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Fighting Fires: Creating the British Fire Service, 1800-1978 by S. Ewen

By S. Ewen

The 1st full-length scholarly heritage of the British hearth carrier, 1800-1978, this booklet scrutinizes how firemen created a qualified public provider incumbent upon municipal govt. It examines the impression of significant fires and major personalities in the hearth carrier in developing a certified ethos for municipal hearth brigades.

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A voluntary committee of dignitaries, chaired by the Lord Provost, collected around £12,000 from public subscription to alleviate the suffering. 44 Authors and artists flocked to record the physical and emotional scars left by the inferno, with the proceeds from sales going to the subscription fund. William Turner de Lond’s oil and water-colour paintings were published as lithographic prints of ‘the GREAT FIRE’. Albeit hastily painted, they clearly illustrate the transitory nature of the fire in Edinburgh’s modernization, not least in the firemen’s hopeless efforts to prevent the collapse of the Tron Church steeple.

According to Kevin Rozario, urban fire narratives exhibit a shared conventionality centred on a ‘redemptive script’ of destruction followed by reconstruction. Major nineteenth-century North American fires such as those in Chicago (1871) and Boston (1872) were cathartic, the destruction acting as the turning point in a narrative of non-linear progress. Accounts of great fires evoked the sentimental emotions of pity and fear, while simultaneously inspiring a reformist spirit ‘that made material reconstruction viable’.

Historically, ‘great fires’ were necessary to trigger major organizational reforms to firefighting. A ‘great fire’ involved extensive property damage, loss of life and, most significantly, public outrage and recognition at the failures of the existing system of fire protection. It both demanded 30 Constructing Modern Fire Brigades 31 and legitimized reform in a single sweep. As much a discursive construction as a quantifiable event, a ‘great fire’ can be traced qualitatively through print culture, inasmuch as it involved more than material loss.

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