How pioneering fire expert Edwin Sachs trained as a fireman before designing Dalston furniture factory
- Credit: Polly Hancock
As the owners of Springfield House look for permission to replace all its windows, Emma Bartholomew looks back to 1902 when a trailblazer in fire prevention, Edwin Sachs, designed it
Dalston’s Springfield House is the largest surviving building designed by the “remarkable” Edwin Otho Sachs – a man so passionate about fire prevention he spent time working with fire brigades in Berlin and Paris to learn more about how blazes spread.
Born in London in 1870 to German parents, Sachs trained at Berlin’s prestigious Königliche Technische Hochschule, before developing a preoccupation with fire prevention.
Although he didn’t design many buildings and many of his important works were hidden from view in theatres, Sachs revolutionised attitudes in the construction industry. Lawrence Hurst, who contributed a chapter to the book Edwin O Sachs, Architect, Stage Hand, Engineer and Fireman, told the Gazette: “He was a remarkable chap of German extraction. He realised fire, particularly in theatres, was a terrible problem. The sole means of lighting was frequently gas, and scenery and the like was liable to catch fire and become a roaring furnace.” Some “disastrous fires” at the time included one in Spitalfields where four acres were burned. “But because it was mostly workhouses the number of deaths was not considered significant,” said Mr Hurst. “But then there was a fire in 1897 at the Paris charity bazaar attended by some wealthy people and 126 of them were killed. They were all people you would read about in the society newspapers. It appeared in the London Evening Standard, and then there was a great deal of alarm about fires.”
On the back of this Sachs persuaded engineers, architects, surveyors, firefighters, police officers and politicians to cooperate and formed the British Fire Prevention Committee the same year.
Mr Hurst, a civil and structural engineer himself, said: “It was a surprisingly lively organisation, because of his gift to get people together of all organisations. They built testing stations in Regent’s Park where they set fire to something to see how long it stood up for. As a result of that work he realised reinforced concrete, or Portland cement, was an important element in respect of fire.”
When the managing director of American firm the Shannon Company was seeking an architect to design his new factory in Dalston, Sachs was the obvious choice. Mr Schaefer’s brief was to design a huge new HQ, based on American models, in Tyssen Street to make office and bank furniture.
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But furniture making, which combines combustible materials and varnishes, is a risky process, and under the 1894 Building Act the London County Council could refuse planning permission for any space bigger than 250,000 cubic feet if flammable materials were being used. Sachs spent a year wrangling over safety issues before securing planning permission for the Shannon Factory to be built in 1902. It had electric lighting, a sprinkler system, fire escapes in four towers and a direct telephone link to the fire brigade.
“I suspect people do take fire prevention for granted if you aren’t concerned with it,” said Mr Hurst. “Particularly with the Grenfell disaster, fire prevention and the means of escape have come more into the public view, but they are basic things in designing buildings and have been for many years.”
In 1971 the building was named Springfield House and converted into flats and office space. The owners now want to repace the windows, some of which are falling off their hinges and not opening and closing, and planning officers have recommended a design to reflect the original 1902 batch. However, 12 people have lodged objections saying the design will harm the building’s character and the conservation area.
The planning sub-committe is due to take a decision later toaday.