British Steam Fire Engines by Ronald Henderson
Whenever one reads stories about the fire brigade in children’s books and comics, and indeed in some historical books on the subject there was invariably mention of the romance of the steam fire engine. There was the thrill of seeing two powerful fire brigade horses galloping along the streets with the firemen hanging on for dear life and shouting the traditional 'Hi Hi Hi' to warn the public and other traffic of the fire engines approach. The descriptions often went on to describe the clatter of horse’s hooves on the cobbles and the sparks and flames shooting skywards from the engines chimney. In the big cities and towns this was probably a true description but not so in the smaller towns and rural areas. Here, horses were usually hired from outside contractors that were required to repair to the fire station on the sounding of the alarm, unhitch the horses from their usual scavenging or delivery mans cart and hitch them to the fire engine before it could leave the station. In other districts, firemen had to go and seek the horses or would refuse to turn out unless the caller supplied the horses. What was not always mentioned was that on long distance journeys in rural areas the horses often had to be regularly rested as they could not sustain pulling the weight of the fire engine and its six man crew at fast speeds for long durations and on approaching steep gradients, the crews often had to dismount and assist the horses by pushing the fire engine. The era was certainly romantic and exciting whilst the engines were spectacular with their varnished vermillion red livery and polished brass and copper pipes and chimneys.
Steam fire engines were slow to be accepted into Britain's fire service and whilst one engine could do the work of several manually operated pumps with only a handful of men compared to the many teams of men needed to work the handles of the manual engines the firemen felt threatened and fearful for their jobs. Initially the London Fire Brigade was dead set against them accusing them of causing too much damage because of the amount of water they could project and conversely claiming that the water mains in the Capital were not large enough to supply the new fangled engines. Eventually common sense prevailed and progress won. Steam fire engines gradually became the most efficient fire engines of the era.
Ronald Henderson's new book, British Steam Fire Engines is the first one that covers the fascinating subject in its entirety since Charles F.T. Young published his book, A History of Manual and Steam Fire Engines in 1866. The first steam fire engine was constructed in 1829 but it took another 30 years before steam fire engines started to be introduced into Britain's fire service. The new fangled equipment was subject to many public trials and competitions devised to identify the most efficient type of fire engine with many designers submitting exhibits including some from the United States of America. Throughout the history of steam fire engine construction, two British firms dominated, Merryweather & Sons of Greenwich and Shand, Mason & Co. Ltd., of London although later newcomers, the Fire Appliances Manufacturing Company of London and William Rose of Manchester also contributed, albeit for only a short period. The new book describes the early trials and novel designs of steam fire engines and then goes on to describe and illustrate with period photographs, mostly taken from the archives of the builders the individual models and the improvements that occurred during the years of steam fire engine construction and the intense rivalry that occurred between the different manufacturers. In 1899 Merryweather & Sons introduced a new self-propelled Fire King Steam fire engine on which the engine powered both the road wheels and the main pump. Around about the same time, increasing developments occurred with the internal combustion engine and petrol driven road vehicles which would eventually see the demise of the glory days of horse drawn steam fire engines and other horse drawn road vehicles. These new self-propelled steam fire engines are also described and whilst Merryweather's pursued their developments of both steam and petrol driven fire engines Shand, Mason failed to develop successful motor driven fire engines and was ignominiously bought out by Merrweather's.
Steam fire engines were relatively simple machines that consisted of a pump, an engine to drive it, all mounted on a four wheeled carriage with a large equipment box on which the crew sat and a seat at the front for the coachman. Water had to come from external sources. Construction of them lasted until the mid 1920's, after which improvements in the design of the petrol engine rendered the type increasingly obsolete. The two horse power traction sources had been replaced by petrol engines although the type soldiered on, especially in rural fire brigades where there was little use for them and therefore no requirement to update the equipment. World War Two and the nationalisation of Britain's fire brigades saw the last operational steam fire engines quickly withdrawn.
Some 250 British made steam fire engines survive, carefully maintained in museums and private collections, not only in Britain but throughout the world. As well as those on public exhibition in Britain preserved examples survive in many overseas countries from as far away as Australia and New Zealand, North and South America, India, Russia and several European countries; a lasting tribute to an era when Britain's manufacturing expertise and quality of workmanship was at one time recognised throughout the globe.
British Steam Fire Engines by Ronald Henderson is available for purchase now.