REKINDLES HALL OF FLAME: Superintendent James Braidwood

April 1, 2015
The legacy of a fire service pioneer

One of the most influential and progressive-thinking fire officers in modern history, James Braidwood, was born in Edinburgh, Scotland on Sept. 3, 1800. He attended the Royal High School from 1808 until 1813, and then continued his education with a tutor for a year more before joining his father’s construction company at the age of 14. While working there, he learned the various construction trades, insights that would later help him battle building fires.

After several serious fires in the city of Edinburgh, the General Commissioners of Police, with the support of the local newspapers, the sheriff and magistrates, moved to set up a Fire Engine Committee. At that time, various insurance company fire brigades provided the city’s only fire protection. These brigades lacked discipline, and did not work well together. It was decided to create a municipal Fire-engine Establishment. In October 1824, at the age of 24, James Braidwood was appointed Master of Engines. He knew it would take weeks or even months to acquire sufficient fire engines and properly house them before finding and training 80 fit and capable men to form the new Edinburgh Fire-Engine Establishment (EFEE).

On Monday evening, Nov. 15, 1824, at 10 o’clock, flames broke out on the third floor of the tenement at the head of the Old Assembly Close on High Street. This was in the Old Town section of the city, an area of cramped, overcrowded and highly combustible buildings. These “blocks” were built behind the main streets and could only be reached through small arches that led into a narrow alley, also called a “close.”

At first, only smoke was visible from the third-floor window, but by 11 P.M., flames were out the windows and an hour later the entire building was ablaze. By 3 A.M., the fire had spread to tenements behind. With numerous six-story combustible building jammed into such a small area, the engines were quickly overwhelmed. After 13 hours, a 120-foot-long block of tenements was in cinders. The engines did what little work they could to extinguish the remains.

At about noon, as things seemed to be calming down, flames were spotted in the spire of the Tron Church, 200 yards away. The steeple was soon engulfed in fire and collapsed in short order. However, the main part of the church was spared. By 4 in the afternoon, it appeared as if the situation was again, under control. But at 10 P.M., fire was seen on the top floor of a nine-story building at a corner of Parliament Square. Within an hour, this building too was destroyed. These fires, over a two-day period, became known as the Great Fire of Edinburgh. Ten people were killed, many were injured and 500 families were left homeless.

The Scotsman newspaper reported: “A superintendent of fire engines had been appointed, but, unluckily, this fire broke out before it was possible for him to have engines transferred, put in order, and men employed, taught and organized.”

As soon as the fire engines were back in quarters, Braidwood went to work with a flurry of activity. New engines and equipment were ordered, new rooms near fire headquarters were arranged for Braidwood and things began to come together. On Dec. 18, The Scotsman stated: “The arrangements for a new Fire-engine Establishment maybe considered complete.”

Braidwood split the city into four districts; each had its own station and a company of men, with a captain or head engineman. Each station also had an associated color: High Street (in the center of Old Town) was Red. Fountain Bridge (new southwest quarter) was Blue. Teviot Place (south side of Old Town) was Grey; and Rose Street (New Town north of Princess Street) was Yellow.

The firemen wore blue tunics, white canvas trousers and leather helmets painted in their associated company colors. Braidwood based the design of the helmet on the war helmet of the New Zealanders. Additionally, each helmet also had a rear flap of leather to prevent burning matter from getting on the firemens’ necks. Braidwood looked for men of the building trades when he selected his new firemen: Slaters (a person trained to lay roof slates) for their climbing ability; house carpenters and masons, for their building knowledge; and plumbers for handling fire cocks (hydrants) and water supplies.

The Master of Engines used a boatswain’s whistle to send signals to the various companies during a fire operation. He felt using this whistle cut through the ambient noise on the fireground and would clearly deliver his orders. It apparently worked well, because he continued to use it. Companies and specific predetermined orders were identified by a set number of blasts on the whistle.

Braidwood was also concerned for the welfare of his men and their families. In his year-end report of 1825, he questioned compensation for injured firemen and for the families of any firemen killed in the line-of-duty. Several months later his concerns came true, when the first member of the EFEE was killed during a response to a reported fire. He was run over by the engine and died six days later.

