17th-century fire engine restored for Great Fire of London exhibition

Restoration reveals a vehicle so heavy it would have moved painfully slowly, and only able to squirt water short distances

When the terrified shout of “fire!” was heard among the wooden houses densely packed into the streets of 17th-century London, there was no point in hoping for a speedy response. A complete restoration of a rare surviving fire engine to working order by the Museum of London has demonstrated that it was so heavy it would have been painfully slow to move it through the narrow cobbled streets. It also had such a short range that it would have had to have got dangerously close to the fire to be any use.

The engine has been restored by a specialist firm of coachbuilders, sponsored by London guilds including the Worshipful Company of Coopers whose ancestors probably built the original models. The restoration is for the museum’s major exhibition opening in July on the Great Fire of London of 1666, which ripped through the heart of the capital destroying thousands of houses and leaving hundreds of thousands of people homeless.

The engine was built in the 1670s, part of the city authorities’ efforts to ensure that such a disaster never happened again. By the time it was acquired by the museum in 1928, only the giant water barrel and part of the metal mechanism of the pump remained. The accurate restoration was possible because a vintage photograph also survived showing the engine in the 19th century, when it was still complete with its undercarriage, towbar and wheels, and the long wooden arms to operate the pump.

It took Croford Coachbuilders in Kent three months to reconstruct the missing parts using traditional techniques and materials, including elm for the hub, oak for the spokes and ash for the felloes of the wheels, with iron tyres.

The completed engine weighed more than 500kg empty, much heavier when the barrel was full of water, making it extremely difficult to manoeuvre.

Meriel Jeater, the museum’s curator, said it had been difficult for previous visitors to understand how the engine had worked when they only saw the surviving parts, but the reconstruction had also offered insights into how ineffective it was likely to have been, and how dangerous it was for the crews.

“The relatively crude pump mechanism was only able to squirt out about six pints of water over a rather short distance, so it would have been perilously close to the flames to have had any chance of putting them out.”

The engine will be on display at the exhibition “Fire! Fire!” from July.


Maev Kennedy

The GuardianTramp

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