 

Newspaper cuttings from the 1930s reflect that the local fire brigades were “heroic in their efforts” and “worthy of the highest admiration,” but they were often “powerless to keep the flames in check.” The brigades were hampered by a lack of up-to-date equipment, with the Saffron Walden brigade’s old engine only being able to do 3-4 miles an hour up Pounce Hill, and having unreliable brakes.   Add to this bad weather conditions and the time it took to raise the alarm when fires broke out in the early hours of the morning, putting out these fires was an epic task.

Their attempts to put out a fire at Leggett’s Farm in Debden Green in the 1930s were hampered by the deep mud that the horses had to drag the fire engine through. The spindle on the fire hydrant broke when they were trying to tackle a blaze at Seward’s End Farm.  The water pressure failed in August 1930 when they responded to a fire at Raynhams Farm on Peaslands Road.  These were not isolated incidents and they spurred the Council on its determination to provide improved waterworks for the town. 

A fire spread quickly between the large storage barns at Taylor & Sons, a straw and chaff merchants at Littlebury in 1931, raged for 70 hours, as 100 tons of chaff and straw caught light blowing out the sides of the corrugated sheds due to the intense heat. You can only imagine how dangerous to the firemen’s health raking out tons of smouldering agricultural materials must have been without the breathing apparatus that today’s brigades rely upon.          

The causes of the fires were very rarely identified, in contrast to the forensic assessments which are undertaken today. Most appear to have been accidental linked to flammable agricultural or building materials like thatch.  Apart from rare cases such as that in 1932 when labourer Cyril Start of Camps Yard was found guilty of maliciously setting fire to stacks of wheat at Rectory Farm, North End, Littlebury, as he was angered by disputed wages with the landowner.

Rose & Crown Hotel (1969)

Boxing Day 2019 marked the 50th anniversary of the tragic fire, in which 11 people tragically lost their lives, at the Rose & Crown Hotel in Saffron Walden’s Market Place. 

The Rose & Crown built before 1359, was once the town’s premier coaching inn. In 1606 its cobbled yard had played host to the King’s Players, so William Shakespeare may even have performed there.  The Woolcombers historically ended their annual procession with a feast at The Rose & Crown and generations of farmers gathered there on market days.  In the 18th century, the steward of Audley End, Thomas Pennystone, annually collected tithes from tenants there over a beef and ale dinner.  The Rose & Crown was where the old post chaise would have started its journey, and later, the railway bus delivered passengers there, after it had laboured up the hills from the railway station.  It went on to be a favourite haunt of the American Airmen who resided in the town during the Second World War.  

Fire broke out at 1.40am on Boxing Day 1969. The alarm was sounded almost immediately by the Hotel’s manager Emil Landsman and the first fire crew arrived on site within 8 minutes, with additional crews scrambled from 10 fire stations across Essex, Cambridgeshire and Suffolk.  However, the building’s alarm had failed to fully sound so everyone inside hadn’t been alerted to the fire spreading.  11 people died in their sleep, unaware that the fire had even taken hold.  29 people were rescued, some having climbed down from the upper floor windows using knotted sheets.  The hotel had winding corridors and rooms on many floors, reached by a narrow twisty staircase, whilst the small sash window openings and decorative window boxes all hampered the rescue efforts. 

The 1970 inquest ruled that it was accidental death, caused by a faulty TV in the resident’s lounge overheating. Initial criticisms of the local brigade were quickly overturned and 3 Saffron Walden firemen received commendations.  The fire resulted in the government strengthening the fire safety regulations governing hotels and passing a new Fire Precautions Act (1971).         

Although the interior of the building was severely gutted by the fire, the magnificent c. 1880’s pargetted façade remained standing, as did the medieval cobbled yard and stables and could have been saved. Unfortunately, before a preservation order could be applied for the hotel’s owners Trust House Forte demolished the building’s remains on the 19th January and the town lost one of its most beautiful and historic buildings.  A new modern building was erected in its place, which since 1973 has been the site of Boots the Chemists.  All that remains of the Rose & Crown is a bunch of grapes (the historic symbol for a licensed victualler) which is 3ft high, made from a single piece of black oak and gilt coloured.  It still adorns the front of the building, whilst the decorative door canopy has been inserted into the rear wall of the newer building. 

