Sidelight on Rochester’s Fire Engines

Currently prominently on display in the Visitors’ Information Centre 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 - necessitating again the setting up of bucket-chains to shift the water from more distant sources 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 3/4 of an hour the pumps of the Sun and Kent fire offices were on the scene but they soon exhaust the local supply of water. First water was pumped from a source about 1000ft away and allowed to run down the street then manually lifted into the pump that was 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.

Our capacity and capability to fight fires greatly improved with the installation of a mains water supply and then in 1915 the acquisition of a petrol fire engine from Messrs. Merryweather and Sons, for £1,048. It could travel at 40mph on the level and 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 a ladder with a reach of 58 feet. Unfortunately the firemen on taking it for its inaugural  drive managed to break its rear axel but it went on to provide a splendid service for Rochester - and its neighbouring districts for fee!

Blog by Geoff Rambler