Man of fire: Captain Thomas Purcell

Thomas Purcell

DFB historian Las Fallon recounts the life of Captain Thomas Purcell, an innovative man who contributed immensely to Dublin Fire Brigade.

Dublin Fire Brigade has a long history. The municipal brigade dates back to 1862 but the city fire service itself goes back to 1711 and the purchase of the city’s first fire engine, a fact which is sometimes forgotten. In fact the 300th anniversary of the event in 2011 passed unremarked. Along the way there have been many who have made their mark on the fire service, but for any student of the history of Dublin’s fire service, or indeed of the Irish fire service, one name sticks out above all others: Thomas Purcell, Chief Fire Officer of Dublin Fire Brigade from 1892 to 1917.

Thomas Purcell was a Kilkenny man by birth, an engineer by profession and a firefighter by vocation. Born in Kilkenny in 1850 he joined Kilkenny City Volunteer Fire Brigade as a young man and, at the age of 26, he was awarded the silver medal of the Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire for his actions at a fire in the city. The citation for the medal states that it was awarded to: ‘MR. THOMAS P. PURCELL OF HIGH STREET KILKENNY IN TESTIMONY TO THE INTREPID AND VALUABLE SERVICE RENDERED BY HIM IN THE PRESERVATION OF LIFE AT A FIRE AT MESSRS HENNESSEYS, DRAPERS, KILKENNY AT HALF PAST ONE O’CLOCK ON THE MORNING OF DECEMBER 19TH 1875 WHEN UNDER CIRCUMSTANCES OF MUCH DANGER AND DIFFICULTY RESCUING THE LIFE OF MISS WHITE FROM IMMINENT DEATH.’

The medal was presented to him at the Guildhall, London in July 1876. Later in his life, while working as an engineer in Limerick, he would be involved in saving the life of a workman trapped 95 feet underground when a tunnel collapsed.

Thomas Purcell married Margaret Phelan of Oldtown, Ballyragget in 1880. They had three children, all born while the family lived at St. John’s Quay, Kilkenny. Tragedy visited the young family and two of their children died in childhood. Michael died at the age of four in 1887, while Thomas was just one year old when he died in 1889. The couple’s remaining son Pierce would go on to a long life and a distinguished career in engineering, ending up as Professor of Engineering at UCD.

Purcell’s qualifications as an engineer and his involvement in firefighting would combine in his next venture. Among those who applied for and sat the written examination for the post of Superintendent of the Dublin Fire Brigade when it was advertised in January 1892 was ‘T. Purcell, civil engineer and volunteer fireman’. Purcell sat a written exam and was one of five names shortlisted. He was appointed to the job of Superintendent (Chief Fire Officer) of Dublin Fire Brigade in March 1892 at a salary of £300 per year. He formally took command of the brigade from the retiring chief, John Boyle, on April 14th of that year.

Purcell took command of a fire brigade formed only 30 years earlier. The first chief, James Ingram, had founded the brigade in 1862 and led it through many dangerous escapades. Ingram died of tuberculosis in 1882. His successor, John Boyle, led the brigade for the next ten years. Boyle’s time as chief was marked by a number of unfortunate and tragic events. Three firemen died in two incidents during his time in charge of the brigade. John Kite, killed in a building collapse in Trinity Street in 1884, was the first Dublin Fire Brigade member to lose his life while on duty. Christopher Doherty and Peter Burke were also to lose their lives while fighting a fire in Westmoreland Street in 1891 when a ladder they were operating on broke and dropped the men to the ground from a height.

Purcell’s first test as Chief Officer came in August 1892 when a fire broke out in the huge South City Markets complex, a mixed use building of 30 retail units, living accommodation and which included a bonded warehouse containing 7,000 barrels of whiskey. The fire was dealt with skilfully in spite of the dangers and Purcell and his brigade came in for praise from all quarters.

Fortification

In the autumn of 1892 Purcell decided to visit the United States to study firefighting there and included a visit to a chief officers’ conference in Milwaukee. The visit was undertaken at his own expense and the DFB museum holds a medal given to him as a memento of his visit to the conference. He also left a diary (held by his family) which records the details of his trip on the SS Etruria. The diary reveals a human side to the man and is an interesting insight into Purcell both in the way he picks up on the technical details – the distance travelled each day, the amount of coal burned etc. – but also on his wry comments on his and his fellow travellers’ discomfort due to sea sickness. He also wrote to his wife recording the day-to-day life of the passengers during the voyage.

Thomas Purcell

A recent wreath-laying ceremony in memory of Captain Purcell in Deansgrange Cemetery. Photos courtesy Ray Bateson, the author of several books including ‘Deansgrange Cemetery & The Easter Rising’, which recounts the stories of 150 men, women and children associated with the events of April 1916 buried in the cemetery

Once back in Dublin, Purcell set about a reorganisation of DFB. Over the next decade his leadership would come to see significant changes within the brigade and in the fire safety of Dublin city. Through those years a series of major fires were faced and dealt with. In the background Purcell laid plans to improve the fire defences of the city. He planned a group of four fire stations to divide the city into quarters with a modern station in each, and saw this achieved at Buckingham Street, Dorset Street, Thomas Street and the new brigade headquarters at Tara Street. In response to the new electric tram system in Dublin and the opening of the Loopline railway bridge in the 1890s, both of which restricted the use of the brigade’s old street escape ladders, he would design a turntable ladder for Dublin that he was allowed to patent and which was popular in many UK brigades. It was one of the first effective turntable ladders in use. In 1898, following a visit to Belfast where he saw the Belfast Fire Brigade horsedrawn ambulance at work, Purcell designed an ambulance for Dublin and introduced the same service here.

