Home Pre-History The District The Streets City Industry The Tenement Family Names North East Art

The Doric Columns

City Fire Brigade

1721 First Fire Appliance
1776 Fire Appliance kept at the Water House in Broad Street
1776 to 1835 Insurance companies subscribe to Fire Appliances
1835 Permanent base annual sum £100

How Aberdeen Bought its 1st Fire Engine

Accordingly the Council appealed to the Masons "for liberty of access to carry out and install the fire engine by the back passage or entry to the Mason Lodge." The appeal was granted, and after a triumphal demonstration of the amazing efficiency of the new machine - it could direct a jet of water upon an object 60 feet high from a distance of 50 yards  

Few citizens of Aberdeen today have any conception of the revolution which has been carried out in our generation in the City’s appliances for fighting fire. Fewer still realise how ill-equipped the town was in this respect in the days when the danger of serious conflagration was much greater than it is now.  In July, 1762, Alexander England, blacksmith and newly elected overseer of the town’s water-engines, gave in his account of the town’s fire apparatus.
It consisted of "2 Water-Engines, 31 one leather Buckets, 3 wooden Poles, 2 iron Hooks, 4 Hatchets, 4 Hammers, 2 Crow-Irons, 2 small Ropes, and 4r heddars." 
hinted at the inadequacy of the apparatus, but the Magistrates felt no cause for alarm.
Narrow Escape
Within a month their complacency was shattered, for the town narrowly escaped heavy damages from fire. It is evident from the tone of a Council meeting held early in September that the townsfolk would not have held them guiltless had their property suffered badly from the fire. Accordingly it was agreed that a new and up-to-date fire engine must be purchased.  Fire Engines, however, were costly, and the Magistrates, being as canny a set as any in the land, were unwilling to undertake the whole expense of procuring a new one. Some argued that, since the fire insurance company would suffer as much as, if not more than, the town were a disastrous fire to occur, it would be to its advantage to help buy a new one.  The good Burgesses were so pleased with this idea that they decided to send the Provost and Baillie Burnett, a wealthy merchant and ship owner, to London to request the insurance company’s aid to procure a new engine.
An Expedition
They set out towards the end of September bearing with them a letter to the directors of the Sun Fire Assurance Company. This letter announced that "the Proprietors of Houses and of Merchandize in Aberdeen are willing to contribute towards purchasing one of the best Fire Engines" if the company would lend its aid.  They did not hesitate to press the point that it was in the company’s interests to do so, for its loss "would indeed be heavy since all are insured by the Sun Fire Office, and no one by any other Office whatsoever."  The petition gave rise to heated argument.  It was an unheard of thing, some asserted, to contribute to the purchase of a parochial fire engine, and it was a precedent they should hesitate to establish. The parishes of London furnished their own fire engines; why should not this little northern Burgh do likewise?  Others again reminded them that the precedent had already been established, for twice grants of £15 had been made.  Accordingly, after much talk and discussion the directors were persuaded to make a grant of £25-provided £65-£75 were laid out altogether.  The company’s agents appear to have been impressed by the Aberdeen Burgesses’ arguments and consented.
Provost Pleased
The Provost was pleased with his work, and perhaps not a little surprised at his success, "for", as he wrote to the Council "the parishes here do indeed furnish their own engines."  In many a Scottish town, on the other hand, it was not unusual for each company that had a considerable number of clients to keep its own fire engine there. When fire broke out, all the engines were rushed to the rescue, but only the one of the company whose client was involved was put into action - the others stood by idle, unmoved by unavailing efforts of a rival agency.  The Provost wasted no time. He and Baillie Burnett, accompanied by one of the Company’s clerks, set out immediately to buy a new fire engine. They tried several firms, and at length, "at Messrs Newsham and Ragg, Engine Makers to His Majesty and all Public Offices," found a model sufficiently up-to-date to please them.