Braidwood held regular weekly meetings with his company captains. Then a weekly drill, at 4 A.M., was held to avoid any daytime crowds or interference from the citizens. The locations of the drills varied so they would not annoy the people of any one neighborhood. After he was satisfied with the performance of the brigade, the drills became monthly.

A situation then faced Braidwood that echoes those of today. The insurance companies that were paying a large portion of the brigade’s cost complained about the price of providing the present level of fire protection. In March 1827, they requested and received a reduction of manpower from 80 men to 50. Chief fire officers then, and now, face this life-safety dilemma, where decisions are made by cost, rather than common sense. So even in 19th century, firemen were expected to do more with less.

The Fire Master was not only proving to be an amazing tactician, administrator and leader, but also a very brave and capable firefighter himself. During a building fire on Aug. 12, 1827, Braidwood was credited with single-handedly rescuing nine people. He carried or dragged each of the unconscious occupants outside at “no little risk” to himself.

The EFEE was solidifying its role in the city and even expanding its service. In December 1829, they were called out to rescue a man, an apparent sleepwalker, who had somehow stranded himself on the roof of a building. The firemen quickly and efficiently removed him to safety. The citizens were beginning to realize just how talented and resourceful their firemen were.

Braidwood’s bravery was once again proven while the EFEE was operating at a fire on High Street on Feb. 23, 1830. Aware that extremely dangerous black powder was stored inside the burning structure, and knowing full well what an explosion could do, Braidwood took action. Not wanting to send any of his men on this dangerous mission, he entered the building alone and carried out two wooden casks filled with gunpowder and placed them in an area of safety.

With the brigade running smoothly, Braidwood focused on improving the art and science of firefighting to its highest degree.

“Not having been able to find any work on Fire-engines in the English language, I have been led to publish the following remarks, in the hope of inducing others to give farther information on the subject…my aim will be…directing the public attention to the advantage which may be derived from the systematic training of Firemen.” The “remarks” he refers to is the 138-page book he wrote and was published in 1830. Braidwood also included eight illustrative plates, all drawn by him. This book, titled On the Construction of Fire-Engines and Apparatus, The Training of Firemen, and the Method of Proceeding In Cases of Fire, is filled with drawings, lists, charts and all types of information regarding firefighting.

The book describes, in depth, the building, maintenance and operation of fire engines (hand pumpers). He includes a list of all tools and appliances carried on each of the EFEE engines and where they should be located on the rig. Every item is covered from the hoses to a crossbow (used to throw a cord, with a rope later attached, to a high elevation, like the later-day rope rifle).

Water-supply issues and operations, including what we now call in-line pumping were explained: “If the water be obtained from a pond or river at a little distance, one engine may be stationed close to it, and that engine made to pump the water into another at work.”

Aggressive interior firefighting tactics are also explained: “When the hose is attached and the engine filled with water, the man who holds the director (nozzle), accompanied by another, should get as near the fire, inside the house, that the water from the director may strike the burning materials. If he cannot accomplish this standing, he must get down on his hands and knees, and creep forward, those behind handing up the hose.”

Even back in 1830, Braidwood covered the issue of bailout. “The cord carried at the waist belt…being fully sufficient to sustain a man’s weight, and with the assistance of their small hatchets easily made fast…there is no difficulty in descending even from a height of eighty feet: the cords should be doubled by way of security.”

Other interesting sections are: the training of firemen, using ladders to rescue people, the causes and prevention of fires and the selection of appropriate locations to place firehouses. The book is amazing in its depth, thoughtfulness and detail.

Despite advanced training and the latest in equipment, the job of firefighting was still risky. On Jan. 15, 1831, the department responded to a tenement fire in one of the city’s worst slum sections. While operating inside the three-story building at Canon Gate, Braidwood and the captain of the Yellow Company both fell when the floor collapsed beneath them. The severity of their injuries was not recorded.

