Jack Fourt-Wells lost his life in the line of duty alongside his colleague Richard Stocking on the 23rd of January 1958. Their Red Plaque was presented on the 60th anniversary of their deaths, the 23rd of January 2018.
The 1958 Smithfield fire was reported to be one of the capitals worst fires since the blitz. A Station Officer at Clerkenwell Fire Station, forty-seven-year-old Jack Fourt-Wells was among the crew which entered the maze of tunnels in the centuries-old Smithfield Market, following the outbreak of an underground fire. When the first fire engines arrived, thick acrid smoke was pouring out of the tunnel that led to two and a half acres of cold storage compartments at Union Cold Storage Co. Jack and fellow firefighter Richard headed down into the dense smoke, never to be seen alive again. Once inside the pitch black labyrinth of basement rooms and small passages they searched in vain for the source of the fire but with their breathing apparatus rapidly expiring, were overcome by the thick smoke. Their colleagues found them amongst the frozen meat packets and carcasses, and immediately got them out of the tunnels. Many attempts were made to resuscitate both men but tragically they were pronounced dead at the scene. The fire burned for three days in the centuries-old labyrinth, which ultimately collapsed. It took 1,700 firefighters many days to combat the blaze. During the course of the incident, over 389 fire engines and other support vehicles either attended the fire or were moved across London to provide relief and fire cover. Around fifty other firefighters from stations across London were injured or treated for smoke inhalation. Millions of gallons of water were used, and the damage amounted to £2million: the equivalent of £44m today, according to the Bank of England’s inflation calculator.
Three hundred people turned out for the funeral processions, starting outside the Rosebery Avenue station. A firefighter of the time that knew Jack remembers him as “one of the old ‘smoke-eaters’ who would not give up hunting for the seat of a fire.”
Their entirely avoidable deaths and other firefighter’s many injuries, highlighted the dangers of woefully outdated firefighting equipment, uniforms and procedures, and kickstarted profound changes to the service. The FBU made sure their sacrifice was not in vain and started their most significant safety campaign since World War Two which brought about much-needed changes to operational procedures, alarms and signalling. By the 1970s, the union managed to persuade the government and FRS employers to modernise a breathing apparatus which had remained largely unchanged since it was introduced in 1914. The systems and protocols that were created are still in use today. The Smithfield Disaster was key to this battle to improve safety for firefighters.
Triggering improvements which have saved countless lives, Jack and Richard’s sacrifice is remembered across the FBU and the fire service. Their memorial can be found at the reconstructed Smithfield Market.
Below are memories added by those who knew Jack Fourt-Wells or had a story that they wish to share with you. If you have a tribute for Jack Fourt-Wells that you wish to add, please include your memory below.
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Photo credits: Mark Thomas