site unseen : The James Braidwood Memorial, Tooley Street

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The Independent Culture
"Look up, look up," should be the motto of anyone interested in London. Invariably it is the ground floors of buildings which get horribly mutilated so they can house another of those ubiquitous chain stores which dominate the capital's street level. Large sheets of glass mounted by dull shop signs give many of our main streets an undistinguished character.

But if you look up or go around the back of buildings then hidden gems will sometimes emerge. The only exception to this rule are theatres and cinemas: their dingy rears confirm that showmen have always known the value of being "up front".

But what happens if you keep looking up? Broken pavements and impolite pedestrians can indeed form an alarming obstacle. No matter: persevere, particularly if you are in Tooley Street. Ignore the intellectually challenged queueing for the London Dungeon, whose idea of a good time is to see how human beings have put each other painfully to death. Concentrate instead on what remains of the Old Southwark which had such strong links with the River Thames.

This part of the capital was once known as "London's larder" because of the foodstuffs stored here on the riverside. Tooley Street itself was the docker's high street and a bust of a youthful looking Ernest Bevin, the most powerful trade unionist of them all, stands close to Tower Bridge. A docker's life was indeed a hard one: irregular employment, meagre wages, the risk of injury. And, finally, the risk of fire because of the storage of inflammable goods.

The worst conflagration broke out in June 1861. Warehouses stacked with tallow for making candles ignited and the flames spread rapidly. Where was the fire brigade? There was in fact no central London Fire Brigade, but rather a variety of semi-private firms. One of them was led by a Mr James Braidwood, whose conspicuous bravery in fighting this fire led to his death.

But Braidwood did not die in vain. The tragedy spurred the authorities into creating the London Fire Brigade. Braidwood is remembered by a memorial high up on a wall close to where the fire began. Carved in stone, it shows his helmet, axe and Tooley Street in flames.

Perhaps some of the millions who watch London's Burning might care to visit this spot, remember Braidwood and give a donation to other unsung heroes.

The Braidwood Memorial is high up on the wall of 33 Tooley Street, on the corner of Cotton's Lane, London SEI

Andrew John Davies

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