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
Hudson's Bay Company; It was stored in the fort; the Police
Commissioner, a Douglas appointee, was in charge and the
blacksmith, Edward Coker, was appointed superintendent of
fire engines. The citizens of Victoria were less than thrilled.
The theory was, so
thought, that when a fire was discovered, everyone who wasn't
incapacitated, was expected to race to the apparatus and
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
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
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
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.