Fire-engines aboard RN ships in 18th-19th centuries

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      I would like to raise again the matter of fire-engines on board RN sailing warships [originally raised in May 2008 as “Fire-Engines at sea in 17th and 18th century”, available to read in Earlier Topics].
      Several ships in the US Navy were equipped with fire-engines in the early 19thC, and given the extreme hazard posed by fire in these [wooden sailing] vessels, it seems likely the RN would have followed suit.
      However, references to fire-engines are extremely thin on the ground, and I am in hopes that some reader of this Forum, who visits Kew once in a while, might be able to follow up, and find out some further details about Mr Jekyll’s pump. It is described as “three pumps together”, one of which clearly was a force-pump. I am wondering if one of the elements might have been an ordinary elm-tree or chain-pump.
      Referring to a fire aboard the Prince George in April 1758, this is found in Robert Beatson’s Naval and Military Memoirs of Great Britain, from the year 1727, to the present time, London 1804, p. 245: “The pumps were handed out, the fire-engine and buckets carried forward, and every immediate remedy applied.”
      Nicholas Blake, author of Steering to Glory, London 2005, kindly provided me with the following further references to files in the National Archives at Kew which I have been unable to follow up, but which clearly confirm that force-pumps were experimented with.
      1.”An Engine of Superior Force put on bd. the Magnanime at Sheerness and the Sussex“, ADM 7/710 (Feb 15 1809)
      2.”Lieut. Jeykll’s device for fitting together three hand pumps together having thrown a jet of water 126ft perpendicular when tried aboard
      the Malta, it is to be adopted in all ships fitting out or docking for large
      repairs unless it would delay those that are nearly ready”, ADM 106/241, no.44, (Jan 11 1812).
      3.”Captain Aylmer of the Narcissus applies to the Admiralty to have pumps fitted according to Mr Jekyll’s plan, to act as a fire engine, and that Truscott’s pumps for filling the cisterns and coppers might also be fitted.” ADM 1/1453 Capt A215 (Dec 26 1811).
      4. Instruction given while the Superb‘s magazine was being aired read in part:
      “A gentle Fire is to be kept by day in the Magazine forward, during which time Two Tubs and Four fire Buckets filled with water are to be kept in it and Swabs damped;… The Fire engine hose pointed down inserted: the engine filled with water…” ADM 80/141, Out-letters f133; similar order dated Jul 16 1802, f148.
      John Harland


        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

        Tony Beales

          Jekyll’s invention added a removable air vessel (or pressure chamber) to a ship’s common hand pump by closing the top of the pump with a copper and brass cover, through which the ‘pump spear’ passed, thus requiring no change to the lever mechanism. The pump could be used as a normal hand pump by removing the cover.
          A detailed description and diagrams (including the receiver to combine three hoses, mentioned in Justin’s post) can be found in The Operative Mechanic, and British Machinist, volume 1, 1831 edition, by John Nicholson, pages 270-273. See:
          Campbell’s Lives of the British Admirals dates the adoption of Jekyll’s pumps as 1811, which more or less ties in with the ADM references you have. Lieutenant John Jekyll was promoted Commander on 21 March 1812 – I wonder whether that was as a reward.
          Previously in 1796 the Admiralty asked Samuel Bentham to report on “a proposal of Mr. Taylor’s respecting a forcing pump, and the substitution on board ship of leather hose, in lieu of the usual wooden pump-dales…”
          The report included consideration of “the important purpose of extinguishing fire”
          See The Mechanics Magazine, Museum, Register, Journal, and Gazette, vol LVI, 1852 page 406 (The Economy of Keeping Ready)

          The National Archives catalogue throws up a number of earlier references to fire engines (or water engines):

