Rochester’s fire service gets a motor fire engine

Just over 100 years ago – and somewhat later than its neighbours – Rochester’s fire brigade acquired its first powered fire engine – and breaks it!

On display in the Guildhall Museum is Rochester’s first fire-pump from around 1741. Prior to its acquisition Rochester, like so many other places, needed to rely on buckets of water to fight the ever-present threat of fire that destroyed lives, homes and livelihoods.The fire pump was clearly an asset but as with most situations the chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Efficient pumps demanded high volumes of water and without a high pressure water main the engines often pumped dry local sources such as troughs, wells and ponds.  When is happened buckets of water needed to be passed along a chain of people to shift the water from a more distant source into the pump’s reservoir. As more pumps were acquired by local fire insurance companies it was possible to connect several engines together and by pumping water from one to the next a supply of water from more distant sources could be got to the pump that was fighting the fire.

In 1840 a fire that could have destroyed Rochester broke out in the house belonging to the surgeon Mr. Jacob on the High Street. The public made strenuous but ineffective efforts to fight the fire. Within 45 minutes the pumps of the Sun and Kent fire offices were on the scene but they soon exhausted the local supply of water. As the water supply was about about 1000 feet away from the fire it needed to be pumped into the gutter. It then ran down the street before being manually lifted from the gutter into the pumps that were fighting the fire. When that proved insufficient water was brought from a mile away in butts from Best’s brewery. Eventually the fire was tamed by 600 men from the barracks who attended with two of their engines.

Rochester’s capacity and capability to fight fires greatly improved with the purchase, in 1916, of a petrol fire engine from Messrs. Merryweather and Sons for £1,048. The engine could travel at 40mph on the level, and could cope with gradients as steep as 1 in 5. It was able to pump 400 gallons per minute and carried 1,000 feet of hose and had a ladder with a reach of 58 feet.

With much ‘pomp & ceremony’ the fire engine was ‘christened’ “The Colonel” in recognition of the great effort that the Mayor, Col. Breton, had put in to get the brigade the engine. After the ceremony the firemen were entertained by the Mayor before taking their engine out for it’s inaugural drive. Whether it was due to the ‘entertainment’ or not is unknown, but the fireman managed to break the rear axle of the engine on this outing whilst descending Four Elms Hill in Frindsbury. With no AA to call upon they had to wait by the roadside for the the arrival of a new axle from Merryweathers.

The Corporation were soon faced with another problem – it was unable to recruit someone able to drive the engine although a wage of 35s / week was offered. The ability to drive a motor fire engine probably resided amongst younger men – and those who were capable of driving it had probably enlisted.

In September 1916 the City’s fire captain was able to report that the fire engine was performing well. It managed to save a number of properties at Canal Dock where it was was able to pump water from the dock. Unfortunately the fire did damage the hose and new lengths needed to be purchased.

Less clear is whether the fire engine was effective in generating income for the council. Use of the engine within the City was free but there was a scale of charges for its use beyond. Rochester initially proposed to charge £5 5s (£5.25) if the engine was called to a fire outside of the City – but not used. If the fire engine was used the charge would be £10 10s (£10.50) for three hours or less, with a further charge of £3 3s (£3.15) for each additional hour. Less than six months later the charges were reduced to £2 2s (£2.10) for attending fires but not used within 2 miles of the City.

To improve the efficiency of the fire service the council also decided to install an electric call system from the police station that would go to the fire stations situated on both sides of the river – rather than requiring two calls to be made.

The railway arches situation behind the Guildhall were converted into a garage for the fire engine.

[As a rough guide £1 in 1916 would be worth about £100 today.]

Geoff Rambler
11 November 2017.

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