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C0811 The Old Town Fire Engine, built in 1734

This photograph shows the old Dartmouth fire engine, a Newsham Engine. It's no toy, but the picture looks like one. It was built in 1734 and used elsewhere first, bought second hand for £55 in 1872, quite an enormous sum of money, and was then still the only fire engine available in 1906!

With the narrow streets and tall buildings of Dartmouth that's more than a little scary! How could the water pressure created by manpower ever put out a fire on the upper storeys?

The engine stood, preserved, in the ambulatory of St Saviours Church until 1 February 2012, when it was sent on indefinite loan to join other historic fire artefacts. As a side note, this units is a pump. Modern expectation is that a Fire 'Engine' is a self powered unit that drives to the fire. One might thus expect this to be called a 'fire pump', but the word 'engine' is a wider term. In the parlance of the day, this was an engine.

From an enthusiast web site:

This unusual fire engine is located in the ambulatory of St Saviour's Church in the centre of Dartmouth.

The old fire engine belongs to the town of Dartmouth and to the church. It was made in 1743 (sic) and was originally store in the South Porch. It attended its last shout in 1906. the engine was called out on this occasion to fight a fire in a local paint works. When it arrived at the scene of the fire it was found that the leather hosepipes had rotted and another fire engine from the nearby Britannia Royal Naval College was called out.

From the minutes of Dartmouth Town Council, meeting held on 6 February 2012 (word document):

A letter from The Parish of Dartmouth re Newsham Fire Engine 1734. This had been in the church for some time but more space was required, and therefore it had been proposed to relocate it to the West Country Fire Heritage Museum on loan. The sister engine was donated to the Science Museum by the Town Council many years ago.

From the parish office of St Saviours Church:

It has been lent to the West Country Fire Heritage Museum on indefinite loan. It took 6 strong men to move the pump and it requires a considerable amount of restoration work, which the Museum will undertake.

[when collected, the paperwork] notes that the 'fire pump is minus gooseneck and branchpipe" [...] It is thought the pipework was taken and melted down as part of the war effort.

On 31 May 2012 we received a wealth of information about the move from Dartmouth and the engine's new home. We're grateful to Finbar Nolan, co-ordinator of the yet to be housed West of England Fire Heritage Museum for all his hard work in sending us the information. The story continues below the picture.

Dartmouth's old fire engine, a Newsham Engine, built in 1734, bought as one of a pair in 1872 for £55, and in use until 1906, Displayed in St Saviour's Church until 2012 and about to be housed at The West of England Fire Heritage Museum.

The Newsham Engine had a plaque in the church explaining what it was and also how modern fire engines are derived from it:

History of Dartmouth's Newsham Fire Engine
[Picture © The West of England Fire Heritage Museum]

Newsham's Fire Engine 1734

Richard Newsham of London, in 1725 patented "a new water engine for quenching and extinguishing fires". Newsham's engine, while it probably owed much to the earlier Dutch engines, was a great improvement on previous machines. The best modern manual fire engines are in their mechanism very similar to Newsham's engines of 200 years ago.

The example shown, which is dated 1734, has two single-acting pump barrels 4.5in diameter, 8.5in stroke, and a tall air vessel to secure a continuous discharge. The pumps are placed in a tank which forms the frame of the machine, and the water to be pumped was brought in buckets and emptied into the tank, but the suction to the pumps is provided with a two-way cock, by which the pumps can be arranged to draw either from the tank or through a length of suction hose. Leather hose for conveying water to and from fire and other engines was patented in 1676, and Newsham used it, connecting his suction hose at the base and the delivery at the top of the casing enclosing the air vessel. The pumps were worked by men at the long cross handles, but in addition two treadle boards were provided near the centre of the machine, upon which several more men stood and assisted the pumping by throwing their weight on the descending treadle.

These engines were generally adopted and fully appreciated, as is shown by the following extract from a circular of the time.

"Richard Newsham, of Cloth Fair, London, Engineer, makes the most useful, substantial, and convenient engines for quenching fires, which carries continual streams with great force. He hath played several of them before His Majesty (George 1st) and the nobility at St James' with so general an approbation, that the largest was at the same time ordered for the use of that Royal Palace. It was remarked of Newsham by a writer in the London Magazine for 1752, that in his engines he gave a nobler present to his country than if he had added provinces to Great Britain. Desaguliers considered that no part of the engines could be altered for the better, and the general feeling was greatly in favour of them, they being purchased by the various parishes throughout the country, and he received numerous (sic) for them from all parts of the world."

This is a copy of a Science Museum leaflet on a sister engine which was presented to the Museum by the Town Council of Dartmouth.

Now we come to the story of the removal from the church on 1 February 2012. The West of England Fire Heritage Museum sent us a photographic story board of the process

Dartmouth's Newsham Fire Engine is a large and heavy item, and removing it from St Savior's Church taxed several strong men
[Picture © The West of England Fire Heritage Museum]

Dartmouth's Newsham Fire Engine is a large and heavy item, and removing it from St Savior's Church taxed several strong men. Where to start was the question of the day!

Taking the door off! Not with dynamite as in The Italian Job, but with a screwdriver and consummate care allowed Dartmouth's Newsham Fire Engine to be extracted
[Picture © The West of England Fire Heritage Museum]

They started by taking the door off! Not with dynamite as in The Italian Job, but with a screwdriver and consummate care.

The door had to go back on, of course, and Dartmouth's Newsham Fire Engine was ready to be taken to the truck
[Picture © The West of England Fire Heritage Museum]

Of course, then the door had to go back on. The picture shows far more of the remarkably well preserved Newsham Fire Engine, though, as the parish office says above, there is considerable restoration work to be done.

