Introduction to Early Fire-Fighting

In the 17th century, when the majority of houses were thatched, fires were catastrophic and spread very quickly.  The Great Fire of London in 1666 destroyed over 13,000 houses and left thousands of people homeless.  Fire was a very real threat to people’s lives and livelihoods, as in many ways it still is today.  

The earliest fire-fighting groups were employed by fire insurance companies from around 1715 onwards, though these were largely in the most urban areas. Lead fire-marks were used to identify insured properties and avoid fraud, as prior to 1840 houses were rarely numbered.  They included the insurance company’s name and the householder’s policy number.  Later more decorative copper alloy plates were introduced, which functioned more as an advert for the insurance companies. 

Two examples of early fire-plates., one with the sun symbol (seen as warding off the evil eye) and a later Norwich Union Society example can be seen on display in our Local History Gallery.

The earliest engines were pumps on wheels which were designed to suck water from the nearest substantial water sources, usually the local pond or stream. They required up to 30 people to operate them effectively.  The first mechanical fire engines had been invented in the 1650’s and the first horse-drawn Newsham-type hand pump engines were introduced around 1700, but it was longer still before more effective steam-powered fire engines came into widespread use.  In many rural areas they would have had little more than a fire hook (with which to tear down burning thatch in order to prevent a fire spreading further) and a stock of buckets with which to fight a fire.

By the 19th century, larger parishes and private estates began to purchase their own fire-engines.  Archives show that in Saffron Walden, parish officers and local fire office agents regularly met during the 1830s and a “new large (fire) engine” was purchased by a group of local insurance companies. 

The Saffron Walden Volunteer Fire Brigade was officially formed on 1st May 1865 with 16 volunteers.  The 1866 Almanac states they had “two powerful engines, one belonging to the town which has been thoroughly repaired, and the other an entirely new one by Merryweather and Son, plus a hose reel with 500ft of canvas hose and 400ft of leather hose and a set of fire escape ladders which will reach to a height of 42ft. The members are supplied with a waterproof tunic, helmet and knee boots.”  

On display in the temporary exhibition you can see original examples of the early rules and regulations documents of the Saffron Walden Volunteer Fire Brigade.

Great Dunmow Parish had two fire engines in the 19th century, one of these is now on display in the stable block at Audley End House.  Stansted Mountfitchet had a similar engine as well.

In the early 1900s, the fire brigade in Saffron Walden would have been called out by pressing a bell outside the original council offices at No. 3 Hill Street, next to the Fire Station. This connected with the Police Station, who then raised the alarm.  A siren at the Gas Works then called the firemen out.  On hearing the alarm Dick Williams the brigade’s driver would have taken the horses out of their stables on Freshwell Street and led them around to Hill Street, before harnessing them to the fire engine.  Valuable time was obviously lost in responding to fires.

Saffron Walden Fire Brigade 1905

Another new engine was acquired in 1911, which enabled the brigade to tackle a larger number of stack fires, which in such a rural area were very commonplace.


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