London’s Oldest Operational Fire Station

Woolwich Fire Station - London's oldest operational fire station

Woolwich Fire Station – London’s oldest operational fire station

I wasn’t aware of Woolwich fire station until recently when the story about the proposed closure of London fire stations was reported, and at about the same time it was mentioned by Peter Guillery in his talk about the Survey of London’s new volume about Woolwich. Peter said that  it was London’s oldest operational fire station, and that it was an architectural gem. He was right, it’s a beautiful building,  as can be seen in the photograph above, hidden away in Sunbury Street. It was designed by Metropolitan Board of Works’ architect Robert Pearsall who was responsible for many London fire stations, including Tooley Street, Bishopsgate, Stoke Newington and the West Norwood fire station which now houses the South London Theatre.

The draft of the Survey of London’s volume on Woolwich gives some background to the building:

Hidden away, this is London’s oldest fire station still in operational use (an older part of Southwark Station is a museum). Its architect was Robert Pearsall, working under Alfred Mott in the Fire Brigade Branch of the MBW’s Architect’s Department. The builders were Lonergan Brothers of Plumstead.  Few of Pearsall’s stations survive, but here his characteristic free-Gothic style still provides a striking profile, pinnacled buttresses leading the eye to tall chimneystacks and the prominent five-storey round watchtower, itself a rare survival. The polychromatic-brick façade incorporates ornamental terracotta spandrels and Portland stone dressings. Internally the engine room is open under composite iron girders, supplied by Archibald Dawnay. The staircase in the tower winds neatly round a matchboard-lined hose-drying cupboard. The upper storeys housed a mess room, bedrooms and apartments – twelve men were stationed here.

The British Listed Buildings web page gives a detailed description of the architecture with its “terracotta diapering in the spandrels” and “five-storey, round tower on an octagonal base”. The fire station was once the base for horse-drawn fire engines, as shown in this photograph on Flickr.

Robert Pearsall wasn’t just an accomplished architect. He was appointed a  life member of the British Museum in recognition of his work as an architect and artist, and served on “The Committee for the Survey of the Memorials of Greater London”. He was also a keen genealogist, contributing to a history and genealogy of the Pearsall family.

The current regime of austerity and budget cuts means that  our fire services are under threat in south-east London as well as our local health service, and Woolwich fire station is one of  up to 31 stations facing closure with the possible loss of 28 jobs. A London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority (LFEPA) report models the impact of various options for saving up to £75 million from the London Fire Brigade budget. All the options include the closure of Woolwich fire station.

Since 2003 the number of fires in London has been decreasing each year, as can be seen in the graph below which combines data taken from two London Fire Brigade reports: long term fire trends for Greater London which provides data from 1966 to 2008 and a Quarterly Monitoring of Performance Indicators report which brings the data up to the end of 2011. Ironically part of the reason for this decrease in fires is the safety and campaigning work carried out by the London Fire Brigade.

Closure of Woolwich fire station is particularly annoying for Shooters Hill residents as one of the justifications for closing the Eaglesfield Road fire station was that there was another station just down the hill in Woolwich. If Woolwich is closed our nearest fire stations will be  Eltham and Plumstead. Intuitively it would seem safer to have more stations, maybe with fewer appliances, so that the stations were closer to people’s homes. The Fire Brigade have a target of getting a first fire engine to a fire within 6 minutes; the LFEPA report indicates that for the Royal Borough of Greenwich, where the Fire Brigade currently get a first appliance to a fire in an average of 5 minutes 28 seconds, the response time would increase by between 14 seconds and 1 minute  and 24 seconds in the six closure scenarios modelled, missing the 6 minute target in three of the six scenarios. Some boroughs fare even worse than Greenwich.

Another worry, though not a safety issue, is that Woolwich Fire Station has been identified as a “high value site” in the LFEPA report. I hope that doesn’t indicate that they are planning to do anything other than preserve this historic building.

Woolwich Fire Station – five-storey, round tower on an octagonal base

Woolwich Fire Station – five-storey, round tower on an octagonal base

Woolwich Fire Station – note the terracotta diapering on the spandrels

Woolwich Fire Station – note the terracotta diapering on the spandrels