250 years of
insurance fire brigades

Part 1 - Challenge and change for fire insurance offices

(1824 - 1929)

Fires in Edinburgh

In 1824 the city suffered a series of fires, culminating in what became known as the Great Fire of Edinburgh.
The fire started on the 15th November and lasted for four days, making hundreds of people homeless and caused 13 fatalities including the lives of two firemen.

These fires were the catalyst for the creation of the world’s first municipal fire brigade, called the Edinburgh Fire Engine Establishment (EFEE).

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Order out of chaos

Edinburgh was a growing city, but many of the poorer inhabitants lived in derelict buildings in the Old Town, which suffered from a series of fires in 1824. Existing insurance company fire fighting services struggled to tackle these fires.


“There was no want of zeal; but a want of concert was often observed; and there was no such preparation, or previous organisation of means, as would necessarily have existed, had the engines, men and assistance to be taken on such occasions, been under the command or control of a person paid for the purpose.”

The above extract, taken from The Scotsman, highlights the frustrations of one observer witnessing the efforts to control a serious fire in Edinburgh Old Town in July 1824. It went on to state: “decency, the general interests, humanity, call loudly for new and efficient arrangements.

The issue of disorganisation was neither unique, nor new and the above would have been a fairly accurate reflection of what was also happening in other parts of the UK.

Scene from the Great Fire of Edinburgh

First sighting of Braidwood?

It is possible James Braidwood made his presence felt by offering assistance at these fires, even before he was made Master of Fire Engines. A report in the Scotsman dated 28th April 1824 might throw some light on the matter. Reporting on the serious fire at the Brass Foundry it states:


“The fire raged with great violence, particularly at the back part of the premises, so that before eight o’clock not only the foundry but the whole range of printing premises were enveloped in one dreadful and destructive flame, exhibiting a scene at once fearful and awfully grand! Upon the arrival of engines from Leith and a better supply of water having been procured by the judicious arrangement of a private individual whom we perceived as being very active during the whole time, a decided impression was made in checking the progress of the flames. The water had been carried in buckets during the whole previous part of the morning from the High Street, when the above individual solicited three spare engine pipes got them screwed to the water pipe in the high street, which conveyed the water without waste to the top of the acclivity in Niddry Street, and by adding a few more, at last got the water conveyed to the very sides of the engines.”

Could the private individual in question have been James Braidwood? Brian Henham, author of “True Hero” is certain it was. He says “Bearing in mind the almost total lack of firefighting expertise available at that time, perhaps it would be more appropriate to ask whether in fact, it could have possibly been anyone else.”

Brian Henham, author and fire historian

Formation of the EFEE

A Fire Engine Committee was set up to deal with the crisis. They concluded that Edinburgh was dependent upon a mere three fire insurance engines, with firemen of the various offices “often wrangling and quarrelling in place of joining their efforts as they ought to do.” They also complained about the “great want of fire plugs”.


The committee recommended:

  • A sufficient number of engines be provided
  • Adequate fire plugs to be provided
  • A superintendent be appointed to direct the engines

The result was the establishment of the world’s first organised municipal fire brigade. When they looked for someone to lead it, James Braidwood seemed the natural choice, with his understanding of buildings and firefighting experience. At just 24 years old he was appointed Master of Fire Engines.

James Braidwood kept meticulous records whilst leading the EFEE. Image courtesy Brian Henham.

Great Fire of Edinburgh

Only three weeks after Braidwood’s appointment, a major fire broke out in the city. It was one of the most destructive fires in the history of Edinburgh and lasted for five days. Due to the narrowness of the alleyways the fire spread quickly and without enough fire cocks, the firemen found it difficult to locate a water supply.


An estimated 400 homes were destroyed with 400-500 families left homeless. Thirteen people died including two firemen.

Braidwood was criticised for how the episode was handled, but it was accepted that he had not had enough time to reorganise or train his brigade to make enough impact.

Ultimate authority was also in the hands of several men rather than a single person trained in firefighting and as a result, conflicting and confusing advice was given to the firemen, who were trying desperately to put out the fire.

Firefighters tackling the blaze.

Master of Fire Engines

The EFEE made Braidwood the sole person of authority to avoid confusion at the scene of the fire and he made significant improvements to firefighting in Edinburgh.

He split the town into four districts, each with its own engine station and specific colour. These stations had a company of men under the command of a captain or Head Engineman. 


