Captain Sir Eyre Massey Shaw was born on January 17, 1830 in Cobh, Ireland. He was a cousin of author and playwright Sir George Bernard Shaw.
During his youth, he spent time sailing on his father’s yacht and preparing for a life in the clergy. However, after graduating from Trinity College Dublin, he decided to travel to America where he gained his first experience as a firefighter in New York, Washington and Philadelphia.
A career in the military
However, Shaw’s family decided he should return home and settle down, so they got him a commission in the North Cork Rifles in 1855. Within six years he had been promoted to captain and had a family to support. .
The opportunity presented itself to pursue its firefighting ambitions when the City of Belfast announced the appointment of a new fire chief. Having secured the post, in June 1860 Shaw moved his family to Belfast. In a short time, he succeeded in transforming the officers and firefighters of Belfast into a well-disciplined and respected brigade in the city.
Moving to London
Shaw’s work in Belfast was short-lived. In 1861, he replaced the superintendent of the London Fire Engine Establishment (LFEE), James Braidwood after his death at the Tooley Street Fire.
On taking up his new duties, Shaw found that his new command was suffering from a shortage of men and resources despite the increasing number of incidents the LFEE had to attend. The LFEE was funded by 10 insurance companies and Shaw set about asking the government and the City of London to provide additional funds.
The Metropolitan Fire Brigade is formed
On January 1, 1866, the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) was formed as a public service with Shaw as its first chief officer. The new brigade was made up of former LFEE and later lifesaving equipment and expertise from the Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire.
The MFB was able to save lives as well as property, with fire escape ladders and shoots available to rescue members of the public, without them having to pay fire insurance.
Shaw introduced a new set of wages and conditions and expected his men to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week with minimal time off. Its new firefighters were selected from rapidly trained, physically fit former sailors who took command and were accustomed to climbing ladders and working at heights. A new test of strength, involving raising an escape ladder, was designed to demonstrate the skills required by Shaw. He also introduced a formal vocational training program that explained how to fight fires.
A new uniform
Inspired by the naval uniform, Shaw introduced the new MFB uniform consisting of navy blue wool twill tunics with brass buttons, cloth pants, leather boots, belt, pouch and an axe. In addition, a top coat has been provided for cold weather. Navy-style caps were also worn by firefighters with their work gear.
The most notable new piece of gear was the brass fire helmet. During his visit to Paris, Shaw had seen a similar helmet used by French “firefighters”. The helmet combined strength and lightness and offered some protection against falling objects. The helmet could also be disassembled and any damaged parts replaced. Shaw’s own helmet was silver.
New fire stations
New fire stations were built to house the expanding brigade. 26 fire stations were built between 1867 and 1871. The fire stations included living quarters for firefighters and their families and watchtowers to allow firefighters to monitor smoke in the surrounding areas.
Shaw introduced a telegraph system in 1862, Siemens and Halske, linking Watling Street headquarters with all fire stations by the end of 1863.
The new system made receiving calls faster and was considerably cheaper than the old method of runners or messengers on horseback. In 1865 additional telegraph links were established between West Ham local council and Chandos Street station.
New Gear – Age of Steam
Shaw played a game with the firefighting equipment manufacturers of the day. He pitted them against each other, inviting them to demonstrate their latest products at his headquarters in Southwark, in front of the London Society. Its two main suppliers were Merryweathers of Greenwich and Shand Mason of Blackfriars. Shaw wanted to replace Braidwood’s manual fire engines with horse-drawn steamers on land and provide steamers for use on the Thames.
The new fire stations had sloping floors called “races” which allowed the steamers to gain momentum as they moved forward and helped the horses to pick up speed at the same time. If a steamer was out of service or needed maintenance, it was called “out of service”, a term that is still used today.
On the river, steamers were placed on floats and rowed at incidents. River fireboat crews were called floaters until World War II.
Shaw has implemented regular building inspections. He was particularly concerned about the risk of fire in theaters which had increased in number during the Victorian era. Unprotected candles and gas lamps were used as handrails, and the large stage curtains, which separated the stage from the audience, were rarely fireproof. Behind the scenes housekeeping was generally poor with paint, glue and costumes stored together. In 1878 Captain Shaw published his book “Fires in Theatres” in which he set out his ideas for greater safety.
Although Shaw visited many London theaters and implored the owners to reduce the risks they were taking; the situation became critical in 1882. Shaw was asked by his employers to produce a report for the government which highlighted the worst properties and suggested improvements to fire safety.
The report was acted upon, with some of the worst offenders being shut down and the rest given action plans to improve the safety of actors and the public. Shortly after the report was published, a major fire took place at the Alhambra Theater in Leicester Square. The fire was attended by the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), who took an interest in the fire service and often witnessed the incidents. He was nearly killed when a wall in the theater collapsed. This added extra momentum to Shaw’s fire safety message.
In 1889 the London County Council (LCC) was established and was responsible for the Metropolitan Fire Brigade. Shaw resented the tighter control of the Brigade under the LCC and after 30 years of service he decided to retire.
“Sir, having completed 30 years of service in the Brigade, I wish to obtain my pension in accordance with the regulations. Eire. Mr. Shaw, Chief Officer, MFB”
He retired on October 31, 1891, and on his last day was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath by Queen Victoria. He died in Folkestone in 1908 and is buried in Highgate Cemetery.