I have been meaning to write about Shrewsbury’s seventeenth-century fire engine for some time now, but have been prevaricating. I discovered it quite by chance, and in small pieces. I wasn’t really sure how best to convey the story, and how to justify my childish excitement over it. If what follows is muddled, I apologise in advance. The discovery itself was literally a bit ‘disjointed.’
Back in October last year, whilst cataloguing the Shrewsbury Borough Accounts at the Shropshire Archives, I was intrigued to find a receipt from 1680 which detailed a payment for ‘carrying the engen twise’ at 12d each time. ‘Engine’ was a term that applied pretty broadly to all things mechanical during the period, but right from the start I had a suspicion this was a fire engine being referred to. Something to do with having a three-year old son obsessed with Fireman Sam at home, perhaps? There was definitely a romantic appeal to this solution, in any case. The same receipt indicated that the engine had its own dedicated ‘house’, and that it required plumbing of some unspecified description.
I didn’t have to wait long before further receipts appeared, offering tantalising additional detail. On 12 November 2012 I found a receipt detailing carpentry work and a quantity of leather supplied for its maintenance, ‘2 buckell clipp for the whells’, pipes ‘for peeceing of the pype of the engene’, and ‘sprigs’ – all dating to 1678. I was becoming more convinced that I had found a fire engine, but still didn’t have anything definite.
The following week, something happened that (in my limited experience) very rarely ever does in archives. I found exactly what I was looking for. A receipt in the Shrewsbury Borough clearly records ‘Rec the 10th June 1655 […] the summe of thirty eight poundes in full for an engine to quench fire’. Anyone who follows me on Twitter will know how pleased I was with this – piece by piece a fire engine had emerged from the archive, and this receipt confirmed its identity.
I went on to muse via Twitter how lovely it would be to be able to find some information on where the engine had been kept, not really expecting to come across many more references to it. The next few relevant manuscripts added more detail to physical appearance of the engine. An ‘axiltree’ required fixing, bells were purchased, new wheel shrouding was added and ‘mending of irons’ carried out, all in 1656. It also transpired that a named individual was employed to ‘keep’ the engine. In 1657 John Folliatt was paid ‘for looking to and keepeing the engine in order for 6 monethes’. Then, on 14 January I found a reference to ‘worke done at the Engin howse in ye corne markett’. I couldn’t quite believe that I had the right engine. How likely would it be to have found exactly what I was looking for a second time around? A few manuscripts further down the box, however, and there was no doubt. A 1656 receipt stated that a payment had been made to Thomas Jones (a local carpenter) ‘for worke done […] in makinge a house at the Corne Markett to place the water Engine’.
So, in the space of four months, I had slowly uncovered increasing amounts of detail about the Shrewsbury fire engine. It was made predominantly of wood, with leather featuring heavily in its construction. Buckle clips, axle trees, pipes and sprigs were all essential parts of its design. It had wheels (with shrouding!), but needed hauling to the site of fires. Bells were included in its design, presumably to aid in the raising of alarms. It had a dedicated individual responsible for its upkeep. It had its own wooden ‘house’ roofed in lead, with bars on the windows and doors that locked, and which was situated in Shrewsbury’s corn market.
I think it probably looked something like this
I have no idea how common fire engines are in the collections of Local Record Offices in the UK. I suspect not that common. The Shrewsbury Borough Accounts are an amazing resource. The seventeenth-century manuscripts from this collection that I have catalogued offer a wealth of detail about the town during the period. The Borough authorities made payments for road maintenance, building works, sewer cleansing, entertaining visiting dignitaries, setting up court rooms, distributions to poor travellers, maintaining the costume of town officials, book purchases and much, much more. The truth is that the bulk of payments were made for paving, and unless you are embarking upon an exhaustive study of the street fabric of Shrewsbury in the period these probably won’t inspire you too much. However, tucked away among these are gems such as the fire engine. It is only because I was systematically working my way through the boxes (though not necessarily in date order) that I noticed these receipts, and only because the idea of a fire engine seemed romantic and exciting that I kept looking for more.
I suppose what I really wanted to share was my wonder at the way this emerged. From one receipt and a hunch, I have a rich and fascinating collection of documents that can be used to tell a story about Shrewsbury that no-one has heard before. 1655 is quite early for a fire engine. We really are talking the dawn of the fire service here. The first fire engine arrived in England in about 1625, and between the late 1620s and early 1660s a man named William Burroughs produced about sixty engines ‘for City and Country’ [ Adrian Tinniswood, By Permission of Heaven, p.50]. Was the Shrewsbury engine one of these sixty or so early Burroughs models? The cost of the Burroughs engines was around £35. Shrewsbury paid £40 for their engine to a man named Bartholomew Bewley. I believe Mr. Bewley was probably acting as an agent for Burroughs, and taking a hefty commission – but of course, only more manuscripts evidence could confirm that supposition.
That is all, really. I just wanted to tell you how fabulous I thought the seventeenth-century Shrewsbury fire engine was, and to share the fact that one existed. If you would like to take a look at it for yourself, you will need to pop to the Shrewsbury Archives and call up the manuscripts listed below. They aren’t catalogued to item level (a quirk of the Borough Accounts cataloguing history), but all the relevant manuscripts have a brief outline noted in the description section of the folder number in which they can be found (and I know this, because I am the one who catalogued them)!
Shrewsbury Borough Accounts:
3365/604/40, 3365/604/55, 3365/604/63, 3365/604/85, 3365/604/87
3365/623/38, 3365/623/42, 3365/623/46
*there are probably a lot more relevant manuscripts – these are just the ones I can guarantee you will find a fire engine in!