Shrewsbury’s [first?] Fire Engine

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



3365/629/27, 3365/629/29

3365/630/4, 3365/630/12

*there are probably a lot more relevant manuscripts – these are just the ones I can guarantee you will find a fire engine in!


War Courts and Martial Law in Shropshire

It was with some surprise that I opened a folder in an MI box (miscellaneous small deposits) the other day to discover a series of six documents that detailed the provision for martial law in Shropshire in the 1940s.

So far I have catalogued five MI boxes. They contain small collections of manuscripts not destined to fall within Shropshire Archive’s main run, deposited over a fairly long period but with some of the material far pre-dating the deposit date. This means that their content can be very mixed. The boxes I have been looking at arrived at the archives in the 1960s, but I have so far seen material ranging from medieval deeds to 1950s election propaganda leaflets. Each small group of documents has its own story to tell, and forms a sort of ‘archive in miniature’.

The six 1940s documents that I found in this particular box are a lovely example of this.  Shropshire Archives MI997/1-6 rest in a folder of their own, but the box that contains this also holds (amongst many other items) a series of postcards from approximately 1900, aerial photographs of Ludlow from the 1950s, and some eighteenth century deeds.

The War Court mini archive, as I can’t help but think of these six manuscripts, consists of four letters, a leaflet, and a car windscreen label. The first letter was the one that really caught my eye. Above the sender’s address in the top right corner is the word ‘SECRET’, capitalised and underlined.

Typescript Letter with 'SECRET' Stamped Above the Address Panel

There is something about that word that just makes reading further irresistable! The text of the typescript letter that followed was this

Sir, If the necessity to proclaim Martial Law should arise it will be necessary to set up Military Courts at various centres and a Summary Court in each Petty Sessional Division to try offences against Martial Law.

The Summary Courts will consist of one Justice of the Peace sitting alone, who will have power to award a sentence of 2 years imprisonment and a fine of £200.

Your name has been suggested as suitable to hold the Summary Court for the Petty Sessional Division of PONTESBURY [handwritten].

It is now desired to know if you would be willing to act in that capacity. I trust that as this is a most important and responsible duty you will not refuse for other than the most pressing reasons.

Information as to offences and procedure will be given to you as it becomes available.

Please treat this communication as strictly personal and secret.

I am, Sir, Your obedient servant [illegible signature] Brigadier, Commander, North Wales Area.

The letter was sent to Capt. Sir Offley Wakeman, Bt., and is dated 20 June 1940.

Now, it could be that I am being a bit ignorant and naive, but I hadn’t heard of War Courts in England during the Second World War prior to straying across these letters. I did study history at school, and it was even a modern world history course, but for some inexplicable reason the syllabus skipped both the world wars. My studies since have taken me to earlier epochs, and I haven’t picked up a lot of Second World War knowledge in my everyday life. So, in fairness, it is perhaps no surprise that I am no expert. However, a quick trip to Google seems to suggest that I am not the only one who doesn’t know much about this aspect of home-front defence planning.

The second letter, dated 12 December 1941, informs Captain Wakeman that an order made by the Secretary of State had been issued via the Home Office appointing him to the panel of advisory members for the War Zone Courts of the Midland District. Should a War Zone be declared, not only would he be responsible for the Summary Court of Pontesbury, but he was officially signed up as an advisory member for the War Courts of the Midland District.

Typescript Letter

The letter goes on to inform him that

The Courts will not be set up until the Midland District is declared to be a War Zone by Order of the Minister for Home Security

Note the terminology. ‘Until’, not ‘if and when’. There is a sense that the provision for these courts was a pressing necessity, not a fallback plan to cover unlikely developments. Reading this letter brings home the sense of impending danger felt by the author and recipient (and, indeed, many people living in Britain at this time). It is hard for me, in 2012, to really grasp what that felt like. I know that (unless I really have missed some crucial 1940s history) Shropshire was never invaded or declared a War Zone, and that Captain Sir Offley Wakeman would never actually be called upon to carry out these duties.

He did not know this. August 1940 had seen the Battle of Britain, and the following months saw Coventry, Bristol, Southampton, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and London bombed. The new year saw major London landmarks destroyed by enemy bombs, and in July 1941 Liverpool was again targeted. This was a war that took place on home soil in a way that nothing in my lifetime has. The Germans did, in fact, have plans for a full land invasion. Had they won the Battle of Britain, Operation Sea Lion would have proceeded and Captain Sir Offley Wakeman would truly have been involved in the proceedings of War Zone Courts of the Midland District.

To underline this sense of urgent necessity, enclosed with this letter was an ‘E.L’ label for Wakeman’s car.

