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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

Norwich Fire Brigade

Bethel Street Fire Station

Most buildings in medieval Norwich were built of wattle & daub, thatch & tar without chimneys and with only a hole in the roof for the vapours of cooking fires to escape. They were a tinder box and one spark could bring devastating fires which often laid waste to whole areas of the City. Fire was a menace to the population and it took centuries of destruction before even rudimentary precautions were taken.

In the restless times of the tenth to thirteenth centuries political feuds between the people and the Church led to arson on a grand scale. In 1234 the citizens rose up against the power of Prior Brunham and a large angry crowd broke down the Cathedral gates, plundered and burned the Convent which resulted in the King seizing the City's liberty.

In the reign of Henry IV (1399 - 1413) three thousand armed rioters, led by Mayor Hempstede, attempted to burn down the Priory and kill the monks. Although Prior Haverlord backed down but only after rioters had dug a tunnel under Ethelbert Gate with the intention of entering the grounds with kindling to set a fire. The sentence for Mayor Hempstede, the leader of the riot, was gruesome even by the standards of the times. He was hung by his heels in Fleet Prison.

No serious attempt at fire fighting was made until 1429 when the Rev. Thomas Kewrale, Rector of Banningham, willed fire buckets, hooks and,

"... also I deserve that my ladder ... may always be dependent upon the walls of the Church of St. James in Norwich, in case of peril of fire."

The method for raising the alarm was by the ringing of the church bell and waiting for enough of the local population to turn up to help fight the fire. The ladder remained in situ at St. James' until 1897.

With a population of six thousand and a city containing one hundred and thirty different Norwich was the sixth largest town in England. The complacency with which City leaders had approached fire fighting and prevention was having a real effect on the local economy, with a resultant loss of income and therefore a loss of tax revenue to the Crown. In 1413 Blackfriars had burnt to the ground but is was not until 1437 that Norwich Assembly announced,

"For mitigating and combating accidents of fire happening in this City in future, sufficient ladders and other instruments shall be more adequately appointed in divers parishes in every ward of this City, and they shall be kept in the open, so that every liege of the Lord King shall have access to them for combating the said accident."

Constables were appointed to warn of fire and organise bucket chains. However, large fires continued to menace the City. In 1463 the Cathedral was severely damaged and in 1467 a massive conflagration burned for three months which decimated the Mancroft and Wymer wards which led to the land being abandoned. The Assembly were to complain of the latter,

"... such land seized by beggars, rascals, lepers, disbanded soldiers and impoverished countrymen whilst the affluent moved to manors in the country."

Some began to question the use of thatch and wood as building materials acted as an aid to the spread of fire. The wealthy Colegate area in the City was the first to be built in stone and flint but the spread of fire did not make them immune. In 1502 a fire at the Popinjay Inn spread from Tombland to St. Andrews and in 1505 a fire in Colegate at the house of surgeon Peter Johnson, thought to be arson, burned for two days and spread as far as Coslany, taking with it St. Michael's Church. According to the London Gazette,

"Much damage was done by fire ... a great part of Norwich was burnt."

These fires destroyed 40% of the housing stock, effecting local rents with a loss landlord income from £10 per annum to £1.50 (in today's money). And according to the historian Bloomfield,

"... the city was almost utterly defaced, there were 718 houses burnt ... and to have made great havoc ... so stopped up with rubbish, the first thing the court did was to order it forthwith cleared ...'

But the idea of using safer building materials must have been getting through to the City leaders when, in 1509, the Assembly declared,

"No one should cover any new built house with thatch, but should tile them all for the future safeguard of the City."

In 1534 they issued another edict which stated that any void ground not enclosed by walls would be claimed by the Assembly. The root cause of many fires was chronic fly tipping in the River Wensum and the castle ditches which led to the appointment of a Canal Raker to dispose of the rubbish. Proper legislation against fire prevention was not enacted until 1570 which included,

•·        New buildings to be covered with tile roofs - non-compliance fine £5

•·        Church Wardens to provide fire buckets and ladders - fine 50p

•·        Annual inspection of Church fire appliances by Aldermen - fine 30p

•·        Aldermen to provide one dozen buckets and one ladder in their own homes - fine 17p for every bucket or ladder short

•·        Any bucket or ladder burnt at a fire to be replaced - fine, cost of the bucket

•·        Every parish shall provide one crome of iron and rings and ropes and four great ladders stored in a convenient place - fine £2 per inhabitant of the parish

•·        Every parish with a common well shall provide sufficient buckets and ropes for drawing water at all times

•·        All pits, common drains and waterings to be properly maintained

•·        Every Constable shall inspect all ladders, cromes, buckets, wells, pits and drains, and to see that every man's chimney be swept and made sure against danger of fire and to report to the Mayor at Guildhall - fine 35p for failing to do his duty

•·        If any serious fire occurs, every carrier and brewer in the City be ready with horse and cart to get vessels to carry water to the fire and to continue to carry water until the fire is extinguished - fine £2

1577 saw the introduction of the water pumping house at New Mills, Westwick, and by 1742 the City was served by water cisterns.

