London, Volume 4

Knight, Charles

1843

LXXXVII.--London Fires.

LXXXVII.--London Fires.

 

 

Of all the rallying words whereby multitudes are gathered together, and their energies impelled forcibly to point, that of

Fire

!

is, perhaps, the most startling and the most irresistible. It levels all distinctions; it sets at nought sleep, and meals, and occupations, and amusements; it turns night into day, and Sunday into a

working-day;

it gives double strength to those who are blessed with any energy, and paralyses those who have none; it brings into prominent notice, and converts into objects of sympathy, those who were before little thought of, or who were perhaps despised; it gives to the dwellers in a whole huge neighbourhood the unity of family.

There are probably but few inhabitants of London who have not, at some time or other, witnessed a

fire,

or experienced the awful emotions attendant on it. The wild cry which breaks the stillness of sleep, and arouses young and old in the dead of the night, is perhaps as terrible as the scene which the eye is afterwards called upon to witness; the uncertainty as to the locality of the catastrophe, and the probable suffering of those who are near and dear to us, gives to the waking moment an undefined, but intense, terror. When we

178

gain the spot, perhaps only a few houses removed from us, we may see the glimmerings of light in an upper window, and perhaps a poor startled inmate entreating for succour. A crowd gradually collects, night-patroles or policemen assume the guidance below, and everybody calls out to everybody else to go somewhere, or do something, for the, release of the sufferers. In a short time we hear an engine dashing through the neighbouring streets: perhaps it is a

half-pint

parish engine, eagerly urged on as a means of gaining the proffered reward for arrival; but more probably it is of the Fire-Brigade engines. The turncock is aroused, the hose of the engine applied to the plug, and men and boys (of whom there are always plenty at a fire) are hired at sixpence an hour to work the engine. Then does the bold fireman force an entry into the hapless house, and combat his fiery foe at close quarters--a notable improvement, by the bye, introduced by Mr. Braidwood; more hazardous, but more effectual, than the old method of pouring a stream from without through a window to fall whither it may. Then may we mark how the firemen, neglecting the mere furniture of the house, look to the safety of the inmates, and then to the extinguishment of the fire itself; and we may contrast with this the senseless terror which prompts the in-dwellers, before the arrival of firemen, to turn everything literally

out of window ;

to hurl looking-glasses, tables, chairs, to the ground, where they are of course dashed to pieces, without service being rendered to any -unless, indeed, it may be of that kind which is called

spiting an enemy,

the fire being considered as such.

The fire increases in intensity; the roused inmates find an asylum in the house of a neighbour; and a flood of water is poured on the burning materials. At moment, when a portion falls in, the glare is- deadened; at the next, the flame bursts forth with redoubled energy. More and more engines tear along to the lurid spot; more and more spectators assemble; every asks, and no can answer, how the fire arose? Are they all saved? Are they insured? As time progresses, so do the terrible apprehensions of the neighbours, each adjoining house becoming in turn the object of solicitude. As the bulk of ignited material increases, so does the distance at which the conflagration is visible, and so also the field of terror and solicitude.

There is a singular difference in the manner in which fires are regarded by the populace in different countries. Without alluding to the fatalism of the Turks, which lamentably damps their energies at such a time, we may notice a difference in this matter between the Londoners and the Parisians. Some few years ago the London correspondent of the French newspaper gave the following paragraph:--

There is something imposing in the spectacle of a fire in this metropolis. The English people, commonly so phlegmatic, so slow, so morbid, seem, in the twinkling of an eye, wholly to change character. What self-possession, what order, under circumstances so painful and difficult! Accustomed as I have been to similar scenes in Paris, I could previously form no idea of the astonishing promptitude with which assistance the most efficacious was at once organized. I compared our wretched little engines, dragged with difficulty over the pavement of Paris by our brave

pompiers

, already half dead with that fatigue before the real occasion for their exertion begins--I compared those with the powerful pump-engines brought to the spot by

four

powerful horses at

full gallop, and the firemen sitting at their ease on the engines. I thought of the wild confusion of our chains--of the cries of all the workmen--of our leathern buckets brought empty to the engine,--while I saw before me the water pouring, the streets inundated, and the pipes, like brilliant

jets d'eau

, lit up by countless torches, and rising above the crowd as a symbol of safety to man in the midst of dangers from fire. With us every passer-by is stopped to work the engine; here, the difficulty is to prevent the people from so doing.

Improvements have been made in the fire establishment at Paris since the above remarks were written.

