A drunken cabbie crashes into a fire escape

Metropolitan Fire Brigade scaling ladder drill, 1873

I thought I knew what a fire escape was. A long ladder or staircase attached to a building that allowed those inside to escape down it should there be a fire. However in the 1860s these ladders were not fixed, but mobile. Scalable ladders (escapes) were positioned about every half a mile throughout London so that they could be moved quickly to wherever they were needed.

The escapes were funded and organized by the Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire (RSPLF) which had been founded in 1836 because London’s other main firefighting organization (the London Fire Engine Establishment) was only really concerned with saving insured property in the city.

As well as proving escape ladders the RSPLF also offered rewards to firefighters who demonstrated particular bravery in saving people from fire, as today’s fire brigade does on a daily basis.  The efforts of the RSPLF eventually led to the formation – in 1865 – of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade and a year later the new service acquired all of the LFEE’s equipment, gratis. By contrast, the RSPLF charged the MFB the significant sum of £2,500 for its escapes and insisted that the new organization employed all of its ‘escape men’.

Quite possibly the escapes situated across the capital were a reassuring sight for Londoners, but they may also have constituted a hazard, as this case at Marlborough Street Police court suggests.

A fire escape conductor named Bennett was standing next to his box and ladders when he saw a hansom cab careering towards him. It was about two in the morning and Bennett jumped aside as the cab crashed into the ladders, doing about £18 worth of damage. That may not sound much but in today’s money it is about £1,000.

As a policeman watched the driver, rather than untangling himself, tried to press on dragging the ladders with him. PC Carpenter (219C) ran over and dragged the man from his cab. The driver was clearly drunk at the reins and wasn’t even able to stand up straight. PC Carpenter arrested him and took him back to the nearest police station.

On the morning of Tuesday 31 January 1865 Edward Whitford appeared in court before Mr Tyrwhitt charged with being drink in charge of a cab and of committing criminal damage. The RSPLF were represented in court and listened as the magistrate fined the driver 20(or a month in gaol). He couldn’t expect the driver to pay for the damage to the escape however, but reassured the RSPLF that ‘he had a remedy elsewhere’. Perhaps he was aware that within a matter of months the new Fire Brigade would be taking to the streets and the RSPLF’s property would be being transferred to them, albeit at a cost to the public purse.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, February 01, 1865]

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