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Fire service records

Best of steel are our pumps/

Stout of heart are our men/

We always are ready/Steady, boys, steady/

We'll fight fire and conquer/Again and again."

Captain Hill - "The Fire Brigade" 1893

There is something about a big, red, shiny fire engine rushing down the street with its siren blaring that quickens the blood. I'm sure every little boy has, at some stage, wanted to be a fireman and little girls too - there are a number of female fire-fighters in the Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service. In order to find material on fire you need to look in the searchroom card index under the heading "FIRE" and the sub-headings of "General" (including incidents by parish), "Appliances", "Brigades" and "Insurance".

Traditionally, each parish had either its own pump and fire crew or shared the cost with its neighbours, so parish records are a good source for anyone wishing to trace the history of fire fighting in the County. In 1773 the Pertenhall Overseers made an agreement to use the fire engine at Kimbolton [Ref: P65/5/1] while Hockliffe paid 7 in 1832 towards the upkeep of the engine at Toddington [Ref: P103/12/1]. The records of St. Paul's, Bedford, mention an engine house in 1749 [Ref: P1/18/10] while the rate books note a terrible fire in St. Loyes in 1802 which destroyed 37 houses [Ref: P1/11/35].

There are many references to fire in other records. Quarter Sessions records, for example, have numerous references to trials of arsonists as well as such things as payments to the "buckett keepers of Bedford" for helping to prevent a fire spreading at the County Gaol in 1713 [Ref: QSM 2, p.69].

Estate collections also contain references to fire. The Lucas collection mentions a fire at Southill Park in 1780 [Ref: L30/13/12/75] caused by a maid ironing in the laundry. The Bedford Estate correspondence contains many references to fires, including those caused by arsonists at Cople in 1835 [Ref: R3/3893-3895] and Ridgmont in 1839 [R3/4174-6]. The Estate had its own private brigade and bills for maintenance of the Merryweather fire engine exist for 1897-1929 [Ref: R Box 816 bundle 3/3]. We also have printed instructions from the last century for dealing with fire at Woburn Abbey [Ref: R4/753].

Another great landed estate, though not always thought about in such terms, is the County Council. Since modern fire stations are County Council owned, the Office has a considerable quantity of archives in the County Architect's series, relating to their construction [Ref: CA2 series] and maintenance [Ref: CA8 series].

We also have pamphlets and broadsheets relating to fires including printed appeals for help after fires at Woburn in 1724 [Ref: Fac72/72] and Potton in 1783 [Ref: CRT 30 POT 28]. The office also has a number of postcards and photographs from private depositors showing firemen or fires and their aftermath.

We hold some records of the Bedford Volunteer Fire Brigade founded in 1870 [AD1082]. This was a group of part-timers, under the command of a chief officer and employing one full-time engineer who lived at the engine house in Mill Street, built in 1888. The brigade was paid for by public subscription until 1919 when Bedford Borough Council took over responsibility.

The Brigade scrapbooks for 1896-1935 [Ref: AD1082/3-4] contain not only accounts of fires attended, but of annual billiards and cards matches against Goldington Reading Room and the near state funeral given to its Chief Officer, Captain Hill, in 1912. In 1913 preparations were made to deal (by hose pipe) with suffragettes who threatened to disrupt a speech by the Chancellor, Mr. Lloyd George. The acquisition of new equipment (from hand line to motor engine and breathing equipment) and the prosecution of a former member for embezzlement of Brigade funds (found not guilty) is also mentioned.

There are also group photographs [Ref: AD1082/6/1-31] and others showing, for example, the aftermath of fires at the Lactina factory in Holme Street between the modern County Hall and Mander College in 1884 [Ref: AD 1082/6/27-28] and Astell's Saw Mills in St. Leonard's Street in 1897

In 1941, due to the demands for countrywide control of fire services the National Fire Service was formed, enabling brigades from parts of the country unaffected by enemy action to be transferred to London, Coventry and other blitzed areas to assist the overstretched fire-fighters there. The Fire Services Act of 1947 created a modern countywide fire service subsuming all the local brigades, co-ordinated from Bedford, and coming under the aegis of the County Council Fire Services Committee [Ref: FSM for minutes and FSP for agenda papers] until 1974, thereafter the Public Protection Committee [Ref: Pub. P.M. for minutes and Pub. P.P. for agenda papers]. Luton County Borough ran its own brigade from 1964-1974.

