PEEK INTO PAST: The history of Burnley’s fire service

Peek into the Past (s)
Peek into the Past (s)

VERY little has been written about Burnley’s fire services, so being reminded that our present Mayor, Coun. Charles Bullas, had some years ago served in the fire service, I thought I might undertake a little research into the subject.

The Romans are generally credited with introducing something akin to the modern fire service, though it is likely civilisations which predated them might have had similar arrangements.

Peek into the Past (s)

Peek into the Past (s)

Given the number of cities throughout the Empire, and the materials out of which most of their buildings were constructed, it is not surprising the Romans, who were very practical administrators, should have had fire services.

In fact the Romans had very practical experience of fires and in 64AD their capital was almost destroyed in what became known as The Great Fire of Rome. At the time Nero was the Emperor, the man who “fiddled when Rome burned”. Be that as it may, Nero used the fire as an excuse to persecute Christians whom he, and others, blamed for the disaster.

We are used to seeing Roman buildings made of stone but most of the structures of any Roman city were constructed out of wood and many buildings contained other combustible materials – reeds, straw and textiles for decoration. This remained the case in the Middle Ages when, as cities expanded, there were a number of very significant fires. Two of them concern London. In 1135 there was the first Great Fire of London which was followed in 1212 by the Great Fire of Southwark.

Fires remained a problem in the 17th Century. Little remembered now is the Great Fire of Marlborough of 1653 in which the town’s Guild Hall, its County Armoury, St Mary’s Church and 224 dwellings were destroyed. In 1694 there was also the important Great Fire of Warwick. In those days the city was only small but considerable damage was done – the fire affected Castle Street, Market Street and High Street, severely damaged the Collegiate Church of St Mary and, though estimates vary, destroyed over 157 houses.

Peek into the Past (s)

Peek into the Past (s)

The importance of the Warwick fire lies in the attempts, after the conflagration, to rebuild the city in such a way that large fires might be avoided. Builders had to change their building methods, streets had to be widened, the standard house design was changed with jetted facades and timber framed buildings no longer encouraged.

The most famous of the 17th Century fires was the second Great Fire of London of 1666. This gutted the medieval city which had changed little since the 12th Century and 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches and St Paul’s Cathedral were destroyed. However, though we are not aware of the number of human casualties, the Great Fire of London very probably did the city a great service by getting rid of the ancient plague-riddled city.

There was little the authorities could do to control fires in these early days. There was no police force in Britain until the early 19th Century, similarly, there was no single body for the control of fires until a little later. The London of 1666 had enjoyed the services of a local militia, known as the “trained bands”, but it was not until 1817 that Burnley could call on such a body of men in an emergency.

However, our town did have its version of the Watch. In London the Watch was carried by a team of “bellmen” who patrolled the streets at night warning residents of dangers such as fires by ringing their bells. We know Burnley had a bellman in the early 19th Century and his duties must have included being part of the Watch. Unfortunately, when there was an emergency, in the years that followed the battle of Waterloo (industrial strife) Burnley’s bellman, a man named Brown, was arrested as being the ringleader of the trouble.

A little before this time there had been a fire in a place near Burnley and one in Burnley itself. We know something about them as they were reported in the local newspaper of the day the “Blackburn Mail”. The first fire took place in Great Mitton in May, 1793 when a young boy, engaged to help a chimney sweep carry out his duties, lit a bundle of straw and put it up the chimney upon which he and his master were working. This was common practice but it was dangerous and the result was that building in question, three houses, two barns, a quantity of meal, 13 cheeses and every article of furniture in the dwellings was utterly consumed.

Towards the end of April 1798 about 5am, at the factory belonging to Peel, Yates & Co at Burnley, one of the workers carelessly left some “dry chips” near the steam engine. It did not take long for them to catch fire and for it to engulf the factory which stood at the bottom of Sandygate, on the other side of the river from the Cross Keys.

The damage was estimated at £10,000, of which £5,000 was uninsured, and 800 people lost their jobs. There is, though, a footnote to the Burnley incident which is illustrative of the state of the fire service in town. There is a story, noted by an eye witness, that the workers at the mill were asked to help fight the fire but refused and decided instead to sit on a nearby wall and watch the disaster taking place. So far as we know, no one was killed but the fire might have been particularly ferocious, as many mill fires were, explaining the workers’ reluctance to get involved.