Firemen worked part-time and were usually aged between 18-25. They tended to be recruited from the building trade. Each wore a blue tunic, white canvas trousers and leather helmets painted in the colour of the company to which they belonged.

By the end of 1824, the total force consisted of 80 men, who Braidwood committed to a training regime which generally took place at 4am, initially once a week and later once a month. He set up small gyms to encourage fitness.

Among all the new ideas Braidwood introduced, the most important was to get water direct to the seat of the fire. In most cases this necessitated his men going into burning buildings.

He introduced new fire fighting measures including enlisting the help of the police in crowd control and closing external doors and windows in unoccupied buildings, in time for the engine’s arrival. He also introduced the idea of a hose being taken up to the fire floor, by using rope to pull it up outside the building. 

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A manual fire engine. Braidwood trained the firemen to operate these vehicles which had no fitted brakes, which was dangerous on the steep hills of Edinburgh.

True hero

James Braidwood 1800 - 1861
Remembered as a man of outstanding bravery who led the world’s first municipal fire service in Edinburgh and the amalgamated insurance brigades in London. He pioneered the science of modern firefighting and as a result, he is referred to as “the father of modern firefighting”.

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Family influence

James Braidwood was born in Edinburgh in 1800 and educated at the Royal High School.  When he was five years old his uncle William became manager of the Caledonian insurance company, so he grew up with some understanding of the insurance sector.


His father was a builder and after leaving school, a young James joined the company as an apprentice, learning about different construction methods before qualifying as a surveyor and civil engineer. Braidwood took a particular interest in the way fires spread through buildings and joined a local volunteer fire brigade, perhaps as a result of witnessing first-hand the devastating effects of fire, since his own father’s factory burnt to the ground when he was seven.

Image of James Braidwood’s Uncle, William Braidwood who was a director of the Caledonian Insurance Company, supportive of the formation of the EFEE.

Young Braidwood

Firefighter training

Braidwood knew that to expect his men to enter burning buildings, they must feel confident in their ability to escape, through good training and physical fitness.

Braidwood believed the best time for training was at four o’clock in the morning. This way, it did not interfere with the men’s daily work and there would be fewer people around to distract them.


Initially training took place once a week, later reduced to once a month. Men who didn’t turn up on time at the appointed place and fully equipped, were fined. 

Braidwood encouraged his men to improve their physical fitness by setting up a gymnasium at the High Street headquarters. Attendance was voluntary but once or twice a week, he put the men through a series of exercises to improve response times and introduce new firefighting and fire rescue methods.

The impact of the brigades had in the past, been reduced by rowdy behaviour and squabbling between the individual brigades. One of the first lessons Braidwood taught his men was discipline. They were taught that words of command were to be obeyed immediately. 

As he could not always be heard above the noise of the fire, Braidwood settled on a whistle to grab the attention of his men.

19th century whistle of the type that Braidwood introduced.
Courtesy of the Aviva Group Archives.

Firefighting manual

In 1830, Braidwood wrote the first book ever written on firefighting called “On the Construction of Fire Engines and Apparatus: The Training of Firemen and the Method of Proceeding in Cases of Fire”.  It was so valued that copies were sent to all the fire insurance companies in London. There, it caught the interest of the insurance offices in London who contacted Braidwood and eventually brought him down to lead the amalgamated insurance brigades, later known as the London Fire Engine Establishment (LFEE). Many of his ideas are still applied today.


The book contained many ideas on practical organisation and firefighting techniques, including:

  • The importance of entering a building to get to the seat of a fire, rather than the insurance brigades’ previous practice of the ‘long shot’, a hose directed at some distance from the outside of the building. Braidwood states: “The whole that is thrown by the engine is applied to the right purpose. No part of it is lost.
  • The value of caring and servicing engines after every fire, so they are ready for their next outing.
  • Those who first get up stairs, should shut all doors and windows as soon as possible, as this “retards the progress of the flames, and, consequently, gives more time for any after exertions in extinguishing them.
  • It is of “immense importance to procure men on whose coolness and judgement you can depend”.

Braidwood took meticulous records in his incident book which he started in October 1824, and continued throughout his life. This showed a pattern of how most fires were starting, why they were spreading so rapidly and the most effective methods of extinguishment. 

He quickly realised that most accidental fires started as a result of carelessness, thoughtlessness or negligence, often exacerbated by the appalling living conditions suffered by poorer sections of society. Alcohol, misuse of candles and the increasing use of gas to provide lighting, all increased fire risk.

