HC Deb 23 July 1861 vol 164 cc1397-402

said, he wished to direct the attention of the House to a subject deeply affecting the interest of the Metropolis. He would show the existence of a very great evil, which required the interference of the Legislature—he referred to the state of the law respecting the prevention of fires in the Metropolis. A great fire had lately occurred near London Bridge, and public attention had very naturally been directed to the subject. The state of the Metropolis was not what it ought to be with respect to proper arrangements for putting out fires. The House was perhaps hardly aware of the immense property to be insured against the risk by fire in the Metropolis. Taking the rental within the area of the Metropolitan Board of Works at £15,000,000, and capitalizing it at twenty years' purchase, the value of house property alone was £300,000,000 sterling. Taking the moveable property in houses as at least equal to the house property itself—taking into account also the immense property in the docks, in London warehouses, and shops, independently of pictures, books, and jewellery in private houses, he was sure he did not exaggerate when he calculated the value of the whole at not less than £600,000,000. That property was left practically without any municipal regulations whatever for its protection against fire. The fact, he had no hesitation in saying, was almost unexampled. He did not believe there was another great city in the world besides London that had no municipal regulations whatever in force for the prevention of fire. He would briefly explain to the House what was the present state of the law. Immediately after the Great Fire of London, in the following year public attention was naturally directed to this subject, and an act of Common Council was passed, which he had seen in the library among the records of the City, giving very elaborate directions as to the course to be pursued in London in the event of fire. The municipality, which then formed the greater part of London, took upon itself to make what might at that time be thought admirable regulations for the security of property against fire. They went into very minute regulations. One of these was to this effect, that—"At all such times the Lord Mayor be attended with all his officers, with the marshals and their labourers, the bridgemasters, &c., who are all, upon notice of any fire, forthwith to repair to the Lord Mayor, and to observe such directions as may be given them. The sheriffs, also, will be attended by all their officers upon pain of forfeiting £3 in default of such their attendance. Another clause enacted that—"Every alderman who has passed the office of sheriff shall provide twelve buckets and one hand squirt of brass, to be kept at their respective dwellings." He had gone lately to the Guildhall, and asked the Town Clerk if he could give him information as to any existing municipal regulations in the City of London on the subject. The Town Clerk told him he was not aware of anything of the kind. All they depended upon was an Act of Parliament of 1774, which required each parish within the metropolitan area to maintain at least one engine and a certain number of ladders. That was the only Act relating to the subject of fire, and any hon. Gentleman who had anything to do with parochial arrangements in London would know that such an arrangement as the one proposed was perfectly useless so far as regarded protection from fire. The engines were kept up in a very inefficient manner, or were not kept at all, except in a few of the larger parishes, and in some instances the keys were in the possession of a parish clerk who resided at a considerable distance from the engine-house. In the year 1844 a measure had been proposed by the right hon. Baronet Member for Carlisle, who was then Secretary of State for the Home Department, by which certain parishes were required to maintain a greater or a lesser number of engines, according to the amount of their population, and a certain number of firemen. The Bill included about 200 parishes, and it provided for the maintenance of about 800 firemen, but those men were to be placed under no kind of organization, and the measure would have been totally ineffective, as the vicious principle of parochial efforts was still to le kept up. There could be no doubt that the present state of legislation upon the subject was unsatisfactory. He might be told there was a brigade, called the fire brigade, in London, which had practically prevented public attention being called to the want of legislation, because they formed a very efficient body. No doubt they were highly efficient for the purpose intended, but certainly not for the general protection of life and property in the Metropolis. The brigade consisted of 108 or 109 men, with sixteen engines at stations in various parts of London, but it was formed out of a previous system by which all the insurance offices of London kept a certain fire establishment of their own, partly as a sort of advertisement and partly to put out fires where, the offices were directly interested. That system having been found very expensive, it was suggested that it would be far better to form one brigade by the union of all the men, and from that suggestion originated the fire brigade which had now existed since 1833. He admitted that the present arrangement was a great improvement, but still it was wrong to leave the protection of the Metropolis from