Then, in January 1832, they responded to a midnight call to save a soldier trapped halfway up Castle Rock (a rocky 260-foot high cliff, crowned by Edinburgh Castle, built at the summit). The Establishment kept a 240-foot length of hemp rope known as the “Castle Line” at the ready. They lowered a fireman down to the injured soldier. He attached the man to the rope and both were pulled back up. So, beyond aggressive interior firefighting, in 1832 the Edinburgh Fire Engine Establishment was also providing “high angle rope rescue.”

While the Edinburgh Fire Engine Establishment, a municipal operation, was working effectively and gaining renown, other firefighting organizations were not faring so well. In London, various insurance companies were still running the fire brigades. Their efforts were uncoordinated and relatively ineffective. It was obviously time for a change, so in early 1832, Braidwood traveled to London for an interview.

The discussions he had in London went well and he returned home briefly. On May 15, 1832, he resigned from the EFEE. In response to his valued service, and the high esteem he had earned from his firefighters, Braidwood’s leaving would be marked by deep and heartfelt thanks. The City Council presented him a gold watch and remarked: “for the singularly indefatigable manner in which he discharged the duties of his important office, not merely by his extraordinary exertions on occasions of emergency, but the care and attention he had bestowed on the training of firemen whereby the establishment had been brought to its present state of efficiency.”

His firemen also thought highly of their leader and presented him with a silver cup, inscribed: “Presented to Mr. James Braidwood by the Edinburgh Firemen, as a token of their admiration of him as their leader, and of the deep respect for him as a gentleman.”

When Braidwood arrived in London in 1832, the city’s population was about 1.5 million. He faced some of the same firefighting difficulties as in Edinburgh, just on a larger scale. Outside the walled portion of the city, a very large area of docks and warehouse, the largest in the world, had grown in the section known as the East End. At the same time, the rich had fled the city, settling in Westminster, also known as the West End. These two areas, formerly separated by open fields and small villages, were now melding into what would become the City of Greater London. The poor remained, and the slums they occupied became even more rundown and overcrowded.

Braidwood spent the next several months recruiting and training new firemen while reorganizing the entire operation. Braidwood’s preferences had changed slightly from his earlier hirings. While he still firmly believed young men were needed for the arduous task of firefighting, he now believed sailors made the best firemen. “Seamen are to be preferred as they are taught to obey orders and the night and day watches and the uncertainty of the occupation are more similar to their former habits than those of other men of the same rank of life.”

Early in December 1832, the new men were asked to sign the Book of Regulations. This document bound the signer to the Establishment for one year. Included were a list of infractions that allowed the superintendent to fine the men if they broke these rules.

On Jan. 1, 1833, with 53 firemen manning 14 stations, the London Fire Engine Establishment officially went into service. The firemen wore long, somber gray jackets with a red identification number on the left chest and matching gray pants, leather-topped boots and black leather helmets. The helmets were crested on top to break the impact of any falling debris that struck the wearer. The men also wore black silk scarves around their necks to prevent burning embers from getting under their collars.

Most of the new stations did not have horses. Local stables were contracted and a horse and driver were provided as needed. The Superintendent and his men waited anxiously for their first alarm. The first run, on Jan. 2, proved to be a fire that was extinguished before their arrival. But, before the month was over, they would battle their first large fire, when four properties burned on St. John Street.

It should also be noted that at this time, the while the manual pumpers were powered by “casual labor,” trained firemen were needed to attach hoses and direct water. These “volunteer citizens” manned the pumps and were supplied with beer for their efforts. The fire floats (fireboat-like barges) required 40-men to man the pumps and they were relieved every 10 minutes. As long as the beer held out, there seemed to be men willing to pump. Despite his progressive thinking in every other area of firefighting, it took 20 years for Braidwood to bring steam power to the London Fire Engine Establishment.

The first year of the LFEE was a rousing success. “The Establishment has succeeded far beyond my expectation, ” Braidwood wrote in his year-end report. He listed the incidents for the year as follows: Premises totally destroyed: 31, Considerably damaged: 135, Slightly damaged: 292. Total all incidents: 458. He noted an additional 75 chimney fires and 59 false alarms for a grand total of 592 responses for the year 1833.