The statistics of London fires are by no means devoid of interest, and the time may come when they will form an index to the social advancement of the people; for in proportion as houses are built more and more fire-proof, and habits of carefulness become more and more diffused, the number of destructive fires will assuredly lessen. That improved modes of building land regulating chimneys will lessen the liability to fires may be shown from the fact that in many recent years - of all the destructive fires have had their source in chimneys and flues; while the startling number of fires occasioned by the heedless use of a candle near bed-curtains show how much evil results from sheer negligence. From a few details with which we have been kindly furnished by Mr. Braidwood, the Superintendent of the London Fire Establishment, it appears that in the years from to , both inclusive, there were fires and

alarms

of fire in the metropolis, for which the engines had to be called out; of these, nearly were chimney fires and

false alarms,

and were real fires, yielding an average of per annum, or about in days; out of every , about are entered as productive of

slight damage,

leaving an average of serious fire in every days. It is only on an average of several years that a just estimate can be taken; for at particular times the devastation has been unusually great. Thus in of , there occurs the following paragraph :--

On a careful review made yesterday of the returns made from the

twelve

metropolitan stations to the head office since the

31st of July

, a period of

twenty

days, they exhibit an astounding list, after omitting mere fires in chimneys and such minor accidents, of no less than

108

distinct houses or warehouses in London or its immediate environs that have been on fire, in the full sense of the word, within this brief period. Of these, no less than

39

were destroyed;

26

greatly damaged, many of these requiring large outlay before they can be made again habitable; and

43

that have been slightly damaged. The value of the property sacrificed must be immense; perhaps a quarter of a million sterling would be a moderate estimate.

It has been found, from an average of years, that, besides private houses, the number of conflagrations in buildings occupied by licensed victuallers, salesmen, bakers, and carpenters, has been greater than among any other classes. How far different months of the year, days of the week, or hours of the day, may be associated with the occurrence of fires, is an inquiry which may day throw some light on the economical arrangements of the inhabitants of a great city; at present it has been ascertained, by comparing a few years together, that more fires have occurred in December, and fewer in April, than in the other months; more have occurred on Friday, and fewer on Saturday, than on the other days of

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the week; more have broken out at about in the evening, and fewer at about in the morning, than at any other hour of the day. The number of years from which these averages have been struck is too small to justify any immediate deductions therefrom; but the very minute details now collected and recorded every year by the London Fire Establishment will by degrees increase the value of such averages.

It is a subject for melancholy reflection that many lives are yearly lost at these fires; and every must be aware how great have been the efforts lately made to lessen the number, by providing

escapes

for the inhabitants of a burning house. If we take the years ending with , during which there were persons burned to death in London, as a fair average, we obtain about per annum as the number for whom provision has to be made.

The fire-escapes constructed within the last few years, and submitted to public inspection, are almost innumerable; some being calculated to be used by the individual himself in escaping, and others by the assistance of persons from without. Many pieces of apparatus have been contrived in which the unfortunate person is expected to buckle and strap himself to complicated appendages, at a moment when he is ill fitted, by agitation and fear, for the observance of rules of conduct. The Society of Arts has given numerous premiums to ingenious persons for the construction of machines having the desired object in view. Sometimes the machine consisted of a series of ladders, sliding-telescope fashion --into another, and supported by a platform beneath; sometimes a car, in which the person was to take his seat, and was to be lowered down a ladder by means of pulleys; sometimes a chair or settee was so constructed that, when a person got into it from a window, the chair would gently descend to the ground. In case a premium was paid for a kind of rope-ladder, of which the rounds were so made as to be fitted to each other longitudinally, and elevated from the street in the form of a long straight rod, but without being detached from the ropes forming the sides of the ladder; hooks at the top of the apparatus were to be fastened to the window-sill; while a jerk at the bottom unfixed all the rounds from their vertical position, and allowed them to fall into their proper places.

But it is surprising-or rather perhaps it is surprising-how few lives have been saved by any of these contrivances. The truth is, that most such require too much adjustment at the critical moment when their services are required; either they are in the hands and under the management of those who are too much agitated to do them justice, or they have to be brought from a distance, and to undergo a long process of adjustment. Many benevolent persons have formed themselves into a society for the preservation of life from fire, by providing, at different parts of London, machines intended to act as fire-escapes. Many may have seen, in front of the , and in other convenient localities, machines of rather a ponderous construction, destined to act as fire-escapes in time of peril; and the governing authorities in many of the parishes have provided machines for a similar object. Another kind of

escape,

of which is carried by most of the fire-engines, consists of ladders or feet long, all of which are made exactly alike, the upper end being smaller than the lower; each end is furnished with a pair of iron loops or sheaths so contrived that

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the top of each ladder can be inserted into the loops at the bottom of another, and thus several can be joined end to end. A lengthened apparatus can be thus put together in a very short time, and hoisted to the window of a burning house.

