Firemen today are noted almost as much for fighting fires and floods as they are for rescuing people from buildings, and pets from trees.

However, that was not always the case.

When the private fire companies and insurance firms amalgamated in 1833, they did a good job of fighting fires, but were less concerned with rescuing the people within. Which is odd considering that the people trapped in the fire were probably the ones paying the fire insurance premiums.

Recognising this deficiency, an organisation was set up in 1836 to provide rescue equipment and training to help people escape their burning homes.

What was to become known as The Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire was set up with the blessing of Queen Victoria, although there is some doubt as to whether it was ever formally granted permission to call itself a Royal Society.

Certainly none of the official records in the London Gazette include the Regal nomenclature, although in two instances the R does appear, if only by their own submission to the Gazette.

Anyway, it did good deeds and no one seemed to quibble about the extra R in their acronym, until the Queen died in 1901, then they quietly dropped the Royal as swiftly as the new Monarch seems to have dropped them, probably because they had changed substantially from their original aims.


The organisation provided fire escapes and ladders from 1836 and acted as a second layer to the Fire Brigade until 1867, when the responsibility for such serious endeavours was passed to the Metropolitan Board of Works, and later to the London County Council.

That very nearly didn’t happen as a meeting of the Board of Works in February 1866 (as reported in The Times) worried about the cost of taking over the operations of the Society as well as the Fire Brigade.

In the end though, the Society received a cheque for £1,400 for its ladders and buildings and they were handed over to the Fire Brigade. A bargain as it was estimated that the cost of buying all that equipment from new would have been around £9,000.

To give you an idea of the size of the organisation, at the handover, they had 85 buildings around the city, so it was no small charity, but a seriously large and important emergency service.

At the time of the handover, during its existence, the Society had attended some 9,299 fires and saved 1,150 lives.

Seeming to have lost its principle aims — namely the provision of rescue equipment, they refocused on education and training — and still operate to this day as an independent charity that rewards conspicuous acts of bravery in the face of fire by the general public.

Normally the award is a certificate, but exceptional acts also get a medal.

Normally a person cannot receive an award if they are also picking up another award for the same deed from another organisation. It seems that the last double-award was in 1972, which completely coincidentally is also the last year that the Society received a (totally unrelated) mention in The Times newspaper.

In the most recent full year of meetings there were 68 certificates awarded, 25 to members of the public and 43 to police officers.

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