'A Fire in London' - the story of a painting

'A Fire in London' is the adequately descriptive title of a painting that hangs in the stairwell of Ryde Fire Station which, due to its impressive proportion and dramatic depiction, immediately catches the eye of those visiting the station.

A plaque attached to the frame suggests it was given to the firemen of Ryde by one Geo.H.Harrison. It's such a special piece of artwork, one source suggesting it's the most valuable piece of art held by any fire station nationwide, that it was due further investigation.

Close inspection of a photo of Ryde Fire Brigade taken outside the Station Street station in 1929 reveals that the painting is hanging in the engine house to the upper right hand side. It had been there for many years since just after the arrival of the brigade's first motor fire engine in May 1925. With the advent of the era of the combustion engine, and associated exhaust fumes, the painting remained in the same position, even after reconfiguration of the station to allow for larger appliances, with some retired members recalling the painting in the same place in the 1980's.

Unsurprisingly the atmosphere to which the painting had been exposed for sixty years had caused substantial damage until Ryde's former Station Officer the late Brian Collis took responsibility for its restoration. At that time he produced a description of its origin, content, and efforts to preserve it, as reproduced below.

The painting is by George William Home Rosenberg, a painter of merit who had paintings hung at the Royal Academy between 1871 and 1884. The painting was commissioned by an unknown person, but due to the area in which the artist lived, it may have been his own want to record a scene. The fire was in London as far as can be found out, it was about 1890. The story behind the painting was that the parents, who were in their finery, were at the Opera at Covent Garden and were called away because of a fire at their home, they arrived just in time to receive their children, who had been rescued by the Fire Brigade. The location of the fire is opposite Fortnum and Mason, or at least that is the name over the shop to the right of the painting.

The painting was presented to the Ryde Fire Brigade by George Henry* Harrison in August 1925, and it is well documented in the Ryde Council records of that time that it should hang in the town fire station. George Harrison retired from Kingston-upon-Thames where he was one time Chief Fire Officer, to the Island, and resided at Thornton just outside of Ryde. He became a Magistrate on the Island bench, which in itself was unusual, as at that time it was normal for Magistrates to be appointed to the local bench.

The painting has, apart from a short time while the Station was modernised, always hung in the Station. However, the ravages of time and fumes from the appliances, together with the aggressive climatic conditions, have played havoc, and the painting had got into such a state that it was almost lost. 

The Chief Fire Officer, J.A. Bowker, on his first visit to the Station, noticed the painting and a brief history of it was given to him. It was not too long before the Chief made a further visit to inspect the painting more closely and I, Station Officer B.E. Collis, O.St.J., ended up with the task of getting the painting restored. At that time it seemed a monumental task, but with the co-operation of members of the Brigade, especially Ryde station, the money came in.

The money was raised by various ways, sponsored swim, sponsored slim, jumble sales, donations etc. Eventually the amount required, £600, was raised, the painting had been saved! Many thanks must be given to Mr Robert Ball for the use of the Westridge Swimming Pool, without his help our task would have been very difficult.

The work of raising the necessary funds for this project has been done entirely by the firemen, organised by Station Officer B.E. Collis, helped by the men of Ryde station.

This painting is of very special interest to all Fire Brigades throughout the world. It was mentioned in several periodicals about 30 years ago, and at that time they did not know where the painting was - we did, but due to reasons prevailing at that time the matter was allowed to disappear, and the painting stayed as a missing item. Now is the time to open our doors. The painting, restored, protected and rehung in a place of safety, will be on view to all residents who would like to see what is a very fine painting which has been saved for posterity. 

The Station will be open for viewing on the first Wednesday of each month between 19:30-21:00 hours. 

Station Officer B.E. Collis

* Subsequent research has revealed that the person who donated the painting was George Howard Harrison, not George Henry Harrison.

Chief Officer George Howard Harrison

George Howard Harrison retired to the Island, and took up residence at Thornton Manor, in December 1895. 

George was a fireman whose initiation to the trade is unusual and of interest. His father Henry was a Birkenhead born public works contractor. The 1861 Census, recorded when George was just 6-years old, is contradictory concerning his place of birth, stating in one column that he was born in Leytonstone, but in another that he was a British subject by parentage – indicating a birth overseas. At the time the family, comprising Henry, his wife Sarah, four children including George, plus one servant, were resident at Maple Lodge, Claremont Crescent, Surbiton. Ten years later the same family group were recorded at the same address, but evidence of Henry’s business success is found in the expanded list of four domestic servants residing at the property. By 1881 nothing had changed other than a revised list of the four domestic servants. Aged 26 George remained at home, listed as a Mechanical Engineer (pupil). Not included in the Census return was that by then George was four years into his concurrent role as a volunteer fireman. His entry into firefighting was unorthodox.

