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Police, Fire Brigade and Ambulance Services


The Saxons established the 'Hue & Cry' in which all the local folk were expected to participate in tracking down the perpetrator of a serious crime. When the Normans came they added an official post to co-ordinate the efforts of the locals in the event of trouble. His title was Count of the Stables from which we get the word Constable. From the thirteenth century everyone had to take a turn on night watch duty, keeping an eye out for criminal activity, fires or other problems, but by wealthy people began paying others to do their watch. By the seventeenth century the night watchmen were paid for by the local community, the funds being raised by a 'rate levy' charged to house holders and businesses. Constables still existed, appointed by the Lord of the Manor their duties included dispensing aid to the poor and the general maintenance of good order in the community. In the eighteenth century Manchester was not yet 'incorporated' (that is it had no town council and no mayor) so the lord of the manor (Sir Oswald Moseley) appointed two local citizens to be 'constables' each year. During the rebellion of 1745 all the other local dignitaries found reasons not to be home when the rebels turned up and it was left to these two gentlemen to 'defend' the town.

The idea that the police are employed simply to deal with criminal activity is a relatively new concept. During the eighteenth century there were various acts passed in Parliament allowing individual towns to establish 'Commissioners of Police'. These individuals had wide ranging powers and responsibilities including the employment of constables, arranging for fire fighting and transporting injured people to hospital and in the early nineteenth century they dealt with the early publicly owned gas and electricity supplies, it was usually the police who lit the street lights in the evening. The new police forces established in the nineteenth century dealt with a wide range of matters considered to have a bearing on 'good order', in the hard times of the 1930s the Edinburgh police were required to round up children with no shoes and issue them with boots for the winter. Initially the new police constables also served as both firemen and ambulance men, these duties being considered appropriate for the maintenance of good order.

Up to the 1950s many homes did not have a TV set, quite a few did not have a radio, few homes had a telephone and no one had a mobile phone. Newspapers were the main channel for information but from the later 1920s many towns employed 'loud speaker vans' to provide warnings and instructions to the general public in an emergency. Up to the 1950s this required a large amplifier with glass 'valves' and the speakers tended to be rather large as well. The example shown dates from the 1950s but is essentially the same as those in the 1920s, these were owned and operated by the emergency services and the local corporation. At election time privately owned vehicles would also tour the streets promoting one or other candidate. They were often known as 'Tannoy' vans, Tannoy being the name of the principal manufacturer of loud speakers at the time, their name was emblazoned on the horns of the speakers. The police at the time had relatively few motor vehicles but they fitted loud speakers to a proportion of those, by the 1960s the speakers were much smaller and, on police cars, were often roof mounted in pairs, black and facing forward.

Fig___ Typical 'Tannoy' van

A 'tannoy' loudspeaker van from 1954

The development of separate services for police, fire and ambulance with an entirely separate set of social support services is a mid twentieth century development but for the present purposes it is best to consider each of the three emergency services separately.

Police Forces

In 1758 the 'Bow Street Runners' were established in London to chase criminals and deal with disorder, in 1763 a horse patrol was established to deal with trouble on the roads around London but this soon failed due to lack of funding. The merchants of London established the Thames River Police in 1798 and these were so successful they became a publicly funded body in 1800. In 1805 a new horse patrol was established on the roads around London, these were the first 'uniformed' police in Britain, kitted out with a long blue coat, blue trousers and a red waistcoat with a black leather top hat (top hats of this type were fashionable at the time).

The first police force in the modern sense was the Metropolitan Police, formed by Robert Peel in 1829, the railway companies also established their own police forces, starting with the Liverpool and Manchester line in 1830. In 1835 the Municipal Corporations Act allowed local authorities to establish their on police forces for towns and the 1839 County Police Act allowed the establishment of police forces for rural areas. Some towns and rural areas did not bother to set up their own forces and the Police Act of 1856 made these mandatory. By 1859 the police system covered the whole country, each town and county having its own independent force. On the railways the police were responsible for preventing crime, patrolling the line and controlling railway traffic, signalmen on the railways are still referred to as 'bobbies' even today.


Police Uniforms
All police forces adopted the same basic uniform as the London 'peelers' but there were numerous slight differences. The basic uniform consists of a jacket and trousers with some form of head gear, hats and helmets are discussed separately below). To avoid public concerns that this was the beginnings of military rule the original police uniform of the 1830s (both civil and railway) featured a top hat to imply respectability with a belted tunic complete with the fashionable 'tails' with stiff collar that buttoned up to the throat and breeches (Fig ___ A).

The Police tunic lost its tails in about the 1860s, following the fashions of the time they became a long tunic reaching down to about the knees. These had a single row of seven or eight silver buttons up the front and no breast pockets (Fig ___ B). By about 1910 the 'skirts' on the tunic had shortened to mid-thigh and by the time of the First World War several forces had added breast pockets, complete with a silver button. The long and heavy overcoat worn in cold weather had a bright silver buckle on the leather belt up to the 1940s when the belt was dispensed with.

Fig___ Typical 1930s Police Constable

Constable Mackay of the Leith Police in the 1930s

The photo shows a Mr Mackay, a constable in the Leith police force (near Edinburgh) in the 1930s. Note that although this was the 1930s the tunic has no breast pockets so the whistle chain is run down the front with the whistle tucked in to the jacket just above the belt.

The open fronted jacket was first seen in the late 1940's and was widely introduced in the mid 1950's, initially for senior officers only. Following the Second World War this jacket was more widely accepted and in a rolling program the open fronted jacket replaced the button-up-to-the-neck tunic by about 1960. All police officers have a number and this used to be worn as a silver badge on the tunic collar, one to either side of the front, on the new open jackets the officers official number was moved to the epaulette's on the shoulders.

Until about 1900 policemen were required to wear full uniform even when off duty so to avoid confusion in the event of an incident they were issued with black and white striped arm bands which were worn on the left cuff when working. The London (Metropolitan) police retained the black and white stripes on the cuff until 1968.

In the mid 1990's several forces changed to wearing American style 'bum-freezer' jackets with a heavily laden belt carrying their radio, handcuffs, CS gas spray and baton. The baton is now a large stick with handles at right angles, carried in a metal ring on the belt. Prior to this the standard truncheon was carried concealed in a special pocket in the trousers and if it was withdrawn the officer had to write a report on why he had drawn it.

The top had fell from fashion in the 1850's, the police didn't like them very much in any case as they tended to give the wearer a headache. Meanwhile the Russian Army had adopted the helmet as part of their uniform and this idea had spread across Europe, the British Army adopted the helmet in the 1860's and the police generally took this up from about 1864. This was one area where local differences were marked, in my own area the Altrincham force (amongst others) wore 'shako' style headgear into the 1930's. The shako was made of felt and resembled a standard helmet but with a flat top. Other forces used peaked 'pill box' hats called Kepis (a design which originated in France) whilst some forces had helmets with ornamental metalwork on the top. The size and shape of the badge on the front of the helmet varied greatly between forces.

The flat uniform cap, based on the standard military hat of the time, was introduced in the 1920's for officers using motor cars and motor cycles (the motor cyclists had goggles as well). Some forces in the 1920's experimented with wide-brimmed hats similar to those worn by Australian soldiers but these were disliked by the men and soon withdrawn from service.

During the second world War all police switched to using the standard army 'tin hat', painted dark blue with the word POLICE stencilled on the front in white. Some were stationed at gas works and patrolling railway sidings with Army .303 rifles to defend against saboteurs. In towns where bombing raids took place there was a lot of fire fighting and a lot of wet rubble to be negotiated so many town forces issued rubber Wellington boots and long heavy white socks, the top of the sock was usually rolled down over the top of the boot.

