Ireland’s first 24/7 emergency fire service

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2011), Volume 19

A fireman of the Royal Exchange Assurance (REA), the first such London-based company to locate in Ireland in 1722.

A fireman of the Royal Exchange Assurance (REA), the first such London-based company to locate in Ireland in 1722.

‘There were two engines, the first drawn by four horses, on the top of which sat twelve firemen and their foreman dressed in pea-green, plush breeches and vests with gilt buttons. The men had two bugles on this engine, and on arriving at Dublin Castle Yard played ‘God Save the King’ to the delight of the viceroy and his family. The procession was followed by an astonished and admiring multitude.’

So observed the Freeman’s Journal in October 1811. The firemen in question—members of the Royal Exchange Assurance (REA) company’s fire brigade—were partaking in their annual ‘Day of Marching’, the day when, once a year, having been issued with their new uniforms, they processed about the capital distributing handbills on the prudence of having insurance on one’s life and property. Later the same day, for their services they would be served a slap-up dinner by their directors. But just who were these brightly uniformed fire-fighters?

Insurance fire-fighters in Ireland
The REA was the first company to locate in Ireland. In 1722 it appointed its first Irish agent, Luke Gaven, with offices in Dublin’s Abbey Street. (The company had been granted its charter only two years previously.) It was closely followed, in the same year, by the London Assurance Company. By 1795 the REA had moved to the newly built Commercial Buildings in Dame Street, now the site of the Central Bank. Here they advertised that their ‘engine house’ was at Crown Alley, behind the Commercial Buildings, where

‘Firemen, powerful engines, and other instruments are in constant readiness in case of accident, maintained at a large expense for the security of the public. The men are distinguished by an uniform of light green, with gold badges, bearing the figure of the Royal Exchange, the emblem of the company.’

‘Fire engine establishments’ were, effectively, private fire brigades, complete with premises, fire engines, equipment and uniform-clad personnel. The system of local ‘agents’ operated along the lines of today’s franchise structure, with provincial offices expected to embrace the ‘corporate identity’ of the parent body in matters such as rules and regulations, modus operandi, uniform standards, etc. The engines and matériel were supplied by the head office of a company.
The REA fire station (‘engine house’) at 5 South Mall, Cork, c. 1840, and a July 1799 REA notice

The REA fire station (‘engine house’) at 5 South Mall, Cork, c. 1840, and a July 1799 REA notice

The REA fire station (‘engine house’) at 5 South Mall, Cork, c. 1840, and a July 1799 REA notice

The firemen
The advent of the insurance fire brigades gave Ireland something that it had never had before: an organised approach to fire suppression. As reliance on the decrepit parish pumps (the manual fire engines maintained, by law, by the Established Church) diminished, the insurance brigades acquired a certain status as quasi-public institutions, with their firemen regarded as holding a kind of public office. The firemen were under the direct control of a brigade’s foreman or engineer, who, in turn, answered to the agent. The firemen were usually part-time, and were hired on the explicit understanding that, on receipt of an emergency call, they would (and could) leave their place of work immediately and make straight for the company’s ‘engine house’ or fire station. (This system of part-time service still exists today as the County Fire Service. These brigades—known as ‘retained’ brigades—are largely made up of personnel who make their living outside of the fire service. Only senior staff and key personnel are career officers.)
General employees of the insurance offices, such as porters, messengers, etc., also acted as part-time firemen. The engineer, who looked after the engines and premises, lived on or near to a company’s fire station. The engineer and foreman (sometimes the posts were amalgamated) were full-time employees, proficient in elementary hydraulics, pump operation and fire-fighting techniques. They were selected by the directors for their

informing citizens that ‘two very capital engines’ have been sent from London for the ‘protection of this great trading city’.

informing citizens that ‘two very capital engines’ have been sent from London for the ‘protection of this great trading city’.

informing citizens that ‘two very capital engines’ have been sent from London for the ‘protection of this great trading city’.

