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Saturday, 17th May 2008

A number of years ago I was watching some sort of women's self help group.

This was on self-defence. The group consisted of a number of people clearly not capable of physically looking after themselves (and this is not a woman put down, face me with a couple of muggers and I am in for a good kicking and a redistribution of wealth).

The women were learning how to throw potential attackers about the place with my Bruce Lee type sound effect. That is as long as the attackers were more dense than normal in the sense they stood still as the women performed all manner of bizarre holds and test throws.

Woeful. I am not really a fan of this sort of thing on the basis that more swimmers drown than non-swimmers. My swimming technique is a 10 yard thrash to the river bank if for some reason I plopped in. The chances of me drowning are small because the chances of me swimming are remote. My mate was a great swimmer but not as a good as he thought he was and he drowned.

Right at the end of the programme though there was finally some good advice (and you will be pleased to know the reason for this page). The instructor said, if faced with danger, 'don't shout HELP nobody will help, shout FIRE, people will come running.'

Now that is more like it. Forget Bruce Lee sound effects intermingled with could you just move that way a bit please and instructions on raising their arms and holding that position for a moment just holler FIRE not HELP.

Fire separates us from the animal kingdom. Primates are like us in so many ways, use of tools etc but they don't sit about the campfire grunting songs at one another.

Some bright person mentioned in passing there could never be any great water based civilisation (aliens were being discussed) because there can be no fire underwater and without fire civilisation is only going to get so far and that basically is about the level of your average primate. They have gone as far as they are going without the help of some Swan Vesta's and a million years.

Despite the fact it has done us the power of good we are all told not to play with the stuff. It exerts are strange fascination upon us it must be part of the human condition.

Still when it gets out of control we need to get it back under control before it destroys everything we have created it could just burn us out.

you realise just how dangerous the 'olden days' were.

In come the fire-fighters. Cards have not been overly kind to this profession which is a shame. Players issued, Firefighting Appliances [1930]. Rather late in the card producing era but they made a good one.

In fact this is a card classic. Sales are helped by this fact and the fact if you are a firefighter you have a choice of, 'this set or basically no set.'

The set runs through a history of fire-fighting appliances and being a British set the history of fire beings in 1666, The Great Fire of London.

The card shows the tools of the trade in 1666. The tools were in the possession of Messrs Merryweather and Son the well-known firm of fire engineers (card 11 shows one of their first in 1863 which one first price at the International contest at Crystal Palace, and we all know what happened to that place). When J. Compton Merryweather died these tools were given to the London Museum. It is not the last time the Merryweather name gets a plug on this set.

The set is not entirely UK based as card 8 explains New York had a similar system in 1659 when there was an order for 250 leather buckets a number of fire ladders and hooks. Chimneys were taxed at the rate of one guilder to pay for all this (so I hope there were a lot more fire fighting equipment than just that one order).

The basic idea has not changed. Get water to the fire, the delivery system then were leather buckets and hand squirts which look like big grease guns. They did have helmets and they did have axes according to the relics so basically all is as it should be.

The card shows the relics and the board they are mounted on and the board proclaims, 'Fireapparatus of London, 260 Years ago.' Add 260 to 1666 we get 1926.

We then jump to 1721 and the first of what we might consider a fire-engine although this is stretching the definition (it isn't red to start with). Basically a wooden through full of water with some hand cranks which get the water from the trough through hoses and out onto the fire. Although the inventor claimed 'streams with great force' it would take some doing. Still a definite improvement from the line of buckets once you got the thing in place. After all anyone can have a hat bucket and axe but specialist firefighting equipment was expensive and 1721 was not known for its high speed communications of any type.

Card 3 has to be mentioned as it shows the state of play in 1735 Still not exactly brilliant Queen Victoria had one installed into Windsor Castle. A great shame our current Monarch was rather less wise but was shrewd enough not to insure the place have it burn down and let her subjects pick up the bill. Good Bless you Ma'm and all that pay for you.

Mobile horse trough

The next card notes that fire brigades were put together by insurance companies. Obviously it accepts we have all heard the tales of early fire insurance being just that. You paid for the fire brigade to come around if there was a problem. Your house would have an emblem stuck on the front of it denoting the fact you were insured. At the sign of fire out came the fire brigade and if you had the plaque on the house then the fire was tackled. Card 7 makes greater play of the fact the different insurance companies had different uniforms so if you saw your lot coming down the street you could accost them.

Apparently if you failed to have the plaque tough but if a house a couple down had one the brigade would make sure their house did not burn as they watched yours do just that. I suppose it makes sense.

When you read the backs of the cards you realise just how dangerous the 'olden days' were. We have found so many ways of containing fire today. Card 5 shows a fire engine which was maintained behind the stage at Drury Lane just in case the footlights or whatever got a little over ambitious with the illumination.

Not only was their more naked flames about the place but there was also a lot more things they could ignite.

In 1830 the first steam fire engine was created. Weighing 2.25 tons it had a boiler which meant steam pumps got the water from cart to fire. You would think this was a quantum leap in technology but despite putting out a number of fires in London they were not adopted there. The provinces were not so daft Liverpool and other places ordered them.