The Scottish police had adopted the black and white 'diced' band on their flat caps in the 1960's, this idea was taken up by other forces in the 1970's and 1980's. In the later 1980's some foot-patrols began wearing the flat cap in place of the helmet.

Fig ___ Police motor car patrol in the later 1960s
Sketch of Police motor car patrol in the later 1960s



Police women first appeared on the streets during World War Two, they did not become commonplace until the 1980's and only started walking regular 'beat' patrols in the 1980's. The original police woman's hat was a wide brimmed affair with a domed crown. I believe the hat shown below was introduced in the 1960s and from the later 1980s police women were sometimes seen wearing trousers instead of a skirt. Initially women police officers went on patrol accompanied by a male officer but by the mid 1990s police women were required to fulfill the same roles as the men and would be seen on 'beat patrol' on their own.

Policemen on 'point duty' controlled traffic at busy junctions where the traffic lights were broken or not yet installed. Visibility was something of a problem until the clean air acts began to reduce the amount of dirty smoke in the air in cities. The police were usually issued with white sleeve covers which reached from the wrist to the elbow to make their arms more visible and some forces also issued white gloves for this duty. In Salford (Manchester) the police on 'point duty' wore a white helmet and a full length white coat to make them more visible.


Police Uniforms

Police uniforms


A standard piece of police equipment from the 1830's to the 1880's was the rattle for raising the alarm, most operated like the standard football rattle, when twirled round it made a distinctive sound. In the 1880's the police began using a whistle in place of the rattle, early versions used the 'pea' type (still used by football referees) but in about 1910 the more familiar tubular 'air whistle' was invented. The whistle was carried inside the front of the tunic or jacket attached to a silver chain which was fastened to a button on the front of the tunic. When breast pockets appeared the whistle moved to the right hand pocket with a silver chain still attached to the jacket button. In practice the whistle was found to have limited range and a bobby calling for assistance would often beat his truncheon on the pavement to alert nearby colleagues. Police personal radios appeared in the 1970's and some forces had lost their whistles by the 1990's but other forces felt it was a part of the uniform and have retained it.

Police dogs were introduced at about the turn of the century (the first dog trained for police work had operated in Aberdeen in 1816). I am not sure when specialised 'dog vans' were introduced, certainly by the 1960s there were small vans marked DOG PATROL in service (those I remember from the early 1970s were often Ford Anglia vans).

Police forces began providing training in first aid in the 1890s, initially the training was provided by the St Johns Ambulance Brigade, later by doctors employed by the police (called Police Surgeons). They provided the front line ambulance and fire services in many towns until the 1940s (Police ambulance and fire services are discussed below).




Police Vehicles

Police were issued with bicycles from about 1900 and these remained in use into the 1970's at least, possibly longer in some areas. The sketch below left shows an early example from before the First World War. A common sight in the 1960s and 70s was the bobby on his bike with his overcoat folded and draped over the handlebars in case of rain. Bobbies on bikes always wore the standard police helmet. The standard bike used from the 1930s to the 1970s was a robust model with bent handlebars giving a very upright riding position, as sketched below right (based on a photo taken I think in the 1960s). The police cycles I remember from the 1950s and 60s were the Raleigh Superb, which had the chain encased in a metal case which incorporated an oil bath, built for comfort rather than speed. I last remember seeing a bobby patrolling on a bike in about 1978.

Police Bicycles

Police Bicycles

The police motorbike first appeared in about 1910, these were usually black, simply because all motor bikes tended to be black enamel (including the headlight housing). If the machine came with, say, a red enamel tank the police accepted that, this continued into the 1950s as it was cheaper than specifying the colours. The early police motorcyclists wore the standard police helmet but by the 1920s the flat caps worn by the motor car crews were also worn by the motorcyclists as shown below left. I believe it was in the 1940s that police started wearing motorcycle helmets, these were a simple dome shape with leather flaps over the ears, the police opted for the leather covered type with a stiff peak. Some had the word POLICE in one inch lettering on the front of the helmet but others had their badge on the front as shown below right. Bobbies doing routine local patrols also wore a standard police helmet when riding a motorbike, I gather these helmets were actually modified to provide better protection in the event of an accident. Police on the beat were usually required to salute a sergeant or ranking officer when they met, when riding a motorbike this would have been dangerous so they were instructed to 'nod smartly' instead, leading to the term 'noddy bike' for local patrol machines.

1920s and 1950s Police Motorcycles
Police Motorcycle in the 1920s

A common choice for local patrol work from the mid 1950s into the mid 1970s was the LE Velocette, a very quiet water cooled machine, well suited to night patrols (shown below left). When talking to a retired officer at the Manchester Police Museum (well worth a visit) he told me that one night he rode up behind a chap carrying a TV set down an alleyway and the chap did not realise he was there until he asked him what he was doing. The police also used motor scooters, not for traffic patrols but simply as a faster alternative to the bicycle. These were painted all-over black and the examples I have seen have no police markings on them. The policeman using a scooter as shown below right (the machine is a low powered Vespa) would have the motorcycle helmet or the modified standard helmet but would be wearing ordinary shoes not the knee length motorcycle boots and would have standard leather gloves not the gauntlet type used by motorcyclists.

1950s Police motorcycle and scooter
Police Motorcycle and scooter



In the 1960s police motorbikes on traffic duties had the fairing and often the leg-guards painted while, by the 1970s police bikes were all-over white and usually had substantial panniers at the rear to carry emergency equipment. Those used for traffic patrols had orange stipes added to their fairings in line with the 'jam butty' motor cars. In summer, up to the mid 1970s, police motorcyclists were sometimes seen with no jacket and with their shirt sleeves rolled up. By the mid 1980s protective motorcycling jackets were always worn, usually black with retro-reflective stipes sewn onto them. In the later 1980s the yellow reflective jackets appeared.

The first motorised police van, or Black Maria, was supplied to the Glasgow force in 1911. Motor vans are used for various purposes, some are fitted with seats to transport groups of officers (these are known as 'personnel carriers', others have a secure area at the rear and are used to transport people being arrested.

Police motor cars began to appear in some numbers in the 1920's although most were not equipped with a radio. By the mid 1920's the police were using a range of car types including both small (but often fast) three wheelers and high powered sports cars capable of speeds of up to seventy miles per hour. Motor car equipped policemen wore flat uniform caps with a prominent black chin-strap. Up to the 1960s police cars were all-over black with a POLICE sign front and rear, commonly mounted as shown in the sketch below, some had a roof mounted sign (mounted above the windscreen at the front of the roof) and others had a pair of loudspeakers mounted on the roof, I am not sure if these were a loudspeaker for making announcements or if they were some form of warning bell system. The radio was a big bit of kit, commonly mounted in the boot and additional generators were fitted to the engine to power up the high voltage circuits required by the glass valve technology of the time. The example shown is a 1937 Wolseley 18, a common choice for forces across the country.

1930s Police Radio Patrol Car
1930s Police Radio Patrol Car

All police vehicles were either black (for bicycles, motorbikes and cars) or dark blue (for vans) up to the early 1960's. The Austin Westminster of 1964 shown below left is typical of the period. In the early 1960s there was a shift to highly visible white cars, although the black cars lasted up to about 1967 and vans stayed dark for several years after that. The classic white police car of the period was the Ford Zephyr, a large and heavy car with a powerful engine (immortalized in the TV series Z-Cars) as shown below right. Both these vehicles were operating from the very early 1960s.

