When Classical Education Meets the Trades

In 1824, the world’s First municipal fire fighting service, the Edinburgh Fire Establishment, was created in Edinburgh, Scotland, by 24-year-old James Braidwood.

A Builder with a Classical Education

James Braidwood was born in Edinburgh, the tenth child of Janet Mitchell and Francis James Braidwood, a successful cabinet maker and builder. Considered the father of the firefighting service as we know it today—methodology, organization, and training—James Braidwood graduated from Edinburgh Royal High School (est. 1128), one of the oldest schools in Scotland. Up until the latter half of the 19th century, the curriculum was strongly classical and included the study of Latin and Greek, literature, and classical philosophy. The Royal High School was highly reputed across Britain and Europe during this time, and families from as far as Russia sent their sons to be educated there.  The school accepted the children of both nobility and tradesmen without discrimination, educating them side by side.

Braidwood graduated at age thirteen and joined his father’s company as an apprentice. He showed great aptitude, and quickly became an insurance surveyor, assessing the fire risks associated with various buildings and properties. He inspected structures, identified potential firre hazards, and made recommendations to minimize risks. He developed a keen interest in understanding the movement of fire across buildings and materials.

An Original Vision

During this time, firefighting brigades were generally formed and funded either by insurance companies to protect their clients’ buildings, or by independent volunteers from local parishes. There was little formal training or organization.

Braidwood noted this lack amidst the increasing number of fires breaking out in old town Edinburgh. In 1824, he approached the insurance companies and the Edinburgh government with a plan to create the Edinburgh Fire Establishment. It was said of Braidwood: “With his knowledge of building construction he pioneered the use of a scientific approach to firefighting, often entering buildings to tackle the heart of a fire. He also placed great emphasis on the training of his firefighters.

His proposal was accepted. Two months later, around 10pm on the night of November 15, 1824, the Great Fire of Edinburgh sparked in Cotton’s Wharf. This event refined Braidwood’s work and vision. His men were new and not yet fully trained, and the position of  fire chief was not established. After the fire, local authorities tried to place the blame on Braidwood and his “pioneers” for the damages, but an inquiry revealed that the local police officers, bailiffs, and councilmen had given contradictory orders to Braidwood’s men during the fire. He and his firefighters were cleared of wrongdoing and it was ruled that moving forward, the fire chief was to have full authority and control of all firefighters and operations during emergencies, a precedent which still stands today.

The Edinburgh council decided to invest in men and equipment, and noted in their council minutes that “the Police Committee… procured and trained by regular exercise, a body of 80 Firemen under the command of a Superintendent (Mr. Braidwood) and other officers.” In a short time, Braidwood created the most efficient firefighting organization in the world and a model for municipal brigades to follow. He did this despite several setbacks and difficulties, as well as criticism for unusual practices, such as recruiting stonemasons and carpenters for their knowledge of materials, and sailors for their strength and nimbleness in climbing.

A Lasting Legacy

Braidwood’s innovations are visible in every local fire station today. He:

SET THE PRECEDENT that a fire brigade should be headed by a knowledgeable and experienced fire chief.

• INTRODUCED AND REQUIRED THE USE OF PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) which began when he gave his Edinburgh firefighters a helmet with protection for the back of the neck.

• INTRODUCED TRAINING PROGRAMS emphasizing theoretical knowledge, practical skills, and a mandatory strict fitness regime. This focus on training became a fundamental aspect of modern firefighting.

• STRATEGICALLY PLACED FIRE STATIONS to ensure quick response.

• CONTINUOUSLY IMPROVED AND INNOVATED FIREFIGHTING EQUIPMENT, from specialized ladders, to grappling hooks to pull down burning materials, to steam-powered fire engines. This marked a shift from relying solely on manual methods.

• DOCUMENTED AND STANDARDIZED RECORDKEEPING, which helped in the analysis of firefighting strategies and the improvement of techniques.

• IMPLEMENTED SAFETY MEASURES for fire prevention, emphasizing the importance of fire codes and public education. (He wrote an influential paper for the Institute of Civil Engineers, “On Fireproofing Buildings,” in 1849.)

In 1832, Braidwood was asked to establish the London Fire Brigade. In 1833, he became chief, a position he held for the next seventeen years. The London Fire Brigade became one of the most well-known fire brigades in the world.

At the age of 61, Braidwood attended a fire in an area of London particularly concerning to him, as it was packed with large warehouses that were like tinderboxes. The fire rapidly spread. At about 7:30pm, on June 22, 1861, he ordered his men to get back from the front section of a warehouse wall which was bulging outwards. Seconds later the wall collapsed on top of him, killing him instantly.

A week later, Braidwood was buried in Abney Park Cemetery, with thousands lining the route. ✤

Queen Victoria wrote of his death in her diary:

“… poor Mr Braidwood … had been killed … and the fire was still raging. It made one very sad.”

The poet Dinah Craik wrote “A True Hero” in tribute:

Death found—and touched him

with Finger in flying:

So he rose up complete—

Hero undying.

Now, all mourn for him,

Lovingly raise him

Up from his life obscure

Braidwood documented his theories and principles in two books that you can still purchase today: Fire Prevention and Fire Extinction, and Construction Of Fire Engines And Apparatus, The Training Of Firemen And Method Of Proceeding In Cases Of Fire, which would become a textbook for the UK’s fire service.


