An Abiding Fire – firefighting in the 17th century, by Nick Ezra

An Abiding Fire – firefighting in the 17th century, by Nick Ezra

So there you are, sitting in your parlour with your feet up in 1666 and you smell burning. After thinking “That idiot Farynor has left his buns in the oven too long again”, what could you expect in the way of help in protecting life and property?

Considering that most houses even in the major European cities were of timber and thatch, even if statutes said they should be of brick or stone,the answer is actually very little. London had had the forward-thinking Lord Mayor Henry Fitzalwin who, as far back as 1189, had decreed that all large houses should be equipped with long ladders and to have a barrel of water for firefighting placed nearby. Each ward was to provide a ”strong crook of iron with a wooden handle, together with two chains and two strong cords” for pulling down roofs and walls to make a fire break. Some of these crooks were about 30 feet long (10M) and the timber pole upwards of a foot thick (30Cm.) by the 1600s, so they had harness rings attached to allow horse teams to do the work.


Fire Fighting in the fourteenth century –  note the town notables being of great assistance.

By the time of Shakespeare, the wards had also been given the responsibility to provide “good Leather buckets” by the Corporation and for about a hundred years the streets had been patrolled at dusk by “Bellmen” whose job it was to call out “Take care of your fire and candle, be charitable to the poor and pray for the dead”.Whether this was all at ince, and what good that did, I have no idea.

Luckily for the modern householder of 1660, progress was being made and the first “Fire engines” were starting to appear, the first were large syringes or “Squirts”. Most were held by two men with a third pushing and pulling the plunger.


A Victorian photograph of a very early fire pump from around 1620

Together with the appearance of the first timber water mains, just below the ground so a hole could soon be made to create a small pond to use, large and crude fire pumps began to appear with a movable jet mounted on a cistern which was filled by the bucket chain of local volunteers. These large cumbersome machines were either on sleds or wheels, and dragged by the locals to where they were needed.
With no Fire Brigade it was necessary to have some form of command and control. In London this was the householder until the fire spread, then the ward Beadle took charge, which allowed for the use of Ward or Parish equipment and also to call for locals to help with bucket chains and later to pump the manual fire engines. If it became apparent that the fire was large enough it became necessary for operations to come under the command of the Lord Mayor. Outside London it seems much the same Parish-Town type system was employed, though it was often a case of the “Blind leading the blind”.

King Charles I took a keen personal interest in firefighting and prevention. In 1637 he wrote to the Lord Mayor of London suggesting that he and the Aldermen make provision for more fire engines so as to ensure they were nearer to any fire and that smaller parishes should group together to share the cost of an “engin” – an idea not taken up until the 1920’s.
He also wrote to each of the other parishes in London not in the city suggesting they do the same.
Up until the Civil War negligence or poor building maintance were the primary cause of fire: I expect it was felt that the City had enough problems with a Civil War going on with its risk of arson. The Lord Mayor issued this Seasonable Advice in 1643:


the pity is that if it had been followed the 1666 incident may have been prevented or at least mitigated. The same effect was felt during the “Blitz” 500 years or so later when a rather stretched London Fire brigade also had to deal with fires caused by poorly extinguished candles and cigarettes.

King Charles II was also very concerned by the lack of fire provision. In 1664, just a couple of years before the second Great Fire of London, he wrote to the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City warning of the fire risks in London. He was so concerned by the economic impact a serious fire would have on the national economy that he gave Royal Authority for the imprisonment of anybody found to have contravened the building regulations, and also to give powers for the removal of any offending buildings.
At this time insurance against marine loss was common, but no one had thought of fire insurance –  this would come in 1680 with the formation of the first “fire insurance office” behind the Royal exchange. It had become quite common practise however for the Lord Chancellor to issue a “Fire Brief”, sometimes called a “King’s Brief”, after a serious fire: these were printed and distributed around the country to be read at churches.

These Briefs called upon “well-disposed Persons” to show charity by contributing to the collection authorised by the Brief. Very large sums could be collected by this system – Oliver Cromwell is recorded as having made a personal contribution to one such Brief of £2000 during the Protectorate.

Nick Ezra is a scruffy, dog owning, local historian and contextual genealogist. He is also involved in the preservation of commercial vehicles. One day he will finish his stories about Oliver Badcock an Essex Edwardian police constable and his brother in law John Shepard, Olympian and City of London Police sergeant.

The Fire Service Today – F Eyre & E C R Hadfield (Oxford University Press 1947)

London’s Fire Brigades  – W E Jackson (Longmans London 1966)
Images of Fire – N Wallington (David and Charles Newton Abbot 1989)
A History of the British Fire Service (Routlidge London 1957)

Photographs of Squirt and Pump

Nick’s own history of the Kelvedon fire brigade and other works can be obtained via