Inner leaf from James Braidwood’s acclaimed firefighting manual, still in use today.

Protecting his men

By the sixth year, the men of the EFEE were responding to nearly 200 calls a year.  On one occasion two barrels of gunpowder were housed in a burning building and Braidwood insisted that only he should go in to retrieve the gunpowder, so as not to endanger any of his men.


Braidwood expected his men to reach the seat of a fire, which meant expecting them to risk their lives by entering burning buildings. To protect them he ensured they were all as well trained and fit as possible and he made clear to his men that he would never ask them to do anything, that he wasn’t prepared to do himself.

His achievements in Edinburgh did not go unnoticed and London had their eye on him for their plans for a new brigade.

Early in 1832, Braidwood first discussed the possibility of becoming the foreman of the brigades of five London insurance offices. He resigned from the Edinburgh Fire Engine Establishment on 15th May 1832 and was presented with a silver cup by his men and a gold watch by the city council. Soon after he made his way down to London to head up the amalgamated brigades and later the LFEE.

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Drawing of the now ‘classic’ helmet shape (inspired by Roman helmets) introduced by James Braidwood, featured in his firefighter’s manual.

London insurance fire offices
recruit Braidwood

While some rivalry did exist between the fire brigades of the 18th century, there was also a great deal of informal cooperation at the scene of a fire, which became more formalised when insurance companies set up joint patrols in certain areas and later with the formation of the London Fire Engine Establishment (LFEE).

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The need for change

The majority of firemen worked part-time, scattered across London either at their normal place of work or in their homes. When a fire broke out, it would take time to bring together the firemen and fire engines at the scene of a fire.  Costs of running the brigades were high.


The fire offices started to consider alternative ways of running their fire brigades in a more efficient and cost effective way.

As early as 1808 one or two lone voices, mainly from the newer fire offices in London, had suggested it was time to consider amalgamating their brigades. Others were taking an interest in the changes that had been happening in Edinburgh, many of whom had branch offices there and were financially supporting the Edinburgh Fire Engine Establishment.  

Parade of the West of England fire brigade in 1835

Working together

In 1827 , the Sun Fire Office, Phoenix and Royal Exchange joined their brigades together under the direction of the Sun’s Superintendent, while still retaining their own distinctive uniforms, badges and engines. Reports show expenses almost halved, while at the same time they had the use of more men and engines.


Having satisfied themselves the amalgamated brigade really worked, the Sun, Phoenix and Royal Exchange started to actively persuade other companies in London to get involved and in 1831 the Atlas and Union Fire Office joined.

Impressed with the achievements of the Edinburgh Fire Engine Establishment, their leader James Braidwood was invited to become foreman of the five amalgamated brigades, which together now had about 100 part time firemen and 12 fire engines.

In early July, two more fire insurance companies, the Phoenix and the Guardian joined.

Example of a Sun Fire Office, manual fire engine. Image courtesy Ron Long.

Formation of the London Fire Engine Establishment

Representatives from the Alliance, Atlas, Globe, Imperial, London Assurance, Protector, Royal Exchange Assurance,  Sun Fire Office, Union and Westminster met up in July 1832 and unanimously resolved to place a plan in front of their companies for a combined fire brigade. It was approved in August 1832 and put into effect from January 1833. Thus was born the London Fire Engine Establishment (LFEE), headed up by James Braidwood as Superintendant.


The LFEE would consist of a superintendent, five foremen, nine engineers and 80 firemen equipped with 14 engines on active service and another five in reserve, two floating fire engines and 19 fire stations.

The estimated running costs (£7,700 per year) would be borne by the companies “in proportion partly to the extend of the business in London and partly to the amount of their present expenses”.

Other companies who operated brigades in London subsequently joined the LFEE, including The Guardian in 1833, The Hand in Hand in 1834, The British Fire Office and Norwich Union in 1835, The British Fire Office and Norwich Union in 1835, the County Fire Office and Royal Insurance in 1849 and West of England in 1858.

Fireman and turncock wait outside an LFEE fire station.
Notice the night bell sign on the wall.

The LFEE brigades

Firemen were transferred from the brigades of the companies who joined the establishment and were now in full-time employment of what, under James Braidwood’s leadership, became a uniformed and disciplined service.


