James Mair

James Mair

James Mair lost his life in the line of duty on the 29th of June 1899. His Red Plaque was presented on the 120th anniversary of his death, the 29th of June 2019.

When he became a firefighter, James had served as a soldier at Tel el Kebir for six years before retraining as a slater. He had joined the Paisley Fire Brigade in January 1889, aged thirty-five, to earn enough money to support his wife and five young children, the eldest 10 years old. He was considered to have a genial disposition, and was much respected by his comrades, fellow tradesmen and all with whom he came in contact.

Poignantly, less than six months after becoming a firefighter, James was crushed by a collapsing building during a fire at the Ferguslie Fireclay Works in Paisley, the property of Messrs. Robert Brown & Son. The building in which the fire took place is situated in the grounds some distance from the roadway, and measured 90 feet by 30 feet. It was two storeys in height, the upper flat was used a potter shop and the ground floor as a seggar store, in which ware was fired. In the upper flat there was a large stock of pottery. It was difficult to estimate the cost of the material, but it was understood that the damage was not less than £1500. This, together with £500 estimated damage to the building, made the total not less than £2000. Under Superintendent Arthur M’Naughtan, the Fire Brigade arrived to the scene early and succeeded in in confining the fire but the north wall of the building fell outwards, burying James in the rubble. He sustained fatal head injuries in the accident and succumbed to his injuries shortly before midnight.

Large crowds attended James’s funeral, lining the route of the cortege with a Public service held in St Goerge’s Parish Church Hall. His helmet was used as a collection pot for funds to support his widow and children at a time when no formal funds existed. The widow would have been given her husband’s helmet and axe as a mark of respect and a keepsake. The Town Council then opened a public subscription to care for them in the longer-term. Today, James’ Red Plaque can be found amidst shops built on the site of the fire. The ceremony to unveil this memorial was attended by generations of his family who visited from the USA.

The burgh Biremaster Arthur M’Naughtan reported that:

“Paisley, was then a town with narrow streets, derelict buildings, and insanitary conditions of the worst description. There was a sort of voluntary fire brigade, of which Mr Gillespie, slater, was chief. But it was sometimes difficult to get them together when a fire broke out as they were at work.”

Equipment in 1817 was a steam engine, a manual engine — and a shoemaker, Campbell Noble, was commandeered with his hosereel. As improvement schemes were introduced to the town more attention was given to the fire department.

“To warn the men of the brigade wherever they might be at work Mr M’Naughtan conceived the idea of having the High Church bell tolled. But one recalls how when of a dark winter evening there was suddenly heard the ominous triple beat of the tongue continued for five or 10 minutes the whole community was astir with interest and even excitement. The brigade headquarters at the time were in the old backyard in Moss Street. Fire engines were kept in a shed.”

When the alarm was raised horses were unharnessed from cabs in County Square and attached to the engine and hosereel. With the growth of the town a site was selected in Johnston Street for a new fire station, occupied in 1899. In 1912 a new motor engine capable of throwing 450 gallons of water a minute and carrying 2000 feet of hose was bought for over £1000. Two motor hose carriages, carrying 3000 and 800 feet of hose respectively were also acquired and, adds the report: “Of course, there is still the essential 50 feet telescopic fire escape.” Many inventions by Mr M’Naughton, were adopted by other fire brigades. A testimony’ to his thoroughness and precautions was that, in his long service only one fireman lost his life — James Mair.

Below are memories added by those who knew James Mair or had a story that they wish to share with you. If you have a tribute for James Mair that you wish to add, please include your memory below.

Please help support our Firefighters with the Firefighters 100 Lottery, a weekly online lottery created to support firefighters, their bereaved families and to honour the bravery and sacrifice of firefighters killed in the line of duty. With your help we can have schemes such as the Red Plaque Project for memorials to those lives lost.

Learn about the history of the Red Plaque Project and discover other Firefighters that have also received Red Plaques.