Mr. Leigh Hunt, in of the papers in his strongly urges the propriety of every --who has aught to care for but himself alone--to provide some simple contrivance in a house, whereby its inmates might be lowered from a window in case of peril. He says,

a basket and a double rope are sufficient; or

two

or

three

would be better. It is the sudden sense of the height at which people sleep, and the despair of escape which consequently seizes them, for want of some such provision, that disables them from thinking of any other resource. Houses, it is true, generally have trap-doors to the roof, but these are not kept in readiness for use; a ladder is wanting, or the door is hard to be got up; the passage to it is difficult, or involved in the fire; and the roof may not be a safe

one

to walk on; children cannot act for themselves; terror affects the older people; and therefore, on all these accounts, nothing is more desirable than that the means of escape should be at hand, should be facile, and capable of being used in concert with the multitude below. People out of doors are ever ready and anxious to assist.

True, but would the inmate always have nerve enough to manage the rope safely during the descent of the basket?

The arrangements for extinguishing a fire are much more extensive, and have been more successful, than those relating to the safety of the inmates: the house cannot help itself--the inmates may. In looking back at some of the devastating fires which have visited London in past ages, we must not fail to remember that the employment of bulky masses of timber in the construction of houses must inevitably have engendered a greater risk of conflagration than now exists. Every iron beam or bar, used as a substitute for of wood, must lessen liability to destruction; and hence we may easily account for cause of extensive fires in times when iron was rarely employed in house-building.

How our ancestors endeavoured to extinguish fires we can only guess from the nature of things. Buckets of water would be brought and thrown upon the flaming materials by the bystanders, or the thatch of a cottage would be pulled down, or group of houses would be allowed to burn itself out, and others would be tended for. After a time, when the ingenuity of machinists enabled men to use some more effective means than mere buckets of water, a kind of syringe or squirt was employed, which seems to have been the rudiment of a fire-engine known in England. Numbers of these were kept by the parochial authorities, as the small fire-engines now are. Their construction was very simple. Each squirt was about feet in length, with an aperture at the lower end about half an inch in diameter, and a capacity of about half a gallon. It had a handle on each side, and was worked by men, thus :-- men held the squirt by the handles and the nozzle, while a worked a piston within it in the manner of a syringe; the aperture was held downwards in a vessel of water while the squirt was being filled; and when filled the nozzle was directed upwards, and the stream of water directed on the burning materials by the working of the piston. Whoever has seen a common schoolboy's

squirt

will easily understand the nature of the apparatus.

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There is an allusion in Dryden's which might at sight seem to. apply to a common fire-engine; but it may, perhaps, considering the date of the (), relate to these large syringes, which, we are elsewhere told, were greatly increased in number after the Great Fire, but were shortly afterwards superseded by fire-engines. Dryden's stanza, descriptive of the customary usages at a fire in his day, runs thus:--

Now streets grow throng'd, and busy as by day: Some run for buckets to the hallow'd quire; Some cut the pipes, and some the engines play, And some, more bold, mount ladders to the fire.

It is to Germany that we owe the construction of the fire-engine, popularly so called. Hautsch, a Nuremberger, constructed, in , a machine, consisting of a water-cistern or feet long, drawn on a kind of sledge. It had arms or levers worked by or men, whose exertions propelled from the machine a stream of water an inch in diameter, and, as it is said, to a height of feet. Hautsch distributed engravings of his new machine in different parts of Germany, and offered to make such engines for sale.

By the year the engines had received considerable improvements, chiefly through the ingenuity of brothers, Van der Heyden. These persons, as Beckmann[n.182.1]  informs us, were inspectors of apparatus for extinguishing fires at Amsterdam, and invented the flexible hose or pipes, which have ever since formed part of the fittings of a fire-engine. These flexible pipes enabled the stream of water to be carried in various directions, and thus brought to bear on parts of the burning mass which could not otherwise be reached. The inventors obtained an exclusive privilege for making and using these machines for years; and they also published a work descriptive of their new engine, in which plates represent fires at Amsterdam at which the old engines (of Hautsch, probably) were employed, and at which Van der Heydens' new engines were used.

When, or how, or by whom the fire-engines were introduced into England has not been clearly traced; but it seems probable that we may date the introduction shortly before the conclusion of the century. In France, too, the same date may perhaps be assumed; for we find that, in the year , Louis XIV. gave an exclusive right to Dumourier Duperrier to construct certain machines called , and he was engaged, at a fixed salary, to keep in repair of them, purchased for the city of Paris, and to procure and to pay the necessary workmen. In the year the number of these engines was increased to , which were distributed in different quarters of the city; and at that time the contractors received annually livres.

