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Uniforms serve a number of purposes. They identify a group of people as belonging to an organisation and they can create a bond between people. They can also have a functional purpose. Fire fighters’ everyday uniform has changed several times in the last three hundred years but traditionally uniforms were worn to impress. They were designed to be smart and to look like military uniforms. The first uniforms worn by the fire insurance company brigades were mainly decorative and not very practical.

Fire fighters have generally had two uniforms, one for everyday wear and one to wear when they are putting out fires.

Uniforms are generally made up of:

  • a helmet or cap

  • a tunic

  • breeches or trousers (fire fighters wear overtrousers today)

  • boots

  • belt, sometimes with an axe.

Over the years helmets have been made out of brass, steel, cork, leather, thermoplastic and composite materials. Tunics have been made from wool but now are made from Nomex which was first used for racing drivers in the Grand Prix. It is light and strong and easy to wear. Early fire fighters wore velvet breeches but again more practical Nomex overtrousers are now worn.

Early uniforms

Initially uniforms were decorative rather than functional reflecting the livery of the different fire insurance companies. The fashion at the time (late 1600s and 1700s) was very elaborate with lots of lace, buttons and braid.

During the eighteenth century there were two types of tunic, one was tight fitting and worn buttoned up and the second was a full coat, worn open with a buttoned up waistcoat. Tunics were brightly coloured (red, blue, brown, green even yellow) to reflect the colours of the different fire insurance companies.

The uniforms were often highly decorated some with up to 56 buttons. Early buttons would have been plain but after 1750 buttons were cast in pewter and carried the company logo.

All firemen wore breeches until the 1800s when they wore trousers. The foreman or captain’s uniform was similar to that worn by ordinary fire fighters but was more elaborate with more braid and lace. The captain also wore a gilt badge which carried the company emblem.

Until the 1740s fire fighters wore buckled shoes. After this date some fire fighters were given leather boots.

The first fire fighters were recruited from Free Watermen who operated water taxis on the Thames. They made good part-time fire fighters because they were self-employed, reliable and they were used to working hard in difficult conditions. Many Watermen were ex-sailors.


In the 1800s a number of fire insurance brigades were brought together under the command of James Braidwood in Edinburgh to create the first municipal fire brigade. The firemen wore a standard uniform that consisted of a short double breasted tunic, based on the design of a naval midshipman’s jacket, white canvas trousers and a leather helmet which was designed by Braidwood himself. As more fire insurance companies merged together the uniforms became simpler and more functional.

1860 to 1940s

Between the 1860s and 1940s there were lots of different types of fire brigades. There were volunteers, parish council brigades, industrial, country-house, police-fire brigades and municipal and local authority brigades. All had different uniforms of different quality and standard. During these years there was a gradual trend towards standardisation. In 1866 the Metropolitan Fire Brigade in London was set up and this brigade had a huge influence on uniform design generally. They wore a blue double-breasted tunic, blue trousers made of waterproof cloth with black leather boots and a leather belt. They also wore a brass helmet. Many brigades adopted a variation of this uniform with a brass or leather helmet carrying the brigade’s emblem.

In the 1890s waterproof mackintoshes became available for use.

Buttons, epaulettes and helmets were a way to distinguish rank. Firemen generally had brass helmets and buttons, and officers had silver helmets and buttons. The buttons of municipal and volunteer brigades often had coats of arms, entwined initials or titles.

The tradition of brass and silver to distinguish rank is still in use today. Fire fighters wear yellow helmets but officers wear white helmets.

From around 1900, with the more widespread use of electricity in houses, many brigades changed from brass to leather and brass helmets to reduce risks of electric shocks to fire fighters.

The Second World War

In the late 1930s the government began to prepare for the Second World War by asking fire brigades to recruit auxiliary or volunteer fire fighters. By March 1939, 140,000 people had volunteered but government needed 350,000 volunteers. It soon became obvious that the government would not be able to provide the traditional fire fighter’s helmet for such large numbers of volunteers, so they changed the design to a military-styled steel helmet. Officers wore a white helmet and a number of red bands depending on their rank. But the ‘battle bowler’, as it became known, was adopted and worn until the end of the war.

The Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) firemen were initially given a peaked cap, overalls, rubber boots and a grey steel helmet. Later they were given a tunic, trousers and waterproof leggings.

The AFS were issued with one uniform but regular fire fighters had two uniforms so they always had one dry set of kit. From the end of the war to the present day there have been a number of changes to the uniform.

Women in the fire service

Women began to be part of the fire service during the Second World War. They played a vital role helping the fire service in communications, as dispatch riders and as drivers.

