Firefighters

A.R.P. group A.R.P. post in Hackney A.R.P. warden and child Jack, Henry and Mick Bernstein of the National Fire Service
images reproduced with permission of the Bishopsgate Institute.

In the 19th century, many parishes had their own fire engines, and many insurance companies maintained their own fire brigades, as did some manor houses, colleges, and factories. By the end of the century, most towns had their own fire brigades, with horse-drawn fire engines and steam-powered pumps.

In the late 1930s, the Spanish Civil War showed the devasting effect of incendiary bombs used in air raids. With the threat of war across Europe, the Home Office began to re-organise Britain's fire services, and thousands of volunteers joined the Auxiliary Fire Service and Women's Voluntary Service for Air Raid Precautions (later Women's Royal Voluntary Service). Women were also encouraged to take an active role in the National Fire Service, which was formed in 1941. Membership of the Fire Brigades Union rose from 3,000 in 1939 to almost 70,000 in 1942.

The war-time National Fire Service was disbanded in 1948, and today Britain's fire services are the responsibility of city authorities and larger county boroughs.

This month we highlight descriptions for the records of the Fire Brigades Union, fire and rescue services and civil defence organisations, and especially the papers of men and women who were in service during the Second World War. There are also links to selected websites and suggested reading.

Collection descriptions

  • Donald Piers Chesworth (1923-1991): worked for the National Fire Service and Royal Air Force, 1939-1945; went on to be a Labour councillor and administrator.
  • Dorothy Emmet (1910-1986): writer and philosopher; Emmett wrote The Nature of Metaphysical Thinking (1945) during nights of wartime fire-watching in the University of Manchester.
  • John Holmes Grey (born 1929): as a student at Glasgow School of Art, Grey created a ceramic figure of a fireman, based on a drawing made at the time of a fire in the ceramics department in 1952.
  • Arthur ap Gwynn (1902-1987): Welsh librarian and scholar; during the Second World War, ap Gwynn served with the Swansea Fire Service.
  • Kathleen Halpin (1903-1999): Vice President of the Fawcett Society; helped organise the Women's Voluntary Service for Air Raid Precautions in 1938.
  • Jack Hilton (1900-1983): socialist and novelist; Hilton was invalided out of the Oxford fire brigade.
  • Peter Hunot (1914-1989): a Conscientious Objector, opposed to military service; at the outbreak of Second World War, Hunot joined the Battersea Civil Defence Services, and was editor of the unofficial monthly journal ARP and NFS Review. This collection includes photographs of ARP (Air Raid Precautions) and NFS (National Fire Service) staff.
  • Priscilla Norman (1883-1964): Vice-Chairperson of the Women's Voluntary Service for Air Raid Precautions; Lady Norman drove a mobile canteen in London through the air raids.
  • Stella Reading (1894-1971): Lady Reading's work with the Personal Service League led to the Home Secretary asking her to set up the Women's Voluntary Service for Air Raid Precautions in 1938.
  • David Shephard (1940-1997): member of the Executive Council of the Fire Brigades Union, 1975-1994.
  • Mary Elizabeth Taylor (born 1903): research student at Girton College, Cambridge. This collection includes material on the College's fire brigade.
  • Fire Brigades Union: the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) was founded in 1918 as the Firemen's Trade Union; this collection includes material relating to the Public Inquiry into the Sizewell B nuclear power station, 1982-1985.
  • Air Raid Precaution Warden: log books of the Air Raid Precaution Warden, Post C. 31, at St Hugh's College, Oxford, 1939-1945.
  • Association of Metropolitan Authorities: the Association of Metropolitan Authorities (AMA) was set up following local government reorganisation of Greater London in 1974. This collection includes records of the Fire and Emergency Services Committee.
  • Auxiliary Fire Service Station: during the Second World War, staff of the University of Liverpool who were also volunteers of the Auxiliary Fire Service helped safeguard the main University buildings; this collection also includes material relating to the National Fire Service and ARP.
  • Federation of British Industries: founded in 1916 and a predecessor of the Conferderation of British Industries; this collection includes records of Fire Watchers, 1940-1941; records concerning Supply of fire-pumping sets, 1938; Fire Prevention Working Party, 1963; Fire Research problems, 1950; National Advisory Council for Fire Prevention, 1941-1943; and 'Fire - protecting Britain', 1945.
  • Fire Prevention Teaching: this collection of the records of the National Association of Teachers of Home Economics and Technology includes a draft booklet on fire prevention teaching, with related correspondence, 1970.
  • London Firefighters' Federation: the Confederation of Employee Organisations (COEO) was founded in 1973 as a politically independent federation of unions, staff, and professional organisations; this collection includes records of the London Firefighters' Federation, 1973-1977.
  • Socialist Medical Association: an organisation of socialist doctors, formed in 1930; this collection includes correspondence on Air Raid Precautions.
  • Sun Fire Office: after the Great Fire of London in 1666, insurance companies formed their own fire brigades, with Sun claiming to be the first; this collection consists of records of their Hull office, 1804-1924.

