Reply To: Fire-engines aboard RN ships in 18th-19th centuries

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Anonymous

    My edition of William Falconer’s Dictionary of the Marine, brought up to date by William Burney and published in 1815, has a good entry for land-based and ship Fire-engines of the period, including a description of Lieutenant Jekyll’s pump, an adaptation of a vessel’s existing hand-operated bilge pumps.
    All large vessels from the late C17th were fitted with bilge pumps to which canvas hoses were routinely fitted, as would be done each day for cleaning down decks. Jekyll’s pump attachment – presumably an additional lever-operated pump forcing water through smaller-bore outlets – added pressure to the water at the higher end of the hoses, making an effective fire-engine. Falconer’s entry (page 148-9) describes it:
    “Lieutenant Jekyll of the royal navy, has invented a contrivance for turning a ship’s common hand-pump into a powerful fire-engine; which was ordered a few months ago [ie, late 1814 or early 1815] to be fitted on board the Venerable and Tiger, in Portsmouth harbour; and to be added to every ship as they came into port for repair. The invention is simple, and does not interfere with the common use of the ship’s pump. It is so powerful, that a strong column of water may be thrown over a 20-gun ship’s top-gallant-yard. It was worked on board the Royal William, by seven men, and found to throw water 76 feet perpendicularly, and 108 feet in a diagonal line : when the water of three pumps was united by a receiver, with one discharging pipe it was propelled much higher, and with an amazing force.”

    This seems to have been a significant improvement on Benjamin Dearborn’s invention published in Transactions of the Amercian Academy of Arts for 1794, also mentioned in Falconer (p148). Robertson Buchanan of Rothsay obtained Letters Patent in Scotland in 1796 for a similar device.
    In my current research into Edward Gayner I have read the court-martial records for the loss of the Hindostan (50) by fire off the coast of Catalonia in 1804. Although attempts were made to empty the magazines by human bucket-chain this soon ceased due to dense smoke below decks, which killed five men by asphyxiation. I do not recall mention of a fire-engine or use of the bilge-pumps to douse the flames or flood the magazines.
    The Hindostan, a former East India-man converted to a large armed store-ship, must have been equipped with such essential gear. As she carried several tons of corned gunpowder for Nelson’s Mediterranean fleet, one would think she would have had the best fire-fighting equipment available at the time.
    Justin Reay