From laughing stock to trained professionals

Falkirk Fire Brigade in the 1920s
Falkirk Fire Brigade in the 1920s

The popularity of the forthcoming Fire and Light show at the Helix is a reminder, if one was needed, of our eternal fascination with this friend and foe.

From the very earliest times fire provided power to heat our homes and light up our lives and at the same time threatened, in the blink of any eye, to destroy everything we possessed.

Communities have always taken steps to protect themselves but the highly trained and well-equipped fire services we depend on today contrast sharply with the cheap-as-chips arrangements which once served this town and district.

The early records are not all that informative apart from one law laid down by the Earl of Callendar in 1638 ordering members of the community to rush to the aid of others in the case of fire.

They were to be fined 14 shillings for sitting at home watching their neighbour’s house burn to the ground!

There is no mention of a fire engine until near the end of the following century when a fire in the High Street was put out by a special team from Carron Iron Works.

The incompetent Stentmasters, the forerunners of the elected council, decided to take action at last.

Some kind of machine was acquired in 1785 and a man called John Bell given the job of looking after it.

It was probably no more than a horse drawn cart with a big wooden barrel of water and some kind of pump and hose.

It doesn’t seem to have been used very often because the records are full of items about the equipment falling into disrepair through lack of use and maintenance.

It did make the odd appearance at special festivities like the birthday of King George III in 1795 when it sprayed water all over the place to the delight of the citizens.

By 1802 the Stentmasters had decided to buy new leather hoses for the ‘‘Fire Ingine’’ and to appoint ‘‘a proper man’’ to take charge.

In fact they got two, John Dearn and Alexander Ronald, who thus became Falkirk’s first official firemen and the service was under way.

Over the years that followed they became a bit of a laughing stock, turning up late at every fire and using hoses that burst as soon as pressure was applied.

At this stage the engines were housed somewhere in the Back Row (Manor Street) but when a new machine was purchased in 1872 the station was relocated to Upper Newmarket Street and a proper fire brigade was appointed.

Fifteen men, mostly joiners and slaters, were each given a brass helmet and an axe and put on standby to man the machine as required.

Fifty years and one new motor powered machine later the station was on the move again, this time to purpose-built premises on what had been Neilson’s Auction Mart next to Aitken’s Brewery.

Many Falkirk folk will remember this building which was in use from 1922 to 1955.

By then the machines were the familiar size and shape with ladders on top and crews of professional firemen hanging off the sides!

A very far cry from the comic water carts of the previous era.

From Newmarket Street they moved first to Grangemouth Road and then in 1999 to the fine buildings in Westfield.

In the 20th century the bravery and skill of the fire fighters was demonstrated on many occasions and it is a comfort to know that, unlike our forefathers, when we dial 999 it will not be Messrs Dearn and Ronald who come galloping to the rescue in time to damp down the cinders!