'You just got on with the job in hand 40 years ago'
In our health and safety conscious world, few could imagine sending firemen into some of the worst disasters wearing cork helmets and without breathing apparatus.
But these are the memories of Scothern-based writer Allan Grice, whose career in the fire service spanned more than 30 years, as he recalls working as a fireman in London's East End during the 1970s.
In his new book, Call The Fire Brigade!, he recounts his experiences, including the Moorgate Tube disaster of 1975. Here he talks to Dawn Hinsley...
What made you put pen to paper again about your experiences? Wanting to make a social record of the challenges of being a London fireman in the 1970s. Wanting to record the characters who made up the job back then and how a deep practical experience gained at the sharp end was the way then to "win your spurs". A wish to put on record the qualities held by the most experienced and respected watch (shift) officers. An irritation with the way the otherwise noble concept of health and safety at work legislation has so often been disproportionately applied and has shackled the natural instincts of the truly dedicated police, ambulance and fire crews.
So what were some of the challenges you faced, specifically in the 1970s? The 1970s were probably some of the busiest peacetime years for the London Fire Brigade (LFB) in terms of fire and rescue work. Fire safety and building regulations legislation was still developing and there was nothing like the attention paid to fire prevention that we have seen in later years, especially the installation in domestic dwellings of the smoke detector and alarm.
Inner London fire crews were kept very busy. The log books at such stations as Whitechapel, Holloway, Islington, Paddington, North Kensington and Brixton recorded some horrendous incidents, many caused by paraffin stoves and some by arsonists.
Because the LFB covered more than 600-square-miles and had some 114 fire stations, it was a very expensive business to equip every crew member with breathing apparatus (BA). Individual sets gradually became the norm but during my early years from about 1972 to the mid to late 1970s, men (women didn't come onto the front line until 1982) had to endure vile and often toxic smoke and fumes. Some men were known as "smoke eaters". These seemed to be able to work in smoke without BA and were capable of staying inside a very smoky fire without succumbing.
The helmet was made of cork and did not give the protection afforded by today's streamlined models, and a falling ceiling could knock the helmet off. We carried a small axe in a waist pouch and if you were on a steep roof you were trained to keep the axe in one hand so that in the event of a slip, you could hopefully drive the pointed end into the rafters, a bit like a mountaineer's ice pick. Perhaps one of the hairiest pieces of equipment was the hook ladder by which one or two men working together could scale a building by crashing the hook at the ladders head through a window where it hopefully bit into the sill. But many lives were saved by the hook ladder between its introduction in 1904 until it was withdrawn due to health and safety fears in 1984.
I understand you were part of the fire-fighting team at the Moorgate Tube disaster in 1975 (a packed morning rush hour train failed to stop at the Moorgate terminus and crashed into a dead-end tunnel). The Moorgate tube disaster of February 1975 was a truly horrendous incident and the worst in the underground's long history.
It was carnage. I was on a detachment to the Brigades Lambeth HQ and spent two day and two night shifts deep under the streets of the city's square mile.
Words cannot describe the horrors of this "tunnel of death" – as the press called it. The cram-packed front carriage crushed to as low as three feet. The health risk from decaying bodies trapped amidst a mangle of steel, timber, glass and seating fabric. The intense drive of the fire crews who had to be ordered by senior officers to take a break, so anxious were they to release the unfortunate victims.
Then on my last day the sight of the open hands of a woman – those waxy skinned hands and her shapely calf and black stiletto heeled shoe the only part of her three-day trapped corpse visible. I still recall that sight and we had no trauma counselling then, or very little – 40 years ago you got on with the job in hand because if you couldn't cut the hot mustard of inner London's front line you sought a more pleasant job.
Call the Fire Brigade!: Fighting London's Fires in the '70s by Allan Grice. Publisher: Mainstream Publishing, £7.99.