Learn More

How the Great Fire of Edinburgh helped to create the modern fire service

The National: The Edinburgh blaze that gave birth to modern methods of firefighting

The National: Meet the father of modern-day firefighting

The Scottish Father of the American Fire Service




Constructing Modern Fire Brigades: The Edinburgh ‘Great Fire’ of 1824

James Braidwood Statue Edinburgh, Scotland. Dedicated to the Father of the British Fire Service.  

James Braidwood: 1800 – 1861, Father of the British Fire Service

The Edinburgh Fire Brigade, 1837-70

The London Fire Establishment

James Braidwood Books

Internet Archive: James Braidwood Books Free

Fire Prevention and Fire Extinction by James Braidwood (Project Gutenberg)

The Edinburgh Royal Highschool

Childhood Reading and Education: The Royal High School of Edinburgh, 1750-1850

At the period that James Braidwood attended and graduated from the Edinburgh Royal High School (a classical school), it had gained a reputation across Britain and the European continent. At the height of its fame families from all over Europe as far as Russia were sending their sons to be educated there.  The school’s accepted both the children of nobility as well as the children of tradesmen and builders without discrimination, educating them side-by-side. Here are a few notable individuals attended the Royal High School:

  • Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832): A renowned Scottish historical novelist, poet, and playwright, Sir Walter Scott is often considered one of the greatest literary figures in the 19th century.
  • Alexander Graham Bell (1847–1922): Although Bell is best known as the inventor of the telephone, he was also a teacher of the deaf and a scientist. His work had a profound impact on communication technology.
  • Henry Peter Brougham, 1st Baron Brougham and Vaux (1778 – 1868):  A British statesman who became Lord High Chancellor and played a prominent role in passing the 1832 Reform Act and 1833 Slavery Abolition Act, which was spearheaded by William Wilberforce.
  • Thomas Stevenson (1818 – 8 May): was a pioneering Scottish civil engineer, lighthouse designer and meteorologist, who designed over thirty lighthouses in and around Scotland, as well as the Stevenson screen used in meteorology. His designs, celebrated as ground breaking, ushered in a new era of lighthouse creation.
  • William Smellie (1740–1795): A Scottish printer who edited the first edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. He was also a naturalist and antiquary. He was a joint founder of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, co-founder of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, and a friend of Robert Burns.
  • James Short (1710 – 1768): A Scottish mathematician and manufacturer of optical instruments, principally telescopes. During his 35-year career as a telescope-maker he produced approximately 1,360 scientific instruments. Short was born in Edinburgh in 1710 to Margaret Grierson and William Short, a carpenter. When orphaned at about the age of 10, he was accepted into the Heriot’s Hospital, an orphanage, and at 12 transferred to the Royal High School where he excelled in the study of the classics.
  • Sir James Dewar (1842–1923): A chemist and physicist, Dewar made significant contributions to the fields of cryogenics and spectroscopy. He is also known for inventing the Dewar flask, a type of vacuum flask.
  • William Strahan (1715 – 1785): was a Scottish printer and publisher, and a politician who sat in the House of Commons between from 1774 to 1784. He was a correspondent and later a good friend of Benjamin Franklin.
  • Robert Fergusson (1750 – 1774): A Scottish poet. Despite a short life, his career was highly influential, especially through its impact on Robert Burns. He wrote both Scottish English and the Scots language, and it is his vivid and masterly writing in the latter leid for which he is principally acclaimed.
  • Adam Black (1784 – 1874): A Scottish publisher and politician. He founded the A & C Black publishing company, and published the 7th, 8th and 9th editions of the Encyclopædia Britannica.
  • James Hall Nasmyth (1808 – 1890): A Scottish engineer, philosopher, artist and inventor famous for his development of the steam hammer. He was the co-founder of Nasmyth, Gaskell and Company manufacturers of machine tools. 
  • James Pillans (1778–1864): A Scottish classical scholar and educational reformer. He is credited with inventing the blackboard, but more correctly was the inventor of coloured chalk. He was an early advocate for compulsory education, wrote in defense of  classical training and education.
  • Thomas Charles Hope ((1766 – 1844): A Scottish physician, chemist and lecturer. He proved the existence of the element strontium, and gave his name to Hope’s Experiment, which shows that water reaches its maximum density at 4 °C (39 °F). In 1815 Hope was elected as president of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (1815–19), and as vice-president of Royal Society of Edinburgh (1823–33) during the presidencies of Walter Scott and Thomas Makdougall Brisbane. (Charles Darwin attended some of his lectures).
  • Leonard Horner (1785 – 1864): A Scottish merchant, geologist and educational reformer. He was the younger brother of Francis Horner. Horner was a founder of the School of Arts of Edinburgh, now Heriot-Watt University and one of the founders of the Edinburgh Academy. As a commissioner on the Royal Commission on the Employment of Children in Factories, Horner arguably did more to improve the working conditions of women and children in North England than any other person in the 19th century.

These are just a few examples, and there are many more accomplished graduates from the Royal High School who made notable contributions in various fields.