Fire, fire – the science of 19th century firefighting

The 19th century saw more than its fair share of major fires. Here our Heritage and Collections volunteer Laurence Scales, uncovers these burning stories from our archive.

During the accident-prone 19th century, some Ri lectures aimed to explain major accidents and to share the latest safety innovations.

In this short series of blog posts, Ri Heritage and Collections volunteer Laurence Scales has been leafing through our archives to uncover more about these lectures, starting with fire.

Asbestos and flame proofing

The Ri’s first lecture concerned with safety matters unfortunately involved Michael Faraday introducing the audience to the protective embrace of asbestos clothing. This 1830 lecture was entitled Chevalier Aldini's Proposed Method of Preserving Man Exposed to Flame – the same Giovanni Aldini famous for animating the corpse of an executed murderer with electricity.

'The fireman, clothed and guarded, was exposed to a large and powerful flame from the mouth of a condensed gas vessel. The specimens of asbestos cloth and clothing, laid by M. Aldini on the lecture table, were upon so large a scale as to surpass, probably, all that had ever been seen before them.'

Although Asbestos had been known to the ancients, it was another 50 years from Faraday's 1830 lecture before it became a widespread fireproofing material.

  • Painting of burning of House of Lords and Commons from 1834

    Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, October 16, 1834

    Credit: Google Art Project

However, there was one new technology on the scene when a huge fire consumed the old Houses of Parliament in 1834: the world's first fire engine with a steam pump. Although on the firefighters, there was no asbestos clothing to be seen.

The Fire Annihilator – an extinguisher innovation

Reverend John Barlow, Secretary of the Royal Institution, gave a lecture 'On Phillips Fire Annihilator' in 1849.

The Phillips Fire Annihilator was a fire extinguisher resembling a coffee pot, and it worked by chemically generating volumes of smothering gas such as carbon dioxide and nitrogen. We assume that Barlow, a stalwart of the Ri, was not working on commission.

  • Drawn diagram of fire annhilator

    Patent portable fire extinguisher, 1851 Great Exhibition: Official Catalogue

    Credit: Grace's Guide to British Industrial History

The inventor, William Henry Phillips was an interesting character. His own fire extinguisher factory burnt down in 1852. But he also ran an 'aerial courier company' involving what sounds like a steam helicopter – of which only a model ever flew.

  • Painting of a fire next to the river Thames

    The Tooley Street fire by the end of the second day, image from the Illustrated London New. CC BY-SA 4.0

Despite this new innovation, London unfortunately suffered yet another huge conflagration in 1861 when Thames-side warehouses in Tooley Street, near London Bridge, caught fire and the inferno was only finally extinguished a fortnight later by conventional means.

Fire(s) at the Crystal Palace

In December 1866, a chimpanzee and a hippopotamus were killed by a fire at the Crystal Palace in south London. John Scott Russell, whose own shipyard business had been damaged by fire, and who was an instigator of the original Crystal Palace had, himself, arrived at the fire in the small hours and joined attempts to save the building. He gave a lecture at the Ri in 1867 entitled 'On the Crystal Palace Fire'.

'As to the commencement of the fire, the probability was that a boiler in the basement became overheated; it had not, he understood, blown up, but he believed that, it being Sunday, the stoker wanted to go to church, and put as much coal on the furnace fire as he thought would keep the boiler hot till he returned; but in doing so he converted a moderate fire into a splendid gas manufactory.'

  • Illustration of two Egyptian statues surrounded by rubble

    Ruins after Crystal Palace fire 1866, image from Illustrated London News

Fortunately a news report from the time reveals that at least one animal was (reluctantly) helped to safety:

'A parrot was rescued by the Duke of Sutherland, who was rewarded for his humanity by so vigorous an onslaught on his fingers from the parrot's horny beak that his Grace's handkerchief had to be brought into requisition.'

The 1866 fire destroyed the north end of the building, along with many natural history exhibits, but most of the Crystal Palace remained standing for another 70 years until it was finally destroyed in 1936, also due to fire.

A new type of breathing apparatus

Ri Professor John Tyndall's interest in crystals led him to study ice. Glacial ice led him on to consider mountain air. Study of the atmosphere led him on to the scattering of light and the nature of the motes that float in it. Thus he came in 1871 to lecture 'On Dust and Smoke' focusing on the respirators worn by firemen, which were then leaky leather suits supplied with air from a pump. Tyndall constructed his own protective garment with filters of cotton wool, caustic lime and the wonder material, charcoal.

'Some of you will remember Dr Stenhouse lecturing in this room [in 1855] with a suspicious-looking vessel in front of the table. That vessel contained a decomposing cat. It was covered with a layer of charcoal, and nobody knew until told of it what the vessel contained.'

Having described the charcoal and other layers in the apparatus Tyndall described his tests at the Ri.

'In a small cellar chamber downstairs, with a stone flooring and stone walls, the first experiments were made. We placed there furnaces containing resinous pine-wood [for the most noxious combustion products], lighted the wood, and placing over it a lid which prevented too brisk a circulation of the air, generated dense volumes of smoke. With our eyes protected by suitable glasses, my assistant and I have remained in this room for half an hour and more, when the smoke was so dense and pungent that a single inhalation through the undefended mouth would be perfectly unendurable: and we might have prolonged our stay for hours. Having thus far perfected the instrument, I wrote to Captain Shaw, the chief officer of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, asking him whether such a respirator would be of use to him. His reply was prompt; it would be most valuable.'

And with Tyndall's new and improved respirator for firefighters, that's fire innovations from 19th century covered.

  • Illustration of 19th century firefighters by the river Thames

    Fire brigade practice at Thames Embankment, 1868, image from Illustrated London News

But 19th century London was prone to many more types of disaster, including explosions of gunpowder factories, collieries, boilers, gas reservoirs and mills. All of these were also covered in Ri lectures too, and which we will be returning to in future blog posts.


Laurence Scales leads London tours featuring the curious history of science, invention and medicine. He is a graduate who has worked in various engineering industries.

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