How the Great Fire of Edinburgh helped create the modern fire service

The Great Fire of Edinburgh lasted for five days and destroyed many historic buildings on the Royal Mile. Picture: Wikimedia Commons
The Great Fire of Edinburgh lasted for five days and destroyed many historic buildings on the Royal Mile. Picture: Wikimedia Commons
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We’ve all heard of the Great Fire of London, but few know about Edinburgh‘s similarly devastating disaster.

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James Braidwood established the world's first municipal fire service in Edinburgh in 1824. Picture: Kim Traynor/Wikimedia Commons

James Braidwood established the world's first municipal fire service in Edinburgh in 1824. Picture: Kim Traynor/Wikimedia Commons

Although lesser-known, the Great Fire of Edinburgh was arguably more significant, as it helped lead to the creation of the modern British fire service.

Fire in the Old Town

Fires were not an uncommon occurrence in early 19th century Edinburgh, thanks to the city’s many wooden buildings – particularly in the overcrowded Old Town. But the Great Fire of 1824 was the worst the city had ever seen, burning for five whole days.

The fire broke out on the evening of Monday 15 November 1824, in John Kirkwood’s engraving workshop on Old Assembly Close.

The alarm was raised at 10pm, but by midnight the fire had spread to three nearby tenements, engulfing all six stories of the buildings in flames.

Despite 10 fire engines (and soldiers from Edinburgh Castle) arriving quickly on the scene, the fire had destroyed much of the south side of the High Street within just a few hours.

Old Assembly Hall was completely destroyed during the night, and by noon the next day the fire had reached the Tron Kirk on the Royal Mile.

The historic spire of the Tron Kirk caught fire and began to pour molten lead onto the street below. When the church’s spire finally collapsed, many citizens were convinced that the fire was a vengeful act from God.

A divine punishment

By that evening, a second fire had broken out on the top floor of an 11-storey tenement on the corner of the High Street and Parliament Close.

Many saw this second blaze as further proof that Edinburgh’s citizens were experiencing divine punishment from God – but, in reality, it was probably caused by a smouldering ember drifting from the original fire into the building.

Firefighters tried to save Parliament Hall and the Law Courts, but their attempts were largely in vain. This area later had to be rebuilt, and is now known as Parliament Square.

Those tackling the blaze did, however, manage to prevent the flames from reaching the iconic St Giles Cathedral.

Other buildings destroyed included the shop belong to John Kay (a famous caricaturist and engraver), James Boswell’s birth place, and the offices of the Edinburgh Courant, one of the city’s top newspapers.

Destruction of the Royal Mile

Thanks to a heavy downpour of rain on Wednesday evening, the fire was brought largely under control, although small blazes did continue to burn. The final smouldering ashes were not fully extinguished until Friday 21 November – five days after the fire broke out.

Over 400 homes were thought to have been destroyed, with between 400 and 500 families left homeless and injured. Thirteen people died in the Great Fire of Edinburgh, including two firemen who were attempting to tackle the blaze.

Over the following few days, engineers from Edinburgh Castle and the Royal Navy were employed to tear down the burnt remains of all the destroyed buildings along the Royal Mile.

The cost of the damage was thought to be around £200,000 – an enormous sum for the time.

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The world’s first municipal fire service

Just two months prior to the Great Fire of Edinburgh, the city became the first in the world to have a municipal fire service. It was founded by James Braidwood, who was just 24 years old at the time.

Since the fire service was so new, many of the firefighters had not yet received full training, and struggled with the enormous scale and ferocity of the blaze.

The young firemaster, Braidwood, was heavily criticised by the public, but an enquiry after the disaster found that he and his firemen were not to blame.

Other public officials (such as bailies and law officers) had given contradictory instructions to the firemen, which had caused confusion.

As a result of this, a new regulation was passed to state that the city’s firemaster was to be given complete control of all firefighting operations during an emergency.

Thanks to Braidwood’s pioneering work, this model for a municipal fire service (headed up by a knowledgeable and experienced firemaster) was adopted all across Britain.

Braidwood later went on to help establish the London Fire Engine Establishment, which would eventually become the London Fire Brigade.

In 2008, he was honoured with a statue in Edinburgh. Parliament Square was chosen as its location, to pay homage to the work Braidwood and his crew did to save St Giles Cathedral.

This article first appeared on our sister site, iNews.