More detailed accounts including eye witness accounts of the fire can be found in Zofia Everett’s 2008 article which was published in the Saffron Walden Historical Journal and in Paul Wood’s recent book, titled From Station Officer Drane. The fire understandably still has a major emotional impact on the town’s residents even 50 years on.      

All Fired Up Exhibition – Thanks & Credits

 

 

 

 

 

 

Special Thanks to:

Museum staff & volunteers

Peter Morrissey & the Saffron Walden Community Shed

Essex Fire Museum (Essex County Fire and Rescue Service)

Saffron Walden Fire Station (Essex County Fire and Rescue Service)

Martyn Everett & the Gibson Library

Zofia Everett & the Archive Access point for ERO (SW Library), SEAX

Paul Start, Walden Collection

Steve Scorer, Great Dunmow Museum

Austin Reeve, Dunmow Recorder

Fiona Bengtsen, Manuden Recorder

Jacky Cooper, Clavering Recorder & SW Local History Society & Recorder co-ordinator

Mark Ratcliff, Hatfield Regis Local History Society

Kate McManus, Chesterfords Recorder

Toby Lyons, Stansted (via Local History recorders network)

Neil Curtis, current Watch Manager and firefighters at Station 79, Saffron Walden, EF&RS

Dave Curtis, former Chief Officer, Station 79, Saffron Walden, EF&RS

References

Brooker, Anna & Whiteman, Mary (1985, 1988) Saffron Walden: Portrait of a Market Town, Revised Edition. 

Everett, Zofia (2008) 1969: Tragedy Devastates Townsfolk: The Rose & Crown Inn, 1359-1969, Saffron Walden Historical Journal, 2008 Autumn edition.

Destruction of Easton Lodge, by Fire, Illustrated London News, 6th February 1847

Kilford, Ken (1996) A Village on Fire: Little Chesterford 7th April 1914, Chesterford & District Local History Society, Interim Report No.5, Courtesy of the Gibson Library.

Kirkpatrick, Rosanne (2001) Saffron Walden: a photographic history of your town, WH Smith, Black Horse Books.

Magnus, Imogen & Spencer-Jones, Rae (2000, 2014) The History of Easton Lodge, Trustees of the Gardens of Easton Lodge.

Miller, Mary (1984) A Peep into the Life of Victorian Great Chesterford, Courtesy of the Gibson Library.

Newport News editions – reference numbers kindly provided by Newport History Recorder.

Phillipson, Chris. Saffron Walden Fire Brigade newspaper cuttings c. 1930 – 1936: Independent Press and Chronicle (17th May 1935), Courtesy of the Gibson Library.

Phillipson, Chris. Saffron Walden Fire Brigade scrapbooks. Courtesy of the Gibson Library.

Pole, Len (1997) Saffron Walden: Britain in Old Photographs, Sutton Publishing Ltd.

Rowntree, C. Brightwen (1951) Saffron Walden Then & Now.  

Stacey, H.G. (1980) Saffron Walden in old Photographs, C.W. Daniel Company Ltd.

White, Malcolm (1991) Saffron Walden’s History: A chronological compilation, Hart Talbot Printers.

White, Malcolm (2017) Saffron Walden, 1945-2000, Langham Press.

Wood, Paul (2019) From Station Officer Drane, the Story of the Rose and Crown Fire, Market Place, Saffron Walden December 26th 1969, self-published.

Object of the Month – March 2020

Knights on the Tiles

Saffron Walden Museum’s Object of the Month for March features a sample of luxury flooring from the late Middle Ages. Decorated tiles of fired clay were hard-wearing, and were an attractive and practical way of embellishing a special building or room. At first, elaborate tiled floors were the preserve of royalty, aristocracy and the great cathedrals and abbeys. The industry seems to have expanded in the fourteenth century as demand spread and decorated tile floors became within the reach of wealthy merchants, landed gentry and local churches.

There were many styles of decorative tile flooring; the tiles in Saffron Walden Museum’s collections illustrate the most popular late medieval technique, inlaid or ‘encaustic’ tiles. Plain slabs of red clay were stamped with a wooden block which had a pattern carved into it, so that the pattern was lightly impressed into the surface of the clay. The sunken pattern was then filled with white clay, trimmed and coated with a lead glaze. When fired in a kiln, the lead glaze made the tile appear red-brown with a yellow pattern.