Initial changes included:

  • The uniforms of the individual insurance brigades were replaced by blue jackets and trousers and a black leather helmet.
  • Braidwood divided London into four districts, each under the command of a foreman who had three engineers and three sub-engineers under him.
  • Every fireman was required to get to know his district and become familiar with local water supplies and any buildings considered a high risk.
  • Fire drills were introduced, at first daily but later reduced to two or three a week.

Going forward, Braidwood tended to choose firemen who had experience in the navy.

Braidwood’s own helmet, as per the type that his men wore.
Image courtesy of the London Fire Brigade.

Life as an LFEE fireman

Braidwood organised purpose-built fire stations for the firemen of the LFEE, which incorporated living accommodation. The men were required to stay in their houses near the engine house when on standby and would be summoned when a fire broke out by the duty fireman who would run from door to door. The men had hardly any leave periods and only left to attend fires or drills.


The  LFEE had a continuous duty system where two men were put on a 24 hour watch while the rest of the men were on standby. London firemen attended an average of three calls a day. When a call was received, one duty fireman fetched the horses that were kept behind the fire stations and ran the engine out, while the other man roused the crew.

When Braidwood replaced the engine houses with fire stations the men were confined to the station itself or their quarters above it. There was no lack of recruits and vacancies were rare.

New recruits were aged between 18-25 and if selected had to find someone willing to provide £25 surety for good behaviour. The firemen got 21s a week, although rent was deducted from this.

On joining, each man was given a number and as others left would move up the list until promoted to the rank of senior fireman who were paid an extra 3s 7d a week.

Engineers and sub-engineers were chosen from among the senior fireman and paid a further 1s 6d.

LFEE fireman’s uniform, image coutesy of the London Fire Brigade.

Fire! Fire!

A pattern for calling the brigade was soon established.

When a fire was discovered, the nearest policeman was alerted. He then contacted the policeman nearest to him, leaving him on duty outside the premises. After establishing the location of the closest fire station, he made his way there as fast as possible. Having alerted the brigade, he then proceeded to the home of the turncock who would be needed to turn on the water.


Meanwhile, a fireman was sent to the stables to collect the horses and coachman. Returning to the station, the horses were harnessed and the engine started on its journey to the fire.

If the fire was considered serious enough, runners were sent to other nearby stations, and if necessary the Superintendent.

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A list of LFEE fire stations

Fire safety and prevention

Largely due to the combined efforts of Braidwood and the fire offices, by the 1860s, vast improvements had been made in risk assessment, fire prevention and fire extinguishment.

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The London dockyards

One of the greatest problems the LFEE and their superintendent faced, concerned the enormous warehouses being built mainly in the docks and alongside the river Thames.

The Building Acts

The 1844 Building Act introduced restrictions on the cubic capacity of warehouses. No area could exceed 200,000 cubic feet and any area greater than that had to be subdivided by party walls with double iron doors on any communicating openings.


The Act was unpopular and difficult to administer and few prosecutions were made against those who failed to comply.

The result was the Metropolitan Building Act of 1855, which resulted in District Surveyors being entitled to take those who failed to comply to a Justice of the Peace and prosecutions for non-compliance became more straightforward.

Insurance companies supported, informed and lobbied the government to update Building Acts to better protect buildings from the risk of fire.

Interior of a London dockyward warehouse

Fire Engines

As well as regularly updating and improving their fire engines, insurance companies played a role in their development. The Sun Fire Office was the first to place fire engines on barges to protect riverside properties and later had purpose-built fire boats constructed. Others made design suggestions to fire engine makers.

Fire fighting equipment

Braidwood was determined to turn the art of fire fighting into a far more precise science and was willing to trial and at times even invent new fire safety equipment.

Above and beyond

As the expertise of the LFEE brigade increased, the annual percentage of total losses and serious fires reduced. This all proved that the London Fire Engine Establishment was providing value for money for the fire insurance market, while at the same time offering free fire protection to the inhabitants of London, whether they were insured or not.


However, expectations of what the LFEE brigades could continue to offer became unrealistic.

In addition, the LFEE was still fighting against a culture of superstition which continued, despite the scientific advances of the Enlightenment. Life was cheap and expectations low. Fire continued to be regarded by most of the populace as being simply a product of divine will, which could deliver moral lessons about prudence and conduct, rather than as an event which could be avoided by simple measures of precaution. 

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Abraham Wivell's National Fire Escape. Image courtesy of the Aviva Group Archive.

