Public Fire Alarms

Public fire alarms in Mitcham were taken out of service on 1st January 1953, by the Surrey County Council. This had been delayed a year as the Mitcham Borough Council protested at their removal as they wanted more time for more telephone boxes to be installed. to cover those areas where a phone box was not near an existing alarm. The Borough Council asked the Post Office to install 15 new phone boxes.

Surrey County Council, in charge of the fire service for the county, said the reasons were the cost of the alarms as well as the number of false alarms made. In a three year period to 1951, there were 212 malicious false alarms and 100 were genuine. Surrey County Council said that the Mitcham district had 52 public telephone boxes and 6 police boxes. There were 44 fire alarm points and of these 25 were in range of a public phone box within 200 yards, 13 within 300 yards, 3 within 400 yards and 1 within 500 yards, and 2 were outside this 500 yard range.

The location of these ‘fire alarm points’ can be seen on the Ordnance Survey maps as ‘F A P’, as in this map of the Fair Green.

1950 OS map

1950 OS map

before the public fire alarms, public phone calls sometimes were directed to the wrong brigade by the telephone exchange. For Mitcham, when a call was put through to the Vestry Hall the caretaker would ring the bell to summon the volunteers to the station. Sometimes he wouldn’t hear the phone ringing as he was in some other part of the building.

The street fire alarms were suggested in 1920 by Chief Officer Albert G Wells, who had seen the ‘Gamewell’ system in action in Bromley.

The first public alarms had a direct line to the fire station, where a bell would ring showing which alarm had been set. A ‘watchroom attendant’ at the fire station could then get the Vestry Hall to ring its bell for the volunteers, and when they arrived he could tell them where the alarm had been set off. This system was an invention of A.C. Brown and was widely adopted across London. By 1936, the London Fire Brigade area had 1,732 fire alarm posts. Of the 9,000 calls made with these posts, around 6,000 were genuine and 3,000 false. Of the false alarm calls, nearly 1,000 were due to electrical faults. The Gamewell system was introduced to reduce the number of false alarms due to electrical problems. Mitcham adopted the same system in 1937.

Fire Alarm Post

The Gamewell fire alarm system consisted of circuits of alarms. Each alarm had its own two or three digit number, and the fire station attendant could see which alarm had been set off by that number. The system prevented more than one alarm being pulled at the same time. If a second alarm was pulled, it would wait until the first had finished. This way the fire station could see alarms in the order they were set off.

Mitcham set up 3 circuits of 12 alarms each. The one at the Fair Green had a number of 53, and was in circuit 1. Pascalls had an alarm near its entrance in Streatham Road, numbered 115 and in circuit 2. See this 1937 list.

The alarms worked by pulling a handle, which wound a spring so that when the handle was released, the spring would unwind and turn a ‘code’ wheel. It was the code wheel that tapped out the number of the alarm onto the circuit for the fire station to see.

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