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!


Guncotton, Trespass, and Extending the Plot

Bear with me on this one. I promise there are explosions further down, but you do need a bit of background first.

As a part of my volunteering at Ludlow Museum Resource Centre, I have elected to conduct a research project into the life of Robert Lightbody (approx. 1800-1874). Lightbody was an amateur geologist, and an early member of the Ludlow Natural History Society. This society went on to become the founding body behind the establishment of Ludlow museum, which is part of the reason that the Museum Resource Centre is keen to learn more about him. Lightbody is also credited, along with a man named Lee, with the discovery of the first known Pteraspid in the Welsh borders. This find was important, and means that his contribution to British geological knowledge was significant. So far, so good.

To be perfectly honest, I haven’t yet got very far with this project. I have been rather distracted by the Ludlow Natural History Society Archive. It is not yet catalogued, and there are papers there that I would love to include in my work – so first I am cataloguing them. In the meantime, I have looked for records of Lightbody that exist outside the confines of the Museum Resource Centre. One document, (which I didn’t hold out too much hope for when I initially located it) has turned out to be a gem. It will only serve as an aside in my final biographical account, but it has caught my imagination enough that I wanted to write something a bit more comprehensive about it here.

National Archives C16/357/L167 has a fairly unprepossessing catalogue entry. ‘Lightbody v Hodges. Documents: Two bills. Plaintiffs: Robert Lightbody. Defendants: Chaplin Hodges.’ It is a Chancery case, so I had a fair idea that it was most likely to be something to do with land or inheritance. Without more detail, I ordered it in the hope that it would tell me a bit more about Lightbody and his life in Ludlow.

And it did. In 1866, Robert Lightbody instructed his solicitors, to whom I believe he was related by marriage, to enter a Bill of Complaint in Chancery against Chaplin Hodges, another local solicitor and businessman. Lightbody contended that Hodges had been ‘blasting’ property belonging to Lightbody’s Ludlow home without permission. The two men shared a boundary, but it was quite an unusual one. Lightbody’s property was close to Ludlow Castle, right in the centre of Town. The border that he shared with Hodges was at the end of his garden. Lightbody’s property was a good thirty feet above Hodges, being built at the top of a cliff where Hodges plot sat at the cliff’s base. The rock face, or cliff, was in fact a part of the old town walls.

The Chancery document is written in a beautifully regular hand, and in formal language throughout – but as the story unfolds something of the passions that were aroused come through. On 28 November, 1866 ‘the Defendant without any previous notice or application to the Plaintiff commenced to blast a portion of the said wall of rock at a height of 12 or 15 feet from the level of his own land and at a part of the rock immediately under [the summerhouse]’. Lightbody’s principal objection to these proceedings was the threat they posed to his summerhouse, a solid brick construction situated within a foot of the cliff. The following day, Lightbody, accompanied by his solicitor, approached Hodges in his garden at the base of the cliff. He ‘informed him that he the Defendant [Hodges] had no right to interfere with the face of the said rock and requested that he desist at once.’ That Lightbody waited a day and then only approached Hodges with the aid of legal counsel speaks volumes for the pre-existing relationship between the two men.  Admittedly, Lightbody’s solicitor was a family relation. Initially he may have enlisted his help with moral support uppermost in his mind. Nonetheless, this visit was made distinctly more formal by the solicitor’s prescence. I rather imagine that it got quite heated. Hodges, afterall, was prepared to use explosives close to his own and others property in a town centre. I’m not sure that any of his other neighbours were likely to approve of his actions, let alone Lightbody.

That the term ‘blasting’ referred to explosives I am fairly confident upon (though I have taken rather a liberty with my title, as at no point is guncotton actually mentioned). Hodges refused to comply with Lightbody’s demands, and merrily continued his ‘blasting’. On 30 November, Lightbody enlisted the help of a surveyor in preparing a plan of the premises. The surveyor suggested to Hodges  ‘that possibly the Plaintiff [Lightbody] might be induced to allow the Defendant [Hodges] to face that portion of the rock upon which they were at work if pickaxes were used and no blasting was carried on’. Not only Hodges himself, then, but a team of workmen were involved in this peculiar enterprise. It seems clear that it is the use of explosives threatening the stability of his summerhouse that caused the most concern to Lightbody – the comparison with pickaxes establishes this. Despite the surveyor obtaining a promise from Hodges, later the same day, ‘another blast was fired in the face of the rock immediately under the summerhouse.’ On 1 December, Lightbody’s solicitor spoke  to Hodges and tried again to extract an agreement to ‘face’ the rock but without recourse to blasting. Lightbody claims that this offer was made without relinquishing his rights to the rock, but in the interests of avoiding litigation (which is curious, as he was the first to involve a solicitor in proceedings).

Quite what Chaplin Hodges was up to, I’m not sure. It is possible that he was attempting to clear vegetation from the face of the rock that overhung his own property – but the use of explosives for this purpose seems a bit heavy-handed even for the Victorian entrepreneurial age in which he lived. As my title suggests, I suspect that he was using ‘facing’ the rock as a cover for a rather ingenious method to expand his own plot of land. I have absolutely no corroborating evidence for this, but it certainly makes for a far racier story! Of course, I don’t have Hodge’s version of events. This Chancery pleading was entered with a view to winning a legal battle. As such I can’t wholly rely upon Lightbody’s account of what happened. It was in his interests to exaggerate as much as he was able in order to win the favour of the judge. Nonetheless, something happened that winter in Ludlow. Something very loud, that ruffled a few feathers.

I also have no clue as to how the case proceeded. Hodges was expected to answer this pleading, but I have not been able to locate any further manuscripts relating to the incident.

What I have been able to find is what I believe to be Lightbody’s summerhouse.

This is a Google satellite image of Castle Street in Ludlow, where Lightbody lived. I have marked his house, the summerhouse at the end of his garden, and Chaplin Hodges plot of land immediately behind Lightbody’s garden. Unfortunately this image gives no clue as to the existence of the cliff. I can verify that it is definitely there, and just as described in the Chancery pleading – but unless you are planning a visit to Ludlow town centre you’ll have to take my word for it.

It seems that whatever the result of the legal proceedings, the summerhouse survived. Perhaps Hodges was forced to desist. Perhaps the ‘blasting’ was an exaggeration and never posed a risk to the property. Either way, I was rather heartened to see the summerhouse still standing atop the town wall.

So what have I learned about Lightbody? Well, he certainly had problems with his neighbours, and he had family links with a local solicitor which he wasn’t afraid to use. I rather suspect that he was frightened by Hodges, and that leads me to think that his personality was not a forceful one. It is early days yet for my research into Lightbody, though. I can’t claim he was timid without a bit more evidence. I feel rather sorry for him living nextdoor to a factious pyrotechnician, and I am not sure that I would have done any differently. I do now have a clear picture of where exactly he lived, and I have seen his summerhouse. I am hopeful that there is more wonderful material like this out there to track down.

Chaplin Hodge, now, is also a man who merits further research, I feel…


As a postscript, I notice that this section of the Ludlow town wall is currently undergoing repairs. I wonder if they will find any traces of Hodge’s activity?

Vital Repairs Start for Ludlow’s Medieval Wall