On the evening of Oct. 16, 1834, the LFEE responded to a fire that proved to be well beyond their capabilities and that would leave a historic landmark, the Palace of Westminster, in ruins. The rambling complex on the banks of the River Thames housed the House of Lords, the House of Commons and many other official offices and residences.

The fire began when two workers, tasked with burning several large piles of “tally sticks” (wooden medieval tax receipts no longer in use), overheated two basement furnaces. The workers apparently overloaded the furnaces, causing the wooden flooring above to ignite. Sometime after 6 P.M., the first of the flames were seen and after a delay, the LFEE was called. Unknown to the firemen, the fire inside was racing throughout the huge structure and was well advanced before they were even on scene.

About a half-hour after the blaze was reported, a huge fireball exploded from the building, lighting up the evening sky over the city. Despite the hundreds of volunteers manning the pumps and the aggressive actions of the firemen, the flames were more than they could control. Braidwood regrouped and switched to a defensive operation, trying to cut off the spreading wall of flames. With 12 engines, 64 firemen and the help of hundreds of civilians and soldiers, they made a stand. Braidwood focused their efforts, on stopping the spreading fire from reaching the Westminster Hall.

The firemen’s determined efforts, the arrival and operation of the floating engine and a slight change in the wind direction combined to stop the extending fire. As the sun rose that morning, the smoking ruins left the firemen and the city deflated. It had been the largest, most destructive fire since the Great Fire of 1666. But they had stopped it.

In his typical after-operations report, Braidwood cited a number of major issues that hampered the firefighting efforts: the lack of party walls allowed fire extension, numerous building alterations produced hidden paths of fire travel, the size of the structures, wind and the total ignorance of the firemen and his own knowledge of the building’s interior (no pre-fire planning). After the fire, an effort was made to consolidate all the various fire engines in the city region, under the control of the LFEE. These efforts failed.

The LFEE not only faced fires in large, old historic buildings and overcrowded tenements, but responded to hazardous materials fires as well. On the morning of Dec. 28, 1837, the firemen responded to a warehouse fire on Davis Wharf. The fire, started by workers using a candle, soon involved casks of turpentine. The casks burst, spreading flames to other stored flammable liquids (oil and spirits of turpentine). Stockpiled on the wharf were more than 7,000 barrels of turpentine, large cisterns filled with thousands of gallons of spirits of turpentine. Some of this stock was removed to safety.

The Times printed an article about the LFEE in 1836: “The great number of additional sets of stronger scaling ladders – the men could now join together seven lengths to make a 40-foot ladder and raise in as little as 21 seconds...coupling and tripling joints had been added so that the water of two or more engines could be discharged in a concentrated stream…”

Despite the improvements, some fires proved difficult if not impossible to extinguish. One such fire occurred on Jan. 10, 1838, when the Royal Exchange (a stock exchange) took fire. The Establishment was again placed in a no-win situation. The small force of firemen faced a delayed alarm that allowed the fire to grow unchecked inside the large building. A major lack of water due to frozen hydrants only made matters worse. The building was destroyed.

Even the seemingly impregnable Tower of London could be defeated by fire from within. On Oct. 30, 1841, fire was noticed at about 10:30 at night by a tower guard who fired his musket as an alarm. A disorganized and ineffective effort was made to put out the fire, as nine small fire engines, stationed at the tower, were hurried to the spot. Flames poured from a window in the Round Tower, exposing the huge armory nearby.

Braidwood’s brigade was called to the tower at about 11 P.M. and found an advanced fire condition extending from the doomed Round Tower to the adjacent 345-foot-long armory. With flames already burning across the armory roof, the battle was joined. The steadily advancing flames could not be stopped, and forced the men outside. The flames extended to the Clock Tower, which burned fiercely until it finally collapsed with a tremendous crash at 1 o’clock in the morning.

The growing flames now threatened the White Tower, the Church of St. Peter and the Jewel Tower. The Crown Jewels and other historic and extremely valuable items were hurried to safety, as the firemen pressed hose streams into the wall of fire. Their efforts paid off, as the fire was held to one building – the armory. Sadly, bricks falling from a wall killed one of the LFEE firemen, Richard Wivell. In all, 2,800 pieces of historic arms and armor were destroyed by the flames.

