The Pump that saved St. Paul’s

stirrup pump memorabilia small

I’ve begun to collect a few items of memorabilia most suited to the stories I’m telling. Once in a while I’ll highlight one of these items.

Perhaps the most unsung hero of the Blitz, the lowly stirrup pump does not even rate an article on Wikipedia. Yet it may have saved St. Paul’s Cathedral and allowed Herbert Mason to take the most iconic photo of the Blitz

The stirrup pump is a simple water pump, very similar to the pumps we use to inflate a bicycle tire. It consisted of a supply pipe which could be placed into a bucket of water, vertical hand operated pump, a fairly long rubber discharge hose, and a nozzle that could usually be toggled between jet and spray. The operator placed his or her foot on a stirrup which was mounted at ground level on the side away from the supply pipe.

During the war tens of thousands of stirrup pumps were distributed in the UK, with a high concentration in the targeted cities. Air Raid Wardens and ordinary civilians were trained in their use. Even in Canada civilians received a booklet “Incendiary Bombs and How to Deal with Them,” which said

When a bomb falls where it will quickly ignite its surroundings, as, for instance, in a room where curtains, rugs and furniture will take fire immediately, an adequate supply of water, properly used, is the only effective method of dealing with it and the resulting fire. The most effective and most easily operated apparatus with which to apply water to a fire bomb is the stirrup pump or its counterpart, the pump-operated water tank extinguisher, both of which are described and illustrated on the next page.

Page 22 of this document illustrates “Controlling the Fire Bomb with water.”
Incendiary bombs-12

(Or maybe the most unsung hero of the Blitz is sand. Whether in buckets or in sandbags, this was used to put out even more incendiaries than the stirrup pump.)

On the night of December 29th, 1940, both the sand bucket and the stirrup pump were used to good effect in saving St. Paul’s Cathedral from certain destruction. After a brief lull at Christmas, the Germans resumed bombing on December 27th, and on the 29th, a Sunday Night, sent over a 600 plane raid to pummel ‘the City,’ the heart of London’s business, finance, newspaper and book district. They dropped mostly incendiaries – some 22,000 in the first three hours alone. These started an estimated 1500 fires, which merged into three infernos and devastated much of the City, destroying hundreds of buildings and eight of the churches that Christopher Wren built after the Great London fire of 1666.

But not St. Paul’s. Protected by the London Fire Brigade and by 200 members of the St. Paul’s Watch, many of them members of the Royal Institute of British Architects, the building survived the inferno and at least 29 indendiaries:

When a fire broke out in the cathedral’s library aisle, there was no mains water to fight it — the blaze was eventually suppressed with ­stirrup pumps, buckets and sand.
Then, soon after 6.30pm, an incendiary bomb — one of 29 to fall on and around St Paul’s that night — pierced the lead roof of the dome and lodged in its timbers.

Molten lead began to drip into the nave below. The aged wood of the choir stalls and organ screen, carved by the great sculptor Grinling Gibbons, was at mortal risk, while smoke from the blazing buildings surrounding the cathedral enveloped it. Two teams of specialist fire watchers recruited from the Royal Institute of British Architects — and hand-picked because they had heads for heights — were ­crawling along the wooden beams with hand pumps to reach the ­blazing section. But suddenly the incendiary bomb, having burnt through the wood, fell far, far to the nave below, where it was easily put out. Though almost every building around St Paul’s ­perished, the cathedral survived.

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Thanks to the lowly stirrup pump and the even more lowly sand bucket, St. Paul’s was saved. That night the Daily Mail’s chief photographer Herbert Mason was on top of the roof of his newspaper’s building off Fleet He wanted to get a clear shot of St Paul’s and waited hours for the smoke to clear sufficiently. Then the wind picked up just enough for Mason to take what would become one of the most iconic shots of the Blitz.

st pauls blitz

On 31 December, the Daily Mail took the unusual step of publishing the photographer’s account of how he took the picture:

I focused at intervals as the great dome loomed up through the smoke. Glares of many fires and sweeping clouds of smoke kept hiding the shape. Then a wind sprang up. Suddenly, the shining cross, dome and towers stood out like a symbol in the inferno. The scene was unbelievable. In that moment or two I released my shutter.
— Herbert Mason

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