Fire brigade’s Southwark training centre and museum under threat

The London Fire Brigade Museum in Southwark Bridge Road could be shut down according to fire authority chairman Brian Coleman who told a City Hall committee that "when you've seen one brass helmet you have seen them all".

Winchester House is the home of the London Fire Br
Winchester House is the home of the London Fire Brigade Museum

The London Fire Brigade Museum is located at Winchester House, residence of the brigade's first chief officer Captain Eyre Massey Shaw. The displays trace the history of organised firefighting in London from the Great Fire in 1666 to the present day. Seven five engines – dating from 1750 to 1980 – are on show.

Brian Coleman is a Conservative member of the London Assembly representing Barnet and Camden. He was appointed as chairman of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority (LFEPA) by Mayor of London Boris Johnson.

Last week he appeared before the London Assembly's budget and performance committee at City Hall where he outlined areas for potential cutbacks in the fire service.

He told committee members that a review of the brigade's training services – currently based at Southwark Training Centre on Southwark Bridge Road – is already under way.

"I am sure that ... there will be some solutions that don't involve continued use of those very expensive historic Southwark premises," said Mr Coleman.

The Southwark Bridge Road complex includes Southwark Fire Station and the LFB's museum.

"Having recently visited the fire brigade museum – we shook the cobwebs off the door as we opened it – I have to say that it is not a museum that is fit for purpose or that in my view contributes anything," said Mr Coleman.

"It has no disabled access, it has – unfortunately – very few visitors and it's in the wrong place.

"It has some interesting items although in my view when you've seen one brass helmet you have seen them all.

"The future of the museum is one issue I've asked officers to bring ... to the authority for a decision.

"It would be my view that the fire brigade museum no longer serves a useful purpose for Londoners. We are a fire and rescue service, we are not a museums and archives service."

Coleman went on to add that "I think probably a museum is a luxury we can no longer afford," although he hastened to add that he wasn't suggesting "that we shove the stuff on eBay or whatever".

An LFEPA report published in July noted that "closure of the museum would generate a staff saving of 84k per year. Officers are currently exploring options for the future of the museum collection, including potential opportunities for moving parts of the collection to other existing London museums".

Labour's Val Shawcross AM – who chaired LFEPA during Ken Livingstone's mayoralty – is unimpressed by Coleman's proposed cutbacks.

"I'm extremely distressed to hear that the Conservative administration wants to dispose of such a treasured part of London's cultural history," she says.

"The brigade has a unique collection of equipment and artifacts as well as an archive of over a third of a million fascinating photographs.

"Last year's exhibition of just a small part of the brigade's photographic archive at the Photographers' Gallery attracted the highest number of visitors ever.

"The cost of running the museum and photographic collection is less than Brian Coleman's total salary and taxi expenses. I know which is better value for money for London.

"The London Transport Museum has recently been refurbished and is one our best visitor attractions. I think London Fire Brigade should invest in and improve their museum – it could be a terrific educational and tourist attraction for London."

• The LFB museum's collection includes the battered helmet of firefighting pioneer James Braidwood who died in the Great Fire of Tooley Street in 1861.

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