top of page
Search

The 'Upstairs, Downstairs' firefighters

This week's blog is especially for Downton Abbey fans, as we explore the fascinating story of stately home fire brigades, where butlers, housemaids and gardeners sometimes wore a very different hat: a firefighter’s helmet.


I’ve always thought that a bit of stained glass would look a treat here at NESM. So, when I came across the 'firefighter window' which decorates the private chapel at Windsor Castle, my first thought was: “I wonder if HM The Queen would give us a copy on sticky-backed plastic to whack on one of our windows?” All in the name of education of course!


I discovered the Windsor Castle window - which commemorates the work of firefighters in tackling the famous 1992 castle blaze - because I’m starting a research project all about fire services and grand country houses, a project which I hope might, one day, give me the excuse to write to the Queen.


It’s a little-known fact that many castles, royal palaces and stately homes across the UK maintain - and have maintained for centuries - their own in-house firefighting teams; usually voluntary responders and members of household staff whose job it is to spring into action at the first sign of fire in their historic buildings. Little research has been conducted on these servant hall heroes and their roles, but a wealth of information and objects sit in archives in grand houses across the country, just waiting to be uncovered. There are photos and records, and even private fire engines stowed away, all well looked after but rarely - if ever - displayed. Over time, I hope to uncover their untold story.

Two members of Blenheim Palace's private fire brigade with their own

horse-drawn steam-powered pumper (19th century). The individuals

haven't been identified but are thought to be members of household staff.


The story of the stately home fire team (or private fire brigade) goes back at least to the building of the greatest baroque houses in the late 1600s and early 1700s. Architects who were then busy rebuilding London after the Great Fire were also hard at work designing fashionable new piles for the aristocracy. Many of the country’s existing Renaissance-era houses were considered outdated by the English nobility who were hankering after the opulent French styles seen at Louis XIV’s Versailles. Among the great houses to rise in England during this period were Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire (sometimes called the 'British Versailles'), Castle Howard in Yorkshire and Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, which had replaced an older Elizabethan house by 1701. These houses were decorated by many of the famous names responsible for the new buildings appearing in fire-ravaged London; for example, Sir James Thornhill, the artist who painted the interior of the dome at the new St Paul’s Cathedral, also painted the hall ceiling at Blenheim Palace and the entire Sabine Room at Chatsworth.


With the Great Fire of London so fresh in the memory, it was natural that the problem of how to tackle any future major blazes became a priority (you can find out more about how the Great Fire impacted firefighting services during a trip to the museum). For the owners of these grand new buildings it was imperative to take precautions against disaster. In an age when naked flames and open fires could easily spark a conflagration, preparation was everything. Water supplies were not reliable and there were no professional fire brigades to call upon in an emergency. Indeed, the very first 'modern' fire brigades were just being formed, with insurance companies starting to deliver more organised services. These brigades were, however, based largely in cities and towns, and Britain’s stately homes were not known as 'country' houses for nothing. Most were built in isolated rural spots. The houses were - and in some cases remain - the centre of countryside communities which, historically, had very limited access to firefighting equipment. Parish pumps, fire buckets and voluntary responders remained the cornerstone of provision in some areas into the 20th century, and in the pre-motor age the great houses could not easily be reached by engines based miles away. It was in this context that the age-old system of volunteer responders took on a more focused remit, to protect the great stately homes.


Over time it seems that some of these brigades widened their role, responding to fires across landed estates, in worker villages and farm buildings, essentially turning the area’s stately home into the local (if very posh) fire station. Some larger brigades turned virtually professional and contributed to the development of fire services nationally. Blenheim Palace was particularly proactive in its approach, incorporating its brigade in the mid-1800s. The palace's owner, the 9th Duke of Marlborough, became President of the National Fire Brigades Union and held a fire brigades rally at the palace in 1898.

Harewood House fire brigade training in the19th century


So who were, and are, the stately home fire teams? In their earlier days they were made up of those people who knew the houses best and were always on call: the domestic servants and domain staff. Duties ranged from housemaids scuttling to fetch fire buckets for dousing chimney fires, to fleets of gardeners who would train with professional equipment and under professional guidance. Georgian-era insurance companies, which might not be able to get a brigade out at speed to a stately home, did provide them with the latest pumps. Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk still has its original Newsham-built pump, and many stately homes today at least display lines of antique fire buckets. In the 19th century, when municipal brigades appeared, stately home brigades even dressed in the latest uniform; many a country house - including Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire - stocked the iconic Merryweather helmets.

When steam power arrived the larger stately homes invested in the new technology. Blenheim Palace’s steam-powered pumper was horse-drawn and probably Merryweather-built too. The constant threat of fire made such on-site engines essential. Even so, there have been many disasters in famous buildings. A huge fire at Castle Howard in 1940 (see right) destroyed the house’s iconic lantern dome (since restored, in time for the filming of Brideshead Revisited in the 1980s).


Unfortunately, the further back in time we go, the less we know about the individuals who staffed the engines. So little research has been conducted into servant-firefighters that information is sparse. Those houses that maintain fire teams to this day, however, have more recent records available. Chatsworth House has maintained an in-house team who train with the professional fire brigade to use modern equipment like breathing apparatus. In recent decades they've included members of the house maintenance staff, at least one of the household team, and visitor attraction staff who are a relatively recent addition to stately homes. Those who may not train in firefighting do prepare evacuation plans for the house collections.


It is also in recent decades that fire precautions at stately homes have really been revamped, due largely to the major fire at Windsor Castle in 1992. The media spotlight was firmly trained on the danger to heritage buildings from fire, and there was a general sense that not enough was being done by those who ran them. There had, for example, been great opposition among curators and heritage groups to installing smoke detectors and sprinkler systems, partly because of their ‘out of place’ look in historic homes, but also because of the potential damage that could be done to the fabric of a building by drilling and installing wiring. The Windsor fire changed perceptions, showing just how quickly a building's entire history could be consumed if some compromises were not made to protect from fire.


Undoubtedly there has been a greater acceptance of early-warning systems, and it’s thought the Windsor Castle fire spurred the development of new technology like wireless detectors. Specialist groups started to appear within professional fire brigades that focus on heritage buildings and how to approach fighting fires in these historic structures. The work done is fed back to those who work in the houses today. These teams are part of a tradition of firefighting that goes back centuries but is only recently starting to get the attention it deserves. I look forward to discovering more of these stories in my own research.

Recognising a proud history: in 2021, after a nationwide search, Blenheim Palace's

steam-powered fire engine was discovered and returned to it old home.


If you can contribute to this research you can contact the museum at research@visitnesm.org.uk.




127 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Comentários


bottom of page