1960s Police Radio Patrol Cars
Austin Westminster and Ford Zephyr Police Radio Patrol Car

Police and other emergency vehicles were fitted with silver bells, mounted singly or in pairs, usually low down at the front of the vehicle, usually off-set to the right or left (fire engines often had them on the roof). The bells were replaced by sirens from 1963 when rotating blue lights appeared. The police are as constrained by the law as anyone else (more so in many ways) and the law stated the position the blue light had to be in and that it had to rotate. When low-slung sports cars were introduced for high speed motorway patrol work they had to have extra large roof top signs to raise the light to the regulation height and when high intensity flashing strobes were introduced these had to be arranged in a spiral to simulate a rotating light.

1970s MGB Police Traffic Patrol Car
1970s MGB Police Traffic Patrol Car

In the 1960's the police purchased some new high speed two-seater sports cars, as these were not distinctively painted the crews were instructed to drive them with the top down even when it was raining so the public would be able to identify them as police cars.

The blue and white 'panda car' first appeared in Lancashire in 1965 (the first cars used were Ford Anglias). I had some difficulty working out the correct colour scheme for these cars, they were usually blue with white doors and had Police printed on the side in black. Studying photographs showed up a few variations on this basic scheme and on digging further I found references to Preston police buying six white and six blue Morris 1000 motor cars and swapping the doors to get the two tone effect.

1960s Police Panda Car
1960s Police Panda Car

In Dumbarton they purchased a blue and a white Hillman Imp and swapped the bonnet and boot lid as well as the doors. Panda cars often had an illuminated 'Police' sign on the roof but flashing blue lights were seldom fitted. They were used for routine patrol duties, usually carrying a single officer (backed up by a larger more powerful 'area car' with two officers in it). The example below was photographed at the annual Urmston Model Engineer Show, also shown is a bobby on his bike with one of the early Pye personal radios introduced in the 1970s on his left lapel. In Manchester these personal radios were initially standard civilian designs and were a pale Sky Blue colour.

Early 1970s Police Panda Car and cycle patrol
1970s Police cycle patrol and Panda Car

In the 1970s police cars used on traffic patrol had an orange stripe added along the side, earning the name 'jam butty cars'. The orange stripe was also added to the cowlings of police motorcycles.

In 1981 there were some serious riots in with the police found themselves under equipped. The government, who were not particularly popular at the time, authorised the procurement of riot control equipment. Probably the most visible aspect was the addition of fold-down riot screens for the windscreens of the personnel carrying police vans. These screens were widely seen throughout the 1980s. The example shown below was photographed in 2006 however the appearance of the riot screen is the same as those used in the 1980s.

Fig ___ Riot equipped Police van in 2006
Riot equipped Police van 2006

By the later 1990s the riot equipped vans were much less in evidence and chequer board patterns were appearing on panda cars. By the early 21st century the blue and white panda cars were all replaced by rather more colourful paint schemes (although they are still known as panda cars) and police vehicles were in the main painted with a range of high visibility markings, often including a slogan written on the sides, the traffic cars retaining the orange stripe along the sides.

Fig ___ Police Vehicles in 2005
Police cars and van 2006





Police Stations and Police Boxes

Police forces date from the 'peelers' of 1829 however the Liverpool and Manchester Railway appointed a police force in 1830 (their duties were to preserve law and order, patrol the line and control movement of traffic on the railway, at the time it was thought that independent companies would operate trains on the line). To cater for these police 'station houses' were built at one mile intervals along the line and this is probably the origin of the term Police Station (not all police forces use the term police station but the general public usually use this term).

Police stations were identified by having a blue light above the entrance with the word POLICE on it in white. The lights used were traditionally the same as those used on early gas lamps and the Ratio 'street lamp' will serve well for this. The example shown below has the lamp on a bracket above the door, other stations, if set back from the road, had the lamp on a post by the gate. Other than at country 'police houses' the front door of a police station was always open until the 1980s. By the late 1990s a lot of police stations no longer had an open door during the evening, instead a phone is provided connecting you to the main police headquarters, if they feel the case is sufficiently urgent they telephone the station and ask someone to open the door and let you in. I understand (from a retired police officer) that this practice is to allow the staff to devote more time to filling in paperwork for the government rather than anything associated with fighting crime.

Fig ___ Police Station entrance with lamp

Police Station entrance with lamp
Early city centre police stations were often built in a square, surrounding an enclosed yard, up to about 1960 constables arriving for work would line up in the yard for inspection prior to going on duty. Where the building did not form a full square the open section was protected by a sturdy brick wall, typically twelve feet (3.5m) high. These early stations were built with serious civil disturbances in mind and often had no windows overlooking the street (the windows faced into the private yard), by the 1930s windows were seen on outside walls but often on the upper floors only. Many early police stations (built before about 1930) had an inner sheath of armour plate built into the walls, although you cannot tell this from the out side.

In country areas the local bobby might be accommodated in a house that also served as the local station, these were generally less forbidding establishments than full blown police stations, often a converted cottage or farm house with windows on the outer walls. These usually has a glass fronted notice board on the outside, used for official notices such as warnings of agricultural pest outbreaks. The cells for holding people who had been arrested and were awaiting trail would be those at the local Magistrates Courts, which had been in place for many years.

Police telephone boxes were invented in 1929 by a Mr. XXX. The 'Tardis' type (available from Langley) appeared in 1929 as part of an experimental system and was adopted by many towns and cities. These boxes had a telephone inside for police use and an external hatch with a telephone for public use. There was a sign on the outside advising that the telephone could be used to alert the police, fire brigade or ambulance service (often all operated by the police force until the 1940's). There was a light on top which was set flashing when the station wanted to contact the bobby on the beat, it remained flashing until the policeman lifted the internal telephone handset to answer the call.

Not all towns used the Tardis type of box, many (including Edinburgh and Manchester) used wooden structures, I believe these were however always painted blue (I could be wrong on that however).

In many towns the police boxes had been largely replaced by the 'police pillar'. These varied in design. In Manchester they were a metal post with a box holding the two telephones at about chest height and the flashing lantern mounted on top of the box. In London they were a tall box about seven feet high eighteen inches wide and a foot deep, again with the flashing light on top. The 'pillars' served the same communications function as a police box but offered no storage for emergency equipment (other than a small first aid kit) and could not be used for locking up a prisoner until the police van arrived.

Fig ___ Manchester police box and police pillar

Police box and police pillar as used in Manchester

During the Second World War several police boxes had an air-raid warning siren mounted on the roof (they were already wired up for the emergency services so this was a simple job). In 1937 the 999 emergency services telephone system was introduced, by this time many people had a telephone at home, greatly reducing the need for the police boxes and pillars. By the 1950's the police boxes were becoming quite rare (central Manchester boasted only two in the mid 1950's) but in 1957 a new national standard type of police pillar was introduced. This was based on the Metropolitan Police post (PA 350) which included limited storage for the policeman's cape and a first aid kit. They were set up all over the country, often replacing a Police Box.

Fig ___ 1957 national standard police pillar

nATIONAL STANDARD police pillar

The introduction of police personal radios in the early 1970s eliminated the need for the police box, although this did mean they had to wait for a car or van to collect people who had been arrested as there was no where to lock them up on the street. By the 1980s they were getting very rare. Some of the pillars survived for many years (London and Totnes had a few into the 1980s) and occasional police boxes remained in use into the 1990s in Scotland and South Wales.



Traffic Wardens

Traffic wardens appeared on the streets of London in 1960, partly to patrol the parking meters to ensure people paid their way but also to locate badly parked vehicles and have them moved (we loose a few tens of people every year due to emergency services being held up by badly parked vehicles, rather more than we do to murder). The standard spacing for parking meters was about 20 feet (6m). Traffic wardens wore the standard police uniform with flat cap but with a plain yellow band on the hat, bearing the words TRAFFIC WARDEN in black, and yellow tabs on the epaulets with their number on those in black. In about 2003 local councils began taking over the duties of the traffic wardens from the police. The photo below shows the standard uniform for the police operated wardens and two young ladies employed by the local council in the chilly spring of 2006.

