It is likely that London has had some form of firefighting from as early as the time of the Romans. However, after the Roman armies left Britain in 415 AD, any organised attempts to fight fires were abandoned.
Following the Norman Conquest in 1066, King William the Conqueror insisted that all fires should be put out at night to reduce the risk of fire in houses with straw 'carpets' and thatched roofs. William's law of couvre-feu (literally - cover fire) became the modern term curfew.
Even so, a huge fire destroyed a large part of the city in 1212 and was said to have killed some 3,000 people. This fire was known as the Great Fire of London - until September 2nd 1666.
Today's London Fire Brigade traces its roots to the London Fire Engine Establishment, which was organized in 1833 to consolidate brigades operated by London's insurance companies. James Braidwood, the former firemaster of Edinburgh, served at the city's first fire chief, overseeing 13 fire stations and 80 full-time firefighters, nicknamed ``Jimmy Braiders.'' London's first firemen were on continuous duty and rarely had time off.
In Edinburgh, Braidwood ``formed the world's first municipal fire brigade, organising men and machines,'' according to The Gazetteer for Scotland web site. ``He was the first to promote entering burning buildings to fight the seat of a fire. He trained his men at night to get them used to dark conditions and instructed them to carry rope to escape from burning buildings, practising their climbing skills on Edinburgh's North Bridge.''
Braidwood is also credited with writing one of the first fire service training manuals and introducing some of the earliest breathing apparatus, The Gazetteer said.
In London, Braidwood brought ``many new ideas and techniques,'' according to the London Fire Brigade's web site. ``He believed that to be really effective, the firefighters should get as close to the seat of the fire as possible rather than rely on a 'long-shot' with a hose, a principle which still holds good today.''
And yet, he preferred manual pumps over the first steam fire engines. According to one author, Braidwood said the early steam engines pumped too much water.
In 1861, Braidwood was killed when a wall collapsed at the Tooley Street Fire, which burned for two two days and wasn't fully extnguished for two weeks. The blaze that took Braidwood's life started in a warehouse along the Thames and spread along the river's south bank.
The brigade was reorganized in 1866 as the Metropolitan Fire Brigade in the aftermath of the Tooley Street Fire.
Captain Eyre Massey Shaw - who earned the nickname ``Fire King'' - commanded the new brigade. He had taken charge of the old London Fire Engine Establishment after Braidwood's death.
Shaw, like Braidwood, was an innovator and ``expanded the use of steam fire engines, introduced telegraph systems and rationalised life saving operations, '' according to the brigade. He also increased the number of street escape stations across London.
Considered by many a ``fireman's fireman,'' Shaw traveled to the U.S. in 1865 to visit fire departments in New York and other cities, according to the 1887 book ``Our Firemen,'' written and published by A.E. Costello.
Immortalized in Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta ``Iolanthe,'' Shaw wrote what it means to be a firefighter:
A fireman to be successful, must enter buildings; He must get in below, above, on every side, from opposite houses, over brick walls, over side walls, through panels of doors, through windows, through loopholes cut by himself in the gates, the walls, the roof; he must know how to reach the attic from the basement by ladders placed on half burned stairs, and the basement from the attic by rope made fast on a chimney;
His whole success depends on his getting in and remaining there, and he must always carry his appliances with him, as without them he is of no use.
The London County Council took control of the fire brigade in 1899 and imposed rigid controls, much to Shaw's dislike. ``For years he had run the Brigade his own way and after two years of stormy exchanges he resigned in 1891,'' according to the fire brigade. "He was knighted by Queen Victoria on his last day of service.
During Shaw's tenure, ``The Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, took a keen interest in the 'exciting' business of firefighting and, at the Chandos Street fire station in Charing Cross, the Prince's fire uniform was always kept at the ready as the Royal presence was likely at any of the capital's notable fires,'' according to the fire brigade.
During World War II, a London fireboat named for Massey Shaw helped evacuate British troops trapped at Dunkirk.