London Salvage Corps

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London Salvage Corps
Memorial plaque on the site of the Salvage Corps headquarters, Watling Street, London
Formation 1865
Extinction April 1984
Type Fire salvage and protection
Legal status Obsolete
Purpose Fire salvage and insurance protection
Headquarters Watling Street
  • London
Services Salvage goods and prevent insurance loss due to water from fire fighting

The London Salvage Corps was maintained by the fire offices of London. The corps was first formed in 1865 and began operations in March 1866. It was inspired by the Liverpool Salvage Corps which had been formed in 1842, to reduce the loss and damage caused by fires, to help mitigate the effects of fire and of fire-fighting and to salvage both premises and goods affected by fire.


The London Corps was founded by John Brookes Johnston of the Royal Insurance Company.[1] The staff of the corps when first formed consisted of 64 men. By the early 1900s, owing to the many improvements that had taken place in the system of dealing with salvage, and the increase in work-load, staff numbers rose to over a hundred.

Station locations


The working staff (which was mainly recruited from the royal navy in the early 1900s) consisted of a chief officer and a superintendent, foreman and crew of men at each station. The stations of the corps were connected by telephone with the fire brigade stations who relayed calls to them. In addition to the "home" staff, there were also staff constantly employed, during the daytime, inspecting docks, wharves, "Manchester" (i.e.: cotton) goods and uptown warehouses, and reports were made weekly to a committee.


Generally speaking, the work of the Corps was divided into two distinct classes: (1) Services at fires and (2) Watching and working salvage.

Services at fires

Services at Fires formed the most important feature of the work. Much depended upon the method of dealing with the salvage. If, for instance, the upper part of a large Manchester goods warehouse was on fire, it would be of very little advantage to the offices interested in the risk if the men were set to work removing stock from the ground floor. The best method would be to cover up with tarpaulin all goods there, and prevent the water from collecting on the lower floors.

The most important work of the corps was to prevent damage to goods - the damage from fire was left almost entirely to the fire brigade. The "traps", which immediately on receipt of an alarm proceeded to the scene of the fire with their crew of men, carried every kind of apparatus for the saving of goods from destruction by fire or damage by water, as well as limelight apparatus for use in working after the fire had been extinguished - thus enabling the men to note the position of dangerous walls etc. They also carried portable coal-gas apparatus, which could be employed in the interior of buildings when the ordinary means of illumination had failed, and ambulance appliances for emergencies.

Watching and working salvage

When a fire took place, a man was left behind in charge of the salvage if the property was insured. If there was uncertainty over whether the property was insured, but it appeared probable that it was, a man was left until the information was obtained later. The duty, if an important one, was divided into a day and night duty. This enabled an experienced man to be sent on day duty to meet the surveyor, and to carry out his instructions regarding the working out of the salvage; and a junior man at night. The day man, if working out salvage, would employ a number of men called strangers, over whom he acted as a kind of foreman. The working out might take the form of dividing up damaged goods into lots ready for a sale to be held by the surveyor, or of sifting over the debris to find remains of certain articles claimed for. If, for instance, a large fire occurred at a pianoforte manufacturers, and the debris was all in one common heap, the London Salvage Corps might have to arrange certain quantities of pegs and wires in order to give an idea of the number of pianos before the fire. The watching continued until the loss was settled, when the charge of the premises was given over to the assured.


During the 1930s the service was accused of participating in a criminal arson scandal. At the trial of Leopold Harris in 1934, he testified that he had had nearly every Salvage Corps officer "in his pocket". Harris was later sentenced to 14 years in jail. Captain Brymore Eric Miles, chief of the insurance companies' salvage corps was sentenced to four years in jail for 'corruption and conspiring to pervert the administration of justice.' The arson ring took £500,000 in false insurance claims.[2]


The Corps was disbanded in April 1984.[3][4]

See also


  1. John Brookes Johnston (1818-1896), Modern English Biography, Frederic Boase, volume 5
  2. Salvage Corps History
  3. Salvage Corps history.