In the early days of organized firefighting in the UK, there were firemen who manned the manual pumps and escape men who manned "street fire escapes." These were 50ft wheeled ladders that were strategically located on street corners with a watchman who, with the help of passers-by, would wheel a ladder to rescue those trapped within the burning building.
As technology improved, these hearty crews combined into organized forces summoned to deal with outbreaks of fire. In London, it became the London Fire Engine Establishment (est. 1833), which then became the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (1866) before finally in 1889 being renamed as the London Fire Brigade. Rescue was carried out until 1867 by members of the Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire. In essence, early organized firefighting and rescue in England's capital was carried out in a manner similar to that recognized today only in the United States and Canada — namely engine men carrying out the firefighting and ladder men carrying out the rescue work.
When the MFB was formed in 1866, the role of the RSPLF was amalgamated into it — and so MFB men then manned the escape ladders at the regular MFB fire stations. It meant the role of separate engine and ladder disciplines was snuffed out in its infancy in the UK. This is pretty much the norm around the world now, with the exception of North America.
Back in those days, technology was always evolving. Steam pumps and longer ladders were being drawn by horses, which themselves were all but replaced my motor-powered fire engines by the early 1920s. London had a significant modern well equipped fire brigade. As well as regular pumps, there were those able to carry the 50ft Escape Ladder and Pump Escapes.
Even in the London Fire Brigade of today, we differentiate between Pump Ladders and Pumps; identical vehicles but one carries a larger 45ft ladder and additional hydraulic rescue equipment always known as the Rescue Machine, while the Pump carries a shorter 35ft ladder. The Pump is still known as the workhorse because it is first due on all calls including minor fires and special services whereas the Pump Ladder only turns out on calls to fire in property and larger special service calls such as car crashes, HazMat, etc.
Most towns and cities back then had a number of stations equipped with motorized Pumps and also a Turntable Ladder at every couple of stations. Therefore, at that time there was a good balance of Aerials to Pumps often on a one:two basis. They were deployed along with the Pumps to all fires in buildings and were often elevated along with escape ladders to the higher windows of buildings to facilitate rescue or egress for fire crews going deep into the building to tackle the blaze.
When buildings were well alight, they provided an excellent vantage point to launch a number of powerful jets of water onto the burning building from above. In the days before modern fire precautions and inbuilt fire protection systems, the UK’s Aerial Ladders were witnesses to thousands of daring rescues of people trapped at windows and roofways beyond the reach of ground ladders.
World War II was a time when the UK's aerial fleet was at its peak. With our towns, cities and ports being bombed into massive conflagrations night after night, brave wartime firefighters, their numbers swollen many times over by auxiliaries fought these blazes from the street, the roofs of adjoining buildings and most frequently perched at the top of a 100ft Turntable Ladder. The government bought many of these for the fire service, which by that time had been nationalized for efficiency to enable large forces of firefighters and equipment to be mobilized across the UK. Ironically, many of them were the German Metz and Magirus models as well as the British Merryweather's that were made in London.
Post-war sell off
Following the war the National Fire Service was disbanded and returned to local control. Although many Aerials from World War II were sold off or scrapped in the years that followed, most UK fire brigades still kept a lot of Aerial appliances. In London for example we had almost 40 aerials across the Brigade in 1965, with one at every other station in the centre of London. During this period, with a shocking number of tragic fires in hotels, hostels, boarding houses, mills and factories, our Aerials were still being used for firefighting and rescues with alarming regularity.
By the 1970s, newer technology was coming on the scene in the shape of the Hydraulic Platform or "Snorkel." This proved to be a much more stable working platform with its cage and high powered monitor and were ideal for large fires in warehouses or industrial buildings, but they did not have the speed of deployment of the TLs and were not as versatile for rescue work. London remained staunch and true to its "can do" reputation as an aggressive, busy World Class Fire Brigade and by the end of the decade had only two HP's among its still considerable fleet of Aerial apparatus.
The following decade marked, in my opinion, the beginning of the end of the Aerial in the UK. Breathing apparatus was by then very simple to use with self contained compressed air BA being far easier to service than the complex oxygen re-breather sets of previous generations. The ascendancy of the Multi-Stage Pump gave us the very effective and quick to deploy high-pressure hose reel, so fire crews were now getting in quicker and further than the hearty old smoke-eaters of days gone by.
Eighty-five percent of fires in the UK were and still are fought internally by BA crews and because the UK — like most of the world outside of North America — doesn't practice much in the way of pre-attack ventilation due to construction methods and materials, the scope for Aerials was fast diminishing. With statistically only 15 percent of fires being fought defensively, people were also forgetting how to use Aerials.