Blackburn Fire Service
A Concise History of Blackburn Fire Brigade 1794 - 1974
The following article has been compiled by David Bowers from the book " A History of Blackburn Fire Brigade" which was published in 1974 by the County Borough of Blackburn. David is a former Station Master at Blackburn Fire Station and he is a volunteer for "The Phoenix Project: Blackburn Fire History. The Phoenix Project is compiling a superb online resource of photographs, fire reports, newscuttings and general history of the service. For more information please click here: Blackburn Fire History
An Act of Parliament in 1707 specified that each Parish should make provision for the protection of property from fire, under the responsibility of Churchwardens. In the absence of accurate records in this period of Blackburn's history, the first mention of an organised fire brigade in the town comes from the Blackburn Mail. In an article dated 6 August 1794 we learn that "the engines of this town" were kept in a state of readiness by receiving bi-monthly maintenance. Mention is also made of the 17 firemen who manned them, townspeople being encouraged to support them should they ever need their services.
The same publication gives a report of a large fire in a cabinet makers "near the bridge" in 1796 where the firemen and their engines (presumably manual pumps) assisted by local townsfolk made a good account of themselves, extinguishing a very severe fire there and preventing spread to neighbouring properties. Thirty years later, however, the same newspaper, covering a fire at the sizing house of Messrs. Hornby and Co., Water Street were very critical of the firemen and their equipment, stating "one of the engines was useless.......pipes were in a poor state of repair.......the firemen were ill controlled" etc.
The rapid progress of the industrial revolution brought with it a higher incidence of outbreaks of fire. In the 1820's an up-and-coming industrial town such as Blackburn with an increasing number of cotton mills and ancillary trades plus a population of 22,000 needed a fire fighting force that would keep up with the growth of the town. This was clearly needed, particularly as around this time the Leeds Liverpool Canal and soon afterwards various Railway Companies reached the town increasing trade routes, with scope for more factories and further increase in population.
In 1851, Blackburn received its Charter of Incorporation. One of the first duties of the new Town Council was to improve facilities for coping with outbreaks of fire. In 1856, a new manual fire engine was purchased at a cost of £150, a lot of money in those days. It was kept in Engine Street, near the site of the present Town Hall, and manned by lamp-lighters, water men and other Corporation employees. The method of summoning the fire brigade was still the ringing of the Market House bell.
By 1865, the town's population had almost trebled in less than 40 years to 63,000. Following an increasing number of conflagrations highlighting the woefully inadequate fire fighting resources, the Town Council was forced to take dramatic action. A new purpose built "Fire Engine Station" was erected on Clayton Street in the town centre during 1865.
This new station was a massive leap forward in the Fire Protection of the time, and reflected Blackburn's new prosperous status as the centre of the Cotton Industry. It boasted a spacious yard, an engine house, a 42 feet high hose tower, smithy, stables, various ancilliary buildings, a house for the Superintendent and 17 cottages for the firemen, others living within 300 yards of the station.
At the same time, a new Superintendent was appointed, a Mr Joseph Joy. A gallant and resourceful man, he successfully led this new Fire Brigade until his untimely death at a fire on Canterbury Street when a wall collapsed onto him and the Borough Engineer.
The Brigade carried on apace under a new Superintendent, Mr John Fox. One of his first tasks being the introduction of an organised group of Volunteer Firemen to support the established regular men, and the purchase of the first steam fire engine.
In 1875, the Volunteer section of Blackburn's Fire Brigade was inaugurated. These 12 keen young men soon proved their worth giving sterling service to the town, gaining valuable experience at an increasing number of large fires, and even won national acclaim by carrying off 8 prizes in a fireman's competition held in Nantwich. They were eventually provided with full uniform and even gained electric call bells installed in their homes.
Superintendent Fox continued to make his mark with the purchase of a Shand Mason horse drawn steam fire engine, at a time when even some of the larger City Fire Brigades were wary of these "new fangled gadgets". Considered the last word in contemporary fire engineering this magnificent machines could pump 650 gallons of water per minute through 4 deliveries, putting the Blackburn Brigade well to the fore of firefighting technology amongst similar sized industrial towns, all of whom, prided themselves in having up to date efficient fire brigades.
The new steamer and the Volunteers were soon to have their "baptism of fire" as 1875 was notable for 5 serious factory fires including Nova Scotia and Furthergate Cotton Mills, together with a spectacular and very expensive fire at the newly constructed Appleby's Daisyfield Corn Mill. So successful was the steam fire engine that an order was placed for a second such machine. It was delivered in 1883 and named "Volunteer" in recognition of their service to the town.
Interestingly, it was around this time that The Lancashire Fire Brigades Friendly Society was formed and based in Blackburn. Run for many years by the Watson family, it offered, for a nominal subscription, remuneration to firefighters and their families in the event of injury or death in service of a fireman. At a time when there was no welfare state, the advantages of such a scheme were well received and by 1896 this Society had 1,400 members from 98 fire brigades nationally.
