Tuesday, 22 September 2015

London Fire Brigade Museum, Winchester House

94 Southwark Bridge Road
London SE1 0EG
Saturday September 18 2015

Two items of note:

-         -  Our plan for this week had been to visit the Anaesthetists’ Heritage Centre in Portland Place – we had checked earlier so were surprised to be met at the (very grand) door by an employee who told us the museum could not be visited due to a major flood – it had of course rained very heavily the day before. They kindly let us use their facilities and we went our separate ways on different errands.

-        -  Our  visit to the London Fire Brigade Museum took place as part of ‘Open House London’  and was in fact the last ever opportunity to visit this building. The developers take over on Monday  and the museum exhibits will move to the second HQ for the London Fire Brigade – the very Thirties LCC Building on the Albert Embankment – however the newly revamped museum will not open for  few years yet so this was truly a ‘last chance saloon’ sort of visit.

Fireman Sam clearly has a lot to answer for as many of the visitors were youngl children (mainly boys) boys with their fathers in tow clamouring to see the engines and able to try on the different period uniforms available in nearly every room. It was also noticeable that there were several ex-firemen among the visitors, showing their families what their lives used to be like.

This bit of land was originally part of the Bishop of Winchester’s estate, then variously a workhouse and a hat factory before becoming the HQ of the Metropolitan Fire brigade, a training ground and the residence of the first Chief Officer, the formidable Captain Eyre Massey Shaw, who happened to be a friend of the then Prince of Wales. No ‘blushing violet’ he as the rooms are well adorned with his portraits various, busts, and personal effects. To be fair he did run a ‘tight ship’ – an apt metaphor as he believed in recruiting ex-navy personnel on the grounds they were used to water, ladders discipline and working in shifts (watches) – and also had some innovative ideas.  To do him further credit he did innovate, introducing stand pipes and fire hydrants, and the use of the telegraph.
The ground floor rooms offer a lovely post-Georgian enfilade of office, small salon, reception and  two dining areas. The walls are all decorated with pictures of heroic firemen rescuing little children from devouring flames, and some of the cupboards have miniature replica engines showing that this has been a popular toy for ever.  Shaw’s  office even has a gilded balcony from which he could  survey the training area below, which bore a passing resemblance to a  parade ground. As well as giving the visitor an opportunity to admire the  décor, the rooms also provide a detailed history of fire fighting in London through the ages, starting with – yes – the Great Fire of 1666, when effectively there was no-one with the responsibility or skill to take on a major incident. As with any disaster even today there followed a raft of regulations and increased safety measures. So after 1666 brick building rather than wood became the order of the day, and those who could afford it invested in ‘fire insurance’. In turn the fire insurance companies, whose different ‘marks’ are displayed round the walls, employed their own firefighters, often recruited from the London Watermen . A bad fire in nearby Tooley Street in 1861 made the Insurance companies ask for the government to take over and the 1865 saw the Metropolitan Fire Act passed.  In 1889 the London County Council (LCC) took over and the vestiges of their emblem can still be seen in the current coat of arms. The pre-Second World War period saw further innovations: helmets cork lined rather than brass, some smoke and breathing apparatus,  and the final use of horses in 1921 – never mind ‘War Horse’ how well trained and brave must those horses have been to stand by and wait while the fires burnt.

The London Blitz is covered in some detail, as well it might be as the most testing period ever and one that meant the greatest loss of life for those fighting the bomb damage and incendiaries. (This museum explains the difference quite clearly)  The Auxiliary Fire Service was created which allowed women to join, though most seemed  to be desk and telephone jobs. 

The fireboats introduced in 1936 were used throughout and only phased out in 1971. This period is copiously illustrated   as some of the AFS volunteers were artists.  St Paul’s features  significantly in these pictures and of course in photos too – still largely black and white. Unsurprisingly,   during the war the red engines were painted utilitarian grey to avoid being spotted from the sky. Interesting too was the role of the messenger boys, aged just 16-18 and vital when communications were disrupted.
Post war national standards were set and the London Fire Brigade took on salvage work additionally.
By this time the visitor has climbed to the second floor of Winchester House – the stairs have a well preserved balustrade, which you need to hang on to as the steps get steeper.

Another loss of life at the Dudgeons Wharf fire led to proper HAZCHEM legislation and gradually the Fire Brigade evolved into the modern Fire & Rescue Service. Helping them in their ‘forensic’ role are the specially trained dogs who apparently can sniff out petrol or fire accelerant even when used sparingly or disguised. Still in use, we were told, in the ‘very modern fire service’ are the poles – which offer the safest (provided you wear gloves) quickest descent from one of the tower watch rooms.

More rigorous Health & Safety   legislation  - you just need to read about the causes of the King’s Cross Fire – stringent anti-Smoking, the ubiquitous smoke alarms and better training for the public have certainly reduced the incidence of house fires but of course industry, rescue and fire prevention are still key and while the London Fire Brigade do not quite have the legendary  status of the New York Service they are still very much part of the key emergency services in our 21st century city which must be alert to any  kind of incident.

And what of the buildings and site – much of it is Grade 1 listed so the alterations will be limited – but it is of course going to developers so will doubtless become another exclusive or gated community. When the Museum will re-open is as yet… unclear

Adjacent to the training ground in the ‘Appliance Bay’ you can see some of the more historic fire fighting equipment, beautifully polished. The Dennis  ‘Big Four’ machine, from the middle of the last century,  attracted much attention though what I really wanted to do was (no, not slide down the pole like Bridget jones) but ding the brass bell…highly polished of course. Presumably these machines will be ‘moth-balled’ until their new display space becomes available…

1 comment:

  1. I was there on Saturday too - I might have passed you as I was wandering round! If I'd known, I would have said hello and thanked you for your blog, which I love.