fire to the insurance offices. The brigade had rendered great services under its late superintendent, Mr. Braid-wood, and he might mention that the insurance offices had shown their appreciation of that gentleman's services by granting an annuity of £300 to the widow, with a reversion of the capital—£7,000—to his children. He repeated, however, that the present system was wrong, for although in one sense it might be to the interest of insurance companies to put out fire, yet their premiums were based upon a calculation of risks, and if the fires doubled in number the premiums would he doubled also. In the late great fire the loss of the insurance offices was estimated at £1,000,000, besides several hundreds of thousands pounds' worth of uninsured property that was destroyed. The whole amount of the premiums received by all the London and country offices for risks incurred within the Metropolis was only £350,000 a year, so that one fire had swept the whole amount of 2½ years' premiums. The brigade was supported by the various companies at an expense of £25,000 a year. That sum, of course, was calculated in the amount of the premiums, and fell upon the insurers, so that the insurers paid for the protection that was afforded to non-insurers—an arrangement that could hardly be regarded as equitable. If anything ought to be taken up as a municipal question it was the protection of life and property against fire. In Paris there were 800 of the Sapeurs Pompiers, a most efficient fire brigade. In Edinburgh, Dublin, Liverpool, and Manchester, the extinction of a fire was a municipal arrangement, and there was no continental town in which the same system did not prevail. In London alone there was no such system, and this important object was left to depend on voluntary exertions. Our public buildings were unprotected, and, considering the invaluable property which they contained, that was a most unsatisfactory state of things. In the Bank of England alone an efficient system prevailed, and so there ought to be in an establishment containing the records of the National Debt and titles of property amounting to £800,000,000; but was it not equally the duty of the Government to protect the public buildings under their charge, remembering that within the metropolitan police area were more than 3,000,000 persons, and between 500,000 and 600,000 houses, there surely ought to be some public system? He did not want to saddle the country at large with any expenditure to accomplish this object. The matter was one of police, and there could be no better time than the present for effecting such a change. He spoke without authority, but he believed that the whole of the existing fire-brigade establishment would be handed over to the public on equitable terms if they would take charge of it, and the companies would be glad to be relieved from a duty which he did not think ought to fall upon them at all. He hoped the matter would be considered by the Government during the recess.


My hon. Friend has naturally and wisely taken advantage; of the present moment, when attention has been directed to the disastrous fire at London Bridge, of which we have heard so much, to bring under notice the defects in the present arrangements for the extinction of fires in the Metropolis. The principal provision on this subject is contained in the 14th of George III., which enacts that every London parish within the Bills of Mortality shall keep up certain fire engines and other appliances for the extinction of fires. At this moment I am not prepared to say what is the aggregate expense which the parishes incur under this enactment; but, no doubt, the expenses of the several parishes, when added together, amount to a considerable sum. Nevertheless, the whole of that expenditure is almost frittered away. It is divided into such minute proportions that no one parish contributes any important assistance to the extinction of any large fire. The Act of George III. was passed at a time when there was no organization for the Metropolis. Each parish was, in 1774, a separate community, excluding the City of London, and they had no common organization. Such organization, however, now exists in the metropolitan police, which, indeed, is independent of the City of London, but is common to the whole of the rest of the Metropolis. It is an obvious remark that if all the expenditure of the separate parishes were thrown into one common fund and were placed under a common management, the expenditure would be far more equally and economically applied for the purpose of extinguishing fires than it is at present. Whether any alteration in the law could be made for that purpose, is a point upon which I will not express any opinion; but I agree with my hon. Friend that if these arrangements, which are now simply parochial, were combined, and if the persons who are now employed by the several parishes were brigaded, the means of extinguishing fires would be much more efficient than at present. The existing fire brigade in London is maintained at an expense of £20,000 a year, and is a voluntary force, supported by the various fire insurance offices. And if the whole of the expense is thrown on the parishes it seems but reasonable that some contribution should be made by the companies. However, I merely advert to that subject as one which will require consideration, and I must thank my hon. Friend for the manner in which he has brought this subject under the notice of the House.