First Water, Tigers! The Victoria Fire Department


San Francisco had a large and effective volunteer fire department, a model that could easily be applied to Victoria. The paternalistic attitude of the Hudson's Bay Company in the person of Douglas made this impossible. It's uncertain whether the Governor was concerned about increasing American influence in the colony or whether he simply wanted to retain control, but the American type volunteer department wouldn't be a feature of Victoria until 1860.

The problem with the first fire department, which was organized by members of the community in August 1858, was that the apparatus was owned and controlled by the Hudson's Bay Company; It was stored in the fort; the Police Commissioner, a Douglas appointee, was in charge and the Company blacksmith, Edward Coker, was appointed superintendent of fire engines. The citizens of Victoria were less than thrilled. The theory was, so Douglas thought, that when a fire was discovered, everyone who wasn't incapacitated, was expected to race to the apparatus and put out the blaze. It didn't work out that way early in the morning on 19 October 1859. One of the largest structures in the city, the two storey Pattrick Block was what now would be termed `totally involved'. One of the few citizens who did respond described what happened, in an anonymous letter to the Gazette reporting that

I was present at the fire Tuesday morning last, and although I put in some `big licks' in the way of crying `fire' until I was hoarse and helped to roll the hose from the reel when we arrived there, having thrown as much mud and whiskey in the fire as anyone else in the crowd.... Come, gentlemen who are engaged in the collection of subscriptions to start the Victoria Fire Department, let us understand, where we are to stand and how we are to act, but above all don't stand still and let valuable time go by. Get the hooks, ladders, grapnels and axes prepared at once and ready to be used when needed...

A true volunteer fire department was needed, one that was independent from the government, or the Hudson's Bay Company in this case.

Victoria's first volunteer fire company, the union Hook and Ladder No.1, was organized in late November 1859. Following the well-established American pattern, it was very like a fraternal lodge in that it elected it's officers and decided who would be accepted into the company. One rule was, and it was fundamental, that the member had to help support it financially - apparatus and a fire hall were expensive.

This was a period when all apparatus was moved and operated by hand. Only manual pumps were available until the mid 1860s and these required large crews to keep the handles that operated the pumps manned. The numbers of firefighters needed made volunteer departments necessary since no municipal government could afford the cost.

On 5 March 1860, the Deluge Engine Co. No.1 was formed from among British residents and, in competition, the American residents organized the Tiger Engine Company No.2 eighteen days later. Douglas had come to agree that this was the best means of providing fire protection for the city. Each company took over one of the Hudson's Bay Company engines, and a quantity of hose. Turn out gear - protective clothing - was acquired, complete with New York pattern leather helmets and appropriately lettered belts. Each company had its own flag. They were much like the military of the period in terms of wanting some pageantry.

One of the good things about this form of organization was that any member could advance to the highest rank in the company if he had the ability needed and confidence of the other members. John Keenan, was well-qualified for high office: he was a former
San Francisco fire fighter and, not insignificantly, owned a favourite `watering hole', the Fashion Hotel and dance hall in Victoria.

Competition was an important feature of fire fighting in this era - it ensured that fire fighters put every possible ounce of effort into the battle. The engine companies raced each other to get the "first water" on to a fire and when pumping in tandem, the second engine would try to overwhelm the other by pumping harder - "washing" it. The "disgrace" would be duly reported the next day in the newspapers.

While the competitive element was basically good, things could get out of hand - even in Victoria. Chief Joseph Wrigglesworth left a record of one such occurrence.

I remember one night, a bitterly cold one it was, with deep snow on the ground... there was a big fire on Langley Street in a building owned by Dr. Mathews. The "Tiger" was the earliest to reach the conflagration and laid hose down the street. A few minutes later the 'Deluge' arrived and attached to their engine. The men of the Tiger engine, infuriated at such an act, demanded that it should be taken from the `Deluge' and attached to their engine. The Deluge men refused. Then started such a fight as I've ever seen or participated in. We went at it hammer and tongs stumbling about in the snow. Nobody thought of the fire. It burned itself out.

The Victoria volunteers served the Victoria well, but in 1867, the seeds of the end were sown when the Tigers accepted delivery of their new steam pumper. With the introduction of steam pumping, the need for large numbers of men on the pumping handles gradually disappeared. Steam pumpers didn't tire either, continuing to work until they ran out of water or fuel. The expense involved in purchasing, maintaining, and housing the new apparatus became too high for the volunteer companies. With the increase in the size of the city - longer distances with heavier apparatus, horse haulage was introduced and that meant fire halls manned on a continuous basis.

On 1 January 1886, Victoria fire fighters were all paid. The dreaded "hirelings" had taken over. The Volunteer era was over for British Columbia's first fire fighters. It was gone, but it remained glorious in the memories of those fortunate enough to have been involved.


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