London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2

Mayhew, Henry

1851

Of the Fires of London.

CONNECTED with the subject of chimney sweeping is which attracts far less of the attention of the legislature and the public than its importance would seem to demand: I mean the fires in the metropolis, with their long train of calamities, such as the loss of life and of property. These calamities, too, especially as regards the loss of property, are almost all endured by the poor, the destruction of whose furniture is often the destruction of their whole property, as insurances are rarely effected by them; while the wealthier classes, in the case of fires, are not exposed to the evils of houselessness, and may be actually gainers by the conflagration, through the sum for which the property was insured.

"The daily occurrence of fires in the metropolis," say the Board of Health, "their extent, the number of persons who perish by them, the enormous loss of property they occasion, the prevalence of incendiarism, the apparent apathy with which such calamities are regarded, and the rapidity with which they are forgotten, will hereafter be referred to as evidence of a very low social condition and defective administrative organization. These fires, it was shown nearly a century ago, when the subject of insurance was debated in Parliament, were frequently caused from

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not having chimneys swept in proper time." I am informed that a chimney may be on fire for many days, unknown to the inmates of the house, and finally break out in the body of the building by its getting into contact with some beam or wood-work. The recent burning of Church was occasioned by the soot collected in the flue taking fire, and becoming red hot, when it ignited the wood-work in the roof. The flue, or pipe, was of iron.

From a return made by Mr. Braidwood of the houses and properties destroyed in the metropolis in the years ending in inclusive, it appears that the total number was : of contents destroyed (which, being generally insured separately, should be kept distinct) there were . The subjoined table gives the particulars as to the proportion insured and uninsured:—

 ----- Insured. Uninsured. Total. 
 Houses . . . 914 197 1111 
 Contents . . 609 404 1013 
   1523 601 2124 

"The proportion per cent. of the uninsured to the insured, would be—

 ---   Insured. Uninsured. Total. 
     Per Cent. Per Cent.   
 Houses . . 1111 82.3 17.7 100 
 Contents . 1013 60.1 39.9 100 
   2124 71.7 28.3 100 

The following table gives the total number of fires in the metropolis during a series of years:

ABSTRACT OF CAUSES OF FIRE IN THE METROPOLIS, FROM1833to1849, INCLUSIVE. COMPILED BY W. BADDELEY.
   1833 1834 1835 1836 1837 1838 1839 1840 1841 1842 1843 1844 1845 1846 1847 1848 1849 Total. Average 
 Accidents of various kinds, for the most part unavoidable ...... 83 40 14 13 17 36 25 26 26 44 19 11 17 29 20 19 13 452 27 
 Apparel ignited on the person .. .. .. .. 7 7 5 3 12 5 9 5 4 3 3 3 1 2 69 4 
 Candles, various accidents with .. 56 146 110 157 125 132 128 169 184 189 166 205 165 229 237 237 241 2876 169 
 Carelessness, palpable instances of 28 .. 19 18 7 17 14 24 25 19 27 15 14 15 20 23 24 309 18 
 Children playing with fire or candles ............ .. .. 5 6 18 5 12 21 18 16 20 23 19 25 16 19 15 238 14 
 Drunkenness .... .. 2 3 .. 2 4 6 5 5 11 6 9 7 9 5 3 7 84 5 
 Fire-heat, application of, to various hazardous manufacturing processes........ 31 24 39 34 22 40 26 29 16 36 14 21 22 25 16 22 23 440 26 
 Fire-sparks ...... .. .. .. 7 10 12 9 17 13 23 17 27 24 32 65 63 40 359 21 
 Fire-works ...... .. .. 3 .. 5 3 5 1 4 7 5 3 10 9 6 1 8 70 4 
 Fires kindled on hearths and other improper places . 7 .. 9 5 5 15 8 7 8 9 9 8 12 7 3 4 4 120 7 
 Flues, foul, defective, &c......... 71 65 69 72 53 58 58 89 83 90 105 84 78 86 78 56 78 1273 75 
 Fumigation, incautious ........ .. 3 7 5 2 1 5 3 2 2 1 1 3 4 4 4 2 49 3 
 Furnaces, kilns, &c., defective or over-heated .... .. 11 2 9 12 15 20 15 12 23 19 17 29 28 14 16 21 263 16 
 Gas .............. 20 25 39 38 31 42 72 48 48 52 40 33 54 53 63 65 57 780 46 
 Gunpowder ...... 3 3 .. 1 3 1 2 .. .. 3 1 .. 1 .. 2 .. 2 22 1 1/5 
 Hearths, defective, &c......... .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 3 5 2 .. 4 3 4 3 24 1 1/2 
 Hot cinders put away............ .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 3 3 7 10 8 9 5 11 56 3 
 Lamps .......... .. .. .. 2 3 9 4 3 5 2 2 6 11 7 2 3 17 76 5 
 Lime, slaking of . .. 3 4 3 .. 4 2 2 5 4 2 3 9 7 5 5 3 61 4 
 Linen, drying, airing, &c. ........ .. .. 22 31 48 32 26 25 27 41 33 45 30 39 34 36 40 509 30 
 Lucifer-matches.. .. .. .. .. 8 9 17 18 16 17 14 19 12 14 9 23 12 188 11 
 Ovens............ 6 .. .. 6 3 11 4 13 13 13 10 10 8 8 8 2 2 117 7 
 Reading, working, or smoking in bed .......... .. 3 .. .. .. 1 2 .. 5 2 3 .. .. 3 1 1 1 22 1 1/3 
 Shavings, loose, ignited.......... .. 6 9 13 8 17 8 27 35 22 31 18 25 35 37 27 21 339 20 
 Spontaneous combustion ........ 7 2 5 4 4 5 13 11 22 20 23 34 19 18 15 7 19 228 13 
 Stoves, defective, over-heated, &c. 18 20 11 28 36 31 24 48 54 32 58 44 51 43 37 48 43 626 37 
 Tobacco smoking .. 6 4 1 3 4 11 9 22 17 14 21 19 29 18 37 24 239 14 
 Suspicious ...... .. .. .. .. 7 8 6 11 7 9 16 7 9 7 17 11 10 125 7 
 Wilful .......... 3 9 6 8 5 6 7 9 13 19 21 11 14 19 17 25 19 211 12 
 Unknown........ 125 114 91 96 57 45 67 39 23 32 60 74 32 39 72 38 76 1080 63 

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Here, then, we perceive that there are, upon an average of years, no less than "fires" per annum, that is to say, houses in every are discovered to be on fire every year; and about - of these are uninsured. In the year the total number of fires was only , or in every inhabited houses, whilst, in , the number had gradually progressed to , or in every houses.

We have here, however, to deal more particularly with the causes of these fires, of which the following table gives the result of many years' valuable experience:—

TABULAR EPITOME OF METROPOLITAN FIRES, FROM1833to1849. BY W. BADDELEY,29,ALFRED STREET,ISLINGTON.
   1833 1834 1835 1836 1837 1838 1839 1840 1841 1842 1843 1844 1845 1846 1847 1848 1849 Total. Average 
 Slightly damaged 292 338 315 397 357 383 402 451 438 521 489 502 431 576 536 509 582 6,574 470 
 Seriously damaged 135 116 125 134 122 152 165 204 234 224 231 237 244 238 273 269 228 2,955 211 
 Totally destroyed 31 28 31 33 22 33 17 26 24 24 29 23 32 20 27 27 28 365 26 
 Total No. of Fires 458 482 471 564 501 568 584 681 696 769 749 762 707 834 836 805 838 9,894 770 
 False Alarms .... 59 63 66 66 89 80 70 84 67 61 79 70 81 119 88 120 76 1,150 82 
 Alarms from Chimneys on Fire 75 106 106 126 127 107 101 98 92 82 83 94 87 69 66 86 89 1,307 94 
 Total No. of Calls 592 651 643 756 717 755 755 863 855 912 911 926 875 1022 990 1011 1003 12,351 882 
 Insuran. on Building and Contents .. .. .. 169 173 161 169 237 343 321 276 313 313 302 263 310 368 3,718 266 
 Insurances on Building only .. .. .. .. 73 47 59 58 92 149 116 124 138 107 137 125 120 163 1,508 108 
 Insurances on Contents only.. .. .. .. 104 76 128 115 104 52 112 107 94 73 125 157 134 72 1,453 104 
 Uninsured ...... .. .. .. 218 205 220 242 248 152 220 242 217 214 270 291 241 235 3,215 230 