Fig ___ Traffic wardens
Traffic wardens, 1960 and 2006




Fire brigades

An Act of 1774 required each parish to maintain their own fire-fighting appliance, this was to be used by the local citizens when required. The first fire brigades in Britain were organised by the insurance companies in London following the Great Fire in 1666, their job was to save property and hence save the insurance companies money. It was only after another serious fire in London that the Metropolitan Fire Brigade was formed by an Act of Parliament, combining the existing London Fire Engine Establishment and the Voluntary Society for the Protection of Life from Fire in to a single organisation.

Each town, indeed each parish, had their own fire brigade but these were not at all standardised in uniforms, equipment or training. Most brigades were manned by the police with civilian auxiliaries to make up the numbers, others were entirely volunteer organisations. From the early days until the 1950s most firemen were either ex Royal Navy or Merchant Navy personnel, used to working a system of watches and (as they had to reside at the fire station) used to being away from their families for long periods. A typical police fire brigade might have a permanent staff of five or six firemen/constables who maintained the equipment and responded to minor fires. There would be perhaps another ten constables who were called out as required and perhaps fifteen local men who acted as volunteer auxiliaries. In 1937 Civil Defence Act established a nation wide organisation to coordinate emergency services in wartime or disaster, this made provision for additional Auxiliary Fire Services to be established (some towns had operated volunteer Auxiliary Fire Services since the later 19th century). The 1938 The Fire Brigades Act formally requires all local authorities to establish fire brigades. During World War Two a National Fire Service was established, standardising the uniform and equipment so brigades could work more closely together. After the war the brigades passed back to the local authorities. In 1968, faced with the overwhelming threat of the hydrogen bomb, the Civil Defence Organisation was wound up and the Auxiliary Fire Services were disbanded.

Up to the 1890s when a fire occurred the church bells would be rung, the men would gather at the church and then proceed to collect their appliance and go on to the fire. Church bells remained in use into early twentieth century but from 1880's electric bells in firemen's homes were introduced. Also in the 1880's remote fire alarm boxes were introduced on the streets of many larger towns. These alarms were wall mounted and had a break-the-glass type alarm switch, inside the box was a telephone which connected directly with the fire station. These remote alarms fell from use with the massive growth of telephone ownership in the 1950's and 1960's. Radio was fitted to fire engines from about 1950's and from the mid 1990s data links were introduced allowing more detailed information to be passed to the crew on their way to an emergency. In the later 1990s a national police radio network was established, in 2001 the Ambulance Service also established a national radio system and in 2002 the Fire Brigades were implementing a national radio system of their own. The terrorist attack on London in 2005 revealed some problems with the three services communicating between them and in 2006 work was underway to allow inter-service coordination.

Water supplies for fire fighting were something of a problem but from the later 1830's on most towns included bye-laws to force the water supply company (whether private or owned by the town) to fit hydrants to the water mains for fire fighting. From about the 1890's the hydrants were usually marked by a cast metal plate mounted hight up on a nearby wall. Pre World War Two these were white with black markings, usually the letters F H or F P and a number such as 7 0 indicating the distance in feet between the hydrant and the plate. During the second world war any suitable water supply was marked by the letter E.W.S. painted in white or yellow in letters about two feet (60cm) high on a suitable nearby wall. This marking was still seen into the 1960s on bridges over rivers and on walls close by ponds and the like. After the second world war a national standard was introduced consisting of a cast metal plate about ten inches (25 cm) high by six inches 15 cm) wide. This plate is yellow with a large letter H in black and the distance to the hydrant in smaller black numbers between the lower legs of the H. In some cases the older F P plates have been painted yellow with the lettering picked out in black, however as they are often hard to reach many remain in the original black and white. The post war hydrant plates are often seen mounted on stubby concrete posts set into the pavement as shown in the photograph below, although some are mounted on the walls of buildings.

Fig ___ Hydrant signs
Early FP plate and post war H plate hydrant markers

To go with the hydrants there were also fire bells, up to the 1960s the most common type was a large red circular bell mounted on the outside of a building, some had the work FIRE painted across them in white. The example shown below left is an early type, the bell is externally mounted, the ringer revolves and is powered by an electric motor on the inside of the building. In the picture on the left a smaller, more modern, bell can also be seen which has the ringer inside the bell itself. Bells of this general type were also used as burglar alarms, although these were usually only fitted to large ware houses and shops carrying expensive goods such as jewelers. On the right is a slightly more modern bell, dating I believe from the 1940s (possibly a lot earlier) which has the bell and ringer mounted on the outside of the building. I believe this was actually a burglar alarm but it may have been a fire bell.

Fig ___ Alarm bells
Early Alarm bells


Fire Engines

Early fire engines were large hand pumps mounted on cart wheels with leather hoses to deliver the water. They were commonly hauled by man power, a long rope was attached to the front with wooden handles at intervals and pairs of men took up the handles and dragged the thing through the streets. These hand pumps remained in use into the 1890's and possibly a few isolated examples lasted into the early years of the twentieth century. The main problem with the hand powered pump was the number of men required to operate the thing, although the local citizenry would usually lend a hand when needed.

The horse drawn steam powered pump appeared in the 1830's, able to supply many more hoses with more water and at a greater pressure. These were heavy machines and usually drawn by a four horse team, the crew stood on small platforms on the sides. They carried a large bell to warn people of their approach, the woodwork was painted red and the brass boiler and fittings were all highly polished.

Fig___ Horse drawn fire engine

Photo of a Horse drawn Fire Engine

A model is available from Langley but these were expensive machines and many towns did not get them until the 1880's. They remained in service for many years, held in reserve long after more modern motor vehicles were acquired, I believe the last horse drawn steam pumps were phased out by about 1940 (some remained in use as pumps in civilian use in factories and the like into 1940's). The railways used these pumps and as they fell from favour for fire fighting some were mounted on railway wagons to act as water pumps during construction work and floods.

Fig___ Horse drawn fire engine livery notes

  Horse drawn Fire Engine

By the late 1860's some towns had purchased steam engined road vehicles as fire engines, the steam from the boiler also being used to drive the water pump. These were expensive to buy and generally slower than horse drawn appliances so they were never very common.

Motor pumps carrying extending ladders (discussed below) were introduced in the early twentieth century, these were first fire engines to carry supply of water on board. The early motor vehicles had solid tyres and no cab (not even a windscreen) and the large hand operated brass bell was retained to warn people on the road. Again the crew traveled standing on small platforms on the sides of the vehicle with the driver and the officer in charge having seats in the open cab. These engines often carried a 'portable' extending ladder (discussed in more detail below) which had five foot diameter wooden cart wheels to allow it to be maneuvered to the desired position.

Pneumatic tyres and windscreens for the driver were introduced in 1930's (older vehicles were modified) but the firemen were carried on bench seats set along the sides. The motor fire engine changed from hand-operated brass bells to an electric silver bell mounted on the front bumper in the about 1930, the headlamp housings are black enamel (chrome only became common on fire engines in the 1960s). The sketch below is a typical fire engine from about 1935, the crew have two rows of seats behind the driver, these remained in use into the later 1940s.

