Our history

Since 1918 the FBU has been supporting Firefighters. Find out more about our history below.

1919-Rule-Book-Jim-Bradley
1918

Firemen’s Trade Union (FTU) founded

By 1918 , firefighters had been frustrated for some time that they did not have a union exclusively representing their interests. From the early 1900s the Municipal Employees’ Association, which represented other public sector workers, had a 500-strong firefighter branch. The entire branch later transferred to the rival National Union of Corporation Workers (NUCW), which also represented other public sector workers,...

Read more

Albert Embankment
1918

Albert Embankment, London

Seven firefighters lost their lives following this historic fire at Albert Embankment . To this day the tragedy remains the greatest single loss of London firefighters during peacetime. Three fire engines and 25 firefighters were called out to the fire at a three-storey warehouse. Dense fog mingled with the thick smoke of the fire, making the comparatively small blaze much more dangerous. Superintendent Barrow, while...

Read more

1920

FTU submission to the Middlebrook committee on pay, pensions and hours

Given that it was partly the police strike that inspired firefighters to set up their own union , it is not surprising that one of the first acts of the new Firemen’s Trade Union was to seek pay, pensions and working hours parity with police. The government established a committee, headed by Liberal MP Sir William Middlebrook, which took evidence from firefighters and the FTU among others. Some progress was already...

Read more

FTU logo
1922

FTU ballot in favour of a union political levy

This marked the start of the union’s membership paying a part of their earnings, known as subscriptions, into a political fund . As with other unions, a political fund enabled the FTU to take part in political activities such as lobbying politicians at every level, or launching campaigns on a wide variety of issues, which would ultimately improve the work and conditions of firefighters. Many of the political issues...

Read more

1923

FTU affiliated to the TUC

The union joined the ranks of the Trade Union Congress , giving firefighters a voice in steering the organisation’s campaigns for issues affecting them. Arguably membership was the first victory for the FTU in its fight to establish itself and become the primary union representing firefighters. Virtually since the union’s affiliation the FTU, and later the FBU, has been associated with the left of the TUC’s trade...

Read more

 LFB ffs taking a break late 1920s
1926

General strike; TUC granted FTU an exemption; FTU affiliation to the Labour Party

The nine-day general strike from May 3 to 12 was called by the TUC in support of Britain’s coal miners, who were defending their wages and hours At the time British coal owners were losing out in the coal export market to competitors in countries like Germany. In an attempt to maintain their profits, mine owners announced plans to reduce miners’ pay and increase their hours. Miners responded with the slogan: “Not a...

Read more

Jim Bradley
1927

FTU special conference votes to admit auxiliary, volunteer and retained firefighters

The union allowed volunteer and retained firefighters to become members. Membership of the union fluctuated greatly during the 1920s although, according to the executive council, there was a “distinct downward tendency” that saw membership hit a new low in 1927. In fact union membership was so low in this year that publication of its then quarterly paper The Firefighter had to be suspended in December. A special...

Read more

Classic FBU logo
1930

FTU renamed Fire Brigades Union (FBU)

In 1930 the union took the name we use today: the Fire Brigades Union (FBU). The name change was instigated by general secretary Percy Kingdom, who wanted to prevent any confusion with railway and ships’ firemen. He felt that changing the word “trades” to “brigades” would help avoid incorrect association with the very different role of other firemen who were responsible for running the steam engines on ships and...

Read more

1936

FBU sends funds to Spanish republicans fighting fascism

The union joined many others in sending money in support of Spanish republicans fighting in the civil war against military dictator General Francisco Franco. This was at a time of great political uncertainty across Europe, with the rise of fascism in many countries, including Germany and Italy. At the FBU conference that year the union devoted more attention to the wider political issues of the labour movement and...

Read more

1934 Cork Helmets
1937

FBU conference establishes educational scheme

The union agreed to organise an educational scheme through the National Council of Labour Colleges (NCLC), funding and supporting working class self-education. The proposal was brought by Mr (Bro.) Short of East Ham, who requested the executive to arrange a trade union educational scheme with the NCLC “in order to provide the members with free access to the National Council of Labour College classes, free postal...

