New fire engine for Plymouth

by Doreen Mole
Published May 2012

Last year when I was sorting and cataloguing the archives at the Plymouth Chamber of Commerce, I was very intrigued by a menu for a banquet at the Guildhall, given by the Western Insurance Company to commemorate the presentation of a “Steam Fire Engine to the Town”. The banquet was held on the evening of the 29th of February 1888, the same day that the official presentation and demonstration of the new fire engine took place.

The menu cover (reproduced below by courtesy of Neill Mitchell, Chief Executive of the Plymouth Chamber of Commerce) was of pink card, die stamped with gold with such wonderful illustrations that it inspired me to research further details of the presentation, and when I found the report of the proceedings in the Western Daily Mercury of Thursday 1st March 1888, I realised by the details given that this was a fire engine of innovative design at that time, and perhaps other people might like to read about it. 

Apart from the details about the engine itself, and the Description of the testing of the equipment; the ceremony attached to the presentation, and the manner in which the report is written gives a flavour of the era, decidedly different to the style of reporting in our local paper today.


An important addition to the fire-extinguishing appliances of the Plymouth Corporation was made yesterday, when a first-class Merryweather steamer given by the Western Insurance Company was formally presented to the Mayor in Guildhall Square. The need of such an engine has been felt for a long time in Plymouth, and it is possible that the borough authorities would in the course of time have purchased one for themselves. Shortly before Christmas, however, a letter was received by the Mayor from Major Walford, secretary of the Western Insurance Company, stating that the directors were desirous of making the town a present of one of Messrs Merryweather’s steam-engines. For obvious reasons it was not possible to accept the gift off-hand; but, after due consideration, the Council decided to take advantage of the company’s generosity, and a formal resolution to that effect was adopted at a meeting held in January, when Mr Councillor A Perossi (who is chairman of the Western Insurance Company) announced that the order for the engine would be at once given to Messrs Merryweather, and that arrangements for it’s formal presentation to the town at an early date would be made forthwith. The ceremony took place yesterday in the presence of several thousand persons, by whom the trials of the engine, which took place immediately after the presentation, were watched with great interest. The attractions of the out-of-door ceremony were much increased by a competition between local fire brigades for money prizes offered by the “Western”.
The engine presented to the town yesterday is of Messrs Merryweather & Sons latest “Metropolitan” type, and is specially designed to meet the requirements of a place where firemen and all the appliances are carried upon the engine, a feature of absolute necessity for country brigades, and of great use in the case of towns. The engine is so arranged that one man, standing behind, can stand and manipulate the suction and delivery, and command it’s working parts without shifting his position, and the stoking can be done while the engine is in motion. A steel frame carries the engine, which is secured to it by belts, the whole being carried on springs and high wood spoke wheels, a secure foundation which prevents any accident from rough roads or other causes. 

The weight of boiler and engine is equally distributed upon the hind wheels. The former is of an improved design, ample space being provided over the top row of tubes to guard against damage through shortness of water in the boiler The pump is fitted with gunmetal valve seatings, and with doors for ready examination of the valves. There is only one piston rod, which carries both steam and water pistons. 

The engine carries a large complement of suction and delivery hoses and every implement used by brigade men for it’s working. Should it be considered advantageous to do so, the suction pipe of the pump can be connected direct on to the high pressure street mains, thus materially increasing it’s power, a system adopted in many places.

The engine as was demonstrated yesterday, is capable of throwing 360 gallons per minute to a height of 150 feet, but when necessary three or four jets of water may be thrown simultaneously, each of which would go over the roof of the highest building in the town. It is capable of raising 1001b of pressure of steam from cold water in six or seven minutes, when one or more jets are thrown on to a fire. It may be drawn about
the town by a few men, and to country fires by a pair of horses, the weight being about 20cwt only. 

The construction of the engine is so simple that any ordinary
fireman with a few hours instructions is able to have perfect command over the machine. To compare the performance of a steam fire engine of this type to the antiquated manual engine it may be stated that the steam fire engine indicates 37 horse power, this is equal to manual labour extended on pumping hand fire engines equal to 300 men. The steam fire engine costs only 1s 6d per hour to work it, whereas 300 pumpers would cost £15 per hour. Again, the steam fire engine takes nothing stronger than water to work it, whereas in the case of the manual engine the item of refreshment for the pumpers is always a serious consideration.

Roughly, a steam fire engine working ten hours on a fire would cost under £1 for the total time, whereas pumping by manual labour would cost no less than £150, the steamer at the same time delivering it’s water at four times the pressure of that exerted by the manual engine. The engine, again, does not necessitate a full complement of firemen to work it, as in the hands of two or three men only it can readily be got to work in a very short space of time. The cost of an equipment of such an engine as this, including a thousand feet of delivery hose and the accessories, would be between £600 and £700.