Fig___ 1930s Fire Engine

 Open 1930s Fire Engine

Units with cabs providing covered accommodation for the crew first appeared in the late 1940's. The open engines were still seen on the streets into the 1950s and continued in industrial use into the 1970s. The end of the old open engine meant the end of polished brass on the engines, replaced by chrome. Two tone horns replaced bells after about 1961 although new units with bells above the cab were still being delivered in the mid 1960s. The two-tone horn was usually mounted on the roof to one side of the ladders above the cab and was quite visible. The blue rotating lights also first appeared in 1961 although by this time fire engines were being delivered fitted with flashing amber lights above the cabs. On older machines the new blue lights were mounted on a short mast (holding them about eighteen inches above the roof). Initially only one blue rotating light was fitted (above the drivers cab) but the rules were subsequently changed to allow fire engines to have one on each corner. The slatted roller-shutter doors on the side of fire engines (covering the equipment storage bays) came in during the early 1960s, replacing the older top-hinged doors. By the mid 1960s the wheeled extending ladder carried on the roof was being phased out, although engines still carried extending aluminium ladders on their roof these were shorter and could only reach a third floor window. The truck mounted extending ladder was widely introduced (they had been seen in towns since the 1920s) for rescue duties and the hydraulic platform was the preferred option for getting a hose above a fire.

Fig___ 1950s and 1960s Fire Engines

Enclosed 1950s and 1960s Fire Engines

Roger T, a regular on the uk.rec.models.rail newsgroup currently resident in Canada pointed out that -
in the mid 1960s Coventry adopted a lime green colour (known as Coventry fire engine green) as this was more visible under the sodium street lights then being introduced. I seem to recall that some vehicles in Havant were painted this yellow/green colour and possibly some in Portsmouth as well. However, this is just from memory which, as we all know, can be unreliable.
As I understand it this colour did not catch on (I am not aware of other brigades using it) but Kim, another regular on the newsgroup advised that
The emergency tender - they're the ones which are called out first - are still yellow in Coventry but the Home Office let it be known that their 'preferred' colour for fire engines is red. Incidentally, Coventry fire engines are also fitted with New York-style 'shriek boxes' to clear traffic which provoke howls of derision from local youths whenever they're switched on.


Fig___ Fire Engine 2007

Fire Engine photographed in 2007

In 1937 a small towed pump unit able to deliver 120 galons per minute was issued to several city fire brigades, these came in very handy during the Second World War as they could be pulled into place by the firemen in the rubble strewn areas after a bombing raid.

Fig ___ 1937 small pump unitt

Portable fire pump from 1937

Small portable pumps were often supplied to industrial sites, the example below is a Second World War vintage portable pump which had been in use at the Ferranti factory in Holinwood north of Manchester up to the 1980s, it is now preserved at the Imperial War Museum North. Equipment of this type might be stored under a simple corrugated metal roof in the yard of the factory.

Fig ___ Industrial fire fighting equipment

 Portable fire pump preserved at Imperial War Museum North

Larger factories would have a fire engine, either a retired example of a standard type or a purpose built machine. The photo below shows the 1950s built landrover fire engine which had been used at a large factory. The military used similar vehicles for fire fighting at out-lying bases, notably air fields.

Fig ___ Industrial fire engine

Landrover based Industrial fire engine



Portable Escape Ladders

The Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire was set up in the mid 1830s to provide emergency escape ladders in London to help rescue people, they operated the ladders themselves until the late 1860s. A portable extending fire escape ladder, mounted on a horse drawn wheeled carriage, was invented by Abraham Wivell in 1837 but was not widely used until the 1880s. There was often one of these units stationed at the fire station but others were often positioned around the town so as to be on hand if required.

A more modern telescopic extending ladder with a hand crank to extend the ladder was developed in the 1890's (initially by J. C. Merryweather, later by Shand Mason & Co and others). When traveling the ladder was carried very high on the carriage which was towed by horses. The ladder was often fitted with a hose attachment to allow a fireman to direct his water from above the fire. It was quite common to position a couple of these units around the town so they would be ready for use if required.

The next development was the 'sliding platform' ladder which consisted of a two wheeled carriage with five foot diameter wooden 'waggon' type wheels on which the ladder itself was mounted. The ladder could be moved on the carriage and with the wheels positioned in the centre one man could move the ladder to where it was needed. The apparatus was moved into position and the carriage slid along to the bottom end to point the ladder upwards and a system of hand cranks extended the ladder.

Fig___ Merryweather 'sliding platform' ladder

Merryweather 'sliding platform' ladder

With the wheels moved to one end the apparatus could be carried on top of a fire engine and this ladder with its large wheels set to one end remained a feature of fire engines into the early 1980's. The example shown below dates from the early 1980s, it is a Shelvoke fire tender with portable escape ladder.

Fig___ Shelvoke fire tender with portable escape ladder

Shelvoke fire tender with portable escape ladder


The powered turn-table ladder appeared in Britain shortly before the First World War with the arrival of motor vehicles powerful enough to operate them. These were confined to large cities however and most brigades continued using the wheeled portable ladders carried on top of the fire engine into the 1970's. In the sketch below the 1950s version has no crew seating other than in the (now enclosed) cab but has a hose reel mounted behind the cab, this was for when the ladder was used to get a hose above a fire, such as in a warehouse or factory fire.

Fig___ 1930s and 1950s Turntable ladders

1930s and 1950s turntable ladders


The hydraulic platform, commonly referred to as the Simon Schnorkel (after the name of the most popular type) appeared in about 1971. The platform is carried on the end of a two-section arm which is lifted by hydraulic rams. The position can be controlled from either the vehicle on which it is mounted or from the platform itself. There is usually a fire monitor mounted on the platform capable of delivering water or foam. These are not much use for evacuation as so few people can fit on the platform, they are however very useful to get a jet of water into the top of a burning building.

Fig___ Simon Schnorkel

 Simon Schnorkel

Ladders are still carried by fire engines, these include ladders with a hooked top which can be used with windows high on the side of a building as well as extending and one-piece ladders of the type used for rescuing cats from trees.

Fig___ Modern (2006) engine showing ladders

Modern (2006) engine showing ladders

The jump sheet (4 yds x 4 yds with handles) was introduced from USA in about 1890 and was carried on fire engines into the 1950's. In use the sheet was fitted with rope handles and a team of men would hold it stretched out for people to jump into. This allowed people to escape from the second and third storey but anything higher meant they tended to get hurt. Early sheets were typically four yards (4m) square but by the 1920's they were often circular in shape.
Jumping into one of these from a second storey window was the last task in Boy Scout fire fighting badge.

The aircraft type escape chute is not such a new idea, the local fire brigade in Stockport had something called the 'Bayley Incombustible Chute' in the 1870's. This was a heavy canvas tube which could be suspended from the top of a ladder. Escaping people climbed onto the ladder but then dropped down through the chute. This was much quicker than climbing down the ladder and put less weight on the thing as there were fewer people 'in transit' at any given time.