Thus we perceive that, out of an average of fires per annum, the information being derived from years' experience, the following were the number of fires produced by different causes:—

   Average No. of Fires per Anuum. 
 Candles, various accidents with . . 169 
 Flues, foul, defective, &c. . . . 75 
 Unknown . . . . . 63 
 Gas . . . . . . 46 
 Stoves over-heated . . . . 37 
 Linen, drying, airing, &c. . . . 30 
 Accidents of various kinds, for the most part unavoidable . . . . . 27 
 Fire heat, application of, to various hazardous manufacturing processes . . 26 
 Fire sparks . . . . . 21 
 Shavings, loose, ignited . . . 20 
 Carelessness, palpable instances of . 18 
 Furnaces, kilns, &c., defective or overheated . . . . . . 16 
 Children playing with fire or candles . 14 
 Tobacco smoking . . . . 14 
 Spontaneous combustion . . . 13 
 Wilful . . . . . . 12 
 Lucifer-matches . . . . 11 
 Ovens . . . . . . 7 
 Fires, kindled on hearths and other improper places . . . . . 7 
 Suspicious . . . . . 7 
 Lamps . . . . . . 5 
 Drunkenness . . . . . 5 
 Lime, slaking of . . . . 4 
 Apparel, ignited on the person . . 4 
 Fireworks . . . . . 4 
 Hot cinders put away . . . 3 
 Incautious fumigation . . . 3 
 Reading, working, or smoking in bed . 1.33 
 Hearths defective . . . . 1.25 
   ------- 
   665 

Here, then, we find that while the greatest proportion of fires are caused by accidents with candles, about - of the fires above mentioned arise from foul flues, or out of , a circumstance which teaches us the usefulness of the class of labourers of whom we have been lately treating.

It would seem that a much larger proportion of the fires are wilfully produced than appear in the above table.

The Board of Health, in speaking of incendiarism in connection with insurance, report:—

Inquiries connected with measures for the improvement of the population have developed the operation of insurances, in engendering crimes and calamities; negatively, by weakening natural responsibilities and motives to care and forethought; positively, by temptations held out to the commission of crime in the facility with which insurance money is usually obtainable.

The steady increase in the number of fires in the metropolis, whilst our advance in the arts gives means for their diminution, is ascribable mainly to the operation of these two causes, and to the division and weakening of administrative authority. From information on which we can rely, we feel assured that the crime of incendiarism for the sake of insurance money exists to a far greater extent than the public are aware of.

Mr. Braidwood has expressed his opinion that only -half of the property in the metropolis is insured, not as to numbers of property, but as to value; but the proportion of insured and uninsured houses could not be ascertained.

Mr. Baddeley, the inspector to the Society for the Protection of Life from Fire, who had given attention to the subject for the last years, gave the Board the following account of the increase of fires:—

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 ----- Fires per Annum of Houses and Properties. Of which were Totally Uninsured. Proportion per Cent. of Insured Houses and Properties Burnt. 
 In the first seven years there were on an average . 623 215 65.15 
 In the second seven years . . 790 244 69.3 

During this period there has been a great increase in the number of dwellings, but this has been chiefly in suburban places, where fires rarely occur.

