Forged in Fire - firefighting in Hong Kong's early days

'All hands to the pumps!' was a frequent cry heard in Hong Kong in its earliest days, before the administration had its own fire brigade. The custom in Chinese villages was that every householder kept a bucket of water ready at the door - the bucket was marked with their name, so when the alarm of Fire! went out, they could be easily snatched up to help quench the flames - and then the bucket would make its way back to its owner. As Hong Kong grew ever upwards, and three-storey buildings proliferated, 'engines' were necessary to send the water high enough. But these were boxes on wheels, with a manual pump, positioned over a nullah or stream, or perhaps a tank of water, and operated by hand. Many concerns owned a 'fire engine' - the army and police, banks, trade guilds, shipping firms, merchant houses. And because everything was so flammable in Hong Kong, they would be deployed not just for fires on their own properties, but come to the general aid. Hong Kong's government formed the Fire Brigade (employing men from its Police Force) in 1868. Back in Britain, the first modern brigade formed was in Edinburgh in 1824, followed by one in London in 1833, but it would be many decades before most towns and counties had their own.

I was really pleased to have my article on Hong Kong fire fighting before 1868 appear in the SCMP Post Mag on Sunday 6th June 2022 - click below to read it.

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