James Braidwood

1800 - 1861

James Braidwood
©2022 Gazetteer for Scotland

James Braidwood

Pioneering fire-fighter. Born in Edinburgh and educated at the Royal High School in the city, Braidwood joined his father's building firm as an apprentice. He learned about the construction of buildings while living with the masons and carpenters and later applied this knowledge in fire-fighting. In the early 19th C., people were leaving Edinburgh's Old Town for the more comfortable surroundings of the New Town. The old buildings became slums and fire-traps. Edinburgh had very limited fire services and, following a series of deadly fires, which culminated in the Great Fire of Edinburgh of 1824, Braidwood persuaded the authorities and insurance company brigades to work together. He formed the world's first municipal fire brigade, organising men and machines. He was the first to promote entering burning buildings to fight the seat of a fire. He trained his men at night to get them used to dark conditions and instructed them to carry rope to escape from burning buildings, practising their climbing skills on Edinburgh's North Bridge.

Braidwood was head-hunted to become the first Superintendent of the new London Fire Engine Establishment (1833), a private organisation funded by insurance companies. He built a team of 80 full-time fire-fighters based at 13 stations. However, Braidwood also involved his organisation in public duties, for example fighting the devastating fire in the Houses of Parliament (1834) where he was responsible for saving the 11th C. Westminster Hall. He initiated fire prevention surveys at, for example, the Royal Naval Dockyards and Buckingham Palace. Braidwood's manual on fire-fighting includes many basic principles which are still quoted during fire training today. He also invented one of the first forms of breathing apparatus to be used by firemen.

Braidwood was killed by a collapsing wall while fighting the infamous Tooley Street Warehouse fire on the south bank of the River Thames. Vast crowds turned out to pay their respects as his funeral procession passed through the streets of London carrying Braidwood to his last resting place in Abney Park Cemetery. His work led directly to the founding of the municipal London Fire Brigade in 1866.

A London fire-boat was named in his honour in the 1930s. He has a memorial on the corner of Tooley Street and Cottons Lane in Southwark, with nearby Braidwood Street named after him and a statue in Edinburgh's Parliament Square (unveiled 2008), close to the site of his first fire station.

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