Thames at War:City Fireboat Stations on the River

Guest blog by Gustav Milne

As we approach the 80th anniversary of the start of London’s Blitz in September, we remember the debt we owe the men and women of the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS), in particular the crews that worked on the Thames. Although some of the fires in waterfront warehouses could be tackled from the landward side, many would require attention from the river.

AFS in action: St Katherine’s docks, September 1940: Mary Evans Picture Gallery: London Fire Brigade collection).

In central London, there were ten river stations in operation during the height of the Blitz. Each station would comprise offices and the firefighter’s dormitory and canteen. This would either be in an accommodation barge moored on the river or usually in a requisitioned school or commercial building on dry land. Access to the fireboats often required a short pier with a floating pontoon, sometimes with one or two small offices/store buildings on it. The vessels moored here were all painted battleship grey, and comprised a range of types. There were the firefloats with their powerful monitors to direct a concentrated jet of water at a riverside fire: the Massey Shaw is the last survivor of its class. There were also water-relay barges which carried a series of pumps designed to relay water from the river via extension hoses to fire crews tackling blazes on shore. Indeed, much of the river division’s work involved the supply of water from the Thames to land-based teams, where bombs had fractured the mains and hydrants.

As for the City of London itself, there were two stations, both based in elegant late Victorian offices that somehow survived the Blitz. One was at 9 Carmelite Street, with its associated jetty and pontoon off the Victoria Embankment just upstream of Blackfriars Bridge. An auxiliary pumping station stood next to it, the last survivor (until 2013) of the forty-four such facilities built to pump water from the Thames at all states of the tide to hydrants that were more easily accessible to land-based fire crews. 

The other City-based fire station for the River Formation had its offices at 2A Eastcheap, near Billingsgate (R3Y). The building still survives at the head of Fish Street Hill, the lane that leads directly downhill to Billingsgate. The remains of the associated jetty that once accessed the pontoon may still be seen beneath the suspended Billingsgate Walkway, down on the foreshore. The buildings immediately to its west were blown up by a V1 flying bomb, an act that may well have damaged the pontoon itself.
The Billingsgate AFS station was in the office building at the head of Fish Street Hill in the photo on the left. The pontoon used by the City firefloat crew can be seen in the photo on the right taken in 1937, to the right of the picture (Museum of London PLA collection)

Spare a thought for those AFS firefighters next time you walk along the Thames Path: as one commented during a waterfront fire on a tea warehouse: “This is all wrong: my mother told me I should pour boiling water on cold tea: but I’m pouring cold water on boiling tea”

W Hickin – Fire Force: an organisational history of the national fire service 1941-48
G Milne – The Thames at War: saving London from the Blitz
The ‘Thames at War path’ – a virtual tour on Layers of London – created by the City of London Archaeological Society

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