By: David Rilley-Harris – Curator, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History (DNMMH)


The Merryweather fire engine at the DITSONG: National Museum of Military History (DNMMH).

The DITSONG: National Museum of Military History (DNMMH) was founded in 1947. Over the next few years, the Museum received a variety of donations from the South African Defence Force (SADF). One of the more unusual donations was that of a Merryweather steam-powered fire engine. The Merryweather had been given to a British garrison in South Africa around the time of the South African War (1899-1902).


As London grew through the centuries, fire outbreaks became an increasingly serious problem. In the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, there were more than 500 major fires, each of which destroyed at least ten houses. That means that there were one or two major fires every year for three hundred years. The Industrial Revolution (1760-1840) was largely centred in Britain and made fires both more likely and more costly in lives and money. To counter the threat the government took on an increasing responsibility for firefighting. Private citizens had been expected to deal with fires on their own which had led to the formation of private companies to sell their firefighting services. These companies along with insurance companies began to exploit the public and prioritised profit over the protection of cities. The government attempted to fireproof cities by replacing thatch and wood construction materials with bricks and tiles. They also began replacing private firefighting companies with municipality owned firefighting organisations that protected everyone equally instead of only focusing on citizens who could pay for insurance and services. Despite all these efforts, the first half of the 19th century saw around 80 major fires. A major problem had been working out how to get water onto a fire efficiently. Horse-drawn carts would deliver buckets and people would form lines to the closest water source and pass filled buckets along towards the fire. Municipalities had made for more water sources throughout the cities and had built some fire hydrants, but a mobile water pumping system was needed.


In 1829, an engineer, Captain Sir Moses Merryweather, invented the steam-powered fire engine. It would become the most efficient firefighting system until the development of the combustion engine. The new fire engines became known as “Merryweathers” and the first examples were horse-drawn steam pumps with a fire hose. A boiler on the Merryweather would be heated with coal or wood generating steam pressure which was directed to the piston and cylinder pump which forced a steady stream of water through the hose from a water source or hydrant onto the fire. The first firefighting steam engine was built by Braithwaite and Ericsson of London. It produced 10 horsepower, weighed 2 286 kg, and could produce steam pressure within 15 minutes. The fire engine saw its first major fire on 5 February 1830. At the Argyll Rooms in Soho, it pumped water constantly for five hours without breaking down and was seen to pump streams of water right over the building. The pump was so strong that it drew criticism from competing manual-pump firefighting groups who said that the stream of water cold be used for nefarious purposes, foreshadowing the use of powered water hoses as a method of non-lethal crowd control.


The Merryweather Sutherland (


In 1862, three steam fire engines were demonstrated in front of crowds at the International Exhibition in Hyde Park, London. They drew enough attention from the public to become a showcase the following year at the Crystal Palace where they were presented in a three-day competitive trial. Seven British and three American steam fire engines were tested for efficiency and reliability, and it was the Merryweather Sutherland model which won the £250 prize. By this time, several companies had adopted steam fire engines and they were commonplace around the world. The most notable makers after Merryweather and Co. were Shand Mason and Rose and Co. of Salford. In 1905, the combustion engine was taking over and Merryweather and Co. released the Motor Fire King self-propelled fire engine. Some remaining steam fire engines were shipped to France during the First World War (1914-1918) where they were used to pump water out of trenches on the Western Front. Right up until the 1930s, some steam fire engines were still in use but in demonstration of their obsolescence, they were not drawn by horses but by cars and trucks. Combustion engines were also now allowing for the addition of more weight which saw the inclusion of turntable-based extendable ladders.

For over half a century, Merryweathers were exported worldwide and played a significant role in firefighting internationally. The Merryweather on display at the DNMMH had new brass fittings attached to it in 1977 and continues to be cared for by the Museum staff today.



The DNMMH Merryweather fire engine photographed on display in 1990.



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