RANDOM RECOLLECTIONS

RANDOM RECOLLECTIONS

A FIERY BURIAL.

Far back in the second half of the nineteenth century (yet it seems but as yesterday, so vividly was the tragedy impressed upon my memory) I was a member of a volunteer fire company in a small English city, which I will call Coalbury. As its name shows, it was the centre of a colliery district, and within a radius of a few miles were many villages clustering round the pits—the homes of the pitmen and their families. Fires in these cottages were of infrequent occurrence, and when they did break out were, as a rule, easily extinguished by a bucket brigade. The one to which we were called on the night in question was an exception. It had been burning for a long time and its reflection lit up the country round about. Some time before the mounted messenger came in to ask for help, the great bell of the abbey church had sounded the alarm, and the engine, a powerful modern machine, had the horses harnessed and the crew standing on it ready for action.

“For God’s sake,” shouted the rider messenger, “get to Dean’s Bridge at top speed! Three houses are burning like h—, and the powder magazin_____ may go up, and scores be killed.” The words were hardly out of his mouth before we were off. The horses tore along the great North road, which, like all English highways, was as smooth as a ballroom floor and, thanks to the dry fall, as clean. We had over ten miles to travel, and we covered the distance in about twenty-five minutes.

Our arrival was hailed with cheers, but we had no time to waste in complimentary speeches. Our hose was stretched in a few seconds; suction was taken from an adjoining stream; willing hands manned the brakes; and soon a powerful stream was being thrown upon the seat of the blaze, which had spread rapidly.

It was a four-story building, one of three standing close to the pit mouth. Our axemen attacked it on the flank, and tore down the connection between the blazing house and its neighbor. In front the hosemen were driven hack again and again by the intense heat and the dense smoke of the smouldering thatch. Several times they returned to their fight and at last seemed to be making some impression when suddenly the roof fell in and a shower of sparks and burning brands towered to heaven and fell upon the thatch of the adjoining buildings. It was as dry as tinder, and a fierce blaze was the immediate result.

The last of the three houses was used as a cottage hospital, and in it were three patients—pitmen—who lay abed with broken legs, unable to stir without assistance. One was to have been married that day. and the weeping bride that was to be sat watching by his bed.

We learned all this after the house had caught, and it seemed too late to help them. Our captain called forvolunteers. A dozen pitmen presented themselves, and all the firemen cried out that they were ready. Our ladders were barely long enough to reach a few feet above the second story window sill, but our caotain was the first to lead the party up the front of the house, which was burning furiously on top. Swinging up to the broad sill of the window above him, he practised one of his athletic feats, and. pulling himself up, sat on it. and smashed in the frame with his axe. Then, leaning forward, he got the doctor inside to hold him by the legs, while he reached down and pulled another and another fireman up. The three, guided by the doctor, made their way to the rear where the patients were Iving.

They cried to the girl to run to the window, where by this time another ladder had been lashed to the topmost fire ladder, but she would not leave her Jim. Force was tried, but in vain. She rushed back. Jim must first be saved; her turn could come afterwards!

A crash, as of a park of artillery! A lurid glare! A shower of live embers “hurtled through the maddened air,” hissing like hundreds of burning fiery serpents! Then a darkness that might be felt; followed by an awful silence for some moments, broken at last by the shrieks of the women and the groans of the men.

An unseen wandering brand had reached the magazine where the blasting powder was stored, and the explosion had shaken down all three buildings to their foundations.

In the smoking ruins lay one captain, two firemen, the heroic doctor, who had chosen to die rather than leave his charges, the unfortunate crippled pitmen and the devoted girl, all of whom lay “in one red burial blent.” crushed and charred, yet not beyond recognition.

Our captain’s arms still grasped one man; the doctor, another; close by lay our comrade firemen, and alongside of them, in death not divided, was stretched the faithful Nell still holding in her arms her beloved Jim. ED. R.

RANDOM RECOLLECTIONS.

RANDOM RECOLLECTIONS.

Fires and Firefighting in the Nineteenth Century.

(Specially Written for FIRE AND WATER.)

It’s many a long year-longer than one sometimes likes to look back upon-since I first developed a craze for fires and fire service. The craze is undoubtedly inherited, as the records of an old cathedral seaport in England bear upon their pages the names of many of my ancestors, all burghers of the town, who distinguished themselves as “fire guards,”or were among those who provided fire equipment and served it when the emergency arose.