In the 1950s and 60s fire women used to work in the control room and they wore a uniform that was very similar to that of the men. The first female fire fighters joined the fire brigade in the 1980s. The first female fire fighters to join the Manchester Fire Service joined in the early 1990s. Absolutely no concessions were made to women in terms of uniform. They wore exactly the same clothing as men.

A good uniform

A good uniform should ‘be comfortable, allow perspiration to evaporate and air to circulate to keep the wearer cool, should protect the body from heat, be waterproof and look smart.’ Although modern fire fighters say one of the biggest problems is actually keeping warm and dry.

Different fabrics such as Nomex have helped to make uniforms more practical. Nomex was widely tested and it was decided that this was an ideal material for uniforms. In 1974 Nomex became the recommended material for uniform and was widely used for tunics and trousers. In the 1980s Nomex tunics were made longer and gabardine raincoats began to be replaced by anoraks. Waistcoat style reflective jackets, worn at road traffic collisions, were replaced by full over jackets with reflective strips. These reflective strips also began to appear on tunics.


Fire marks identified buildings covered by fire insurance companies after the Great Fire of London.

Now it is very easy to identify a house because we all have an address. We have postcodes, street names, house numbers, even house names. But before the invention of the postal service in 1840 there was no real reason to identify houses in this way. The fire insurance companies had to be able to identify houses covered by their insurance quickly so someone hit on the idea of having an emblem attached to a house. The emblems were brightly coloured and they were designed to attract attention. Not only did they show fire insurance companies quickly that a house was insured, they were an early form of advertising for the insurance companies.

To begin with it was mainly wealthy people who could afford to insure their houses.

There are stories of how fire companies would leave houses to burn if the house did not show their fire mark.

The fire insurance company brigades were set upto protect only their own customers but there was a lot of rivalry.The brigades took great pride in their work and the rivalry was more about showing that they were faster and more professional than other brigades.

Company brigades did put out fires in other properties, especially for the uninsured. At a large fire, with several engines and confusing circumstances, the teams almost certainly would just dive in to start fighting the fire. They probably wouldn’t even be able to see the fire mark.

There were no doubt instances of rivalry which may have led to bad behaviour but these were probably few and far between. The fire fighters took great pride in their work and this pride extends to today’s fire fighters.

The fire insurance company brigades were the first fire fighting brigades in the country and the only organised ones in many towns, at a time when the local provision was very poor, even in what are now large towns like Manchester and Leeds.


Early fire fighting

The first fire fighting forces are thought to have been formed in Roman times. They were made up of bands of slaves called Familia Publica. This system didn’t really work so in AD6 Emperor Augustus replaced the slaves with military fire fighters called the Corps of Vigiles.

7,000 Vigiles in Rome had equipment such as hand squirts, buckets and axes.

These soldier-fire fighters were also used in other parts of the Roman Empire, and there may even have been Vigiles in Britain.

When the Romans left, Britain didn’t have any protection against fire for the next 1,000 years. If a fire started whole towns could be destroyed very quickly. Houses often had thatched roofs and open fires. As the houses were built very close together it was easy for fires to spread from one house to the next.

After the Norman Conquest in 1066, William the Conqueror ordered that all household fires should be put out at night to prevent fires from starting. Fires were put out with a metal cover known in Norman French as a couvre-feu (which actually means fire cover). In English this became the word ‘curfew’. The time for putting out fires was marked for 800 years by the sound of the ‘curfew bell’.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, church or town authorities occasionally provided very simple fire equipment such as thatch hooks or buckets. People started to think about fire prevention measures such as not stacking fuel (bunches of gorse or sticks) too high outside bake houses.

The Great Fire of London

The Great Fire of London in 1666 made people think seriously about fire protection. The Great Fire of London started in a bakery in Pudding Lane on 2nd September. It burned for four days and destroyed a lot of the city. Over 13,000 houses, 84 churches and most public buildings were lost. Fire needs three things to sustain it – it needs heat, fuel and oxygen. The fire stopped only when the Navy was called in to blow up houses that were in the path of the fire. This took away the source of fuel for the fire and so stopped it. Miraculously, only six people died. The Monument, which can still be seen today, was built to commemorate the fire. It is at the junction of Monument Street and Fish Street Hill in London. The total height of the monument is 61 metres equal to the distance of the Monument from the point where the fire started in Pudding Lane.

Two things happened as a result of the Great Fire of London: very primitive fire engines were built and the first organised fire brigades began to appear.