The Museum’s collection includes 19 medieval floor tiles with inlaid design, though some are worn or incomplete. They were acquired in the period 1870-80, from local antiquarians or private collectors as far as we know, however the records made at the time are not as detailed as we would like, with only a vague reference to where some of the tiles came from. Fortunately, archaeologists’ knowledge of the medieval tile industry has increased greatly during the past 150 years thanks to excavations and research, so it is now possible to say where many of the tiles were made, even if we do not know the place where the tiled floor was laid. A recent research visit by Paul Drury FSA, who is an authority on medieval tiles, has provided us with much more information on the Museum’s small collection of medieval tiles. The three tiles featured here have been chosen for display in the Museum during March ,and can be found in a small case on the first floor level of the Great Hall gallery.

1 Tile with castle design, made near Winchester, Hampshire

Impressive tile, of larger than usual size, was made in the Winchester area, possibly from Otterbourne (a village south of the city) where there are records of a tilery providing tiles to Winchester roundabout 1400. The Museum’s register entry states that this tile came from Winchester.

2 Tile made at Chertsey, Surrey

Large tile, made at Chertsey, Surrey around 1250 – 1300. Chertsey was an important tilery producing high-quality picture tiles as well as more ordinary geometric designs like this one. Tiles with geometric designs like 2 and 3 were designed to be laid in groups of four, to create a larger pattern.

3 Tile made at Penn, Buckinghamshire

The village of Penn was the location for a large tile-making industry in the fourteenth century. Penn supplied tiles beyond Buckinghamshire to north-west Essex and south Cambridgeshire; examples of Penn tiles have been recorded at churches in Saffron Walden, the Chesterfords and Little Shelford.

4 Tile with monogram of John Baret, merchant of Bury St Edmunds

Tile displays the monogram (interlinked initials) of a merchant John Baret, who lived in Bury St Edmunds from the 1390s to 1467. The same monogram design was used to decorate the ceiling of his chantry chapel in the church of St Mary, Bury St Edmunds. A similar JB tile was found at Rattlesden in Suffolk and it si possible that our tile came from a site near Saffron Walden. The John Baret tile may also have been made locally, as it belongs to s group of tiles found along the border of north Essex, south Cambridgeshire and south Suffolk.

 

 

 

 

Essex Celebrates International Women’s Day with Funding Success for ‘Snapping the Stiletto’ project

Essex County Council is delighted to announce that the ‘Snapping the Stiletto’ project has received a generous grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund of over £200,000 to coincide with International Women’s Day, which aims to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women.

The Essex ‘Snapping the Stiletto’ project aims to showcase the lives and stories of working-class women and Essex’s LBGTQ+ and diverse communities from the last hundred years, to highlight unsung heroes and celebrate those who helped to campaign for equal rights.

The project will work with communities across Essex to collect accounts and build a narrative to look at how women’s lives have changed from the Representation of the People Act 1918 to the Equal Pay Act 1970 to culminate in an exhibition, events and activities.

‘Snapping the Stiletto’ will work with the Museum of Power, Maldon Museum in the Park, Saffron Walden Museum and Southend Museums’ Service as well as a broad of community partners.

Cllr Susan Barker, Essex County Council Cabinet Member for Customer, Corporate, Culture and Communities said: “I’m delighted that with support from The National Lottery Heritage Fund we will be able to explore Essex women’s stories as part of our county’s rich contemporary history and ensure these are celebrated and enrich our museums current collections. I very much look forward to seeing how the project unfolds over the next 18 months.” 

Ends

About The National Lottery Heritage Fund 

Using money raised by the National Lottery, we Inspire, lead and resource the UK’s heritage to create positive and lasting change for people and communities, now and in the future. www.heritagefund.org.uk   

Follow @HeritageFundUK on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and use #NationalLotteryHeritageFund 

For more information contact:

Andrew Ward

Andrew.Ward@essex.gov.uk

Tel: 033301 32470

 

Easton Lodge – major fires in 1847 and 1918

The gardens, grounds and estate of Easton Lodge, Little Easton, close to Dunmow, date back to Tudor times. In 1590, they were granted to Henry Maynard who later built a house there.  

