Nicola here. Recently I inherited a whole stack of research books that once belonged to Sheila Walsh, author of many wonderful traditional Regencies. I loved Sheila’s writing and still have a number of her Regencies on my keeper shelf so when I was given the opportunity to rummage through her library and make a bid on any of the books I fancied, I was onto it like a shot. It's always interesting to see the books that have inspired other authors and the ones they have drawn on for their writing, and amongst the treasures I have snapped up is a book about the history of fire-fighting.
Fire-fighting is a subject that has always fascinated me. Man’s relationship to fire has always been a challenging one. On the one hand it is of huge benefit to us as a source of warmth and energy. On the other, it’s dangerous. It can run out of control, damaging property and threatening life. So I was curious to learn how men have fought fire through the centuries and what would have happened in the Regency period if your house had caught fire.
The Roman Fire Service
Perhaps it's no surprise that it was the Romans, with their metropolitan-based lifestyle and their track record for efficiency and invention, who were the first to develop an “official” fire brigade. They formed bands of slaves, supervised by a tribunal of magistrates, whose responsibility it was to attend any outbreak of fire and attempt to put it out using buckets of water. In 300BC the fire brigade in Rome, known as the Familia Publica, was criticised for being slow to put out a fire in the Via Sacra. This was largely because the slaves were reluctant to put their own lives at risk to rescue anyone else since there was no incentive for them to do so. This changed under the rule of the Emperor Augustus, who created the Corps of Vigiles. As an inducement to service he offered slaves who signed up as firemen their freedom after six years of service and also gave them free accommodation. A professional, municipal service had been born.
The Roman fire fighting equipment consisted of a manned bucket chain and a pump. The pump operated on the same principle as a syringe, with a barrel and a plunger, and could squirt water quite a long way. The other important aspect of Roman fire fighting was the “hook-man” who carried a pole to tear down burning materials in order to clear the way for the men with the water.
(One other thing that caught my eye about the Roman fire service was that their role was soon extended to other public service duties which included the recapture of runaway slaves and watching bathers’ clothes at the public baths to prevent thefts! Rescuing cats from trees wasn't mentioned!)
After the withdrawal of the Romans from Britain and the decline in metropolitan life, there was no need of a fire-fighting service until the ninth century when King Alfred started to establish towns again. Cities such as Winchester, Alfred's capital, were hideous firetraps as the houses were built of mud, timber and wattle, and stood very close together. There was no organised fire-fighting service and an elementary system was only developed slowly. Church bells were rung (in reverse order) to summon people to help when a fire broke out. The bucket chain was once again the main way that fires were tackled.
After 1066 William the Conqueror, with his passion for legislation, introduced laws to try to reduce fire risk. The "couvre-feu" law ordered that all cooking fires inside houses should be covered at night. The phrase “couvre-feu” later gave its name to the curfew.
The Great Fires
Large fires in cities were numerous in the medieval period. In 1137 the whole of York was destroyed. There was a ban on roofing with thatch in London as a safety measure but in 1212 a huge fire in the capital jumped the River Thames and killed three thousand people. This was known as "the first great fire of London." The street cry of the night watchmen was: “Take care of your fire and candle, be charitable to the poor and pray for the dead.” There was a definite link between the first and the last.
Meanwhile, the first wheeled fire engine was made in Germany in 1518 but these were expensive and most towns and cities still relied on the old system of throwing a bucket of water. It was not until the 17th century that towns and cities started to establish an organised fire fighting force again. New York was the first place in the world to have a volunteer fire brigade. In England it took the disaster of the Great Fire of London of 1666 to bring about change. Even in a world where fires were commonplace, the scale of the Great Fire shocked people. Two thirds of the city was lost and two hundred thousand people made homeless and the cost of damage done by the fire was over 10 million pounds. The use of buckets and primitive pumps proved completely inadequate and in the end the British Navy had to use gunpowder to blow up sufficient buildings to create a huge firebreak. After this an organised fire-fighting force finally started to develop though it was funded privately by groups of citizens such as the livery companies who each provided a fire engine, equipment and manpower.
The Georgian Era
The Georgian era was the time that properly organised fire fighting units came into being in Britain, with uniforms and military discipline. There was some competition amongst the London fire brigades as to whose uniform was the most dashing. The Westminster Brigade wore black breeches, blue coats and embroidered waistcoats. The men of the London Assurance Company wore shoes with silver buckles, which were absolutely no protection against fire. Fire engine design was also evolving at the time and pumps were becoming more sophisticated. But these fire services were mostly privately funded. It was the little town of Beverley in Yorkshire that formed the first municipal fire brigade with twelve men, one engine and thirty buckets. Only two other towns followed suit in the 18th century because of the cost of funding a civic fire brigade.
Whilst towns and cities now had an organised fire-fighting force, albeit mostly privately funded, it was left to country estates to make their own arrangements. Devastating country house fires were common. The enormous palace at Hamstead Marshall in Berkshire burned to the ground in 1708 when a brazier on the roof set the house alight. It must have been terrifying to be at the mercy of such a powerful force as fire and not have the tools to fight it.
Powis Castle had its own private fire service from the late Georgian era onwards. It was manned by servants and estate workers and it continued to operate up until the end of the 19th century. They had their own uniform and both boots and slippers supplied by Stead and Simpson (a boot and shoeretailer founded in 1834). The castle records make reference to a number of occasions on which the fire service was called out and successfully dealt with fires on the estate and in the main house.
The Powis fire engine is still on display in the house. It is fairly small, much smaller than the wheeled fire engines used in towns, which were ten foot long or bigger. A similar style of fire engine from the town of Rye in Sussex was built in 1745 and used for over 120 years. It held sixty gallons of water and has leather hoses and lead-lined water containers. Very practically, it was on runners rather than wheels, to allow it to be pulled more quickly over the cobbled streets of the town.
Finally in the Regency and Victorian era England moved towards the establishment of a municipal fire service in every town and city. The first fire extinguisher was invented in 1816, containing three gallons of water with additional “extinguishing salts.” This was such an exciting development that there were public demonstrations of how it worked! An efficient fire hose was invented in 1818 in Philadelphia in the USA. Efficient fire fighting was finally becoming a practical possibility. However for those living in the country, fire-fighting was still a problem. Fyne Court in Somerset burned down in 1894 when one of the servants lit a candle to warm her metal hair curling tongs and forgot to blow it out when she left the house. The candle set fire to the curtains, dressing table and floor and from there it raged out of control. A message was sent to Taunton, the nearest town, for the fire engine but it took several hours for the fire brigade to arrive because of the steep hills along the route. At various points the crew had to get out and push the engine. As late as the 1950s the spectacular country house at Coleshill at Oxfordshire was destroyed by fire because it took so long for a fire engine to reach it.
These days fire-fighting has the same discipline and military efficiency as the Roman and early London services had and like them can boast of heroic valour. It's good to see the roots of that system and its sense of human endeavour and heroism going back so many centuries.
It was fascinating to be able to rummage through Sheila Walsh's library and see the books that she had on her shelves. Is there a book or books that you have inherited or picked up that has sparked (sorry about the pun!) an interest in something for you as her research books have for me? Or have you read some of Sheila Walsh's traditional Regencies or other historical fiction and historical romance where a fire has been a feature of the story?