THE PREVENTION OF INCENDIARY FIRES IN LONDON.
A large meeting of commercial gentlemen, says the London Fireman, was recently held to consider the best means to be adopted for the prevention of incendiary and other fires in London. Henry Grant took the chair, and said that he was glad to sec so many gentlemen present, all of whom where interested in commerce, fire insurance, and the preservation of human life. They had met to ascertain how incendiary fires could be stopped—or, at any rate abated ; and, so far as he could see, they would have to consider the one question—namely, the deterrent. All men agreed that the greatest deterrent to any crime was the certainty of conviction; and he, therefore, held that the meeting must consider how that certainty of conviction of incendiaries could be brought about. He contended that the only practicable oourse open was to have an inquiry upon oath into the cause of every fire occurring within the United Kingdom, and the only point for discussion was who should conduct the inquiry. He begged to remind the meeting that when a fire occured the agent for the insurance company and the officials of the Metropolian Fire Brigade made inquisitions on their own account, but the result was so lamentable that the cause of the fires was only too often put down in the record as “ unknown,” a most unsatisfactory result. London was a vast world of wealth, and merchandise worth millions of money was committed to the watchfulness or sleepiness of a few porters, who never appeared to discover the fires until they had attained such terrific dimensions that ” the efforts of the Brigade were confined to saving the adjacent property.” He quoted a paragraph which appeared in most of the papers when a large fire was described, and said that from personal observation he was able to corroborate the newspaper reporters. The^ whole thing lay in a nutshell. They had a city stored with inflammable and valuable material mixed up anyhow, and ready at any moment to burst into name when the incendiary match was appli d, to drink up the life blood of the Queen’s subjects, and to ruin the owner of the goods or heavily hit the insurance offices; whereas, on the other hand, they had no means of truly ascertaining how the shameful waste of life and money had originated. He called upon the legislature tor some instant action, otherwise the Victoria Dock catastrophe would be repeated over and over again with the unfortunate accompaniment some day of frightful loss of life. Mr. Whitton said that the Coroners under Msgna Chart s were allowed to take cognizance of felonies and misdemeanors, in which fires were included, and they exercised this right until 1859, when the Court of Queen’s Bench gave judgment in the case of “ Regina v. Hertford. ” That Cour. held that a Coroner had no power to inquire into the cause of a fire unless death occurred ; and since that time the judgment had been rigorously observed, although on the face of it such decision was very absurd, and put a stop to a most wholesome and salutary system, for a public inquiry was the only real safegu trd the public had. In 1862 the question was brought prominently forward by the Parliamentary Commi’tee on fires in the metropolis, and although Sir Richard Mayne, then the Chief Commissioner of Police, stated that he had never heard of any good resulting from the inquiries (though he admit ed such benefits might have taken place,) yet Mr. Hurnpheys, the Coroner for Middlesex, proved that the city Coroner revived the practice a few years before, and that immediately afterwards the firts fell off one-fourth ; whilst D W. Harvey, the commissioner of the city of London police, agreed with Mr. Hurnpheys as to the necessity for such inquiries. The great argument of the latter gentleman was, ” that persons would not be very likely to play the part of incendiaries if they knew that immediately afterwards there would be a thorough inquiry by a competent officer.” In 1867, another Parliamentary committee sat for the purpose of inquiring into the causes of fires and to ascertain the best means to be adopted for preventing the frequency of fires. That committee in the report embodied the lollowing recommendation : ” Your committee would prefer police magistrates or coroners to a Fire Marshal, mainly because in the courts of those two officers they have a ready-made machinery, and they would recommend the Coroner to carry on the second stage of the inquiry (discovering whether the fire is suspicious or not) in preference to a police magistrate, because the Coroner’s court is a moveable one, and he c in constitute his court and conduct his inquiry in the immediate vicinity of the fire, and because he was until lately generally considered to have the power of inquiring into all (ires, and such power was exercised by some Coroners.” Thai was a very sensible suggestion, but it was never acted upon, and millions of money and dozens of lives had been sacrificed in consequence. Then again, in 1877, at a meeting of the Social Science Association, Mr. Cornelius Walford, F. S. S., F. S. A., a barrister, read a paper upon the subject. In the discussion which followed nearly every person, including Mr. M’Lagan, one of the Scotch members of Parliament, was in favor of the inquiries being made. The majority of fires were either wilfully caused or resulted from gross carelessness, and inquests upon oath by the Coroners would, he believed, be the first links in the chain which the law would wind round fire raisers. Mr. Gilson proposed and Mr. Row e seconded, the following resolution,which was also spoken to by Messsrs. Burnett, McCulloch, Healey, and others: ” That this meeting views with great alarms the vast amount of property and the many lives destroyed by fire in London year by year, and the powcrlesmess of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade to cope with the evil. This meeting is of opinion that the passing of such a measure will result in a large diminution in the number of the fires, and the preservation of many valuable lives and much property, which must otherwise be inevitably sacrificed.” The resolution was unanimously carried, and the meeting closed with the usual vote to thanks for the Chairman.