Colin Waters discusses the vast number of resources available to help you find answers to those ‘burning’ genealogical questions
In early times, fires were dealt with by the residents themselves. Farmers’ wagons would simply be filled with buckets of water – or sometimes, town or village volunteers would use hand-operated pumps fitted to barrows or horsedrawn vehicles. There was little means of protecting premises against the result of a devastating fire until the first fire insurance companies, or ‘clubs’, began to be organised in London shortly after the Great Fire of 1666. The companies owned their own fire engines and were instructed to only put out fires in members’ buildings, which could be identified by their prominent company logo. This would be in the form of a distinctive lead or copper ‘mark’ (badge) nailed to the wall. Incredibly, though they attended all fires, firemen stood idly by as non-members’ houses burned to the ground, or until the householder agreed to take out fire insurance with them on the spot!
It’s known that in 1667, the Phoenix Fire Office opened for business in London using its own fire engines and uniformed firemen. 20 years later, they were offering fire insurance for a seven-year period at a cost of 30 shillings. Other major fire insurance clubs that came on the scene shortly afterwards were the ‘Friendly Society’ in 1683, the ‘Hand in Hand’ in 1696, the Sun Fire Office in 1710 and the Royal Exchange Assurance Company in 1720.
During the late 1700s and up to the mid 1800s, the most common fires emergency crews attended were those caused by chimney fires and thatched roofs setting ablaze. The industrial age brought its own need for organised fire crews, and before long, every city, town and village had made its own arrangements for the control and extinguishing of fires. By the early 1900s, paid fire crews were being employed everywhere.
Luckily, you’ll find that today, the fire service is a popular subject for internet discussions. There is also a large number of websites available, where you will be able to pick up information regarding all aspects of the service. Many of them specialise in specific geographical areas, or deal with particular historical periods. Others cover the work of non- civilian firemen. As an example, there is a specialised forum for those seeking information regarding WW2 fire personnel at the BritishGenealogy website ( http://tinyurl. com/y894qpqt), and another dealing with RAF fire service history at the Forces War Records site ( http://tinyurl.com/ y9wbk9nn). Local family history societies often have their own section dealing with firemen, including the Oswestry Family and Local History Group ( http://tinyurl.com/yahzoqze), the Liverpool and South West Lancashire FHS ( http:// tinyurl.com/y9xzsbxt), and the Genealogy in Hertfordshire websites ( http://tinyurl.com/ y92wsvl4), to name but a few.
Information and photographs of British firemen aren’t hard to come by either, though you may need to seek them out. Because it was seen as a glamorous profession, both fire crews and their equipment were frequently photographed. Books, newspapers, cinema newsreels and even postcards provide a rich source of pictures of firemen in training, tackling fires or proudly posing in front of their shiny fire engines. In the case of city crews, you will find censuses particularly useful, because those on duty will all be found together along with their ages, marital status and town of birth. By using town directories, you should be able to find their place of residence - usually quite near the fire station - which will provide you with details of other family members. Newspapers’ births, marriages and deaths columns, too, often mention a fireman’s occupation, and you will find that firemen’s obituaries are equally common (see http://tinyurl. com/yb7wao92 for some more recent examples).
The Auxiliary Fire Service, generally known as the AFS, was first formed in 1938 as part of Britain’s Civil Defence war contingency plans. These firemen were unpaid and worked part-time, although they were liable for full time call-up at short notice. Women were also
Fires were so common in the Victorian period that following any prominent blaze, scoundrels would turn to the ‘scaldrum dodge’ as a means of begging. This entailed burning their bodies and clothing, using a mixture of acid and gunpowder, until they looked as though they had escaped from the fire in question.
Because it was seen as a glamorous profession, fire crews were frequently photographed
recruited for administration duties. Although command structures varied, most were organised with a Commandant in control, assisted by one or more deputies. Division Officers were in charge of groups of five or more fire stations, each under the command of a Section Officer. Patrol Officers controlled ‘Fire Beat’ areas. All local brigades of the AFS were superseded in August 1941 by the National Fire Service; however, they were re- established after the war to form part of the UK’s planned emergency response to a nuclear attack, only to be disbanded again in 1968. You can read more about them on the Wartime Memories Project website ( http://tinyurl.com/ y8ygn8mh).
Surprisingly, our family members who became wartime firemen were at first unpopular with the general public, because they were seen as call-up dodgers. However, the heavy German bombing of Britain, especially during the period of ‘the Blitz’, saw firemen risk their lives to rescue others on countless occasions, quickly turning the public’s disdain to admiration. It’s worth noting, when looking for these men, that in May 1941, when the Home Secretary established the National Fire Service, he divided it into two branches. Branch A was to be concerned with peacetime fire matters, whilst Branch B was directed at emergency and wartime incidents. You can find out more, including what records are available, by going to TNA’s Discovery site at http://tinyurl. com/yauuf6s8.
The Archives Hub website has a section relating to firefighters at http://tinyurl.com/ ydeu7uq7. This includes links to websites, photographs and books that may help in your investigations. If your research takes you to Scotland, take a look at Graeme Kirkwood’s The History of the
Family members who became wartime firemen were at first unpopular, because they were seen as call-up dodgers
You may find photos of fires and firemen at work in newspaper reports
Atypical London fire engine, from around the 1940s
An early 19th century fireman
The Stockport Fire Crew, shown around 1908
Firemen in training (circa 1940s)
An old fire mark showing the building was insured by the Suffolk and General Counties fire insurance company
A Thames ’firefloat‘ (floating fire engine)