Research - Steam Fire Engines

The steam fire appliance was a British invention, the earliest example being manufactured by Braithwaite and Ericsson of London in 1829. It had a 10 horse power steam engine with two horizontal cylinders and pump, and weighed 2,286kg; steam could be raised in only 13 minutes. Although never sold, the machine was tested at several London fires and performed well. At its first large fire, the Argyll Rooms in Soho, on 5th February 1830, Braithwaite’s steamer worked constantly for five hours without breaking down and threw water right over the building.

Despite this power, and the huge saving in manpower when compared to the manual engines the new appliance was met with prejudice and scepticism by the fire fighting profession.

Supt. James Braidwood of London was of the opinion that steam fire engines were too heavy, ‘too powerful for common use’ and that street water supplies weren’t strong enough to supply them. Even if they could be suitably fed with water, their use would not be advisable, he felt, because the powerful jets might be ‘injudiciously applied.’ Braithwaite built four more examples, but only sold one in Britain to Liverpool. It took another 29 years before steamers reappeared in this country. An Englishman, Paul Hodge, was responsible for the first steam fire engine to be built in the U.S.A.

The next development came in 1852 when a floating manual fire pump on the River Thames was converted to a steam operation by the London Fire Engine Establishment. This engine originally needed 80 men to operate it and the conversion was so successful that two years later, a purpose-built team fire-float was launched.

The reappearance of the land steamer came in 1858 when Messrs. Shand and Mason of Blackfriars Road, London, produced a four-ton appliance which was drawn by three horses. This prototype was sent to Russia, but within eight years the firm had produced 60. A number of small manufacturers made experimental steam fire engines at this time including Rennie, Roberts and Cowan, but the chief competitor to Shand Mason was Merryweather and Sons of Greenwich whose floating steamer for the Tyne Docks was launched in 1860, followed a year later by ‘Deluge’, the company’s first land steamer. Both firms had a long history of building manual pumps and other fire fighting equipment.

There was growing interest in steam fire engines and three examples were publicly tested at the International Exhibition of 1862 in Hyde Park, London. The next year was marked by the famous three-day competitive steam fire engine trials at the Crystal Palace. Ten engines (including three from the USA ) were subjected to exhaustive tests, at the end of which Messrs. Merryweather’s ‘Sutherland’ model was declared the best, and won the £250 prize. Second was Shand Mason’s steamer ‘Shand’, of a similar double-horizontal cylinder design.

The earliest steam fire engine in Greater Manchester was a Shand Mason delivered to Bolton Fire Brigade in 1868, followed by Merryweather’s at both Manchester and Salford three years later. Most Brigades, except for the smallest, acquired steamers and they became the mainstay of fire fighting fleets in towns and cities for nearly 50 years.

In addition to the horse-drawn or self-propelled steam fire engines, large numbers of static steam pumps (in mills for example), floating steam fire engines and portable steam fire pumps such as the two-wheeled Merryweather ‘Valiant’ were produced, chiefly by the two largest manufacturers.

After Merryweather and Shand Mason, the most important make was Rose and Co. of Salford, who produced dozens of steamers between 1897 and 1902.

Several experiments took place in the early 1900s to convert horse-drawn steamers to motor propulsion, and by 1905 Merryweather’s had put their self-propelled ‘Motor Fire King’ on the market. However these were not produced in large numbers. At the same time a lot of progress was being made in the construction of motor vehicles generally. This soon led to the internal combustion engine being used for fire appliances. The gold age of the steamer was ending. The largest brigades became motorised before 1920 and many redundant steamers were shipped to France to pump out the trenches during the First World War. A number of steamers did in fact survive until the1930s in the more remote country brigades, by which time they had usually been adapted for towing by lorry or car.

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