Cambridge Fire Brigade’s early fire fighters


What a rare long service medal tells us about the early days of organised fire fighting in Cambridge.

The medal looks like this:

It belonged to James William Pearl, and shows he received the long service medal first for five years, then for another five years, and then the twenty year service bar. The organisation that awarded him isn’t the modern day Fire Brigades Union (founded in 1918 – this medal pre-dates it), but what is now the British Fire Services Association. The name change came about because the old NFBU was not affiliated to the Trades Union Congress. The Fire Brigades Union formed at the close of the First World War was and is a trade union – hence the old NFBU changing its name to that of an association.

A quick search of the British Newspaper Archive reveals that James William Pearl was part of the Volunteer Fire Brigade at the turn of the 19th/20th Century.

991222 James William Pearl Cambridge Fire Brigade 1899

Not only that, it gives us Mr Pearl’s home address – 15 York Terrace in Petersfield Ward, Cambridge. In those days, newspapers would publish an ‘Almanack’ page containing the essential information and facts about the town.

991222 Cambridge Chronicle Almanack for 1900

Councillors, bankers, battalions, college masters, church parishes, dates of church feasts and agricultural shows…as much as they could fit on a page. Postage, telegraph and rail fares and rates are also prominent.

The days before motor cars

This was still horse-and-carriage Cambridge. As a result, the prospect of moving heavy fire fighting equipment around town was not an easy one. Hence as we can see from the first screenshot, that fire fighting equipment was placed at strategic points around town. One thing out of shot is that the borough council maintained three permanent fire fighters based at the old police station on Regent Street between Mandela House and St Andrew’s Baptist Church. Pearl’s unit was based around where one of the fire fighting reels was based – at Hooper Street.

Mill Road Cemetery

Mr Pearl died aged 59, and is buried in the Mill Road Cemetery. We know this because the volunteers of the Mill Road Cemetery undertook a huge audit of all of the graves in the cemetery, and Mr Pearl and his wife, Susannah, are listed in it.

Where to deposit the medal?

Most likely it’ll be the Museum of Cambridge (you can see why I want to expand it given the things I’m picking up online), but happy to hear of any other offers/requests of places where it should go – so long as it is accessible and open to the public.

And finally – Thank you James Pearl for putting out all of those fires!




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