This extremely rare and important map is the earliest graphic depiction of Calcutta Fire Chief Bernard Westbrook’s dramatic reorganization and modernization of the city’s fire service, which became one of the most advanced in Asia, and certainly the finest in India. Calcutta, being one of the world’s largest and most densely populated cities, with many areas of overcrowding and poverty, had long suffered from frequent but generally small to medium sized infernos that cumulatively took a massive annual toll in lives and property.
In 1822, Calcutta formed its first fire brigade, as a division of its police department, following the lead of Bombay, which created the first such entity in India, in 1803. However, the brigade, manned by seconded police staff, proved to have a patchy record at controlling fires, while building codes were often not enforced. A particularly large fire in 1866, motivated the Sun Fire Office (then the largest fire insurance company operating in India, today’s Royal and Sun Alliance), to pressure the local authorities into improving fire prevention and control. In 1871, the fire brigade became its own distinct entity, governed by the Calcutta Corporation, and was given much greater resources and allowed to recruit and train its own professional staff. The following year, the brigade imported 5 fire engines from England (3 horse-drawn, 2 manually operated), greatly improving its capabilities.
However, by the dawn of the 20th century, the brigade was considered lethargic, relying upon archaic equipment and methods, under lacklustre leadership, causing the city to endure much greater damage from fires that was thought necessary.
In 1910, Calcutta’s municipal authorities created a commission with the objective of radically modernizing the fire brigade. Importantly, the commission’s recommendations soon led to the appointment of Bernard Westbrook (1884 – 1969), a 26-year-old English firefighter from the London Fire Brigade, to be the Calcutta Fire Chief. This was an audacious appointment, given Westbrook’s youth and lack of familiarity with India. However, the new chief came with very well-conceived plans for radically and rapidly modernizing the Calcutta Fire Brigade for the modern era.
Westbrook, who would serve as the Calcutta Fire Chief for the next 26 years, introduced the most modern technology and communications to the city’s fire systems, and instilled military-style discipline amongst the brigade’s personnel. Using the London brigade’s methods as a model, additional fire stations and sub-stations were built across Calcutta to ensure rapid local response, while public (loudspeaker) fire alarms were to be installed to alert entire neighbourhoods to the advent of incendiary incidents, while major buildings were to be provided with direct telephone links to their local fire stations.
Westbrook also moved quickly to mechanize the Calcutta brigade, immediately procuring the most advanced English equipment, including a fire engine with and 80 horsepower motor chassis bearing a centrifugal pump that yielded 750 gallons of water per minute, as well as other device with a positive rotary pump and telescopic ladder; with other vehicles to follow. He also ensured that the brigade operated in all sectors 24 hours a day and was staffed by full-time professional firefighters who would have a turn out time of 15 seconds from their stations upon the sounding of an alarm. Westbrook’s reforms, which gave the city one of the most advanced fire systems in Asia, had a dramatic effect upon the effectiveness of the Calcutta brigade, ensuring that even during an era of civil unrest and rapid urban growth, the frequency and severity of fires dramatically declined across the city.
The present map was commissioned to illustrate the reforms described in the Report…of the Calcutta Fire Brigade… for the Financial Year ended 31st March 1913 (Calcutta, 1913), the first such masterplan to describe Westbrook’s ongoing modernization programme. The large-format map embraces the entire city of Calcutta and its inner suburbs, including Howrah, the major railway hub located just across the Hooghly River. The map is built upon a highly detailed grisaille cartographic template, detailing all the city’s streets and waterways, while outlining its major buildings, based upon advanced mapping executed by the Survey of India.
The thematic information, showcasing the locations of incendiary incidents and the first stages of Westbrook’s new fire system, is printed upon the map. It is explained in the ‘References’, with the locations of Fires (are indicated by ‘orange dots’); the Fire Brigade HQ (orange triple-ringed circle); Fire Stations (orange double-ringed circles); Fire Sub Stations (red circles); Fire Alarms (orange crosses); Buildings in Direct Telephonic Connection to Fire Stations (orange rectangles); Boundaries of Police Sections (grey-green lines); Police Stations (grey-green flags); and Police Out Posts (grey-green symbols of ‘OP +’); additionally, the police precincts are labelled in grey-green.
The map also includes a chart, lower left, that details the populations and land areas of the city and all its individual wards, noting that all of Calcutta had a population over 1.2 million.
While not noted on the map, Calcutta was, for all practical purposes, divided into two very different cities. The ‘Native’ or ‘Black Town’ (as the British called it), comprised the great majority of the city, and was where the Bengali population lived. This urbanscape was largely composed of dense warrens of tightly packed buildings, often made of combustible materials, along narrow streets, broken up by relatively few parks or squares. Conversely, the ‘European’, or ‘White Town’, which lay immediately to the north and east of the massive Fort William reserve, in the city’s southside, generally featured buildings were built to fire code, usually on large lots along wide streets. The map shows that while there were fires across the city, the highest concentration of incendiary incidents occurred in the dead centre, the most densely populated part of the ‘Native Town’. Yet, the map shows that fires still occurred in the European areas, including in the Government Quarter, with its grand Victorian public edifices. To counteract the problem, the Calcutta Fire Brigade, now under Westbrook’s energetic leadership was busy continually setting up new neighbourhood fire stations, alarm systems and modern communications networks to ensure that firefighters responded even more quickly to incendiary incidents.
A Note of Publication and Rarity
The present map is extremely rare. It would have been issued in only a very small print run for the exclusive use of Calcutta and Bengal fire and government officials; it would not have been sold or otherwise publicly disseminated. The present example of the map is separately issued, although as mentioned in its title, it had the purpose of ‘Illustrating the Annual Report of the Calcutta Fire Brigade’. This extremely rare report, the Bengal Municipal Department’s Report (Report and Statistical Tables) of the Calcutta Fire Brigade (and Ambulance Department) for the Financial Year ended 31st March 1913 (Calcutta, 1913), is known in only a single institutional example (held by the British Library), and we have not been able to discern whether it includes an example of the present map ‘folded in’, or if the map was always issued separately, as here, as an accompaniment.
In any event, we cannot trace a reference to the present map, let alone the location of another example.
References: N / A – No other examples of the map traced. Cf. BENGAL – MUNICIPAL DEPARTMENT, Report (Report and Statistical Tables) of the Calcutta Fire Brigade (and Ambulance Department) for the Financial Year ended 31st March 1913 (Calcutta, 1913), example held by the British Library: General Reference Collection I.S.be.5/2.; S.P. BAG, Fire Services in India: History, Detection, Protection, Management, Environment, Training and Loss Prevention (Delhi: Mittal, 1995), pp. 84-5; Cornel ZWIERLEIN, Prometheus Tamed: Fire, Security, and Modernities, 1400 to 1900 (Leiden: Brill, 2021), pp. 400 – 435.