Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

Fire Stations by Billy Reading

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Euston road fire station by HFT Cooper, Grade II listed. 1901

My interest in fire stations was sparked by a single building. As a student of architecture studying in Bloomsbury, I would wander about looking at buildings and streets, and kept finding myself back at Euston admiring the beautiful purpose-built 1901 fire station there, designed by HFT Cooper for the Fire Brigade Branch of the London County Council’s Architects Department. I was curious about this building, it is six stories on a prominent corner site, occupying a whole urban block, yet in its arts and crafts modelling and detailing it invokes a trim country cottage. Really it shouldn’t work – the richness of architectural detail – projecting bays, mullioned windows, oriel windows, stone dressings, balconies and asymmetric roof lines. At that scale it could so easily have been a cacophony, but masterfully handled these rich details produce a confident, didactic building – grand and yet modest, bulky but exquisite, definitely urban but still somehow stylistically bucolic. The fire station has to work hard to compete with the mighty St Pancras new church on the other side of the road; built 1819-20 in the Greek revival style, the caryatids, copied from the Erechtheum in Athens are rightly famed. As beautiful as these are, it was Cooper’s fire station that always drew my attention.

When the time came to choose a post-graduate thesis topic, I knew what I had to do. I was studying building conservation, and here was an opportunity to really research this captivating building, its architect and the socio-economic, cultural and artistic background from which it sprang. That was the plan. However, as I began to think about fire stations, more and more interesting buildings started to come to my attention; in Kensington, Bishopsgate, Bethnal Green, Clerkenwell and Clapham... turns out London is full of eclectic and beautiful fire stations, the work of a talented and progressive group of architects under the London County Council. These architects had worked in the housing branch, responsible for some important housing projects such as the Boundary estate in Shoreditch and the Millbank estate. Following the success of these projects, the team transferred to the fire stations branch.

Fire Stations 2 A modern fire station in East Grinstead, Sussex A modern fire station in East Grinstead, Sussex

Two other things cemented my choice of thesis topic – firstly that fire stations as a building type were surprisingly under-researched, secondly, that in the same year the London Fire Brigade had asked the GLA if they could, as an emergency service, negotiate an exemption from Listed Building Controls. This gave my research the opportunity to have practical outcomes – first looking at the history of London’s Fire Brigade stations and the architects that created them, and then looking forward to consider their care and conservation, and critically, their continued use. In the same year I began working with English Heritage, and slowly but surely, what had been a niche research project developed into a specialism, as colleagues shared fire-station casework with me, and I got the opportunity to work with the staff at LFB who care for the buildings. English Heritage reviewed the listings. No exemption was agreed, but Euston fire station was upgraded from grade II to grade II*.

Ten years later, my expertise has taken me up and down the country, and now I find that where ever I go I’m looking for fire stations. My family are now well drilled to search out and photograph active or redundant fire stations wherever we happen to be!

Fire Stations 3 A simple structure purpose-built to house the fire engine in Woburn, Bedfordshire, in the 1930s A simple structure purpose-built to house the fire engine in Woburn, Bedfordshire, in the 1930s

The buildings can be highly elusive – it was only in the Mid C19th that a specific building type emerged. Before that, cart sheds, barns, commercial stables, coaching yards and inns all served as fire stations – or else town halls or other civic buildings provided some space to store the pumps and buckets, leaving little in the way of physical evidence. Whilst the early buildings can be undistinguished, the latter buildings tend to announce themselves as high-points of civic architecture. These, with the characteristic hallmarks of the building type – particularly the practice towers – are generally easier to spot.

Being asked to put a book together for Amberley, then, was a dream project. I realised that very little original research would be required, as I have been researching the subject for over ten years and so I had most of the resources I needed to hand. My family rallied around the project, and a constant stream of hi-resolution images started coming in of fire stations from places they happened to be... often places I’d never even heard of! The book began to take shape.

And now, only months later, the book is printed, bound and being distributed. It is wonderful to see the work in print, and particularly to know the stories behind each of the pictures… that my nephew Eddie got to sit in the cab of a fire engine at Crawley, (he is four…) that my mum and her friend got locked behind the fire station gates at Corby, and that Aunty Barbara spent a whole day driving round the valleys of South Wales to get me a shot of the fire station in Blaina! I am extremely grateful to them for all of their efforts, and to Amberley for the opportunity. And although the book is printed, there is still much more to learn on the subject… in England alone there are over 6,000 current and former fire station buildings… easily enough for a second volume! It has been a great honour to work on these captivating, often challenging but always charming buildings, and to regularly meet fire-fighters who are ready to risk their lives for our safety. My book is dedicated to them.

9781445665825

Billy Reading's new book Fire Stations is available for purchase now.