The frequency of fires," it is further stated, "led Mr. Payne, the coroner of the City of London, to revive the exercise of the coroner's function of inquiring into the causes of fires; most usefully. Out of 58 inquests held by him (in the City of London and the borough of Southwark, which comprise only one-eighteenth of the houses of the metropolis) since 1845, it appears that, 8 were proved to be wilful; 27 apparently accidental; and 23 from causes unknown, including suspicious causes. The proportion of ascertained wilful fires was, therefore, 23 per cent.; which gives strong confirmation to the indications presented by the statistical returns as to the excess of insured property burnt above uninsured.

The at once mean and reckless criminality of arson, by which a man exposes his neighbours to the risk of a dreadful death, which he himself takes measures to avoid, has long, and on many occasions, gone unpunished in London. The insurance companies, when a demand is made upon them for a loss through fire, institute an inquiry, carried on quietly by their own people. The claimant is informed, if sufficient reasons for such a step appear, that from suspicious circumstances, which had come to the knowledge of the company, the demand would not be complied with, and that the company would resist any action for the recovery of the money. The criminal becomes alarmed, he is afraid of committing himself, and so the matter drops, and the insurance companies, not being required to pay the indemnification, are satisfied to save their money, and let the incendiarism remain unnoticed or unpunished. Mr. Payne, the coroner, has on some occasions strongly commented on this practice as which showed the want of a public prosecutor.

A few words as regards the means of extinction and help at fires.

Upwards of years ago the Commissioners of Police instructed their officers to note the time which elapsed between the earliest alarm of fire and the arrival of the engine. fires were noted, and the average duration of time before the fire-brigade or any parochial or local fire-engine, reached the spot, was minutes. or of these fires were in the suburbs; so that in this crowded city, so densely packed with houses and people, fires raged unchecked for more than half-an-hour.

There are in the metropolis, not including the more distant suburbs, public fire stations, with engines provided under the management of the parochial authorities. The fire-brigade has but stations on land, and on the river, which are, indeed, floating engines, being usually moored near Southwark-bridge, the other having no stated place, being changed in its locality, as may be considered best. In the course of years, the term of the official inquiry, the engines of the fire-brigade reached on the average the place where a fire was raging times as the earliest means of assistance, when the parochial engines did the same only in the proportion of to the .

Mr. Braidwood, the director of the fire-brigade, stated, when questioned on the subject with a view to a report to be laid before Parliament, that "the average time of an engine turning out with horses was from to minutes." The engines are driven at the rate of miles an hour along the streets, which, in the old coaching days, was considered the "best royal mail pace." Indeed, there have been frequent complaints of the rapidity with which the fire-engines are driven, and if the drivers were not skilful and alert, it would really amount to recklessness.

Information of the breaking out of a fire," it is stated in the report, "will be conveyed to the station of the brigade at the rate of about five miles an hour: thus in the case of the occurrence of a fire within a mile of the station, the intelligence may be conveyed to the station in about twelve minutes; the horses will be put to, and the engine got out into the street in about five minutes on the average; it traverses the mile in about six minutes; and the water has to be got into the engine, which will occupy about five minutes, making, under the most favourable circumstances for such a distance, 28 minutes, or for a half-mile distance, an average of not less than 20 minutes.

The average distance of the occurring fires from a brigade station were, however, during a period of years, terminating in , upwards of a mile. was miles, several miles, more were miles, and a mile and a half, while the most destructive fires were at an average distance of a mile and quarters. Thus it was impossible for a fire-brigade to give assistance as soon as assistance was needed, and, under other circumstances, might have been rendered. And all this damage may and does very often result from what seems so trifling a neglect as the non-sweeping of a chimney.

Mr. W. Baddeley, an engineer, and a high authority on this subject, has stated that he had attended fires for years in London, and that, of fires which took place in , -thirds might have been easily extinguished had there been an immediate application of water. In some places, he said, delay originated from the turncocks being at wide intervals, and some of the

382

companies objecting to let any but their own servants have the command of the main-cocks.

