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Firefighters remember the men who lost their lives in ‘hugely scary’ blaze

Plaque unveiled 60 years after deaths that brought in safety measures ‘still protecting us today’

26 January, 2018 — By Samantha Booth

Firefighters at the unveiling of the plaque honouring the dead men in Smithfield Market on Tuesday. Picture: London Fire Brigade

SIX decades ago, thick black smoke filled the sky from a tragic blaze which changed the way fires are fought.

This week, firefighters remembered the bravery of two men who lost their lives in the Smithfield Market blaze, one of London’s worst fires since the Blitz.

Station officer Jack Fourt-Wells and firefighter Richard Stocking, also known as Dick, both from Clerk­enwell Fire Station, were part of the first crew to enter the basement of the Union Cold Storage Co when fire broke out on January 23, 1958. They were never to be seen by their families and fellow firefighters again.

Scene after the 1958 blaze that ripped through Smithfield Market. Picture: London Fire Brigade

Despite being just yards from the exit, they were buried when frozen meat packets collapsed and their oxygen eventually ran out. It took 1,700 firefighters and 389 fire engines to put out the blaze, which burnt for three days. About 24 firefighters were also injured.

The tragedy prompted the brigade to change its policy on firefighter breathing apparatus, replacing Proto oxygen sets, which the two men had been wearing, with compressed-air breathing apparatus.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) played a key role in that change. Member Keith Handscomb, 52, has heard tales about the treacherous blaze from generations of firefighters before him.

“The fire was in the basement and smoke was billowing up through the hatches,” said Mr Handscomb, a recently retired firefighter based in Essex. “As they went down, they couldn’t see a single thing. They didn’t have torches. You wouldn’t be able to see your hand in front of your face. They had to find where the fire was and you’re talking about over thousands of square metres. It must have been hugely scary.”

At that time, the bravest of firefighters were called “smoke eaters”, who would not give up looking for the origin of the fire.

The new plaque at Smithfield Market

Mr Handscomb said Mr Fourt-Wells was one of those putting their lives at higher risk in the line of duty, something he was “proud” of being able to do.

Other changes prompted by the fire included ensuring a live record – known as a BA board – was kept of who went into the fire, how much oxygen they had and how long they could last, so colleagues knew if they were in trouble.

“The lessons learnt in their deaths are still protecting us today,” said Mr Handscomb, who is determined to make sure those who died in the line of duty are remembered.

To mark the 60 years since the men’s deaths, a red plaque was unveiled in Smithfield Market on Tuesday, organised by the FBU and the Firefighters 100 Lottery.

It is the second such plaque mounted in London to remember fallen firefighters. The first, in Bethnal Green, honours two firefighters who died in a basement blaze in 2004.

Speaking at the 50th anniversary of the Smithfield fire in 2008, then Deputy Commiss­ioner of London Fire Brigade Roy Bishop said: “This is a landmark fire in the history of London and its fire brigade. It is important we remember this tragic fire and honour the memory of the two firefighters.”


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