The London Fire Brigade Museum is housed at their old Headquarters in Southwark, where training still takes place. Before WWII there was a large gothic building fronting onto Southwark Bridge Road, with Winchester House that houses the museum today set behind it. However, after bombing in the area in WWII it is just Winchester House that survived and it is, in itself, an impressive building.
The museum takes you through the history of firefighting, and while it is a little hit and miss in its content and delivery there are some really interesting stories and objects on show.
The old fire buckets, helmets and protective gear are engaging pieces of social history, but also open your eyes to what this dangerous job would have been like in the past. For instance, the smoke helmet that was in use c.1900 was attached by a pipe to some bellows – as the firefighter went into the burning building his colleague would pump air into his helmet, with the firefighter signalling how much air he needed by tugging on the pipe. Pretty basic and slightly terrifying really.
Throughout the museum there are little nuggets of information or artefacts or images that catch your attention. Perhaps its the cute cartoon of a fire dog who kept turning up at fires to help out, the paintings on display in the WWII room or the stories of fires in London that have led to improvements and changes in the service.
Its the kind of museum that has been built up piecemeal over the years and is far from the slick national museums of London, for instance in one place there were two small information panels next to each other that pretty much said the same thing, the writing is often far too small and the competing stories can get lost. But it is charming nonetheless.
In the current climate it’s no real surprise that the council are looking at ways they could make money out of this building rather than keeping a museum and it has been saved from threats of closure in recent years, with its future still uncertain. But I think what struck me most was the lack of child friendly exhibits. There were no fire engines to play in or even helmets to try on that I could see, and while it is annoying that every museum nowadays has to cater for families and education to stay open instead of producing meaningful content, surely a museum about the fire brigade is crying out to be set up for children as well as enthusiasts. By following the London Transport Museum model of fun things for kids, social history and a bit of a geek fest then I could see how this museum could become a really well known stop on the London museum circuit.
However, money is clearly going to be needed, and someone willing to fight for it to happen.
I visited the London Fire Brigade Museum as part of Open House London and joined onto the talk that was happening about the building and its history (as opposed to one about the history of the London Fire Brigade itself), but it is possible to visit the museum as an individual or group if you book onto one of the organised tours that happen Mon-Fri.
£5 per person – must be booked in advance http://www.london-fire.gov.uk/VisitorsInformation.asp#book
94a Southwark Bridge Road, London SE1 0EG