I AM always grateful for suggestions for columns, especially when someone has a personal interest in a subject, so I was delighted to hear from Diana Hamilton-Jones who wrote to me about her great great great grandfather, James Braidwood, the father of the modern fire service. “But few people know his name,” Diana added, though thanks to former Edinburgh firemaster Frank Rushbrook CBE and doughty campaigners like former councillor Ken Harrold, many people did learn about Braidwood 10 years ago, thanks largely to the long-overdue erection of a statue to him in Parliament Square in the capital.

It is an imposing sculpture of a strong-looking man, and captures the dedication and commitment of a man who gave his life to the fire service.

Diana continued: “Since the bronze of him was unveiled on Parliament Square in Edinburgh in 2008 I have been trying to raise his public profile. Initially, London Fire Brigade was immensely helpful and supportive and now that I live in Scotland I hope to get equal support from the Scottish Fire Service as well as members of the Scottish Parliament.

“I have already made some good contacts and hope between us Royal Mail will finally respond to my request and commission a stamp!

“The bicentenary of the formation of the world’s first municipal fire service is 2024 and Edinburgh should be preparing to mark this special anniversary. Without James Braidwood and his legacy our lives would be quite different and this should be recognised.”

So who was this extraordinary Scotsman and is he really the father of modern firefighting?

James Braidwood was born in Edinburgh in 1800, the tenth child of Francis James Braidwood and his wife Janet Mitchell. His father was a prosperous cabinetmaker and builder, and it was always intended that James would join the family firm.

He received a normal schooling at the Royal High School of Edinburgh and left at 13 as was the norm at that time. He then received a further year of private tuition while beginning work for his father as an apprentice.

Braidwood proved to be very adept in the building trade and soon began training as a surveyor. Edinburgh’s old town in those days was a giant warren of mainly elderly rickety buildings. There are still some areas of the Old Town where you can see how families lived in tenemented closes on top of each other, but in the early 19th century there was very little in the way of fire prevention and household blazes could often become major conflagrations.

Working alongside his uncle William at one of the fire insurance offices in the city, Braidwood had already impressed his elders with his views on how to combat the menace of fires which were frequent and nearly always provoked panic in the populace.

Insurance companies paid men to tackle fires but Braidwood observed that their efforts were primitive and largely consisted of trying to stop a fire spreading to an insured building rather than fighting the blaze itself. There then occurred one of those twists of fate which seemed to happen in the lives of all great geniuses. In 1824 three disastrous fires struck Edinburgh’s centre within months of each other.

Such was the extent of the damage in the fires that the General Police Commissioners set up a Fire Engine Committee to look at establishing a proper fire brigade rather than rely on insurance companies and their engines.

Braidwood is said to have attended the scene of the first of the fires and he may well be the “private individual” mentioned in the Scotsman’s account of the blaze who brought his own water pump and generally seemed to know what he was doing.

When the second destructive fire hit the Old Town three months later, the commissioners decided to act. Perhaps prompted by Braidwood’s urgings, they established the world’s first municipal firefighting service.

Without any other candidate being interviewed, they appointed James Braidwood as its chief, making him the world’s first municipal fire master, with his salary set at £50 per year.

His appointment had hardly started before a third conflagration hit the city – the Great Fire of Edinburgh in November, 1824. Braidwood attended, but lacking his own fire engines there was little he could do to prevent the three blazes that broke out over the next two days. Ten people died, dozens were injured and 400 families were made homeless.

A week later the Lord Provost of Edinburgh presided over a commissioners’ meeting that instructed the purchase of several fire engines.

Braidwood soon demonstrated that fires could and should be tackled in a scientific way using pumps that he designed himself. He recruited and trained a corps of 80 diligent firefighters and from the outset they proved hugely successful, especially after Braidwood was able to solve the problem of supplying his engines with water, using special pumps.

Fire-related deaths in the city dropped dramatically and stories spread about the bravery of Braidwood and his men. Their first fatality came in 1826 when firefighter Peter Mann was run over and killed by a fire engine.

The stories of courage included the remarkable tale of Braidwood’s personal intervention in one blaze – he carried nine people out of a burning building by himself.

Another fire in 1830 threatened to destroy the Old Town because the shop in which the fire started sold gunpowder. Using knowledge gained form his time as a builder, he realised the fire would spread to the area where the explosives were stored, Braidwood refused to let his men do the job and calmly walked into the burning building and removed the two casks of gunpowder. The blaze was then extinguished.

