Orsam Books

Calling Fire

Yes, the Fire Brigade gave a financial incentive to individuals, including the police, to report fires.  What could possibly go wrong?

The danger of mischief was recognised from a very early stage.  In a letter from James Braidwood, the Superintendent of the Fire Brigade, to the Commissioner of Police, dated 27 January 1841, in which a payment of ten shillings to any police officer who discovered and reported a fire was offered (with a lesser sum offered to members of the public), Braidwood stated (MEPO 2/412):

'If 10s was paid to any one, I have little doubt, but that premises would be set fire to for the sake of obtaining the reward of discovery - There was one person who I strongly suspect set fire at two different places, that he might get a shilling or two by calling the stations, and I was obliged to direct the foreman and engineer not to pay him on any account, since then I have heard no more of it.'

The offer of payment to the police was said to be 'with a view to encouraging the Police Constables in strict attention to their beats - if they discover the fire before the inmates of the premises, it shows they have been completely on the alert.'

Consequently, a Police Order was issued on the same day, 27 January 1841, as follows:

'By the desire of the Superintendent of the Fire Brigade, whenever a fire is first discovered, and notice is given by the Police (whether by the individual who discovered the fire, or another) at any of the Fire Brigade Stations, if no lives have been lost, the sum of Ten Shillings granted by the Fire Establishment, will be allowed by the Commissioner to be received by the Police.  The Superintendents, however, are to renew the caution to the Police, that no man is to go away for the purpose of giving such notice, when remaining at the fire appears to be more useful, either by saving life of preventing the spreading of fire. The Superintendents are not to recommend this gratuity to the Commissioner for approval in any case where the Police have not acted discreetly according to the spirit of the order. Expenses necessarily incurred by the Police for cab fare etc. in giving information at the Fire Brigade Station, will be approved by the Commissioner and paid by the Superintendent of the Fire Brigade.'

Although the money offered dropped a little so that by 1857 it was only five shillings for the person giving first alarm (enabling a life to be saved), this was undoubtedly a nice little earner for any police officer who was lucky enough to spot a fire.  A Police Order dated 3 January 1860 confirmed that the police could keep this money:

'If the authorities of the Fire Brigade desire to give small gratuities to the Police for such service, the Commissioner will allow them to be received, on a report being made on the usual Gratuity Form.' 

But is it possible that this money could have corrupted the constables? In an article about fire in The Mechanics Magazine of 17 February 1860 it was stated:

'The Metropolitan Police assuredly contains, many, many worthy members, men whose intelligence, courage, forbearance and honesty would adorn any station of life; but it would argue little knowledge of the world, or of human nature, to suppose that in so large a flock, many black sheep will not be found.  The fact is, the "call money," "rewards for discovery," "fees for keeping the door," and "three penn'orths all round," (given to the police by the fire brigade) are temptations that to men of certain dispositions, are irresistible, and lead in various ways to a fearful amount of crime.' 

The 'crime' being referred to was explained as follows:

'The hopes of gain, or the gratification of revenge lead to many fires, and among the wilful, or suspicious, or unknown fires, there occur many of a mysterious character, and for which no reasonable cause can possibly be assigned, except that they have been occasioned by, and have in some cases, been pretty clearly traced to, the police.  It is certainly an awful state of things, that the very men who who are employed to protect us against the consequences of crime, should themselves become the criminals.'

This is from Police Orders of 25 May 1860:

'GRATUITIES TO POLICE FOR SERVICES AT FIRES - Before reporting on cases of fires, in which gratuities have been sent by the Committee of the London Fire Brigade Establishment for the Police who have discovered a fire, or kept doors at a fire, the Superintendents are personally to make strict enquiries into all the circumstances of the case, and particularly into the following points:

1st. By whom the fire was seen, and the time

2nd. If the fire was not discovered by Police, by whom the alarm was first given to the Police, and the time.

3rd. In what part of the premises the fire began, if ascertained, or supposed to have begun.

4th. The actual or apparent cause of the fire, whether the act of the incendiary, and if so, whether any person is suspected.

In the case of a gratuity sent to a Police Station for the discovery of a fire, the Superintendent is to retain the amount for 14 days, and then report on the usual printed form; and if the approval of the Commissioner be given, is to appear in Orders when the gratuity is to be paid to the officer entitled.

By order of the superintendent of the fire brigade dated 1 October 1863, the sum allowed for a police officer discovering a fire had risen back to ten shillings but we can ignore all the above Police Orders for on 5 August 1868 the following new Police Order was issued:

POLICE DUTIES AND ARRANGEMENTS AT FIRES

1. The various Police Orders issued from time to time for the guidance of Police on duty at fires are now printed in a consolidated form for more ready reference. All former Orders on this subject are therefore cancelled.

