Inside the Collection

Fire fighting with an 1895 steam fire engine

Steam fire engine pumper made by Merryweather and Sons, Greenwich, England, 1895
Steam fire engine pumper made by Merryweather and Sons, Greenwich, England, 1895. Powerhouse Museum collection. B1406.

Steam has been used to power engines used in industry, agriculture, mining and even for fighting fires. The Museum has a horse-drawn steam fire engine built by the English firm of Merryweather and Sons of Greenwich, in 1895. It spent all its working life in western NSW at the Broken Hill Central Fire Station in Blende Street, from about 1897.

Before the first motorised fire engines took to the streets in the early years of the twentieth century, the most efficient fire appliance was the horse-drawn steam fire engine or pumper. This comprised a vertical water tube boiler providing steam for a pumping engine to force water through the hoses onto a fire. All this machinery was mounted on a horse-drawn, sprung carriage with four, steel-tyred wooden wheels.

The steam fire engine was invented in about 1829 by John Braithwaite, partner in the engineering firm of Braithwaite and Ericsson of London. At first the steamers were not popular due to their lack of power, and the first British fire appliance maker to successfully manufacture one was Shand Mason and Co. in 1858. Development occurred quickly and engines were devised which could pump at 200 strokes per minute, more quickly than the fastest manual engine could be pumped. The era of the horse-drawn steam fire engine lasted about 40 years, developing compact, lightweight equipment and boilers that could steam quickly.

The pumper racing to a fire at Broken Hill.
The pumper racing to a fire at Broken Hill.

The Broken Hill fire station, where this pumper worked, was connected by telephone in 1907. After the alarm was raised bells were set off all over the station, including the stables. This alerted the horses and the doors to their stalls automatically opened to let them out. They lined up under their hanging collars, which the firemen lowered and clasped in place before attaching the reins. The driver mounted the seat of the spumper and the firemen quickly boarded. The front folding doors were opened and the horses bounded out of the station, pulling the fire engine. Contemporary newspaper accounts advise that the two horses which pulled the steamer were called Prince and Kate.

The Merryweather steam fire engine was in service at Broken Hill until September 1921 and was superseded by two motorised fire engines. The following year the steamer was purchased by a Mr Leckie and driven 185 km east from Broken Hill to the town of Wilcannia, an old river port on the Darling River. He had intended to use the steamer to pump water on his property, but it never left Wilcannia and instead took part in local street processions.

In June 1958 the steamer was found in an old Wilcannia woolstore. It was donated to the Museum and restored to steaming condition in 1982 by the apprentices of the Garden Island Dockyard. If you want to see the Merryweather steam fire engine it’s currently on display in in the Museum’s Steam Revolution exhibition.

Builder: Merryweather and Sons, Greenwich, England
Date: 1895
No.: 1378
Engine: single cylinder vertical
Bore: 6.9 inches
Stroke: 5 inches
Pump capacity: 200 gallons per minute
Steam pressure: 100 psi

Written by Margaret Simpson, Curator, May 2014

6 responses to “Fire fighting with an 1895 steam fire engine

  • Ray, there is a brass-clad, vertical water-tube boiler mounted at the rear of the fire engine. It was designed so that steam could be raised to a working pressure of 100 psi (689.5 kPa) in eight to ten minutes. The vertical steam engine and pump are located between the boiler and the seat for the firemen. The water pump is direct-coupled to the engine, and the water cylinder has a bore of 7 inches (17.8 cm). It comprises a single outlet connection, inlet and outlet air vessels and five pump valves, three down and two up. A more detailed description of the Museum’s pumper as well as the engine’s history and use can be found here on the Museum’s online collection:

  • I am interested in featuring the Merryweather steam engine in a magazine about vintage fire equipment. I was wondering if you would be interested in having it featured? The magazine is called, oddly enough, Vintage Fire Truck & Equipment.

  • I would like to request permission to use photo of volunteer firefighters racing down the road, for our volunteer recognition dinner. It would be mounted on the wall of the hall for one day. Do you own the photo or is there someone else to contact?

    • Hi Mary,
      Thanks for getting in touch. If you can email our Photo Library with your request, they will be able to advise on ownership and permissions for reproducing this photograph.
      Kind regards,
      Sarah Reeves, MAAS

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