History of Firefighting


The modern day Fire Brigade has evolved following many years of development and improvements since almost pre-history. From the time man discovered fire, he has also battled to control the flames.

The history of the firefighter began in ancient Rome while under the rule of Augustus in the 3rd Century. Prior to that, there is evidence of fire-fighting in use in Ancient Egypt.

The first Roman fire brigade was created by Marcus Licinius Crassus. He took advantage of the fact that Rome had no firefighters. Crassus creating his own brigade of 500 firefighters who rushed to burning buildings at the first cry for help. Upon arriving at the fire, the firefighters did nothing while their Crassus bargained over the price of their services with the property owner. If Crassus could not negotiate a satisfactory price, the firefighters simply let the structure burn to the ground.

In AD 60 Emperor Nero formed a group of firefighters called the Vigiles to combat fires using water buckets and pumps. The Vigiles patrolled the streets of Rome to watch for fires and served also as a police force. When there was a fire, the firefighters would line up to the nearest water source and pass buckets hand in hand to the fire.

In Britain the first organised firefighting is believed to have originated during the Roman invasion in AD43. Even then, fighting fires was often limited to nothing better than buckets of water. Once the Romans left, firefighting took a backward step as communities fell into decline. During the middle ages many towns simply burned down due to the lack of firefighters and most buildings were easy to burn being constructed of wood. Eventually, some parishes organised basic firefighting, but no regulations or standards were in force.

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The Great Fire of London, in 1666, changed things and helped to standardize firefighting. It set in motion changes that laid the foundations for organised firefighting. The Great Fire started at the bakery of Thomas Farriner on Pudding Lane, shortly after midnight on Sunday, 2 September through until Wednesday 3rd September 1666.

The death toll is unknown but traditionally thought to have been small, as only six verified deaths were recorded. However it is believed that the deaths of poor and middle-class people were not recorded, while the heat of the fire may have cremated many victims leaving no recognizable remains. A melted piece of pottery on display at the Museum of London found by archaeologists in Pudding Lane, where the fire started, shows that the temperature reached 1700 °C.

After The Great Fire, the first fire insurance company called the, “The Fire Office”, was established in 1667 by Nicholas Barbon.  His Fire Brigade employed small teams of Thames watermen as firefighters. Other similar companies soon followed his lead and this was how property was protected until the early 1800s. Policy holders were given a badge, or fire mark, to affix to their building. If a fire started, the Fire Brigade was called. They looked for the fire mark and, provided it was the right one, the fire would be dealt with. Often the buildings were left to burn until the right fire company attended. The Hand in Hand Fire Insurance Company was later to supersede ‘The Fire Office’ Company. Eventually, many of these insurance companies were to merge.

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In America, George Washington, the future American President was a volunteer firefighter in Alexandria, Virginia. In 1774, as a member of the Friendship Veterans Fire Engine Company, he bought a new fire engine and gave it to the town, which was its very first. President Benjamin Franklin also was a Volunteer Firefighter in his earlier years, helping to create the first fire department in Philadelphia in the 1736.

The first known female firefighter Molly Williams took her place with the men on the drag ropes during the blizzard of 1818 and pulled the fire water pump to the fire through the deep snow.

The United States did not have government run fire departments until around the time of the American Civil War. Prior to this time, private fire brigades competed with each another to be the first to attend a fire because insurance companies paid brigades to save buildings. Underwriters also employed their own Salvage Corporations who repaired the fire damage.

The first organised municipal fire brigade in the world was established in Edinburgh, Scotland, when the Edinburgh Fire Engine Establishment was formed in 1824, led by James Braidwood. The London Fire Engine Establishment, formed in 1833 with James Braidwood as the first Fire Chief. Braidwood had come to London after holding the position of the Chief Officer of Edinburgh Fire brigade.


In 1861 James Braidwood tragically died whist fighting a warehouse fire in Tooley Street, London. He was issuing measures of rum to the firefighters to boost morale during this big fire when a wall fell on him. This practice of giving rations of rum to the firefighters stems from the connection the fire brigade had to the navy.  Many sailors were enlisted into the fire brigades in the early years as they were seen as well disciplined, reliable and used to the watch shift system. Other areas of Britain had either Volunteer Fire Brigades or Town Fire Brigades.


ff2Firefighters have been helping in the Community and engaging in charitable causes down through the generations of firefighting. Example is Royal Tunbridge Wells firefighter helping to raise money for widows and orphans. Pictured with his dog ‘Jack’ and tabby cat ‘Arthur’ who helped encourage donations.

Before 1938 there were between 1400 and 1500 small municipal fire brigades run by local councils in the United Kingdom. In 1938 the Auxiliary Fire Service was created and was shortly superseded by the creation of the National Fire Service. The formation on the NFS would ensure uniformity in the basic equipment used by the Fire Brigades during the war, this was the busiest time ever in the history of the Fire Service. National Fire Service firefighters were on the beaches on the D-Day landings detailed to extinguish any fires caused by the soldiers fighting and to protect the villages. They were call fire force 14 and bravely carried out their duty sometimes under fire from the enemy.

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Prime Minister Winston Churchill came to the rescue at Blenheim Place when a fire broke out on the roof, he joined the firefighters and proceeded to extinguish the fire. Winston Churchill always held firefighters in high esteem and during World War II called them, ‘Angels with Grimy Faces’.


Following the ending of the war the National Fire Service was taken over by local County Authorities. The Fire Services Act (1947) became effective on the 1st of April 1948.

This Act resulted in 148 County Councils and County Boroughs running their own Fire Brigades. In 1974 following local government re-organisation many brigades were amalgamated, losing many City and County Borough Fire Brigades.

 FurtherDSC_7347 changes, carried out in 1986, saw the formation of some Municipal Boroughs and some County Brigades being renamed. Many of these Brigades have been removed from Local Authority control and have become independent Fire Authorities.

More Recently, During the 1990s and into the new century, firefighting has neededphoto 1 (5) to deal with new and challenging issues from engaging with the community in fire safety to new equipment and techniques to meet a changing new world. In 2015 Fire Brigades are introducing partnerships with private companies and looking at new ways of providing a better service but also being cost effective to deliver a service that gives the public value for money.

Regardless of the changes that firefighting has had to deal with through its history there is one constant thing that will never change, its  Courage, Compassion, Community!

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