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National Fire Service (Britain)

Last modified: 2010-12-17 by rob raeside
Keywords: national fire service | fire | fire service college |
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[National Fire Service on land] image by Martin Grieve

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Description of the flag

National Fire Service Flag.
On 18 August 1941 the local authority fire brigades in England, Scotland and Wales were combined into a National Fire Service (NFS) of twelve regions, in order to deal more effectively with the fires started by air raids. A flag for the NFS was introduced on its second anniversary.

Richmond Herald noted that Northern Ireland was not included in the re-organisation and proposed a red and blue striped flag with a pre-1801 Union canton. However a design a by Sir Gerald Wollaston, Garter King of Arms, was selected. It was similar in style to his design for the Civil Defence flag, being a 5 : 3 flag, quarterly blue and red, having a Union canton, and bearing the NFS badge in the fourth quarter.

Commander A.N.C.Firebrace, Chief of the Fire Staff, organised a parade in Hyde Park, at which the flag was presented by Herbert Morrison, the Home Secretary, on 19 August 1943. The parade was attended by representatives from all the fire forces in England and Wales, and from the four contingents of Canadian firemen, who had volunteered for service in Britain.

488 flags were ordered at a cost of 850 pounds. Adam, Lane & Neave, who made the Civil Defence flags, supplied the material, which in this case was made up by the NFS tailors' shop of the River Thames Formation. The Union Jack was sewn on in strips, the quarters were sewn together, and the NFS badge stencilled onto two pieces of bunting, which were sewn on separately. The flag was supplied in four sizes;
12'6" x 7'6" for very high buildings. 3.8m x 2.25m.
10' x 6' for 50' flag poles. 3m x 1.8m for 15m poles.
7'6" x 4'6" for 35' poles. 2.25m x 1.4m for 10.7m poles.
5' x 3' for 20' poles. 1.5m x 0.9m for 6m poles.

Northern Ireland.
Although the fire service in Northern Ireland was not part of the NFS, His Grace the Governor approved the adoption of the flag in Northern Ireland providing that, "If these bear any insignia which relate them purely to Great Britain we may have to consider making suitable adaptations."

Instructions for its use.
On 9 September 1943 No.5 London Region issued instructions for the use of the flag, in Regional Commissioner's Memorandum, CRFO 507. The flag was to be flown each day at Regional Force Head Quarters (HQs), Fire Force Area HQs, River Thames Formation HQ, and all training establishments. It was to be raised at a brief ceremony immediately before morning roll-call, and hauled down at sunset. The Union Jack was not to be flown in addition to the NFS flag.

Opposition to the flag.
The NFS flag did not meet with everyone's approval. On 8 November 1943, The Star, Daily Herald and Daily Mirror reported that the Fire Brigades Union had protested that the flag was a waste of time and material, and that the formal hoisting of the flag before morning roll-call was a "totem pole charade". Midland Region of the NFS wrote that they "did not mind the flag, but the London Region ceremony, if enforced nationally would be a real disaster in Birmingham." Use of the flag nationally was covered by NFS Instruction 10/1944 dated 22 January.

NFS Blue Ensign

[National Fire Service on land] image by Martin Grieve

A Blue Ensign with the NFS badge in the fly was approved by King George VI on 19 November 1943. 488 flags were ordered at a cost of 800 pounds and distributed to fire-boat stations and fire-boats. The ensigns were produced in two sizes;
4' x 2' for boats more than 40' long. 1.2m x 0.6m for 12m boats.
2' x 1' for boats 40' long or less.

Preserved flags.
The NFS was wound up on 1 April 1948, and control of the brigades handed back to local authorities. An NFS flag was offered to Westminster Abbey and to St Paul's Cathedral, for laying-up to commemorate the part played by the NFS during the blitz. Both refused to take a flag. They had limited space, and no other service, as opposed to some individual units, had flags in either place. A 12'6" x 7'6" flag, and 4' x 2' ensign were presented to the Imperial War Museum on 20 January 1949.
[National Archives (PRO) HO 144/22003, HO 187/870, HO 187/1552]

The first six editions of 'The Book of Flags' by Campbell and Evans (and possibly also the seventh and last ?), incorrectly describe the NFS flag as having blue 2nd and 3rd quarters, and a red 4th quarter. The error is repeated in the illustration, which has additional errors, there being no badge, and flag proportions of 2 : 1.

David Prothero, 14 April 2004

Detail of Badge

[Natinal Fire Service on land] image by Martin Grieve

Fire Service College

[Fire Service College] image by Martin Grieve

The current flag of the Fire Service College, that opened at Moreton-in-the-Marsh in 1968, is based upon the old war-time National Fire Service flag. It differs in having proportions of 2 : 1 and a modified version of the NFS badge.
Martin Grieve, 15 April 2004

Detail of the Badge

[National Fire Service on land] image by Martin Grieve

The flag that inspired the Western Australia Fire and Rescue Service flag (click here to view flag) was similar to the Fire Service College flag.

Fire Brigades in Britain are organised by local authorities, but during WWII all were amalgamated into a National Fire Service to deal more efficiently with fires caused by enemy action. The flags were produced in time for commemorations on 26th September 1943, which was designated Battle of Britain Sunday.

Garter King of Arms was involved in the design. He wrote that quarterly flags should be square, but that as when flying, part of the flag was concealed, it was desirable to have the length greater than the depth, and proposed 5 : 3 as a good compromise. He also suggested that it might be a good opportunity to settle the argument, that the Union Jack was a royal flag and should not be used by civilians, but be flown only on royal and government buildings, by introducing a civilian flag that would be the land equivalent of the Red Ensign. He suggested that it should be quarterly blue and white with the Union in the first quarter, and that it might also be used by civilian authorities, who could place their badge on the blue fourth quarter. He received no support for this idea.

The NFS and Civil Defence flags were approved by King George VI on 11th August 1943. The Civil Defence flag was 3 : 5 quarterly blue and yellow with a Union first quarter and a Tudor crown in colour above yellow letters C D in the fourth quarter. An ensign for Fire Boats was approved 19th November 1943. This was a 1 : 2 Blue Ensign with the NFS badge in the centre of the fly. It is possible that the star of this badge was yellow/gold not white/silver. A letter pointing out alterations that needed to be made to a sample flag included, ".. ground should be orange to represent gold."

After the war the Fire Brigades were handed back to local control and a National Fire Service flag was laid up in the Imperial War Museum on 20th January 1949.

Public Record Office documents HO 186/2636 and HO 187/1552.

David Prothero, 2 September 2000

In Campbell and Evans' 'The Book of Flags' there is a British Civil Defence Ensign (Union Jack in the canton, yellow 2nd & 3rd quarters, blue in 4th quarter). What happens to it now? I have just found out that Civil Defence was officially 'stood down' in 1968, which was a euphemism for disbandment. There is still a British Civil Defence, which is now a non-government volunteer organization that supports the emergency services, but doesn't get a penny from the government! In any case, this Civil Defence doesn't use the old CD Ensign.
Miles Li, 12 November 2003

Erroneous depiction in Campbell and Evans (1953)

[National Fire Service - erroneous depiction] image by Klaus-Michael Schneider, 22 October 2010

The actual flag has red upper fly and lower hoist, and blue lower fly - this version comes from a mistaken drawing by Campbell and Evans (1953).
Miles Li, 22 October 2010