Early English Fire Engine

Early English Fire Engine


Perhaps the oldest account of English fire engines, says Ewbank, is contained in a rare old quarto, which begins with two poetical addresses to the author. It appears that the initial letters of his name were I. B., and that the work was entitled “A Treatise on Art and Nature.” Two-thirds of it are occupied with “water works,” and the rest with “ficr-works” except four or five pages “on voyces, cals, cryes and sounds”; i. e., on making of whistles, etc., for sportsmen to imitate the voices of certain birds and other game. The date of publication was about 1634; this we infer from page 51, where, speaking of “The engin near the north end of London Bridge (he observes), which engin I circumspectly vieued as I accidentally passed by, immediately after the first fier that was upon the bridge. Anno 1633.” Shops and dwelling houses were built on both sides of the bridge at that time.

After describing several modes of raising water by sucking, forcing and chain pumps, he continues:—”Having sufficiently spoken concerning mils and engtns for mounting water for mecr conveyance, thence we may derive divers quirts and petty engins to be drawn upon wheeles from place to place, for to quench fier among buildings; the use whereof hath been found very commodious and profitable in cities and great towncs.” Hence engines were at this time not uncommon in England. No less than seven are figured by the author, and all are placed in cisterns or tubs mounted on wheels; neither air vessels nor hose pipes are described or mentioned. Five of the engines consist of single cylinders;. of these some are in a perpendicular position, others are laid horizontally, and one is inverted, and fed by a branch pipe covered by a valve. The last one figured has two horizontal cylinders, a suggestion of the author’s, and the piston rods are shown as worked alternately by pallets or arms on a vertical shaft, to which a reciprocating rotary movement was imparted by pushing a horizontal lever to and fro. One of these old fire engines is a species of bellows pump, the construction of which we will endeavor to explain; Two brass vessels were connected at their open ends to a bag of leather; they resemble, both in shape and size, two men’s hats, the lining of which being pulled out and sewn together form a cylindrical bag between them. A circular opening six or seven inches in diameter was made through a horizontal piece of plank fixed in the cistern of the engine, and over this opening one of the vessels, with its crown upwards, was placed, and made fast by screws through the rim, the other vessel being suspended from it by the bag and hanging loosely in the water. Within the lower vessel (in the centre of its bottom) a valve opening upwards admitted the water, and on the top or crown of the upper vessel another valve, also opening upwards, was placed. Over the last valve the base of the jet pipe was secured. To work this machine the rim of the lower vessel was connected at opposite points, by two iron rods or slings and a cross head, to the end of a lever, by which the lower vessel was moved up and down, compressing the bag when raised and stretching it to its natural length when lowered, like the lantern bellows No. 105 or the bellows pump No. 106. To make the vessel rise and fall perpendicularly the two rods were passed through holes in the plank. Water was kept in the cistern as high as the plank, so that when the movable vessel was raised the contents of the bag would be forced into the upper vessel and expelled through the jet pipe, and when it was again lowered the water would enter through its valve and fill both as before. These engines, he observes, had sometimes two levers and were worked by two men, “the lower brasse (vessel) being poysed with two sweeps.”


The goose-neck was used in England at this time. It is not represented in the figures. which are very indifferently executed, but is sufficiently well defined in the description of one of the engines. The author directs a hollow ball to be placed on the orifice of the forcing pipe, “having a (jet) pipe at the top of it, and made to screw another pipe (elbow) upon it, to direct the water to any place.”

Small or hand engines continued to be employed in London in the 18th century. This appears from a law passed in the sixth year of Queen Anne’s reign by which it was enacted that “each parish shall keep a large engine, and an hand engine, and a leather pipe, and socket of the same size as the plug or fire cock (of the water mains) that the socket may be put into the pipe to convey the water to the engine,” under a penalty of ten pounds. In case of a fire, the first person who arrived with a parish engine to extinguish it was entitled to thirty shillings, the second twenty, and the thiref ten, provided the engines were in good order, “with a socket or hose, or leather pipe.” The following year the owners or keepers of “other large engines” (not parish engines) were entitled to the same reward upon arriving with them and assisting in extinguishing a fire.

Before the improvements of Newsham and his contemporaries of the 18th century some important additions would seem to have been made in England, since, previous to 1686. “the engine for extinguishing fire” was claimed as an English invention. This is stated in a small volume published that year in London by John Harris, and apparently edited by him. It is entitled “A pleasant and compendious history of the first inventors and instituters of the most famous arts, misteries, laws, customs and manners in the whole world, together with many other rarities and remarkable things rarely made known.”

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