Workshop Report: Fires and Communities in the Early-Modern and Modern Periods

This week members of the Forged by Fire project attended a workshop on ‘Fires and Communities in the Early-Modern and Modern Periods’ at the Maison Française d’Oxford. Organised by Marie Thébaud-Sorger (MFO/French National Centre for Scientific Research) and Shane Ewen (Co-I of Forged by Fire, Leeds Beckett University), the event was the first in what we hope will be a series of conversations about the evolving relationship between fires and communities. It builds on our long-standing interest in individual fires, urban environmental history, and the history of science and technology, whilst also pointing towards emerging themes of materiality, care and the emotional response to great fires.

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A tremendous variety of iconic fires and explosions were brought up, either in presentations or discussions, ranging from the destructive fire at the Opera du Palais Royal in Paris in 1763, the Newbottle Colliery disaster of 1815, Edinburgh’s Great Fire of 1824, Glasgow’s Watson Street lodging-house fire in 1905 and, more recently, the Grenfell Tower fire of June 2017 and the Californian wildfires of 2018. Key themes emerged throughout the day, not least the issue of marginality – the way that fires discriminate against marginal communities, specifically the poor, the sick or disabled, the young and elderly, and ethnic minorities – and the work being done around the material/technological and emotional responses to great fires, which situate the history of fire more firmly at the heart of recent historiographical ‘turns’.

 

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Our P-I, Jonathan Reinarz, talking about iconic fires in British burns history

By communities we are referring to those places and people, groups and professions whose identities are defined, and invariably re-defined, by their encounters with fire – from those whose property is ravaged by fire to the professional groups who work to rescue and rebuild lives and protect property. The latter ranged widely during the workshop: they included teams of fire-fighters who enter burning buildings to skilled medics who treat and rebuild burnt and injured bodies to inventors who design and patent new technologies for improved fire prevention and rescue. Marie Thébaud-Sorger’s talk on the ‘inventive communities’ of eighteenth-century Britain, France and Germany demonstrated the commercial impetus for innovation in fire-fighting and fire rescue technologies, tracing a variety of modern devices (fire bombs, extinguishers and pumps) from their design to public display. These were socio-technical devices, requiring humans – and ever skilled ones at that – to work, maintain, and manage them, as well as to share knowledge of their capacity via learned societies and the media.

What also emerged clearly is the idea that fire has the capacity to unite communities, even at its most destructive. Fires bring people together, including neighbours, strangers, emergency service workers, and first aiders. Fire-fighting was, as David Garrioch (Monash University) stressed in his talk on ‘Fire-fighting in 18th-century Paris’, a ‘community enterprise’, bringing together a plethora of occupations (firemen, builders, watchmen, water carters, monks even) and volunteers to beat back the flames and prevent the fire from spreading to neighbouring properties. And although fire-fighting today is largely a professional calling, demanding ever more specialised skills and knowledge, volunteers continue to play a valuable role in fund-raising and the provision of emergency care to fire-damaged communities – as Rosemary Cresswell (University of Hull) reminded us in her talk on the British Red Cross, whose work during the Second World War, the Cold War and, more recently, the Grenfell Tower fire has gone a long way to care for communities in need.

Communities thus come together through shared grief and their drive to make sense of their loss. They are united by a variety of emotional responses, including anger, mourning, trauma, resignation, relief, care and love. Malcolm Noble (University of Hertfordshire) talked us through some of these in his presentation on the cultural testimony of Edinburgh’s great fire of 1824. From artistic impressions to religious sermons, contemporaries sought to both understand the devastating fires whilst also support the community’s recovery through fund-raising and donations of clothing and household furniture.

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James Braidwood was the newly-appointed superintendent of fire engines for Edinburgh Fire Engine Establishment in 1824. He later went on to lead the London Fire Engine Establishment until his death at the Tooley Street fire in June 1861.

Community responses to fires also reveal how such tragedies are inherently political events; they test the resilience and capacity of states and their agencies to provide fire-damaged communities with appropriate emergency care, relief and recovery. They also raise fundamental questions about trust in communities towards those groups with responsibility for emergency care (and, ultimately, the state), and about the need for openness, introspection, and change in coping with loss and avoiding future tragedies. They also leave a lasting legacy – to the affected communities as well as those seeking to learn from them – although this can often be forgotten, as Shane Ewen discussed in his talk about the Watson Street lodging-house fire in Tinderbox City, at which 39 of the city’s male labouring population were killed. The project’s latest graphic novel story, which focuses on this forgotten tragedy, has been designed to both remember the 39 victims and act as a discussion point about fire safety in houses of multiple occupation, especially amongst vulnerable communities. It can be read alongside the 2017 episode of BBC Radio 4’s The Long View on the ‘Grenfell Tower and Watson Street Fire Tragedies’ (on which Shane features – you can listen to it here). We think that Sarah Taylor Silverwood has done a terrific job with this story – and we hope you agree. Please email one of us for a copy (and you can learn more about Sarah’s approach to her work in this earlier blog post).

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The final round table was started by Kelly McMeekin, Heritage Development Officer with Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, and a member of our project’s Steering Committee. Kelly talked about the Service’s object handling policy, which has allowed her to perform important work raising fire awareness with disadvantaged communities. There followed a general discussion about how historians can work with fire service heritage to engage communities in their own fire histories as well as coping with community trauma.

Our thanks to Marie and the Maison Française for hosting such a stimulating discussion. If anyone wants to get involved with future workshops or with putting together a conference panel, please do get in touch.

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