Read more

auxilliary-fire-service-poster
1939

FBU conference votes to recruit Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) members, including women firefighters

The threat of war prompted the government to create the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) under the 1938 Fire Brigades Act. The recruitment of tens of thousands of new volunteers caused great concern among existing professional firefighters, especially FBU members. They saw the AFS as a threat to professionalism and to pay and conditions. The issue sparked a major debate within the union and created significant divisions...

Read more

1941

FBU publishes The Firemen’s Charter

The Firemen’s Charter was a campaign like nothing the trade union movement had ever seen at the time, in that it appealed directly to the country for popular support. The government refused to pay auxiliary firefighters who formed part of its National Fire Service (NFS) the same wage rate as regulars, which was one of the FBU’s key demands in talks with the Home Office. As a result the union’s executive decided to...

Read more

Poplar Plaque
1941

Old Palace School, Auxiliary fire service sub station, London

The largest single loss of firefighters in British history did not happen while fighting a fire but when a Luftwaffe bomb landed on a school that was being used as an auxiliary fire station during the Second World War. The German bomb landed on an Auxiliary Fire Service sub station housed at Old Palace School in Poplar, killing 34 firefighters. That night the fire crews were on standby, waiting to be called out to the...

Read more

1942

FBU officers’ section founded

In the FBU’s fight for trade union recognition, the Labour home secretary Herbert Morrison granted this right after abandoning representative boards in May 1942. This success, however, was dampened by Morrison’s refusal to give firefighters the right to hold trade union meetings at fire stations - later abandoned - while also denying them the right to collectively represent officer members. This was partly because the...

Read more

Women at FBU conference in 1943
1943

Special FBU women’s conference; March

Although the first woman to become a full-time firefighter didn’t arrive until 1982, women had served in the fire service as auxiliary members during the Second World War and had been employed by private brigades even before that. At the FBU conference in 1939 members crucially voted to allow women in the Auxiliary Fire Service to be members of the union. This was a ground-breaking decision by the FBU at a time of...

Read more

1943

FBU publishes the pamphlet What Kind of Fire Service? on postwar plans

In early December the union published a pamphlet to address government plans to return the fire service into local authority control after the war. The union’s executive vehemently opposed such a suggestion but also believed nationalisation under the National Fire Service was not the answer, agreeing that it was unsuited to peace-time conditions. The union said: “We need a service fitted to local needs, close to the...

Read more

1947

National Joint Council (NJC) and Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council (CFBAC) founded with FBU representation

In preparation for the return of the fire service to local control after the war, the government established a National Joint Council made up of local authority and trade union representatives. This restored to the FBU the right to arbitration, which had been lost during the nationalisation of the service during wartime. Any disagreements could be referred to the Ministry of Labour’s Industrial Court, which would act...

Read more

Firefighters-display-Lambeth-HQ
1948

FBU wins union recognition from London County Council

The battle for trade union recognition was fought first in London , where for a long time union membership was concentrated. The London County Council had long opposed any trade union representation for firefighters, a position supported by the government, which wanted to avoid a firefighters’ strike at all costs. Yet the LCC recognised other public sector unions that made up the Municipal Employees’ Association (MEA...

Read more

bro o'brien addresses leith fire station
1951

“Spit and polish” demonstrations boycotting non-essential duties, October, November

In a watershed moment in the history of the FBU, the so-called “spit and polish” demonstrations marked the union’s first ever national industrial action. In their long-running bid to regain post-war pay parity with police, firefighters in the FBU discussed taking industrial action for the first time ever. This action became known as the ‘spit and polish’ strikes or demonstrations. Those involved responded to fires and...

Read more

1952

Scottish employers join NJC

Fire authorities in Scotland joined the National Joint Council (NJC) to negotiate on conditions of service including wages and pensions for firefighters north of the border. Before this, only England and Wales were represented on the NJC, and the important addition of Scotland removed the danger of two separate joint councils being formed. The union’s executive council agreed that three seats should be allocated for...

Read more

Firefighter magazine cover - nuclear
1954

Delegates to FBU conference demonstrate against nuclear war

The union’s anti-nuclear stance is of long standing: delegates demonstrated against nuclear war as early as 1954 and later supported the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), set up in 1958. The Cold War was at its height during the 1950s, when Britain tested its first atomic bomb off the coast of Australia in 1952. A letter to The Firefighter from Ramsgate branch secretary John Hewitt in 1954 demonstrates the...

