Frank Rushbrook

Pioneering Fire Master and expert on marine fires whose efforts led to the first university course in Fire Engineering

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The Independent Online

There is an ancient ritual in Edinburgh. Whenever a new fire master is appointed – or, as we must now say, chief fire officer – the first event is the arrival of the curator of the fire museum carrying a battered bag.

Inside the bag is a book, On the construction of Fire Engines and Apparatus: the training of Firemen and the method of providing in cases of fire. It is written by the first city fire master anywhere in the world, a great man, James Braidwood, who pioneered the beginnings of a modern fire service between 1824 and 1832.

He was poached by the city fathers in London and was their chief fire master between 1832 and 1861, when he perished in the notorious Tooley Street fire. His book has to be signed by an incoming fire chief, and in 1959 Frank Rushbrook applied his signature, the beginning of 11 distinguished years as fire master of Edinburgh and the south-east of Scotland, for which he was made a CBE. He brought many innovations to the training of firemen and fire officers, particularly regarding ship fires. The facilities, unique in Britain for staged ship fires and associated smoke at McDonald Road in Edinburgh, are a testament to his vision.

Particularly during his final term of office he became increasingly aware that the Fire Service needed people with higher academic qualifications to deal with the complex industrial and commercial risks which were becoming increasingly common. He had the intelligence and imagination to realise that the subject of fire engineering had reached a stage in its development that deserved education at tertiary level, and proposes that a university department should be established to produce graduates for the UK Fire Service.

He convinced the principal of the University of Edinburgh, Sir Michael Swann, that Edinburgh should take up the challenge of a department of Fire Engineering. In June 1973 Dr David Rashbash became the first Professor of the discipline and proceeded to develop a groundbreaking postgraduate course.

Rushbrook had also hoped for an under-graduate course, but this was not to happen for another 25 years. It is only in the last 10 years that such courses have been set up at other universities, but the developments at Edinburgh, driven by Rushbrook’s relentless scrutiny, proved to be an essential precursor to these academic developments. Rushbrook’s initiative led to a new academic discipline adopted by universities worldwide.

After 1970 Rushbrook began a second career as a consultant on marine fires, a field in which he characteristically made huge contributions. His book Fire Aboard is recognised internationally and is frequently quoted. He testified as an expert witness in a number of key trials in London and New York following serious incidents at sea. His evidence influenced a number of crucial judgments and led directly to improvements in the safety of those who travel and work at sea. When I asked him when he felt in the greatest danger, he said unhesitatingly that it wasn’t during the London Blitz but much later in his life, when his firm, International Fire Investigators and Consultants, was called in by the Greek government to a fire they had allowed to rage for some days in the great port of Thessalonika.

Although Rushbrook spent much time giving evidence in courtrooms up to the age of 90, he also took up first-hand the task of training ships’ crews and advising them how best to deal with serious live shipboard fires.

Frank Rushbrook was born and brought up in Leith, where he had a sound technical education at Leith Academy. He joined the Edinburgh Fire Service and worked his way up to junior fire officer. He volunteered to go to London in 1940 and spent the Blitz with the East Ham Brigade, with particular responsibilities in the London and Royal Docks.

As a Leither he knew all about shipping, but nothing had prepared anyone for the Blitz. I was told by John Horner, secretary of the fire brigade union and later a Labour MP, that Rushbrook had been quite outstanding, combining skill and bravery, a most welcome Scot among the Cockneys. After the war he returned to Scotland in a senior position with the South Lanarkshire Fire Brigade but was asked back when a senior position at East Ham fell vacant.

In 1959 he returned to Edinburgh to assume the mantle of James Braidwood. It is perhaps a reflection on the public-spirited nature of the Rushbrook family that his son, a successful investment banker, should decide that he didn’t want any claim on his father’s business but that it should go to the technical manager most fitted to run an international marine fire fighting business. 


Frank Rushbrook, fire master and businessman: born Leith 6 December 1914; CBE; married Violet (died 2001; one daughter, and one son deceased); died 17 February 2014.