The Great Fires of Old

With the Spring break done and dusted, I reminisce the last break we had which was Christmas (seems like ages ago!). I had spent my Christmas break in London where I was excited to visit… nope, not the Buckingham Palace, not the Big Ben but surprise surprise, the Monument to the Great Fire of London (to be fair, it is a legit tourist attraction in any guidebook). Having heard of the Great Fire from almost all our courses in Edinburgh, it would be a shame to not visit it when in London.

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The monument is situated near Pudding Lane (well, 202 ft away from Pudding Lane to be exact as represented by the height of the monument) where the fire allegedly began at a baker’s house on Sunday 2nd September 1966. However, it was only extinguished on Wednesday 5th September but not before devouring houses, streets, the City gates, churches, public building and even the old St Paul’s Cathedral (which was rebuilt and is now another tourist attraction in London). For a more dramatic recount of the destruction that was brought about by the fire, a Latin inscription with the English translation can be found on one side of the monument (pardon my poor camera resolution):

It is interesting to note that it was reported that the only buildings to survive were those that were made of stone. At this point, it has to be emphasized that the monument was not only erected to commemorate the Great Fire of London but also to celebrate the rebuilding of the City for as part of the 1667 Rebuilding Act, Charles II declared that:

No man whatsoever shall presume to erect any house or building great or small, but of brick or stone

This reformed building regulations placed an importance on the materials used for building construction with respect to fire safety, a concept that continues till date though the complexity has evolved as we grapple with different construction materials and fire resistance of the buildings we are designing for. Should we ever decide to neglect, forgo or simply be ignorant to these aspects of building design, let the Great Fire of London (as remote and ancient it may sound now) be a reminder of the disastrous consequences that it could result in.

Well, lets lighten things up with some more cheerful information on the monument. Firstly, as you approach the monument, try to spot the sign on the wall describing the site’s relevance to the Great Fire and a quirky fire themed restaurant called “The Hydrant” (in case, you miss the 202 ft monument towering over you).

What makes the Monument a permanent feature in a tour of London is that other than taking pictures of the monument at all angles at ground level while trying to fit it within your lens, you could scale the monument though an narrow internal spiral stairs and after 311 steps, you would reach a viewing platform for a panoramic view of the city. Looking up towards the center of the monument, you could also get a peek of the drum and copper urn from which (not real) flames emerge, symbolizing the Great Fire (just in case the awe of the views makes one forget the reason the monument was erected in the first place). As you make your way down, a staff would hand you a certificate to certify your achievement of scaling the 311 steps of the monument but also provide you information about the fire and the monument. I would say £3 well spent.

Another monument to the Great Fire of London was the Golden Boy of Pye Corner which marks where the fire stopped which is about a mile away from the Monument. Although I have intended to visit it, my legs just couldn’t bring me there after that climb up the monument and public transport do not run during Christmas in London. However, what is curious about this monument is its social-political significance to the cause of the fire. The monument consisted of a 2ft statue of a standing boy gilded in gold made to look portly for it was suggested that the Great Fire had been a punishment from for the city’s residents being so gluttonous as explained in an inscription:

This Boy is in Memory put up for the late Fire of London
Occasion’d by the Sin of Gluttony.

Funny how the cause of fire could also be explained in such non-scientific terms….

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Returning to Edinburgh, I went in search for a fire-related monument to see what else I could learn from the histories of fire and that’s when I found a memorial at Edinburgh’s Parliament Square of James Braidwood, the man credited with the development of the modern municipal fire service. At the age of 24, he was made the Master of Fire Engines though 2 months of after his appointment, he was faced with a major test: The Great Fire of Edinburgh. Although the Great Fire of Edinburgh was the most destructive fires in the history of Edinburgh, it launched the world’s first municipal fire service led by James Braidwood, determined not to let such a disaster happen again. Although his team was heavily criticised for their handling of the fire, they were eventually exonerated by an inquiry as investigations did identify a lack of a clear directive as to who was in command since police officers and municipal officials had all been issuing often contradictory orders in during the fire fighting operations. This incident led to consequently passed a now commonplace law giving the firemaster, or his deputy, complete command of all firefighting operations. Braidwood continued to revolutionarise fire fighting operations  placing emphasis on the training and welfare of his fire fighters, conceptualising the idea of fire fighters entering buildings to tackle the heart of the fire, using of ladders to rescue people etc…. operations that we take for granted these days. He was not only a directive but also a practitioner as shown by the many accounts of heroism he exemplified when fighting fire directly. I could go on and on about his accolades but I shall stop here before this blog post becomes an essay.

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This walk down memory lane has got me thinking… what legacy shall the fire safety industry of our generation leave behind? Are we doing enough to continue the evolution of fire safety that our forefathers have started? Are we exemplifying the James Braidwood of today, actively coming out with innovative and impactful solutions to improve fire safety and fire fighting? Or are we just waiting for the next Great Fire to happen?

Almost every city has at least one Great Fire story in the past that has changed the course of its future. Even my own city state, Singapore, had the disastrous Bukit Ho Swee fire which ravaged Singapore’s squatter settlements post independence in 1961 but led to an earnest, efficient and, above all, safe public housing scheme that we still enjoy today. The Great Fires of yesteryear seems to have brought about much changes that has transcended generations such that we rarely hear of similar Great Fires today. However, we should not neglect the fires we see all around the the world. Though incomparable in scale to the Great Fires, these smaller fires are generally localised, more frequent and with considerable impact especially in terms of fatalities. The challenge for our generation would be to push the boundaries of our knowledge in fire safety and continue to question our fire safety designs motivated even by the smallest of fires such that we could leave behind a legacy of a proactive and rigorous approach towards fire safety for the next generation to follow.

 

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