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In search of Britain's oldest Emergency Services

Updated: Jun 11, 2022

Here at NESM we try to tell the story of the Emergency Services from their very beginnings, right up to the present day. However, it is sometimes hard to know exactly where to start! When was it that people first began to organise police forces, ambulance services and fire brigades? Which services were the first in Britain? And which were the first in the world?

These are not easy questions to answer because there are different ways of defining what an “emergency service” actually is. Is it any organised attempt to help people in an emergency (which has been going on since the dawn of civilisation)? Or, must it be a dedicated professional service (a much more recent development)? If we take the former, we could dip right back into the ancient world in search of the oldest emergency services. Throughout history you can find examples of “budding” police, fire and ambulance services being provided by anyone and everyone! You might, for instance, find ancient Roman soldiers acting a bit like police officers by halting riots, just as you might find them acting a bit like paramedics when fellow soldiers were injured on the battlefield. Yet such ad hoc assistance is not what we think of when we hear the words “Emergency Service”. Our Emergency Services are professional, publicly funded teams of dedicated experts. And for the first examples of these, we need to come much further forward in time.

FIRE BRIGADE: All our modern emergency services trace their roots to the 19th Century, beginning with HM Coastguard in 1822. But it is the fire service that holds the distinction of being the first of the 'big three' to begin professionalising and coming under public control. Until the 1820s, firefighting had been the preserve of parish volunteers or of private insurance companies which had formed brigades following the shocking disaster of the Great Fire of London in 1666. (These companies would only fight fires at buildings whose owners had paid to be insured by them.) That system of voluntary and private services began to change from 1824 when the UK’s first municipal fire service was formed. This happened in Edinburgh, Scotland, when a trained surveyor named James Braidwood founded a city-wide, professional service under local government control. Braidwood soon moved to London where he brought together various private insurance companies into one professional unit. However, it took the government there until 1865 to provide public funding for that service. Progress was slow, but 1824 marked the beginning of the model for firefighting today.

POLICE FORCE: Next to become professional and publicly funded was the police force. In 1829 the Home Secretary Robert Peel founded Britain’s first government-backed police force, London’s Metropolitan Police. Like the fire service, policing had always been performed by part-time volunteers rather than paid professionals. Ever since the Norman Invasion in 1066, law enforcement had been the province of part-time constables and watchmen. Some initiatives, like the so-called “Bow Street Runners” (who were paid to apprehend criminals for London’s Bow Street Court in the 18th Century) or Glasgow City Police (who, from 1800, provided publicly

funded policing in Glasgow) had emerged. But these were not a model for today’s version of policing: the Bow Street Runners did not patrol generally, but simply enforced the writs of their court; the Glasgow “police” did not serve as dedicated law enforcers, but had other duties like firefighting and street sweeping. It was Peel’s model of a dedicated crime-fighting force, paid for by taxation, that forms the root of 21st Century police.

AMBULANCE SERVICE: the youngest of the “famous three” emergency services is the Ambulance Service. It was only in the later 19th Century that the modern service began to develop. Before the 1860s it had been left to firefighters and police officers to ferry the sick or injured to hospitals, often in makeshift carts. Medical transport had been virtually non-existent in Britain- or any other country- throughout most of history. Large scale epidemics like the Black Death had led to short term measures to deal with the sick, while the military had always tried to provide some means of transporting injured soldiers from battlefields. But there was no such thing as a public service for transporting medical emergencies to hospitals. It was the terrifying diseases that emerged in the cities of newly industrial Britain that convinced the government that publicly funded medical transport was needed. Because of the slow and uncertain development of that service (first aid training was only made compulsory for ambulance drivers in 1925!) it is difficult to give a straightforward date for the formation of the first modern Ambulance Service. But many historians point to six carriages used as ambulances by London’s Metropolitan Asylums Board in 1867 as marking the first concrete step towards the service we know today.

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