The Board of Health have recommended the formation of a series of street-water plugs within short distances of each other, the water to be constantly on at high pressure night and day, and the whole to be under the charge of a trained body of men such as compose the present fire-brigade, provided at appointed stations with every necessary appliance in the way of hose, pipes, ladders, &c. "The hose should be within the reach," it is urged in the report, "fixed, and applied on an average of not more than minutes from the time of the alarm being given; that is to say, in less than - of the time within which fireengines are brought to bear under existing arrangements, and with a still greater proportionate diminution of risks and serious accidents."

Nor is this mode of extinguishing fires a mere experiment. It is successfully practised in some of the American cities, Philadelphia among the number, and in some of our own manufacturing towns. Mr. Emmott, the engineer and manager of the Oldham Water-works, has described the practice in that town on the occurrence of fires:—

In five cases out of six, the hose is pushed into a water-plug, and the water thrown upon a building on fire, for the average pressure of water in this town is 146 feet; by this means our fires are generally extinguished even before the heavy engine arrives at the spot. The hose is much preferred to the engine, on account of the speed with which it is applied, and the readiness with which it is used, for one man can manage a hose, and throw as much water on the building on fire as an engine worked by many men. On this account we very rarely indeed use the engines, as they possess no advantage whatever over the hose.

When the city of Hamburgh was rebuilt or years back, after its destruction by fire, it was rebuilt chiefly under the direction of Mr. W. Lindley, the engineer, and, as far as Mr. Lindley could accomplish, on sanitary principles, such as the abolition of cesspools. The arrangements for the surface cleansing of the streets by means of the hose and jet and the water-plugs, are made available for the extinction of fires, and with the following results, as communicated by Mr. Lindley:—

Have there been fires in buildings in Hamburgh in the portion of the town rebuilt?—Yes, repeatedly. They have all, however, been put out at once. If they had had to wait the usual time for engines and water, say 20 minutes or half an hour, these might all have led to extensive conflagrations.

What has been the effect on insurance?— The effect of the rapid extinction of fires has brought to light to the citizens of Hamburgh, the fact that the greater proportion of their fires are the work of incendiaries, for the sake of the insurance money. A person is absent; smoke is seen to exude; the alarm of fire is given, and the door is forced open, the jet applied, and the fire extinguished immediately. Case after case has occurred, where, upon the fire being extinguished, the arrangements for the spread of the fire are found and made manifest. Several of this class of incendiaries for the insurance money are now in prison. The saving of money alone, by the prevention of fires, would be worth the whole expense of the like arrangement in London, where it is well known that similar practices prevail extensively.

The following statement was given by Mr. Quick, an engineer, on this subject:—

After the destruction of the terminus of the South Western Railway by fire, I recommended them to have a 9-inch main, with 3-inch outlets leading to six stand-pipes, with joining screws for hose-pipes to be attached, and that they should carry a 3-inch pipe of the same description up into each floor, so that a hose might be attached in any room where the fire commenced.

In how many minutes may the hose be attached?—There is only the time of attaching the hose, which need be nothing like a minute. I have indeed recommended that a short length of hose with a short nozzle or branch should be kept attached to the cock, so that the cock has only to be turned, which is done in an instant.

It appears that fire-engines require 26 men to work each engine of two 7-inch barrels, to produce a jet of about 50 feet high. The arrangement carried out, at your recommendation, with six jets, is equivalent to keeping six such engines, and the power of 156 men, in readiness to act at all times, night and day, at about a minute's notice, for the extinction of fires?—It will give a power more than equal to that number of men; for the jets given off from a 20-inch main will be much more regular and powerful, and will deliver more water than could be delivered by any engine. The jets at that place would be 70 feet high.

