We continue our series on London's fires with a look at the people whose job it was to fight the frequent and sporadic conflagrations in the Victorian capital. In the 1890s, the Strand magazine published a detailed article on the Metropolitan Fire Brigade and its formidable commander Captain Shaw. Between now and Christmas we will upload this in a series of instalments. Having witnessed a daring rescue of a woman and child by two members of the Brigade, our reporter decides to visit the Brigade's headquarters and investigate the workings of this great institution. In the first instalment we witness the rescue at first-hand and are then introduced to the headquarters at Winchester House in Southwark.
This startling cry aroused me one night as I was putting the finishing touches to some literary work. Rushing, pen in hand, to the window, I could just perceive a dull red glare in the northern sky, which, even as I gazed, became more vivid, and threw some chimneys near at hand into strong relief. A fire undoubtedly, and not far distant!
The street, usually so quiet at night, had suddenly awakened. The alarm which had reached me had aroused my neighbours on each side of the way, and every house was "well alight" in a short space of time. Doors were flung open, windows raised, white forms were visible at the casements and curiosity was rife. Many men and some venturesome women quitted their houses, and proceeded in the direction of the glare, which was momentarily increasing, the glow on the clouds waxing and waning according as the flames shot up or temporarily died down.
"where is it?" people ask in a quick panting way, as they hurry along. No one can say for certain. But just as we think it must be in Westminster, we come in sight of a huge column of smoke, and turning a corner are within view of the emporium a tall, six-storied block, stored with inflammable commodities, and blazing fiercely. Next door, or rather the next warehouse, is not yet affected.
The scene is weird and striking; the intense glare, the shooting flames which dart viciously out ands upwards, the white and red faces of the crowd kept back by the busy police, the puff and the clank of the engines, the rushing and hissing of the water, the roar of the fire, and the columns of smoke which in heavy sulky masses hung gloating over the blazing building. The bright helmets of the firemen are glinting everywhere, close to the already tottering wall, on the summit of the adjacent buildings, which are already smoking. Lost on ladders, amid smoke, they pour a torrent of water on the burning and seething premises. Above all the monotonous "puff-puff" of the steamer is heard, and a buzz of admiration ascends from the attentive, silent crowd.
Suddenly arises a yell a wild, unearthly cry, which almost makes one's blood run cold even in that atmosphere. A tremor seizes us as a female form appears at an upper window, framed in flame, curtained with smoke and noxious fumes.
"Save her! Save her!" The crowd sways and surges; women scream; strong men clench their hands and swear Heaven only knows why. But before the police have headed back the people the escape [ladder] is on the spot, two men are on it, one outstrips his mate, and darting up the ladder, leaps into the open window.
He is swallowed up in a moment lost to our sight. Will he ever return out of that fiery furnace: Yes, here he is, bearing a senseless female form, which he passes out to his mate, who is calmly watching his progress, thought the ladder is in imminent danger. Quick! The flames approach!
The man on the ladder does not wait as his mate again disappears and emerges with a child about fourteen. Carrying his burthen easily, he descends the ladder. The first man is already flying down the escape, head-first, holding he woman's dress round here feet. The others, rescuer and rescued, follow. The ladder is withdrawn, burning. A mighty cheer arises 'mid the smoke. Two lives saved! The fire is being mastered. More engines gallop up. "The Captain" is on the spot, too. The Brigade is victorious.
In the early morning hour, as I strolled home deep in thought, I determined to see these men who nightly risk their lives and stalwart limbs for the benefit and preservation of helpless fire-scorched people. Who are these men who go literally through fire and water to assist and save their fellow creatures, strangers to them unknown save in that they require help and succour?
I determined there and then to se these brave fellows in their daily work, or leisure in their homes, amid all the surroundings of their noble calling. I went accompanied by an artistic friend, to whose efforts the illustrations which accompany this record are due.
Emerging from Queen Street, we find ourselves upon Southwark Bridge, and we at once plunge into a flood of memories of old friends who come, invisibly, to accompany us n our pilgrimage to old Winchester House, now the head-quarters of the Metropolitan fire Brigade, in the Southwark Bridge-road. On the bridge once a tolled structure known as the Iron Bridge we find "Little Dorrit" herself, and her suitor, young John Chivery, in all his brave attire; the young aspirant is downhearted at the decided refusal of Miss Amy to marry him, as they pace the then almost unfrequented bridge. Their ghosts cross it in our company, with Clennan and Maggie behind us, till we reach the Union-road, once known as Horsemonger lane, where young John's ghost quits us to meditate in the back yard of Mr. Chivery's premises, and become that "broken-down ruin," catching cold beneath the family washing, which he feared.
The whole neighbourhood is redolent of Dickens. From a spot close by the head office we can see the buildings which have been erected on the site of the King's Bench Prison, where Mr. Micawber waited for something to turn up, and where Copperfield lost his box and money. The site of the former "haven of domestic tranquillity and peace of mind," as Micawber styled it, is indicated to us by Mr. Harman quite a suitable name in such a connection with Dickens by whom we are courteously and pleasantly received in the office of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade.
Our credentials being in order there is no difficulty experienced in our reception.. Nothing can exceed the civility and politeness of the officials, and of the rank and file of the Brigade. Fine, active cheerful fellows, all sailors, these firemen are a credit to their organisation and to London. The Superintendent hands us over to a bright young fellow, who is waiting his promotion we hope he has reached it, if not a death vacancy and he takes us in charge kindly.
TO BE CONTINUED.
Note: Scans of thre illustrations which accompanied the article will be uploaded in due course.