Read more

George Arthur Roberts
1955

FBU conference opposes the colour bar in the fire and rescue service

The Fire Brigades Union has always been at the forefront of the civil rights movement against racial discrimination . As early as 1945, a resolution at the union’s conference urged affiliated organisations and members to lose no opportunity in exposing and combating the “evils” of the colour bar, which banned black workers from certain jobs. In 1954, the FBU was also the only union to have a resolution at the TUC...

Read more

1956

FBU officers’ conference

The first national conference of the union’s officers at the Garter Hotel in Putney on 27 June was memorable and historic. For the first time officers representing every part of the country and every rank from station officer to deputy chief fire officer met in a heated discussion about their working conditions. In total over 50 officers attended. This united atmosphere and more than a few inspirational speeches were...

Read more

1956

Eastwood Mills fire, Keighley

This factory fire in a worsted spinning mill in Keighley , West Yorkshire, took the lives of eight mill workers. The devastating blaze razed the 60-foot, three-storey building to the ground “in no time”, according to police at the scene. The fire was caused by a blowtorch, which was being used to install hot water pipes on the bottom floor, that set fire to a rope. A Keighley News editorial at the time said: “The fire...

Read more

firefighter-control-staff-cover
1957

FBU national conference for control staff

The decision to hold a special conference for control staff created huge interest within the union, which helped to raise the awareness of many issues affecting them. In one brigade control room staff appeared to have been pressured into signing a statement saying that they didn’t want a 48-hour week and were happier on the illegal extended duty system that had been in operation for some time. In the same branch it...

Read more

Smithfield Market fire
1958

Smithfield Market fire, London

This incident, which was instrumental in modernising firefighters’ breathing apparatus and breathing apparatus procedures, proved how great things can be achieved if society learns from tragedies. Two firefighters, station officer Jack Fourt-Wells and firefighter Richard Stocking from Clerkenwell fire station, died while fighting a blaze at the Union Cold Storage company at Smithfield Market in Covent Garden. Both...

Read more

Service for the 60s.
1960

FBU conference carries A Service for the Sixties on modern role of firefighters

This new charter was drawn up as part of the union’s campaign for a modern and highly trained technical fire service. To judge the success of the campaign, one need look no further than the fire service today, which the charter was undoubtedly pivotal in shaping. The union’s mantra was to “change the service into a modern fire protection, fire fighting force”. In part, it wanted to bring conditions and wages up to a...

Read more

Cheapside Street Fire
1960

Cheapside Street fire, Glasgow

This devastating blaze at a whisky warehouse was one of the worst peacetime fires in British history: 19 members of the fire brigade and salvage corps were killed. The fire service was called at 7.15pm on 28 March to reports of smoke emanating from the second-floor window of a warehouse. So massive was the fire that more than 450 firefighters and every fire engine in the city were called in. A million gallons of...

Read more

Henderson's department store fire, Liverpool
1960

Henderson's department store fire, Liverpool

This deadly blaze at Henderson's department store on a bright, sunny midweek afternoon claimed the lives of 11 people. The old upmarket store, which opened in 1828 and had been bought by Harrod’s in 1949, was completely destroyed in just over an hour. Hundreds of staff and customers were in the store at the time of the blaze, which was caused by arcing on an armoured steel electricity cable When fire crews arrived...

Read more

1961

Top Storey Club fire, Bolton

This notorious blaze in Bolton, Lancashire, made legal history. The fire broke out less than six months after the venue had opened as a nightclub on the top two floors of an old mill warehouse building, the lower floor housing a kitchen furniture workshop. A single wooden staircase was the only means of entering and exiting the club. The site was clearly a death-trap – so much so that, on hearing that the upper floors...

Read more

Northern Ireland
1967

Firefighters in Northern Ireland finally under NJC conditions after a long FBU campaign

The fire service in Northern Ireland , like elsewhere in the U.K., was strengthened by the mass recruitment of auxiliaries before the Second World War. In the reorganisation of the fire service after the war, with the disbanding of the NFS in 1947, responsibility for the fire service in Northern Ireland was divided between Belfast and three regional brigades. In 1950 the Northern Ireland Fire Authority (NIFA) replaced...