This meant London did adopt steam until 1852. Card 8 informs us New York had got steam fire-engine ono order from London in 1841.

In 1846 the National Fire Escape appeared. Public subscription paid for these things and they were installed 80 or 90 stations in Central London which were controlled by the Society for the Protection of Life from fire. These were no small ladders, the card shows a very vicious fire being tackled and a large crowd having gathered to watch a fireman clambering up a ladder which reaches to the fourth story of a Georgian building (doesn't look safe mind).

In 1865 London got things onto a more secure footing when the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Act was passed. This took over the equipment of the insurance companies as well as the fire escapes and staff of the Society for the Protection of Life from Fire (could only be a Victorian society that one)

Things are still pretty basic mind and once you get outside the metropolitan areas I suspect bucket and axe is the best you could expect.

Card 26 shows a variation on the ladder idea. In 1884 a canvas chute was added so people within the buildings could get to ground with much speed. It looks fearful. Imagine the sort of thing the use on building sites nowadays to get the rubbish from the upper floors to the skip below. It rather puts you in mind of the fact it is not the falling that kills you it is the stopping at the bottom.

One of the great ironies of life is fire on board ships were (are) lethal. Card 16 shows a steam Fire-Float. Not only could this fight floating fires but also be darn useful for all the warehouses and the type at the waters edge. The trick of this was it could use different grades of water. Not just the clean stuff but the stuff you were likely to find in the Thames in 1874. Seaweed and muddy water says the card but I think we all know what they were more likely to be pumping out of the Thames at the time.

The fire-engines were getting bigger and getting them about presented a trick. No good having the world's strongest man pulling them to the fire with his teeth as all would have been over by then. Horses were the way. Anyone that has got a horse ready for a bit of work would know that pulling the cart with your teeth might be quicker. Once all the tackle and harness are put on you might as well forget it. The way around this was to keep the horses waiting to pull the carts close at hand and in harness.

Not really pleasant I imagine and in 1881 another system was devised. The 'Quick Hitch' Harness. When the fire alarm went up the horses were placed into position and this harness device was lowered down upon them and the horses strapped in.

Finally the country districts (and large country houses) were catered for with the Hand Force-Pump in 1883. They came in various sizes and could pump between 800 to 2000 gallons per hour. This would be rather dependant on who was manning the pumps mind. Put me on and you might be lucky to get a kettle full of water within the hour. As ever those country folk were a resourceful lot and the card notes these things were also useful for mining and irrigation purpose.

One of the great joys of a lack of technology is the ways in which the limitations are circumvented. Card 28 has just such a thing. The 'Quadricycle' is as Monty Python as it sounds. There was still an often fatal delay from getting the fire alarm to getting the horse drawn apparatus to there.

This device meant four firefighters and some basic equipment could get there faster. Think two tandems bolted together with a large box of equipment strapped between them. Fantastic.

Card 31 means Fiji gets a mention. One of the big things about Empire was we could pass off our cast offs as some sort of beneficiary. The card notes Fiji and other parts of the world still use manual fire engines (bet they didn't use the quadricycle though).

Water, water, everywhere

1903 (card 32) is the biggest leap forward. Merryweather produced the worlds first petrol driven fire engine. Not quite modern, think London to Brighton Vintage car rally with a 50 foot extendable ladder strapped on the top. In 1908 they went a step further and had the engine power the ladder as well with a motor turntable etc. The ladder could extend 95 foot and looks about as safe as you imagine it would be.

In the good old days it was not entirely certain petrol driven engines were the way to go. There were steam cars and in 1910 there was the first electric fire engine. It gives you some idea of how good petrol engines were back then.

1910 was still all about speed and the Quadricycle had been replaced by bicycle and sidecar. Thankfully the fireman did not look quite such an idiot getting to the fire and probably got there faster and with much less arguing.

Card 37 is a motorcycle and sidecar which had three fireman riding on it.

The last ten or so cards look pretty modern in thought if not in application and style. There is the Mefisto fire protective suit which must have been terrifying to be strapped into. It meant the unfortunate could work amongst the flames for 'several minutes'.

Card 44 shows Smoke Helmets and these look more useful and practical.

Card 45 is the ultimate. The Automatic Spraying helmet. It is designed to protect the fireman from all manner of things smoky and firesome. Basically the helmet on his head sprayed water all over the place. Brilliant, the illustration is perfect (and there is an even better one in the Liebig, Dangerous Occupation set).

So there you have it, great set, great subject. A lot of the classic sets belong to Wills (or so it seems) so it is good to see Players producing this set.

For those that have got this far without knowing why the page is entitled Weymouth you are not alone. In fact I and another person are the only people that know. Something of a private joke which revolves around a karoke bar in Weymouth. A fantastic night was had by all but the highlight was a very individual rendition of Prodigy, Firestarter. Which hopefully I will never forget. Beneath a thin veneer of being politically correct when something is funny it is just funny. You really had to be there, we would have laughed like drains.