River Wissey Lovell Fuller


September 2002

A brief history of this "natural element", and the measures used to counter it

Fire has been a great friend to mankind, it has enabled him to keep warm in inhospitable climates and thereby permitted the colonisation of parts of the world that would not otherwise have been accessible. Even more importantly in recent times it has provided the power that has enabled modern civilisation to develop. From ships to aeroplanes, cars to lorries and buses to trains, fire has been the basic energy source. With the exception of the contribution from nuclear energy and the meagre contribution from renewable sources, fire is the power behind electricity generation. The heating and lighting of our homes, our washing machines and televisions, even our computers, are driven indirectly by fire.

For all its beneficial capabilities however, fire has to be treated with the utmost respect, it can be terribly destructive of course, and it is the early attempts to deal with that destructive power that I am concerned with here. Water was seen as the obvious antidote to fire and quenching a fire by throwing buckets of water on it was the natural and fairly effective way of dealing with it, but the limitations of this technique were obvious. The first known water pump for fire fighting was invented by a Greek in Egypt 2300 years ago. This manually operated device had two brass cylinders with pistons using unshorn sheepskin for seals. It did not have a hose but had rigid pipes with, I believe, a swivel nozzle.

Just to digress for a moment, at about the same time Hero, a Greek, invented a steam turbine. It seems as though the enormous potential of this device for harnessing the power of fire was completely missed and the only recorded use made of it that I am aware of was to raise heavy temple doors. I have always regarded this as one of the most astonishing facts in history, had that potential been realised the last 2000 years could have been very different.

The Romans had force pumps and I understand that there is an example in the British Museum. Despite the image that one has of ancient Rome with its magnificent stone buildings, most of the population lived in wooden houses closely packed together and Rome was ravaged by fire on numerous occasions. Because of this they established a fire service the 'Corps of Vigiles' whose members received training in fire fighting. They were organised in companies under the command of 'siphonarias'. Their success in dealing with a major outbreak was evidently somewhat limited as in AD64 Rome burned for three days and nights.

Organised fire fighting and the use of pumps seems to have died with the Romans. There are records of London being devastated by fire in AD 798 and in 982 when the only tools for fire fighting were buckets and hooks, the latter to remove burning thatch. The Normans attempted to introduce legislation to minimise fire losses. This required all domestic fires to be extinguished at sunset. The associated expression 'couvre feu' was the origin of the word curfew. Despite the density of the housing in towns and the continued use of timber and thatch as the main building materials, fire fighting methods remained unaltered for centuries. Not until the sixteenth century is there any record of the reintroduction of any device to assist in getting water nearer to the seat of the fire, when the Portugese were known to have used a large syringe, which required three men to operate. Also at around that time the Germans used a similar device which was mounted on wheels, and, over the next hundred years or so a variety of pumps and syringes appeared.

At the same time London was expanding rapidly with closely built wooden buildings. James I expressed concern at the fire risk, likening London to Rome, he urged the greater use of stone and brick as building materials. The Great Fire of London justified his concerns when the town burned for three days and nights and 436 acres of closely packed buildings were destroyed. Fire breaks created by destroying houses using explosives finally helped to stop the spread. After the fire, new building codes were introduced, it seems they had 'building regs' even in those days. New rules were introduced to help prevent a similar catastrophe, London was divided into four quarters and each quarter was required to have 800 buckets, 50 ladders (12 to 42 feet long), 24 bucket sledges, and 40 shovels. In addition each of the 12 Livery companies were required to provide a pump on wheels, 30 buckets, 2 squirts and 3 ladders. They also appointed 'sentinels' as fire watchers situated in high places. These sentinels sounded a trumpet if they spotted a fire and pointed a red flag in the direction of the fire. They were also required to play a flageolet at two-hourly intervals to show that they were awake. Spotting a fire when there was so much smoke from household fires could not have been easy. Civic fire services were also introduced at about this time and the first recorded fire insurance scheme was started in 1667. Despite these new measures 600 houses were burned down in Southwark in 1676 and over a thousand in Wapping in 1682. Subsequently the enthusiasm for a civic fire service waned and the insurance companies formed their own brigades.

From that time on fire fighting methods and equipment slowly began to improve. Pumps, although crude, became more numerous, but all used a swivel nozzle, or 'goose neck', requiring the pump to get uncomfortably close to the fire. The introduction of the hose is attributed to the superintendent of the Amsterdam Fire Brigade, he had hose pipes made in 50ft sections constructed in leather with brass connections. Suction pipes were reinforced with wire which enabled the pump to be sited at a distance from a water source. William of Orange introduced Dutch pumps and hoses to England and the English improved on them to become world leaders in the design and manufacture of fire fighting equipment, although it remained rather crude. Some water companies were in existence in the early eighteenth century, supplying water through rigid pipes, and fire hydrants were first introduced at that time.

The 18th century Mk V Newsham 'fire engine', a manually operated pump mounted on wheels, used air bottles in the delivery line to smooth the flow and could deliver a continuous stream of 160 gallons/min which could reach a height of 165ft. It was operated by a team of twenty men. Incredibly, however, it was mounted on a chassis with rigid axles so that the heavy pump had to be pulled sideways to negotiate a corner and was provided with handles for the purpose. The London Fire Engine Establishment was formed in the early 19th century by uniting the insurance company brigades. There were 19 stations and 80 full-time firemen supported by part-timers. Full-time firemen were required to be within the station building for 164hours a week, which was rather like being on board ship. Firemen were exempt from naval service, however, and could not be enrolled by the press gangs that roamed London at that time.

Steam driven pumps arrived in the early 19th century, although London was slow to adopt them except for their fire float on the river. Famous names like Merryweather and Shand Mason were producing equipment then and development became steady and progressive. Petrol driven vehicles, with steam pumps that were kept warm in the station with gas burners, were seen early in the 20th century, it was then that the first turntable ladder appeared also and centrifugal pumps began to replace the positive displacement type.

Looking back it is surprising to me that so little progress was made over almost 2000years. A statement that applies not only applies to fire fighting but the development of science and engineering in general, which was extremely slow after the Greeks and the Romans. How much of that was due to the power of the Church is a matter for conjecture, certainly the Church had strong views on what it considered to be the natural order, the views of Copernicus were regarded as heresy and Galileo was imprisoned for daring to suggest that the Earth orbited the Sun.

Throughout the 20th century, however, as in everything else, there were big advances in fire fighting equipment and techniques. There are those in "The Pump" readership who could tell us much about modern equipment and of their experience in fighting fires, hopefully they might be encouraged to do so.

Ron Watts

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