2. Upon any alarm of fire within the Division, it becomes the duty of the Superintendent immediately to repair to the spot, render all the assistance in his power, and take control of the Police Force assembled, sending, if necessary, for those who are off duty, and to adjoining Divisions if more aid is required  If the fire is a serious one he is also to send notice to the Assistant Commissioner.

...

18. When any of the Police give notice of a fire at a Fire Brigade Station, they are not to receive any money or gratuity whatever, either as "call money" or as cab fare. If it is necessary to employ a cab, the amount of expense is to be applied for by the Superintendent, and will be allowed by Commissioner according to regulations.

19. This Order is to be frequently read to the men, especially those who have recently joined, in addition to the usual monthly reading of the Orders.'  

Members of the public could still receive "call money" or "alarm money" but the consequence of paying such cash to individuals to report fire became painfully clear in 1871 when a 21 year old man, William Anthony, was convicted at the Old Bailey of setting fire to a large number of premises in London to obtain the sums paid in call money by the London Fire Brigade (Times 8 and 14 December 1871). He was sentenced to 12 years in prison. Evidence was given at his trial that Anthony was paid half-a-crown for reporting a fire.   

According to the Pall Mall Gazette of 14 December 1871

'…it is not too much to ask that for the future the fee of giving an alarm of fire should never be paid except after the fullest and most careful inquiry into the position and antecedents of the claimant, and that especial attention should be given to the way in which he accounts for his presence at the particular place at the particular time where and when the fire broke out.'

The Times of 15 December 1871 said:

'Firemen demand the earliest possible information of the outbreak of a Fire, and for this purpose it is the custom to give to any person who brings the first announcement a reward of half a crown where property alone is endangered, and of five shillings were life is in peril…Unless the brigade can maintain a far larger staff than at present, it is, perhaps necessary to offer some encouragement for early information.'

Seven years later it was a police officer who was charged for setting fire to buildings in order to claim the call money.  P.C. Alfred Henry Monument of the 'T' Division was first charged at Hammersmith Police Court according to the Times of 27 February 1878 which reported the following evidence against Monument:

'PC Bruce 247T….About 20 minutes past 4 o'clock the next morning he saw the prisoner springing his rattle. The prisoner said there was a fire at the Godolphin schools, and told him to run for the fire engine.  When returning to the station, after being relieved at 6 o'clock, he saw the prisoner, who asked him if he had got any money. He said, "what money?"  The prisoner replied, "The money for calling the fire-engine, turncock, and escape."  Witness said, "No."  The prisoner said 4s 6d. was allowed for that, and asked him if he sprang his rattle at the fire station. He said he did.  The prisoner replied that there was 2s 6d allowed for that. Witness said he was certain they were not allowed to receive the money. The prisoner then asked him if he returned with the fire escape.  He said he did not.  The prisoner said if he had he would have received the money.  He also said "Have it, and sign the wrong name for it. Do as I have done in the E Division.  I have had many rewards there, and signed the wrong name for them."  In cross-examination, the witness said the prisoner had only been a short time in the T Division.

Police Constable Love 464T, said he slept in the same room as the prisoner. On Sunday morning, the 27th ult, the prisoner said he wondered what he should receive for calling an engine on the previous night.  Witness said "Nothing" as the police were not allowed to receive gratuities for calling fire engines.  He replied it would not matter as he could easily sign some other person's name.'

Monument was committed for trial and appeared at the Old Bailey in March 1878 charged with feloniously setting fire to a dwelling house and other counts.  Some of the evidence is set out below:

Evidence of WILLIAM BRUCE  T247

I went off duty at 6 a.m.—I saw the prisoner about 6.5 in the Grove—he said "Here, I want to speak to you; have you got the money?"—I said "What money?"—he said "The money for calling the fire engine, the turncock, and the fire escape"—I said "No"—he said "There is 4s. 6d. allowed for that, did you spring the rattle at the fire station?"—I said "I did"—he said "There is 2s. 6d. allowed for that"—I said "I am certain we are not allowed to receive it"—he said "Why?"—I said "How about signing your name for it?"—he said "Have it, and sign a wrong name for it; did you go back with the fire escape?"—I said "I did not"—he said "If you had you would have received the money; do as I have done when in the E division; I have had many a reward there for calling the fire engine, and signed the wrong name for it; I suppose we can get the money when we call for it?"—all this passed as we were walking to the station.

