Mrs. Ann Thompson sat in the small parlour at the back of her inn and smiled to herself. Here she was, the unexpected owner of one of London’s larger inns, much to the horror of most of her relations. She wasn’t sure if it was the fact that a young, widowed, highly respectable, gentlewoman had had the temerity to announce that she would live in the inn and manage it herself. Or, more likely, that she had inherited the property rather than any of her male relations, but her uncle’s will had been clear, it all came to her.
She had already decided that she was not actually going to manage the property, but was keeping that news from her relations until she found someone suitable, especially someone who would care properly for her horses. There was a large livery stable attached to the inn, where she had several very good animals.
She was thinking of the horses when there was a frantic knocking from below and one of the maids burst in.
“They need the horses, there’s a fire!”
“What do you mean?” She asked, but the maid had already run back downstairs. She followed into the stable, to find two men waiting there, with the head ostler. The men were wearing leather jackets with large silver badges on their shoulders, she immediately recognised them as firemen.
“Sorry Ma’am, but we have always lent the horses to the fireman, to pull their engine.” He saw her hesitate and added, “They pay of course.”
“But who drives them?”
“Your uncle did, but now one of the firemen will.”
“NO!” The firemen looked shocked and began to speak, she stopped him.
“No one is driving my best horses unless I know them, I don’t know you”
The men looked shocked, one of the firemen was about to say something, but she cut him short.
“So I will drive them.”
“But Ma’am, you can’t!” burst out both the ostler and one of the firemen simultaneously.
“I can drive better than you.” She said to the ostler, kicking off her slippers and pulling on a pair of leather boots.
“And I don’t know you.” She added to the fireman as she pulled a leather coat over her loose day dress. “Now harness the horses and let’s get moving.”
The younger fireman just smiled, “Yes Ma’am,” and went to help the ostler harness the horses.
Ann handed her shawl and bonnet to her maid, pulled a wide brimmed leather hat over her loose hair, and strode out of the stable.
They walked at a brisk pace to the engine shed, the double doors were open and the low waggon with the engine on it was already standing there.
As they harnessed the horses to the waggon, the foreman tossed a broad leather strap with a silver fireman’s badge on it to Ann.
“Put it on, it can help if people get in the way.” She slipped it over her shoulder and climbed onto the waggon. She saw one of the firemen saying something to the foreman, she guessed he was telling him who she was. He looked across at her, saw her expertly check the reins, and shrugged.
“Do you know where to go?”
“No, direct me!” She shouted back, he climbed up behind her and they were off.
She was never to forget that desperate race through London’s streets.
She had driven in London before, and never enjoyed it. The roads were crowded, and worse than that people always stared at her, as though no one had ever seen a woman drive before. It was so different in the country where, even in the county town, it was just Mrs Thompson, and everybody knew she was a great horsewoman.
But now, the link boys ran ahead lighting the way, so she was able to drive at a fast canter, swinging round corners, not worrying if there was anybody in the way, if there was they were roughly pushed aside. A crowd ran with them, helping to clear the way. A sedan chair with a wealthy looking man in it was roughly tumbled over, as he swore as the engine rumbled by, the crowd just laughed.
“It will be quicker through the park.” The foreman said.
“Won’t the gates be locked?” she asked, turning the horses.
“Not for us.” He replied, pulling his short-handled axe from the pouch on his belt.
As they approached the park gates she saw a soldier arguing with one of the firemen who had run on ahead. Suddenly the fireman raised his hand and she saw the soldier stagger. The gate was swung open and they charged through.
“Will he get into trouble for this?”
“He might, but as he got a sore head the magistrate will probably let him off with a warning.” Seeing her surprised expression he added. “We have no right to do what we have been doing, but the attitude of the magistrates is that we are acting for the common good, and anyone who gets in our way – isn’t!”
The gate on the far side of the park was wide open, the soldier on guard saluted as they went by, Ann lifted her whip in reply, then it was on and along narrow streets, towards a red light that was glowing clearer every minute. They turned into a small square, on one side was a tall house, three stories high, flames flickered inside the lower windows. Outside, an outbuilding was well ablaze.