Fire at the
Houses of Parliament

Fire stations were situated in high risk, high value areas, to support the needs of the fire insurance offices who ran them.

However, many in London saw the LFEE as duty bound to provide complete protection for every part of the rapidly growing metropolis – even those that weren’t insured. This was in spite of the fact, the fire offices lost no opportunity in insisting that fire protection in London should be a metropolitan, not an insurance responsibility.

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Fire in Westminster

Less than a year after its formation, the London Fire Engine Establishment had to deal with a national calamity – the destruction of the medieval buildings of the Houses of Parliament, in October 1834.


The fire was caused by burning wooden tally sticks in a basement furnace, below the House of Lords. Flames were first spotted near the entrances to the House of Lords and the House of Commons and within half an hour the whole of the interior of the House of Lords was alight. 

Braidwood explains his tactics to control the fire in a letter to the LFEE committee:

“My attention was first directed to extinguish the fire in the buildings in which it broke out, but in consequence of the flames having got complete possession of these buildings and issuing through the roof previous to my arrival, I found it impossible to prevent their destruction and my next object was to avert the danger which threatened Westminster Hall and the Courts of Law, by taking a line in the direction of the south end of the Hall, the fire was confined to the line with the exception of the Speakers House, nearly one half of which was destroyed.”

The fire was brought under control by the morning of 17 October. Although the brigade could not save the House of Commons or the House of Lords, Braidwood and his men had managed to save Westminster Hall, a building which had been built under William II, the son of William the Conqueror.

Brian Henham, author and fire historian

Aftermath of the fire

The LFEE was under no obligation to attend the fire at Westminster, as the Houses of Parliament were uninsured, yet no financial compensation from the government was received by the LFEE for their efforts. They also struggled to get any form of compensation for Engineer John Hambleton, who was injured in the fire.


Despite this fact, there was some criticism from the government regarding the effectiveness of the brigade. Braidwood responded to this with zeal, writing to the LFEE committee, “Though I regret the extent of the fire and the loss which has been sustained by the country, I have the satisfaction of feeling that no exertions were spared, either by myself or the men under me, to arrest the progress of the flames”.

Yet, there was no doubt that the destruction of both houses of Parliament had clearly shown that, irrespective of the considerable improvement in fire fighting capability offered by the LFEE, it was still too small a force to effectively tackle fires of this magnitude. 

The committee of the LFEE  wrote to the government addressing the problem, suggesting it was time for government involvement. A reply came in December from the Secretary of State for the Home Department stating: “In the great majority of instances, the interference of Government would be productive of little benefit.”

This response from Whitehall suggests they had either lost sight of or were choosing to ignore the fact the LFEE would have been totally within its rights to have let Westminster burn.

Listen to the audio recording of Pete Zymanczyk to learn more.

Firefighting inside Westminster Hall, which was saved by the LFEE firefighters, led by Braidwood.

Fire dogs

One active participant in the fire at the Houses of Parliament was a dog called Chance. One day, when stopping to watch the progress of a fire, his owner, a weaver from Spitalfields, was amazed to see his dog running around with the firemen. The dog was caught, taken home and chained up. However, somehow he got free again and made his way back to the fire station at Watling Road. 


Chance became part of the LFEE, running with the engines and racing ahead to announce their arrival by barking excitedly. At the scene of the fire he busied himself amongst the fire, smoke and water and is said to have pulled burning brands from the fire with his teeth. 

The men thought the world of Chance and paid to have a special collar made for him. It had a brass plate, on which was engraved:

“Stop me not but onward let me jog

For I am the London Fireman’s dog”

Chance was one of many dogs recorded as having befriended and assisted firemen in their duty. Another was known to firemen of the Atlas brigade, one who claimed in 1829 “I don’t think there has been a fire for these two or three years past which he has not been at”.

Chance the famous fire dog who would lead firemen to a fire

Significant London fires

Candle factories and soap works were problematic and the most expensive fires were usually those at the London docks. But there were other fires of note that the LFEE were involved with.

Significant fires in the provinces

Insurance companies throughout the provinces continued to fight fires with their insurance brigades.

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Tragedy in Tooley Street

James Braidwood had made repeated warnings of the fire risk posed by warehouses situated along the riverside. They were packed with highly flammable materials and recommendations for fire safety improvements were often ignored. The result of this apathy was to have a devastating consequence.

