People of Leeds #11: Superintendent Henry Baker and his Fire Books

This week Helen Skilbeck looks at a collection of scrapbooks compiled by Superintendent Henry Baker of Leeds Corporation Fire Brigade, covering the period 1870 – 1896. This article is #11 in our People of Leeds series – short biographies of lesser-known contributors to Leeds’ past. 

Deep within the stacks in Leeds Central Library are a collection of six scrapbooks, consisting of newspaper cuttings and handwritten notes, detailing the  activities of Henry Richard Baker (1841 – 1911) and the Leeds Corporation Fire Brigade. An additional volume has been created that focuses solely on Baker and includes his many achievements, invitations to events, personal letters and finally, his obituary.

Using these volumes we can understand the challenges faced by the various fire brigades in Leeds (at this time there were many different fire insurance brigades in operation) and the types of fires that they regularly encountered. Baker inserts newspaper cuttings about certain fires and often adds his own handwritten notes to these.

Portrait of Superintendent Henry Baker
Portrait of Superintendent Henry Baker, date unknown

Baker was born in Dover in 1841 and worked as a wood and iron shipwright in Woolwich dockyards. These skills came in useful when he was appointed to the fire brigade as he would help make the fire escapes, hose carts and ladders. His application to Leeds City Police can be viewed on Ancestry.com where we discover he was 5’10”, had grey eyes, light brown hair and a fair complexion. He married twice, both to women named Mary, but was widowed soon after his first marriage and two of his three children did not survive to adulthood.

In October 1868 he was appointed Third Class Constable in Leeds, in 1871 he had become a First Class Inspector and by 1875 he was Superintendent of Leeds Fire Brigade. Nicknamed the ‘Fire King’, he was highly respected and received the French medal of honour from the French Federation in 1894. He retired in 1899.

Photograph of the Leeds Corporation Fire Brigade with Baker in centre and Barney the fire dog.
Photograph of the Leeds Corporation Fire Brigade with Baker in centre looking away from the camera and Barney the fire dog

The scrapbooks do not reveal much about his character but he helped make Leeds one of the most efficient and well respected Brigades in the country. An interview with the Yorkshire Evening News in 1906 tells how:

the people of Leeds have a warm place in their hearts for the stalwart Superintendent, for they have found that beneath his grim exterior is hidden a kindly heart as well as a dauntless spirit. One proof of this is this is found in the splendid recreation room for the men. In this there are a first-class billiard-table, a  piano, handsome pictures, chess-tables, and every requirement for mirth and pastime – all presented by well wishers in Leeds

His obituary claimed he made ‘people skip‘ out of his way by driving the fire cart rather recklessly in his haste to get to fires and he was proud of the speed his men could get out to fires – a handwritten note suggests it took his men just 50 seconds to be ready in daytime and 70 seconds at night.

During his time in charge he dealt with some of the biggest fires Leeds had ever seen and some of the darkest tragedies.

He oversaw the response to the Wortley Church schoolroom fire in 1891 which saw the death of 11 schoolgirls. The girls were taking part in a New Years Day performance and their cotton wool costumes caught fire. A handwritten poem appears in the scrapbooks and contains these opening lines:

Hark! What noise was that, a smothered roar,
That seems to come from St Johns school for sure,
Tis past – tis gone – and yet it seems to have cast
A spell that make men stare and look aghast

The full poem makes for difficult reading but one verse mentions Baker directly:

But there’s one action I’ll mention with glee,
I mean the gallant conduct of Captain Baker you see,
Who did all he could and proved himself brave,
By flying to the Infirmary their young lives to save

Baker also worked on the hugely destructive fire at Leeds New Station in 1892. As well as causing immeasurable damage to the train lines and the dark arches underneath, it saw the death of one of the firemen from the Liverpool & London & Globe brigade, James Schofield. Again the scrapbooks contain a song concerning this event called ‘Fighting the Flames he Fell’. The final verse reads as follows:

The great fire at Leeds Station none will forget,
The first month, the year ninety-two,
But now see they come to that hero’s last home,
Without tears or sighs there are few,
The multitude follows in sorrow and woe
To see Schofield laid in his grave,
For all now agree, a true hero was he,
That he had a heart true and brave

Images shows aftermath of Leeds New Station fire in 1892. Destroyed train tracks are visible.
The aftermath of the Leeds New Station fire 1892. (c) Leeds Libraries, www.leodis.net

One newscutting concerns the burning of a convalescent home on York Road. This took place in May 1893 and it was a deliberate fire started by Baker and the Corporation Fire Brigade. This home had been used for fever patients and there was a concern that infectious germs might be lurking in the building. The Mayor believed the safest way to combat this was to burn the building to the ground. Acting under orders, Baker placed several bags of shavings, saturated in petroleum, around the building and ignited them. Unfortunately the building didn’t burn as well as hoped due to rain, which had a sprinkler effect on the 300 year old building. Eventually the roof caved in and Baker’s job was done.

Newspaper cutting from May 1893 concerning the burning of a convalescent home.
Newspaper cutting from May 1893 concerning the burning of a convalescent home

One amusing newscutting refers to a fire at Harewood House in September 1885. Baker’s Brigade made the 8 mile journey in half an hour and were commended by Lord Harewood. A cutting from an unknown newspaper suggests the reason the Wetherby Fire Brigade did not reach there first:

Newspaper cutting criticising Wetherby Fire Brigade
Newspaper cutting criticising Wetherby Fire Brigade – ‘I have been asked to make the following inquiry. Is it true that although the Wetherby Fire Brigade was wired for at the same moment as the Leeds brigade to extinguish the fire at Harewood House, the Wetherby brigade arrived two hours later than the Leeds, notwithstanding that the distance to be travelled was only about half that from Leeds? Is it also true that the explanation is to be found in the fact that the Wetherby brigade made several stoppages on the way, and did not even make a start until each man had lighted a cigar?’

Superintendent Baker even had a children’s rhyme rewritten about him:

Pat-a-cake children's rhyme rewritten to include Baker
Pat-a-cake children’s rhyme rewritten to include Baker: Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, Baker’s man, Put out the fire as fast as you can, Splash it and drench it with “steamer” and hose, You’re prompt and you’re gallant, as ev’ryone knows

The fire scrapbooks are slowly being indexed by library staff to give us a clearer idea of the nature and frequency of fires under Baker’s command. They are a wonderful resource to find out more about the fire service and about the history of Leeds. They are usually available to view by appointment, but the Local and Family History Library is still closed at present due to Covid-19. Please contact us on 0113 37 86982 or via localandfamilyhistory@leeds.gov.uk to find out more.

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