This 17th century fire engine would have weighed half a tonne and squirted six pints of water

By Ben Miller | 21 June 2016

A major exhibition marking the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London opens this week – and one of the star exhibits will be a 17th century fire engine rebuilt to a millimetre-perfect version of its original look

A photo of a 17th century fire engine at the Museum of London
© Museum of London
A 19th century photo of the Museum of London’s fire engine, built in the city during the late 1670s, was the main evidence organisers had when they embarked on the arduous task of recreating the ancient vehicle. It has remained unrecognisable as a fire engine since being bought by the museum in 1928, with only a barrel and pump surviving.

The picture shows the engine intact, functioning with an undercarriage, wheels, tow bar and pumping arms. As if to make things trickier, the restorers decided to remake it using traditional techniques and materials: the wheels had their hubs crafted in elm, with the spokes made from oak, ash felloes and an iron tyre.

“We were able to ascertain an idea of what the design would be like,” says Tim Brisley, a wheelwright from Croford Coachbuilders responsible for assembling the parts to fit to the millimetre around the original pump.

A photo of a 17th century fire engine at the Museum of London
© Museum of London
“Then it was a matter of manufacturing it, trying to use old techniques and following a design that we thought would have been appropriate at that time. It’s looking at all the materials that would have been used – the designs and shapes and what they would actually have been capable of doing at that time.

“It has been quite a challenging job to take on: trying to find your way and feel as if you’re at that time in history.”

The exacting commission has been expertly achieved. “When it was first loaned to us the fire engine was just a barrel, essentially, with a metal tube in the centre, so it was really hard for visitors to understand that it actually was a fire engine,” says Meriel Jeater, the curator of the new Fire! Fire! Exhibition.

A photo of a 17th century fire engine at the Museum of London
© Museum of London
“This is the first time we’ve ever been able to show how this fire engine would have worked. We now know that, with fixed wheels and a weight of over 500kg even without water, it would have been extremely difficult to manoeuvre around London’s narrow, cobbled streets.

“Also, 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.

“It was hard for our visitors to imagine this object as a working fire engine when it was just a barrel and pump. It’s going to be a really exciting thing for people to see.”

A photo of a 17th century fire engine at the Museum of London
© Museum of London
The new look is “as accurate as you can get”, according to Robert Payton, the museum’s Head of Conservation. “When people come to look at the exhibit I want them to appreciate how much work would have gone into this fire engine.

“Water would have fed into the piston itself. At maximum it would have held about six pints of water, providing the barrel was full of water. So for the sake of half a tonne of weight there it would have squirted a very small amount of water at a fire.”

The method proved predictably ineffective. “It was probably more of a placebo effect for pretending to put out the fire, rather than putting out the fire itself.”

A photo of a 17th century fire engine at the Museum of London
© Museum of London
There is a shared work ethic between the coachbuilders and the 17th century firemen. “We knew that they had the traditional skills to build the missing parts of the fire engine in the way that they would have been made in the 17th century,” says Jeater.

“This fantastic reconstruction has revealed some incredible insight into how our fire engine would have worked.”

  • Fire! Fire! runs from July 23 2016 – April 17 2017. Visit the exhibition homepage.The restoration was supported by the Radcliffe Trust, the Worshipful Company of Coopers, the Worshipful Company of Grocers and the Worshipful Company of Joiners and Ceilers Charitable Trust.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

A photo of a 17th century fire engine at the Museum of London
© Museum of London
A photo of a 17th century fire engine at the Museum of London
© Museum of London
A photo of a 17th century fire engine at the Museum of London
© Museum of London
A photo of a 17th century fire engine at the Museum of London
© Museum of London
A photo of a 17th century fire engine at the Museum of London
© Museum of London
A photo of a 17th century fire engine at the Museum of London
© Museum of London
A photo of a 17th century fire engine at the Museum of London
© Museum of London
Three places to find out about the Great Fire of London in

Swanage Museum, Dorset
The quarrying of Purbeck stone and the local stone trade are included in the museum displays. Vast quantities of Purbeck stone were shipped to London to pave the streets after the Great Fire of London in 1666. This trade by sea carried on until the end of the 19th century.

London Fire Brigade Museum
A wealth of information and exhibits depicting the history of firefighting in London from the Great Fire of London in 1666 to the present day.

, London
A day of talks and workshops on September 3 2016 will explore the story of the Great Fire and how it affected Londoners and London.
Latest comment: >Make a comment
A very misleading headline. How many times a minute would the engine have squirted that six pints. It could have been more accurate than a thrown bucketful of water. A fairer description would be to compare it to a bucket brigade delivering an equivalent volume of water
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