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Introducing James Braidwood, Superintendent for the LFEE

The LFEE respond

Fire broke out in a group of warehouses on the south side of the River Thames, facing south onto Tooley Street, on Saturday 22nd June 1861. The London Fire Engine Establishment was summoned. By the time Braidwood and the LFEE engines arrived the fire had already spread to the adjoining warehouse.


Braidwood’s force consisted of 132 men including officers and drivers. These men were distributed over 19 fire stations around London and had two floating stations on the river, one land steam fire engine, 27 large and eight small manual fire engines. The water supplies were poor and because of the spring tides and the height of the warehouses above the river, no water could be drawn from the Thames, other than that used by the two floating engines.

With the fire out of control and a serious lack of water, such that some of the fire engines were standing idle, morale was low. The fire continued to spread, involving barrels of fat and tallow which melted and ran onto the surface of the river. Several boats were engulfed in the fire and some of the occupants were killed. Hays Wharf, one of the best built and finest buildings of its type in Britain was engulfed in the flames.

But the biggest blow of all was the death of their Superintendent James Braidwood, killed instantly when a wall fell on top of him and a colleague.

Underwriters from Lloyd’s commented the fire was blazing when they left work on a Friday and still burning when they returned on Monday morning. Image courtesy of Aviva Group Archive.


The Tooley Street fire

A nation mourned its loss

Braidwood had been Superintendent of the LFEE brigade since its formation in 1833 and his loss was a terrible blow.


The tragic accident of a man so well loved and respected struck a chord in the hearts not only of his men and fellow Londoners, but of people throughout the nation and even overseas. Vast crowds lined the route to his funeral, to pay their respects. The Times called it “one of the most imposing funerals that has taken place in the metropolis since the public obsequie of the Duke of Wellington” and said that “seldom, if ever before in London, has such a marked tribute of public respect been paid to any private individual”.

Numerous letters and poems referring to his death were published in newspapers. Queen Victoria also wrote in her diary of her sadness for Mr Braidwood’s death.

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The funeral parade for James Braidwood through the City of London, the global heartland of insurance. Image courtesy Brian Henham.

The impact

It took three days to recover James Braidwood’s body from under the rubble. The fire burned in warehouses along Tooley Street for another two weeks.

The loss of their Superintendent and the magnitude of the fire at Tooley Street acted as a catalyst for change for the insurance fire offices.

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An insurance loss

The Tooley Street fire had cost in the region of £2 million and the insurers had seen enough of riverside properties to last them a lifetime. Serious and costly fires had been a constant feature in the wharves, warehouses and docks of London for the last 30 years and the fire insurance offices were at the end of their tether. They did not see why they should continue to provide the only worthwhile fire protection for the growing metropolis, while at the same time bearing unacceptable losses.


Following the fire, the fire offices made it clear that they were no longer prepared to carry on funding and running the LFEE and requested negotiation to hand this over to government control.

Business-interest had initially led to the establishment of insurance run fire brigades – simply to protect insured properties and thereby reduce their costs. However, things had become unmanageable. Uninsured properties from the Houses of Parliament to the humblest home received the same attention as those properties that were insured. The insurance fire brigades had become the principle fire service.

In February 1862 the fire offices wrote to the Home Secretary Lord Grey making it clear they intended to discontinue the fire brigade and offered their equipment to an appropriate government department to take over. They pointed out that for 30 years they had provided the metropolis with a fire brigade for which they never received a penny piece in funding, either from the parishes or the government.

Pete Audio:

It took three days to recover Braidwood and Peter Scott’s body from under the rubble. The fire burned in warehouses along Tooley Street for another two weeks. The area from where London Bridge is now to close to where Tower Bridge is now was completely destroyed. The insurance loss from this Tooley Street fire was £2 million. It was more than the insurance companies could bear. They wrote to the government and gave notice that they would no longer be running the fire brigades and the government needed to take it into public ownership.

LFEE HQ in Watling Street, London. Image coutesy of the London Fire Brigade.

The LFEE recruits Massey Shaw

The job of succeeding Braidwood was passed to a young Irishman called Eyre Massey Shaw, who had been Chief Constable and Chief Fire Officer in Belfast. He responded to an advert in The Times newspaper for the job and he held the position of Superintendent of the LFEE from September 1861 until its closure in 1865.


In 1865, Parliament passed the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Act placing responsibility for fire protection in the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, under the supervision of the Metropolitan Board of Works. Shaw headed up the brigade, which since 1904 has been known as the London Fire Brigade.

