Trailblazing Edinburgh

How Edinburgh Set the World Ablaze

On a recent trip to Edinburgh, I made a visit to the Edinburgh Museum of Fire, which is housed in the former headquarters station located in Lauriston Place and dates back to 1900.

Back then it was known as the Central Fire Brigade Station of Edinburgh Fire Brigade. I was kindly given a tour of the museum and told about the history of the fire services in Edinburgh.

Readers may have heard that this year marks the 150th anniversary of the London Fire Brigade. But what readers may not know is that the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, in particular the Lothian and Borders section of it, has been in existence for much longer. In fact, they celebrated their 190th anniversary back in 2014. What’s more, were it not for the founding of the Edinburgh Fire Brigade back in October of 1824, there might not be a London Fire Brigade.

fire2The Edinburgh Fire Brigade—then known as the Edinburgh Fire Engine Establishment—was the first municipal fire brigade in the world.  Its first officer in charge was one James Braidwood, whose pioneering spirit and scientific approach to firefighting determined its success, and indeed many of his techniques are used to this day. In recognition of his achievements in Edinburgh, in January of 1833, Braidwood was appointed as the first superintendent of the London Fire Engine Establishment, which was to eventually become the London Fire Brigade.

Prior to the introduction of municipal fire brigades, firefighting in Edinburgh was carried out on a private basis, at the behest of insurance companies. Policyholders were issued with company embossed metal plates and these were affixed to the front of a building to allow for rapid identification in the case of a fire breaking out. Firefighters would only put out fires on properties where the owner had insurance from their company. If you could not afford insurance, your house was allowed to burn to the ground. Poor water supplies contributed to the problem, often resulting in fights breaking out between the different insurance companies as they sought to gain control of what little water supply there was.

The decision to create a public fire service was made after a series of large and life threatening fires occurred in Edinburgh. The worst of these took place in a large tenement just opposite the Royal Exchange in June of 1824. It was felt that the responsibility for fighting fires should be removed from the insurance companies and taken up by the city as a whole.

In November of 1824, just one month after the new service was created, the Great Fire of Edinburgh broke out. By the time the fire was finally extinguished, two firemen and eleven members of the public had died, 400 people had lost their homes and a huge area of the city was almost entirely destroyed. While there was some public criticism of Braidwood and the role of the Edinburgh Fire Engine Establishment, they were ultimately exonerated and some useful conclusions were drawn from the experience. These included clarifying who was in charge at the scene of a fire and increasing the available water supply.

fire3Some years later, in June of 1861, whilst head of the London Fire Engine Establishment, Braidwood led efforts to fight the famous Tooley Street fire at Cotton’s Wharf. It was while leading his men that the wall of a dockside warehouse collapsed, falling upon and killing him and two of his firefighters. Such was the legacy of Braidwood’s role in the founding of the London Fire Brigade that London’s firefighters were referred to as ‘Jim Bradys’ until as late as the Blitz, in reference to their first chief officer. In 2008 a statue was erected in Parliament Square, Edinburgh, in honour of Braidwood. The inscription on his plaque describes him as the ‘Father of the British Fire Service.’ In 2014, a replica statuette was unveiled in a former fire station in Southwark, London, near the site of Braidwood’s heroic demise.

While I enjoyed learning more about the history of modern-day firefighting and the legacy of James Braidwood, I was disappointed to hear that the historic fire station has been put up for sale by Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and the Scottish Government through property developers. The University of Edinburgh has been selected as the preferred bidder for the property and will likely take possession at the beginning of 2017.  Unfortunately, a new home has not yet been found for the Edinburgh Museum of Fire and it may be closed for an unknown number of years.*

Readers who are interested in learning more can visit the Edinburgh Museum of Fire while they’re still open.

A petition to save the museum has been handed in to the Office of the First Minister. This petition is ongoing. Supporters are also asked to email their local MSP.

* Please note that an earlier version of this article stated that the Museum of Fire at Lauriston Place was being put up for sale through property developers, likely to be turned into a hotel or flats. On the 30th September, the University of Edinburgh was confirmed as the preferred bidder. They plan to turn the building into an extension of the College of Art. 


2 thoughts on “Trailblazing Edinburgh”

  1. Hi Marianne,

    I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I think much of this history is largely unknown, which is why retaining the museum is so important.

    And you’re right, Edinburgh University has now been selected as the preferred bidder, so the final part of the article needs updating. They are planning to turn it into an extension of the College of Art sometime in early 2017. Unfortunately, it looks like the Museum of Fire could be closed for an unknown number of years at this point as it has yet to find a new home.

    Thanks for your comment, and for drawing my attention to the need for the article to be updated.


  2. Thanks for a fascinating article. I knew none of this and I’m from Edinburgh. Cheers 🙂

    ps: I think Edinburgh University are buying the building for the College of Art – I think?!

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