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City Council Committee on the Fire Department

Identifier: 0140.014

Scope and Contents note

The City Council Committee on the Fire Department records date from 1816-1844, bulk dates from 1831-1841. The collection contains fire department records and correspondence which document the transactions, personnel, activities and growth of the department from a subscription organization to a professional fire department. The original organization has been retained as much as possible, including the title Sundry Papers & Returns, which reflect the variety of the contents. The collection is organized in two series: Weekly Returns of the Magazine at Fort Strong and Sundry Papers and Returns.

Series I, Weekly Returns of the Magazine at Fort Strong Magazine, consists of weekly inventory distribution lists of the companies and individuals who purchased gunpowder. The returns (records) also list the date purchased, whether the purchase was for domestic or foreign use, the number of casks purchased and the aggregate number of casks remaining at the end of the report time. Sundry Papers in Series I include petitions (applications) to sell and store gunpowder, petitions to build forges and petitions of complaint with responses to the complaints.

Series II records, Sundry Papers and Returns, contain official returns, correspondence, inquiries, requests, resolutions, prints and drawings. Returns list the names of men who worked for the engine company that week, men added to the engine company membership (and their ages and addresses) and those who were discharged. Some of the returns include the ages of all members of the company, the majority of whom were between 25-35 years old. Originally, returns were signed weekly by the men in each company but that practice soon ended and the clerk/secretaries of the engine companies completed and submitted the returns to Chief Engineer William Barnicoat.

Returns may also include the men who were elected engine company officers and the number of fires or other events that a member attended. The returns are organized by month and each month was individually wrapped and sealed. The records were later expanded to include quarterly and annual returns, that is, lists of the men who committed to the engine company for a period of three consecutive months or an entire year.

The earliest papers in the collection were created in 1816 but there are significant gaps in the records for the years leading up to 1831. Some years contain only partial collections of department records. However, the boxes for 1841 consist of weekly, quarterly and annual returns, including names of vacation substitutes. These also contain correspondence, payrolls and insurance questionnaires thus making it the most comprehensive set of annual papers in the collection.

Of special interest in the collection is the earliest fire department inspection report, written in 1816. Also of interest is a complete list of the contents of a home, valued at 200 pounds, lost in a fire. More unusual are threatening anonymous letters sent in 1837, a watershed year for the department. The actions and attitudes of firemen that year initiated significant changes within the department and more professional practices and procedures were adopted. Samuel Atkins Eliot (1798-1862), a reformist mayor of Boston, expressed his, and the Committee’s concerns and opinions in contemporary letters to the Chief Engineer and the Board of Engineers.


  • 1816-1844 with gaps (bulk, 1831-1841)


Historical note

The origins of the Boston Fire Department date back to 1678 with the establishment of the first engine company and the receipt of the first hand fire engine in North America. The Board of Fire Wards was established on February 1, 1711. Prominent men were chosen as Fire Wards and were responsible for the operation and maintenance of the equipment assigned to their ward. Chapter 52 of the Acts of 1825, "An Act Establishing a Fire Department in the City of Boston and an Ordinance for the preventing and extinguishing of fires and establishing a fire department" went into full operation in April of 1826. With this legislation, the Board of Fire Wards was dissolved. All records and property belonging to the city were transferred to the Chief Engineer in May of 1826.

With the further reorganization of 1837, the Fire Department changed from a partially volunteer to a paid fire department. On June 16, 1851, the City Council passed an order to erect a system of telegraphic fire alarms and the first regular alarm on the new system was received on April 29, 1852. On January 1, 1859, two new steam engines were put in service replacing two hand engines. On October 24, 1873, the City Council passed an ordinance creating a Board of Fire Commissioners to oversee the department. Section 9 of Chapter 449 of the Acts of 1895, an act to amend the City Charter, abolished the Board of Fire Commissioners and placed the Department under the charge of one Fire Commissioner. The Chief Engineer serves as the Executive Officer of the Commissioner and directs the work of the members of the Department.


8.75 Cubic feet

Language of Materials


Guide to the City Council Committee on the Fire Department records
Joyce Clifford
Language of description
Script of description
Code for undetermined script

Repository Details

Part of the City of Boston Archives Repository

201 Rivermoor St.
West Roxbury MA 02132 United States
617-635-1194 (Fax)