Churchill and Fire, A Trilogy

Three episodes need retelling when the Grand Old Man of British politics, Winston Churchill, brushed shoulders with the fire brigade. The first when he himself directed firefighters’ in their battle against the flames, the second when he ordered the fire brigade NOT to put out a fire, and the third when he thanked those who tirelessly tackled fires in the biggest conflagrations England has known.

Winston Spencer Churchill was an illustrious politician, in and out of Parliament as determined by the ballot box … and in and out of important Government Offices at the behest of various party leaders until he was Prime Minister!

#1 Churchill: The Would-be Fire Chief

In 1908 Churchill was appointed President of the Board of Trade by Prime Minister Asquith. Churchill was courting Clementine Hozier at the time. The couple was parted one weekend when she was on the Isle of Wight while Winston travelled to attend his brother’s wedding in Leicestershire. Guests had hired rooms at Burley Hall, a 300-year-old mansion not far from Oakham, venue of the marriage celebrations. Proceedings completed, the bride and groom departed and the rest of the party stayed-on in the ancient country home famous for its paneling, tapestries and priceless Elizabethan manuscripts.


After the occupants had retired for the night the newly installed heating system burst into flames. A maid sounded the alarm. The guests, awakened by screams, fled in their night-attire to the lawn, encountering thick smoke, flames in the upper galleries and falling debris on the way.

But not Winston.

He first grabbed a Ministerial Dispatch Box containing important documents and got it out to safety, then he returned inside to try to save artefacts, the last of which were reported to be two valuable busts. A vaulted ceiling collapsed to the floor just as he left a stateroom. “He worked like a Trojan,” a newspaper report said, “saving what he could until the flames beat him”.

Would-be Fire Chief

Once outside he found the Oakham Fire Brigade had arrived with its manual appliance. Fortunately Winston wrote about this part of his adventure: “I commandeered a fireman’s helmet and assumed direction of operations. I was on the roof, shouting down orders, trying to quench the blaze with the tiny fire engine which had been brought from Oakham”.

Churchill in striped pyjamas and helmet…
Illustrated London News

And in a letter he wrote: “…the fire was great fun and we all enjoyed it thoroughly. It was a pity such jolly entertainments are so costly. Alas for the archives. They roared to glory in about ten minutes. It is very strange to be locked in a deadly grapple with that cruel element. I had no conception, except from reading, of the power and majesty of a great conflagration. Whole rooms sprang into flames as if by enchantment. Chairs and tables burned like matches. Floors collapsed and ceilings crashed down. Every window spouted fire and from the centre of the house a volcano roared skyward in a whirlwind of sparks”.

Newspaper reports about Churchill’s role at the fire differed. Some stressed his “extremely narrow escape from death in the flames”, others credited his rescue of priceless treasures while many played up the headline… “Right Honourable Winston Churchill as Firefighter”. One or two preliminary reports said the whole place had been destroyed. This put Winston’s intended, Clementine Hozier, on tenterhooks until she read in The Times that all the occupants had made it out safely. She sent a telegram to Winston: he replied with a long letter, detailing some of his exploits on the night. They married a few weeks after the fire on 12th September 1908.

The fire appliance dwarfed by the burnt-out wing at Burley. Revival Heritage Flickr

In the cold light of day one wing of the stately home had been destroyed with damage put at £50,000. The grand staircase, created between 1708 and 1712 by Gerard Lanscroon, the great Flemish master who decorated Windsor Castle and Hampton Court Palace, was undamaged and the library remained intact.

The staircase survived the flames.
Pictures: “Burley on the Hill – Or could it be Pemberly”, Andrea Morgan.

Could the survival of these treasures be attributed to the actions of firefighters? And, maybe  Winston Churchill, the man who said he “assumed direction of operations” as Fire Chief that night?

The Guest family, occupiers of Burley Hall at the time, sought another stately home in which to live while damage was being repaired. And while the search was on for alternative accommodation, they chartered Lord Lonsdale’s yacht for an extensive cruise of the Mediterranean. As you do! The mansion was restored under the direction of John Coleridge but was not to survive intact… the building was converted to 23 houses in the early 1990s.

#2 “No! Do not fight the fire, let it burn”- Churchill

In 1910 Prime Minister Asquith appointed the young Churchill British Home Secretary, with oversight of police, at a time when crime was escalating in London suburbs where a surge of immigrants had settled. Many were labelled by the Press as “anti-social” while others called them “anarchists” or “revolutionaries”, reluctant to shake off old habits despite hospitality and a fresh life-style offered in a new land.