leadership qualities: on—and off—the fire ground their word was law. The offices required a substantial bond from prospective firemen (some offices insisted on sums up to £100), ‘the bond of themselves and two respectable citizens for their good conduct and faithful discharge of the trust reposed in them’. In spite of this, there appears to have been no difficulty in filling positions. Panels were set up whence vacancies were filled. The competition for places was so fierce that the offices could hire only the best men. Each man was obliged to provide the names of two sponsors, one of whom was usually his full-time employer, the other some well-known man of affairs. Each recruit had to be of good character, literate, in good health and under 29 years of age at the time of joining. An examination of one brigade’s records (the REA in 1812) shows that the average height of the men was 5ft 5in. (66cm) (this was in an age when men and women tended to be smaller than they are now). The tallest man was 5ft 10?in., the smallest 4ft 11?in. The average age was 31, the oldest being 37 and the youngest 23. While the exact number of firemen employed by the insurance industry in Ireland is unknown, it is estimated that the total number for the United Kingdom (of which the whole of Ireland was, of course, then part) in the 1810s and 1820s was no more than 1,000.

Pay and conditions
The minutes of the Atlas Assurance Company for January 1809 record the rates of pay for their firemen:

‘For attendance at fires and watches of six hours, each attendance:
Five shillings, the foreman.
Three shillings and sixpence, the engineer.
Two shillings, the firemen.

And for chimneys:
One shilling and sixpence, the foreman.
One shilling, the engineer.
Six pence, the firemen.
(Not more than four men to attend a Chimney Fire).’

These were the agreed rates of pay for ten companies, including the REA. In addition, each member was paid an annual ‘retaining fee’, and the brigade that arrived first on the scene of a fire could expect a special bonus from the directors, to be divided amongst the men. On joining a company’s
brigade a recruit was obliged to subscribe to its ‘rules’ and discipline regulations,

A fireman of the Atlas Assurance Company

A fireman of the Atlas Assurance Company

A fireman of the Atlas Assurance Company

which were exact and detailed. Those of the Norwich Union brigade have survived, and run to several pages. The first rule was:

‘That every fireman shall appear on the first Tuesday in every month at the engine-house, clean and in full uniform, at twelve o’clock precisely, when the roll shall be called; all absent at that time, or not appearing clean and in uniform, shall be fined one shilling.’

Too expensive to maintain
Although fire remained a major existential, social and fiscal problem and an important source of death and destruction, there is no doubt that the cost of fire insurance was far beyond the reach of the greater portion of the population. As time went by, it appears that the insurance brigades were prepared to turn out to the houses of the poor and other uninsured properties on humanitarian grounds (and for any kudos—and business—that might accrue to them in so doing). In providing a free essential service, however, they were effectively letting the government and local authorities off the hook by shouldering the responsibility for the public duty of fire extinction. This was never intended under their original charters and would continue to vex them for many years. It was an expensive business to equip, maintain and operate an insurance fire brigade: some of the larger offices were expending up to 3% of their annual income on them. In 1861 the great fire of Tooley Street in London’s dockland, which burned for a
month and brought the insurance industry to its knees, signalled the end of

one of the company’s ‘fire marks’. These colourful plaques were a distinctive feature on the fronts of buildings in the larger urban centres of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Ireland. Once an insurance policy had been paid for and issued, the property was ‘marked’ to signal that the policy was in force. A small number remain in situ.

one of the company’s ‘fire marks’. These colourful plaques were a distinctive feature on the fronts of buildings in the larger urban centres of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Ireland. Once an insurance policy had been paid for and issued, the property was ‘marked’ to signal that the policy was in force. A small number remain in situ.

one of the company’s ‘fire marks’. These colourful plaques were a distinctive feature on the fronts of buildings in the larger urban centres of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Ireland. Once an insurance policy had been paid for and issued, the property was ‘marked’ to signal that the policy was in force. A small number remain in situ.

insurance involvement in operational fire-fighting. In the

following year, the Dublin Fire Brigade was established by act of parliament, while in Cork city an embryonic public ‘fire brigade’ was formed from inspectors in the city’s waterworks department. Other major towns and cities would soon follow suit. HI

Pat Poland is retired from the fire service. His For whom the bells tolled: the story of Cork Fire Services 1622–1900 has just been published by the History Press Ireland.

Further reading:
W. Coote, Fire extinguishing in Ireland (Dublin, 1904).
T. Geraghty & T. Whitehead, The Dublin Fire Brigade: a history of the brigade, the fires and the emergencies (Dublin, 2004).
P. Poland, Fire call! (Cork, 1977).
F.B. Relton, The fire insurance companies established in Great Britain and Ireland (London, 1893).

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