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BELFAST FIRE BRIGADE

DATES

By Bill Broadhurst and Harry Welsh


Belfast became a rapidly growing market town, and port around the early part of the 1600s and after the land had been granted to Sir Arthur Chichester by King James I in 1603 it began to flourish. In 1613 the town was granted a charter of incorporation by King James I which established the Corporation of Belfast. With the exception of a few years during the Second World War, the Corporation had exclusive responsibility for the provision of fire services in Belfast until 1973, a period of three hundred and sixty years.
There is no evidence to suggest that during the early 1600s that firefighting equipment was present in Belfast but the Corporation did have powers to enact legislation and on occasions these 'Local Acts' as they were known were specifically referred to fire safety and firefighting arrangements. One of the first of these Local Acts was introduced on 29 March 1638 when regulations were made in relation to fire safety at Malt Kilns and for the replacement of wooden chimneys. By coincidence the first newspaper reports of fires occurring over one hundred years later refer to incidents in just these type of risks. A fire in a timber chimney was just one of the risks associated with the widespread use of timber in the construction of houses at this time which invariably resulted in the complete destruction of such buildings if involved in fire.

Fire Safety bye-law 29 March 1638


In 1800 the Belfast Police Act was passed, establishing a new system of management for the fire service.
The purpose of the act was:- for paving, cleansing and lighting, and improving the several streets, squares, lanes and passages within the town of Belfast in the County of Antrim, and for removing and preventing all encroachments, obstructions and annoyances therein, and also for establishing and maintaining a nightly watch throughout the said town and precincts thereof and for other purposes.

Included in 'other purposes' were the sweeping of streets, provision of fire engines and appurtenances, and for general purposes of the act. To enable the Corporation to impliment the Belfast Police Act, twelve Police Commissioners were appointed for life, in addition to the town Burgesses. Also a Police Committee was established with a function to ensure the provisions of the Police Act were carried out. They immediately set aside 143.8.2d for the purchase of a new fire engine from Tilley and Company of Blackfriars Road in London, one of the main manufacturers of fire engines at this time.

At about midnight on Thursday 4 February 1813, a fire broke out in the cotton mill belonging to McCrum, Leppers & Company situated behind the The Artillery barracks on what is now known as North Queen Street. The mill of five floors in height and over two hundred feet long employing over 300 people, was at that time the largest in Ireland, having only recently been constructed in 1810. When the alarm was raised, the brigade quickly brought two engines to the scene and a third arrived from the nearby artillary army barracks, along with a large number of soldiers from the Royal Artillery and Dumfries Militia who were garrisoned there at the time. Despite their combined efforts, the fire spread rapidly and the mill was soon a mass of flames. The fire burned furiously for the rest of the night illuminating large parts of the town and at the height of the blaze, the front wall collapsed and killed one of the soldiers who was firefighting at the time. The soldier named Wallace was to be married the next day. Two other firefighters were seriously injured suffering broken legs. The owner of the mill suffered huge financial losses as a result of the fire and later 'died an inmate of the Charitable Society's Institution, never having recovered from his melancholy reverse of fortune'

The first person to be appointed by the Police Committee to be in charge of the fire engines known as "The Keeper of the Engines" was Mr John McDowell who was appointed in 1814 and provided with a rent free house at Number 2 William Street. He had the services of five firemen, who were Corporation road sweepers by trade but because of their duties as firemen, were also required to live in or near to William Street fire station. When a fire would occur they were obliged to make their way to the fire station and ensure the engines were taken to the incident.

Newspaper advertisement for the position of 
       Fire Engine Keeper Belfast 1815.


In April 1833 new Police offices were opened in Poultry Square. (this area was subsequently re-named Police Square and is today known as Victoria Square) The new building included an engine house that was intended to hold the town fire engines.

