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England Occupations Fire Services (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military & Services  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Fire Services[edit | edit source]

Fire was a major hazard when buildings were constructed mainly of timber with thatched roofs. Prior to the Victorian era the fire-fighting service consisted of a collection of leather or canvas buckets, with ladders, hooks and grappling irons to remove burning thatch from buildings, all stored in the parish church.

The manpower consisted of an ad hoc collection of whoever was around at the time. Private fire insurance companies, with their own manpower and equipment, commenced in the early 18th century in London and gradually spread to other centres. They only reacted to fires at their paying customers’ properties and their records contain mainly references to these customers and their buildings rather than the firemen.

The earliest municipal fire brigades that protected all properties were in Edinburgh (1824) and Manchester (1828). The London fire insurance companies combined in 1833, but it was not until 1866 that London had a municipal fire brigade and it rapidly became the best trained and equipped in the world.

Hand pumps were used until the 1850s when steam-driven engines replaced them, and motor engines took over from horses in the early 20th century. Municipal authorities throughout Britain were required by law to provide free fire-fighting services in 1938 (Hey).

Records of firemen are not easy to come by, but they will be noted in the Victorian censuses and the old Ordnance Survey maps can be used to pinpoint the fire stations at which they worked. The Illustrated London News provides a source of contemporary beautiful engravings of the latest equipment at fire scenes as they were newsworthy.

There are few written accounts about firemen, although I did find one by Harwood (A Fireman in the Family. Root and Branch (West Surrey FHS) Vol 27 #3, page 102-103), and little has been microfilmed apart from information on firefighting equipment, fire insurance companies and their fire marks. County and local archives should be approached for records and photographs of fire crews, and there are some relevant museums, such as the London Fire Brigade Museum, which can be located on the net and can prove most helpful to the enquirer.

The Firefighters National Memorial in St. Paul’s Cathedral commemorates those men and women of the British Fire Service who lost their lives in WWII (Byles).


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military and Services offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.