The 1666 Great Fire of London concentrated Parliament's mind to the hazard of fire and ordered every parish in the country to maintain fire fighting equipment. In 1668 Norwich became the proud owners of a hand pumped fire engine which was stationed at St. Andrews Hall and, in 1679, for the princely sum of £51, bought a second one. Daniel Fromanteel was paid £2 per year to maintain both. By the 1750's fire was still plaguing Norwich and, although greatly reduced from the bad old days which proceeded it, mention should be made of one such outbreak in Bridewell Alley which started on October 22nd 1751. Inmates of the nearby Bridewell Prison were released to help fight the fire in a nearby warehouse. One inmate, who today would be described as having learning difficulties, helping that night to fight the fire was known only as 'Peter The Wild Boy' who, it transpired, had run away from his keeper in Birkhamstead and was arrested in Norwich as a stroller. He was commemorated by having The Wild Man public house in Bedford Street named after him. Of the fire itself, it was put out at 7am next morning with the total loss of the Prison and eight houses.

The financial losses suffered by local businesses prompted the introduction of insurance companies and, in 1797, Thomas Bignold set up the Norwich Union Fire Insurance company in Gentlemen's Walk, Norwich, which provided a dedicated fire service by 1800 for their customers at reasonable weekly rates. For those who could afford the service, gone were the days of haphazard parish volunteers with their inadequate equipment. They were replaced by horse drawn fire engines. Insured premises bore a plaque with the insurer's company name and policy number. Firemen were recruited locally on a quarterly retainer of thirty five pence per hour when attending a fire and were expected to be sober, clean and take part in regular training sessions. The fine for being found drunk on duty was twenty five pence, for uncleanliness five pence and striking another fireman twenty five pence.

The Guildhall - Site of the first Norwich Fire Station

Other insurance companies were set up and began competing for business with Bignold's comapany. It was not uncommon for the rival companies to impede operations and cut fire hoses.

Interestingly Norwich Union company regulations included,

"... to keep in view that the fire engine establishment is the property of and is supported at the sole expense of the Norwich Union Society and therefore not subject to the control orders of the Police, military or any persons whatsoever."

This was at a time when the City maintained two fire appliances at the Guildhall and several parishes kept their own pumps which would all turn out for a big fire, along with constables and the military. It is possible to imagine the cross communication between too many vested interests issuing conflicting orders.

In 1836 Rev. John Anthy of Caister St. Edmonds exhibited his new invention, the escape ladder, which comprised of eight extending ladders, raised by ropes and pulleys, mounted on a wheeled platform.

Although local Councils were happy with the arrangement of Norwich Union maintaining it's own professional fire service they also felt the insurance companies were only protecting their own clients and, in 1835, the Municipal Reform Act provided that local Councils should take over control of the fire service. Norwich Union continued to operate their own fire service until 1858 when they disbanded and handed over their equipment and rule book to the combined Police Force & Norwich Fire Brigade.

Industrial innovations in fire service machinery continued throughout the nineteenth century in hoses and vehicles although an unsuccessful Parliamentary Bill of 1818, which attempted to outlaw sending small boys up chimneys, was noted by Sidney Smith in a 1819 edition of the Edinburgh Review,

"... it is quite right to throw out this Bill for prohibiting the sweeping of chimneys by 'climbing boys' because humanity is a modern invention ... the complete abolition of climbing boys is impractical without great injury to property and greatly increased risk of fire,"

The Bill was finally passed in 1875. It took fifty seven years for the concept of 'humanity' to catch on.

It became apparent that the combined Police / Fire Service was inefficient and the state of the appliances were no longer fit for purpose, especially when attending a large fire. In 1846 the first steps were made by Norwich City Council to form a separate Municipal fire brigade and, funded by Norwich Union, in November of that year the City Council delegated fire responsibility to the Watch Committee. The founder members of Norwich City Fire Brigade were Sergeant Matthew Copeman and Constables John Underwood (a former butcher), Robert Allen (a former carpenter), Charlies Fairhead (a former bricklayer), William Callow and Robert Thompson. In 1866 the system for calling out the Fire brigade was changed from that of finding a policeman on patrol to the use of maroons to summons officers to the fire station. This practise was stopped after a rocket came through the skylight of a printing works in Market Place and caused a fire.

The remains of the Pottergate Fire Engine bays

By 1869, with City appliances in a dilapidated state, the Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire provided Norwich with a 40ft escape ladder and new horse drawn appliances. Local industries had their own works' fire services including Colemans, Careleys, Bullard Brewery, Boulton & Paul, Hill & Underwood and Sexton's Shoe Factory, all of whom were paid a pepper corn retainer by the City Council to turn out for major fires. In 1883 the Watch Committee decided to charge a call-out fee of £3.15p to attend fires with their new steam engine at premises within the City but in 1873 the High Court in London decided it was not lawful to charge ratepayers for the use of their own equipment.

By 1898 it was decided the Guildhall was unsuitable for housing the Fire Brigade and it was moved to new premises in Pottergate, buying the lease from a veterinary surgeon, Mr. Low, for £60. A sum of £1,116 was spent on rebuilding the site into a combined Fire Station, Police Section House and stables. Pottergate is a narrow street and driving a team of horses out of the station yard required careful handling. The fire station, viewed as a disgrace and a reproach on the City in its latter years, stayed in Pottergate until 1934.

The new Bethel Street Fire Station was designed by Stanley G. Livock of Norwich, built by Simms & Cooke of Nottingham at a cost of £33,000 and opened by Lord Mayor Fred Jex on November 9th 1934. Work was initially delayed by the discovery during work on the foundations of several wells, some of which were thought to have housed secret caches of arms and gunpowder during the Civil War, and cesspits.

The development of the Bethel Street Fire Station site

Sources/Further Reading:

A History of the Norwich City Fire Brigade by B.S. Veriod, 1986.

Al Stokes

May 2012