In 1840 a new Horse Drawn manual engine was purchased from Messrs Merryweather and Son Ltd of London. It was delivered in December along with the inscription 'Belfast Fire Police No 1' and bearing the coat of arms of the Belfast Corporation. Previous to this fire engines had not been numbered but had been given the names 'Express' 'Fury' and 'Spitfire'



During the night of 29-30 May 1849, The Belfast Fire Brigade suffered their first fatality at a fire when Fireman Thomas Mayne was killed during firefighting operations at North Queen Street Belfast. The fire had broke out in a bakery at the rear of a dwelling adjacent to the Police Station. Fireman Mayne with seventeen years service along with another fireman Alexander Reid had managed to hold back the fire long enough to allow two young women to be rescued from the first floor. Both firemen finding themselves cut off from escape were forced to climb out of a second floor window. As the heat became too intense for them to hold on any longer and when their colleagues positioned a bed below their position, they let go. Fireman Reid was able to land without serious injury, but Fireman Mayne caught his leg on a projecting ledge and was pitched head first onto the pavement, sustaining severe head injuries. Fireman Mayne died shortly after the fall leaving a wife and family. A final irony was that Fireman Alexander Reid was also to lose his life as a result of firefighting some twenty seven years later.


Newspaper report 10 October 1871

On the 10 October 1871, fire broke out in the stables of the fire station at Police Square. Fortunately the alarm was raised quickly and the horses and appliances were safely removed. Reports of the fire were carried in the newspapers at the time, although this news was not so significant as the reports of the huge Chicago fire in The United States of America.
It was also fortunate that work on the new fire station attached to the new Town Hall in Chichester street was almost complete, and the entire compliment were able to occupy their new premises on 17 October 1871.

85 foot Morris Turntable Ladder ___Morris motor pump with 60 foot escape ladder

Between 1911 and 1913 Belfast bought a new motorised fleet of appliances from John Morris and Son Limited. Upon their arrival at Belfast, they were each given a 50 mile road test, and at the second lock on the River Lagan at Shaw's Bridge their pumps were tested before being officially accepted. A supply of petrol had to be obtained for use with the new fleet and the one initially chosen was 'Pratts Perfection Motor Spirit' costing between one shilling and six pence and one shilling and eight pence per gallon, to be supplied by Messrs Cotter and Company of Gloucester Street.


Auxiliary Fire Service Personnel. Belfast 1940.

After the declaration of war by June 1940 firefighting equipment available in the greater Belfast area had, by June 1940 risen to 135 pumps of all descriptions. Some of the trailer pumps which were received by the AFS were made by a firm by the name of 'Tangye' and a building was constructed to store several of these pumps at Ardoyne Fire Station. This building remained part of Ardoyne Fire Station until its closure in 1981, and was known by many generations of firemen as 'The Tangye Shed'.


Emergency Tender OZ9606 with Equipment. 1955.

After the end of the Second World War, a vehicle maintenance workshop was established in Chichester Street Fire Station. The Workshop staff soon earned the reputation of being an essential and efficient department of the brigade capable of providing all kinds of specialised maintenance. In March 1955 a chassis was ordered from Dennis Brothers Limited for 2,904.19.10d and when it was delivered a short time later, the body and coachwork was completed by the workshop staff to local specifications, giving the City a Class 'A' Emergency tender which was the showpiece of the brigade.


Fire tug 'Coleraine' Belfast Lough 1970.

During 1969, a second firefighting tug (the first being the Clandeboye) the 'Coleraine' was purchased by Messrs John Cooper (Belfast) Limited. This tug was equipped as a firefighting vessel and provided with a Merryweather fire pump capable of discharging 3,000 gallons of water per minute, at 120 pounds per square inch pressure. It's most significant feature, however was the provision of a hydraulic platform for firefighting purposes. At the time the 'Coleraine' was the only such vessel to have this facility in the world.


One of the last acts of the Police Committee as administrators of the fire service in Belfast was to preside over the opening of the new fire station in Whitla Street. Opened on 18th September 1973 by the Lord Mayor of Belfast Councillor W. Christie, MBE JP. In addition to the standard accommodation provided at the new station, a study room was dedicated to the memory of Fireman Brian Douglas who had been based at the old Whitla Fire Station and who had been murdered by a terrorist while firefighting at Bradbury Place on 7 February 1973.

Fire Engines at Whitla Street Fire Station
 just before its closure September 1973.