Words Failed
Words, indeed, failed the Provost when he tried to write in praise of the engine they had bought, so he contented himself with sending the Baillies the company’s "full descriptive pamphlet."  Actually, the new engine was not radically different from the old ones in the town’s possession; nor, for that matter, from the one described by Hero of Alexandria in 150BC, for the fire engine was one of the earliest examples of the application of mechanical science to useful purposes.  Richard Newshams’ engines were famous in Europe and America (one had been purchased for New York) he had devised a system of pumping, which both filled the tank and emptied it, thereby dispensing with the laborious task of carrying water bucketful by bucketful.  There were other improvements listed as "10 conveniences peculiar to Newsham’s Engines." Among these we read that the engine might stand upon uneven ground without rocking; that the wheels never needed to be bolted, and that they were particularly large to minimise the danger of the cistern overturning. The narrowness of the engine (the largest was only a yard wide) commended itself to narrow street towns, since carts might pass freely up and down removing goods that were in danger.

The other convinces were connected with mechanical detail, and so perfect did they make the engine that the makers found they could "confidently assert that these machines seldom go out of order if they are built up in accordance with the simple directions enclosed with each."  For this "marvellous engine," the Provost wrote, he had paid only £70, with an additional £3 for hose and buckets, lest, by chance, anything should interfere with the suction.  The Provost and Bailllie then returned home to await the arrival of this new toy.  The next problem was where to house it. A regular Fire Station such as there is nowadays was of course undreamt of-an easily accessible back yard or close, with a shed to store buckets and ladders, were all they desired.  Louise B. Taylor.

This insurance sign is attached to the front wall of 1 High Street, Old Aberdeen. It indicated that this house was insured with the Sun Fire Office. From May 1767 until the early 19th century it was common practice to attach a Fire Insurance 'Mark' to buildings.  They were usually small lead or cast iron plates painted in various colours and attached to the front of a building about 3m from the ground. Each fire office had its own 'Mark' or plate, distinguished by the emblem, insignia or motto of the committee.  Each fire insurance office had its own fire brigade and when a fire broke out, teams of firemen were guided by the 'Mark'.  Only the company insuring the building fought the fire unless it threatened other buildings.  Sun Fire Office was the first to establish a branch in Aberdeen



In those early days, the people of Aberdeen would have fought fire armed only with buckets of water to quell the flames and long-handled hooks for demolishing the flimsily built houses, so creating a fire break in the narrow streets of the Town.  In 1721 the Town Council appointed a Watchman to patrol the narrow streets and closes during the hours of darkness, raising the alarm should fire break out.  During the 18th century various Fire Insurance companies opened agencies in the City of Aberdeen, the 1st being Sun Fire Office which commenced business in 1738. Many others followed as the City grew in size. In 1762 the City Council purchased a fire engine from London, for the princely sum of £65. Half the cost was borne by the Sun Fire Office.  The 19th century saw 3 insurance companies engaged in fighting fires within the City of Aberdeen, each with their own engine and crew of firefighters. By 1826 these insurance companies were amalgamated to form the Aberdeen Engine Committee, headed by Lord Provost Hadden of Aberdeen. The committee organised and ran the Fire Brigade until 1835 when all engines and equipment were handed over to the Police Commissioners who had been granted additional powers to take full charge of fire-fighting in the City of Aberdeen.  Fire stations during the 19th century were little more than sheds for holding the fire engines and equipment safely under cover. The 5 ‘stations’ were located at Footdee, Mealmarket Street, King Street, Concert Court and George Street. Firefighters were summoned to duty during daylight hours by the ringing of the Town House Bell; by night it was the duty of the Watchman to rouse the firefighters from their homes. Most of the serving firefighters at this time were members of the Shore Porters Society, a Company established in the City of Aberdeen in 1496. It was not until 1885 that the first steam fire engine was purchased with a purpose-built fire station located in Frederick Street to accommodate it. This was augmented in 1893 with a larger ‘Steamer’ named ‘PRINCESS MAY’.  The firefighters of the City of Aberdeen Fire Brigade were still only part-time at this time, with the Firemaster undertaking the duties of the Lighting Inspector, and his staff pursuing other vocations such as roof slaters, chimney sweeps, etc.  In 1896 a full-time professional establishment came into service under the command of Firemaster Inkster and Deputy Firemaster Pullock. These professional firefighters set about re-organising the City of Aberdeen Fire Brigade and recruiting men suitable for the work involved.  The Fire Station located in Frederick Street was found to be grossly inadequate for the running of a full-time Brigade and plans were laid in 1897 for a new fire station to be built at 256 King Street. This station was officially opened in 1899 at a cost of £16,500. At the time of the opening, the City of Aberdeen Fire Brigade consisted of four officers, 12 firefighters and eight auxiliary assistants.  In 1905, Aberdeen City Fire Brigade purchased Scotland’s first motorised appliance. By 1923 all of the Brigade’s appliances were motorised, heralding the end of the horse-drawn era in Aberdeen. by the 1930s, the Aberdeen City Fire Brigade was renowned as being one of the most modern, best equipped and up-to-date fire brigades in Britain, a trend that has been maintained right through to the present day. Grampian Fire Brigade continues to lead, with the acquisition of the latest appliances and equipment available on today’s market. 