My earliest recollection is of being roused out of my morning slumbers in Edinburgh by the cry of “hire,” being wrapped up in a blanket and carried down stairs by a man with a big helmet on his head and a bigger axe in his belt, and of a sensation of chokiness, mingled with an all-prevailing sense of dampness. Our back, or sleeping nursery was ablaze, and as a fireman fortunately lived in a side street nearby, he was on hand at once. and. accoutred in the accustomed British get-up, had rushed up the three flights of the stone stairway to the top of the house with a pail of water in each hand, which he dashed upon the beds, then, grabbing myself and my sister (whose youthful sense of propriety was greatly shocked by the presence of a strange man in the bedroom) ran with us down stairs and, depositing us next door, hastened off to summon the fire engine, which was kept in a shed abutting on the parish church two blocks off. Its rumbling and the shouts of the crowd who were hauling at the ropes gave notice of its approach, and within twenty-five minutes-then considered a very rapid turnout-the leather hose, studded with copper nails, had been stretched, the bright brass nozzle affixed, the suction pipe of the old “mashcen” attached to the fireplug, the cumbrous brakes manned with some twelve men on each side, the ladders raised to the third story, and the stream thrown upon the roof, through which tlie flames were now plainly visible. Fortunately the beams were of heart of oak; the roof was of slate; and the house of solid red brick. Otherwise, with all the delay in the beginning, there would have been very little of it left to tell the tale. As it was, a good stop was made, and only the top floor was gutted. From that day I was a sworn fireman.

My next recollection is of a blaze on a cold winter’s morning in the topmost garret of a house, in a street whose rear ran parallel with ours. A deaf and dumb boy had come up to look after his pigeons, and had stuck the candle among the straw. The smoke overcame him, and by the time he had been dragged out and taken off to a doctor’s, the flames had had it all their own way and were defying the efforts of the parish engine and its crew. Word was, therefore, sent by a very fat constable to the chief police station where the town engines wenkept-involving a run of nearly two miles up one steep hill, down another, and then up again into the “Auld Toon.” As ill luck would have it, the bigger and more powerful engine of the two (both were manuals) broke away from control, and, running violently down the steep Earthen Mound between the Old and the New Town, came to grief on the iron railings of the Royal Institution, turning over and killing two firemen and grievously injuring two more. The other, also hauled by ropes, arrived in time to save the third house from being destroyed. On that occasion I was allowed to go close up to the engines, and what made the biggest impression on my mind was the fact that those who manned thebrakes at sixpence an hour and their beer seemed to make their hours very short and their drinks very long.

Once again, and this time (to use the words of a devout old Scottish woman who had big scruples as to whether or not the firemen should work on the “holy Sawbath”) it was a “humblin’ sicht to see the Lord’s hoose aburnin’,” I stood with a tearful crowd upon the esplanade of the Castle and watched the “Auld Grey Friars’ Kirk” gutted by the flames. It was a solidly built fifteenth century structure, with lofty walls of stone three feet thick, which of themselves could have defied all the attempts of the fire fiend to destroy them. But, what with its high square pews, its triple tiers of galleries, like the pews, all of wood, reaching up to the old gothic roof, its many doors, its numerous windows, and its draughtevoking aisles, the flames, which originated from a defective flue, made short work of the historic edifice. Needless to relate that, being Sunday, the firemen were off at church-or in the tavern-when the call came, while the turncock, whose duty it was to turn on the water, was so bewhiskyfied that he could not be roused from his drunken slumber. Had it not been that the governor of the castle sent down a strong force of soldiers with the garrison engines, a big conflagration would have resulted, as the embers from the bunting church were carried far and wide by the wind. On that occasion, as on a few Sundays afterwards, at another big fire, l made the acquaintance of some of the firemen and provoked my schoolmates to envy by beintr allowed the freedom of the engine house and permitted by my parents to don a miniature fireman’s uniform.

