An 18th-century Domestic Fire Engine


The picture above shows the 18th-century Newsham domestic fire engine which today stands in a corridor at Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk (NT). Fire was a constant threat in Georgian mansions, especially given the number of candles, the flammable fabrics of curtains and wall-hangings, and — above all — the many chimneys and fireplaces. Most homeowners lived in constant fear of a breakout and took elaborate precautions against it. If the house did catch fire, it was up to the family and household servants to tackle it.

Felbrigg Hall still has a long line of 18th-century fire buckets hung on the wall as well as this fire engine — state-of-the-art at the time. The engine is mounted on wheels, so it could be dragged wherever it was needed. In use, it was able to direct a thin, continuous stream of water from a swivelling metal pipe and nozzle mounted on the top. Pumping was by hand, with two people able to stand either side and pump in time with one another, using the handles provided. It doesn’t sound too effective by modern standards, but it was a great deal better than people forming a bucket chain to throw water at the fire!

The Development of the Fire Engine

This type of engine harks back to improvements made by a Dutchman, Jan Van der Heyden, (1637–1712). Besides being a painter, draughtsman, printmaker, Mennonite and inventor, Van der Heyden made significant contributions to improving contemporary firefighting. In 1672, with his brother Nicolaes, who was a hydraulic engineer, he designed a better type of fire hose, making it of flexible leather and coupling it to another hose every 50 feet. He also improved the fire engine designs of the time, reorganised the local volunteer fire brigade in 1685 and wrote and illustrated the first firefighting manual, the Brandspuiten-boek.

Drawing on his work, moveable fire engines like this one were further developed by Richard Newsham, an eighteenth-century button-maker of London, and patented by him in 1718. His engines, like the one at Felbrigg, were designed to be pulled like a cart to the fire. They had two single-acting pumps and a water tank which formed the frame of the machine. This tank could be kept filled by hand, using buckets, or connected to a hose from a suitable water-source, such as a pond or stream. They were the first fire engines able to deliver a continuous stream of water and direct it at a fire.

In literature advertising his engines in 1728, Newsham described his invention as:

“The most useful and convenient engines for quenching fires, which carry a constant stream with great force, and yet, at pleasure, will water gardens like falling rain.”

Newsham’s company went on to build the vast majority of English fire engines during the 18th century. They were also popular in the American colonies. Newsham had the foresight to publicise his designs there as well, boasting that his engines were so popular in Britain even King George II had ordered one to protect his palace. The city of New York bought a Newsham engine in 1731. After the Capitol at Williamsburg, Virginia, had been threatened by fire in 1754, the Council of the colony directed:

“. . . that the Receiver General send to London for a Fire Engine and Four Dozen of Leatheren [sic] Buckets for the use of the Capitol.”

The chosen machine, Richard Newsham’s “new water engine for quenching and extinguishing fires”, is still on display at Colonial Williamsburg, I believe. Over the following years, many American cities imported Newsham engines for their fire companies.

When Newsham died in 1743, he passed his company to his son, Lawrence. After Lawrence’s death, his wife took over and joined forces with her cousin George Ragg. So durable were these machines that Newsham and Ragg pumps were still in use in the late 1930s!

How It Works

The smaller pumps were worked by four men. Up to twelve were needed for the largest versions. Those pumping raised and lowered long handles, called ‘brakes’, to either side of the chassis. To increase the power of the jet, in some models more men operated foot-treadles at the corners. Water was usually provided by a bucket brigade, who emptied water into the hopper at the engine’s rear (hence the long row of buckets hung on the wall above the engine at Felbrigg). Some engines (again like Felbrigg’s) came with a suction fitting, which could draw water directly from a pond, river or any similar body of water.

The Felbrigg engine uses a twin-cylinder, single-acting pump equipped with an air chamber. Because truly reliable hoses were unavailable in the 18th century, most Newsham engines, like the one at Felbrigg, had a metal spout to direct the water spray. An iron lever at the front of the machine allowed the operator to switch the pump between using the integral tank and a suction hose attached to a covered nozzle underneath the handle — but not both at the same time. The square iron brackets on the sides of the tank were for wooden rods to lift the engine over obstacles or help steer it, since the iron wheels are fixed and facing in a straight line.

Other surviving Newsham Engines

What is reputed to be the oldest surviving fire engine in the UK — with a design quite similar to Felbrigg’s, but rather more ornate — was purchased by the Corporation of St Albans in 1733. They were directed to buy “one large pump and one small” at a total cost of £40 (around £75,000 to 80,000 today). The surviving machine later saw service in the house of Alderman Francis Nichol, who died in 1778. By 1832, it was in use in a brewery and was taken to tackle a fire in Hatfield House in that year. Finally, it was presented to the local fire brigade in 1903 and kept at St Albans Fire Station, until it was sold and restored privately in 1963.

The South Molton and District Museum in Devon has a much larger version of an engine of Felbrigg’s type, this one pumped by six or eight men, which was bought for £46 (£80,000 – 90,000) in 1736. It remained in use in the town until 1886. Bray, in Berkshire, has a horse-drawn, ten-man Newsham Fire Engine, which was donated to the parish in 1737 by the Right Honourable Lady Anne Coleraine of Canon Hill. It is said to be able to discharge 773 litres (170 gallons) of water a minute over a distance of 38 metres (41 yards). That’s no mean jet of water, though how long the poor men could keep pumping at that rate is anyone’s guess! It was kept in St Michael’s Church at Bray for more than 200 years and was used to protect the whole parish.


About William Savage

Author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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4 Responses to An 18th-century Domestic Fire Engine

  1. artandarchitecturemainly says:

    If a house or shop wasn’t insured with the particular fire brigade, the fire brigade wouldn’t respond to a cry for help. Good on Newsham for developing a local alternative to fighting at least smaller fires, if the professionals didn’t arrive.


    • The fire brigades in major cities were run by the insurance companies, I believe, and paid for from premiums. Hence the unwillingness to tackle fires in uninsured premises, or those covered by rival companies. Many old buildings today still carry plaques proving which company covered them. Out in rural areas, you were always on your own — unless the parish had invested in one of Newsham’s engines.


  2. noelleg44 says:

    Fascinating! I have seen pictures of the manned pumping fire engines from NYC and Chicago. Those guys would have had to be mighty strong!


  3. Fiona Ingram says:

    Many thanks for this interesting article!

    Liked by 1 person

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