The New Market at Aberdeen was totally destroyed by fire on April 29, 1882. The fire broke out in the vicinity of a basket store and in a few minutes the whole storey was in a blaze.  Although there were 100's of persons in the building at this time, they were mostly got out safely in 10 minutes. The firemen managed to get the mastery over the flames in about 2 hours, but it was not till the morning the fire was extinguished. The total loss will amount, according to the latest accounts, to £100,000. The buildings were the largest and most magnificent of. Its kind in Scotland, and stand between Market-Street and the Green. They were built in something like cathedral style square in front to Market Street, and semi-circular to the Green, and were opened in 1812.  The property be-longed to a joint-stock company, and cost about £40,000.  The great hall, or nave, was over 300ft. long and l00ft. broad, by 50ft.high, and had galleries, basement, and sunk floors, with vaults beneath, used as bonded stores. The galleries were occupied by shops and stalls for the sale of fancy and light goods. Although several persons were reported missing in the course of the night, and it was feared they had perished, the actual casualties are not likely to be numerous. At dawn the following morning the firemen came upon the frightfully-charred body of a man one of the galleries. The remains were identified as those of a porter who was assisting at a stall when the fire broke out. No other bodies have yet been discovered. Several firemen were injured.

It is over 250 years ago since the City Fathers of Aberdeen realised the necessity of taking some precaution against fire.  It was in the year 1721 when it was decided to appoint a Watchman to patrol the town at night to give the alarm if a fire should break out.  It must be appreciated that Aberdeen in those days was considerably smaller than it is now.  It was also about that period that Aberdeen possessed its first fire engine.  Regrettably there is no record as to the type or construction of the appliance or where it was kept.  It was not until the year 1776 that records indicate that the first real Fire Station in Aberdeen was at a building called the Water House in Broad Street (Inset - Waterhouse Clock) and the appliance or Fire Engine was kept on the ground floor of the building. There is no record as to whether or not the Fire Engine then was the same one of 1721

Between 1776 and 1855 there were many destructive fires and the townspeople were greatly alarmed at this serious state of affairs. In 1855 the Council decided to put the Fire Brigade on a permanent and efficient basis and they agreed to an annual sum of £100 be set aside for this purposes. Up to this time insurance companies subscribed to keep up the fire brigade of Aberdeen.  The type of fire engine in 1855 was a manual pump. That is a hand operated pump. This required 24 men, 12 on each side of the engine, to operate the pump handles. Volunteers from the spectators were always available to do this strenuous task. It is reckoned that 10 to 15 minutes pumping was enough to practically exhaust most human beings.

Aberdeen Fire Brigade 1875.
By the end of the 19th century the brigade was run on a part time basis. Firemen were paid a retaining fee but continued in their normal jobs being called out to fires either by the ringing of the Town House Bell in daytime, or being woken by the Town Night-watchman / Policeman. Assistance with major fires was often sought from soldiers stationed in the Castlehill Barracks and from men from the Royal Naval Training Ship Clyde.

Prior to 1885, when the City acquired its 1st steam fire engine (horsedrawn) fires were fought with a manual fire engine. It required water to be pumped by hand by about 24 men - 12 on each side. The men in the photograph appear to be posed in front of such a machine. It can also be noted that they did not have a full uniform, being only provided with a helmet and belt until 1887. It was not until 1896 that the Fire Brigade was put on a more professional footing when William Inkster was appointed as the City's Firemaster and firemen became fulltime.