By what steps the fire-engines of the century assumed the form presented by those of the , and on what principles of science their action depends, are matters which must here be passed over very briefly. It was some time ere the engines possessed what is termed an

air-chamber,

that is, a space containing a certain quantity of air, which became compressed into a smaller space when water was contained in the engine: this compression increased the elasticity of the air, and this elasticity was, in its turn, made to

183

contribute to the forcible ejection of the water through the hose or pipe of the engine. The men who with such alacrity lend their services at a fire, and work long arms or levers, are doing neither more nor less than working a pump, the valves of which are so arranged as to draw water into the engine from the reservoir, pool, or plug, thence into the air-chamber, and thence force it with considerable velocity towards the burning materials.

But it may now be asked, to whom have these engines belonged, and on what system has the fire-engine establishment been regulated? That the whole are now in the hands of Insurance Companies (with the exception of the small parish engines, and those possessed by private persons) is pretty well known; but we must look back to the period immediately subsequent to the Great Fire for the origin of the system. In an order of the Corporation of London,[n.183.1]  the City was divided into quarters, in respect of the suppression of fires; and the regulations enacted throw considerable light on the fire-police system of the times.

Item. That every of the said quarters shall be furnished and provided, at or before the feast of our Lord God next ensuing, of eight hundred leathern buckets, fifty ladders, viz. ten forty-two foot long, ten thirty foot long, ten twenty foot long, ten sixteen foot long, and ten twelve foot long; as also of so many hand-squirts of brass as will furnish two for every parish, four-and-twenty pickaxe sledges, and forty shod-shovels.

Item, That every one of the twelve companies provide and keep in readiness thirty buckets, one engine, six pickaxe-sledges, three ladders, and two handsquirts of brass.

Item, That all the other inferior companies provide and keep in readiness buckets and engines proportionable to their abilities, of which those least able, to provide portable engines to carry up-stairs into any rooms or tops of houses; the number of which buckets and engines to be from time to time prescribed and allotted by the Lord Mayor and Court of Aldermen's direction.

Item, That every alderman who hath passed the office of shrievalty provide four-and-twenty buckets and one hand-squirt of brass; and all those who have not been sheriffs, twelve buckets and one hand-squirt of brass, to be kept at their respective dwellings; and all other principal citizens and inhabitants, and every other person being a subsidy-man, or of the degree of a subsidy-man, shall provide and keep in their houses a certain number of buckets, according to their quality.

It will thus be seen that the provisions here made were, so far as extent is concerned, by no means trifling. The buckets and the ladders are most plentifully patronized, while some kind of

engine

seems to have been employed, but whether analogous to the modern fire-engine we have no means of knowing. Besides all this, however, the corporation made an extraordinary series of regulations-so extraordinary, indeed, that we may readily doubt whether they were ever acted on. For instance, it was ordered that every householder, upon cry of

Fire,

was to place a

sufficient man

at his door, well armed, and hang out a light at his door; that every householder was to have a vessel of water at his door, in case of fire; that the several companies of carpenters, bricklayers, plasterers, painters, masons, smiths, plumbers, and paviours, should each

184

provide persons to attend on the Lord Mayor whenever a fire might occur; that all the porters and meters within the City should similarly attend; that all persons, during a fire, should keep within their own houses, unless expressly sent for by the Lord Mayor; that all the brokers on the Exchange should attend, to guard the goods and merchandise; together with other and more practical arrangements, such as the ringing of a bell at the occurrence of a fire, the patrolling of the streets by night, injunctions to the inhabitants to observe care in the management of combustible ingredients, &c.

As time wore on, and the recollection of the great devastation of became deadened, it is probable that many of these arrangements fell into disuse, and that the principal ones really maintained were those relating to the provision of fire-engines in every parish, and in the halls of the companies. When, however, the insurance companies (respecting which we shall say a few words in a future page) came into prominent notice, they wrought great improvements in fire-extinguishing machinery. In a parish such matters were, to use a common phrase,

everybody's business, and therefore nobody's business;

but the peeuniary success of the insurance companies was directly involved in the speedy extinction of fires, since the farther the fires spread the greater was the liability of the companies.

