Fire-bells in the City

BLITZ REMEMBERED was an event held on the 29th of December 2015 to mark the anniversary of the Second Great Fire of London, an intense bombing raid in which around 1,500 fires were started across the capital. Among the attractions promised was the sounding of an air raid siren from Dowgate fire station in the City. This seemed worthy of recording.

My mother once told me that it was the steady note of the all-clear which was feared more, since it made you wonder about the destruction you’d witness once you’d emerged from hiding. The attack siren left no time for such thoughts. For those of us who weren’t around then, its rise-and-fall ululation nonetheless draws on a deep and wordless emotional reservoir.

Britain’s network of sirens was largely dismantled in 1993 and very few remain in or around London. Broadmoor maximum-security hospital in Berkshire has one which is tested every Monday morning, Canvey Island did have one to warn of floods but this is now likely gone, and another is tested regularly at the water works in Hampton, recording of which is on the to-do list.

At Dowgate fire station on Upper Thames Street there was a small crowd of onlookers and re-enactors from the Fire Service Preservation Group. Men of a certain age hefted expensive-looking cameras as they inspected the vintage fire engines parked on the station’s forecourt – I began to feel at home. Tea was served from a large flask resting on a trestle table.

Montage of photos showing fire engines and re-enactors outside Dowgate fire station.

Then the bad news. On asking where exactly the siren was, I was told how a couple of people had complained on Facebook at the prospect of it being sounded. They argued that elderly people within earshot might suffer traumatic flashbacks as if they were suddenly reliving the Blitz. ‘The authorities’ (presumably the Corporation of London) had taken note of this and told the re-enactors that their full-sized electric siren couldn’t be used after all. A small hand-cranked one was to be substituted. The complaint seemed nonsensical, but there was at least the advertised procession of fire engines sounding their bells to look forward to.

It grew dark and the roadworks on Upper Thames Street came to a halt. Firemen urged the crowd to move across the road to make way for the engines. I hoisted my mic on its boompole above people’s heads and waited. The siren’s note rose and, one after another, the old vehicles revved and heaved themselves into the street.

Many thanks to Nick Hamilton.