As time went on improvements were made on that type of appliance but it was not until 1885 that Aberdeen provided itself with a mechanical appliance.  This fire engine took the form of a horse drawn steam pumping appliance and this was kept in the fire station which by this time had moved to Frederick Street. This appliance did noble work up to the year l893 when a more up to date fire engine was installed. This appliance was called the 'Princess Mary!. This also was a steam appliance but of a much improved design.  The fire station at Frederick Street was looked upon as the acme of perfection until the spring of 1896 when a serious disaster occurred.  Although the fire brigade was called a permanent brigade the Firemaster and the personnel at that time carried out various other occupations. For instance the Firemaster was also the Lighting Inspector and the remainder were roof slaters.

On receipt of a fire call this meant that a messenger had to be sent all over town to look for the Fire Master, who in turn had to hunt up his assistants. Valuable time was thus wasted and it is not surprising that a serious disaster eventually happened. This fire took place in No.30 Marischal Street where the brigade arrived approximately 1 hour after the alarm was given and were too late to save some of the occupants and the building, which was destroyed.  As a result of the disaster and the resultant outcry the Town Council established the Fire Brigade on a basis somewhat similar to the present arrangement where the fire calls were received at the Fire Station where the personnel were available and they turned out very quickly after the call was received.  One has to bear in mind that at this period the Fire Engines were horse drawn and a call meant that the horses had to be harnessed to the appliance. This procedure took very few minutes, indeed the horses being so well trained that when the Fire Bell sounded they knew exactly what was required of them and they positioned themselves as soon as the stable door was opened. 

Photo of a Horse drawn Fire EngineSome fires, of course, were some distance from the Fire Station which meant the horses had to gallop this distance pulling this heavy fire engine and possibly a fire escape ladder and it was not unknown for a horse to collapse and on occasion die after reaching the fire.  In 1897 plans where put in hand for the building of a new fire station in King Street. This was to be known as the Central Fire Station and in 1899 this very impressive granite building was officially opened by Rotarian, Sir Alexander Lyon, the Convener of the Lighting, Watching and Fires Committee at that time.  The staff consisted of a Firemaster, Deputy Firemaster, 11 Permanent and 10 Auxiliary firemen. The appliances at this time were 2 horse drawn steam pumps, 1 horse drawn escape ladder and 6 horses.  About this time a number of sub-fire stations were opened in various parts of the City in the following places: - Torry, Woodside, Mile-End. In each of these stations was kept a hose cart and ladders, with a Fireman in constant attendance.

The stations fulfilled a valuable service in as much that an appliance of a sort complete with an experienced fireman was on the scene of a fire in those further reaches of the City much sooner than the fire engine from King Street which also turned out to the fire. One must bear in mind that the city was not nearly as extensive as it is now. Nevertheless transport was not as speedy as it is now and it was necessary to provide this service. With the advent of motor fire appliances which were faster the brigade arrived more or less at the same time as the fireman from the sub station and eventually the sub stations were closed down. What with the traffic situation now, fire stations in Torry and Woodside may eventually be required again. 

In the year 1905 Aberdeen Fire Brigade, as it was known, made another significant step with regard to modernisation. The Fire Committee bought a motor hose-reel appliance from Messrs. Merryweather, Greenwich, a firm of fire engineers. This appliance was reputed to be the 1st motor fire engine in Scotland. Very useful work was carried out by this machine and in March 1912 another motor appliance was added to the brigade fleet. This appliance was a 75 H.P. "Halley" which carried a 500 gallon capacity turbine pump.  The purchase of this machine was virtually the beginning of the end of horses in the brigade. Four horses were dispensed with leaving only 2 to pull the horse drawn escape ladder or steamers where necessary. The "Halley" fire engine attended most of the fires in the City which varied from 160 - 210 calls per year.