          ADM 354/126/101: “Thomas Corbett. Captain Windham of the Lenox has suggested that fire engines are supplied to Naval vessels. Such equipment was given to Sir Cloudesley Shovell who never used it and the experiment has not been repeated. 1744 July 9.”
          ADM 106/1031/92: “Commodore Legge, Portsmouth. Request for water engines for the Captain and Sunderland. 1746 Nov 27.”
          ADM 106/1036/214: “John Sargent, Deptford. Has sent water engines to Portsmouth in the Captain and Sunderland. 1746 Oct 23.”
          ADM 106/1048/102: “Captain Rowzier of the Swallow Sloop at Sheerness. Asks for a water engine. 1747 July 16.”
          ADM 106/1085/153: “Sheerness Officers. Request for a water engine for the Somerset 30 June 1750.”
          ADM 106/1126/4: “Portsmouth Officers. Proposal to retain the Water Engines and hoses on ships laid up, to assist in accidental fires on board the ships and, if they were lodged in the steerage, to help other ships. 8 Jan 1763.”
          ADM 354/147/53: “Copy letter from Mr Bateley, Assistant to the Surveyor of the Navy to the Navy Board. Have viewed the water engine from Messrs. Tuite, Donaldson and Spivey and made a construction suitable to the well of a 40-gun ship. Report on their performance and comparison with the use of chain pumps. 1753 Feb 9.”
          ADM 106/1191/105: “Portsmouth Officers. Engines are to be continued on ships in Ordinary until the hurry in laying up the Fleet is over. Ask if others will replace those unfit for service. By the order of September 1749, engines are allowed to all Guardships in case of fire. 1770 June 13.”
          ADM 106/1188/179: “Commissioner Richard Hughes, Portsmouth. Receipt of letter … and not to supply the ships in Ordinary with engines in lieu of those which become unserviceable. 1770 June 17.”
          ADM 106/1190/273: “Plymouth Officers. Ask for black links, sheathing board, sheathing nails and ordinary deals to be ordered from the contractors and what stores are due from Mrs. Crowley. There are only 4 ship’s engines in store which need repair and ask for 6 or 8 for the ships fitting out. 1770 Oct 26.”
          Tony Beales


            I am indebted to Justin Reay and Tony Beales for their help. RN ships do not seem to have been equipped with fire-fighting apparatus on a regular basis, but at least two RN officers developed pumps for this purpose, and I would like to find out something more about them if possible. Can anyone with access to C18th Navy Lists offer any information about Lieut Jekyll RN (guess about 1790-1805) and Capt Fisher RN (probably about same time).

            Falconer mentions a Lt Jekyll who modified the ordinary ship’s pump, converting it into a force-pump, and there is a full description of this arrangement in The Operative Mechanic and British Machinist vol. 1, John Nicholson, 2nd American edn. Philadelphia, 1831, pp. 270-3.


            Falconer also refers to a pump built almost entirely of wood, by Benjamin Dearborn. This is described and illustrated in Repertory of Arts and Manufactures vol.III, p.119 and Plate XII, London, 1795. Judging by its appearance, it was a pump of the van der Heiden/Newsham pattern, and would have been ill-suited to marine use.

            Not mentioned by Falconer is a Captain Fisher RN, who planned to use a small Newsham fire-pump. From its description, in Hebert’s The Engineer’s and Mechanic’s Encyclopedia vol I, London 1836, it would have looked very similar to the machine used aboard USS Constitution.


              Coming back to the matter of Dutch fire-engines, L S Multhauf’s 1996 translation of a Dutch manual for firefighters, published in 1735, includes a foreword by Peter Molloy. On p. viii, he states:
              “If English towns preferred Newsham engines, the English Navy and East India Company favored van der Heiden engines. They were popular in men-of-war and large merchant ships as portable fire pumps, light enough even to be carried aloft and pumped to wet sails to increase a ship’s ability to capture a breeze. By the late eighteenth century, and probably well before, British bomb ketches, frigates, and ships of the line carried several “Dutch pumps.” One British ship of the line used its pump to extinguish a fire at the Battle of Trafalgar that was threatening to destroy it and a French ship with which it was engaged. The Dutch East India Company and the Dutch Navy also carried similar pumps aboard their ships.”

              The Newsham engine was developed in 1720, and the “handtub” pumps widely used in America were its descendants. The Dutch pumps referred to might have been similar to that found in the 1743 wreck of the VOC ship Hollandia. These were of a more sophisticated design than the Newsham pump, or the van der Heiden pump described in Diderot’s Encyclop├ędie. The suction-hose intake connected directly with the cylinders, rather than with the cistern.
              Tony Beales has been helpful in turning up citations about fire-engines used in RN vessels. And Nicholas Blake came up with some others on MARHST, but none of these included mention of Dutch (van der Heiden) machines.
              Can anyone confirm Molloy’s assertion that Dutch pumps were in widespread use in RN or HEIC ships?

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