London’s museums come in several forms – there are the national establishments in Kensington that attract tourists and locals alike, the museums large and small that focus on a particular subject and lastly the municipal museums, usually run by local authorities and which record the history of London’s suburbs.
One interesting category of museums in the single subject area are those that mark the work of the emergency services. There are four establishments dedicated to various areas of policing (the City Of London Police Museum, the Metropolitan Police Heritage Centre, the Thames Police Museum and the notorious ‘Black Museum’ at New Scotland Yard) and one, which I visited earlier this week, that focuses on the brave men and women of the London Fire Brigade.
Today the London Fire Brigade Museum occupies two of the building that formed part of its original headquarters – Winchester House, which was the official residence of the Chief Fire Officer for over a hundred years, and part of the adjacent Southwark Fire Station. Winchester House was originally two private houses, built by two tailors for their large families and it was acquired by the fledgling Metropolitan Fire Brigade in 1878 who immediately set about developing the site, adding a headquarters building and a training centre (trainee fire officers still receive all of their instruction here but HQ is now a few streets away). The site was unpopular in its early years because it’s over a mile from here to the West End and Whitehall – it was, however, very cheap to acquire – in the 19th century Southwark was not the desirable suburb it is today!
Winchester House’s upper floors contain a series of rooms that look at all aspects of the fire service, from the work of the private insurance companies who provided fire cover for buildings to the emergency planning role that fire officers fulfill today. Here are my highlights of the exhibits:
- The mocked-up Victorian muster room, with its collection of heavy uniforms and brass helmets hanging from pegs on the wall (brass helmets were phased out to be replaced by cork and then eventually composite materials – in the early 20th century firemen attending incidents were regularly receiving electric shocks from the newly installed supplies!).
- A display of the badges of all of the UK’s mostly county-based fire services – almost all have an eight-pointed star behind an emblem. The points stand for ‘loyalty’, ‘gallantry’, ‘observation’, ‘tact’, ‘perseverance’, ‘sympathy’, ‘dexterity’ and ‘explicitness’
- A glass cabinet in the room dedicated to World War 2 which reveals an interesting fact – during the conflict, London’s fire-fighting vehicles, which had been red as far back as the Victorian era, were repainted in grey in order to blend into the streetscape
- The room which houses breathing apparatus includes an alarming example from the turn of the century that looks like it’s come straight from the pages of a Hellboy comic – it’s very sinister, as you can see from this photograph
The second part of the tour takes place back on the ground floor, where visitors pass through a connecting door into the old section of Southwark Firestation. Behind the big red doors are a collection of classic vehicles and larger artifacts – there’s an impressive Dennis fire engine from the 1960s, steam-powered vehicles and even some hand-drawn carts from the earliest days of the fire service. I’m not sure whether it was put there for the benefit of visitors to the museum, but the latest addition to the London Fire Brigade’s line up of vehicles was also parked outside – a little Mini which was used within the Olympic Park during the London 2012 Games.
A visit to the London Fire Brigade Museum is very informative and I would recommend it if you’re at all interested in what the fire service does to protect us all day in, day out. Unfortunately, as the buildings are also in the same complex as the training facility you must book in advance, which you can do by email or by telephone on 020 8555 1200 ext: 39894. The cost of entry for adults is £5 and £3 for children – concessions are also available.
If you’re free this weekend and can get down to Southwark you’ll be pleased to note that the London Fire Brigade Museum is participating in Open House Weekend. As well as the regular displays, you will also be able to see the ground floor rooms of Winchester House which are still used by the Chief Fire Officer for meetings and functions – a privilege regular visitors to the museum don’t get!