I visited the London Fire Brigade Museum during the Open House London weekend, as I knew that it would be closed afterwards in preparation for a move to the museum’s original home on the Albert Embankment. This could take between three and five years, so I was determined to see it while I still had the chance.
The site was originally part of the estate of the Bishop of Winchester. It became a workhouse and a hat factory before becoming the HQ of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, as well as the residence of Captain Eyre Massey Shaw, the first Chief Officer. The museum looks at the history of the London Fire Brigade, from the early fires of London (including the Great Fire of 1666) through to modern-day firefighting.
The earliest fire brigades were established in response to the Great Fire, and were tied to different insurance companies. Firemarks were attached to buildings to signify which company they were insured with. In case of fire, several brigades would attend, but if it was not one of “their” buildings they would leave it to burn! The first proper “fire engine”, which could expel a jet of water, was patented by Richard Newsham in 1721. It was tough to operate, so bystanders would be bribed with “beer tokens” for offering their help. The Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire (RSPLF) was formed in 1828; this provided escape ladders to help people get out of burning buildings.
In 1833, the London Fire Engine Establishment (LFEE) was formed when ten independent fire insurance companies united. James Braidwood, from Edinburgh, was Superintendent for 28 years, until his death in the Tooley Street Fire. This fire, which occurred in 1861, was the most serious to happen in the capital since the Great Fire. Afterwards, the insurance companies contacted the Government arguing that the fire safety of London should become a public authority. The Metropolitan Fire Brigade Act was passed in 1865: as a result, the Metropolitan Fire Brigade commenced from 1 January 1866.
The previously-mentioned Captain Sir Eyre Massey Shaw, the first Chief Officer of the MFB, established a rank system, a new uniform, several new fire stations and advanced technology, including steam fire engines pulled by horses. The existing system continued until the Second World War, when the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) formed, and women were permitted to become firefighters for the first time. Fire stations were set up all over London, and firefighters battled the fires that resulted from bombing raids.
After the war, the area that the London Fire Brigade was responsible for grew to encompass the Greater London Council, the 999 emergency number was introduced, and there was a greater focus on fire prevention. Modern-day firefighting involves the use of breathing apparatus boards, lines to follow when tackling a fire, and the HAZCHEM code which warns of hazardous substances. The King’s Cross Underground fire of 1987 led to stricter regulations on the Underground in particular.
The museum displays period rooms shown as they would have been during Captain Shaw’s time at the house, as well as a chronological history of fire in London. I found it fascinating and the other visitors seemed to enjoy it too, especially the small children running around wearing fire helmets. Outside, there is a “parade ground” where the early firefighters would drill, and nearby there is an Appliance Bay which is home to early examples of fire engines. I’m no vehicle enthusiast, but these were good fun to look at.
It’s a shame the museum is closing as it’s a high quality and interesting day out. Hopefully the new museum, when it eventually opens, will be just as impressive.
Address: 94a Southwark Bridge Road, London, SE1 0EG
Opening Hours: Now closed, pending the move to Albert Embankment