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Medaille für Hilfeleistung beim Stadtbrand 1842

City Fire of 1842 Relief Action Medal

Medaille für Hilfeleistung beim Stadtbrand 1842 was instituted by the Senate of Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg on May 08, 1843 in conjunction with the first anniversary of the terrible catastrophe that went down in history as “The Great Fire of Hamburg” (“Große Brand von Hamburg”). City Fire of 1842 Relief Action Medal was the very first German decoration for firefighters. However, it was reserved for non-Hamburg fire brigades personnel, while local firemen and city authorities were issued with non-portable medals (see below).

Soon after its institution the decoration was known under various names. Thus, it was referred to as “Lesser Hamburg Medal of Gratitude” (Die Kleine Hamburger Dankmedaille) in the first volume of the paper  by Hamburg numismatist Otto Christian Gaedechens “Hamburgische Münzen und Medaillen. Erste Abtheilung: Die Münzen und Medaillen seit dem Jahre 1753” (Hamburg, 1850). Meanwhile, it entered the third volume of that reference book written by his son, historian and politician Cipriano Francisco Gaedechens, “Hamburgische Münzen und Medaillen. Dritte Abtheilung: Ergänzungen und Fortsetzung” (Hamburg, 1876) as “Hamburg Medal of Gratitude” (Hamburger Dank-Medaille). However, this article adheres to the name “Medaille für Hilfeleistung beim Stadtbrand 1842” that is common in modern phaleristics community.

Description of this award needs a little digression into the history of the catastrophe that gave name to a medal in question. The Great Fire of Hamburg broke out at about 1 a.m. on May 05, 1842 in the house of the local cigar manufacturer situated at Deichstraße, 42.

Equipment shortage, small number of local firefighters (though they were regarded as highly experienced specialists) alongside with dry windy weather led to the rapid spread of greedy fire. Firemen acted untiringly, but in vain. Even intentional detonations of houses to stop flame never helped. Glow of a fire over Hamburg was seen 50 km away from the city. Fifty-seven citizens perished in flames, about 20,000 people were left homeless. About a quarter of the inner city was destroyed, including great number of historical buildings erected long before the catastrophe. Town hall, bank, archives, three churches, commercial centre with municipal stock exchange, hundreds of storehouses and some 4,200 mainly wooden structures – residential houses as well as office buildings laid in debris and ashes. Firestorm was fought not only by locals but by firemen from various neighbouring and even distant German cities: Altona, Wandsbek, Wedel, Geesthacht, Kiel, Lauenburg, Lübeck, Magdeburg and Stade. The fire was extinguished only on May 8, 1842 in many respects thanks to natural water barriers, greenery and earth mounds within the precincts of Hamburg. The last smouldering sites were eliminated by the middle of October 1842. Reconstruction took more than forty years.

Having completed that necessary historical digression let’s return to the main subject of an article.

Design of a medal was elaborated by famous Hamburg-based artist and illustrator Jacob Gensler (21.01.1808-26.01.1845). Jeweler from another Hanseatic city, Bremen, Martin Heinrich Wilkens (21.11.1782-08.05.1869) was chosen as an engraver.

An obverse had an allegoric design showing a tunic-clad figure of Hammonia, protectress of Hamburg, with a laurel wreath in her raised right hand and leaning against a paddle with her left hand. Fragment of antique ship, square shield and fragment of masonry, the latter symbolizing demolition after the Great Fire, were situated in the background. The date of institution of the medal was placed on both sides of Hammonia parallel to the border: “1843” on the left and “May 8” (“Mai 8”) executed in capital letters on the right. Latin inscriptions bearing names of designer and engraver were placed horizontally at the bottom of an obverse: “Wilkens Fec.” (at the left) and “J.G.Del” (at the right). Those inscriptions in full meant “Made by Wilkens, drawn by Jacob Gensler” (“Wilkens fecit Jacob Gensler delineavit”).

Centre of a reverse with raised border showed lesser coat of arms of Hamburg encircled with a wide round oak wreath tied with four ribbons crosswise. The composition was circumscribed in capital letters “Grateful Hamburg to its Friends in Need, May 5-8, 1842” (“Das dankbare Hamburg seinen Freunden in der Noth 1842 Mai 5-8”). The whole inscription was separated by a six-point star at the very top.

Circular medal measured 33 mm in diameter and weighed 20 g or, as defined in original sources, 1¾ lots. The latter corresponded to an obsolete unit of weight used in Hamburg, as well as in many European countries since the Middle Ages until the beginning of the XX century. Due to its symbolic significance, Medaille für Hilfeleistung beim Stadtbrand 1842 was manufactured of bronze from melted bells of three burnt Hamburg churches. However, engraver M.H.Wilkens found out that bronze provided turned out to be too hard and needed to be softened a bit with additional copper. The latter was taken from spire of St.Peter’s Church (Sankt-Petri-Kirche).

City Fire of 1842 Relief Action Medal was worn suspended from a 36 mm wide silk ribbon made of two colors corresponding to those of a Hamburg flag. It was white with wide central red stripe and two narrow red stripes close to edges. Ribbons were specially manufactured by a local braid-maker (Posamentier) J.H.Bockelmann.

The medal described above with an eyelet an ring for ribbon suspension was issued exclusively to firefighters who arrived in Hamburg from other cities to render their helping hand. Having secured consent of Hamburg authorities, local jeweler and medal dealer Johann Friedrich Brahmfeld established production of non-portable medals for citizens of Hamburg. Those medallions of the similar design but measuring 16,5 mm in diameter were minted of gold, silver and bronze. “Fire Service Honorary Medal” (Feuerwehr-Ehrenmedaille), the so-called Fahnenmedaille, measuring 135 mm in diameter and intended for attachment to flagstaffs of the local fire brigades, was manufactured as well. 

Decorations were presented in 1843 during commemorative ceremonies in conjunction with the first anniversary of the Great Fire. Totally 4,858 medals were awarded. At the same time honorary citizenship of Hamburg was granted to burgomaster of Bremen Johann Smidt (05.11.1773-07.05.1857) as well as upper presidents (Oberpräsidenten) of Altona and Magdeburg. 

I would like to finish this article with mentioning of a fatal coincidence. Thus, two prominent Germans who bore immediate relation to this tragic medal, passed away on the day of its institution several years ago. Those were jeweler Martin Heinrich Wilkens (May 08, 1869) and burgomaster of Bremen Johann Smidt (May 07, 1857).

City Fire 1842 Relief Action Medal 1