The system of roof-cisterns, which was at time popular as a means of extinction, has been found, it appears, on account of their leakage and diffusion of damp, to be but sorry contrivances, and have very generally been discontinued. Mr. , a builder in Liverpool, gives the following, even under the circumstances, amusing account of a fire where such a cistern was provided:—

The owner of a cotton kiln, which had been repeatedly burnt, took it into his head to erect a large tank in the roof. His idea was, that when a fire occurred, they should have water at hand; and when the fire ascended, it would burn the wooden tank, and the whole of the contents being discharged on the fire like a cataract, it would at once extinguish it. Well, the kiln again took fire; the smoke was so suffocating, that nobody could get at the internal pipe, and the whole building was again destroyed. But what became of the tank? It could not burn, because it was filled with water; consequently, it boiled most admirably. No hole was singed in its side or bottom; it looked very picturesque, but it was utterly useless.

The necessity of almost immediate help is

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shown in the following statement by Mr. Braidwood, when consulted on the subject of fireescapes, which under the present system are not considered sufficiently effective:—

Taking London to be six miles long and three miles broad, to have anything like an efficient system of fire-escapes, it would be necessary to have one with a man to attend it within a quarter of a mile of each house, as assistance, to be of any use, must generally be rendered within five minutes after the alarm is given. To do this the stations must be within a quarter of a mile of each other (as the escapes must be taken round the angles of the streets): 253 stations would thus be required and as many men.

At present scaling ladders are kept at all the engine stations, and canvas sheets also at some of them; several lives have been saved by them; but the distance of the stations from each other renders them applicable only in a limited number of instances.

The engines of the fire-brigade throw up about gallons a minute. Their number is about . The cost of a fire-engine is from to , and the hose, buckets, and general apparatus, cost nearly the same amount.

 
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 Title Page
 INTRODUCTION
Of the Street-Sellers of Second-Hand Articles
Of the Street-Sellers of Live Animals
Of the Street-Sellers of Mineral Productions and Natural Curiosities
Of the Street-Buyers
Of the Street-Jews
Of the Street-Finders or Collectors
Of the Streets of London
Of the London Chimney-Sweepers
Of the London Chimney-Sweepers
Of the Sweepers of Old, and the Climbing Boys
Of the Chimney-Sweepers of the Present Day
Of the General Characteristics of the Working Chimney-Sweepers
Sweeping of the Chimneys of Steam-Vessels
Of the 'Ramoneur' Company
Of the Brisk and Slack Seasons, and the Casual Trade among the Chimney- Sweepers
Of the 'Leeks' Among the Chimney-Sweepers
Of the Inferior Chimney-Sweepers -- the 'Knullers' and 'Queriers'
Of the Fires of London
Of the Sewermen and Nightmen of London
Of the Wet House-Refuse of London
Of the Means of Removing the Wet House-Refuse
Of the Quantity of Metropolitan Sewage
Of Ancient Sewers
Of the Kinds and Characteristics of Sewers
Of the Subterranean Character of the Sewers
Of the House-Drainage of the Metropolis as Connected With the Sewers
Of the London Street-Drains
Of the Length of the London Sewers and Drains
Of the Cost of Constructing the Sewers and Drains of the Metropolis
Of the Uses of Sewers as a Means of Subsoil Drainage
Of the City Sewerage
Of the Outlets, Ramifications, Etc., of the Sewers
Of the Qualities, Etc., of the Sewage
Of the New Plan of Sewerage
Of the Management of the Sewers and the Late Commissions
Of the Powers and Authority of the Present Commissions of Sewers
Of the Sewers Rate
Of the Cleansing of the Sewers -- Ventilation
Of 'Flushing' and 'Plonging,' and Other Modes of Washing the Sewers
Of the Working Flushermen
Of the Rats in the Sewers
Of the Cesspoolage and Nightmen of the Metropolis
Of the Cesspool System of London
Of the Cesspool and Sewer System of Paris
Of the Emptying of the London Cesspools by Pump and Hose
Statement of a Cesspool-Sewerman
Of the Present Disposal of the Night-Soil
Of the Working Nightmen and the Mode of Work
Crossing-Sweepers