Read more

James Watt Street fire, Glasgow
1968

James Watt Street fire, Glasgow

This fire at a furniture factory built like a high-security prison killed 22 workers who were trapped behind barred windows. The bars, which had been in place since the building’s prior use as a whisky warehouse, were found to have compromised escape routes. An inquiry set up following the tragedy further discovered that the fire escape doors had been locked from the inside. The trapped workers were also unable to...

Read more

1969

FBU contributes to the Holroyd review in the fire service

The departmental committee on the fire service , appointed by Labour chancellor Roy Jenkins and chaired by Sir Ronald Holroyd of ICI, was set up to examine every aspect of the service. Organisation, administration, legal powers, training, fire prevention and inspection were all subject to scrutiny. In what was the most comprehensive analysis of the fire service at the time, the committee toured stations and even...

Read more

1969

Rose & Crown hotel fire, Saffron Walden

The Boxing Day fire at the Rose & Crown, which left 11 dead, led to the shaping of today’s fire safety regulation across all hotels. The fire, which broke out at 1.30am, is believed to have been caused after a TV in the hotel’s lounge overheated. Two guests raised the alarm after leaving their rooms when they smelled smoke. The blaze ripped through the building, trapping residents on the upper levels. Essex County...

Read more

1970

FBU contributes to the Cunningham review into the work of the fire service

Firefighters during the 1960s faced a decade of discontent, with widespread frustration among rank-and-file members over the long-running battle for decent pay. In the wake of this, Sir Charles Cunningham, who had been permanent under-secretary to the Home Office, was tasked with what was to be a significant analysis and evaluation of the work of firefighters. Increasing unrest among firefighters had led to a greater...

Read more

1972

FBU wins equal pay for women in control

Equal pay for women in control came into force on 1 January 1972. From that date women qualified for equal pay at the age of 19 and received incremental increases. The agreement had been reached some years beforehand with the NJC, which agreed that “the principle of equal pay for firewomen with male control room staff” should be fulfilled in three phases over two years. A debate on equal pay was also held at the union...

Read more

1972

Coldharbour hospital, Dorset

This blaze took place at a hospital for people with learning disabilities, Coldharbour hospital in Sherborne. The fire, which started at 2.30am, killed 30 patients, mostly by smoke inhalation as they slept. Built during the Second World War as an orthopaedic hospital for injured Navy personnel, Coldharbour came under the NHS after it was founded in 1948. At the time of the tragedy it housed around 350 patients and...

Read more

Summerland fire
1973

Summerland fire disaster, Isle of Man

This devastating fire ripped through a leisure centre in the Isle of Man, killing 50 people and seriously injuring a further 80. Opened with much fanfare a little more than two years earlier on 25 May 1971, the £2m climate-controlled building boasted restaurants and bars, an indoor heated swimming pool, saunas, a children’s theatre and an underground disco. It was billed as the most innovative indoor entertainment...

Read more

1973

Glasgow, unofficial 10-day strike, October

Predating the 1977 national pay strike, this walkout by Glasgow firefighters was the first full-scale (though unofficial) withdrawal of labour in the union’s history. It also turned out to be one of the biggest – and first – tests of the FBU’s unity in its history. The dispute centred around overtime pay. Glasgow firefighters had rejected the eight-hour bonus shift, introduced in 1967, as they were already getting...

Read more

firefigheters national strike 1977
1977

Nine-week national pay strike begins, 14 November

The first ever national strike undertaken by firefighters, lasted nine weeks from November 1977 to January 1978. Police had received a substantial pay rise while firefighters had seen years of falling real wages, creating a low pay industry. Many firefighters had to resort to claiming state benefits. The strike, backed overwhelmingly by the FBU’s 30,000 strong membership, demanded a 30% pay rise to address the fact...