In 1847 a disastrous fire broke out in the mansion at 3am, destroying almost all of the Elizabethan parts of the building. Lord Viscount Maynard (Lord-Lieutenant of Essex), his wife, Lady Maynard, their daughter, the Honourable Miss Maynard and their servants attempted to halt the spread of the fire using sections of carpet and buckets of water, but it was in vain. 

Despite having the estate’s small fire engine and the Thaxted engine onsite they were unable to put the fire out. Their efforts to call for more assistance were hampered when they found the alarm bell rope tangled and unable to be used.  Thankfully everyone was safe.  The collections of books, paintings and fine furniture were salvaged and the horses were moved to safety.  However, so many features of the original house such as the old turret clock were lost forever.  After the fire it was discovered that although the estate’s farms had been insured, the mansion and its contents were not.  The house was rebuilt in brick and stucco in the Victorian Gothic style to the designs of Thomas Hopper, in what turned out to be his last commission before his death. 

In 1865, the Easton Lodge estate was inherited by 3 year old Frances ‘Daisy’ Maynard, following the deaths of her father and grandfather. She went on to marry Lord Brooke (who later became the Earl of Warwick).  The couple chose to live the majority of their time at Easton Lodge, rather than in their London home.

In 1918, there was yet another major fire at Easton Lodge. One of Daisy’s pet monkeys fell ill and was wrapped in a blanket and taken into the night nursery.  It sat on the stove for extra warmth and the blanket subsequently caught fire.  The monkey panicked and ran around the room with the burning blanket in its wake, igniting the curtains and upholstery.  The Dunmow Fire Brigade was called out.  Unfortunately, the fire spread so quickly that the private quarters in the west wing, the kitchen and the servant’s quarters were all gutted by fire, with the loss of numerous letters and papers belonging to the Countess, but thankfully there was no loss of either human or animal life!

After this fire, the couple employed the architect, Philip Tilden, who designed Selfridges in Oxford Street, to plan the re-build. The west wing was constructed as a separate building, becoming what was later known as Lady Warwick’s Great Room (this is now the present Warwick House, home of the Creasey family from 1971-2010). However, the Countess’ finances were in a downward spiral, and many of Tilden’s elaborate plans for Easton Lodge never came to fruition.  The majority of the estate was sold to cover her debts around 1919.  

The print of an engraving of Easton Lodge completed by Henry Adlard, after an image drawn by W Bartlett which was published in 1832 by George Virtue.

Print showing Easton Lodge after the fire of 1847, it shows a fire engine which probably belonged to the estate.

 

Introduction to Early Fire-Fighting

In the 17th century, when the majority of houses were thatched, fires were catastrophic and spread very quickly.  The Great Fire of London in 1666 destroyed over 13,000 houses and left thousands of people homeless.  Fire was a very real threat to people’s lives and livelihoods, as in many ways it still is today.  

The earliest fire-fighting groups were employed by fire insurance companies from around 1715 onwards, though these were largely in the most urban areas. Lead fire-marks were used to identify insured properties and avoid fraud, as prior to 1840 houses were rarely numbered.  They included the insurance company’s name and the householder’s policy number.  Later more decorative copper alloy plates were introduced, which functioned more as an advert for the insurance companies. 

Two examples of early fire-plates., one with the sun symbol (seen as warding off the evil eye) and a later Norwich Union Society example can be seen on display in our Local History Gallery.

The earliest engines were pumps on wheels which were designed to suck water from the nearest substantial water sources, usually the local pond or stream. They required up to 30 people to operate them effectively.  The first mechanical fire engines had been invented in the 1650’s and the first horse-drawn Newsham-type hand pump engines were introduced around 1700, but it was longer still before more effective steam-powered fire engines came into widespread use.  In many rural areas they would have had little more than a fire hook (with which to tear down burning thatch in order to prevent a fire spreading further) and a stock of buckets with which to fight a fire.

By the 19th century, larger parishes and private estates began to purchase their own fire-engines.  Archives show that in Saffron Walden, parish officers and local fire office agents regularly met during the 1830s and a “new large (fire) engine” was purchased by a group of local insurance companies. 

The Saffron Walden Volunteer Fire Brigade was officially formed on 1st May 1865 with 16 volunteers.  The 1866 Almanac states they had “two powerful engines, one belonging to the town which has been thoroughly repaired, and the other an entirely new one by Merryweather and Son, plus a hose reel with 500ft of canvas hose and 400ft of leather hose and a set of fire escape ladders which will reach to a height of 42ft. The members are supplied with a waterproof tunic, helmet and knee boots.”  