The fire brigade in Blackburn was now starting to become a professional organisation, with a new fire station premises, 2 new steam fire engines, paid firemen with accommodation, regular training, operational support from volunteers, and even financial protection in the event of injury in what was becoming a dangerous job. Discipline was vital in such an important occupation and in 1877 a handbook of Rules and Regulations was produced.
In 1882, the Blackburn Police Fire Brigade was formed, answering to the local Chief Constable. The old brigade was disbanded, old methods discarded and 14 constables were appointed and housed in Corporation housing rent-free. A new era had now commenced and under the leadership of a newly appointed Superintendent, Mr Samuel Simpson, formerly of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade. Sadly, however, the Brigade were to be put to the test at their most disastrous and tragic fire yet.
Early in the morning of Thursday 19th February 1885, at Knuzden Brook Cotton Mill, some three miles from Blackburn Town Centre, a young lad called Nightingale was lighting gas lamps on the fourth floor of the six storey building when a quantity of cotton fluff caught alight. The fire spread rapidly, but no one had the presence of mind to call the fire brigade, and it was not until a little girl ran three miles to the fire station that the brigade were notified and responded immediately. On arrival, the building was already well alight on all floors, and the roof had collapsed. As the brave Police Firemen set about extinguishing the blaze, at 7.40am without warning a gable wall collapsed killing 5 workmen and 2 of the firemen, Police Constables Dawson and Clayton. The delayed call to this fire and others to follow was to speed up the introduction of telephone communications in the town.
Blackburn was now an important centre of the cotton industry. In a generation the population had doubled again to a staggering 120,000 people. With this came an increase in the number of fires from 25 in 1895 to 41 only 6 years later. The local industry at that period included 137 cotton mills, together with over 80 other factories including foundries, breweries, shuttle makers and paper mills, numerous cabinet makers, hospitals, public buildings, shops and, of course, homes for such a large population.
The Police Fire Brigade maintained a policy of progress and development. By 1900, the two steam fire engines were supplemented by 3 more horse drawn appliances, a tender with wheeled escape ladder, a telescopic ladder, and a third steam pump. A stable of 6 magnificent horses, each standing 17 hands high were kept in readiness, each taking turns to pull the daily prison van to Preston Gaol for exercise.
In the early part of the 20th century the Brigade continued its sterling work, the number of calls doubling again to 85 by 1911. This was in spite of an apathetic approach to the Brigade by the prevailing local council. However things were soon brought to a head in 1913 when the first two steam fire engines (by now over 30 years old) broke down, leaving heavily industrialised Blackburn, a town with almost 130,000 inhabitants and an incidence of fire on average twice weekly, with little effective means of pumping water!
This became a blessing in disguise, the Town Council became seriously alarmed at this and took immediate steps. No doubt acting on the advice of the well respected Inspector Simpson, they immediately ordered two petrol driven motor fire engines from Merryweathers of London, the first of which was delivered in April the same year. In addition, a new much larger purpose-built fire station was also commissioned.
In an age when fire engines had been pulled, first of all manually, then horse drawn, the motor driven fire engine using the internal combustion engine both as motive power and to pump water was a revolution. They were also capable of carrying a full crew and equipment including a heavy wheeled escape ladder at a speed of up to 40mph. This was a revolution in the world of firefighting. Once again Blackburn Fire Brigade was placed at the forefront of new technology.
The new machine was proudly demonstrated on its arrival into the town by taking Inspector Simpson, a full crew of 6 firemen and two press reporters, the eleven miles to Clitheroe fire station, ringing the bell continuously en route as villagers and townsfolk alike gaped open mouthed as this red engine flashed by. Following an impressive pumping demonstration the following day in Blackburn town centre, the town councillors immediately adjourned to the Town Hall and unanimously voted for the money to pay for the machine. A second larger motor fire engine followed the year after.
At the same time, tenders were invited for the building of the new "Central Fire Station" on land off Byrom Street. Although construction was delayed by the First World War, when completed in 1922, with its 6 bay appliance room, watchroom, workshops, ancilliary accommodation, 85ft tower and large drill yard surrounded by 37 firemen's houses, it was acknowledged as being one of the finest fire stations in the country.
Although fire damage in Blackburn had temporarily fallen around the time of the new fire station's inception, it was not to last. Many serious fires were dealt with by the Brigade operating from their new HQ under newly appointed Inspector Jones, culminating in a record number of large fires in 1929 including Mellor's Commercial Hotel on King Street where 2 people died in spite of multiple rescues being carried out from upper floor windows.
Fire calls continued to rise during the 20's and 30's, from 81 in 1925 to 147 in 1939. Blackburn firemen being further assisted in their work by the arrival of two more replacement Leyland fire engines to the fleet in 1936-37. Both were highly regarded by the men; one would last until 1960. They were named after members of the town's Watch Committee, a Blackburn tradition which was to last for many years.