Fire Engine Stations, C1882
Central, King Street; Broad Street; Fountainhall Road; 101 Chapel street; 92 Causewayend; Mid-Stocket Road; Short Loanings, Old Aberdeen & Great Northern Road, Woodside;

1906 - Merryweather Hose Reel Tender

Between 1921 and 1937 during the period that Firemaster F.G.Bell, M.I.Fire E., was in charge the following appliances and equipment was added:-

1912    1 Halley Motor Pump 500 gpm
192?    1 Morris Commercial Utility Tender.
1930    1 30 H.P. 'Leyland Cub', Self Propelled Pump complete with hose reel and 30 ft. extension ladder. RG3712
1921    1 65 H.P. Dennis Pump Escape. RS4553
1922    1 65 H.P. "Halley" Self propelled Pump complete with hose reel and 30 ft Ajax extension ladder.   
1930    1 65 H.P. Leyland Metz 85 ft. Turntable Ladder.    RS5222
            1 Inspection Car.    RG1066
            1 Trailer Pump.
            1 'Aberdeen' Deep Lift Pump. Morris LIM Emergency Tender
1939     1 Bedford LIM

Distillery Fire
There have been several Distilleries in Aberdeen including the North of Scotland Distillery in Union Glen that was destroyed by fire in 1904. Over 88,000 gallons of whisky, valued at 1/6d per gallon, was lost and total damage was estimated at £108,000. The distillery near  the Hardgate belonged to Daluaine-Talisker Distilleries Ltd. and burned for over 12 hours. It is believed that a workman accidentally started the fire whilst trying to repair a barrel. Soon a blazing stream of spirit poured from the bonded warehouse down to the Ferry Hill Burn and the City sewage system. The scene was described as a perfect inferno with the spirituous flames almost free of smoke, belching forth with ever increasing fury. Leaping from the ground 'as from a huge Christmas pudding ... the flames swirled and twisted with lightning like rapidity into the most extraordinary forms imaginable'.


Fire Station - King Street

The Fire station in Kings Street was constructed during the tenure of Lord Provost Daniel Mearns, and cost £6,500. The building dates from 1899. The 23 fire fighters of the period had horse-drawn tenders, which did not completely disappear until the 1920's.

Aberdeen recently made national headlines with their decision to paint Fire Service vehicles white. This colour is cheaper than the traditional red paint. Grampian Fire Brigade now employs over 800 staff tackling over 8,000 emergencies a year.

The strength of the Brigade had been increased as follows:-1 Firemaster, 1 Deputy Firemaster, 18 Firemen, 1 Station Officer, 1 Station Attendant, 4 Auxiliary Firemen, 1 Motor mechanic.

The duty system in operation during this period allowed each man one day off in every 4 of 17 hours and 24 hours respectively. Otherwise the personnel were on duty. The working day being made up from 7 a.m. - 4 p.m. on Station. From 4 p.m. they were allowed to go to their homes which were nearby the fire station and in which alarm bells were installed.  In the event of a fire the man receiving the call at the fire station rang the general alarm bell in the station which was coupled to the firemen's houses ringing them simultaneously.  It was reckoned that during the time the personnel were actually on the station the average time for a turn-out to a call was 30 - 40 seconds.  During the stand-down period when the personnel were at home sleeping the time take was 80 - 90 seconds. In the event of a serious fire the personnel who were off duty could be called for duty. 

(Aberdeen Press and Journal, 14th June 1733?) Accordingly the Council appealed to the Masons "for liberty of access to carry out and in the fire engine by the back passage or entry to the Mason Lodge." The appeal was granted , and after a triumphal demonstration of the amazing efficiency of the new machine-it could direct a jet of water upon an object 60 feet high from a distance of 50 yards.

There were also, throughout various parts of the city, police box call points which could also be used to summon the fire brigade if it was required. The requirement in making an emergency call, from a telephone kiosk was merely to ask the operator for the "Fire Brigade".  With the advent of the automatic telephone exchanges it was necessary to bring in the present 999 facility.  In 1938 an auxiliary service was instituted and this was known as the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS). This service was also later incorporated in the National Fire Service.  During the 1939/45 war the Aberdeen City Fire Brigade was nationalised as were all fire brigades in Brit.ain in August 1941 and was from then on part of the National Fire Service (NFS.). This situation remained until 1948 when the NFS was disbanded and the Brigades returned to the local authorities. At least in England and Wales this was the case.