Fire insurance companies

After the huge losses in the Great Fire of London some entrepreneurs decided to take advantage of the situation and offer fire insurance. The first fire insurance company was formed in 1667. These early insurers soon realised they needed to protect their own interests and so began to provide men and fire appliances to deal with outbreaks of fire. For over 100 years, insurance company fire brigades provided the main fire fighting force in Britain.

There was a lot of competition between the different fire insurance companies, especially in the larger towns. They had smart uniforms, brightly coloured fire engines and strict discipline. This was all designed to attract new customers.

Each insurance company protected buildings where they provided the insurance.

They could tell which buildings they insured because each insured building had a fire mark. A fire mark was a metal plate displaying the company’s trademark and the householder’s policy number. The fire mark was fixed to an outside wall of a house or business.

Local authority fire services

Local authorities also tried to provide fire engines, water supplies and fire fighters but they were not able to match the services provided by the fire companies.

In the early 19th Century, smaller towns and villages often had no fire service at all.

As the number of fire losses increased, local authorities gradually began to provide a fire service. The very first ‘municipal’ fire service was formed in Edinburgh in 1824, and two years later Manchester had its own fire service. This sort of development usually led to insurance brigades being disbanded but it would be over 100 years before the last insurance brigade would be disbanded (in 1929).

Money was the main problem for towns and cities that wanted to provide a fire service. Insurance companies sometimes donated fire engines and stations. Sometimes fire services were paid for by public subscription. To cover costs, it was normal to charge for putting out fires.

Fire service in Victorian times (1819 to 1901)

The Victorian era was a time when towns wanted to show their wealth and the local fire brigade was often seen as a prime example of this. Each town, especially in the prosperous textile areas in the North of England tried to outdo each other with the finest town hall, tram shed and of course the most magnificent fire station. Towns often celebrated when they bought a new steam fire engine. They would have a procession and christening ceremony.

In the 19th Century, the larger boroughs operated as police fire brigades with both the police and the fire service under the control of the Chief Constable. In some cases policemen served as auxiliary firemen, in others the Chief Constable took charge at fires and occasionally police and firemen shared duties. Usually, however, the ‘fire bobbies’ (as they were sometimes known) did one job only, under a fire officer who had the rank of police Superintendent. Discipline was strict and conditions were hard. Most firemen in towns lived over their stations and worked on a continuous duty system with only one day off in two weeks. They slept and ate in their residential quarters (turnout bells were fitted), but all other hours were spent on station duties. Rural fire stations still relied on part-time or volunteer fire fighters.

Whole time recruits usually came from the building trade or the Navy. They made good fire fighters because they were used to working hard in all weathers and often at great height. Sailors were particularly well-suited to fire brigade life and their dress, speech and other characteristics are part of the fire service traditions.

The 20th Century

In the 20th Century, the fire service became much more professional as brigades had to adapt to new problems such as fires from petroleum, celluloid and explosives. Lots of fire fighters learned about this type of fire as a result of munitions and chemical fires of World War One. At this time there was an increase in the number of organisations like the Institution of Fire Engineers and the Professional Fire Brigades Association, which aimed to advance the science of fire fighting and to unify standards.

There was still a wide range of ability in fire fighters, from the professional police-firemen to volunteers. Because of the difference in standards, country estates or large industrial concerns (known as isolated risks) operated their own private fire brigades.

In 1938, a Fire Brigades Act was passed which, for the first time, gave the local authority the responsibility for providing an efficient, free fire service. In many rural districts this was achieved by pooling resources. Under the new Act, around 1,600 separate fire brigades covered every inch of the country.

The Second World War

As the Second World War approached, one of the great fears was possible enemy air attack. Part-time Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) units were set up to work alongside regular fire fighters. The AFS had its own appliances, stations and uniform. The AFS units were trained by professional fire fighters and worked alongside them. In the air raids in 1940/41 a lot of AFS staff were killed or injured.

The Blitz placed an enormous strain on the country’s numerous hard-pressed fire brigades. On 18th August 1941, all regular and AFS fire services were merged into one National Fire Service (NFS). This merged service lasted for the next seven years. Although it missed the worst of the air raids that it had been created for, the NFS was responsible for the first real improvements in co-ordination and standardisation in the British fire service. Many of the lessons and innovations in appliance design, structure of the brigades and communications are still used today.

After the war

Three years after the end of the War, the NFS was disbanded and the control of fire services returned to the local authorities, though only the larger towns kept their former brigades. New County Council Fire Brigades such as Lancashire and Cheshire protected smaller boroughs and towns.

The Fire Services Act 1947 laid the foundation for the modern service, with the new fire authorities taking on some additional duties such as fire prevention inspections, attending road traffic collisions and other ‘special service’ calls.