Read more

Firefighters strike 1970s
1978

End of pay strike, 16 January

On 16 January 1978 the strike was over , but what did it achieve? As part of the settlement firefighters had been introduced to the upper quartile of pay and the 42-hour-week. However, many firefighters did not want the strike to end, as testified by Lambeth’s Paul Kleinman in Forged in Fire: The History of the FBU . While noting that the London brigade had voted not to strike, Kleinman recalls at the strike’s...

Read more

Woolworths Firefighter Page
1979

Woolworths fire, Manchester

This fire at the high street shop Woolworths situated opposite Piccadilly Gardens in Manchester killed 10 people and injured six firefighters. Around 500 customers are believed to have been in the store at the time of the blaze. When crews arrived they found thick smoke billowing from the six-storey building and people screaming for help from the windows. Firefighters fought the blaze for two and a half hours while...

Read more

Limehouse ship fire, Regent’s Canal Dock
1980

Limehouse ship fire, Regent’s Canal Dock

Leading fireman Stephen Maynard, 26, was killed at this fire in the hold of a ship, MV Rudi M , docked in Regent’s Canal Dock, Limehouse Basin. The fire was caused by workers using hot cutting equipment. An aluminium tank was being cut out of the ship’s hold when sparks ignited its coating of polyurethane foam. Maynard was one of the breathing apparatus crew who were caught in the hold as it erupted into flames and...

Read more

1985

Bradford City FC stadium fire

After Hillsborough, the Bradford City FC stadium fire was the second worst sporting tragedy in England, leaving 56 dead and at least 265 injured. The fire started five minutes before half-time during the match on 11 May between Bradford and Lincoln City. It was later established that the blaze was caused by a fan who went to put his cigarette out but dropped it between the floorboards onto a pile of rubbish that had...

Read more

1987

First meeting of the FBU’s equal opportunities committee, 19 November

At the FBU conference in 1986, equality national officer Dan Riddell told the conference that the executive council had formed the equal opportunities committee to encourage Asians, Afro-Caribbeans and women to apply for jobs as firefighters and control staff. He reminded delegates that there were just 35 female firefighters in nine of the 64 brigades employing 57,400, and just 210 black and ethnic minority...

Read more

Kings Cross Fire
1987

Kings Cross Underground fire

Station Officer Colin Townsley was among 31 killed at this infamous and devastating fire that started after a match was dropped onto a wooden escalator. The blaze appeared small but rapidly grew in intensity before shooting a sustained jet of flame and smoke up into the ticket hall. An investigation following the fire found that a combination of flashover (where fire is spread rapidly through the air due to intense...

Read more

1989

London FBU Women’s Advisory Committee established

By 1987 women were becoming more involved in the fire service than ever before. They had long served as control staff and had worked before on the frontline, during the Second World War, but it wasn’t until the early 1980s that women began to be recruited as full time professional firefighters. Women in the fire service often had a tough time being accepted by their male colleagues and many faced discrimination and...

Read more

Nelson Mandela FBU membership
1990

FBU conference makes Nelson Mandela an honorary member of the union

South African anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela was made an honorary member of the FBU at its conference in June, following his release from prison in February. The move, very much in keeping with the union’s progressive stance on worldwide issues, coincided with a debate and emergency resolution in which delegates backed the continuing fight, including the maintenance of Britain’s economic sanctions on the...

Read more

First FBU women’s school
1992

First FBU women’s school at Wortley Hall, 30 October–1 November

The union held its first women’s school at Wortley Hall, Sheffield, attended by 24 women. FBU general secretary Ken Cameron addressed the school on the theme “Women in the Union – What is the future?” The school held sessions on removing barriers to women’s involvement, taking up issues important to women and getting their message across, including writing motions and forming action plans. The women’s school stressed...

Read more

BEM School
1995

First meeting for FBU black and ethnic minority members held at Wortley Hall, 17–18 November

The first annual meeting for black members sought to formally address issues facing them. Frustration and anger among black firefighters at the meeting were palpable. Delegates spoke of a culture of racism in Britain that has become ingrained in the fire service, not just between work colleagues but also in the communities they served. The meeting heard how management’s efforts to promote equality were merely a paper...