Robbery Turns Fatal

Late December 1910 , there was an attempted jewellery robbery at Houndsditch in the City of London. Alert police thwarted the perpetrators, a gang of Latvian men. But they came out the building guns blazing, no match  for police truncheons. 3 policemen died of gunshot wounds: others were injured. The leader of the group was thought to be George Gardstein who led the life of an anarchist, and who, with the others, fled the scene. But he, too, had been shot and died of injuries a few days later. The hunt was on for the others and detectives used all kinds of ploys and disguises to round up the gang. Hampered by foreign languages and “loyalties among thieves”, they nevertheless arrested a number of men, plus their women accomplices. But two, Sokoloff and Savaars, were still on the run.

Zero-in on Sidney Street

Then, some weeks later, January 3rd.  police got a tipoff that two wanted men were hiding in rooms at 100 Sidney Street in Stepney, along with a lodger, Betty Gershon, who was Sokoloff’s mistress. Careful not to disturb the wanted Sokoloff and Savaars, police quietly evacuated the whole building overnight and prepared to take their quarry. They knew they could contemplate an exchange of gunfire. Armed police surrounded the place: but they were hampered by operating procedures at the time, and the law, which governed their actions, meaning they were unable to open fire without being fired upon first. London Fire Brigade attended: firefighters held in reserve at a safe distance.

The Siege of Sidney Street

Plans were in place by 7.30am when police knocked on the front door of 100 Sidney Street but there was no reply. Stones were thrown at the window to wake the pair: the immediate response was an appearance at the window, both men firing indiscriminately. A policeman was injured. It was plain the fugitives had superior firearms and ammunition so police chiefs asked permission from Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, to deploy armed Scots Guards as back-up. It would be the first-time troops had been called on for such a deployment in England. It was by now deemed a terrorist situation. Churchill not only agreed to troops being dispatched: he dispatched himself to the scene, arriving about midday. He found surrounding roads closed, nearby buildings emptied while the two wanted men exchanged periodic gunfire with both the police and the volunteer Guardsmen.  The volleys intensified, but neither side seemed to be getting an upper hand. Churchill was at the forefront in his top hat and fur-collared overcoat.

Churchill front-footing operations in Sidney Street

Some commentators say he interfered in police operations, making command decisions, directing the strategy and, literally, calling the shots. Others said he was placing himself unconstitutionally in a position to control the police. “He felt he had to be on the scene, he was a bit of a showman!” one reporter explained. Other observers, and he himself, said he did not intervene: police made all the tactical decisions.

Fire Shows

After an hour of sniping, smoke was seen coming from chimneys and from under the eaves – it was plain 100 Sidney Street was on fire. The blaze progressed. Taking hold, it spread to other floors and after about an hour Sokoloff put his head out of the window, perhaps craving fresh air. He  was shot by one of the soldiers and he fell back inside the building.

No Firefighting

It was at this stage that the senior fire brigade officer Assistant Divisional Officer, Cyril Morris,  sought permission to extinguish the blaze, but was refused by police. He approached Churchill in order to have the decision overturned, but the Home Secretary agreed with the police. “Let it burn!” he said.

An admanat Churchill in Sidney Street – “Let it burn, no firefighting is to take place!”

Churchill later wrote: “I now intervened to settle this dispute, at one moment quite heated between police and the fire brigade. I told the fire brigade officer on my authority as Home Secretary that the house was to be allowed to burn down and that he was to stand by in readiness to prevent the conflagration from spreading”.

Cyril Morris, the fire brigade officer, immediately telephoned HQ to advise his Chief Officer, Sir Sampson Sladen, that he had been ordered not to fight the fire in Sidney Street. “By whom?” demanded Sir Sampson. “By Mr. Churchill, the Home Secretary, sir,” the officer replied. ‘”Oh…”, said Sir Sampson, “that’s different!”.

Gunfire eventually subsided from within the burning building. Flames spread through all floors. At 2.30pm the roof caved-in, after which police and fire fighters began searching the premises. They quickly recovered Sokoloff’s body. Further searching was delayed until interior walls were made safe. They had collapsed, injuring six firefighters, some seriously who had been caught under falling debris. Savaars’ body was found early evening. All fires were extinguished. There was no inquiry about how or where the blaze began: whether Svaars started a fire hoping he might escape during the diversion it caused,  whether it was purely accidental… or had been surreptitiously ignited by the authorities to hasten an end to the siege.

This was the extraordinary case of the fire brigade being told by the Home Secretary NOT to put out a fire. If Winston Churchill did not, as he claimed, interfere with police operations during the Sidney Street siege, he certainly gave firefighters their orders that day!