1950s and 1960s

Through the 1950s and 60s there were many changes in industry and transport. This meant the fire service had to change to be able to cope with any eventuality. In the North West traditional textile trades began to die out but the old mill buildings were then used for new purposes, often with a higher risk of fire.

The growth of the motorway network and the rise in road transport has meant that the fire service has had to have more sophisticated crash rescue equipment. The development in the chemical and plastics industries, together with the use of synthetic materials in furniture means fire fighters have to rely much more on breathing apparatus and protective clothing.

Reorganisation in the 1970s

In 1974 local government was re-organised and this meant a cut in the number of brigades in Britain. New Metropolitan Fire Authorities such as Greater Manchester were formed as smaller brigades joined together.

Technical developments, not thought possible a few decades ago, followed including heat seeking cameras, advanced hydraulic cutting equipment and computerised control rooms.


The Fire and Rescue Services Act of 2004 recognised the wider role of fire brigades, and made way for modernisation. As well as coping with the traditional types of incidents the men and women of today’s fire and rescue service are ready to deal with major environmental problems, large-scale chemical incidents and even terrorist attacks.



Thompson Street, Goods Depot, Manchester
Thompson Street, Goods Depot, Manchester

Britain declared war on 3rd September 1939. For the first few months of the war very little happened in Britain. In fact those months were so quiet people called this time the ‘phoney war’. All of this changed in April 1940 when Germany invaded Denmark and Norway. The British prime minster, Neville Chamberlain resigned and was replaced by Winston Churchill who formed a coalition government of all political parties. On the same day that Winston Churchill came to power (10th May 1940), the German army invaded Holland, Belgium and France. Because of their experience in the First World War, France made a sort of peace with Germany and this left Britain alone to fight Germany.

Hitler planned to invade Britain. His first plan was to get rid of the Royal Air Force (RAF). The first attacks from the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe, targeted the Channel ports and then the airfields of the south of Britain. This was called the Battle of Britain and it lasted for three months.

British pilots eventually won the Battle of Britain and Hitler’s plans to invade had to wait. The Germans employed a different tactic and they started to bomb British cities, thinking that this would make the British people surrender.

Manchester endured several months of German air raids, which became more and more severe. In December 1940 there were two nights of continuous bombing. The city had never experienced anything like this before. It was to become known as ‘The Blitz’. The ‘Blitz’ comes from Blitzkrieg and means lightning war.

On Sunday 22nd December, the people of Manchester were warned that an air raid was about to take place by air raid sirens. British cities were blacked out so that they couldn’t be identified from the sky. This meant there were no streetlights, and windows had to be blacked out so there was no light from houses. The first air raid siren sounded at 6.37 pm, and it was over twelve hours before the ‘all clear’ signal was heard. During the first raid the Luftwaffe dropped thousands of incendiary bombs to start small fires so they could see the blacked out cities from the sky when they came back to bomb the cities again.

There were so many fires that within an hour and a half every fire appliance was in use. Reinforcements were called in to help. There were so many fires that many ordinary firemen found themselves in charge of what would, in normal circumstances, have been classed as major incidents.

Regular and auxiliary firemen fought side by side to put out the fires as more bombs were falling. The fire fighters had an enormous task on their hands as the bombs caused more and more damage, blocking communications channels and breaking water mains.

Fire women working in the canteen vans and messenger boys, on motorcycles, provided vital support to keep the operations going.

By 11.30 on Monday, all the fires were under control but as there were no relief crews available, the firemen had to stay on site to damp down the smouldering rubble throughout the afternoon.

That evening the Luftwaffe returned and bombed the city. Many of the fire fighters and support staff were on the point of exhaustion but they had to face an even worse fire situation than the night before. The most serious fires were around the busy commercial area near Piccadilly. Fire fighters had to use dynamite to stop the fires from spreading further.

By the afternoon of Tuesday 24th December, the fires were finally under control, but they continued to burn for several days. A total of seven conflagrations (large uncontrollable fires), 51 major fires and over 1,000 lesser fire incidents were recorded in Manchester and Salford alone.

Thirty firemen lost their lives on those two nights, almost all the men that died were auxiliary firemen and some were men drafted in to help from as far away as Nottinghamshire. Many more were injured.

Because fire-fighting resources in cities like Manchester were put under enormous strain during the Blitz, all fire brigades were reorganised on a national basis. The National Fire Service was formed on 18th August 1941. The tableau in the Museum shows one small corner of what the inner city might have been like on 24th December 1940. It shows a conflagration still burning and a trailer pump operator transporting water from a distant supply to the main fire zone.

