The Story of 18th Century Firefighting in London and Boston

lthough the engine technology of the British in the early 18th century was comparable to that of the Dutch, their firefighting capability was inferior. London, for example, did not have a central management for the hundreds of engines housed in parishes, wards, livery stables, and those provided by insurance companies. Without a city-wide organization or at least one by wards, the response to fires would be uncoordinated. A small house fire could be quenched with rapid local response. However, if the response were delayed, the water in short supply, or the wind at full blow, there was a danger of a small fire becoming a large one, one that would need a command structure for effective deployment of engines and firefighters. London's Great Fire of 1666 underscored this need beyond all doubt.

London in 1666 was recuperating slowly from a plague that ravaged the city the year before. The epidemic was still deadly in towns and small cities outside the capital. In these pre-insurance days, the city's firefighting capability centered on one hundred parish churches, which housed the firefighting tools and appliances. The engines themselves had one-cylinder pumps for drawing and expelling water from a cistern (basin) filled with water from buckets. Their design was perhaps a generation or so behind contemporary Amsterdam's German-made two-cylinder engines.

London also had "squirts", syringe-type tubes, which were widely available but had neither the range nor the volume of the pumps, delivering perhaps a gallon of water every squirt. The device then had to be refilled by putting its nozzle into a tub of water and pulling the plunger to fill it, then two people held it while another person pushed the plunger to deliver the next gallon of water on the fire. If they repeated this procedure once every five to ten seconds or so, they would deliver perhaps seven to eight gallons of water a minute on the fire, enough for a small interior fire, but virtually useless at a large one.

The Great London Fire of 1666 highlighted the limitations of the city's firefighting tools, water supply, and uncoordinated management of firefighters and citizens during a major fire. In four days in early September, fire destroyed eighty per cent of the city's buildings including thirteen thousand houses, eighty-seven churches, and several monumental structures like St. Paul's Cathedral and the Guildhall. It left almost one hundred thousand homeless.

In response to the great fire, London instituted new fire codes, added better engines, beefed up the night watch, and improved the water supply. By 1780 their first fire insurance companies began to invest in a variety of strategies for protecting lives and property. The rebuilt city was less likely to burn. The new engines could deliver 50 to 100 gallons of water per minute to a range of forty or fifty yards, a far sight better than the old squirts and small engines. And, the fire insurance companies added vigilance and engines for the benefit of their customers.

Unfortunately, there was still no timely, large scale, coordinated response to major fires. Moreover, some areas untouched by the Great Fire, like Southwark, still had whole blocks of flammable buildings crammed together. They were as hazardous as Central London had been in 1666. In 1676, Southwark burned, twenty lives were lost, six hundred houses destroyed. In 1682 a fire in Wapping London destroyed one thousand houses. New York could benefit by London's wide range of advanced engines and could create fire company associations for the protection of property, but it would have to look elsewhere as it grew into a metropolis for a model of a coordinated response that would protect the city from large fires.

The third model of firefighting, perhaps most appropriate for New York to adopt, was Boston. It was, as a colony, much closer in population to New York than the large European centers like Amsterdam and London. Boston had about fifty per cent more people than New York during the period from 1670-1720, but they numbered in the thousands, not the hundreds of thousands.

Boston had many of the same initial firefighting challenges as New York - buildings were wood, roofs were thatch, few chimneys were fire resistant brick or stone. Their primary firefighting appliances were buckets, ladders, axes, hooks, and long-poled swabs. Boston had early experience in the creation of fire-breaks using axes, hooks attached to ropes or chains, and gunpowder, which allowed them to flatten buildings quickly. They had also evolved enough to establish a policy of restitution for those whose building had been destroyed to stop a large blaze.

Boston did not have canals as New York had in its early days, but they did build pipe-fed reservoirs and mandated every house keep ladders and containers with several gallons of water to be used in fire emergencies. They instituted a ward-based night watch using a militia whose primary function was to defend against the major incendiary threat, which in their case was not the English, they were after all the English, but Native Americans and later tribal alliances with the French.

In 1675 a native leader, Metacom (King Philip to the English), initiated a crusade to reverse the half-century of encroachment by English settlements into traditional tribal territories. The fires of King Philip's War destroyed much of Groton, Sudbury, Marlboro, Medfield, and other settlements near Boston. The city provided shelter for hundreds of refugees from burnt-out farms, villages, and towns. Later in the 1690s the French and their native allies brought the scourge of fire to New England and upstate New York although they never reached Boston or the city of New York. The native allies of the English colonists were indispensable in King Philip's War, some would say crucial. They also limited the damage the French alliance did later in the century. Particularly effective were the "Christian Indians", who had adopted several customs of the English culture including their religion.

Boston's population grew from about four to eleven thousand from 1670 to 1720, roughly fifty per cent higher than New York during those years. Its codes, such as the storing of gunpowder and use of ladders, were roughly equivalent to New York's. The singular exception was fire engines. Boston purchased and incorporated fire engines into its firefighting much earlier, beginning in 1677, a half-century before New York. As Boston added engines in the early eighteenth century and organized dedicated firefighters to maintain and use the engines, the city provided New York with a useful and potentially beneficial model. These machines in the hands of trained firefighters contained and quenched fires as no simple bucket brigade could. As the machines and organizations improved in the early eighteenth century, they became even more effective. It was a sensible model that New York disregarded.

Perhaps the reason New York city and provincial leaders did not look to Boston for direction in the 1670 - 1720 period was that New York did not have a major fire that destroyed large parts of their city. Boston did, one after another. Its first major fire, referred to as a conflagration, was in 1653 attributed to a stack of wood ignited outside but near a building in the crowded center of the town along State Street. There was a suspicion of arson. In 1676, a large fire in the North End destroyed forty-six houses, several stores and warehouses, and North Church before a rainstorm providentially put out the blaze. The next year Boston received its first engine from London. Again in 1679 under suspicion of arson, a fire on the waterfront consumed eighty houses, seventy warehouses, and several ships. Apparently, the one small engine had no significant effect.

Even after adding engines and reservoirs, Boston still had large fires in 1690, 1691, 1702, and 1711. Viewing this catalog of conflagrations, New York could reasonably conclude they had little to learn from their fellow colonists to the north. The New York system, begun with Stuyvesant and continually improved through the ward system into the 18th century, seemed to prevent or contain fires before they became Boston-sized. Perhaps New York would have to await its own slew of convincing arsons before it would invest in fire engines.