Back in 1862, membership in the hook-and-ladder and engine companies of Victoria's volunteer fire brigades was a success symbol.
There were three fire companies, and each maintained a running feud with the others in matters of attire and social distinction.
The fire companies - Union Hook and Ladder, Tiger and Deluge - were sort of a combination of brotherhood-service club and fire department.
The need for fire protection came as an afterthought to city businessmen, enjoying the first boom of the Cariboo gold strike in 1858.
The town was crowded with the shanties and tents of temporary squatters bound for the gold fields when Gov. James Douglas, at the request of businessmen, ordered two hand-operated pumping engines to start a fire brigade.
The money came from the Hudson's Bay Co. and the engines, with 500 metres of hose, were purchased for a total cost of $5,020, including shipment from San Francisco.
Volunteers had a field day testing the rigs when they arrived on July 28 aboard the steamer Oregon.
Troubles soon beset the fire department, however. The first wrong move came when the rigs were placed in the charge of police Commissioner Augustus F. Pemberton. Volunteers, especially men who had served in the volunteer brigades in San Francisco, felt the fire department should be separate from the police.
But organization went ahead and on July 31, a public meeting was held to elect officers and select sites for the cisterns that would provide a water supply.
The drive languished when many of the volunteers left the city for the mid-August exodus to the gold fields.
The first boom was over, business and real estate slumped and money was scarce - especially for a fire department in a city that had yet to have a serious fire.
Interest was revived in January 1859. Officers were appointed for two fire companies, and two cisterns - on Store Street and on Government Street - were built at a cost of $741.
They arrived just in time, because a serious warehouse fire at Government and Johnson streets threatened the entire business district.
The fire pointed up the weak spots in the protective system. A drive was started by J.J. Southgate and C.W. Wallace Jr. to raise funds for a hook-and-ladder rig and an alarm bell.
On Oct. 22, a public meeting, chaired by British Colonist editor Amor de Cosmos, was held to draft a new constitution and set up a steering committee for development.
The hook-and-ladder was ordered, and on Nov. 22, the Union Hook and Ladder Co. was formally organized. Contracts were awarded for the first fire hall at Bastion and Wharf and newly appointed firemen strutted around town in their bright uniforms - red shirts, black trousers, wide leather belt and cap.
The two original companies were reorganized with the imposing titles of Deluge Engine Company No. 1 and Tiger Engine Company No. 2.
The names were taken literally by the fiercely partisan smoke-eaters, as evidenced by a May Day parade where the Deluge company entered a float depicting the biblical deluge, complete with Noah's Ark and the motto: "We strive to save."
Deluge housed themselves in a rented building on Government between Yates and Johnson, while the Tiger Company leased premises around the corner, on Johnson Street between Government and Broad.
They could keep an eye on each other and get an even start in the race to the fires. (Modern fire authorities would wince at this "dispersal" of protection facilities.)
There was no great area to cover. The district boundaries lay between Johnson, Broad, Fort and the harbour.
Strict records were kept of which company was first to put water on the fire and volunteers were not above squirting each other if the fire proved insignificant.
The first casualties were recorded by Tiger Company. Two firefighters fell beneath the wheels of their hand-drawn engine while racing to a false alarm. Their injuries were "painful" but apparently not serious.
Tiger Company added to its prestige by moving into a newly built hall, complete with a flagpole and flag, donated by Capt. Alexander Murray, skipper of the Governor Douglas steamship.
Such trappings were dear to the hearts of the volunteer firemen. Scarlet shirts, silver helmets and speaking trumpets (often used to pour mammoth libations at company functions) were prized.
Membership in all three companies (Tiger, Deluge and Union Hook and Ladder) was limited to about 70. Applicants were carefully screened and voted on by ball ballot (three black balls and the man was "out"). Discussions of religion or politics were not welcomed at meetings.
The growing power of the companies caused legislators to wonder if politics would long remain outside the brigades' sphere of activities.
"There is no doubt but these fire companies will end in political societies," said Dr. John Sebastian Helmcken, during debate on the Fireman's Protection Act, "but at present they are the most useful organization in the colony."
The act, adopted in July 1863, gave the fire companies protection from lawsuits for damages to property during the quenching of a fire. It also limited their power, especially when the attorney general ruled that all equipment was the property of the colony.
The official status of the volunteer brigades was improving. Their main source of revenue was from public subscription, rich "angels" (who were rewarded with honorary memberships) and sporadically, the government.
Another problem soon tackled was water supply.
In May 1862, the city had five cisterns, with a total capacity of 116,000 gallons.
Two more were added the following year, boosting the supply on hand by 40,000 gallons. The main sources of water were wells and wagons that brought water from nearby streams.
A primitive waterworks system, with mains made from hollowed tree trunks, was built by Spring Ridge Water Works in 1863, but cisterns remained the main source of water for firefighting.
Soon, a new alarm system speeded the response of the companies to calls. Zoning laws prohibited construction of any building over one storey within the fire zones.
Fire protection was provided by volunteers even after the City of Victoria was incorporated in 1862, but eventually it became obvious that the system was not the most effective in a growing city.
On Jan. 1, 1886, the city took over the responsibility for fighting fires, and started hiring permanent employees to take the place of the volunteers.
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