It may be hard to imagine today, walking the lanes of Edinburgh's Old Town, winding between stone tenements along the Royal Mile, but the city was originally constructed in wood and timber, long before stone was being quarried to build houses in more permanent material. This rendered the town especially vulnerable to fire, as its buildings were crammed tightly together along the spine of rock between two glacial valleys.
Certain precautions were taken to minimise the risk of destruction, with most industrial premises being located outside of the city walls, in areas which still bear names like Candlemaker Row or Bread Street. By minimising open fires within the city in this way, Edinburgh was kept relatively safe, and once the buildings became clad in stone they acquired a new level of durability.
But several instances of conflagration exist on the historical record, during which large portions of the city were entirely destroyed by fires which spread rapidly through the narrow streets.
In 1824, one such break out of fire occurred on the Royal Mile, near Parliament Square, adjacent to St Giles' Cathedral. In this Great Fire, over 400 people lost their homes as an entire range of buildings, running the full width of the city between the High Street and the Cowgate, was lost to the flames. Thirteen people lost their lives, including two members of the recently established city fire brigade who were formally charged with protecting the city from fire.
James Braidwood, aged just 24 and recently appointed as head of the fire department, considered that the city was ill prepared for events such as these, and in particular that the men who were to tackle such blazes had little or no formal training to aid them in their work. With a unique set of skills and previous experiences in the building trade, Braidwood understood something of the methods by which buildings could be constructed to minimise their vulnerability to fire, and he was the first person to set down some of the core principles of fire fighting which still inform the work of modern firemen.
Braidwood's work in Edinburgh, and later in London, are considered to be the first coherent municipal fire services of the modern world, with his methodologies and guidance for preventing and fighting fire becoming a standard text in the development of many emergency service departments.
As one who lived his life in such a dangerous environment, it was perhaps inevitable that Braidwood should himself die in a fire, in London in 1861. His body was recovered from the burned out building and he was buried in a full public ceremony, with a reported cortege stretching one-and-a-half miles behind the hearse bearing his coffin as it was driven through London.
Braidwood is today commemorated with a statue at the head of Barrie's Close on Edinburgh's Royal Mile, adjacent to the area devastated by the Great Fire of 1824. He is also notable for having been a principle witness at the trial of William Burke in 1828, attesting to the layout of the lodging on Tanners' Close where many of Burke and Hare's murders took place.
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