The Guildhall Square, in which yesterday’s ceremony took place, began to fill rapidly a considerable time before the hour fixed for the presentation, three o’clock. It was arranged that the steam engine, which on arriving in the town was lodged at the Royal Hotel stables, should be taken from it’s temporary quarters to the square in a procession timed to leave the Royal a few minutes before three o’clock. The Mayor and Corporation assembled in the council Chamber to await the arrival of the engine and it’s escort. Among the members of the Town Council and Borough Officials present were: – The Mayor (Mr Alderman Waring), Aldermen A S Harris and J Greenway. Councillors W H Luke, J T Bond, T Jinkin, R Woolland, W Collier James, E H James, G Browse, G R Barrett, JB Cousins, F W Harris, NBarker J Godfrey, T H Harvey, R Risdon, R T Stevens, W Bray, the Town Clerk (J Walter Wilson), the Borough Surveyor (Mr G Bellamy), the Borough Chamberlain (Mr G Davey), the Borough Medical Officer of Health (Dr Greenway), the Borough Organist (Mr John Hele), and Messrs J F Fortescue, A Hingston, J Shepherd, and W Morrish, justices of the peace.

The engine, before it’s removal from the stable yard of the Royal Hotel, was the subject of great admiration by crowds of people. The members of the fire brigades who had entered the lists for the prizes offered by the Western Insurance Company were directed to assemble in the yard, and shortly after half past two a procession was formed outside the hotel. Four brigades were represented: – The Stonehouse Fire Brigade, under Superintendent Blight and Captain Vosper, with two horse carts and eighteen men; the West of England Fire Brigade (Newton Branch), under Captain Chudleigh, with engine, hose carts, and eleven men; the Newton Fire Brigade, under Captain Dobell, with hydrants, hose carts and five men; and the Falmouth Fire Brigade, with “Fireman” engine, appliances and eighteen men under Lieut: Williams and Secretary Rogerson.

Mr Merryweather Mr Perossi and Major Walford with Mr Bazley and Mr Walling and other members of the committee, visited the yard and made arrangements for the procession, which was headed by the band of the Prince of Wales’s (2nd Devon) Rifle Volunteers, Then followed the Stonehouse Brigade and the remainder in order; the steamer, drawn by four horses with outriders, driven by Major Walford (Secretary of the Western Insurance Company), and with several uniformed officials from Messrs Merryweather’s establishment riding on the boards, came last. The route taken to the Guildhall-Square was by Lockyer Street, St Andrew’s Place, Princess Square, Westwell Street, Bedford Street and Catherine Street to the eastern entrance. The band took up its position in the centre of the square outside the Council Chamber, the brigades making their way to the other end. The steam engine, upon catching sight of which the crowd cheered, stopped on the northern side of the square under the windows of the Drake Chamber, where the horses were taken out and led away, A very large concourse of people had assembled in the square and their encroachments upon the space reserved for the afternoon’s proceedings rather impeded operations. Perfectly good order was kept however, by a large body of the borough police andfire brigade under Inspectors Hill, Price and Wood. Inspector H Hill, deputy superintendent, was in charge of the Borough Fire Brigade.


When the procession reached Guildhall Square it was with some little difficulty that way could be made through the dense crowd, but with the exercise of firmness and patience the Chief Constable and his men were soon able to arrange matters satisfactorily. The steam engine was posted a little to the north east of the centre of the square, a rectangular space in front being kept free by a body of firemen. The band of the Rifle Corps took up a position just under the balcony of the Council Chamber, where a local photographer arranged his camera for the purpose of “taking” the scene at the moment of supreme interest, while the police by dint of much effort kept open a gangway for the passage of the Mayor and Corporation from the Council Chamber From the western tower floated the banner of the Western Insurance Company, and the Royal Standard was hoisted from the staff in the green opposite. While the necessary preparations were being made the band played a selection of airs.

There was not long to wait, and by quarter past three the Mayor, in his scarlet robes and three-cornered hat, emerged from the Council Chamber, followed by the aldermen, councillors, justices, and borough officials. On arriving abreast of the engine, his Worship was received by Mr Achilles Perossi, in his capacity as chairman of the Western Insurance Company. With that gentleman were Mrs Perossi, who had consented to perform the ceremony of christening the engine after it’s presentation. There were also present with Mrs Perossi the following members of the Board of Directors:- Major Walford, secretary; Mr E Freeman, managing director; Mr St George Slight, Mr W Yeo and Mr Henderson.

The following passage is indecipherable, and the report carries on thus:

Mr Perossi, addressing the Mayor, said that as chairman of the Western Insurance Company he had great pleasure in being there on that occasion to present to the borough of Plymouth, as a free gift, the beautiful Merryweather engine which they now saw before them, an engine upon which, he thought, they might look with pride as a splendid evidence of the skill and thoroughness of British workmanship (cheers). Might that engine, whenever occasion called for it’s services, be ready to battle with the devouring elements; might it always be ready to render service in the moment of danger He was certain that under the care of his Worship and of the Corporation Brigade the engine would always be kept and worked in such a manner as would reflect honour upon the donors and receivers. It was now his duty to hand over to his Worship a letter by which, in a short deed of gift, the engine was formally conveyed to the Mayor and Corporation of the Borough of Plymouth, and he would request the Mayor to allow the engine to be formally christened (cheers). Mr Perossi then introduced to the Mayor Captain Lewis, Captain Cleaver, and Mr Merryweather.