Suggested reading

Links are provided to records on Copac for these items. The Copac library catalogue gives free access to the merged online catalogues of major University, Specialist, and National Libraries in the UK and Ireland, including the British Library. For more information about accessing items see the FAQs on the Copac website.

  • British Fire Engine Heritage by Roger Pennington (1997) Records on Copac
  • Courage High! A history of firefighting in London by Sally Holloway (1992), commissioned by the London Fire & Civil Defence Authority Records on Copac
  • Fetch the Engine: the official history of the Fire Brigades Union by Frederick Radford (1951) Records on Copac
  • Fire! The Story of the Fire Engine by Simon Goodenough (1985) Records on Copac
  • Firefighter: Bulletin of the Fire Brigades' Union [monthly journal] Records on Copac
  • Forged in Fire: the history of the Fire Brigades Union edited by Victor Bailey (1992) Records on Copac
  • A History of the British Fire Service. by G.V. Blackstone (1997) Records on Copac
  • An Illustrated History of Fire Engines by Roger C. Mardon (2001) Records on Copac
  • Images of Fire: 150 years of fire-fighting by Neil Wallington (1989) Records on Copac
  • It's The Job That Counts: a selection from the speeches and writings of the Dowager Marchioness of Reading, Baroness Swanborough, 1939-1971 by Stella Reading (1973) Records on Copac
  • The London Blitz: a fireman's tale by Cyril Demarne (1991) Records on Copac
  • Ordeal by Fire: the story and lesson of fire over Britain and the battle of the flames by Michael Wassey (1941) Records on Copac
  • Put That Light Out! Britain's Civil Defence service at war 1939-1945 by Mike Brown (1999) Records on Copac
  • London's Burning: exhibition about the Great Fire of 1666 at the Museum of London; showing until December 31st, 2009 Listed on Intute - best of the web
  • London Fire Brigade Museum: the former headquarters of London's chief fire officers now houses one of the most comprehensive collections of firefighting equipment and memorabilia in the country.
  • Ulster Folk & Transport Museum: the collection of fire-fighting vehicles includes early hand-hauled and horse-drawn versions, along with more modern vehicles (Holyrood, Co. Down)
  • Museum of Fire: housed in the historic Fire and Rescue Service Headquarters building, telling the story of the oldest municipal fire brigade in the United Kingdom (Edinburgh)
  • Museum of Transport: includes one of the largest fire-engine collections in the country (Glasgow Museums website)
  • Welsh Museum of Fire: restored fire engines heritage, particularly from the Second World War (Neath, West Glamorgan)
  • Fire museum: Greater Manchester Fire Service Museum, complete with replica Victorian street and fire station (Rochdale)
  • Fire Service College Heritage Centre: the Fire Service College is also home to a collection of vintage fire appliances, and an impressive collection of art work (Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire)
  • Fire Service Preservation Group: founded in 1968 as the Auxiliary and National Fire Service Preservation Group [website requires frames]
  • RCS Motor Club: 'Jezebel', a 1916 Dennis N type fire engine, is a mascot of students at Imperial College, London
  • National Fire Service 1940-1943 and Air Raid Precautions: a history and reminiscences gathered by the BBC (BBC website)
  • A Brief History of Firefighting in the UK: created by serving firefighters (UK Fire Service Resources website)
  • Fire brigades: photographs from museum, libraries and archives in Wales (Gathering the Jewels website) Listed on Intute - best of the web
  • Fires Were Started: Humphrey Jennings' 1943 documentary film about the National Fire Service in London during the Blitz of 1940 and 1941 (BFI website) [video clips require Windows Media Player] Listed on Intute - best of the web
  • Fireworks - The Management: Public Information Film produced in 1990 (The National Archives website) [requires the free Adobe Flash player] Listed on Intute - best of the web

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