Sixty years on from the Smithfield fire

ARGUABLY the greatest ever achievement of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) in the fight for firefighters' health and safety post-war has been the modernising of the breathing apparatus (BA).

One of the key turning points in this vital fight? The Smithfield market fire of January 23, 1958, which killed firefighters Jack Fourt-Wells and Richard Stocking.

For decades firefighters were forced to make do with the most basic of breathing apparatus, which still took many more years to be fully phased out after Smithfield.

These old style Siebe Gorman Proto oxygen sets, sometimes simply referred to as "proto", were designed for work down mines and had been in use since 1914. A large, unwieldy breathing bag was worn at the front like a rucksack for your belly.

From this a mouthpiece was attached and a nose clip for pegging onto your nostrils. Rubber goggles completed the look, which wouldn't be out of place in a low-budget sci-fi film.

Indeed, highlighting the point, a cartoon caption in a Firefighter from 1958 read: "This is the age which has given mankind the ZETA (the fusion reactor), which reproduces the heat of the sun's surface.

"This is the age which has launched the Sputnik. But in the fire service our breathing apparatus set has remained substantially unchanged for over 40 years.

"Made of leather, canvas and steel it weighs 34 lbs. The wearer, cut off from ready communication, is automatically isolated."

Dressed like this, station officer Jack Fourt-Wells and firefighter Dick Stocking lost their lives.

The two firefighters were among the crew of nearby Clerkenwell fire station, tasked with entering the market's maze of underground tunnels where a blaze had broken out and from which thick acrid smoke emanated.

However, fighting the fire with such primitive kit at such a labyrinthine location proved to be deadly.

Running dangerously short of air before locating the source, three of the five-man crew headed for the exit.

All believed Fourt-Wells and Stocking were following close behind. But in fact, Fourt-Wells had taken a wrong turn and Stocking missed the turning completely and ended up at the end of a corridor. Both collapsed and died at their own dead ends, and both were yards away from the exit.

Immediately following the Smithfield fire, the FBU wrote to the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council (CFBAC) and the Home Office demanding an emergency meeting to examine the methods used to maintain control over breathing apparatus crews.

This included the recommendation that all brigades introduce an audible signalling device, such as a pip horn that acted as a manual distress signal, to enable others to locate the wearer.

Another alarm to indicate when oxygen is low was also called for, after it was determined that the thick smoke at Smithfield made it impossible to read the cylinder gauge.

BA control boards were in operation at Smithfield. However at this time they were not set up at the start of a fire, clearly putting firefighters arriving early to the scene, like the Clerkenwell crew, in much greater danger.

Following the inquest into the deaths of the firefighters, the failings in BA were laid bare after it was never established what time it was known that the pair had gone missing, or when the search operation was undertaken or when the bodies were discovered.

The litany of failings continues.

No tapes or bobbin lines were in use, so only the hosereel was used as a means of firefighters finding their way out. Yet this stopped short at the doorway through which two dead men had entered - not exactly a great encouragement for firefighters that followed.

The basement, which consisted of two and a half acres of galleries and cold storage compartments with around 800 tons of meat and poultry in store, had never been fire checked or properly mapped out despite the building's clear fire risks. So firefighters were effectively going in blind.

This was despite Clerkenwell fire station being a stone's throw away from Smithfield. One of the further demands made by the FBU was to ensure firefighters familiarise themselves with local premises.

In total, 1,700 firefighters and almost 400 fire engines were called to fight the blaze. Around two dozen were injured in the three-day fire, which led to the collapse of underground cold storage.

Perhaps most crucially, the FBU called for the design of breathing apparatus itself to be urgently addressed - the Smithfield tragedy wasn't the first time the union raised concerns about the inadequate breathing apparatus, doing so immediately after WWII.

In the years before Smithfield, demands to modernise BA equipment came following two fires at Covent Garden.

The first, in 1949, left one firefighter dead after stacks of Christmas trees stored in catacombs beneath Covent Garden flower market caught ablaze.

The lives of three more firefighters were claimed after a fruit and vegetable warehouse caught fire in 1954. Both incidents led to empty promises to improve BA.

The tragedy at Smithfield did - eventually - see a new type of breathing apparatus introduced, which used compressed air. However the old proto sets weren't fully phased out until the 1970s.

Former FBU executive council member Keith Handscomb says that the macho attitude of firefighters around BA has changed too.

Interestingly Fourt-Wells was described by his colleagues as "one of the old smoke-eaters", as a term of respect. However this had nothing to do with the old kit.

When Handscomb joined Essex fire brigade in 1985 the term "smoke-eaters" or "smokies" were still used as a badge of honour.


"This is when you choose to fight a fire without BA, which was then still commonplace at fires outside of buildings such as car fires," he explains.

"But this was a different society then. I think the message has got through now, firefighters would rather keep their lives.

"Yet it was only in the last 15 or so years when attitudes towards health and safety and things like smoking has changed.

"And because the BA sets are now lighter, firefighters don't begrudge wearing them.

"Another reason they didn't like putting them on is because you have to service the whole set, which takes about an hour."

As late as 1980, the FBU fought for the universal provision of BA sets at a time when there was still an average of one BA set for every four firefighters.

Since then and into the 21st century, the FBU has fought frequent battles to improve BA.

These have not only included technical improvements but for retained firefighters to receive the same BA training as full-timers.

Unfortunately, one of the sad lessons of history is that it takes lives to save lives. So it took the deaths of the two brave firefighters at Smithfield for authorities to finally wake up and fund the improvements today that have undoubtedly helped prevent many more firefighters from dying in the line of duty. The FBU was at the forefront of the fight for change.

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