Since Braidwood took command of the London Fire Engine Establishment, it received 6,587 alarms. Among those were 1,600 chimney fires. This averaged 556 fire per year, or three every two days. Two out of three fires were not serious, so they averaged one serious fire every two days. Despite many rescues, an average of 11 people a year lost their lives to the flames.

In December 1841, Braidwood was asked by the Admiralty to inspect and report on the fire safety of the Royal Naval Dockyards. The master firefighter had now become the first fire prevention officer. He was also requested to provide the same service at Buckingham Palace and the British Museum.

In 1844, Braidwood presented a paper to the Institute of Civil Engineers (where he was an associate member). Complete with illustrations, it was titled “On the Means of Rendering Large Supplies of Water Available in Cases of Fire and the Application of Manual Power to the Working of Fire Engines.” The institute was so impressed with his work that it presented the Telford Silver Medal to Braidwood at its annual meeting on Jan. 21, 1845.

Londoners had become accustomed to the sight of Braidwood’s LFEE galloping at full speed to a blazing building. Most of these people believed the Establishment was duty bound to provide protection to the entire city when in actuality only three-fifths of the property within London was insured by firms providing the funding for the LFEE. Not even the royal properties – palaces, the Tower of London, etc. – were privately insured. Regardless, the brigade was ever ready to render assistance without question.

Despite his earlier dismissal of steam power for pumping, by October 1852, Braidwood had help design a new iron fire float (fireboat). This apparatus was outfitted with steam-powered fire pumps that would replace the labor of 120 men. The LFEE had entered the steam age.

Braidwood was still pressuring the government to provide a comprehensive building code that would limit the size of the un-compartmented warehouses still being constructed, especially near the river. In a letter to the First Commissioner of Public Works on Feb. 10, 1854, Braidwood wrote, regarding a new building to be constructed on Tooley Street and the adjoining Hays Wharf: “The whole building, if once fairly on fire in one floor, will become such a mass of fire that there is no power in London capable of extinguishing it, or even restraining its ravages on every side, and on three sides it is surrounded with property of immense value.”

Despite the Superintendent’s misgivings and pleas for restraint, the structure was completed. In time, Braidwood’s words would prove accurate.

Braidwood was now involved in every aspect of firefighting: apparatus design, building inspection, consulting on fire prevention and, as always, tool and equipment design and improvement. Braidwood developed a hose mask system that supplied breathing air to a firefighter inside a smoke-filled structure. To supply the fresh air, a hose was connected to an air pump outside at the engine. A stout leather dress and hood were worn to protect the firefighter from heat and flames. Thickly glazed eyeholes were provided in the hood for visibility. A powerful reflecting lantern was worn on the chest to furnish additional light. A whistle was included to signal in case of an emergency.

Braidwood tested his invention under severe conditions during experimental fires conducted within the vaults of the Fire Brigade Headquarters on Watling Street. In the field, the system was used to rescue three small children from a burning house on Fetter Lane. LFEE firemen using this hose mask reportedly saved numerous men and women from other fires.

By 1861, Braidwood, now 61 years old, showed no signs of slowing down. The Superintendent commanded a force of 177 firefighters and officers, 15 drivers, 37 horses, 27 large horse-drawn manual engines, two steam-powered floating engines and a horse-drawn steam engine. The Establishment, busy as ever, battled several significant fires on Thursday June 20, 1861. The first occurred in a five-story factory building on Newington Causeway. This building was destroyed. Next was a blaze in a warehouse on Rotherhithe Street. This was also a total loss. The brigade then battled and extending fire through 32 shops and offices along Kensington High Street. These businesses were also left in ruins.

Friday was a calm and warm day. The LFEE took a breather and relaxed.

The following evening, June 22, 1861, spontaneous combustion ignited a fire within bales of damp cotton in a huge warehouse on Tooley Street – the very same warehouse Braidwood had tried to limit in size as it was being built several years earlier. The fire was discovered at about 4:30 and the wharf’s small hand engines attempted to fight the building flames. Then, at 4:45 P.M., the alarm was sent to the Establishment.