In the early 1850’s the Kingston Corporation created its first formal fire brigade. Like all local authorities of the time its men of the chamber were loath to spend more than the absolute minimum to maintain the service. Two manual engines had been afforded to kick the brigade off, but a staggering lack of maintenance rendered them in a terrible state after just four years of service. In 1857, the Hodgson’s Kingston Brewery Co. Ltd., were keen to establish a works firefighting capability, but declined the quotes received for the purchase of an engine. Kingston’s Corporation seized on an opportunity to mitigate their costs with no reduction of fire cover with a plan to which Hodgson’s agreed.

One of the brigades two engines was loaned to Hodgson’s. For the cost of one shilling per annum, Hodgson’s were able to station the engine at their site on agreement they absorbed the cost of its maintenance, replaced all perished hoses, and made it available for public use at all times. Hodgson’s agreed and the engine was handed over. However, by 1870 the effectiveness of the Corporation brigade and the arrangement with Hodgson’s was so inadequate for fires affecting the district that a group of disgruntled townspeople decided to do something about it.

The group set about the launch of a private fire brigade to serve the area. Such was public dissatisfaction with the Corporation’s arrangements that the rebel brigade was able to establish its roots from community donations alone. So generously were they supported that on 19 November 1870 a steam fire-engine was delivered to the brigade to be housed in their new station at London Road, above the door of which was painted the brigade’s title – Kingston Volunteer Steam Fire Brigade.

George joined the rebels of the Steam Fire Brigade in 1877 at 22 years old. Unlike most firemen of the era he was one of very few that entered directly into the age of steam with no experience of working with manual engines. Despite the success of the rebels, it comprised just seven men when George joined, of which, being the junior, his tunic was badged as Fireman No.7.

Kingston was served by both the rebel brigade and the Corporation’s service for eleven years until the latter was disbanded in 1881. Its decrepit equipment and machinery were given to the rebels as part of the deal for them to formally represent the district as its firefighting force. Neighbouring brigades at Hampton Wick and New Malden followed suit and threw their lot, and their rates, in with the rebels.

London Road, Kingston

Within the rebel brigade George’s rise from Fireman No.7 was rapid, achieving the appointment of Chief Officer eleven years later in his mid-30’s. On 17 July 1884 he married Margaret Annie and whisked his wife off for a honeymoon taking in the Lake District and parts of Scotland. The 1891 Census records the couple, without child but with four servants including a boatman, residing at Broom Road, Teddington. Evidence suggests they were to have two children, a son Donald, and daughter Vivien.

Under Harrison's command, owing much to his engaging manner with both brigade subscribers and insurance offices, by the mid-1880's the brigade had more than doubled its manpower capacity and fielded two Shand Mason steam powered fire engines in addition to an improved manual appliance operated from two stations. From the fact that the original London Road station was termed No.1 Station and later added Hampton Wick as No.5 Station, it can be seen that under George’s command the brigade stretched its tentacles further still. As a result, in 1887, the brigade was renamed Kingston, Surbiton and District Fire Brigade. From evidence in papers and journals of the period it becomes clear that George was considered a reliable and progressive source of guidance in matters of fire safety and precaution in addition to firefighting.

The Star and Garter fire.

In 1888 the brigade was called to one of its most notable incidents. The Star and Garter Hotel was a prominent edifice on the summit of Richmond Hill. It was estimated that at 22:00 in the night of Saturday 8 September, fire broke out in the underground kitchens beneath the pavilion, a large extension separate from, but structurally connected to the main hotel. The commanding position of the hotel beneath the throbbing orange glow in the sky afforded persons for many miles around a grandstand view of a major structural conflagration. It took little time for Captain T. Covell of the first in attendance Richmond Volunteer Fire Brigade to call for assistance – George and his expansive renamed brigade responded in strength.

Several hours of arduous firefighting ensued, during which two firemen suffered falls from substantial heights. Thousands gathered around Richmond Hill for a closer view and cheers arose as the combined firemen surrounded the fire and the flames were got under. An officer of the London Salvage Corps stated the footprint of damaged area of the structure to have been 130’ x 70’. Of Isle of Wight interest is that Richmond’s emerging junior officer at this incident was Sidney Charles Sapsworth, who was also destined to relocate to Ryde in the same year as George Harrison.

When George announced his retirement from the brigade and intention to relocate to the Isle of Wight in late 1895, it was received with great sadness. In his honour a banquet was held at Albany Hall, Kingston. The lengthy article concerning the event that appeared in the Kingston and Surbiton News, revealed that George was active in many areas of the community in addition to the brigade. Extracts from the article also appeared in the IW County Press, who welcomed George to the Isle of Wight and remarked upon the many improvements he was making to the family home, Thornton Manor, which in 1895 was within the district of St Helens.

George's legacy; the firemen of the Kingston, Surbiton and District Fire Brigade, photographed shortly after his departure to the Isle of Wight.

George soon became an equally popular and energetic figure of Isle of Wight life. Captain James Dore, the progressive and sharp minded commander of Sandown Fire Brigade, wasted no time in making the acquaintance of the Island's esteemed new resident. By the end of the following year Harrison had been appointed an Honorary Member of the Sandown FB in addition to accepting the Presidency of the Isle of Wight Fire Brigades Federation, which he maintained until 1903. Never returning to operational firefighting he nevertheless maintained an active interest in the welfare and capabilities of IW brigades. 

