If you’ve ever ‘stopped’ to wonder about the origin of the stop message, all is revealed below.

When researching the Victorian period of IW firefighting history, I found it useful to access any Victoriana with a firefighting link to get a feel for brigade society, their terms, their lives, and ways of working during the period. During that quest I visited a second-hand bookstore in the Lake District and located a dusty copy of Fighting the Flames, written by Robert Michael Ballantyne, published in 1867.

By the 1860’s Ballantyne was a revered writer of children’s adventure stories, much in the vein of a Boys Own type of yarn (those of a certain age and upbringing will get the reference). In that decade, shortly after the tragic death at Tooley Street, London, of the legendary Superintendent James Braidwood of the London Fire Engine Establishment, Ballantyne secured permission from the new superintendent, Captain Eyre Massey Shaw, to live cheek and jowl alongside the men of a London fire station and ride with them to fires to gather first-hand knowledge and use this in the production of Fighting the Flames.

R.M. Ballantyne

Captain Eyre Massey Shaw

I began reading the book, an uncomplicated yarn of the battle between cunning pyromania versus heroic deeds. To enlighten his readers to the world of the fire brigade Ballantyne occasionally broke from the tale to insert factual explanation. In Page 92 the protagonist Fireman Frank Wilders is chatting with his colleagues in the station watchroom when … a young fireman entered the room with his helmet hanging on his arm.

“Is it go on?” he enquired, looking round.

“No, it’s go back, young Rags” replied Baxmore, as he filled his pipe: “it was only a chimney, so you’re not wanted.”

After acquiring a loan of chewing tobacco from Baxmore, ‘Young Rags put the quid in his cheek and went away humming a tune.’

Fighting the Flames is embellished by several sketches, including this depiction of the watchroom where the conversation took place.

Ballantyne paused the story at this point and explained the procedure that led to the brief conversation between Baxmore and Young Rags. What he wrote, which reveals the origin of The Stop as devised and introduced to the LFEE by Superintendent James Braidwood, is copied verbatim below.

Superintendent James Braidwood

In explanation of the above incidents, it is necessary to tell the reader that when a fire occurs in any part of London at the present time, the fire station nearest to it at once sends out its engines and men, and telegraphs to the head or centre station at Watling Street. London is divided into four districts, each district containing several fire stations, and being presided over by a foreman. From Watling Street the news is telegraphed to the foremen’s stations, whence it is transmitted to the stations of their respective districts, so that in a few minutes after the breaking out of a fire the fact is known to firemen all over London.

No.68 Watling Street, London. Headquarters of the London Fire Engine Establishment (1833-1865) and Metropolitan Fire Brigade (1866-1878)

As we have said, the stations nearest to the scene of conflagration turn out engines and men; but the other stations furnish a man each. Thus machinery is set in motion which moves, as it were, the whole metropolis; and while the engines are going to the fire at full speed, single men are setting out from every point of the compass to walk to it, with their sailors’ caps on their heads and their helmets on their arms.

And this takes place in the case of every alarm of fire, because fire is an element that will not brook delay, and it does not do to wait to ascertain whether it is worth while to turn out such a force of men for it or not.

In order, however, to prevent this unnecessary assembling of men when the fire is found to be trifling, or when, as is sometimes the case, it is a false alarm, the fireman in charge of the engine that arrives first at once sends a man back to the station with a “stop”, that is, with an order to telegraph to the central station that the fire turns out to be only a chimney or a false alarm, and that all hands who have started from the distant stations may be “stopped”. The “stop” is at once telegraphed to the foremen, from whom it is passed (just as the “call” had been) to the outlying stations, and this second telegram may arrive within quarter of an hour of the first.

Of course the man from each station has set out before that time, and the “stop” is too late for him, but it is his duty to call at the various fire stations he happens to pass on the way, where he soon finds out whether he is to “go on” or to “go back”.

If no telegram has been received, he goes on to the fire; sometimes walking four or five miles to it, “at not less than four miles an hour”. On coming up to the scene of conflagration he puts on his helmet, thrusts his cap into the breast of his coat, and reports himself to the chief of the fire brigade (who is usually on the spot), or to the foreman in command, and finds, probably, that he has arrived just in time to be of great service in the way of relieving the men who first attacked the flames.

If, on the other hand, he finds that the “stop” has been telegraphed, he turns back before having gone much more than a mile from his own station, and so goes quietly home to bed. In the days of which we write the effective and beautiful system of telegraphy which now exists had not been applied to the fire stations of London, and the system of “stops” and “calls”, although in operation, was carried out much less promptly and effectively by means of messengers.

So there you have it. The Stop! 

From the time of running messengers, through telegraphy, to analogue then digital radio, to today's Mobile Data Terminals, The Stop, used everyday by services nationwide, represents and is still used in much the same manner and purpose as James Braidwood intended in the 1800's. 

Stops back Guv'!