In Scotland, Fire Areas were established numbering 11 altogether. These were areas which consisted of cities, burghs and counties grouped to form one area i.e. North-Eastern Fire Area consisted of the City and County of Aberdeen and the counties of Moray and Nairn, Banff and Kincardine. The area involved was in the region of 3,600 square miles and was protected by the new North-Eastern Fire Brigade which had its Headquarters in Aberdeen.  Fire stations were established in strategic parts of the area and each was responsible for a particular section. Apart from the whole-time stations in Aberdeen at the Central Fire Station at King Street and a temporary new station at Anderson Drive, the remaining personnel were on a retained basis.  That is to say the men worked at their normal employment but were available in the event of a fire call. They were summoned to the fire station by the sounding of a siren (ex air raid warning sirens) during the day and call bells during the night. These sirens could be operated by the General Post Office telephone staff on receipt of a call or by the local police.  As telephone communications improved so the procedure for calling out the retained personnel had to be altered. In the North-Eastern Fire Area it was decided to centralise the calls on to the Control Room at Brigade Headquarters. This enabled all fire calls to be routed direct to the Control in Aberdeen and the sirens operated from Area Control.

In 1968 a new administrative headquarters and operational fire station manned by whole-time personnel was opened at North Anderson Drive. The fire station in King Street was still maintained operational because of its strategic position in relation to the fire risk in that part of the City.


1835 to 1878     Firemaster W. B. Bolton
1878 to 1896    Firemaster Anderson
1896 to 1921    Firemaster William Inkster
1921 to 1941    Firemaster F. Bell
1941 to 1948    National Fire Service
1948 to 1953    Firemaster J. Ross
1953 to 1968    Firemaster W. Woods
1968 to            Firemaster J. Donnachie

From notes by Jimmy Slater


William Inkster, 1859-1933 Orkney Seafarer To Aberdeen Firemaster: An Exceptional Life. - Leslie Larnder.

A book by Leslie Larnder, William Inkster, 1859-1933 Orkney Seafarer To Aberdeen Firemaster:

The son of an Orcadian crofter, William Inkster left his island home on Rousay at the age of 15 to be apprenticed to a Stromness boat builder, before travelling the world as a ship's carpenter on Clippers for some 8 years.  In 1889 he joined the London Fire Brigade, where the qualities he wrought in his nautical career were transferred to his new life.

The author, who himself served for 30 years with the British Fire Service, considers that the achievements of Inkster and his men were "little short of miraculous".  To put it into context, in the early 1900s, to tackle a major fire, Aberdeen Fire Brigade could call on 3 steam fire engines, a combined hose tender and escape ladder, plus 20 firemen, of whom 10 were auxiliaries.  Nowadays, a similar fire in a large city might bring out more than 20 vehicles and round 100 fire fighters.  A kind man, though ambitious and apparently proud, that Inkster possessed qualities above and beyond most of his contemporaries is made clear by the fact that he was awarded the King's Police Medal and was chosen by his colleagues as president of the Association of Professional Fire Brigade Officers, a "singular honour and achievement".  Having begun his career at a time when "a fire engine responding to an incident in Victorian times would have been an exhilarating sight with the horses galloping and straining every sinew, and clouds of vapour emerging from the steam fire engine", Inkster retired on the grounds of ill health in 1921 after a long, fruitful career.  He subsequently went home to his native Orkney where, for a time, he sat on Kirkwall's Town Council. Illustrated with photographs of relevant sites in Orkney and Aberdeen, and some early pictures of fire-fighting teams and devices, this account has been meticulously researched.

Auxiliary Fire Stations, World War II
Immediately prior to the outbreak of hostilities, in 1939, 9 locations within Aberdeen were selected to be Auxiliary Fire Stations. In Torry the site was Cordiner’s garage on Menzies Road. A number of part time Firemen were subsequently trained up and allocated to each of the Auxiliary Stations. The Auxiliary Station was issued with trailer pumps which were towed by specially adapted civilian saloon cars. Of the fires attended by the firemen from Cordiner’s perhaps the most notable was that at Victoria Road School on 30 June 1940, which had been caused by a German incendiary bomb.

Send mail to jazzmaster@jazzeddie.f2s.com with questions or comments about the design of this web site.
Last modified: 01/09/2013