Monday, 28 September 2015

London Fire Brigade Museum

Last weekend was Open House London 2015 and a friend suggested we all go, he loves my kids. Open House London seeks to help people learn about buildings and architecture, those that have, "such a strong impact on us on an everyday basis". They say that photos and illustrations are not enough, we have to visit, get inside these buildings and get to know them and that includes museums.
So we did.

At this point this trip could have gone one of two ways. Either very un-politically correct with 'who doesn't love a fireman', or down the geeky route with engines, water pressure, pumps and ladders. You will be pleased to know that it did just that, the geeky route; history, inventions and the development of firefighting. In some cases little has changed.

Despite what this 17th century Newsham pump looks like, this is high-tech, designed to pump and direct water down a leather hose to a specific point up to 40 feet away, the firefighters able to keep a safe distance.

This was manufactured for over 100 years and eventually they came in red. But you may have clocked that there's no ladder. In those days ladders and pumps were separate. Your buildings insurance paid for the fire service which was there to save buildings, not people. Noticing a bit of a problem here, charities paid for ladders to be added to fire engines in the 19th century. 

Eventually in 1969 we came to this, the Dennis F108.

Still red, a (manual) bell, flashing lights, ladders,

and 300 gallons of water on board.

With this on the back, a detachable ladder, handcrafted in wood.
Wooden cartwheels were in use until the 1980s.

 Producing firefighting equipment has required other artisan skills. Such as basket weaving used to make this filter, seen on this trailer pump used during the Second World War.

Wicker filters were made to filter the water from rivers, as often the mains were destroyed by bombing. Camouflaged in battleship grey, volunteers in the Auxiliary Fire Service could be trained to use these in just two hours.

We learnt all this from David, a retired firefighter who has a trailer pump at home. It still works and he takes it to shows and gives demonstrations. Here he is with a wheelbarrow pump. It's amazing what you learn when your engineer husband and friend keep him chatting for hours. How did they think to ask those questions? I was quite impressed with what they knew already.    

This was a museum in two halves. Engines in the appliance bay and the history of firefighting in Winchester House, the residence of the Brigade's Chief Fire Officer, Captain Eyre Massey Shaw who took charge of the Brigade in 1861 and is said to have begun the modern fire service.

Seeing this picture above I'm feeling slightly better about my un-political "nice firemen" quip. Looks like they've always had a somewhat pin-up status. Here Captain Massey features in Vanity Fair in their 'men of the day' section no less. A popular man, "he is, besides being the first fireman, one of the most popular men in London."

We look at uniforms, past and present.

A visitor, a firefighter, explains that the reflective visor is to reflect the heat. Of course! We feel a little foolish for not working that out for ourselves. 

Visitors are invited to try on uniforms. I was so pleased to see that these were not replica but the real thing. 'Real' is important in museums.

He was so desperate to fool people, standing stock still as I wandered into the room, but his height gave the game away a little. I have to say it wasn't just me he tried to fool, he stood like that for ages, hoping to trick other visitors. I moved on denying all responsibility.

We met another firefighter, another visitor, who explained this...

We never caught its name, but were seriously impressed with what it does. The red bag is attached to the fire firefighter and on entering a building with low visibility, you tie off the rope at intervals. When your air supply gets low, you have to get out. 

Finding the rope, you feel for the two knots, find the short knot, follow the rope and take the "short way" out. Clever! You abandon the bag and get out.

We saw women. Mrs J Hicks, Deputy Chief Woman Fire Officer, awarded an OBE for her services in the NFS in the Second World War. Having the word 'fire' in her job title was important, "as it gave weight to the fact that the women involved in the Brigade were not just involved in welfare and making the tea".

The Fire Service is not just reactionary but works hard to educate the public. They must do a good job as my daughter remembered this poster from a primary school visit and I'm pleased, yet slightly alarmed, to learn that from age seven she has had a 'Fire Plan' in place with her emergency escape route sorted. She's twelve.
"Don't you have have an escape route? If I coudn't get out through my bedroom door, well you know that little roof, I'd open my window and jump on that."
She is the most organised in our family. 

Meanwhile I worry about the toaster and electric shower, not to mention the vacuum cleaner (not shown). Perhaps I should (could) ditch the hoover as it's a fire risk?

But here's the rub. We visited the London Fire Brigade Museum on its last day of opening on that site in Southwark. It is moving to the Albert Embankment, opening in three years time. If our experience is anything to go by, I would pencil it in your diary and go visit when it opens. Details on their website here. However, keep an eye out for them, as they told me they will be doing pop-up exhibitions, school visits and events around London while they wait.

Meanwhile Open House London features many museums and will happen again in September 2016. Details on their website here.

We had a great time and so it seems did this kid.


  1. You find some amazing places to go. This looks like another one.
    I LOVE the bit about the short way out. I never knew that.

    1. It was the friend who suggested this museum. I had never heard of it and I really don't live that far away from it. We all loved the 'short way out'. Very famous five.

  2. Another great day out! You find all the winners! My youngest would adore a place like this. He'd never be able to keep his hands off of the old machines though! Three years until it opens again? Perfect because our next visit to the UK will be in 2018!

    1. Yay put it in your diary. And keep reading for more ideas. My son is 12, he usually moans about going and when there, does not want to come home.

  3. Practical arts: leather hoses and wicker filters! Thanks for cluing me in on the reason for reflective shields, because the reason had not occurred to me :) Isn't it interesting how we reflect the use of the umbilical cord through inventions like ropes from house to barn to cling to in blizzards, air hoses for deep sea diving, and here in firefighting, ropes marked to find the short way out? Thanks for posting!

  4. Fascinating post. My darling dad was a volunteer fire fighter during WW2, and this experience led him to fight a fire that broke out in our house during the night in about 1967. By the time the 'real' fire brigade arrived he had begun to get it under control, and had also got us all out safely. X

    1. Well done him. Gosh what he must have experienced in WW2. Did he ever talk much about it?

  5. What an incredible day out. So much to see and learn, and dress up in. I'd be first in there.
    Lisa x

    1. Yep, dressing up is always a winner, particularly when the clothes are real. We took a few good photos that day.

  6. This looks like great fun Katharine. I am sure your children enjoyed it, and I love that your girl has her fire escape plan sorted. We visited a local fire house in Canada with our grandchildren, and loved seeing the older fire engines, beautifully restored. It is all fascinating, and you wonder how the world operated without organised fire services for so long.

  7. A fascinating history! Many years ago I had need of a fire brigade and was very grateful for them! xx

  8. That looks an interesting museum. Could the kids sit in the fire engine? Mine would have wanted to do that, for sure. :)

  9. I've been unlucky at trying to get into this museum. Thanks for the tour

  10. I love the Open House weekend and always enjoy seeing the insides of buildings I have admired from afar. I have not been to this one but it looks like a worthwhile trip. I must put it on my list for next year. Really enjoyed reading your post. PS Thanks for your comment.


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