The Green Goddess

Following the development of the atomic bomb it was apparent that in a future conflict it was likely that entire cities would be set on fire. Experience in Germany during the massive allied bombing of cities suggested that a major problem would be the 'fire storm' where the burning fires pull in the surrounding air which in turn fans the fires on the periphery. Winds of a hundred miles per hour or more had been recorded but in Dresden the fire brigade had used their engines to create a tunnel of water sprays into the heart of the fire to get the people out. The British government, as part of its Civil Defense programme (started in the late 1930s to cope with war and major civil emergencies) purchased a fleet of fire engines with the specific purpose of evacuating people from burning cities. The engines, known as Green Godess' were based on a standard 'high mobility' Bedford 7 ton 4x4 chassis were built between 1953 and 1956 with various coach building firms adding the bodywork (an Ash frame with steel panels). Some were supplied to the military but most went to the Auxilliary Fire Service (part of the Civil Defence organisation). Kim Pateman was able to advise -
Of the six fire engines stationed in the centre of Coventry, one was always a Green Goddess belonging to the Civil Defence Corps. It was last used in earnest for damping-down the ruins of a factory which caught fire in the 1960's.
Also of interest to anyone modelling townscapes in the post-war period is that it was common practice to deliberately flood the cellars of destroyed buildings and use them a refill points for engines returning from a fire. This continued well into the late 1960's.
The development of the hydrogen bomb rendered wartime fire fighting a largely futile option, however although the Civil Defense organisation was wound up to save money in 1968 the fire engines, known as Green Goddesses, were mothballed. Some were passed to the armed forces, where they were used as fire engines, giving the military personnel a chance to familiarise themselves with the equipment. Given their intended role these engines do not carry a wheeled escape ladder, although they do have aluminium extending ladders carried on the roof. They are all-over bronze green but have an orange stripe painted along each side as shown below and carry six character military number plates (two letters, two number, two letters). The hose is brown and carried on a reel set into a recess on the side of the vehicle. The example shown below was on display at the steam rally at Astle Park in 2007, I believe the blue flashing light was added for the 1970s employment discussed below.

Fig___ Green Goddess

Green Goddess

There have been two occasions where the fire brigades have gone on strike and the government has called out the forces, with their Green Goddess engines, to provide cover. The first time this happened was in 1977-78, and the military did a lot of good work at that time (this was during a period of many strikes in both the private and public sectors, the ambulance crews went on strike in 1973). There were problems however, the military firemen are not trained to deal with the priorities of a civilian fire and some of their equipment proved problematic. For example the army were using a steel helmet (fitted with a yellow oilskin 'skirt' to protect the back of the neck) but in civilian fires protection from shrapnel is less important than protection from electrocution by dangling live wires. Each engine had to be accompanied by a police car to clear traffic and provide radio contact, breathing apparatus (not carried on the Goddess) was taken along in a second military vehicle.

The second time they were called in however, during strikes in 2002 and 2003, there were not enough military engines fit for use so some of the fire brigade engines were manned by the military. This was much less successful as a modern fireman is highly trained and has a lot of highly specialised equipment which the troops could not use properly.

Fire Brigade Uniforms

The uniforms worn by firemen were initially rather colourful, by the 1830's most wore a top hat, a coloured tunic, a belt from which hung a small axe and often a light rope 'life line'. The life line was used when the smoke was thick, the free end was tied at the entrance so the fireman could find his way back out of the building (or a colleague could enter and find him if he was overcome by the fumes). By the 1860's most firemen wore a heavy double breasted coat with brass buttons that reached down to mid-thigh and a black (leather) or brass helmet. Some fire brigades wore 'naval' style circular flat caps when not fighting fires, when standing by at the fire station the men would commonly remove their tunics in warm weather, they wore heavy blue and white striped cotton shirts with no collar and often had both belt and braces to hold up their trousers.

Some brigades operated by the police used the flat naval hat but retained the standard police tunic, others wore the local standard police uniform complete with helmet.

The belt with the fire axe and life line was very standard but some units had leather boots and other used rubber boots, some wearing their trousers outside and others inside the boots. By the later 1930's the brass helmets were becoming a hazard due to the increasing use of electricity and forces gradually changed to the black leather version. In 1937 a new helmet appeared, still painted black this was made from cork and had a wider brim at the sides as well and the front and rear and retained the reinforced spine giving the characteristic shape. The crews of fire boats (small boats equipped with powerful pump, used to fight fires in docks and quayside warehouses) were often wearing a flat peaked uniform cap by the mid 1920s.

It was only in 1938 that an Act of Parliament introduced a degree of standardisation in fire service uniforms and equipment. This Act also allowed the police to divert traffic at their discretion to assist the fire fighters and a small number of police on each shift were routinely detailed to work with the firemen. The Act of 1938 finally officially separated the police forces from the fire brigades and firemen were a separate service from 1939. The fire fighting uniform consisted of black oilskin over trousers, a belted heavy woolen double breasted jacket and a black helmet.

During World War Two the fire services were 'nationalised' for the duration and when fighting fires all firemen wore the standard issue military steel helmet (in spite of the danger of electrocution). Some brigades added an oilskin veil hanging off the back to better protect the fireman's neck (most were black, some were yellow) but a standard fire fighting uniform remained much as before, basically a belted black double breasted heavy tunic, black (shiny) oilskin over trousers and boots.

During the war the Auxilliary Fire Service was established, the men received basic training in fire fighting and providrd additional manpower to fight the fires caused by bombing raids. They wore standard fire service uniform but had a circular silver badge on the cap. The illustration below, courtesy of Joe Robinson shows an AFS fire boat (a converted narrow canal boat fitted with powerful pumps) in service in the docks at Manchester, the crew were bargees who volunteered for service.

Fig ___ Auxilliary Fire Service Fire Boat

Auxilliary Fire Service Fire Boat

There was a further change introduced gradually after the Second World War which has combined the fifteen hundred or so small town fire brigades into about a hundred and fifty larger organisations with the closure of many of the smaller local fire stations.

After the war the national uniform remained in place and the black cork helmets with the wide all-round brim and reinforced spine were standard nation wide by about 1950.

Fig ___ Diesel engined pump and crew c1940

Diesel engined pump and crew c1940

In the 1960's a new, unbelted, tunic was gradually introduced (becoming standard nation wide by the early 1970's). In the 1970's yellow leggings appeared (worn over the boots) followed by yellow helmets (white with two black bands for officers) in the later part of the decade. In the 1980's the coats got longer and retro-reflective white strips were added at chest height, along the hem and at the cuffs. By the end of the decade high visibility yellow waterproof tunics were in use by firemen attending road accidents.

Respirators of various types were used from about the time of the First World War but did not become commonplace until the later 1970s.

White asbestos 'proximity' suits were introduced in the 1920's, mainly for use on airfields, these were replaced with silver coloured suits in the 1970's, either allowed the fire fighter to get in close (albeit briefly) to fires. Yellow chemical protection suits were supplied to fire brigades from the mid 1980s, prior to this they were only used by the private fire fighting and rescue teams in oil refineries and chemical plants.

Fig ___ Fire service uniforms

Fire brigade uniforms


Fire Extinguishers

Larger factories had their own fire brigades but even a small firm would usually provide a set of 'fire buckets' These were red buckets, usually hung in groups of three for a red wooden frame, containing water or sand. Sand was used where an oil (or petrol) fire might occur. Fire buckets remained a feature of life well into the 1980s, the example shown is sand filled buckets at a former bus garage (part of the Manchester Museum of Transport), these were supplemented by and then replaced by water-foam and CO2 extinguishers (discussed below). As they were not terribly valuable fire buckets were often seen outside (the sand filled type often serving as handy ash trays for the cigarette smokers).

Fig ___ Fire buckets

Fire buckets

Fire extinguishers have gone through a number of colour changes, early examples tended to be brass cased and unpainted but by the 1930s the common soda-acid water type (discussed below) were usually all over Signal Red and this remains the standard colour today. The standard for a foam extinguisher was cream but in the mid 1990s this changed to signal red with a cream panel above the instructions on the body. The carbon dioxide extinguisher was black (sometimes with a white top end), since the mid 1990s the colours have changed to red with 'at least 5%' painted black (usually the top bit of the main body). The Dry Powder extinguishers were all over French blue but are now red with a blue panel above the operating instructions. When deciding which type you need to show you really need to know a little of the history and what the various types were used for.

