FIREFIGHTING IS NEVER without hazard. This is something that James Braidwood (1800-1861) knew only too well when he attended a fire in Tooley Street near London Bridge station on the 22nd of June 1861.
Braidwood was born in Edinburgh, Scotland and in 1824, he was appointed Master of Fire Engines just before The Great Fire of Edinburgh, which began on the 15th of November 1824 and lasted for 5 days. Having been trained as a surveyor, he understood building techniques and materials. This along with his recruitment of various types of tradesmen helped him deal with the conflagration. His methodical approach to firefighting gained him a good reputation.
In 1833. He left Edinburgh and shifted to London, where he took over the running of the city’s London Fire Engine Establishment, the forerunner of The London Fire Brigade. In October 1834, he was involved in tackling the fire that destroyed much of the Palace of Westminster. His reputation was already great when he attended the fire in Tooley Street on the 22nd of June 1861. Three hours after the fire broke out, he was crushed to death by a falling wall. It took two days to recover his body and he was given a hero’s funeral. The fire, which began in Cottons Wharf, continued to burn for a fortnight. The reasons for its long duration included:
“The first was that firefighters were unable to get a supply of water for nearly an hour due to the River Thames being at low tide. The second was that the iron fire doors, which separated many of the storage rooms in the warehouse, had been left open. It is believed that had they been closed, as recommended by James Braidwood, the Superintendent of the LFEE, the fire could have been contained, avoiding disaster.” (www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofBritain/Tooley-Street-Fire/)
Overlooked by London’s recently constructed, glass-clad Shard, is short Cottons Lane that leads north from Tooley Street. Where these two roads meet, there is a sculptural plaque high up on a wall. It depicts a wreath entwined with a firefighting hose pipe. Behind the wreath, the artist carved the façade of a building with smoke billowing out of its windows. There also depictions of other tools used to fight fires in the 1860s when this memorial was constructed. Within the wreath. there are words:
“To the memory of James Braidwood, superintendent of the London Fire Brigade, who was killed near this spot in the execution of his duty at the great fire on 22nd June 1861” This is not the only memorial to Braidwood. Others, which I have not yet seen, can be found in Edinburgh and in Stoke Newington’s Abney Park, where Braidwood was buried.