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History of Firefighting

Fire has been with us since the dawn of time. The history of firefighting however, like so much of our social history, is a story of learning from tragedy, of organisation for the protection of communities, of the use and adaptation of new technology and of the impact of seminal events like the great fire of London in 1666.

the great fire of london

We know little of any conscious organisation for the protection of people and buildings in pre-history, but archaeology has provided evidence of fires in Iron age houses around 1200 BC. Early people therefore had some experience of the effects of fire, but it was not until Roman times that we find extensive records of firefighting provision and measures being taken to prevent fires from occurring.

To Fire Committed, The History of Firefighting in Kent

In the introduction to his book “To Fire Committed, The History of Firefighting in Kent”, Harry Klopper summarises early history in relation to fire as follows:

“From the days in our earliest History, when man learned to strike two stones together and produce a spark, fire must have occurred. Even earlier, lightning struck the impenetrable forests that covered much of Britain especially Kent, trees were set on fire and vast tracts were consumed by unstoppable flames. Only gradually did man learn to tame fire for his own uses; but still at times fearing it as his worst enemy, while worshipping it as his god. Fire was the very essence of life and yet its destroyer. Man learned to make simple tools and weapons but for centuries he found no answer to the flames which destroyed his simple dwellings, his fields and forests and his very life.

Long after man had mastered the various arts that made life more pleasant, even safer, long after he had begun to weave intricate cloths, build fine houses, print books, find some answers to diseases, he was still helpless in the face of fire which, in a few short hours, destroyed what it had taken years to create. Quick to organise for war and destruction, clever in the forging of weapons, man’s only defences against fire were a few buckets of water, a pole with an iron hook at the top and headlong flight.”

In the pages which follow, you will find a brief history of firefighting in Kent, broken down into specific periods:

Early Firefighting

The Victorian Era

20th Century up to WWll

The War Years and the National Fire Service

Post War to the Present Day

The intention is not to give a detailed history, which can be found in other publications. Rather, we hope to give a largely visual summary using illustrations, photographs and documents, many of which are in the possession of the Museum.