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An introduction to fire fighting in Kent

Contributed by John Meakins – January 2010

Early fire fighting

Following the departure of the Roman Empire from Britain in the 5th century, it was more than a thousand years before any form of organised fire fighting appeared.

The Great Fire of London occurred in 1666 and, as a result the city merchants pressed for some form of fire insurance. Insurance pioneers realised it would be in their interests to set up their own private fire brigades to limit financial loss should a fire break out in any of their insured properties.

However, insurance fire brigades did not appear in Kent until 1802 when the Kent Fire Office formed a brigade in Deptford (which was at the time part of Kent). In the same year, and completely separately from insurance companies, Hythe became the first town in Kent to set up its own fire brigade, followed by Ashford in 1826.

Fire fighting goes local

By the 20th century, it was quite fashionable for local authorities to have their own fire brigades. Maidstone had seen the formation of its borough fire brigade in 1901 when the Royal Insurance Company provided a new Shand Mason horse-drawn steam fire engine, named The Queen. This company had taken over the Kent Fire Office in the same year, simultaneously disbanding their own brigade.

Things often became very competitive between individual town and village brigades, in many instances, each one trying to outdo its neighbour.

In 1910, Bromley became the first town in Kent to house motorised fire engines, with two new Merryweather vehicles being stationed there.

The threat of war

Until 1938, the provision of a fire brigade was a discretionary power, and naturally, there were a few local authorities that regarded it as an unnecessary expense. However, encouraged by the threat of war, Parliament made it a duty and so created over 1,600 individual fire authorities across the nation.

It was these local brigades and the Auxiliary Fire Service – also formed in 1938 – that valiantly coped with the consequences of the Battle of Britain and much of the Blitz. In August 1941, local brigades and the AFS were absorbed into one organisation called The National Fire Service.

The fire service was returned to local authority control on 1 April 1948, with responsibility in England and Wales being given to the 146 counties and county boroughs of the day. The County of Kent and the City and County Borough of Canterbury combined to form Kent Fire Brigade, taking over 79 fire stations from the National Fire Service.

Change and evolution

Subsequent local government reorganisations have had their effect upon the brigade, most significantly in 1965 when eight fire stations in the northwest of the county were transferred to the newly created Greater London area. Further reorganisation in 1974 saw Canterbury lose its county borough status and the fire brigade became the exclusive responsibility of Kent County Council.

In 1998, the structure of local government changed again and Kent combined with the new Medway Towns unitary authority for fire brigade provision.

On 1 October 2003, Kent Fire Brigade was renamed Kent Fire and Rescue Service to better reflect the requirements demanded of it for many years.

As the service enters the second decade of the 21st century, its role continues to change and evolve to better serve the people of Kent and Medway, helping them to stay safer. In recent years, Kent Fire and Rescue Service has responded to more road crashes than fires, and is developing techniques to cope with the threat of flooding, chemical incidents and the after-effects of natural disasters and terrorism.

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