Managing fire in the middle ages:
With timber-framed houses, roofed by thatch, lit by candles, and heated by open fires, the risk of a house-fire was an ever-present threat in medieval and Tudor towns.
Prior to the 17th century, the only means of fighting fires were
- dowsing the fire by throwing water on the fire from leather buckets filled with water,
- using a brass "squirt" gun full of water (like an over -sized syringe),
- pulling the thatch off the roof with long fire-hooks,
- pulling down a burning house, or
- blowing up neighbouring buildings to prevent the fire spreading.
The Great Fire of Hungerford:
In 1566 Hungerford suffered a serious fire. "Hungerforda igne sed immodico pene perusta est" (Hungerford was almost completely destroyed by a vast conflagration).
The fire started near the Queen's Mill at the northern end of the town (now Mill Hatch, Bridge Street), and it rapidly spread south along the main street as far as the market place destroying many properties. For much more about this disaster, see Great Fire of Hungerford.
- Drawing of c1598 showing fire-hooks and buckets in use
- Fire hooks
- Central portion of Francis' 1794 map showing the pond in the middle of the main street
- Hungerford's two 18th century manual fire pumps. The pump on the right is now restored, and stands in the entrance to the Town Hall and Corn Exchange.
(This picture was developed from a glass plate found after Albert Parsons closed his photographic shop in the High Street.)
- Hungerford's two 18th century manual fire pumps. The pump on the right is now restored, and stands in the entrance to the Town Hall and Corn Exchange. On the photo one can see it is marked as "Repaired 1831 by Geo Earle, Constable".
- This 18th century manual fire pump is thought to be the one bought in 1737 (ie Hungerford's 2nd fire engine), and is probably by Newsham (see other examples below), or Bristows.
- An early Newsham at Bray
- Another Newsham manual fire-pump said to date from 1737. (At Bray) Note the pivoting front wheels. There are many similarities between this and one of Hungerford's pumps.
- Hungerford's remaining 18th century fire pump, standing in the entrance hall of the Town Hall. This was probaly Hungerford's 3rd fire engine. It is not yet known by whom or when it was made, but it might have been made by Adam Nuttall or Samuel Phillips. (See text for more information)
- This Croft Castle manual fire pump is very similar to the restored Hungerford one. The pumping handles are placed at the ends. The mechanism is simpler and less efficient than that used by Newsham. This is painted with a date 1843 (but this is perhaps the date of restoration or acquisition). [Kindly provided by Maureen Shettle]
- Athelstan Museum's fire pump - remarkably similar to Hungerford's restored pump. It was built by Samuel Phillips for Malmesbury, and dates from 1760 or later. Adam Nuttall pumps were similar, but started in 1751. Adam Nuttall's wife was probably related to John Fowke, an earlier manufacturer of fire pumps.
- Looking inside the Hungerford fire engine
- Hungerford's remaining 18th century fire pump, with the two panels removed for better investigation, 20 Feb 2013. (See text for more information)
The Great Fire of London in 1666 devastated one third of the city, and reduced to ruins over 13,000 houses and 89 churches. It was soon realised that there was a need for the provision of compensation on a greater scale than simply a collection at the local church.
The earliest fire insurance was provided by The Phenix fire office in 1680, but it ceased business in 1712. Other insurance companies developed, and it was necessary to identify those properties for which premiums had been paid. The fire mark was created to mark these buildings with the identification of the insurance company. The first examples were made of lead, and some hundred years later followed by copper, tinned iron, zinc, brass and ceramic. This practice carried on for two hundred and fifty years.
There were approximately two hundred insurance companies that issued over nine hundred fire marks, some only one and others as many as forty-odd different variants. There are many fire-marks in Hungerford, two from the Sun Fire Office.
See also: Fire-marks, for much more about the many fire-marks still displayed on Hungerford buildings.
The development of fire pumps:
Fire buckets and fire-hooks continued to be used through the the 16th century, but following the Great Fire of London in 1666, serious efforts were made to improve the design and efficiency of water pumps to fight fires. There was a surge in the development of fire pumps.
Shortly after, in 1708, the House of Commons passed the Parish Pump Act ordering that every parish (in London) must keep a water pump and designated men to help extinguish fires.
Several people began to design fire pumps.
In 1712 the English inventor Richard Newsham (originally a pearl button-maker in London) came up with an effective design for a fire-fighting water pump.
Early Newsham fire pumps were little more than hand-powered pumps on wheels, but it is estimated that they could squirt 400 litres of water per minute, at flames over 40 metres away. They were a great advance on leather buckets!
His pump consisted of an open trough on wheels. The trough was filled with water using buckets. Inside the trough were two pistons attached to two large handles. Pumping the handles up and down squeezed the pistons and pushed the water out of a swivelling copper spout on top of the pump. The key element of Newsham's design was a 'gimble' - a chain mechanism that allowed the pistons to remain vertical while pumping. This made the pump far more powerful than other designs.
In 1720 a manual pump was constructed by Richard Newsham that could pump 110 gallons per minute in a continuous stream up to 40 yards. This formed the basis for pump design for many years to come.
In 1725 and 1735 he took out patents for improved fire engines.
