Steam Fire Engine Spectacular
This year's Steam Fire Engine Spectacular weekend explored a little-known avenue of the 19th century road scene, the steam fire engine; which in England is as old as the steam railway locomotive.
In 1829, the year of the Rainhill Locomotive Trials, Messers Braithwaite and Ericsson, who were two competitors at that event, produced a steam fire engine for London. Although it was outstandingly effective at a real fire, the fire officers of the day felt it was too heavy, too slow in raising steam, and so powerful that no street water main could quench its thirst!
By 1858, the Blackfriars firm of Shand Mason had produced several steam fire engines for land and river use. Their great rivals Merryweather and Sons of Lambeth, later of Greenwich, followed suit in 1864. Britain was slow to follow America's exploitation of the steam fire engine. The great Captain Shaw, Chief Officer of London's Fire Brigade (immortalised in Gilbert and Sullivan's "Iolanthe") pioneered its use.
Shands and Merryweathers dominated the Victorian fire scene, followed by the lesser-known firm of William Rose, of Manchester. This triumvirate reigned until the motor fire engine was perfected during World War 1. Literally hundreds of steamers were made and exported all over Europe, the British Empire and Colonies, and a handful even reached Japan.
With the capability of raising steam from cold water in less than ten minutes (and they still can!), hauled by a spirited pair of "quick-hitch" harnessed horses, a steam fire engine galloping through the streets was one of the unexpected yet spectacular sights of Victorian Britain.
Locally, Ampthill, Hitchin, Luton Hoo, Potton, Sandy, Shefford and Stevenage had Shand Masons; Baldock and Biggleswade and Wrest Park, Silsoe had Merryweathers. Bedford had both makes. The weekend featured the earliest working Shand in existence as well as a Dutch product, the Bickers.
These Steamers were produced in all sizes, from the "country house" model, producing an output of 100 gallons per minute, to the "dockyard" model, being supreme at 2000 gallons per minute. They were made with single, double or treble cylinders, but the most common were the "Double Vertical" models producing 260-450 gallons per minute.
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