The first fire extinguishers date from 1819, a three gallon water filled hand pumped device invented by the British Captain Namby of Norfolk. Hand pumped extinguishers remained in use well into the 1930s, during World War Two a simple hand pump was introduced fitted with two hoses (one to spray the fire the other to dip into a bucket or other water supply. As this had a loop of metal for the foot to brace it they were called 'stirrup pumps'. In the 1860's a French inventor developed a water extinguisher which used acid and bicarbonate of soda to generate carbon dioxide which pushed the water out and a few years later another Frenchman invented an extinguisher which produced a foam which would float on water or oil.

The standard size for fire extinguishers settled at two gallons capacity and this was adopted world wide. Early examples were brass or copper cased with the makers details embossed on the sides. In the 1930's as oil fires became more common the fire brigades started carrying a couple of two gallon foam extinguishers on their fire engines, at which time they started painting them red (at some point the colour for water-foam extinguishers changed to cream but I am not sure when that was).

In about 1912 an American company called Pyrene came up with the hand-pumped carbon tetrachloride extinguisher, these were quite small (typically holding two pints of CTC, similar in size to a washing up liquid bottle) but they had the advantage of not freezing up in winter. CTC is suitable for electrical fires and was a popular choice for motor vehicles. The drawback with carbon tetrachloride is that it is toxic and when heated it produces a very poisonous gas, so its use in confined spaces (they were standard on aeroplanes for example) was a tad risky. The early types were plain brass but by the later 1930s they were sometimes painted either red or silver. I believe the CTC extinguisher was banned from the mid 1960s. In the early 1930s Midgely developed a small aerosol fire extinguisher for use in cars containing pressurised clouroflurocarbons or CFCs, was similar in size to the CTC type but usually painted blue, however CFCs were banned in the 1980s as they damage the Ozone layer. The illustration below shows the hand-pumped Pyrene type CTC extinguisher and a brass bodied aerosol CFC type (from a bus in the Manchester Transport Museum).

Fig ___ CTC and CFC extinguishers

CTC and CFC extinguishers


Fire extinguishers were expensive and hence liable to theft, so they would not normally be placed unattended outside. It is doubtful if you would be able to see them inside a British N scale building but from about 1910 to the 1930s a cylindrical brass or copper type would be common (some had a pump handle on the top, others were of the soda-acid type). From the 1930s to the later 1960s the most common design of water extinguisher was a tall cone shaped thing, similar to a 'dunces cap', painted red and mounted on a wall bracket. To use it you turned it upside down (point downwards) and banged the stud on the point on the floor, this broke a glass canister of acid to produce carbon dioxide (which pressurised the canister) and forced out the water. The illustration below shows a conical soda-acid type (a variant with the plunger mounted on the base, this may have been an American type) and a post 1970 soda acid type.

Fig ___ Soda acid extinguishers

Soda acid extinguishers

Foam extinguishers would be used in oil terminals and petrol stations, the most common size was the two gallon, the portable two gallon types have a handle and a short black rubber hose on the top end, the example on the left dates from the early 1930s (examples in this plain cream colour scheme were still in use in 2006).

Fig ___ Water foam extinguishers

Water foam extinguishers

Larger water foam units, as used in some industrial locations, can be mounted on wheels with a light grey hose coiled up and suspended from a hook on the frame.

Obviously you cannot use water or water based foam where there is electricity about so compressed carbon dioxide cylinders are used, these have a long conical nozzle on a swinging arm and a handle on the top (you MUST hold these by the handle as when they are fired the main case freezes). The illustration below shows two variations on the CO2 type (showing the two standard colourings).

Fig ___ CO2 extinguishers

CO2 extinguishers


For fighting oil fires a dry-powder is often used to kill the fire quickly. The white talcum-like powder releases carbon dioxide and kills the flame almost instantly, you can then spray with foam which floats on the oil and keeps the air out.

Fig ___ Dry Powder extinguishers

 Dry Powder extinguishers


Large fixed dry powder systems are a feature of oil terminals and the like, these use either a fixed 'monitor' or a heavy rubber hose with a two-handed gun on the end, supplied from a powder tank via a grey hose. The gun type are laid out where there is a risk of an oil or chemical fire so they can be used quickly. When not in use they are stowed in red painted boxes usually supported on legs so the base of the box is about at 'hip' height and the box is about three feet high, five feet wide and a foot deep.

The first water sprinkler system was installed in an Edinburgh building in 1881 and this became the standard protection for large buildings. In the 1960's halon gas was developed for fire fighting and as this causes no damage to papers or equipment many office buildings have halon fire suppression systems built-in. Theoretically you can flood the area with halon and people will still be able to breath (the only practical experiment I know of killed all the people) but although very effective halon has now been banned as it causes damage to the ozone layer.





Ambulance services

Note - Nurses uniforms are considered separately in the sub section on Civilians in Uniform

Prior to the 1970's the main function of ambulances was to take people to hospital. Hospitals built by public subscription began to appear in some towns in the eighteenth century and by the time the railways came there were over a hundred and fifty so-called Voluntary Hospitals. These were built and staffed from voluntary donations, the doctors working in them gave their time for free and the patients paid what they could afford to the hospital almoner. There was also some provision under the Poor Law and the Victorian work houses often had a hospital of sorts. An Act of 1929 gave the County Councils and country Borough Councils powers to take over and run the workhouse hospitals, many of which became country 'cottage hospitals'. This two-tier system of voluntary and municipal hospitals continued until the outbreak of the Second World War when all hospitals pooled their resources.

The photograph below shows the 100ft frontage of Stockport Infirmary, built by public subscription in 1833 and referred to as a 'Samaritan institution' in 19th century literature. It was absorbed by the NHS in 1948 and closed in 1999 (to be refurbished as the headquarters for the newly created Pension Service).

Fig ___ Stockport Infirmary

Fire brigade uniforms

Before the Second World War hospitals were seen as places to be avoided if at all possible. Diseases such as tuberculosis and cholera had their associated 'sanatoriums' and 'fever hospitals', from which many people never returned. Stockport infirmary shown above was arranged with 'fever wards' separated from the rest of the building. If you got an infection in a wound you would be transferred to the 'septic ward', most people died there prior to the widespread introduction of penicillin in the 1940s.

Medical treatment had to be paid for and sick people were generally treated at home to save money (at the end of the nineteenth century the most common civil case in many British courts was doctors suing patients for non payment of fees). After the war the formation of the National Health Service brought all but a few hospitals under direct government control and offered 'free' medical treatment to all. Under the terms of the National Health Act of 1947 all local authorities were obliged to provide an ambulance service. The formation of the Greater Metropolitan Areas (Greater London, Avon, Greater Manchester etc.) in the mid 1960 saw many amalgamations and London's ambulance service became the largest in the world. The next big change came in 1974 when the ambulance services moved under the control of the local Area Health Authority, reducing the number of separate services from over a hundred to less than fifty.

By the 1930's the doctors had a pretty good chance of telling you what was wrong but little to offer in the way of treatment, many diseases were fatal and prior to the development of penicillin in the 1940's there was nothing a hospital could do for you if a cut went septic.

The word 'ambulant' means 'able to walk' and the first use of the term ambulance was for mobile hospitals which followed military units into battle to care for the wounded. The word ambulance was used to describe horse drawn covered wagons for transporting the wounded from the battlefield by the French Napoleonic army. The British army took up the idea of the horse drawn ambulance and also adopted the name. The first horse-drawn British military ambulances saw service during the Crimean War in the mid 1850's but ambulances remained an essentially military idea until the later nineteenth century.