 #3 A Thankful Churchill

Wartime Britain was suffering greatly from the relentless, night after night, bombings of the blitz. Enemy aircraft peppered city after city destroying  factories, wharves (along with shipping alongside) and housing estates. There was enormous loss of life and the damage amounted to eye-watering sums. Fire brigades could not keep up with the persistent onslaught.

A Makeover is Needed

The Government realised much stronger fire protection was needed to meet the continuing threat. Senior fire officers from throughout England were selected to respond to the Government’s direction to shape a blueprint for a reformed fire service to meet the present emergency. One such officer, Thomas Varley said afterwards that he had begun to think around the late 1930s that Britain would suffer such a severe defeat from the effects of fire that it would lose the war. Newspapers, nationwide, were critical, saying fire services were inadequate: the local Press often chronicled the shortcomings in detail.

The Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, with Ministers and fire service executives, reviewed the situation nationwide and realised that a complete overhaul of the fire service organisation was required to replace the now inadequate peacetime arrangements. They concluded that firefighting during the war had to be a military-type operation on a nation-wide scale, not the localised, municipal, model”.

Thus in 1941 there began a vital wartime re-organisation, the founding of the National Fire Service (NFS ), an amalgamation of the wartime Auxiliary Fire Service (civil defence-based) and local authority fire brigades.

Varley recounts: “Our planning was initially done with secrecy so that Hitler did not know about the preparations nor realise the terrific damage his air raids were causing”.

Once the plan was agreed, it was a whole-of-Government, all-out effort: Treasury, law draftsmen, Ministers and Fire Officers raced to put the new National Fire Service in place: the Fire Services (Emergency Provisions) Bill was passed into law on May 22nd, 1941 and work began in earnest.

New Logo, 1941

National Fire Service

Fire Services were now very much on a war footing. The administration of fire services was altered to regional responsibilities and then broken down into districts. New executives were appointed. Thousands of new fire engines were ordered, premises were commandeered for fire stations, and a  recruitment campaign began to enrol the thousands of full-time, part-time and volunteer men and women required. Improved water reticulation and reservoirs were instituted. Communication systems between suburbs, districts and regions were revolutionised. Mutual assistance plans were formulated so that brigades, pressed on the worst night of the local blitz, could expect help from neighbouring towns and cities.

The blitz continued…Merseyside one night, Swansea for a prolonged bout, Birmingham and Coventry  among many others, and of course, London. But gradually firefighters, with greater numbers and improved equipment, were able to better control the huge fires caused by enemy bombing.

Winston Churchill with firefighters on London streets surveying damage caused by enemy bombs

Firefighters Remembered

At its peak, the NFS had 370,000 personnel, including 80,000 women. It was dangerous work. Firefighters were killed in the execution of their duty, perhaps the belated detonation of an unexploded bomb, a gas explosion or falling masonry or caught in a burning building. All told an estimated 1027 firemen and over 24 firewomen died during wartime operations in England: their names are memorialised on a plaque beneath three sculptures located near St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

Firefighters’ Memorial, London

The memorial started out as a monument to those firefighters who lost their lives during the Second World War, but was later relocated, enlarged and re-dedicated to all UK firefighters who lost their lives in the execution of their duty.  Many more names were added as a result.

The memorial’s new  location is appropriate because Winston Churchill had decreed during the blitz that St Paul’s must not be allowed to burn: he could see boost to morale provided by a Cathedral left standing against all the odds. Those World War Two firefighters commemorated by the sculpture, and their colleagues, did not let the Grand Old Man down.

Firefighters at work in the shadows of St Paul’s Cathedral
Fox Photos- Stringer, Getty Images

“Heroes With Grimy Faces”

Post-war, on the 8th January 1947, in a letter to Mr Herbert Morrison, the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill said of the National Fire Service, “They are a grand lot, and their work must never be forgotten”. In a speech of gratitude he referred to firefighters as “the Fourth Arm” alongside the Army, Navy and Air Force and on another occasion, he said they were “the heroes with grimy faces”, an apt quote that found its way on to the memorial plaque in London.

Churchill quoted on the memorial.

 The Trilolgy 

Winston Spencer Churchill  is hailed as a great leader. He may have been foolhardy to salvage goods and lead operations when Burley Hall caught fire and he could have been misguided to take control at the Siege of Sidney Street. But his government’s decisions to react to the enemy’s relentless destruction during the continuous Blitz evened up the odds somewhat when it gave firefighters the wherewithal to get on with their job. And then a grateful nation, led by Churchill, thanked them for it.

RCC August 2023 UnAIded