Put another railroad sleeper on the fire


In the early part of my firefighting career, chimney fires were quite a common occurrence. Between 6 -8 such fires a night in winter on my own fire stations ground in East London was the norm, apart from any other emergency incidents that needed dealing with. Today, chimney fires are something of a rarity. The reason being the growth of central heating systems which for most homes did not exist in the earlier part of my career. Most of the housing in the area covered by my fire station was of the cheaply built terraced house variety. Most of the housing was built overnight around the 1880’s onwards to cater for the rapidly growing population drawn to the area by the promise of work in the docks that bordered the River Thames. Heavy and often socially unpleasant industry often nested cheek by jowl with housing in this area.

The area I used to cover was West Ham, Plaistow and Canning Town, the latter being one of the areas worst affected by the Blitz in World War II. Much of the terraced housing was Dickensian by today’s standards and certainly not built for the conservation of heat. None were insulated and most had no foundations with the buildings being erected directly onto the London Clay. Heating was normally provided by a single hearth fire in the living room. Although other rooms would have also have fireplaces, due to expense, the normal practice was for the entire family to huddle around the one fire in the winter. Fuel was normally coal or coke but many families in East London supplemented these with what was known as “Tarry blocks”. Roads in the area were originally constructed with a layer of wooden blocks heavily preserved with tar (bitumen) and creosote. The blocks also became heavily impregnated with oil from motor traffic. With the rebuilding of roads, thousands of tons of these wooden blocks were torn up to be quickly purchased by local fuel merchants. Smoke from these wooden blocks quickly caused the chimney flue to become lined with a layer of oil soaked soot and were the cause of many a fire.

Originally most of this type of housing was rented accommodation. The introduction of the Rent Act fixed rents at a low figure and many landlords found they made insufficient income to make owning the properties worth their while. Landlords were also faced with the dual problem of no one else wanting to buy a property with sitting tenants that could not be moved. Consequently much of this already dilapidated housing stock fell into further disrepair. Income from rentals was usually insufficient to cover repair costs and many landlords simply no longer bothered.

One particular chimney fire I went to in one of these houses has become permanently lodged in my mind. When we arrived the fire had spread from the hearth to the living room. Although the Fire Service normally manages to arrive at an incident with a few minutes of a call being received, at the time of this incident in the 1960’s, few houses had telephones. The public often relied on running to a public telephone box to make an emergency call or running to a neighbour who might have a telephone. In this case, the resident was an elderly widow in her eighties who ran to the public call box when her chimney caught fire, only to find her living room alight on her return.

This elderly lady was really the cause of her own problem. Like many elderly widows at the time she would have lived on a meagre pension. Like many who supplemented their fuel with cheap Tarry blocks, this lady had managed to obtain an old railway sleeper from a railroad track. Like the Tarry blocks, this too was heavily impregnated with preservatives and years of accumulated oil. This railroad sleeper was about six-foot in length and very heavy. The lady had somehow managed to lift the sleeper and place one end in the fire. Due to the height of the fire grate above the living room floor, the lady had propped the other end of the sleeper on the end of a flimsy wooden orange box (crate). Apparently as the end of the sleeper in the fire blazed away, she would occasionally lift the other end up and shove the sleeper further into the fire.

Eventually the flames from the end of the sleeper in the fire set her chimney alight and she ran out of the house leaving the fire unattended to find a public telephone box to call the fire brigade. While she was out of the house, oil in the rest of the wooden railroad sleeper now heated by the fire readily caught alight and the fire spread along the length of the sleeper which in turn set the wooden orange box alight. The burning orange box  rapidly weakened and collapsed allowing fire not only from the orange box but also the sleeper to spread through her living room. It was a form of chain-reaction of events that set her living room alight. Although the fire brigade arrived within a few minutes of the call being received, the elderly lady had arrived back home a few moments before our own arrival and was now hysterical at what she found.

Although we found a much larger fire than we had anticipated, it was in fire fighting terms a small fire which we quickly extinguished before dealing with the chimney fire. Smoke damage to the house was however considerable. To the lady however it was the end of the world. It was unlikely that she would have had any fire insurance and equally unlikely that the landlord had any either. Many simply did not bother with insurance due to the low rental income.

I never did find out what happened to this lady although I suspect local social services would have assisted her. This area of the east end of London also had a great community spirit with neighbours often helping those in need.

Even now after more than forty years have elapsed since this incident I sometimes reflect with amusement at the vision of this destitute elderly lady shoving another length of the railroad sleeper onto the fire. The vision however also conjures the vast difference in social conditions that now exist to what I originally remember. It is more likely that today the elderly lady would not be living in such impoverished conditions but either in a residential home for the elderly, or subsidised sheltered housing. The community spirit in the area although it still exists is now much faded. Most of the terraced housing is now either privately owned and modernised with the worst of it demolished by slum clearance programs to be replaced by social housing.

I sometimes look at Street View on either Google Earth or Google Maps at the areas I used to protect. Much of it is unrecognisable to what I knew. I sometimes find the swathes of social housing that replaced the old housing stock is often not to my taste but on the other hand, it is a vast improvement to what existed before.

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