The Dennis pump is typical of thousands used by the Auxiliary Fire Service and which, in the absence of larger appliances, played a major part in saving Greater Manchester from complete destruction.


The Sun Fire Insurance Office issued ‘smoke masks’ to its firemen in the 1700s. It was only in the late 19th Century that equipment for protecting fire fighters against smoke began to be used more widely. Firemen used to take pride in their ability to take the bad effects of fire and smoke. Sometimes the only precautions they would take would be to ‘wet his beard and take it between his teeth’. This was thought to be a way of filtering smoke.

In the mid 1800s there were many attempts to make breathing apparatus. Most relied on filtering the smoke particles through sponges or wadding soaked with various agents such as glycerine, charcoal or vinegar. Unfortunately these gave no protection against gases like carbon monoxide nor were they of any use in an atmosphere where there was little or no oxygen. There were some weird and wonderful ‘smoke masks’ but very few fire brigades used them.

The next development was the ‘smoke helmet’, which was a means of supplying fresh air to a fireman inside a smoke-filled building. Originally these were just a close fitting hood connected to a length of tubing, which led to an outside filter. Bellows were later fitted to the end of the tube. These hoods were the first kind of breathing apparatus to be adopted generally by fire brigades and by the turn of the century they could be seen in many large towns. In some brigades the air was supplied from a special air-producing fire appliance rather than from bellows.

Fire fighters had to be able to move freely and safely so they needed a self-contained breathing apparatus set. After some early and unsuccessful attempts, comprising literally a bag of air carried on the back which provided only a few minutes air supply – the first practical closed-circuit oxygen set appeared in 1878 produced by Henry A Fleus through Siebe Gorman Ltd.

Within a few years mine rescue services used sets, which had an oxygen cylinder and breathing bag and an absorbent for abstracting the oxygen from exhaled breath. Fire brigades did not use them until the 1920s and 30s when they adopted sets such as the ‘Proto’.

German gas attacks in 1915 brought a revival in respirator design, and the threat of further attacks in the Second World War led to respirators or gas masks becoming available to the general population including babies and children.

After the War, compressed air breathing apparatus was developed which could last from about 20 minutes to almost an hour with improved technology, until oxygen was phased out completely in the 1970s. Modern BA sets incorporate positive-pressure face masks for maximum protection against unsafe atmospheres and chemical products.

Following serious accidents involving loss of life, safety innovations such as guidelines, tallies and warning devices appeared so that today Breathing Apparatus operations are carried out only in accordance with the most stringent procedures. Fire fighters must now wear Breathing Apparatus at almost every incident because of the toxic nature of smoke produced by many modern materials.

Several types of smoke helmets, oxygen and compressed air breathing apparatus, and associated equipment are displayed at the Museum.




After the fire bucket, the earliest portable fire fighting equipment was probably the hand squirt, as used by the Romans and at the Great Fire of London. The hand squirt was the first sort of simple fire appliance.

In 1816 a Captain Manby invented what is considered to be the first conventional fire extinguisher. It comprised a cylinder containing ‘antiphlogistic fluid’ (actually water mixed with pearl ash), which was expelled by compressed air on the operation of a stopcock. A string of similar appliances followed in the next hundred years, though not many were commercially successful.

By Victorian times, various portable extinguishing devices were marketed, notably the ‘fire grenade’, a chemical extinguishant contained in a glass vessel, which was thrown onto a fire. Other inventions followed such as the bucket pump, chemical extincteur (generally soda-acid) and sand or dry powder canisters.

The two-gallon (9-litre) soda-acid represented the most common type of British extinguisher for many years and was found in many guises – conical, cylindrical, pump-type, ‘turnover,’ hammer-operated and so on. It has been generally superseded by the water (gas cartridge) type, expelled by carbon dioxide.

Newer hazards such as the motor car, led to the introduction of foam and carbon dioxide extinguishers. Another once-common type of extinguisher was the vapourising liquid, the most familiar application of which being the one-quart (1.1lites) pump-type carbon tetrachloride (CTC) extinguisher, widely used in road transport. Unfortunately these types of appliance had harmful constituents such as chlorine and bromine compounds.

A later innovation was dry powder, widely used as an all-purpose medium because of all-round capability and safety near to electrical hazards. Another development was halon chemicals such as BCF, once widely used to protect computers and high-value equipment. However these are no longer used in the UK and Europe because of their toxic nature and risk of environmental harm.

More recent developments have included ‘fast-knock-down dry powders’ such as Purple-K and Monnex, anti-corrosion features such as polythene linings for water extinguishers and the widespread use of light water foam (AFFF).