So successful was Braidwood’s brigade that the city fathers ‘rewarded’ them by cutting their funds and reducing their number to 50.

It was about this time that Braidwood published what is regarded as one of the first text books on the science of fire engineering, ‘On the Construction of Fire Engines and Apparatus’. It was officially re-published as a second edition in 2004. He also wrote ‘Fire prevention and Fire Extinction’, published posthumously in 1866.

The ever-inventive Braidwood designed special chain ladders and ropes for his men, and also hooks on poles that could pull down burning masonry.

Most effectively of all, from 1824 onwards he kept a record of every fire his brigade dealt with, and the statistics provided overwhelming evidence that most fires were caused by carelessness exacerbated by the living conditions of many folk in that crowded Old Town. Alcohol, too, played its part, and some drunken fools annoyed Braidwood by causing hoaxes.

The brigade featured men who were comfortable working at heights, and they soon began to be called out for rescue duty, as when a soldier got himself stuck halfway up the Castle Rock.

In 1832, London came calling. Taking their cue from Edinburgh, fire insurance offices in the Metropolis joined together to have their own amalgamated fire brigade.

On June 21, 1832, Braidwood was appointed Superintendent of the Brigade of Engines of the Fire Offices. His salary was set at £250 per year, and 20 engines were to be maintained at different districts with the city. By the start of 1833, Braidwood had somehow welded all the various fire office detachments into one brigade.

He had also persuaded London’s police officers to be the official ‘callers out’ for his brigade, and again managed to solve the problem of water supply.

The nascent brigade’s biggest test came in October, 1834, when the Palace of Westminster caught alight. There was little Braidwood and his men could do but contain the fire which engulfed the Houses of Lords and Commons and surrounding buildings. The lack of a floating fire engine able to direct water from the River Thames was obvious, and Braidwood campaigned for one to be built – it would eventually become a vital tool in the fight against fire in London.

In 1838, James Braidwood married a widow, Mary Anne Jane, who was seven years his junior. He immediately acquired four step-children and they would have six children in all.

By now recognised as the pre-eminent expert on firefighting in the world, Braidwood continued to perfect his equipment, including the hoses which he experimented with endlessly.

He first came to royal attention when his men managed to extinguish the fire at the Tower of London in 1841. The damage to the building’s interiors was colossal, but Braidwood led his men to putting out the worst of the fire.

Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, Braidwood continued to attend fires across London and take personal charge of his brigade’s operations. He also began to preach the importance of ‘fireproofing’ buildings using new materials that retarded blazes. In 1849 he wrote a paper for the Institute of Civil Engineers ‘On Fireproofing Buildings’ and it proved to be very influential.

Slowly but surely, the number of deaths from fires fell across London, and just as policemen were called ‘bobbies’ after Robert Peel, so his men began to be called ‘Braidys’ after their leader. But Braidwood was always worried that several areas of the city were effectively tinderboxes where a fire would spread rapidly and consume everything in its path.

One such area was Tooley Street down by the River Thames. By 1861, it had become notorious for fires occurring in its many warehouses, and on the afternoon of June 22 that year, a blaze erupted at Cotton’s Wharf and spread rapidly along the Street.

By now 61, Braidwood insisted on taking charge of the operation. Warehouse after warehouse, office property after office property, all caught fire.

At about 7.30pm, Braidwood was ordering his men to get back from the front section of a warehouse which was bulging outwards. Seconds later the wall collapsed on top of him, killing him instantly.

Upon hearing of the news his death, Queen Victoria wrote in her diary: “poor Mr Braidwood … had been killed … and the fire was still raging. It made one very sad”.

Massive public mourning and many tributes followed. The poet Dinah Craik wrote A True Hero about him:

Death found—and touched him with

Finger in flying:

So he rose up complete—

Hero undying.

Now, all mourn for him,

Lovingly raise him

Up from his life obscure.

He was buried in Abney Park Cemetery, a crowd of thousands lining the route from his local Presbyterian Church – he was a lifelong churchgoer – where the burial service took place. A report at the time said it was the largest display of public mourning since the death of the Duke of Wellington.

The inscription on his statue in Edinburgh reads: “James Braidwood, 1800 – 1861 Father of the British Fire Service. This statue is dedicated to the memory of James Braidwood, a pioneer of the scientific approach to fire-fighting.”