George was one of those who closely supported Captain George Hutt of Appley Manor in his drive to inspire St Helens Urban District Council to establish its own fire brigade. Given the substantial area covered by the UDC Harrison submitted a plan to establish a three-station system, the main at St Helens Green, with satellite stations at St John's and Seaview, in a fashion similar to that which he'd operated successfully at Kingston and Surbiton. Initially the UDC dismissed the plan as preposterous, but two years later, reeling from the shock of the conflagration that almost destroyed Appley Towers, St Helens announced the launch of a brigade matching Harrison's plan, without formally acknowledging its source.

The Harrison’s enjoyed a comfortable life at Thornton, enjoying leisure’s and high society soirees while living off private means. George and Margaret’s eldest child Donald was absent at Thornton when the 1911 Census was completed. Aged 18 he may have been at university. In any event it appears that he either volunteered for Army service in the First World War or responded when conscripted in accordance with the Military Service Act of 1916. Sadly, Lieutenant Donald Howard Harrison was killed in action with C Battery, 306th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery, on 16 September 1918, painfully close to the end of the war. More tragic was that Lieut. Harrison served with C Battery of the 307th Brigade who were scheduled to be relieved by the 306th Brigade to allow them to withdraw from the front lines by rotation. By Order No.153 of the 61st Divisional Artillery, issued as a secret memorandum on 14 September, loss of officers from the 306th required that Donald be attached to them and remain in the front line as his own unit withdrew. Two days later a colossal German counter bombardment took his life.

Sketch plan provided to those tasked with duties in Order No.153 of 14 September 1918.

How and when George acquired the painting isn't known, but as Station Officer Collis stated, he gifted it to Ryde Fire Station in 1925.

George Howard Harrison passed away at Thornton Manor on 20 July 1930 aged 75. The Isle of Wight County Press described him – A gentleman imbued with a desire of rendering service to the community. He had a most engaging personality, was most pleasant and genial at all times, and many will miss him for a hundred and one kindly acts always performed quietly without show.

He was laid to rest at St Helens Church graveyard.

Analysis of the painting

The Google Earth image on the left shows Piccadilly today, with the Fortnum and Mason store located on the right. Wheeling the image and zooming to see greater detail evidences the same arched ground floor windows that appear in the background of Rosenberg's painting, which corroborates the location. 

If the angle of Rosenberg's depiction is true it suggests that the fire is within Burlington House, which, from 1874, accommodated several organisations such as the Royal Society and the Geological Society of London. How this equates to being a family abode is questionable.

Attempts to retrieve a fire report that reflects the events depicted has proven fruitless. As with many historical matters the painting leaves us with as many questions as answers.

What is known for sure is that in 2012, IW Council architect Nigel Hayton, who had previously served for many years as a retained firefighter in Ryde, explained to me that when the dimensions of the unusually wide stairwell at the new Ryde Fire Station, which opened in 1994, were calculated for the purpose of accommodating the painting.

In 2016 I was contacted by descendants of G.W.H. Rosenberg who asked to view the painting. During an enjoyable visit they remarked on being overwhelmed by the scale and visual impact of the painting. 

Whilst we may never ascertain the precise event in the depiction, there is much of interest that can be drawn from elements of its content.

In the bottom right of the painting we can see a Police Constable who appears to be resisting persistent sightseers from importuning on the work of the firemen.

The central feature of the scene shows a London fireman, bearing at least one epaulette, indicating an officer rank, leaning in towards the relieved mother who clasps one child to her breast while the elder toddler buries her face from the horror in the folds of her mothers gown.

The fireman holds a blanket, perhaps used to protect the children when carrying them from the heated environment to the safety of fresh air. The officers body language suggests concern and perhaps a steadying word being passed as the parents stare woefully at the stricken building beyond.

To the rear of the image, near the Fortnum and Mason building, at least four water jets can be seen thrown across the street. The range at which the firemen are working suggests a substantial thermal output from the building involved. An officer is pointing, indicating where the branchmen should concentrate their throw. To his side can be seen a steam fire-engine from which a steady flow of vertical steam rises, suggesting a windless night which may have been of some relief to the firemen given that the windows have clearly already blown by this point. 

The right side of the painting adds further explanation of the extent of the fire's effect. To the left is an escape ladder. Its head cannot be seen and the fact that no fireman is upon it and no hose run-up, it may be redundant having previously been used to rescue the children.

However a fireman can be seen at either wheel, the one to the rear visible only by his helmet, so perhaps the ladder is being repositioned?

Behind the ladder, in the background, a second ladder can be seen pitched against a building on the opposite side of the street. Perhaps the heat was so intense and the flare of embers so threatening that the officers deployed men to account for the fire protection of these structures. 


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