The various insurance companies had their own fire-engines, and maintained an establishment of firemen, independent of each other, until within the last few years. From a paper by Mr. Rawson,[n.184.1]  we learn that so far back as the year Sir Frederick Morton Eden, the Chairman of the Globe Insurance Office, impressed with the inefficiency and expensive character of the separate engine establishments, entered into communication with the several offices for the purpose of inducing them to co-operate in the formation of a general fire-engine establishment. His proposition was, that each office joining the association should depute or members to form an engine committee, who should have control over the direction and expenditure of the establishment, but that no engine-houses or stables should be purchased or built without the concurrence of all the offices interested. Each office was, at the outset, to furnish a gang of firemen, of whom were to be -class men, who should receive allowances for all fires they attended; and -class men, who were to be paid only when specially authorised to attend. Each office was to pay an equal contribution towards the expenses of the establishment. Only office, however, entered into the views of Sir F. Eden, and the plan accordingly fell to the ground.

years afterwards of the offices, viz. the Sun, the Union, and the , united their fire-engine establishments; the whole of their engines and men being placed under the charge of a superintendent. The Atlas and the Phoenix Companies subsequently joined this body.

At length, in the year , most of the insurance companies, seeing the benefit of mutual co-operation, and the effectual working of a system which had been put in force in Edinburgh, joined in the formation of the present

London Fire-Engine Establishment.

The companies were in number, viz. the Alliance, Atlas, Globe, Imperial, London Assurance, Protector, , Sun, Union, and . Subsequently others, the British,

185

Guardian, Hand-in-Hand, Norwich Union, and Phoenix, joined the establishment; as did also or recently-formed companies; and there are now only fire-offices in London not belonging to it.

The affairs of the new Association were placed under the management of a committee, consisting of a Director from each of the associated insurance companies, which subscribe towards its support in certain agreed proportions. London was divided into districts, which may be briefly indicated thus :--. Eastward of and ; . Thence westward to and ; . All westward of the ; . South of the river, and east of ; . South of the river, and west of . In these districts were established engine-stations, averaging about to each district; at each of which was , , or engines, according to the importance of the station.

Such were the general arrangements as to distribution.

Since the year various minor changes have been made, according as experience pointed out the necessity for them; and at the present time () the arrangements are nearly as follow: The establishment belongs to eighteen fire-insurance companies. There are stations, of which the most eastern is at Ratcliff, and the most western near . At these stations are kept engines, for whose management about men are employed. The men are clothed in a uniform, and are selected with especial reference to their expertness and courage at fires; they are collectively known as the

Fire Brigade,

and are all under the orders and direction of Mr. Braidwood, the superintendent of the establishment. A certain number of these men are ready at all hours of the day and night, and the engines are also always ready to depart at a minute's warning in case of fire. As a rule for general guidance, it is arranged that, when a fire occurs in any district, all the men and engines in that district shall repair to the spot, together with -thirds of the men and engines from each of the districts next adjoining to it, and - from each of those most removed from it; but this arrangement is liable to modification, according to the extent of a fire, or the number which may be burning at time.

The general economy of the establishment, and the fearlessness of the brigademen, have won a large measure of praise from nearly all classes in the metropolis. If self-interest were the chief motive which led the insurance companies to the establishment of a system likely to reduce their own losses, there is anything but selfishness in the risks which the men encounter in saving lives and property, the poor as well as the rich, the uninsured as well as the insured.

It has been often supposed that there are observatories on the roofs of the insurance offices or engine-houses, where watchmen are posted at all hours of the night to detect the appearance of fire, and to give notice to those below. This, if ever acted on, is not observed by the Fire-engine Establishment. There is an arrangement made by the Police commissioners, that a policeman, on observing a fire, communicates instantly to the nearest engine-station; and for so doing the Association gives him a gratuity of . This, and a smaller gratuity to other persons who

call an engine,

is found sufficient to command prompt information on the occurrence of a fire. It is true that the lovers of mischief so

186

far show their silliness as to give

false alarms,

to an average extent of some or per annum; and that the brigade-men are sometimes tantalized by atmospherical phenomena. It has often happened, in reference to the latter point, that an has so deceived the beholders as to lead to the impression that a great conflagration has broken out; in such case the engines are sent forprecipitately, and all is in commotion. remarkable instances of this occurred about years ago. On the of these, engines and brigade-men were kept in constant motion from in the evening till the next morning, in endeavouring to search out what appeared to be a large conflagration; some of the engines reached Hampstead, and others Kilburn, before it was found that the glare was the effect of the

northern lights.

On the other occasion, a crimson glare of light arose at the north-east part of the horizon, at about o'clock in the evening, seemingly caused by a fierce conflagration; and the resemblance was increased by what appeared to be clouds of smoke rising up after the glare, and breaking and rolling away beneath it. engines and a large body, of men went in search of the supposed fire, and did not detect their error till they had proceeded far to the north-east. Subsequent accounts showed that the military and fire-patroles at Dublin, Leyden, Utrecht, Strasburg, Troyes, Rennes, and Nantes, had been similarly deceived by the atmospherical phenomena on the same night.

