Beer Tokens and Buckets

Today we are familiar with the flash of red and the wail of sirens synonymous with our fire services, they are crucial to our everyday lives because we know, that if trouble arises there is a dedicated team of experts that will come running at any time of night or day at no cost; but what about before that? What came before unified fire services, formalised stations and professional, permanent firefighters?

You may not believe it but every fire that is successfully extinguished, every life saved and every cat rescued (sorry…) is in some way, made possible by a very famous fire that raged through London over 350 years ago.

Now the Great Fire of London is fairly well-known, we all know the story, so we won’t dwell too much on the tale but it was because of the devastation of 1666 that society truly began to see the need for some form of fire-fighting safety net for the very first time. Prior to the Great Fire of London, a fire which burned at 2282 degrees Fahrenheit and ravaged 80% of the City, the only form of firefighting involved city watchmen, militia and local residents. City watchmen would keep a look out for flames and the militia and local residents would often rally around to extinguish any flames, usually using the bucket chain system (buckets of water passed along a line of people). This system was flawed and rudimentary and no match

for the flames that burnt at far higher temperatures than a crematorium.

As the Great Fire of London consumed the buildings, almshouses, schools and churches of the City, people had to watch their buildings and livelihoods go up in flames, each knowing that they had lost everything because fire insurance or a sufficient fire service did not exist and there’s nothing quite like the destruction of one’s entire livelihood to stir up change. And change did come, in the form of the first insurance company in 1680, the ‘Fire Office’, to later be known as the Phoenix Fire Office. Set up by Nicholas Barbon, this insurance company laid the way for many more, with many other insurance companies being set up after this due to increased demand. By 1690, one in ten houses were insured.

But what did that mean?

Well for those that were concerned about the risk of their home or workplace burning down insurance could be purchased, similar to today. In 1682 it was recorded that for 30 shillings Barbon’s company would insure a property for £100 for a period of 7 years. Insurance companies began employing volunteers for their own fire brigades until demand saw them grow to build teams of permanent firemen. Each company had its own unique livery and badge and often, men would wear armbands to identify who belonged to which insurance brigade. This was vital, as each insurer would only attend fires of the properties that they insured.

However, if one insurance fire brigade attended a fire at a property insured by another company, that brigade would usually be reimbursed.


Fire Marks

To identify that a property was covered by fire insurance, attached to the building at a height easily seen from the street but out of reach of thieves, was a sign or emblem called a fire mark which was issued by the company. Each company had its own distinctive design which made identification of the property easier for their fire fighters and the company representatives. At first they were made of lead with the individual policy number stamped upon them and a type of logo.

Later fire marks were made of tin, copper, or similar material. These are more often called fire plates. Over time, the plates began to be more like advertising and demand grew rapidly.

Insurance Brigade Equipment

Whilst massive strides in firefighting and fire safety had been made, methods and equipment remained simple. Equipment used by firemen at this time amounted to little more than ladders, leather buckets, and fire crooks. These were long poles with a hook at the end for pulling off burning thatch. Firefighting was hard work. It was hot, hard and dangerous and the men would usually be sustained with plenty of beer or ‘strong water’ (spirits); firefighting was thirsty work!

Did you know? Innovations in pumps meant increased efficiency; for the first time pumps could provide a continuous jet of water with some force, however, this required enormous strength and stamina, especially when fighting large fires. To combat the loss of firemen through fatigue, brigades would often pull in bystanders for assistance. In return for their help, brigades would offer beer tokens! As insurance companies grew, each with their own brigade it became obvious that a unified force may be more efficient and in 1833, 10 independent fire insurance companies united to form the London Fire Engine Establishment (LFEE). On 1st January 1833, James Braidwood, an experienced firefighter from Edinburgh became the first Superintendent of the London Fire Engine Establishment. Braidwood introduced many firefighting principals that remain in use today, including uniforms that provide some form of personal protection, an emphasis on training and a scientific approach to tackling blazes.


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