The Fire Problem
This dissertation traces the changing distributions of social responsibility for fire in Calcutta and London across the long-nineteenth century. While these two cities were the capitals of the British Empire, with similar adoptions of municipal fire brigades, the public trust systems that undergirded these institutions varied greatly, revealing how municipal fire protection required more than municipal authority and technological innovation to be effective and acceptable to urban citizens. This dissertation examines how these cities endeavored to limit the fire danger that went hand in hand with imperial economic growth and in the process created systems by which the social responsibility for fire was divided between urban citizens and newly-instituted municipal fire brigades. Specifically, I ask how did the British Empire approach the destructive force of fire as a social problem in the rapidly modernizing urban environments of the nineteenth century? Other historians have argued that growing municipal authority or technological innovation in the name of efficiency account for the changes in nineteenth-century fire protection, but this dissertation argues instead that expanded municipal control, adopting new technologies, and the creation of municipal firefighting institutions were all a response to breakdowns in trust. Solving the fire problem could not be entirely top-down, nor completely bottom-up, but required a trusting relationship between urban citizens and municipal governments that was rare in the nineteenth-century British Empire.