Modern extinguishers are highly efficient and are designed to precise British and European specifications, including stringent performance criteria.




Manual fire engines can be traced back to the second century BC when an Alexandrian engineer named Ctesibius invented the first force pump. Contemporary descriptions of this apparatus show the valves and cylinders were made of brass and the pistons were packed with strips of unshorn sheep-skin. Ctesibius’ engine was even fitted with an air vessel (in which air was repeatedly compressed and decompressed to even out the flow). This is surprising as most people think this was invented much later.

The Romans used a similar design for their ‘siphos’ pumps, operated by the Corps of Vigiles or military firemen. Smaller hand ‘squirts’ using the same force pump principles were also used. It is known that such ‘squirts’ were used in this country in the 16th and 17th Centuries.

In the 1500s and 1600s, a number of primitive fire pumps began to appear in Europe.

From the first quarter of the 17th Century, several Englishmen were producing basic fire pumps. The first patent was granted to Roger James in 1625. The Great Fire of London in 1666 inspired British engineers, and the production of manual engines speeded up after this date.

At this time Dutch engines began to be imported. These engines followed the design of Van der Heijden, and were mounted on sledges, rather than wheels.

In 1721 there was a big change in the design of fire pumps. Richard Newsham, a pearl button maker of London, patented a completely different design. His engine improved several times over the next four years, with many radical changes. The air vessel was re-introduced to improve flow and a lower centre-of-gravity made for greater stability. The operating handles were mounted on the sides (instead of at the front and back as previously) with foot treadles for additional power. An ingenious chain link motion gave much improved mechanical efficiency. Despite some competition, Newsham was the main manufacturer for several years. In 1731 he supplied the first fire engines to the City of New York.

Most of these early manual fire pumps including Newsham’s were fitted with long copper branchpipes so that a jet of water could be placed directly onto a fire from the engine. Although, in 1672, Van der Heijden had had the idea to attach a leather delivery hose, which would allow fire fighters to take the water inside a building and so be able to attack it more effectively, it was not used in Britain until about 100 years later.

Following on from Newsham, manual fire engines slowly improved through the 18th and 19th centuries. They became larger, horse-drawn, and fitted with folding handles to reduce their size. The old ‘Bedposter’ design was gradually phased out in favour of a more streamlined carriage-like appearance. Leather valves gave way to metal as did much of the wooden undercarriage. Treadles and chain motions were replaced by improved mechanics.

Although the main British manufacturers such as Newsham, Rowntree, Tilley, Merryweather and Shand Mason were all London-based, there were many examples of locally built manuals all over the country. In Manchester, Henry Hollins and John Barton both made large horse-drawn models in the 1820s and 1830s. Other local suppliers included J. & J. Hall of Oldham, William Rose and his son Thomas of Salford. All of the designs were similar.

By the late 19th Century the typical manual operated by most fire brigades was a two horse-drawn machine with twin 175mm diameter pump cylinders, delivering about 585 litres of water per minute. It had folding handles worked by about 30 men and weighed a little over one ton plus its six-man crew. This brigade size was considered by Supt. James Braidwood of the London Fire Brigade Establishment to be as much as could be managed by a pair of fast horses under a distance of six miles.

There were still many variations on the theme. Small manual fire pumps, either hand or single horse-drawn often served in more remote areas or in estate fire brigades. There were special applications such as ‘metallic’ engines for export to countries with hot climates and destructive insects, also manuals mounted on rail trucks or fire-floats.

Endless combinations of specification and equipment were offered by the manufacturers to suit individual requirements with English-made fire engines being exported all over the world.

Due to their relatively simple engineering, coupled with very high standards of workmanship and materials, a great many manual fire pumps have survived to the present day. A number of examples by both large and small manufacturers can be seen in the Museum.


The first British fire brigade to buy a motorised fire appliance was Eccles, in September 1901. Based on a locally built 7 horse power Protector chassis, the 14 miles per hour tender carried five men and equipment, but did not carry water or a fire pump. It cost £180 but it wasn’t very successful. At about the same time Liverpool experimented with a similar Daimler tender, but again this was not a success.



Two years later Tottenham Fire Brigade took delivery of the first motor escape carrier, built by Merryweather and Sons. Water was supplied through a 56 metre hose from a 60 gallon ‘chemical engine’ under the seat which operated on the same principle as a soda acid fire extinguisher.

By 1904 Merryweather’s had patented their ‘Hatfield’ three throw reciprocating fire pump, mechanically driven from a vehicle’s own road engine and so the first true motor ‘fire engine’.