When, however, it is really a conflagration to which the attention of the brigade is called, there is an admirable coolness and system displayed in the whole proceedings. The water companies, by clauses in the Acts of Parliament regulating their foundation, are bound to furnish water freely in case of fire; and the hose or suction-pipe of every engine is speedily placed in connexion with the temporary pool of water derived from the street-plug. Then is observable a singular instance of the confidence which the firemen have that they shall obtain the aid of bystanders, for the firemen belonging to each engine are wholly insufficient to work it. The director or captain of each engine is empowered by the companies to pay-we believe at the rate of for the hour, and sixpence per hour afterwards, together with a supply of

creature-comforts

--for the services of as many strangers as he may need. It requires from to men to work each engine; and so extensive is the service thus rendered, that, at of the large fires a few years ago, more than temporary servants were thus engaged.

While the supernumeraries are thus engaged with the engines, the brigademen are directing the stream of water on the destructive element which they have to combat. Clothed in a neat and compact dress, with a stout leathern helmet to protect the head, they face the fiercest heat, alternately drenched with water from the pipes of the various engines, and half scorched by the flaming materials. Over and under, through and around the burning house, they direct their energies, braving alike the fire itself and the dangers attendant on falling ruins. It is lamentable to think that men, while thus engaged in a work of humanity, should lose their own lives; but such is the case, although, on account of the judicious arrangements of the corps, not very frequently.

Many of the most serious dangers attendant on a fire arise from the suffocating influence of the vast body of smoke which usually accompanies it. It has been

187

thought, by those well qualified to form an opinion, that the calamity of being

burnt to death

rarely, if ever, occurs, in the strict sense of the expression; that the real cause of death is suffocation from smoke, the burning and charring of the corpse being an after effect. To rescue individuals enveloped in smoke is thus a matter of anxious solicitude, and, to facilitate the exertions of the firemen to this end, they are provided with a very ingeniously-constructed smoke-proof dress. This dress is nearly analogous in principle to that of Mr. Deane, the diver. It consists of a leathern jacket and head-covering, fastened at the waist and wrists, whereby the interior is made tolerably smoke-proof. glass windows serve for the eyes to look through; and a pipe attached to the girdle allows fresh air to be pumped into the interior of the jacket, to support the respiration of the wearer. Thus equipped, the fireman may dare the densest smoke, although the dress is not so formed as to resist flame. It may not be a worthless remark here, that, in an apartment filled with smoke, respiration is less impeded near the ground than near the ceiling, on account of the ascensive tendency of the smoke. Mr. Braidwood, in a small work which he published while superintendent of the Edinburgh fire establishment, states,--

A stratum of fresh air is almost always to be depended upon from

six

to

twelve

inches from the floor, so that, if the air be not respirable to a person standing upright, he should instantly lie

down

. I have often observed this fact, which is, indeed, well known; but I once saw an example of it which appeared to me to be so striking, that I shall here relate it. A fire had broken out in the

third

floor of a house, and, when I reached the top of the stairs, the smoke was rolling in thick heavy masses, which prevented me from seeing

six

inches before me. I immediately got down on the floor, above which, for the space of about

eight

inches, the air seemed to be remarkably clear and bright. I could distinctly see the feet of the tables and other furniture in the apartment; the flames in this space

burning as vivid and distinct as the flame of a candle, while all above the smoke was so thick that the eye could not penetrate it.

[n.188.1] 

Besides the or engines thus managed by the Fire-Brigade, the small engines kept in repair (or out of repair, as the case may be) by the several parishes, and those owned by private individuals, there are powerful engines always floating on the Thames, and belonging to the London Fire Establishment. These are stationed near and near respectively. , They are so large as to require more than a men each for working, and, when in full energy, pour forth a volume of tuns of water per minute. They were intended for use in water-side fires, and have often rendered essential services. The steam fire-engines, of which or attracted public notice a few years ago, have not been retained in this country; they were purchased by the Prussian government.

