Colin Wa­ters dis­cusses the vast num­ber of re­sources avail­able to help you find answers to those ‘burn­ing’ ge­nealog­i­cal ques­tions

Your Family History - - Contents -

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

Flam­ing cheek

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)

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