The history of the fire boxes in Porto

Imagine that your house is on fire. There are no social networks, no internet and not even telephones with which…

Sara Riobom
25 de January de 2016

Imagine that your house is on fire. There are no social networks, no internet and not even telephones with which to raise the alarm. There is no running water in the house for you to fight the flames, nor cars for you to escape. How will you ask for help? How will the firemen even know that there is a fire?
This is the challenge you would face living in Porto during the first half of the nineteenth century.

The solution found was rather ingenious. On the exterior of 21 major churches – one for each parish – the authorities embedded iron boxes. On the cover of each box you could find a carved guide to the Toques de Incêndio (fire alarms) – “Sé – 4”, “Paranhos – 11”, and so on. Inside the box you would find a handle connected to the bell of the church by a rope hidden inside an iron pipe.
P1090416
Having a different number of strokes for each parish was the way to let the whole city know where the fire was, just from the initial alarm. When a fire broke out, people close by would go to the nearest firebox, and pull the handle the number of times referring to their parish. For example, if the fire was at Porto’s cathedral (Sé), then the handle was pulled four times, which translated into four strokes. The rest of the city would immediately know where the fire was. Even if they didn’t know the key by heart, they just needed to check the cover of the firebox.
At that moment, all available citizens in the vicinity would fetch water from any available source. When the firefighters arrived they would find water carriers (men that supplied the houses of Porto with water from barrels on their back) working alongside street sweepers, store owners and housewives. The firefighters join in with their pumps on carts – pulled by animals or even humans – to control the fire. When the fire was almost extinct, three strokes sounded, so that the entire city knew that the danger was off.

P1090417
Firefighters pulled by horses.
P1090418
Firefighters pulling pumps (almost) on their back. They had a hard time in ancient Porto!

Of the original 21, 6 fire boxes in Porto remain today; discrete points memory of the city.

fireboxes porto

Correction: My dear readers Urgel Couto e Claramag2014 sent me photos and information about two more iron boxes, one in Gaia and another one at Rua da Constituição, in Porto. Thank you both for your contribution – you are part of Portoalities! 🙂
fire box porto bolhao fire box vila nova gaia
Finding them is well worth going on a pleasant walk around the city. I did, and you can find the map below. I hope you enjoy!

Save this article for later:

porto firebox
history porto firebox

Related tours

Half Day private tour in Porto (4h)
Behind-the-scenes access to Porto's well kept secrets.
From 89€ / person
Check Tour
Full Day private tour in Porto (7h)
The most exclusive wine lodge in Porto is waiting for you.
From 145€ / person
Check Tour
Private Jewish Heritage tour of Porto
Discover the hidden treasures of the Jewish history in Porto.
From 89€ / person
Check Tour
Private Wine tour in Douro Valley
Exclusive tour of family-owned wineries and hidden culinary gems.
From 160€ / person
Check Tour
River cruise and wine tour in Douro Valley
Enjoy award-winning wines, authentic Portuguese cuisine and amazing river views.
From 165€ / person
Check Tour

Related articles

A beautiful love story in Porto

After I wrote the top 9 romantic things to do in Porto, I decided to share a secret love story…

Sara Riobom
2 de January de 2017
The garden dedicated to the women of Porto

When Dimitri, from The Netherlands, challenged me to write about the romantic gardens of Porto, I immediately knew where to…

Sara Riobom
5 de September de 2016
Complete guide to use the bus in Porto

In general, the bus system in Porto works quite well. The schedules are usually met, the vehicles are safe and…

Sara Riobom
18 de December de 2017
Half Day private tour in Porto (4h)
Check Tour
FECHAR