She pulled up, her horses were restless, not liking the smoke and flames, so she sat, holding the reins as two men ran to their heads to hold them still. Behind her the firemen were getting the engine off its wagon, as soon as it was clear she drove into a yard on the far side of the square and managed to calm her horses.
Now she was able to watch what was happening, a man came up to her, a tray of tankards in his hands.
“Take one mate, you’ve done well to get here so fast.”
She turned to the man, he stopped in surprise, “Sorry miss, Ma’am.”
She smiled at him and took a tankard, “Thank you, I need that.”
The man grinned back, “Take it, as I said you have done well. They will be thankful you got here first.”
He looked across at the firemen, she looked puzzled.
“Don’t you know, the first engine on the scene gets a bounty from the parish, so that goes to the Sun.”
A team of men were pulling goods out of the undamaged part of the house, as others had lined up on either side of the engine, two men were pumping water into it from the stopcock in the street. Then there was an order, the men on one side of the machine lifted the large horizontal handle and brought it down, lifting the one on the other side, then the men on that side brought their handle down. As they pumped regularly up and down, a strong jet of water poured from the hose.
The foreman directed the jet into the window of the burning part of the house, then turned to look to the burning outbuilding. At that moment there was a shout and a second fire engine cantered in. The foreman on that machine looked very cross, but immediately dropped to the ground and ran over to the foreman who had come with Ann. To her surprise they didn’t argue but seemed to be discussing what to do.
“It’s like this Ma’am.” Said the publican, handing a tankard to the driver who had brought the second engine, “They race to the fire, because of the bounty, but now the Royal Exchange has lost, the crews will all be paid the same and will work together as all want to get the fire out, after all its what they do.”
The second engine began to play its hose onto the outbuilding, it was very badly burnt and, in a few minutes, collapsed. No sooner was it a heap of rubble that their hose was turned onto the house and after a little while the fire inside was dying down.
The foreman came over to her, “Time to go Ma’am, the Royal Exchange’s men can finish up here, after all it is one of theirs.” She looked puzzled, he continued.
“The house is insured with the Royal Exchange Company.” He pointed to the fire mark high on the building. “All of us firemen will put out a fire, then discover who insures it. If it is one of ours we will just let our company know. If it is insured by another company then we send them a bill for putting it out, that’s what we will be doing here. Also as their men are here now they can wait to make sure it is out, whilst we can get back to our beds.”
As they drove more sedately back to her inn, she asked.
“What happens if it isn’t insured at all?”
“We put the fire out, we are firemen, that’s what we do. Then our secretary will discover who owns the building and asks them for a contribution to our costs.”
“And if they don’t pay?”
“If they are poor, the company will treat it as a charitable act. That’s why we can get away with so much, people know we will put their fires out wherever they are. However if they could afford it and won’t pay we can do nothing. But.” he grinned, “the secretaries circulate their name to all the insurance companies, and they will find it either impossible or very expensive to get any insurance in the future.”
They stopped at the engine house, she unharnessed the horses and led them back to the stable. The ostlers were still awake, and she left them in their care as she staggered up to her room, and collapsed into bed.
She awoke late, then infuriated her staff by demanding a bath as she still smelt of smoke. Later her maid brought a man to see her, the secretary of the Sun Insurance Company. He bowed, and offered her his hand.
“Madam, it gives me great pleasure to give you this.” He handed her a small bag. As she signed the receipt he said, “As far as I know you are the first woman to have ever attended a fire.”
She didn’t know it then, but it would be centuries before another woman did.
In the archives of the Sun Insurance Company is a receipt for the supply of horses made out to Ann Thompson, the only woman so recorded. She probably only supplied the horses, but it was fun to imagine she might have driven them as well.
All the other details are as accurate as I can make them. The argument with a soldier, the support of the magistrates and the way in which the companies worked with each other.