On display in the temporary exhibition you can see original examples of the early rules and regulations documents of the Saffron Walden Volunteer Fire Brigade.

Great Dunmow Parish had two fire engines in the 19th century, one of these is now on display in the stable block at Audley End House.  Stansted Mountfitchet had a similar engine as well.

In the early 1900s, the fire brigade in Saffron Walden would have been called out by pressing a bell outside the original council offices at No. 3 Hill Street, next to the Fire Station. This connected with the Police Station, who then raised the alarm.  A siren at the Gas Works then called the firemen out.  On hearing the alarm Dick Williams the brigade’s driver would have taken the horses out of their stables on Freshwell Street and led them around to Hill Street, before harnessing them to the fire engine.  Valuable time was obviously lost in responding to fires.

Saffron Walden Fire Brigade 1905

Another new engine was acquired in 1911, which enabled the brigade to tackle a larger number of stack fires, which in such a rural area were very commonplace.

 

Coats of Many Colours: A brief history of fire-fighting uniform

When the early fire office and insurance company brigades were formed they introduced very colourful uniforms so that they could be easily identified.

By the 19th century there were so many different brigades in operation: insurance, volunteer, parish, institutional, estate, industrial, as well as combined police-fire brigades, it was almost impossible to have any standardisation in uniforms at all.  Some wore tight woollen tunics over velvet-like breeches, with leather helmets.  Others wore sombre grey trouser suits.  Some of the London brigades even adopted naval fashions, wearing low top hats (beavers), white canvas trousers and short double-breasted tunics, similar to a naval midshipman’s jacket. 

The Metropolitan brigade were different again, adopting blue double-breasted tunics with stout waterproof trousers and Napoleon style leather boots, which were cut higher at the front for added knee protection. Brass helmets began to be more commonly worn, which had raised peaks and broad protective neckpieces for added protection.  Higher ranking officers tended to wear silver coloured helmets, as well as gilt badges, gold braiding and shoulder epaulettes to denote their higher status.

 

Brass helmet, late 19th century worn by the Saffron Walden Volunteer Fire Brigade – adapted French Pattern style made by Merryweather

 

In the run up to the Second World War, as part of Air Raid Precautions most brigades swapped their brass helmets for cork ones and wore rubber boots, to reduce their chances of electrocution. By 1939, however these had been changed for steel “battle-bowler” helmets which could be easily and cheaply mass produced.  They could also be boiled unlike the cork ones, which was crucial at a time when people feared blister gas attacks.  Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) volunteers were generally provided with peaked caps, overalls, rubber boots and a helmet.  Officers in the AFS tended to wear white helmets with red markings denoting their rank.  Regular brigades had two working uniforms, whilst the AFS had to struggle along with one, so they were often forced to clean equipment at their stations in their long-johns whilst their uniforms’ dried out! 

The fire brigades were nationalised in 1941 for the duration of the Second World War and with this came more standardised uniforms. Lower ranks wore a fire tunic for all occasions, whilst officers had a dark blue undress uniform, as well as a fire tunic with rank markings on the shoulders. 

When the fire services denationalised in 1948, 140 fire authorities were created (compared to the 1440 authorities that had existed pre-war). Post-war uniforms incorporated major technological improvements in fabrics, which reflected that the brigades were now tackling more hazardous situations, such as industrial accidents and complex road traffic accidents.  Naval style pullovers were introduced for more informal occasions and firemen’s helmets began to be painted canary yellow, with officer’s ones remaining white but with black rank bands.  In the 1980s fluorescent anoraks with reflective strips and Velcro fasteners were introduced. 

Breathing apparatus was first introduced in 1875. Early versions featured manually operated air pumps and the firefighter was attached to a lifeline tube, so it wouldn’t have been that flexible for moving around but was vital to keep them alive.  Self-contained oxygen supply systems existed in 1881, but they weren’t widely adopted until after the First World War.  Fire resistant asbestos suits, hoods, gloves and aprons used in the 1920s have been replaced with safer and more effective epoxy coated aluminium fibres and materials that utilise complex fire resistant and retardant chemicals.  Fire-fighters uniforms continue to adapt regularly to take account of fashion as well as the challenging environments that they face.