Sean Gubbins explains the Parish Squirt

No, this was not something derogatory to call your annoying child. It referred to the local fire engine.

By a law of 1708, parishes were obliged to have a fire engine. Hackney’s was kept in the Engine House on the south side of the old church (now St. Augustine’s Tower) towards the bottom of today’s Narrow Way. When a new larger engine was bought in 1823, the old one was assigned to be kept in a shed just off Kingsland Road in what is now St Peter’s Way, leading to De Beauvoir Square.

In 1850, this engine was looked after by two firemen: a Mr. Williams and a Mr. Edwards. They were not full-time firemen, as we have today. Mr. Williams was the Beadle, an official of West Hackney Church, all the way up in Stoke Newington Road, and Mr. Edwards was a local shoemaker. If there was a fire they had to be found to get the engine out. Both men lived close by the Kingsland engine house, but it was considered a marvel if the firemen were at home when needed.  More often than not, Mr. Williams was to be found up at West Hackney Church ‘pottering’ and Mr. Edwards was often out during the day, making deliveries to his customers. Whoever was able to find a fireman was rewarded 1/- (one shilling).

The next step was to find the turncock, who was often an employee of the New River Company which supplied water to the western side of Hackney.  The fee for calling him out was 2/6 (half-a-crown or two and a half shillings). According to The National Archives Currency Converter, 1/- in 1851 was worth £4 and 2/6 was worth £10 in 2017.

When the hand-drawn engine was replaced by a horse-drawn machine, one of the firemen had to make his way to the nearby cab rank in Kingsland Road to commandeer a horse. Not all our equine friends were compliant. Often the first cab’s horse refused to cooperate, so another had to be found that would oblige. Then machine, men and horse could proceed to the fire. How this cumbersome procedure ever successfully got to a burning building in time beggars belief.

My source for this account is a press cutting of recollections made by Mr Charles Clarke in 1910 of his youth 60 years earlier. He was born at the dairy his father had, close by the Kingsland engine. The press cutting is one of many, along with correspondence, notes and photographs, compiled by Hackney resident Florence Bagust between 1906 and 1936. These are available for reference at Hackney Archives.

Looking for something to do one weekend?  Intrigued to find out more about Hackney?

Look up and pick a walk that takes your fancy. The next four are in this edition’s What’s On section. I look forward to welcoming you on one of my walks.