Cross-examined. I believe the number of my lantern was No. 12—I have been in the police over three years—I made a statement about this matter on Tuesday, the 29th—the prisoner assumed that I should get the reward for springing the rattle and calling the engine—I did not see any people about that night—there are many rough people in that neighbourhood—men and women do sometimes get into the unfinished houses—the prisoner would have no business whatever in Banim Street, unless there was anything unusual, or he was called there—our lamps often go out and require lighting afresh—I have often given a light to other constables and have taken lights from them—it would be the prisoner's duty if he saw a fire on any other beat to give notice of it—there had been a fire the night before at the pavilion in the school-grounds—that is some distance from the brickfields, near the cricketfield—there is a wall between that and the brickfields—I can't say the height of it—the prisoner said "I suppose we can get the money when we call for it"—I had done the work and was entitled to the money, if any one was, not the prisoner—he has only been a short time in the force.

Inspector GEORGE SKEATS

Cross-examined. The lamp was found in an open place where they are put by the men, but there was only this one there—I am positive that I found the saw dust there that morning—I did not give evidence before the Magistrate till the fourth remand—lighting the lamp once would not cause all this litter, lighting it two or three times would—no doubt the men often light their pipes by the lamps—it is contrary to orders, but they do it—I gave no report of my conversation with the prisoner—I made no note of it, I trust to my memory—I gave my evidence nearly a month afterwards—when he spoke of the fire in the shed he said "We put it out"—it is usual for policemen to fix cotton across the windows to see if any one has got in during his absence round his beat—I found some cotton on the window in Southerton Road—the prisoner told me he had done that—I made no report of that.

WILLIAM FULLER, fire brigade

Cross-examined. The prisoner called me to the fire on the 26th—I received information from other persons as to the subsequent fires—the prisoner has not been to my station to receive any reward—ours is the station where such an application would be made—the person who gives the alarm of a fire would receive a shilling for it—the prisoner would be the person to receive it for the first fire, but not for the others—I have paid all the other cases except the call to the Godolphin Schools and the Oxford Road—they were calls by police-constables, and they have never been paid—in the other cases they have been paid and I have the receipts,

Re-examined. The practice is to give a shilling for the call, eighteen pence for assistance with the fire escape, and if life is saved another half crown, which would make five shillings.

WILLIAM FULLER – Fire Brigade: By the COURT. The Metropolitan Fire Brigade pays that—the Water Company pays for the call to the turncock—the fee for that is half-a-crown—I pay the rewards myself—if the prisoner had called for the reward to which he was entitled I should have paid him—I have no orders not to pay the police—I pay them as well as others, as long as I get the receipt—there is no reward for springing a rattle; that would be done to assist the man in getting away quickly. 

Sergeant CHARLES ADAMS (Re-examined). The prisoner made a report to me in writing—I tore it up—we generally afterwards destroy the papers, it is no use keeping them—the report he gave me related to the fire and not the cutting of the window—I destroyed another report which referred to the cutting of the window—I destroyed the report because I thought it was of no use—I could scarcely understand it, it was so badly written.

WILLIAM LOVE (Policeman 464 T). I saw the prisoner on the morning of the 27th January at about 7 o'clock when I came off night duty—we used to sleep in the same room at the station—just as I was going to bed the prisoner said to me "I wonder what I shall get for calling the fire engines to the fire last night"—I replied "Nothing, the police are not allowed to receive gratuities for calling fire-engines; you ought to know that"—he said that wouldn't matter, he could easily sign some other person's name.

Police Orders of 15 March 1878 record the dismissal of P.C. 241 Monument 'convicted at the Central Criminal Court, and sentenced to 15 years' penal servitude for arson; no pay.'

One might have thought that the Fire Brigade would be more cautious about handing out money to people reporting fires but a George Soper was charged in February 1879 with feloniously setting fire to a stable.

'DONALD ALFRED TRIMMING . I am an engineer of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade stationed at the King Street station—on Thursday, 12th December, at 5.24, when the engine returned, the prisoner came with it and applied to me for the 1s. for giving the alarm—I gave it him, and he gave me this receipt, signed "George Budge, 10, Stanford Road, Kensington"'

GEORGE NAYLOR . I am a fireman to the Metropolitan Fire Brigade stationed at King Street, Kensington—prior to 12th Dec. the prisoner had been in the habit of coming to my watch-room at the station in King Street and talking to me and the other men—he was not an engine-keeper in the employ of the brigade, not to my knowledge, at that time—the person having charge of the engines would have to wear a uniform—this hook produced is kept by me and all the men at the station—the entry with regard to this fire was made by myself—the alarm was given at 4.43, by the prisoner—he had been at the fire-station that afternoon a very short time before that—it was after 4 when he left the station—he had been talking to me all the afternoon—when he came in and gave the alarm I sent the engine on at once in charge of John Bird—I did not go with it—it came back at 5.24—the prisoner afterwards came to the station and applied to Trimming for the amount for the call money, which was 1s.—the prisoner had come to the station that afternoon something after 2 o'clock, and was talking to me the whole afternoon about different things, not in reference to fires.

It wasn't really a very good idea, this paying people for finding fires business. 

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