This new brigade combined the insurance brigades of the LFEE with the Society for the Protection of Life from Fire, which had been formed in 1836 to provide portable fire escape ladders in nearly 70 locations around London.

In 1870 Shaw published a statistical analysis of the 33 years of the LFEE in a book entitled “Records of the late London Fire Engine Establishment”. In his introduction he writes: “the statistics in the following pages will be found to contain information of service to all persons interested in Fire Insurance, or in the preservation of property from fire”. 

From the information contained within the book, 28 years out of a total of 33, are taken from the meticulously recorded statistics of Braidword. Sadly, Shaw does not give any credit to Braidwood for having been responsible for 85% of the recorded content.

Braidwood is only recorded as having been one of 12 men killed during the 33 year history of the LFEE.

Many years later, after Shaw resigned from the fire service, he became Managing Director of the Palatine Insurance Company.

A later photo of Sir Eyre Massey Shaw (1830 – 1908) in his Metropolitan Fire Brigade uniform. Image coutesy of the London Fire Brigade.

Metropolitan Fire Brigade Act

Ever since the Great Fire of London, the fire office brigades had been protecting the nation’s capital from fire.

It was in February 1862 that the fire offices who controlled the London Fire Engine Establishment, gave notice to the Home Secretary that they could no longer continue to maintain the brigade.


It was eventually wound up in December 1865 and the Metropolitan Fire Brigade act of 1st January 1866 brought the brigade under government control. Their engines and equipment were handed over to the Metropolitan Board of Works. Massey Shaw was made the first Chief Officer of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade.

Thus ended 32 years of the LFEE and 185 years of the direct involvement of the insurance offices in the management and running of the fire brigades in London.

On and after the said First Day of January One thousand eight hundred and sixty-six all Stations, Fire Engines, Fire Escapes, Plant, and other Property belonging to or used by the Fire Engine Establishment of the Insurance Companies in the Metropolis shall vest in or be conveyed or assigned to the Board…

As part of the agreement, the insurance companies continued to provide a payment to the goverment local authorities in support of the fire brigades, based on the insurance premiums they wrote.

However the insurance companies continued to run their insurance fire brigades in the provinces for another 64 years.

All of the insurance fire office fire engines were given to the Metropolitan Fire Brigade.

Braidwood’s legacy

Many of the basic principles of fire fighting today were discovered, practised and written about by James Braidwood.

He is known as the Father of the British Fire Service.


Braidwood’s fire brigade organisation, firefighting training, equipment innovation, building surveys, record keeping, fire material testing and reporting have all helped to lead the way in minimising fire risk and have helped fire insurance companies to better manage their insurance risks.

Other tributes to James Braidwood include:

  • For a while all firemen were known as Jim Braidy.
  • In the 1930s a fire engine was manufactured with what became known as the Braidwood body. 
  • In London, Braidwood Street, a road of Tooley Street is named after him, as is Braidwood Passage, off Aldersgate Street.
  • A statue stands in Parliament Square, Edinburgh in his memory.

As Brian Henham says in his book ‘True Hero‘, ‘He was a true pioneer, a man of vision, a man for his time, a man strong both in body and mind. He created a new science where none existed before. He gave his life’s effort often against overwhelming odds and finally he gave his life, all in the struggle against the scourge of fire‘.

Braidwood humbly stated in the preface to his manual, ‘…my aim will be obtained if I shall have succeeded in imparting it, or in directing the public attention to the advantage which may be derived from the systematic training of Firemen.’ Something he undoubtebly achieved.

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Statue of James Braidwood in Parliament Square, Edinburgh.

Visit next gallery (Part 2)

Fire Gallery 4 – Part 2: 250 years of insurance fire brigades
The end of the fire offices and their brigades (1824–1929)

Fire! Risk & Revelations

Return to:
Fire Gallery 1: Rising from the ashes
The birth of fire insurance (1666–1696)

Fire Gallery 2: Fuelled by Coffee
The evolution of fire insurance (1696–1760)

Fire Gallery 3: Powered by the Industrial Revolution
The expansion of fire insurance (1760 – 1823)

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A Merryweather Fire King steam powered fire engine.

Thanks to gallery sponsor:

Registered Charity address:
C/o Chartered Insurance Institute
3rd Floor, 20 Fenchurch Street,
London EC3M 3BY
Charity No. 1188138

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