When the town caught fire, these big-wigs refused to sanction a full-frontal assault. Instead, they insisted that the blaze be tackled piecemeal, dividing the town into sectors and damping down one hot spot after another. But with the engines scurrying this way and that, the inferno got out of hand and consumed half the borough.
Now replace "town" with "union" and the 1890s for the 1990s and you have something of the flavour of the debate that took place on the subject of industrial relations at NATFHE's national conference at the weekend.
On the one hand are the nobs, NATFHE's own civic dignitaries raised up above the common herd on the platform in the union's neo-classical conference room in London. There's portly Mr Mayor - alias Ian Clay, NATFHE's outgoing president - resplendent in his red sash of office (and braces to match), desperate to jolly the proceedings along as he calls successive speakers to the rostrum and hands out rulings on procedural matters.
Along from him sits the borough surveyor (Derek Betts, union head of policy) gloomily surveying the scene and saying not a word. And there in the middle the real villain of the piece according to certain of the townsfolk at least - the town clerk, masquerading this afternoon as John Akker, NATFHE's besieged general secretary and clearly, from the expression on his face, not a happy man.
Ranged below, in the body of the hall, are the ordinary people of the town; or at least their elected representatives are there, delegates from NATFHE's 14 regions across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. And one after another they come to the microphone to complain about the way their "fire" - the dispute over new contracts for lecturers in FE colleges that require more work and fewer holidays - has been handled.
The motion, put down for debate by the north-west region, points the finger. "Throughout the new contracts dispute," it reads, "NATFHE has failed to offer an effective national response, forcing lecturers into local action and bargaining." NATFHE, everyone present is aware, means the union's leadership, more specifically the leader of leaders Mr Town Clerk Akker.
"Pitiful", "negative", "miserable" are some of the kinder words used by speakers to sum up the quality of leadership shown (or rather not shown) during the course of the three-year dispute. When local action has been taken (as in the case of the seven-week strike by Bolton lecturers earlier in the year) the strikers were "stabbed in the back", one complains, by head office cutting strike pay.
Mr Mayor smiles wearily and presses the bell for the next speaker. Mr Surveyor looks upwards and outwards into the furthest reaches of the room. Mr Clerk looks as if he has a nasty smell under his nose.
It falls to more junior functionaries to put the case for the defence. To outline what has been achieved in the dispute so far and point out what little cash has been available for the "fire fighting" from the beginning. The motion, they say, and the debate it has engendered has been divisive. Roger Ward will be the only person to gain any benefit from it.
Roger Ward is, of course, the big cheese at the head of the Colleges' Employers' Forum - the boss of bosses - considered by many to have outmanoeuvred NATFHE at every turn. And on one thing at least everyone present is agreed: it was Mr Ward, with his can of petrol and incendiary cast of mind, who started the whole conflagration in the first place.