When people needed transporting to hospital the police usually took them there on a stretcher, locals would often fund the purchase of a simple two wheeled cart capable of carrying a single stretcher. They were called stretcher carts or litters, most had two wheels (light wooden cart wheels or sometimes bicycle type spoked wheels), a few had a third small wheel on a metal frame under one end (more difficult to model). Most seem to have had a folding cover at one end, the posh versions had a curved cover over the stretcher itself to protect the patient from the weather. These were a fairly standard piece of police station equipment and they were also stationed at taxi ranks in special shelters, the cabbies being required to supply the man power as required. These were widely used from the 1880's through to the 1930's, although in later years they were mainly seen as a reserve rather than as it primary form of ambulance. In practice the principal use for these carts was taking the occasional dead body to the morgue. There is a preserved example on display at the Manchester Police Museum, the colouring on my sketch is an approximation based on my memory of the preserved example.

Fig___ Police Stretcher Cart or Litter

Police stretcher cart ambulance

The St. John's Ambulance Association & Brigade was founded in 1877 (the British branch of the Order of St. John the Hospitaler of Jerusalem having been re-founded in 1832 after a lapse of several hundred years) and began offering a free service to the public. The Order of St. Andrew established a similar service in Scotland a few years later and both these organisations still offer some ambulance services today as well as providing medically trained first aid personnel to public functions and gatherings. The St. Johns and St Andrews Ambulance people devised a number of ambulances based on pairs of bicycles with a stretcher carried on a frame between them and even operated a number of motorcycle side-car ambulances, both the bike type and the side car type remained in use up to about the First World War. The St Johns ambulance continue to provide ambulance crews certainly into the 1960s, in the early 21st century they were still providing paramedic services, some of whom were operating on bicycles as they found that in cities a bike could reach the scene of an incident more quickly than a car.

Fig___ St Johns Ambulance uniforms

St Johns Ambulance uniforms

Local authorities began setting up horse drawn ambulance services of various sorts in the 1860's, often in response to a crisis such as an outbreak of cholera, and they were usually responsible for providing transport for the insane. This gave ambulances a socially dubious reputation and people would generally make their own way to seek medical help rather than be seen traveling in one. Many local ambulance services were operated by the police up to the time of the Second World War, their vehicles being clearly marked City of...... Police Ambulance, others were operated by the local fire brigade, itself a branch of the police force at the time.

The motor ambulance first appeared in France in the first years of the twentieth century and by the time of the First World War motor lorries and large cars were being converted for use as ambulances by the army, but these were few and far between in civilian life. After the war many of the ambulances donated by wealthy organisations as part of the war effort were still in serviceable condition and a 'Home Ambulance Service' was established to use these vehicles. This service proved to be a valuable asset and the service was maintained until the Second World War. By this time ambulances, usually motorised, were being used by an increasing number of private clinics and were available to all but the smaller hospitals.

After the second world war there was a growing realisation that the ambulance crew could do useful work at the scene of an accident and also as the patient was being transported back to the hospital. The ambulance has been increasingly seen not as a patient retrieval system but as the front line of emergency care. Ambulances are almost all coach-built bodies mounted on standard commercial chassis, the firm of Lucas in Cheshire being one of the main providers for the UK. Since the 1970's improvements to the suspension have become part of the conversion to give the patient a gentler ride. By the 1970's ambulances were equipped with a range of emergency equipment and by the end of the decade some were turned out in colourful 'paramedic' liveries.

Ambulance liveries

Ambulance liveries have been many and varied, before the First World War they were often unmarked because of the stigma associated with illness, some hospital operated a horse drawn ambulance which might carry the hospital name and the word ambulance on the side.

The red cross was introduced in the first world war as a marking for non-combatant vehicles such as ambulances, field kitchens and the like. Following the war the rules changed and only ambulances and hospitals were allowed to display the red cross markings in wartime. Civilian ambulances have tended not to carry this marking, when they had it the cross was usually small, often painted on a small metal plate perhaps six inches in diameter mounted centrally above the driving cab windows.

After the First World War there was a degree of standardisation when the British Red Cross and St Johns Ambulance operated the 'National Ambulance Service' with a fleet of black (later very dark blue) vehicles bearing a small white circle with a red cross emblem on the side. To each side of the emblem was The 'ORDER OF ST. JOHN' and '& BRITISH RED CROSS' whilst along the waist line in a plain white script six inches high was HOME AMBULANCE SERVICE. The Red Cross ambulances of the 1920s were plain black with a simple red cross on a disc logo on the sides and an illuminated AMBULANCE sign above the cab, on the photographs I have seen there were no other markings visible. These vehicles operated alongside the ambulances operated by the local police forces, which (I believe) were painted black or very dark blue with white lettering, usually the county crest with POLICE AMBULANCE SERVICE' in two or three inch high lettering below on the sides, and those operated by clinics and hospitals or voluntary organisations (often funded by the local council but staffed by volunteers).

Fig___ 1920s National Ambulance Service & 1930s ambulance markings
National Ambulance Service vehicle showing typical markings of the 1920s and an ambulance operated by a local council

Following the Second World War the red cross was only used on military ambulances, civilian vehicles often had only the word AMBULANCE as a distinctive marking, a few having the county crest as well. White became a fairly standard colour but some local authorities have painted them in everything from blue to green to white with 'go faster' stripes. Bristol had a dark blue front and roof with the rest in white in the 1960s. The illustration below is a Bedford ambulance from (I believe) the later 1950s showing a typical livery of the time.

Fig___ Typical Post War Ambulance Markings
Bedford ambulance from the early 1960s showing typical markings of the era

Most ambulances were built on standard commerical vehicle chassis many with only a slightly modified body design but some had a more destinctive appearance, the example below dating from the 1950s is typical.

Fig___ Typical 1950s ambulance
Typical ambulance of the 1950s

The illustration below shows examples from the 1960s and 1970s. The blue light and two-tone horn were introduced in 1963 but some ambulances retained the bumper mounted silver bell well into the late 1960s, some had the bell in place with the two tone horn mounted on the roof just in front of the rotating blue light. By about 1970 the bells had all gone and the two tone horns were mounted inside the engine compartment.

Fig___ Typical 1960s and 1970s Ambulances on the Morris chassis
Morris ambulances from the early 1960s and early 1970s showing typical markings of the era

High visibility white vehicles with orange stripes along the sides appeared in the mid 1970's for emergency duties, following the lead set by the police 'jam butty cars'. The generally colourful 'paramedic' ambulances appeared in the mid 1980's, these often featured the six pointed 'star of life' emblem popular in America along with the standard ambulance shield logo.

Fig___ Emergency ambulance 2006
 Emergency ambulance 2006

The official ambulance crest (a wheel with snake in a laurel wreath and with a crown on top) was introduced in 1986, each county having its name on the rim of the wheel. Those on my local ambulances have a blue patch below with the letters NHS in white (see the 2006 Emergency Ambulance photo above).

Fig___ Ambulance service crest
Ambulance service crest





Fire and Ambulance Stations

In the 1880's new purpose built fire stations were set up incorporating ideas brought over from America. It was about this time that the firemen started living above the engines and the sliding pole was introduced. Not all fire stations were multi-storey however, in less built up areas where land was cheaper a single storey approach was often employed. One characteristic feature of fire stations built after the turn of the century was a tall tower used to hang the hoses up to dry and also for practice purposes. Other than the tower there will be a one or two storey building with two or more large doors to house the fire engines.

The earliest combined fire and ambulance station I found reference to dates to the later 1920s but by the mid 1930s these were fairly common (although not universal, my local fire station did not house an ambulance when it was closed in the early 1960s).

The local fire station in the village where I now live consisted of a simple garrage, the firemen lived in fire brigade owned houses to one side, the station had a siren on a 30ft (10m) high post to call in the staff when needed. This station was closed in the 1960s (when a combined fire and ambulance station was built about a mile away), the site is now a small unsurfaced car park and the houses were handed over to the council.



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