Hungerford's first fire-pump:
Hungerford was very early in obtaining a fire pump.
The first mention of a fire pump to help extinguish fires was in the Constable's Accounts of 1702, which record that £17 was paid for a "dobell fared engen for the tound yous". This first fire pump was obtained six years before the 1708 Parish Pump Act.
It seems that this 1702 pump has not survived. It is not the restored pump now standing in the entrance lobby of the Town Hall.
There are many more references to the fire pump and the ongoing work maintaining it, in the Constables Accounts.
Follow this for much more on 18th century fire pumps.
The Town Pond:
Hungerford High Street runs uphill from the river at its north end, and in order to make the task of fire-fighting easier, a town pond was made about two-thirds of the way up the High Street.
It is described as having rails around it and some lime trees were planted in 1718, but as they failed to thrive they were replaced by firs. There are many references to its repair and maintenance in the Constables' Accounts. The pond was eventually filled up in 1805. Follow this link for much more on the town pond.
Hungerford's second and third manual fire-pumps:
We know (from The Sun Fire Assurance Records kindly sent by Maureen Shettle in Jan 2013) that a new fire pump was purchased in Hungerford in 1737.
- On 6 May 1737 Mr Willis, thought to be the local agent for the Sun Fire Insurance Company working out of Andover, applied on behalf of the town to the Sun Country Committee for an "Allowance towards a New Engine for the Town of Hungerford, the same is referr'd to the consideration of the Committee of Management. [Sun Country Committee Ms 11935/2]".
- On 12 May 1737 the Sun Committee of Management agreed "That thre Guineas be given to the Town of Hungerford towards the expence of an Engine.". [Sun Committee of Management Ms 11932/3]
The Constable's Accounts of early 1739 record that Mr Thomas Liddiard was paid £12 2s 4d "the remainder of the money due to him from the Borough for a Fire Engine".
The question is... "is the fire pump standing in the entrance to the Corn Exchange and Town Hall this second pump from 1737?"
Much research was carried out in 2012-2013:
- The restored fire pump is very similar to the one at Bray (see Photo Gallery), which is said to be a Newsham pump dating from 1737.
- It is also similar to the Samuel Phillips pumps made for Malmesbury (and on display in the Athelstan Museum, see Photo Gallery), but Samuel Phillips, of New Surrey Street, Blackfriars, London, did not start making fire engines until 1760.
- Adam Nuttall, who made pumps very similar to Phillips pumps, started his business in 1751. Phillips and Nuttall pumps were very similar, and often can only be distinguished by a makers plaque.
In an attempt to verify the manufacturer of the surviving Hungerford pump, the Constable Greg Furr and Hugh Pihlens removed the two panels in the pump on 20 Feb 2013. Unfortunately, there is no surviving evidence of a makers plaque or inscription. Maureen Shettle also visited to examine the pump. She felt that the surviving Hungerford fire pump was by Adam Nuttall or Samuel Phillips, and so it must date from later than 1737 (as these manufacturers did not start until 1751 and 1760).
The 1737-39 engine was probably the Newsham design discussed above, and was Hungerford's second fire pump.
The surviving pump may have been Hungerford's third fire pump, and probably dates from later in the 18th century.
It remains a mystery to be solved!
The Hungerford fire pump was found in very poor condition in a shed at the back of the Corn Exchange in 1953. For many years it was used on special festive occasions such as when the local firemen "blacked up" their faces to take part in Pewsey Carnival as "The Dark Town Fire Brigade"!
In Oct 1977 it was photographed by the Newbury Weekly News after its restoration.
It was beautifully restored in 1998 by Robin Tubb.
For more on early fire pumps see 18th century fire pumps.
Further Sun Fire Insurance records:
24 Aug 1758: To Mr Lucas of Hungerford £5.5.0 to distribute amongst the People who assisted in extinguishing the Fire at Hayward Farm. [Sun Committee of Management Ms 11932/6]
19 Oct 1769: That two dozen of Buckets be given to the Town of Hungerford in the County of Berks. [Sun Committee of Management Ms 11932/8]
30 Sep 1784: To William Budd, Agent at Newbury £10.3s.6d for Expences attending the late fire at Hungerford New Town. [Sun Committee of Management Ms 11932/13]
Significant fires in Hungerford during 19th century:
The Hungerford manual fire-pump was used for a number of important local fires, including:
- 1867 The railway station up-line buildings were destroyed by fire, later to be replaced by new stone buildings.
- 1867 At Wooldridge's builders yard on the canal wharf, the carpenters' shop was destroyed. At the time, they were busy making the pews for the newly built St Saviour's Church in Eddington. All the pews were destroyed.
- 1868 The was a big fire at the farm in Church Street (now the site of St Lawrence Square).
- 1875 On Tuesday 14 June 1875 there was a major fire in Eddington. Seven cottages were destroyed - and only one was insured.
However, contemporary reports describe the fire engine, known locally as the "Spitter", as inadequate.
By the 1870s, the town's manual fire pump had given sterling service to the town, but there were increasingly frequent complaints about the inadequacy of the machine. The town was soon to obtain a spanking new fire pump. See Fire Service 1890-1910.
- Parish Magazines, esp Jul 1875, Jan 1893.