Fire Brigade

Malmesbury Fire Brigade at The Old Bell Hotel © Malmesbury Memories

Malmesbury Fire Brigade at The Old Bell Hotel © Malmesbury Memories

The first fire pumps were made by the Romans and Greeks. the Romans had a dedicated fire fighting force, known as the Corps of Vigiles. At the fall of the Roman Empire the fire pump fell into disuse until the early part of the 17th Century, when it was re-invented.

The most successful pumps at this time were made in Holland, however in this country the first patent was issued to Roger Jones in 1625, for a fire extinguishing machine.

Some fire pumps which resemble the one in Malmesbury’s museum were manufactured by Richard Newsham, a pearl button maker from London. He took out patents in 1721 and 1725. The manual engine continued in use during the 19th Century.

Malmesbury’s fire pump has been tentatively identified as being made by Samuel Phillips, in about 1760. It is not known when he started his business, but he was in operation until 1797, when it became Phillips and Hopwood.

From 1797 the firm changed several times:

Phillips and Hopwood1797
James Hopwood1811
Hopwood and Tilley1818
Tilley and Co.1825
Shand, Mason & Co. c1851-3

Finally taken over by Merryweather & Sons Ltd. in 1922

Samuel Phillips Manual Fire Pump © David Forward

Samuel Phillips Manual Fire Pump © David Forward

The Manual fire engine would have been transported to a fire by a horse drawn cart. The pump was fed from the local water sources, with the Fire Brigade divided into those who were pumping, those minding the hoses and the others directing the water.

The History of Malmesbury Fire Brigade 1851-1942


Malmesbury (then with a population of 3,500) established a paid fire brigade. The brigade consisted of a staff of 12 at one fire station with one fire engine, the pump on display here.

The engine is a five inch manual pump designed to be operated by twenty men most likely operation in teams of four. the engine had some eighty feet of hose with the water being drawn from local wells and rivers. The brigade itself at this time consisted of a superintendent, officers, firemen, and hosemen. The pump was carried to the fire on the back of a cart with another one carrying the hoses and the men, as you can see in the photographs.

Hose Man:

More skilled than the ordinary Firemen, the Hosemen were positioned at points along the hoses so as to tend them and move them into the best positions.


At this time his duties were not defined but it is most likely that the Firemen were the ones who operated the pump mechanism on the engine and carried out the general duties at the scene of a fire.

Malmesbury Fire Brigade 1897 © David Forward

Malmesbury Fire Brigade 1897 © David Forward

Superintendent and the Officers:

These men were the skilled fire fighters who actually directed the hoses and fought the fire. One of these men was also responsible, as engineer, for the maintenance of the engine and hoses.

Like all others at this time; the Malmesbury Brigade was a paid force, running off subscriptions, although later the local councils made contributions. There were fixed charges for the services given by the Brigade. For example, in 1889 these were:

Use of engine (without horse) per day of 12 hours = Three Pounds and three Shillings. £3.3s.Od (£3.15)

Use of engine subsequently of days of 12 hours = Two Pounds and two Shillings. £2.2s.Od (£2.10)

Superintendent per day = One Pound and one Shilling. £1.1s.Od (£1.05)

Engineer/Hoseman per hour = One Shilling and three Pence ls.3d (7 1/2p) Fireman per hour = One Shilling. 1s.Od (5p)

The Brigade was managed by committee made up from local councillors, who could be quite forward thinking, for example they considered the forced retirement of Brigade members at 55 as early as 1897.


After spending some seventy pounds on new uniforms in 1897, the Malmesbury Fire Brigade committee took it upon itself to inspect the force’s hose and engine. All was considered well and it was decided to purchase some new equipment: two new lamps for the fire engine and they enquired from Merryweathers the price of a canvas tank.

Drills were carried out quarterly, usually on a Saturday and the men were paid two Shillings (lOp) for attending.


A year later the committee reported that the brigade was in poor shape:

“… engine, couplings, hose …hydrants in a very defective state… the Brigade lacking in discipline and drill… .”

It was decided to disband the Brigade and to reform it. By the 15th January notices were posted asking for all interested “persons” to make applications to join up by the 25th.

The reformed Brigade consisted of: Mr. Charles Bowman – Superintendent Mr. Tom Fry – Engineer E Edwards – Foreman

John Clarke, Ernest Thornbury, Dennis Pike, R Hobbs, F Pearce, J English and J Shingles – Firemen.

It was decided that the Engineer was to be paid two Pounds for the upkeep, or paying for the upkeep of the engine. the drill attendance wages was raised to half-a-crown and all members were to be insured with the London Guarantee and Accident Company at two Pounds per annum.

The Brigade was also provided with rules by the committee including:

“Immediately upon the hearing the ringing of the bell it will be the duty… to attend the fire station.”


Not much is recorded about the fires fought by the Brigade at this time, but there are some references.


Fire at the Bear Inn


Penns Lodge


Mr. Beaks at Milbourne 1907 Mr. Matthews at Grittenham 1907 Mr. Carter at Thornhill


Mr. Payne at Lawn Farm

It was discussed at this time, although it initially came to nothing, to purchase a steam pump and that the Brigade should cover the rural areas of the district with the rural council paying twenty five Pounds towards the upkeep of the Brigade.