Upon arrival, the LFEE was faced with a heavy fire condition, as flames roared from the upper floors of the gigantic warehouse. Within minutes the flames leaped the street, spreading first to Cotton’s Wharf, Hay’s Wharf and then to Chamberlain’s Wharf.

Sizing up the growing conflagration, Braidwood called for the fire floats and ordered all other watercraft, not already aground in the swiftly dropping tide, to be moved away. His experience told him the flammable liquids within the blazing building would eventually run into the river, igniting everything in their path.

The land-based manual pumpers were having a difficult time raising streams as the public water supply was proving to be woefully inadequate. The best the pumpers could maintain was an eight-foot stream of water. Both floating engines had to back off as the tide drained the water from the river. The land engines went dry, but the aggressive work of the water-based firemen paid off, as two lines were stretched from the floats toward the burning shore.

By 6 o’clock, the fire had spread dramatically. It seemed as if all of London had crowded near to watch the growing blaze. Braidwood found some water trapped by lock gates at Hay’s Dock, but even this did little against the swelling heat. Within the hour the entire riverbank was a mass of flames. The river itself was ablaze as burning tallow and rum floated across the water.

At 7:15, one of Braidwood’s most trusted men, Alfred Tozer (a member of a distinguished firefighting family that served the London Fire Brigade for many generations), was operating a hoseline on the roof of one of the warehouses when he heard an explosion below him. With his escape cut off, he secured the hose end at the roof and was able to slide the length of hose safely to the street.

Braidwood’s earlier warnings were coming true.

It was nearing 7:30 when a fireman reported to Braidwood, stating the floating engines were being endangered by heat radiating across the river. The Superintendent set off to see for himself, heading down a narrow alley from Tooley Street toward the blazing river. On his way, Braidwood stopped to check on one of his foreman who had been overcome by the extreme heat and heavy smoke. He then uncoiled the silk scarf from his neck to bind a bleeding gash across the hand of one of his firemen. Satisfied his men were OK, he continued toward the water.

Suddenly, cries of danger echoed across the fireground.

A visible bulge 80 feet long and 40 feet high, appeared in the warehouse wall. Firemen yelled frantically to their Superintendent. Despite his 62 years, the agile fire officer began to run. Then he seemed to pause briefly, assuring his men were all alerted, before running again. The wall above him gave way. Tons of flaming rubble cascaded down like a huge engulfing wave, burying Braidwood.

He was killed instantly.

Dozens of firemen scrambled to the pile of flaming debris, trying to dig toward their chief. Another explosion above them drove them back, away from the blazing structure. They stood helplessly as the fire, now burning 500 feet along the waterfront and hundreds of feet deep toward the city, defied their efforts to reach their leader.

Word of Braidwood’s death raced across the fire scene faster than the swiftly moving flames. By 10 P.M., the news reached his family at Watling Street. His wife, children and almost every person within the city were numbed by the report. Despite the best efforts of the exhausted firemen, the fire continued burning out of control.

On Monday morning, it was decided to make another attempt to recover Braidwood’s body. Under extreme danger, firemen began the difficult search. At 5 p.m., Alfred Dozer, Braidwood’s trusted aide, found his chief’s body. Then, with dignity and reverence, Superintendent James Braidwood was carried from the fire to a nearby building to await the inquest.

On Saturday, June 29, 1861, a huge funeral was held for the fallen leader. The turnout rivaled a royal sendoff.

The fire burned for two weeks.

Following the fire, the insurance companies threatened to raise their rates and disband the fire brigade. Finally, in July 1866, after three years of political wrestling, “An Act for the Establishment of a Fire Brigade in the Metropolis” became a law. The new Metropolitan Fire Brigade would commence operations on Jan. 1. London was now protected by a municipal fire department.

The legacy of James Braidwood would live on, in his written words, his drawings and designs, but mostly in his spirit: Intelligent, aggressive interior firefighting, pains taking training and attention to detail, and the love of firefighting as an art and a science.

Paul Hashagen

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