Beige Cardboard Label with 'E L' and the Royal Crest Printed on it

for affixing to the windscreen of your car, to enable you to get quickly to Court in your County where your attendance has been requested by one of the Presidents

The label still survives, and can be found in Shropshire Archives alongside the letters. Wakeman was admonished to take care not to let this label be lost or fall into ‘other’ hands. He was also given information on acquiring additional petrol coupons, and failing that, assured that the police or military would provide transport if necessary.

I rather get the feeling that Captain Wakeman was unhappy with his appointments. No letters written by him appear in this mini archive, as it seems that it is his possessions that have been deposited. All the surviving letters are addressed to him. However, a letter dated 18 December 1941 gives a sense of what he must have written. The Clerk of the War Zones wrote to assure him that

I would say, for your information, that quite a number of magistrates within the five Counties forming the Midland District, who have been appointed Advisory Members of the War Zone Courts, will have active duties to perform in the event of invasion.

As, However, a comparatively large number has been appointed to the Panel to serve the County of Salop, to enable a selection to be made at the appropriate time to suit the convenience of members, I do not think that you need worry unduly about the dual functions which you have to perform.

In any event I certainly agree with you that your first duty would be to the Home Guard.

Did Captain Wakeman attempt to wriggle out of this potentially onerous responsibility? Perhaps that is too harsh a reading. Nonetheless, he must have mentioned his Home Guard service – and this letter certainly seems to suggest that he had reservations about serving on the War Courts.

Having read the last document in the series, which is a leaflet entitled ‘War Zone Courts; General Exlanatory Memorandum’, I can empathise with his reticence. This small twelve page booklet gives the details for how and when War Courts could convene, what jurisdiction they had and the extent of their sentencing powers. It makes for rather chilling reading. Once an area was declared a War Zone, the War Courts effectively had jurisdiction within that area. The sentencing is the bit that caught my eye, though.

A War Zone Court may sentence any person convicted of an indictable offence to any punishment he might have been sentenced by a Court of Assize or Quarter Sessions if he had been convicted on indictment; and it may sentence any person convicted of any offence to any punishment to which he might have been sentenced by a Court of Summary Jurisdiction on Summary Conviction.

Before passing sentence the Court is required to take into consideration any representations made by an officer of His Majesty’s Forces as to the gravity of the offence having regard to the military situation.

Rather wide ranging then, given that a War Court consisted of a President, with two advisory members and no jury.

Sentence of death will, in the abscence of direction to the contrary, be carried out by shooting as in the case of a sentence of death passed by Court Martial. Where, however, the person sentenced to death can, without undue difficulty, be conveyed to a prison equipped for the carrying out of sentence of death by hanging, […]he shall be dealt with in like manner as a person convicted on indictment of murder. [The Secretary of State] may charge either a Sheriff or the Governor or other person having charge of the prison with the execution of the sentence.

In 1941 the death penalty was still a real possibility in English courts for crimes such as murder, so this is not as shocking as it might be. Nonetheless, I would be uncomfortable being tried without a jury for these stakes.

Times of war are very different to times of peace, and perhaps I shouldn’t be at all surprised that there was provision for Martial Law in Shropshire during the 1940s. It was never (to my knowledge) invoked, so it is a by-line to the ‘main’ historical narrative. There is something about having a name, having some letters, having ‘SECRET’ stamped on a document that brings it home though. I didn’t know about any of this until I catalogued these manuscripts. I think it is worth knowing. Something of Captain Wakeman’s concern survives in these documents. The extent of official plans, and their potential impact, are there to be read for anyone interested.

Please feel free to correct me on points of World War II history – or let me know if you know more about War Courts than I do – I freely admit I am no expert and would love to hear anyone more knowledgable.

Hello scary blog-world

[friendly wave] Here goes… so who am I, and why do I think you anyone would want to read my blog? I am a recently qualified PhD, currently finding my feet and place in the world. In the absence of paid work, for the time being, I am volunteering at my local archives and museum service. This blog is basically a place to record what I get up to and all the weird, wonderful, and sometimes downright baffling things I come across or learn in my time working on the Volunteering for Shropshire’s Heritage project – explained in more detail here:

The project is wide ranging, and though my specialism is seventeenth-century biographical research and manuscript letters, I have worked on some very diverse material already in my role as volunteer. (Think anything from 1399-1960, apprentice indentures to election propaganda, with a bit of photographing dead birds thrown in, and you will have a rough picture of the variety).

This is my first foray into the blogosphere. Whether anyone actually looks at this or not I will watch with interest. Comments are very welcome, but do bear in mind that I am unlikely to be an expert in most of the topics I end up covering – so please be gentle!