Photo credits: Roddy Scott


  • Posted May 18, 2021 Reply moderated


    An exceptional event attended by family members from the USA

    Organising a Red Plaque event for a firefighter killed in 1899 must have been a very challenging task and it is therefore important to give huge credit to the main organiser, Neil Gillespie, who researched the death of James Mair meticulously and brought everything together for a memorable event. Here is an article that was written about the event and the life of James Mair........


    On the 29th of June 2019. Paisley Fire Station in Scotland remembered one of their brothers who had passed as a result of his injuries after a fatal fire 120 Years ago. With the red plaque scheme now well established, Firefighters at Paisley knew of this event and felt it only right that James be honoured for his Service, his ultimate sacrifice and for us to leave a lasting legacy for generations to come.
    120 Years ago, on the 29th of June 1899, Firefighter James Mair, aged 36, paid the ultimate sacrifice and died in the line of duty as a result of a wall collapse at a fire at Ferguslie brick clay works. He died leaving a widow and five children.

    James had previously served in the army for 6 Years and had fought at the battle of Tel El Kabir. He achieved the rank of Sargent which was uncommon in those days. He was a well respected member of the community and was from a Family who had both served Paisley as roofers and firefighters. James' Grandfather was one of the first firefighters when Paisley Fire Brigade was established in the early 1800's. James joined Paisley Fire Brigade in January 1899. At James' funeral, his fire helmet was converted into a collecting pot, for the funeral procession to leave donations for his wife and Family. It was recognised that after the event that as there was no widows and orphans fund established for Fire fighters at that time, that one should be established. Thus the beginnings of establishing better workers rights for firefighters and their families. The Helmet now sits in the Heritage Museum in Greenock.
    Paisley's Branch Secretary, Neil Gillespie coordinated the event cited a number of challenges in putting it all together, with James having passed 120 years ago. It was a challenge for Neil to try and locate Family descendants to get permission to hold the ceremony. Using Social Media, he was able to track down James' Great granddaughter who lives in Boston, in the USA. Telephone numbers where exchanged and it eventually ended with 11 Family members from America coming over for the event. Neil was also able to use local media in Paisley and found a number of living descendants still living in the Paisley Area. One of the many positives of the event.

    Neil stated that it was an absolute privileged and honour to coordinate the event. He said it would not have been possible without the help of the SFRS and the FBU to make it happen. On the day the plaque was unveiled, a private ceremony also took place at James' grave side and then the Family where given a Police Scotland motorcycle escort, under blue light conditions, through the town of Paisley and then onto the former site of 111 Ferguslie, where the tragic event happened.

    A formal service, with a guard of honour and ceremonial piper was held with speeches from SFRS staff, a Captain from the Royal regiment of Scotland and FBU National Officer Tam McFarlane. They detailed the events of the day and why we should honour our fallen. Tam spoke eloquently on the importance of the red plaque and the reasons why we lay them. Whilst he was delivering his speech, it was only fitting that the on duty Crew at Paisley where to pass by under blue lights responding to an incident in the Area.

    A heritage trail stone as well as the red plague was unveiled. The event was then to go onto a Civic reception, hosted by the Assistant Lord Provost, at the local Town Hall.

    Neil had also commissioned an ornamental table to display FF Mairs helmet. Fellow FBU member and Watch Manager Sam Fredreich, a master craftsman to trade, was asked to design a new table to replace the old one that sat in Paisley Fire Station, displaying James' helmet. Sam was to go on to make it and it now sits aside a exhibition of James' life at the heritage museum. Sam also made a Ceremonial flag holder to present to the Family so that they would have a memento of their visit to Scotland. The Family in return gave it back to the Station so that something of James' memory would remain in Paisley Fire Station for Years to come. A fitting act that represented the bond that was created between the firefighters of Paisley and the Mair Family. Sam is now to go on to design a display cabinet to host the flag in the reception area in Paisley Station.

    The red plaque scheme is a wonderful concept and it is only right that we remember our brothers and sisters who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in protecting the communities we serve so as to leave a lasting legacy for all to remember.

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