Soon I was in the habit of playing truant to run to fires-of the striking consequences 1 still have most feeling recollections. One I remember most vividly. It was in the topmost story of one of the very high and very ancient buildings that lined the High street, and looked down with contempt for its youth upon the New Town on the other side of the valley. To reach the flames with the apparatus of these days was impossible (it would be about as impossible today even for New York’s firemen), and the chances seemed to be in favor of the total destruction of the whole row. each house in which was densely populated with the poorest of the poor- chiefly Irish-to say nothing of pigs, poultry, cats, dogs, and insect live stock of every sort. The firemen, however, who, as usual, were helped by the military, and on this occasion by a number of sailors of the Royal navy, who by some good luck happened to have shore leave that day. were equal to the occasion. They raised their ladders as high as they would go-some forty feet at most, carrying the hose with them; then, climbing up by tlie waterpipcs and window sills into the adjoining house, hauled the hose upstairs, some to the roof, some to the iron railings in front of the windows, and threw streams (about one and one-half-inch) on the burning house. Suddenly it was found that in the attic lay a bedridden woman, enormously fat. and some six feet three inches tall. How to help her was the difficulty. She could not walk, even if she could be got through the narrow doorway. A shout was raised, and the Jack Tars climbed up from the ladders to balcony after balcony, helping each other up chainwise, and hauling a stout rope after them. Phis rope, regardless of the woman’s struggles, they wound tightly round her, fastening her arms close to her sides and pinioning her legs, so as to render them com pletely passive. Then, with a lusty “Yo heave yo,” they hoisted her out of the lied to the window; low ered her gently down to the third floor below, whence she was carried amid the cheers of the bystanders not without great difficulty-to the street, and thence to the hospital, where, strange to say, she recovered the use of her limbs. Only a day or two before a very fat pig. which had grown up in adiposity in a top room from extreme youth to very gross maturity, was sold to a butcher to pay the rent. It could not Ingot down stairs, and had to be slaughtered and dismembered where it lay. and brought piecemeal down to the wagon in the street. I he parallel between it and the bedridden fat woman was at least suggestive.

On removing once more to England I was sent to one of the old cathedral grammar schools, and immediately organised what 1 believe was, if not the first, at least one of the first amateur fire brigades in tlie country. We had our uniforms, our up-todate manual engine-a Merry weather -a special wagon for our hose, of which we had T.ooo feet- leather, of course–a fire escape, fire extinguishers, ladders, etc. We were regularly drilled by the chief of the local fire brigade-made up of fire police- and diligently performed various and sundry acrobatic stunts which we supposed to be the necessary concomitants of every fireman’s life. We were the admired of all admirers, especially those of the female sex. and on the Queen’s birthday. Royal Oak Day, St. George’s Day, and other royal or civic holidays, used to give public exhibitions in the school playground, the cathedral close, or the castle garth, or yard, all the time longing for a real fire.

The opportunity came. The deanery in old times the quarters of the abbot and higher ecclesiastics of the Benedictine monastery-caught fire late one night. I was the lucky one who discovered it. Must I tell the reason why? The dean’s niece, a lass of sweet sixteen and no end of a prettty girl, was my divinity, whose window faced, though at a distance of some 500 yards, our school dormitory, and as long as there Was a light visible I (if not sleepy) would watch it till it faded into darkness. This night the light did not fade, but became brighter and brighter. Soon I saw that her room was afire. Ringing the school bell loudly, I got my firemen out ; hauled the apparatus over; stretched the hose; and had water on before the regulars came up.

I heard shrieks proceeding from the burning room, and. taking it for granted that she whom I so admired-from a distance (for the dean was a very peppery and pori-winey old don -a very dragon where his niece was concerned), 1 climbed up by the ivy, leaped upon the window sill; dashed my axe through the lattice; tied a handkerchief over my nose and mouth; crawled along the floor to avoid asphyxiation; snatched up a soft, immaculately white, inanimate form; hastened back half-choked to the ladder which an envious comrade had raised to the window for me; and gazed with rapture on the form -of my lady’s big spaniel! It was not safe to say dog to me for years afterwards, and, what was worst of all, she was the first to guy me.

My next experience was in Dublin. I was then a student of Trinity College, where in the Old Square was kept a manual fire engine of some very ancient German type, mounted on solid wooden wheels, with brakes that required the arms of a Hercules to operate. The porters of the college were supposed to operate it-which they could do very well before they had indulged in copious draughts of the college stingo, but never after six o’clock hall dinner. Tlie students, as a rule, did the work. Here again 1 was looked up to as an authority, and when the adjoining theatre caught fire, was fool enough to think I knew it all-and better than the police firemen, military, or municipal officers. The superintendent of the brigade assigned me to a position that commanded the back of the stage-where there was as yet no fire, and bade me watch out for sparks. The position became monotonous to one, who, with his crew, longed for a chance to show, each one, his pluck. The chance came sooner than we expected. The chief did not know (nor did we for that matter) that in a house close by an illicit still was being surreptitiously worked, hie sparks set light to a shed outside; tinflames spread to the house unseen of all but one of my crew, who, nozzle in hand, dashed forward to fight them, lie was too late, however; tinwhisky caught; an explosion followed; and the wall fell, as we thought, on him (it barely missed him, as we found afterwards). 1 be whole of us-six itt number rushed to his rescue, only to be swept back by two powerful streams of water thrown by order of the chief to save us from death. We retired, swearing, I fear, but only just in time to avoid being caught by another falling wall, which came down with a crash within two feet of where we had been standing. Out lives were preserved for which we should baitbeen thankful; but our dignity was so hurt that we would not retreat farther till we had given the chief a very large slice of our mind. He held his peace and the nozzle, at the same time. We retired in confusion, a very much bedraggled lot of firemen.