In order not to break the continuity of the. details, we have left untouched till now the subject of , and the main object for which fire-offices were established. The great principle in all insurance is, the diffusion of a loss among a large number of persons, whereby the liability of each shall be trifling. The system of life insurance consists in the subscription of a large fund or stock, out of which advances are made, or lives insured, or annuities granted, based on the supposition that the favourable ventures may at least equal the unfavourable. So in marine insurance, the insurer or

underwriter,

estimating from past experience the probable average number of wrecks among a given number of ships, ventures to insure any ship at a certain per centage. So likewise in fire insurance a company agrees to bear the burden of all losses by fire, on the payment of a certain premium, relying on the hope that the sum which will have to be paid to a few parties will be less than that received from the

189

many. In such a case the real operation is this, that all persons who are insured, but whose houses are burned, pay for the rebuilding of those few which are; the company being merely the agents through whom the affair is managed, and who receive a remuneration for the agency.

This species of insurance has been practised in Great Britain more or less for a century and a half, and is now, notwithstanding the heavy duty imposed upon it, of very general use in our cities and large towns. In no other country of Europe is fire insurance so extensively practised as in England; indeed, not only are almost all descriptions of property at home and in the colonies insured, but foreign fire insurance has become a most important item in the transactions of some of the principal London establishments, a very considerable portion of their premiums being derived from insurances effected in foreign countries. Witness the late notable conflagrations at Hamburgh, and the enormous liabilities which accrued thereon in respect of or London companies.

The curious subject of Probabilities is involved, to a certain extent, in all the kinds of insurance; that is, if we know no reason why events should not continue to occur as they have hitherto occurred, we form an estimate of the future by measuring the past, and we speak of the greater or less

probability

of an event according to its frequency of occurrence under similar circumstances in past times. It is thus, perhaps, that fire and life insurance became undertaken by the same offices. Mr. M'Culloch states,--

Insurance against fire and upon lives is of much later origin than insurance against the perils of the sea. The former, however, has been known and carried on, to some extent at least, for nearly a century and a half. The Amicable Society, for insurance upon lives, was established by charter of Queen Anne, in

1706

; the

Royal Exchange

and London Assurance Companies began to make insurances upon lives in the reign of George I.; and the Equitable Society was established in

1762

.

Most of the fire-offices were also life-offices, and , and so they continued till a few years ago, when many of them, including the Hope, the Eagle, the Albion, the Beacon, the British Commercial, and the Palladium Companies, relinquished the fire-insurance, and confined their transactions to insurances on lives. The principal fire-offices now in London are the Sun, Phoenix, Protector, , British, County, Atlas, Alliance, Globe, Guardian, Hand in Hand, Imperial, Union, , and London; and those persons who are familiar with the busy thoroughfares of London will not fail to have remarked the magnificent structures which form the offices of many of these companies.

Among the metropolitan fire-offices some insure at their own risk and for their own profit, while there are others, called

Contribution Societies,

in which every person insured becomes a member or proprietor, and participates in the profit or loss of the concern. The principles on which the ratio of premiums paid for insurance is determined are simply those which experience shows to be most equitable, according to the number of fires and the amount of property consumed on the average of a great number of years. If the premium is felt to be too high, the competition between different companies will generally bring it down to a proper level. The offices are accustomed to divide insurances into

common,

hazardous,

and

doubly hazardous,

according to the presumed

190

liability of fires in the buildings insured, and the rate of payment varies accordingly. The extent to which the system of insurance is carried is quite astonishing, and may be illustrated thus:--A duty of per cent. has been payable on all the property insured, which, in , produced a revenue of more than sterling, thus indicating that the property insured is valued at more than sterling! office alone, viz. the Sun, has frequently paid to Government more than per annum. Yet, notwithstanding this immense amount, Mr. M'Culloch thinks that almost as great a revenue would accrue from a Is. duty as from of , by a vast increase in the number and value of insurances. From a calculation made by Mr. Rawson it appears that, in the fires which occurred in London in and , insurances had been effected on per cent. of the houses, on per cent. of the houses with the contained goods, on per cent. in respect of the goods only, while per cent. of the houses, amounting to -fifths of the whole, were entirely uninsured.

It needs scarcely, a word to show why the insurance companies keep up an engine-establishment. The smaller the number of serious fires, the smaller the sum drawn from the funds of the company; hence, as a mere pecuniary question, a considerable outlay for engines, firemen, &c., will effect a great saving in the end.

As improved social habits, by lengthening the average duration of human life, would gradually effect changes in the tables, the premiums, and the general calculations of life-insurance; so would improvements in the mode of constructing houses, fireplaces, chimneys, gas-apparatus, as well as improved habits of carefulness on the part of the people, work similar revolutions in fire-insurance. Hence those matters which bear on this subject form a notable feature in the subject of London Fires.