The Mayor, in responding, said he desired on behalf of the town of Plymouth to thank Mr Perossi and the directors of the Western Insurance Company for the munificent gift they had been pleased that day to present to the town. He could assure them it would be appreciated by the people of Plymouth most thoroughly (hear, hear). No doubt such an engine was wanted in the town, and as he had said, now that the company had been so kind as to present it as a free gift, he was sure it would be appreciated very much. The Corporation of Plymouth, to whom they had entrusted the engine, would look after it as carefully as the company themselves would have looked after it if it had remained in their hands (hear, hear). He should now hand it over to Superintendent Wreford and the Fire Brigade of Plymouth in whose keeping he was quite confident it would be preserved in a state of efficiency and effectively used whenever its services were required. 

They were all familiar with the energetic manner in which Mr Wreford carried out the whole of his duties, and they might be perfectly certain that his duty with regard to the beautiful engine presented to them would be performed in the best possible way (cheers). He again thanked Mr Perossi and the directors of the Western Insurance Company for their munificent gift, and his Worship then asked Mrs Perossi to christen the engine. Cheers were given for the Mayor, and Mrs Perossi, taking a bottle of champagne, broke it upon the metal work near the stoke hole of the engine, pronouncing the following words “I hereby christen this engine The Western” Loud cheers followed the performance of the ceremony, Mr Cleaver calling for three for the Mayor and Mr Lewis for three for Madame Perossi and for the Western Insurance Company.

The directors of the company and the Mayor and Corporation then proceeded to the Council Chamber, where light refreshments were provided, and his Worship proposed in a brief speech “Prosperity to the Western Insurance Company” remarking that the town would ever remember their kindness and generosity. Major Walford shortly replied and the Mayor expressed the hope that the day was far distant when the services of this splendid engine would be required (hear, hear).


Immediately after the ceremony of christening the signal was given for lighting the engine fire. This was done at once by Captain Cleaver. Steam was raised in three minutes and a half after the torch had been applied, and in another four minutes 1001b of pressure was obtained and the whistle blown. Half a minute after, connection was established and a jet an inch and an eighth in diameter was thrown over the roof of the Guildhall. This experiment proving successful, two jets, each of a diameter of three quarters of an inch, were thrown to about the same height for several minutes, and another jet was added with very satisfactory results. The single stream was again thrown and a patent spreading jet, by which a large area could be covered by the water at the will of the firemen, was put into action. For the last test it was desired to throw a stream over the centre turret of the Guildhall, which rises to a height of about 140 or 150 feet. For this purpose the stream was directed through a nozzle an inch and an eighth in diameter, and the water was projected very high into the air. The strong wind which prevailed, however, prevented the top of the turret being reached. Some members of the Fire Brigade, tried to overcome the setback by carrying the hose to the top of the central porch of the Hall, but, working under difficulties in an inconvenient place, could not attain their object. 

The experiments concluded at half past four The engine was fed by four hoses, with a diameter of two and a half inches, which carried the water into a canvas dam, a part of the fittings of the engine. From there the water was drawn into the pump and supplied to the hoses. The experiments were superintended by Mr J Compton Merryweather, representing the firm, who was assisted by Mr James Lewis, fire assessor, of London, and Captain Cleaver, while Engineer Harper was in charge of the steamer, Mr Harper will remain in the town for some time in order to instruct the brigade in the use of the engine.


The company offered fifteen guineas in prizes for the smartest, best, and most completely equipped corps for extinguishing fire.
The competing brigades were examined at the western end of the square by three captains of the London Auxiliary Fire Brigade with very satisfactory results, although there was no time to put them through the ‘Your and two men drill” They were all found to be extremely efficient, and so nicely balanced were their merits that the judges could not decide between them. The money was therefore placed in the hands of the commanders of the different brigades, and the men dispersed soon after the completion of the engine experiments.


In the evening a banquet was given to members of the Corporation and a large number of citizens to commemorate the presentation. The banquet was held in the Guildhall, which had been effectively decorated under the supervision of …

Then followed a long list of committee members who had made the arrangements for the day, a full description of the way in which the Guildhall and the approach to it was decorated, including “handsome articles of furniture” and “a couple of handsome mantel-pieces of Devonshire marble” with reports of all the speeches and various toasts and replies that were made during and after the banquet. Reference was also made to the large number of spectators who were admitted to the balcony, and the tasteful arches of evergreens picked out with fairy lights under which the Band of the Royal Marines played throughout the evening. Even the “tastefully got-up menu cards, which bore on the front page the device of a steam fire-engine and the borough arms, embossed and gilded” are mentioned, these are the same menu cards, one of which has been preserved in the Plymouth Chamber of Commerce archives, that first drew my attention and led me to write this article.

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