In 1939, war was declared and Blackburn, like many industrial centres around the country, prepared its firefighting defences for the expected aerial bombing. Under the Auxiliary Fire Service arrangements the 25 regular firemen were supplemented by paid volunteers to a total of 198 full time and 317 part time men and women, operating out of 14 AFS fire stations and sub stations around the town, utilizing 56 trailer pumps and a number of self propelled vehicles. Although few air attacks took place locally, a number of large accidental fires occurred, giving the new firefighting force valuable experience. In August 1941 The National Fire Service was formed bringing much needed standardisation to the Fire Service as a whole, Blackburn becoming part of Fire Force no.29. The large fire station complex and drill yard being particularly useful for training.
At the cessation of hostilities the NFS reverted to peacetime operation, with full control handed back to local authorities under the Fire Services Act in 1948.
This was the birth of the County Borough of Blackburn Fire Brigade under the control of Chief Officer J. Wilkins. This new peacetime fire force was made up of men who had either stayed on in the Fire Brigade or were new recruits demobbed from the Services and made excellent firemen, being young, alert, and used to discipline. Some had previously been tradesmen and their skills were put to good use as Blackburn fire station had now to be adapted. Although only 26 years old, the accommodation required considerable refurbishment and extension, as the Brigade strength had now been increased to 60. It is a testament to their work that the additional accommodation they provided was still in use until the station was decommissioned in 2012!
In 1953, Mr Tom Birtwistle was appointed the new Chief Fire Officer to succeed Mr Wilkins.
Throughout the 1950's calls continued to rise from 180 in 1948 to almost 500 by 1958. Not all calls were to fires, firemen's equipment becoming increasingly useful at the rescue of trapped persons in a variety of situations, road accidents, high rise rescue, animals in distress etc. Of note was the successful deployment of the Brigade's resources to over 130 calls to flooding over a 4 day period in August 1950 following torrential rain, including urgent assistance rendered at the local Telephone Exchange and Power Station.
Such continual increase in activity required the best equipment. Replacement modern fire engines with "limousine" enclosed bodies giving protection to the crew were delivered in 1954, 1957 and 1960; the last two being Rolls-Dennis machines. These vehicles were put to good use as each year brought its share of large fires. 1958 was particularly busy, most of the damage being attributed to 5 large incidents, including Brookhouse Mills, Richmond Hill Paper Mill and East Lancashire Coach Builders.
The trend carried on into the 1960's. In 1961, for example,769 emergency calls were received in the Watchroom at Blackburn Fire Station. By 1966, however, this total had risen to 1,142. Firefighting in the 1960's brought new challenges nationally. Brigades were increasingly being called upon to attend "Special Service Calls", that is emergencies other than fires, for example, road accidents, incidents involving chemicals, lift rescues, etc and Blackburn was no exception. A replacement Emergency Tender was commissioned in 1967 exclusively for this type of call.
Although the Cotton Industry had declined significantly in Blackburn, other industries took its place and the calls increased in number and complexity. Much of the increase in calls came as a result of huge redevelopment in the town and many of the fires were in abandoned derelict property. An increase in road traffic required the use of the new blue flashing lights and two tone horns. Communications were enhanced by the installation of two way radios on front line fire appliances and, in 1966, a new Merryweather Turntable Ladder was purchased to replace the wartime Leyland machine. The Brigade also standardised on using Compressed Air Breathing Apparatus.
Mr Bill Williams took over as Chief Officer in 1966 on the retirement of Mr Tom Birtwistle who had served for nearly 30 years and, in 1969, The Auxiliary Fire Service was disbanded.
Emergency calls continued to rise as Blackburn Fire Brigade entered the 1970's. Spectacular blazes included Anelays shop complex, a row of new houses on Crosby Road, Redmayne and Isherwoods Mill, Eden Chemicals, Perkodd Supplies, Oxford Mill and many more. Special Service calls to extricate motorists trapped following road traffic collisions were on the increase together with a particularly difficult ammonia leak at Fishmoor Reservoir. Other serious fires included Langs Motors, Nevills Toy Store and culminated in the Cavendish Club outbreak above Blackburn's new Shopping Precinct where 105 firemen, almost 30 fire engines and 17 water jets were needed to control a particularly difficult incident.
The winds of change however were being felt at Blackburn along with the 80 other County Borough and City Fire Brigades around the country. Local Government Boundaries were reorganised following the recommendations of the Holroyd report. Consequently, on the 1st April 1974, the Byrom Street Fire Station in Blackburn became Station 71 within the newly formed Lancashire County Fire Brigade. The experience gained and professionalism shown by its firefighters over the last 200 years would prove invaluable on entering this new era, as emergency calls continued to rise to a peak of 3,650 by the1990's.
With grateful thanks to David Bowers, former Station Officer, Blackburn.
For further information and photographs please see the work being undertaken by the Phoenix Project at: Blackburn Fire History