If we look back to early times, before fire-engines or insurance were known, we find that the was deemed the most important preventive measure against fire. This curfew was the general name for a law made by William the Conqueror, and enforced by severe penalties,. that at the ringing of a bell at o'clock in the evening, all persons should put out their lights, cover or rake up their fires, and go to bed. The name probably arose from the French

couvre-feu

--cover-fire, or fire-cover. Many writers have chosen to accept this as a symbol of the tyranny of William; among others Thomson, who says-

The shiv'ring wretches, at the curfew sound,

Dejected sank into their sordid beds,

And, through the mournful gloom of ancient times,

Mus'd sad or dreamt of better.

But others have taken a different view of the matter, and have argued, like Voltaire, that

the law, far from being tyrannical, was only an ancient police, established in almost all the towns of the north, and which had been long preserved in the convents.

Voltaire assigns this reason for the law--

that the houses were all built of wood, and the fear of fire was

one

of the most important measures of police.

The term

curfew,

like many others, has had several significations given to it. Thus, as above noticed, the law enacted by William has been termed the curfew.

191

Then, again, the instrument by which the fires were extinguished has been similarly named; and it happens that there are the means in existence to ascertain the precise nature of this contrivance. Mr. Grose some years ago communicated to the a drawing and description of an ancient curfew, or couvre-feu, in the possession of the Rev. Mr. Gosling. It was shaped something like a Dutch oven, being formed of pieces of copper riveted together. The dimensions were inches high, wide, and deep. Let the reader imagine the use of fire-hearths, before stoves and grates were known, and the raking together of the embers of a fire into a small group; let this curfew be laid on such a group, and it is not difficult to conceive that the fire would be soon extinguished.

There is yet another application of the term curfew, illustrated by the line-

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day.

When the custom of ringing the curfew-bell at a certain hour in the evening ceased, many towns and large buildings were provided with a fire-bell, or curfewbell, or curfew (for it was known by all these names); that is, a bell which, being rung only on the occurrence of a fire, constituted a signal unfailingly attended to by all within hearing. Vestiges of this custom still exist, as in the Fire-bell Gate at Barking, in Essex. A curfew-bell was, not many years ago, in existence at Hoddesdon, in Hertfordshire; but its use had degenerated to that of a signal-bell on the morning of

pancake-day.

Many persons may still remember that, in the volunteering days of the last generation, the volunteers were wont to be roused up by beat of drum, on the occurrence of a large fire, in order that they might guard the scene of conflagration from tumult and depredation. Now, both curfew and volunteers are gone, and we safely depend, with more confidence than ever our ancestors could have done, on the vigilant police of our large towns. Still, however, this relates only to the detection of a fire when actually existing, and leaves untouched the means of prevention. These means have been proposed in great number within the last half-century, and consist chiefly in the use of materials less combustible than wood in the building of houses, or in the interposition of incombustible materials where practicable. For instance, or years ago a Mr. Hartley proposed to nail thin iron plates in many parts of the joisting and flooring of a house, as a check to the communication of flame. The Earl Stanhope of that period also proposed a method; but this consisted in coating various parts of a house with a thick layer of a peculiar cement, impervious to flame.

The present century has witnessed similar plans in abundance, of which we may allude to proposed by Mr. Loudon, in his

Encyclopaedia of Cottage Architecture:

--

In rendering houses fire-proof, the next important object to using fire-proof materials is that of having all the walls and partitions, and even the steps of wooden staircases, filled in with such materials as will render them in effect solid. On examining into the causes of the rapidity of the spread of the flames in London houses when on fire, it will almost invariably be found that, whatever may have occasioned the fire to break out, the rapidity of its progress has been in proportion to the greater or less extent of the lath and plaster

partitions, the hollow wooden floors, and the wooden staircases.

His proposition is to fill up all the vacuities behind such places with powdered earth or sand.

The recent legislative enactments respecting the construction of buildings and chimneys may be step towards the diminution of destructive fires, and humanity may, perchance, be less and less frequently shocked with such scenes as Dryden thus depicts:--

Those who have homes, when home they do repair, To a last lodging call their wandering friends; Their short uneasy sleeps are broke with care, To look how near their own destruction tends. Those who have none, sit round where once it was, And with full eyes each wonted room require; Haunting the yet warm ashes of the place, As murder'd men walk where they did expire. The most in fields like herded beasts lie down, To dews obnoxious on the grassy floor; And while their babes in sleep their sorrow drown, Sad parents watch the remnants of their store.

 
 
 
Footnotes:

[n.182.1] History of Inventions.

[n.183.1] An Act for preventing and suppressing of Fires within the city of London, and liberties thereof. 1668.

[n.184.1] Journal of the Statistical Society of London, vol. i., p. 283.

[n.188.1] On Fire-Engines and Apparatus, p. 82. Edin. 1830.