Not much is mentioned about the availability of a fire engine but it is likely there was such a machine in Burnley by this time. It might not have been owned by the local authority of the day but there were a number of industrial undertakings by this time – mills, mines, foundries – that just might have had such a facility.

The mention of insurance is important as insurance against fire became a significant industry as investment in industrial buildings grew during the years of the Industrial Revolution. It is from records from fire insurance firms that we get much of our information about early industry and, of course, fire insurers were keen to keep payouts down. It was, therefore, from the insurers and privately-owned commercial undertakings that the early fire service developed.

It is not known when Burnley acquired its first fire service but there was a fire bell in Market Street in the early 19th Century.

Burnley’s Watch Committee, meeting in the 1850s, was concerned about the condition of the fire engine housed in the old fire station which was situated in what is now Manchester Road. There is reference to the machine “the age of which went beyond the memory of man” and this possibly says much about the service and early town council, which started to meet in the building in 1862, for they decided to pay 10 shillings and six pence insurance even though the room they actually met in was over the fire station.

If you want to see an early Burnley fire engine there is photo on the Briercliffe Society website.

The illustration published with this article is a much later internal combustion engine vehicle, but it, and the other photos, show Manchester Road Fire Station which served Burnley well for more than 100 years. Of course, it is known the building was changed over the years but we have very little information about the history of the site. What I can tell you is that the building in the pictures dates from 1881 and cost £1,250.

However, the authorities in Burnley were not, historically, keen on developing the town’s fire service.

As I explained in previous articles, before Burnley became a borough in 1861 its local government was divided in that there were two separate and individual authorities in Burnley. The oldest, the Town Committee (formerly called the Select Vestry) had little to do with fire though they appointed the Constable who, historically, did. The Town Committee was joined by the Improvement Commissioners in 1846 but they showed little interest in setting up a proper fire service as, they reasoned, only private individuals would benefit.

The commissioners did contact the insurance companies which operated locally, putting to them the proposition it would be in their interests to help to set up a fire service. Not surprisingly nothing happened.

A water manager had been appointed and the commissioners gave him the responsibility for the service but not the funding. He had some equipment – probably the engine of indeterminate age – sitting in the old fire station, but, again, little was done. Then, in 1860, Christopher Slater, the Inspector of Nuisances, was put in charge of the fire service, a position he held for more than 30 years.

If anyone deserves the title “father of Burnley Fire Service” it would have to be Christopher Slater but it appears he had a struggle, even when the borough council took over in 1861, to persuade his employers of the need for an efficient service. He proposed t a new engine be bought in 1864 but his proposition went unheeded. Several big mill fires and some new legislation turned the tide of indifference by the authorities and the 1870s saw the purchase of new equipment, the 1880s the building of a new fire station and the 1890s further developments.

The fact Burnley became a county borough in 1888/9 meant the fire service in town had to keep up with modern developments. The larger local authorities had to have fire departments but Burnley Council took the opportunity of the resignation of Christopher Slater in 1891 to put the local service under the control of the police and a thorough-going reorganisation took place in 1898.

As a result of more legislation, in 1938 the remaining volunteer and town brigades were merged. The Burnley service benefited from this and, in 1941, Burnley Police Fire Brigade ceased when all fire services were put under central control. In 1948 county and county borough councils became “fire authorities” and Burnley became one. A year later a plan was put forward to build a new fire station in Ormerod Road which was approved by the Home Office in 1951 but only the Chief Fire Officer’s House and two houses for other officers were built in 1953. It was not until 12 years later Ormerod Road Fire Station was built and opened by the Rt. Hon. Earl of Derby MC.

The building opened by the Earl was demolished earlier this year and a new structure is about to replace it. Unfortunately, Burnley ceased to be a fire authority in 1974, the Lancashire County Council taking over.

Since then, the LCC has lost out to an independent fire service but we still have a modern fire facility in Burnley and that is what counts.

By Roger Frost