Kieran’s Our City, Our Town Article,
Cork Independent, 15 February 2018
Stories from 1918: The Cork Fire Brigade
This week, one hundred years ago, a fire of serious dimensions occurred on 13 February 1918 in Messrs Baker and Company extensive confectionary works on French Church Street. The conflagration spread with alarming rapidly through a portion of the premises sharing the Carey’s Lane side of the building – it became enveloped and there was a further extension of flames into the area in the direction of Paul Street.
It was about 7.45pm when an outbreak was detected, and the Fire Brigade was promptly summoned. Under the charge of Captain Hudson, the Brigade with full equipment was quickly on the scene and in a brief space of time set to work to extinguish the flames. A large force of police immediately arrived and took up positions at different points between St Patrick’s Street, Paul Street, Academy Street, Carey’s Lane and French Church Street.
There were no less than eight lines of hose at work and by the aid of the fire escapes the firemen and military, as well as the firm’s employees, were able to perform a vast share of their duties from the roofs of the buildings in each street. After three hours’ hard work the outbreak was finally under control but not before the middle section of the building had been completely gutted. The outer portions of the premises, those at the St Patrick Street and Paul Street ends, were saved.
Captain Alfred Hudson was the backbone of the City’s fire brigade during that eventful evening. He arrived to Cork in 1891 and retired in 1928 – a total of 37 years’ service in Cork. Local historian Pat Poland’s book For Whom the Bells Tolled and Cork Examiner reports through the years reveal that Cork Corporation established Cork City Fire Brigade in 1877. The first fire station was at 20 South Mall, where the Corporation offices were then situated, but it was soon moved to the site at Sullivan’s Quay. Facilities were certainly limited to say the least. The site was an open one with a small office which operated as a duty room.
Captain Mark Wickham who was an inspector of the fire escapes in Dublin had the enormous task of organising the activities of the insurance companies’ brigades while in the South Mall. After a time it became usual for this brigade to respond to any fire calls whether it was an insured premises or not. This arrangement suited the Corporation and lasted from Captain Wickham’s appointment in 1877 until in the late 1880’s when the insurance companies decided they had undertaken too much in accepting responsibilities for everyone’s fires. What emerged was a free service without any public financial aid needed towards the upkeep of the service.
The site at the South Mall remained open up to 1894 and the equipment consisted of a horse-drawn hose reel, a jumping sheet and a fire escape. Captain Wickham remained in office until 1891 when he was succeeded by Captain Alfred Hutson who was appointed Superintendent of the Cork Corporation Fire Brigade. A former station officer in Brighton Fire Brigade and having served in the London Metropolitan Fire Brigade, he was well equipped to handle the problems he encountered in Cork.
In Cork Alfred Hutson first initiated a building and re-organisation programme. He increased the staff to seven men and ten part-time auxiliaries, the latter being selected from Corporation employees. The present Quay Co-Op, now the red bricked fire station at Sullivan’s Quay was built in 1893 during his early years of service in Cork.
The training of the auxiliary staff was undertaken and they were then employed on outside duties such as theatres, bazaars, etc. They were summoned by a system of call bells. Captain Hutson between the years of 1891 and 1894 organised volunteer fire brigades among the students of Queens College (UCC) and in 1892 a volunteer fire brigade of prominent businessmen was also formed.
Two additional fire stations were opened during Captain Hutson’s reign at the rear of the Courthouse on Grattan Street and at the top of Shandon Street. The men were full time firemen in every respect as they were on duty 24 hours of the day seven days of the week. New entrants had to live in accommodation provided on the station premises so in an emergency whether he was on or off duty, the fireman had to turn out for work. The engines at this time were two Merryweather steam pumps, which were drawn by teams of horses and these were purchased in 1892. In St Patrick Street a central street station was located with rescue equipment and one man on duty all night.
In addition, large rescue equipment was located at strategic locations in the City. The Brigade at that time consisted of six regular men and two Turncocks living on the station with six auxiliary firemen, all Corporation employees, and with local volunteers in all a force of 30 men could be mustered in a few minutes. A report from the Chief at the time suggested that a night response took about 2.5 minutes with men fully dressed and horses out.
933a. Alfred Hutson, c.1891 from P Poland, For Whom the Bells Tolled (source: Local Studies, Cork City Library)
933b. Quay Co-Op, former Fire Brigade Station, Sullivan’s Quay, Cork (picture: Kieran McCarthy)