Great Smith Street Fire Medal
Note: The medal was purchased by Zak Coombs from Richard Schweder, a NZ medal collector, in the Q&C Militaria shop Cheltenham, Tuesday 9 Oct 2012. The medal had been rescued by Richard from a box of scrap items for destined for smelting at a jeweller/silversmiths in NZ, sometime in 2012.
A Durban Borough Fire Brigade was first organised in 1870 following a generous gesture of William Palmer, the local agent of the Royal Insurance Company. He presented the town corporation with a manual fire engine, on the condition that in the event of a fire, it was always first used on properties insured by the Royal Insurance Company! As time passed, this engine was passed on to a Volunteer Fire Brigade established and manned by the local Volunteer Artillery Corps.
The Council laid water mains in 1877 from a source within the town boundary to provide the Superintendent Alexander’s Volunteer Fire Brigade, with a ready water supply, for their standpipes, hoses and branch nozzles.
In 1882 a second Volunteer Brigade was formed within the community by William. Milne, the Locomotive Superintendent of the Natal Government Railways. In 1883, Captain Milne and his Railway Volunteer Fire Brigade took delivery of the first steam fire engine in South Africa.
A Durban Corporation Fire Brigade was also inaugurated in 1883, under the command of the Fire Master Mr. C. Virco, replacing the community’s Volunteer unit with a regular manned and trained Fire Brigade
A third volunteer unit was also established, manned by employees of the Natal Harbour Board, under the command of Captain McConnel. They too, were equipped with a large double cylinder steam fire engine.
In 1884 local trade was depressed and the Town Council were set on a course of retrenchment. All salaries were reduced pro-rata, saving the Council some £1650 a year. More importantly the Corporation Fire Brigade was disbanded and fire protection of the community was once again placed in the ‘able hands’ of a Fire Brigade of volunteers from the Police Force.
The stage was set, for a conflagration in the town, that now had only three Volunteer Fire Brigades on hand to fight it.
Following the fire in Smith Street in Natal, in which several buildings and warehouses were destroyed in the Central Business District, an area bounded by Smith Street and Gardiner Street, on the night of 4/5th September 1884, the sterling work performed by the three Volunteer Fire Brigades was acknowledged by the award of Silver and Bronze medals to the ‘gallant’ fire fighters who had so swiftly dealt with the outbreak, thereby saving many fine buildings and thousands of pounds in damage.
These medals were presumably issued in Silver to the Officers and in Bronze to the Brigade men.
The example of the medal to hand is very detailed and ornate, is made of white metal, presumed to be Silver, and is 38.7 mm in diameter.
Ribbon: No ribbon was fitted to the medal on purchase and subsequently a strip of red silk ribbon, 30mm was fitted.
Case of Issue: The medal was purchased without a case of issue.
A Bronze example of this medal has been reported, presented to Foreman T. W. Howe of the N.G.R Fire Brigade, and in that instance, the case was lined with maroon felt, with a recess to hold the medal. There was no makers name or mark, on this case.
However the engraving on the obverse of this silver example, suggest that it was a standard stock item, supplied by the Fire Brigade equipment suppliers Merryweather & Sons. This firm, originally established in 1692, and still in business in 2015, also supplied the steam fire engine,that was operated by the Railway Fire Brigade at the Smith Street Fire.
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