Research - Manual Fire Pumps

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.

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