The records of the Bedfordshire Fire & Rescue Service and its predecessor brigades contain much interesting material. We have occurrence or log books for the fire stations at Bedford from 1946 to 1971 [Ref: FSB/B1/1-171], Biggleswade 1952-1979, [Ref: FSB/Bw 1/1-8], Dunstable 1960-1973, [Ref: FSB/D1/1-53], Luton 1949-1965, [Ref: FSB/L1/1-83] and Luton County Borough 1964-1974, [Ref: FSB/LB1/1-42].

These books give details of the response to fire calls, such as the time and number of appliances sent and allow the events of any fire to be reconstructed from an operational point of view. The summary fire incident and report forms detail each incident attended by the Bedfordshire Fire & Rescue Service from 1974 to 1982 [Ref: FSD/1/1-114].

Recently the Fire Service has deposited several important series of records with us: press cuttings from 1943 to 1992 [Ref: FSD/PC1/1-33] and photographs, divided as follows: personnel from the late 19th century to the 1990s [Ref: FSD/PH1/1-51]; training, including exercises and publicity photographs from 1935 to the 1990s [Ref: FSD/PH2/1-29]; property, including fire stations and other buildings from the 1950s to 1984 [Ref: FSD/PH 3/1-3]; equipment and transport, including fire engines, fire safety devices, operational equipment and museum pieces from the 1940s to the 1990s (Ref: FSD/PH 4/1-18); and incidents, including fires and road traffic accidents from 1919 to 1988 [Ref: FSD/PH 5/1-44]. The photographs range from the whimsical to the dramatic and are a very immediate source.

The Fire Service Research Report files for 1948 to 1988 cover incidents having implications for future fire-fighting techniques or for fire prevention. They are closed to the public for 75 years from the date of the incident. - This is due to the presence of numerous reports into fatal fires including some quite horrific photographs.

It will have become obvious that the records are of use not only to fire historians but to others as well, especially local historians interested in fires occurring in their locality. Family historians may, if they are lucky, be able to find a photograph of a relative or ancestor and be able to read about incidents they would have attended.

Researchers into other topics will find Fire Service archives of interest. Architectural historians will find plans of buildings in the Building Inspection series [Ref: FSD/B1] and the photographs of properties that have since disappeared (not least by fire!) in the FSD/PH series. Criminologists will find all too many cases of arson in the press cuttings books, including the spectacular destruction of the Great Hall at Bedford School in 1979 [Ref: FSD/PC23]. Industrial historians will find much of interest: photographs of incidents at factories as well as the reports of factory fires [Ref: FSD/F7/19].

The Building Inspection series contains much material on factory premises, including plans and information difficult to come by elsewhere, such as the numbers of people of each gender employed at the site. Sports historians will find sports grounds in the Building Inspection series as well as issues concerning fire safety notably at Luton Town Football Ground [Ref: FSD/PC31]. Women's history can be studied in press reports on Julie Thatcher the first female fire fighter in the Bedfordshire Fire & Rescue Service [Ref: FSD/PC30] and by the changing role of women in the service generally. The transport enthusiast will enjoy reports of train crashes such as a derailment near Linslade Tunnel in 1982 [Ref: FSD/PC30].

Finally, I can only echo the words of Captain Hill's song, "The Fire Brigade" [Ref: CRT180/152]:


To our Firemen I sing, who so nobly have done/

From the dread monster - Fire - such Victories have won,/

daring danger and death, the o'erwhelmed to redress/

Our deeds have been crowned by such signal success.