Innovation and upheaval

Thomas Purcell had a huge interest in advances in the fire service internationally and visited fire brigades in the UK and in Europe. In 1901 he purchased the first Bader-Vajen smoke helmet to go into use in Europe (it was an American invention). The Bader-Vajen was the first breathing apparatus used in DFB and was worn by Purcell himself on May 13th 1901 at a fire in Green Street where four children perished. The fire was the scene of incredible bravery by members of the brigade. One fireman, Thomas Dunphy, climbed the escape ladder to rescue two children from the burning building under conditions of heavy fire. Purcell, seeing the danger, ordered that a hose be played on the fireman, who was badly burned in the rescue. Using the smoke helmet Purcell entered the engine for the opening of Thomas Street fire station in January 1913 and a motor ambulance, also built by Leyland, was also purchased around the same time.

The years leading up to the First World War were busy in Dublin on all fronts with political and social upheavals including the Lockout of 1913, the controversy surrounding the Home Rule Bill of 1914, the Curragh Mutiny by British Army officers in opposition to Home Rule and the foundation of both the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army. In mid-1914 British troops opened fire on a crowd in central Dublin after the importation of arms for the Volunteers at Howth, and this was followed within weeks by the declaration of war against Germany.

After the British declaration of war on Germany on August 4th 1914, Dublin Corporation introduced regulations to allow employees to join the British forces. Jobs would be held open, employees continued on half pay and military service would count as Corporation service for pension purposes. In spite of these inducements only two DFB members joined the British military out of the 189 Dublin Corporation employees who did so. Recent research has identified two recruits to the British military from each of the much smaller township fire brigades of Pembroke and Rathmines, which highlights the lack of interest among the unionised workforce in DFB in joining the Empire’s war. The main consequence of the war for DFB was the additional workload for the ambulances in helping to unload British hospital ships in Dublin Port and the increase in the cost of living and cost of services due to wartime inflation.

Thomas Purcell

Among those who attended the ceremony was Las Fallon (second from left), and Chief Fire Officer Pat Fleming (far right). Photo: Ray Bateson

Purcell and DFB would face their biggest test in April 1916. On April 24th, rebellion broke out in Dublin. Units of the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army mobilised and held positions in Dublin city centre and elsewhere and declared a Republic. Throughout the week of fighting which was to follow, much of central Dublin was destroyed. Purcell directed the brigade throughout and after the declaration of Martial Law on April 25th he had to watch from the tower of Tara Street fire station as the city burned in what he called ‘the Great Fire’.

As soon as possible after the ceasefire and surrender on April 29th he mobilised his resources, including small groups of firefighters from the Guinness Brewery Fire Brigade and the Powers Whiskey Distillery Fire Brigade, and set to work. The brigade saved Jervis Street Hospital from destruction and contained the major fires burning in the city. In recognition of his work Purcell was awarded the Bronze Medal of the British Fire Prevention Committee, ‘….AS A TOKEN OF REGARD FOR THE SPLENDID WORK DONE BY HIM AND HIS BRIGADE IN MOST TRYING CIRCUMSTANCES DURING THE IRISH REBELLION OF 1916.’

He was also awarded a cash bonus of £50 by Dublin Corporation as recognition of his work. The Corporation noted that his annual salary at this time was £500. In the aftermath of the fire Purcell was involved with the commission set up to adjudicate on compensation and sought compensation both for fire brigade property lost but also for a premises in Abbey Street in which he had a commercial interest.

End of an era

On November 16th 1916 Thomas Purcell was badly injured when thrown from his horse-drawn buggy while on the way to a fire in Suffolk Street. The carriage had not been properly hitched and in trying to bring the horse under control Purcell, then 66 years old, threw himself onto the horse’s back but fell to the side and was injured. His injuries put him in hospital and off work until January 1917. Purcell was not well during 1917 and in October he decided to retire. He retired in November 1917. He had built DFB into an efficient and well trained brigade which had proven itself in action time and time again. Thomas Purcell would retire to Dalkey where he lived until 1943.

In his later years he travelled widely and wrote a small book on a cure for sciatica which he had discovered on his trips to Germany with his son. He led a full life and left a proud legacy. His contribution to Dublin Fire Brigade was immense. He is an unsung hero. He is remembered in the DFB 1916 exhibition in Dublin City Hall and in July of this centenary year of the Rising Dublin Fire Brigade Chief Officer Pat Fleming, Acting Chief Officer of Kilkenny Fire and Rescue Service, John Collins, and the Cathaoirleach of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown Council, Cormac Devlin placed wreaths on his grave in Deansgrange in a dignified ceremony. Many members of the extended Purcell family attended as did representatives of the fire service, serving and retired.

Thomas Purcell lies in Deansgrange Cemetery under a headstone built to his own design. In memory of his native place his imposing headstone is made from Kilkenny limestone.

An unusual culprit

On a lighter note and as an indication of a wry sense of humour which sometimes surfaces among the serious paperwork of the Chief Officer, Purcell noted an unusual cause of fire in his list of major fires and their causes in his 1914 Annual Report for Dublin Fire Brigade.

Among a list of causes which includes ‘defective construction’, ‘electrical defects ‘ and ‘gas explosions’ we find ‘rats with matches’! At the time matches were made with a high gelatine content and were often gnawed by rats as a potential source of food. On occasion the friction from the rats’ teeth would cause the match to ignite and the unfortunate rodent, well covered with fragments of match, would become a veritable torch.

One such rat managed to start a fire in Dublin that year and so brought itself to the attention of the Chief Fire Officer and immortality in the archives of DFB.

 

 

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