A quick history of fire stations

Identifiable by their big red doors, England’s network of historic fire stations reach out to every city, town and village.

Early fire stations sporting flamboyant architecture were symbols of civic pride, designed for live-in fire brigades and horse-drawn engines.

Here we take a look at six very different buildings that span more than one hundred years and demonstrate the formalisation, organisation and spirit of their brigades:

1. The Round House, Barrow-upon-Soar in Leicestershire, Grade II listed

The Round House, Church Street, Barrow-upon-Soar
The Round House, Church Street, Barrow-upon-Soar. © Copyright Alan Murray-Rust via geograph

First erected in 1827, this structure has been put to a wide variety of uses. In the 1850s it was described as the parish prison. Later it was used as a hearse-house for storing the village bier, and sometime in between it was a fire engine house. It is presently used as an exhibition space.

Before municipal fire brigades and the creation of professional fire fighters, parishes often had their own fire fighting equipment, and would store this in a convenient place for anyone to use. If a fire started everyone in the community would probably be involved in putting it out, so the communal equipment needed to be conveniently stored. This building is a typical example of a vernacular public building being repurposed to accommodate the parish fire engine.

Two men standing with two fire engines outside the Fire Station on The Green in Aldbourne, Wiltshire
Two men standing with two fire engines outside the Fire Station on The Green in Aldbourne, Wiltshire 1880 – 1910 © Historic England BB46_01832

2. Former Chiltern Street Fire Station, central London, Grade II listed

Exterior view of Former Chiltern Street Fire Station
Former Chiltern Street Fire Station, Chiltern Street, London W1. Image Copyright Merto Centric via Flickr

This fire station from 1889 draws upon Tudor and Gothic detail to produce a weighty piece of architecture. In the 1880s professional fire brigades were still fairly new, so the architect’s choice of such traditional detailing was clearly intended to express links with history and tradition. The heavy stone buttress-piers between the appliance bay doors help to ground the building, whilst the decorative stonework to the upper floors and watch tower add a sense of delicacy. This flamboyant Victorian station was closed in 2005 and converted into a hotel and restaurant.

Fire engine with two men in the foreground. Blenheim, Oxfordshire
Fire engine with two men in the foreground. Blenheim, Oxfordshire 1860-1922 © Historic England cc54_00392

3. Euston Road fire station, central London, Grade II* listed

Euston Fire Station, Euston Road, Camden, London
Euston Fire Station, Euston Road, Camden, London © Historic England DP049827

Designed by HFT Cooper for the London County Council and originally a divisional headquarters, this six story building (built 1901-2) really shouldn’t work. With projecting bays, stone dressings, balconies and asymmetric roof lines, it ought to be a cacophony, but masterfully handled these rich details produce a strong and confident design.

4. Police and Fire Station, London Road, Manchester. Grade II* listed

*temp*
London Road Fire Station, Manchester © Historic England DP059994

An extraordinary confection of 1906, in the flamboyant Edwardian Baroque style, Manchester’s London Road fire station originally accommodated not only the city’s central fire service but also the police station and cells, coroner’s court, a bank and a gas meter testing station.

Making liberal use of red brick with terracotta dressing, sculpture and ornamentation, the fire station was decommissioned in 1986. The site is currently being redeveloped for a mixed-use scheme which aims to bring life back to this prominent city centre building.

5. East Hull fire station

Exterior view of East Hull fire station
East Hull fire station. Image copywright Billy Reading

East Hull fire station is a modest example of the building type dating from 1932. It would be fairly ordinary if it were not for the inclusion of the fire brigade’s motto “Ready? Aye, Ready!” carved into the stonework over the arches of the three appliance bay doors.

This call and response dates back to the early formation of fire brigades and is strongly related to the Edinburgh Fire Brigade, the oldest municipal brigade in Britain, established in 1824.

6. The Mounts fire station, Upper Mounts, Northampton

Exterior view of Northampton Fire Station
The Mounts fire station cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Kevin Hale via geograph

Northampton’s central fire station on The Mounts is a 1930s super-station. A mighty building of austere form rising to six storeys, it has a strong and solid presence, embodying reliability, strength and endurance. Built in 1935 as part of a visionary civic centre which included the adjacent police station, courts and a public swimming pool, the buildings are fine examples of the modern movement of architecture.

The art deco design rejects the heavier use of architectural ornamentation favoured by earlier fire stations. It is constructed of finely cut bath stone with clean lines that speak of modernity, efficiency and power – and who wouldn’t want their local fire brigade to be modern, efficient and powerful!

 

Written by Billy Reading, Inspector of Historic Buildings and Areas (Government Historic Estates Unit) at Historic England.

Book cover reads 'Britain's Heritage | Fire Stations | Billy Reading'Further information on these and many other fire stations in Britain can be found in Billy Reading’s book, Fire Stations, available now from Amberley publishing. Buy now.

5 responses to A quick history of fire stations

  1. Paul's Patch says:

    Work across the road from London Road Fire Station. A truely amazing building! Glad it’s finally being put to good use. Would love to work on a building like that!

    Like

  2. Andrew Shepherd says:

    Billy-you’ve missed Sheffield’s purpose built police and fire station-maybe it’s in your book? Taken your time to turn a thesis into a book! Good luck! Andrew

    Like

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