Then it was a case of tying Dartmouth's Newsham Fire Engine down to the truck for the journey to the storage units to await the opening of the new museum
[Picture © The West of England Fire Heritage Museum]

Then it was a case of tying Dartmouth's Newsham Fire Engine down to the truck for the journey to the storage units to await the opening of the new museum.

Home, James, and don't spare the horses! Dartmouth's Newsham Fire Engine is ready to head for its temporary home to await the opening of the new museum
[Picture © The West of England Fire Heritage Museum]

Home, James, and don't spare the horses! Dartmouth's Newsham Fire Engine is ready to head for its temporary home to await the opening of the new museum.

We thought you'd like to know more about the museum it's on loan to, as well They've very kindly given us this material on 31 May 2012, and we're proud to give them space in our site:

Brief history of Devonport Naval Base historic fire station and fire museum and proposed new location.

Devonport dockyard has a long and eventful history; the first dock was built in 1689 and was known as No 1 Dock, which is still in use today at South Yard.

By 1771 the rapidly expanding dockyard covered 72 acres and rigging houses, storehouses, sail lofts and roperies had been built, as well as two more docks and another slipway.

Fire fighting at that time was in the hands of the dockyard wardens and artisans, who with crude manual fire engines, did what they could at the outbreak of fire.

Many small fires did occur within the dockyard but in September 1840 a very serious conflagration took place in the Royal dockyard which highlighted the fact that better fire fighting provisions were needed if a similar disaster was to be averted.

The Admiralty introduced the Dockyard Police Force in 1833 but that did not include the yard at Plymouth until May 1834. As well as upholding the law they were also responsible for overseeing fire fighting within the dockyard. In 1851 a new custom built fire station was built, it overlooked the yard and was large enough to house all the manual fire engines. This building is the location of the fire museum.

In 1863 it was deemed that the Metropolitan Police were to take over Policing and firefighting in all the Royal Dockyards and they duly arrived at Devonport. One of the first things they done were to order a large steam fire engine from Merryweather & Sons. The engine was christened "The Sutherland" after the then duke of Sutherland. The Metropolitan Police fire brigade were to be of great service to the three towns of Plymouth, Devonport and Stonehouse as they often turned out to assist its neighbours in times of fire.

The Metropolitan Police remained at Devonport until 1934 when the Royal Marine Police took over sole responsibility for their duties. They vacated the station in South Yard and moved to a more central area in North Yard, beside Albert Gate.

The old 1851 station has since been used for a number of different roles, including offices and stores. In 1969 Stanley Greenwood, a long-time employee of the Naval Stores Department in the Yard managed to realise a long-cherished dream to set up a museum. The museum was opened in 1969 by Dr Basil Greenhill, director of the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. The museum grew from strength to strength but the old fire station stood idle or was used as a café by the staff of the museum.

In the year 2000 members of the Defence Fire Service in the dockyard opened a small part of the building as a fire museum. Within twelve months of its opening Finbar Nolan and the late Paul Busscher took over the day to day work of building up the artefacts and running the museum.

Finbar convinced the powers to be that the shop/café should be moved to a new location thus allowing that area to be used for more fire related artefacts.

Finbar soon recruited a small staff of dedicated members from the fire brigade to help run the museum as it was growing fast. With no budget whatsoever they transformed the place and by their skills in begging and borrowing they have built up a fine museum.

As well as hundreds of small artefacts, paintings, photographs, etc, they boast a fleet of manual and early motorised appliances.

Devonport fire museum are members of the Fire Heritage Network, which is a national organisation for fire museums around the country.

Due to defence cuts the fire station museum was given notice to close and the search for a new home commenced. We are very fortunate in that a close friend of our museum offered to store all of our artefacts in an ideal environment at his home near Exeter. In the meantime the fire museum personnel decided to form a charitable trust in order to safeguard the future of all the collection.

The West of England Fire Heritage Museum - a Museum On The Move
A sad but useful day for the museum as it packs up and moves to storage prior to the new name and new premises. Is that another Newsham Engine in the top right hand picture? This one has steerable front wheels and is a later model than the Dartmouth unit if so. [Picture © The West of England Fire Heritage Museum]

A local businessman, along with key members of his family has offered us a new build facility at Greendale Park near Exeter. Following much discussion and meetings we are now at a stage where planning permission is being sought to enable this project to get off the ground.

The new museum will be called 'The West of England Fire Heritage Museum' in honour of one of the first Insurance company fire brigades which maintained active fire brigades throughout the West country. The headquarters of the West of England Fire Office was in Exeter from 1808 until 1889 when all their fire equipment was donated to the newly formed Exeter Fire Brigade.

The aim of the new museum will be to preserve our fire history and to educate people in not only the history of firefighting but in fire safety within the home.

As and when the new museum is open to the public. its opening will be advertised throughout Devon and Somerset and we would love to welcome people and organisations to this new thrilling attraction.

If anyone has any old fire memorabilia or old photographs and would be happy to donate them to the fire museum then please contact Finbar Nolan (museum co-ordinator) on 01752 781801 or 01781 7587024.

We've found the sister engine in the Science Museum. It's in the large objects repository, catalogued as Newsham's patent manual fire engine, 1721-5 (Inventory number 1875-5) and appointments need to be made to see it with their Wroughton site. Their picture shows it to be in far better condition that the one that's just left St Saviour's Church. We're asking them for formal permission to put the details they've sent us on the site here. Watch this space!


The main picture is part of the picture archive of Dartmouth Museum and is represented in restricted quality and size. The full picture can be viewed when you visit the Museum. The code in the heading is the catalogue code in our archives. Many of the pictures in the Dartmouth Museum Archives are available for purchase.

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