The Hatfield and other similar positive displacement pumps operated by means of cylinders in the same way as the old manual and steam engines, having all the same disadvantages such as poor power-to weight ratio and the need for an air vessel to smooth out the water flow. A major development came in 1908 with the invention of the turbine (or centrifugal) pump, employing an impeller in a circular pump casing, as on the modern fire appliance. The Hatfield reciprocating pump however was popular until the 1930s.

All the major British manufacturers began to produce motors from about the same time: Merryweather of London (1903), John Morris of Salford (1904), Dennis Bros of Guildford (1908) and Leyland of Lancashire (1909) remained in fierce competition until the second world war, with British fire engines being exported to all parts of the globe.

Meanwhile motorised ‘special appliances’ began to appear in the 1920s, particularly the turntable ladder and the emergency tender, the latter originally designed to provide breathing apparatus and electrical lighting equipment.

Before World War 2, motor pumps were of a similar design having box-like bodywork almost identical to the horse-drawn machines they replaced. This became known as the ‘Braidwood’ style in honour of the renowned Edinburgh and London fire chief, James Braidwood (although he died in 1886 almost 50 years before the first motor fire pumps were introduced.) This design could be very uncomfortable for the crew - especially in winter and was also dangerous for the men who had to dress whilst clinging to the appliance.

From the 1930s attempts were made to improve safety on motor fire engines. The first totally-enclosed ‘limousine’ appliance was built in 1931 and had a van-type body with single rear entrance. Other safety layouts included ‘transverse’ seating (two forward-facing rows of open seats) and ‘New World’ (inward-facing seats inside a rear-entrance open-top body) though the traditional Braidwood was still being supplied up until the early 1950s. Pneumatic tyres were fitted from around 1930.

During the Second World War large numbers of utility-design appliances on various commercial chassis such as Austin, Bedford or Dodge were produced for the National Fire Service. These grey-painted machines carried heavy pumps, portable dams or wheeled escapes and were extremely basic vehicles.

After the War, manufacturers began to build modern enclosed fire appliances which had crew safety features, larger water tanks up to 400 gallons (1800 litres) and more powerful pumps up to 1000 gallons per minute (gpm) (4000 litres per minute). Apart from Dennis who continued to build complete appliances until the 1990s, most manufacturers now used commercial chassis such as petrol-engined Bedford and Commers or diesel powered AEC. Leyland disappeared from the post-war scene until 1958 when they introduced the concept ‘Firemaster’ chassis, designed in conjunction with Manchester Fire Brigade. Only ten of these engines were built.

Since the 1960s fire appliances have become more functional in design but with increasing sophistication. Fire appliances carry a lot of equipment, including crash-rescue and chemical-protection apparatus; several different ladders are usually fitted and separate high pressure hose reel pumps are provided. Other innovations, reflecting 21st century problems, include centrally-locked equipment compartments and closed-circuit television for greater security.

Crew safety is another important consideration, so appliances now have strengthened steel cabs and high-visibility markings. Recently the most significant change has been the greater use of foreign chassis such as Volvo and Mercedes, though generally still with home-built bodywork.


For a long time fire protection and insurance experts have understood the benefit of having a ready supply of fire fighting water installed in a building to stop fire as soon as it starts. One of the simplest ‘sprinkler’ systems was water jets along the ceiling. This system was installed at Nine Elms Railway Works, London, as early 1797, and in 1812 Sir William Congreve patented the first ‘sprinkler’ device, consisting of pipes with holes in which were controlled by external valves.

In 1864, Major A.S. Harrison invented an ‘automatic’ sprinkler head, but this was never marketed. Henry Parmelee invented the first commercially-developed system. This sprinkler system appeared ten years later in the U.S.A. By the early 1880’s such systems were being installed in Britain, one of the first being at John Stones and Co. Cotton Mill, Astley Bridge, Bolton in 1882.

Parmelee sprinklers became very popular. Frederick Grinnel of Providence, RI, U.S.A., created a valve type system which is similar to the sprinkler systems we use today.

Modern sprinklers are completely automatic and very sophisticated so that they can cope with complicated demands. Sprinkler systems can be found in shops, factories and storage buildings as well as a variety of outdoor and marine applications.

The design and installation of sprinklers is strictly controlled by British Standards and by the Loss Prevention Council (formerly the Fire Offices Committee (FOC)), with generous insurance discounts allowed for properly installed systems. Around 1899, the FOC started to test sprinklers in Brown Street, Manchester using a gas-heated oven. Water distribution tests were carried out in St. Ann’s Street. An improved testing station, with facilities for valve-group trials, was opened in 1905 at East Stanley Street, Salford, but all test facilities were later transferred to Elstree.


