In 1836 the responsibility for protecting the people of Portsmouth from fire shifted from ‘big society’-style amateur volunteers to the police.
The efficiency of the police, whose priority was, naturally enough, fighting crime not fire, appears to have been only marginally better, with Portsmouth being reckoned to be ‘the worst force in the country, year after year’, there being ‘criminal neglect of fire cover’. An example of this occurred on this day in 1891 when a fire broke out at Carter Brothers’ drapery store in Commercial Road.
A shortage of police officers meant that the fire machines took 20 minutes to arrive.
They had to be used, partly, by well-meaning but untrained passers-by and drunken sailors.
A 14-year-old housemaid and three-year-old child died.
The jury at the inquest concluded ‘the force of police at disposal for fire brigade purposes is deplorably inadequate’ – from John Sadden’s The Portsmouth Book of Days.