My lot was then to go to one of the old English universities, where I again got mixed up with fire service. Our college, one of the largest *in the university, was noted for its athleticism as well as its long list of students famed in science and literature. It lacked but one thing a fire brigade. That I organised. and our skill as firefighters was quite up to the average of volunteers. We had a small steamer, and a fire escape, with all the necessary equipment, and had only just got into good training, when we we were called out to help the town brigade to extinguish a fire in the Roman Catholic chapel. The priest had lost his head with excitement and had to be removed. The fire had started close to the altar among a lot of artificial flowers, and was burning fiercely. One of our men, who was a very devout Roman Catholic, anxious to save the statue of St. Michael, which had been dedicated a few hours before, had hewn his way into the building, and grabbed what lie thought was the object of his search. He brought it out in triumph, and, laying it on the grass, was about to do homage In? fore it, when, to his disgust, he found it was the “counterfeit presentment” of his Satanic Majesty, which had formed part of a group which the great Archangel was driving out of Heaven! It was the only thing saved-much to our friend’s horror, and, I fear, somewhat to the shaking of his faith.

On the conclusion of my college course I took up my abode in London and was attached to one of the evening newspapers there. At the same time I joined a volunteer fire brigade in the neighborhood of Clapham. Captain (afterwards Sir Eyre Massey) Shaw was then chief of the Metropolitan fire brigade, and though always courteous to them had no great faith in-1 Say say. no use at all for-volunteer fire brigades. And, when 1 look back upon these days, I am not surprised at the feelings he entertained towards them. Taken all round, they were a very bumptious lot. Some of them were fit enough; but quite a number were mere tin firemen-like some of their brethren in this country, more enamored of the uniform and the good times to be got out of the thing, than of the hard work required of them in the way of drill, keeping the apparatus clean and in good shape, though when there was actual firefighting they were always good workers. Yet at first, at all events. Captain Shaw himself was only an amateur-a militia officer, who by interest was made head of the Metropolitan fire brigade; for which reason he should certainly have been more tolerant of men, who, if only volunteers, were, as a rule, willing, ready, and able to do good service.

Be that as it may. I had known Captain Shaw at Trinity college, Dublin, when he was a theological student, but only for a few months–the Crimean war was on and he joined an Trish militia regiment in hope of passing from it into the regular army. When he found that an old acquaintance of his, and one of several newspaper men to boot, was a member of this particular volunteer fire brigade, he treated us with extra courtesy and was always willing to let us have (or think we were having) our own way at fires.

On one occasion there was a big blaze at Battersea, to which we turned out. Captain Shaw welcomed us with effusion, but said he could not trust us to plunge into the thick of the fight, as the danger was too great, and only trained men could be utilised at that moment. He said, however, that there was a likely corner for a blaze, and he would put us there, as it were, on outpost duty. All we should have to do was to stand on a certain flat roof, and keep wetting down the roof and walls of a big building adjoining. If it seemed to be in any danger, we were to let him know at once. We thought it very commonplace work; but we knew it was of no use to argue the matter, and so for six hours we did just what he told us. We got very tired over the sameness of the job, and were not sorry when Captain Shaw, all smoke-begrimed, very perspirationish, and exhibiting several solutions of continuity in his boots and clothes, politely smiling, saluted us and told us we might reel up and go home. He added : “Gentlemen: You have rendered me a signal service today by your obedience and patience. 1 he building you kept so thorough I v wet down was filled with various deadly explosives, which must have blown you and all and everything round into smithereens if it had once caught fire, and the roof on which you stood so, long covered some hundreds of casks of naphtha- another combustible which sometimes causes fatal explosions. Thank you, gentlemen! Good evening.

We were not long in reeling up and getting out of such a dangerous neighborhood. ED. R.