Read more

1997

FBU Gay/Lesbian Support Group; National Women’s Advisory Committee

A support group was set up for lesbian and gay firefighters who faced discrimination and struggled to find acceptance within the fire service. Part of the problem was ignorance about the LGBT community. The 1980s had seen the AIDS scare, with widespread ignorance of its causes and a belief, fostered by the mainstream press, that gay people put work colleagues at risk. The union published a Fairness At Work policy,...

Read more

Firefighters 30k cover
2002

First strikes in the FBU’s pay dispute, 12 November

The second national strike of firefighters in the union’s history was centred, as before, around the issue of pay. The dispute during the winter of 2002/03 was interspersed with lengthy negotiations with the new Labour government that were designed to derail the strikers, who were seeking a 40% pay increase to address years of decline in their wages and a more skilled and productive fire service. The pay increase...

Read more

2004

FBU disaffiliates from the Labour Party

Unsurprisingly firefighters’ faith in the Labour Party had diminished substantially following the behaviour of New Labour during the bitter 2002/03 pay dispute. So, at the FBU conference in Southport in June 2004, the union voted 35,105 to 14,611 to sever a link that dated back more than 80 years. As a result Labour lost income and political support from the union. A compromise from the executive to cut its financial...

Read more

Fighfighters in a flood
2007

Firefighters respond to summer floods with over 3,000 rescues; FBU advocates a statutory duty to respond

Britain was hit by devastating floods following the wettest June on record. A major rescue operation, described by the union as the “biggest in peacetime Britain”, saw hundreds of firefighters mobilised to save thousands stranded after their homes became flooded. South Wales red watch manager John Mann said: “It was the worst flooding I’ve ever seen. There was sewage in the water and it was pretty horrendous for...

Read more

In the line of duty cover
2008

FBU Westminster rally and report on firefighter fatalities

A political campaign was launched at the FBU conference in May to invest in the safety of firefighters and curb a rising number of fatalities. In January several hundred attended the funerals of four firefighters who died in the line of duty after responding to a warehouse fire in Warwickshire. The incident on 2 November 2007 saw the largest loss of life for a fire brigade in Britain for 35 years. Then just months...

Read more

2009

Lakanal House fire, London

Six people were killed and at least 20 injured, including a firefighter, at Lakanal House after a blaze, caused by a faulty TV on the ninth floor, spread through the 14-storey building. The London Fire Brigade sent 18 fire engines to the incident, and firefighters rescued a number of residents trapped in their flats. So devastating was the blaze that a Metropolitan police investigation was launched, treating the...

Read more

March against austerity
2010

FBU opposes the ConDem coalition austerity programme

The end of 13 years of a Labour government, and with it the death of New Labour, was followed by a new Tory-led government which proved to be even more committed to attacking workers rights and the conditions of public sector workers. The Tories, given a leg up by their Lib Dem coalition partners, ushered in a new political age – the politics of austerity. No sooner had prime minister David Cameron been given the keys...

Read more

FBU pension fight
2013

First of 50 strikes against the Westminster government’s firefighter pension changes, 25 September

Believing their worst nightmares about the ConDem government’s cuts agenda were coming true, firefighters in England and Wales began strike action against attacks on their pensions. The government wanted to introduce a new pension scheme for serving firefighters and new starters, with some protection for serving firefighters based on their age. Firefighters would have to work longer, the retirement age being raised...

Read more

Jeremy Corbyn with FBU
2015

FBU reaffiliates to the Labour party

Following five years of Tory austerity, the political landscape changed in ways previously deemed unimaginable – 100/1 unimaginable according to bookies’ odds on Jeremy Corbyn becoming the next Labour leader. New Labour was dead, the middle ground – Ed Miliband – flopped in the 2015 general election, and there was a new direction in the Labour Party. Rebel left-wing backbencher Jeremy Corbyn beat the odds and, after...

Read more

Grenfell Tower
2017

Grenfell Tower fire

The fire that shocked the nation and the deadliest blaze since the Blitz. Sparked by a simple fault on a fridge freezer on the fourth floor of the Kensington tower block, the blaze rapidly engulfed the 24-floor block, leaving 71 dead. A judge-led inquiry has been set up to examine the circumstances leading up to and surrounding the fire to which the Fire Brigades Union has been granted core participant status.

Read more