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.




The earliest municipal fire services did not think it was a priority to rescue people trapped in fires. It wasn’t a realistic possibility in most cases with the available equipment and slow response times. Ladders provided by parish and town councils were only intended to reach burning roofs, etc and were rarely easily available.

By 1836 the Society for the Protection of Life from Fire had been formed in London, with the objective of placing fire escape ladders around London to save lives. These strategically-placed escapes, manned by ‘conductors’, were not taken over by the fire brigade until 1867. In the late 19th Century, ‘street escapes’ standing on busy streets, were a common sight in other large towns.

The design of escape used by the Society had been patented by Abraham Wivell in 1837. A rigid main ladder, approximately 35ft (10m) in length and mounted on a sprung carriage, was fitted with a 20ft (6m) ‘fly’ ladder fixed near to the top. This could be swung out to give a total height of about 45ft (13m). A third section could be added, enabling a reach of about 60ft (18m). Although quite dangerous, these ‘escapes’ saved many lives.

When the telephone and associated overhead cables had been invented, the upright escapes gave way to telescopic designs manoeuvred horizontally on a carriage. When needed, they were swung upright and extended by handles. These ladders were frequently mounted on a hose box or a curricle and formed the usual design for later ‘street escapes’.

By the end of the 19th century, wheeled escapes had been adapted to be pulled by horses. This dramatically improved the time it took to get to a fire. Motorised appliances, first appearing in the early 1900s, were soon fitted with ‘escapes’ and the standard British ‘pump escape’ appliance was born, although it has now disappeared completely.

Escape design hasn’t changed very much. Wooden trussed construction gave way, after World War II, to all steal but the best height stayed the same at around 50ft (15M), despite some 60ft (18m) and 80ft (24m) examples between the wars.

Two of the most prolific manufacturers of wheeled escapes were William Rose (later Rose, Bray and Co.) and John Morris and Sons Ltd, both of Salford, Greater Manchester.

Although a form of small hose reel cart can be traced back to a design by Alfred Baddeley in 1837, it was in the latter half of that century that small hose carts became widely used.

Many different designs have appeared over the years, from the simple handcart to the more elaborate hose reels or curricle escapes carrying a range of equipment and hose.

There were lots of uses for these appliances. Industrial and other private fire services would frequently operate a hand hose cart where a large horse-drawn fire engine wasn’t needed; local authorities would provide them to stand alongside their larger machines or to serve the more distant suburbs where policemen often took them to fires and provided first aid. Small villages often had nothing else.

Typically the hose carts would comprise an equipment box containing standpipes, branchpipes, tools and a few lengths of hose. Alternatively the hose would be wound round the axle on a reel. Scaling ladders were frequently carried along the sides.

The workmanship was to the highest fire engine standards and an amazing number have survived.


The former Headquarters of the Manchester Fire Brigade on London Road still remains one of the city’s best-known landmarks. Chief Officer George William Parker designed the station. He drew his first sketches in 1899 - on his shirt cuff. He had a reputation for fire station design having previously built new headquarters at both Bootle and Belfast.

Following a design competition, Parker’s rough plans were transformed by a specially-created team of Manchester architects, Messrs Woodhouse, Willoughby and Langham, and such was the scale and quality of the final scheme that, before the first brick was even laid, the building was being described as ‘the finest fire station in this round world’.

The completed station, built of brick, steel and concrete and faced with terracotta in neo-classical style, was opened on 27th September 1906. The main contractor was Gerrard and Sons of Swinton. The station was home to:

  • a seven-bay chief fire station and all facilities

  • a police station

  • an ambulance station

  • a Coroner’s court

  • a gas meter testing department

  • the Chief and Second officers, thirty two married and six single firemen all of whom lived there. (The station was home to the families of the married firemen)

  • eight fire engines

  • thirteen horses.

There was also provision for future motor fire engines and a 200-box street fire alarm system.

The completed scheme cost £142,000, considered by some to be extravagant in 1906.

The accommodation was arranged on four storeys, the top three for firemen’s quarters. Sliding poles connected with the engine house below. A section of one pole is in the Museum’s Victorian fire station. The Museum also has one of the unique curved pole-drop doors from the station, a ‘MFB’ inscribed doormat and a control switch for the Musgrave’s patent fresh air ventilation system. The ventilation system was designed to stop unpleasant smells from the horses reaching the flats above.

GMC Fire Service closed the fire station in 1986. Since then the Grade II listed building has been bought and there have been several plans to redevelop it but as yet none has been put into action.

Activities at Greater Manchester Fire Service Museum