The Brigade was again disbanded and reformed as you will notice, this time the ranks were re-organised some more.

Charles Bowman – Captain

E F Edwards – Lieutenant H Ratcliffe – lst Engineer Richard Bishop – 2nd Engineer

Richard Pike, Harry Reeves, Harry Barnes, John Clark,’ Earnest Thornbury, Harry Matthews Jnr, Harry Woodward and Arthur Strange – Firemen.

Malmesbury Fire Brigade Steam Pump © David Forward

Malmesbury Fire Brigade Steam Pump © David Forward

An increase in subscription made it possible to buy a steam pump and half a mile of hose. Regulations stipulated that the new engine was not supposed to appear without a minimum crew of four men, one of them an officer. Also, a new hydrant was installed at the Market Cross.

With the new engine weighing some 2 tons 2 cwt (with a man on board) proper horse power was essential. At first the horses were provided by the landlord of the Kings Arms, Mr. Harry Jones (an interesting local figure who appears elsewhere in this museum). He hired them out at two Pounds and two Shillings per day within a five mile radius. Later Lord Suffolk presented two horses to the Brigade.

‘Spelt without an “e” from now on, but it seems to be the same man.


The Brigade’s budget proposed in this year to purchase the following: A new hose truck – six Pounds

Oilskins for the hosemen – One Pound

35ft extending ladder – Three Pounds

Jumping sheet – Two Pounds

Supply of steam coal – Seventeen Shillings and Ten Pence

New uniforms for Lt. Edwards and one of the Firemen – Five Pounds

At this time it was decided to update the alarm system. The system before modern technology relied on the Parish Church bells being rung with the Verger being paid half-a-crown on each occasion. When the bells were out of action due to repairs to the parish church, the committee decided to install a Maroon alarm device, costing £4.18s.Od (£4.90).

Also an offer was made by the famous Merryweather Fire Engine Company for the old manual pump. However it was decided to keep it because the Committee thought that the,

“…new fangled modern appliance (steam pump) was not completely reliable and… the manual was of a more practical ability”.

World War One

The 1914-1918 war had an effect on the Brigade’s finances. This is shown by the fact that some new hose was bought in June 1914 but no more until 1921 when two new lengths were purchased.

Ceremonial Parade © Malmesbury Memories

Ceremonial Parade © Malmesbury Memories

The Inter War Period

An important figure joined the Fire Brigade Committee about this time. Councillor E. M. Scott Mackirdy became chairman shortly after being elected to the committee and he was to become the driving force behind the Brigade., Also at this time the long serving Captain Bowman retired on age grounds after being in charge for some twenty years. Lt. Edwards replaced him.

Malmesbury's Horse Drawn Fire Pump © David Forward

Malmesbury's Horse Drawn Fire Pump © David Forward


After much consideration the Brigade moved to this building (Town Hall), which originally contained hurdles used when the Cattle Market was held in the Cross Hayes. The Brigade remained in this location until 1969, when the current fire station was built.

Malmesbury's Motor Pump © David Forward

Malmesbury's Motor Pump © David Forward


After much discussion and controversy the old steam pump was retired and put up for sale and money was put together to buy a motor driven fire engine. In September an order was placed resulting in the commissioning of a 250-300 gallon light turbine Dennis 35 hp fire engine with ladder. Later christened “King Athelstan”. It had spoke wheels and solid tyres. It was stated in a press report covering the commissioning ceremony that,

“… since 1921 we have scrapped all our fire junk including the fire station and no vehicle in commission today was on the inventory four years ago…”


Captain Edwards spent a busy month in September 1926, and thanks to him we have some accurate reports which give an insight into the Brigade’s work.

10th September. called at 2 am to a house fire, Mr. J Clarke, 63 Gloucester Road… centre of the building well alight. We connected the motor pump up to the Triangle hydrant and after about one hour’s pumping we had the fire under control and continued with the first aid (using the hosereel) which did very good work. We returned to the station at 6.15 am … then cleaned up. Origin of the fire was a beam in the chimney. Estimated damage two hundred pounds at 16th September. Fire at Bungalow, Backbridge. Wooden bungalow adjoining a new workshop and several fowl houses … all burned out and the occupants left destitute because they were not insured.

28/29th September. Called by police at 10.55 pm to Church Farm, Brinkworth … fire in rick close to wagon and implement house … fire confined to rick… returned to station 6.30 am and had an hour cleaning up.

By late 1926 enough subscriptions had been made for there to be excess money after the motor pump had been paid for. This was used to buy a new electric alarm system. A bell was installed in each fireman’s house and was controlled by switches in the police and the fire stations. The new system cost some two hundred and thirty five Pounds. It was Councillor E M Scott Mackirdy who pushed for the new system, claiming that nothing was too good for the Fire Brigade.

E M Scott Mackirdy - Fire Brigade Ambulance - Tim Sage Collection

E M Scott Mackirdy – Fire Brigade Ambulance – Tim Sage Collection


The Brigade’s budget for the year beginning lst April 1927 totaled one hundred and twenty Pounds. The Rural District council proposed a rate of one farthing (one tenth of a present day penny), to cover their share of the running costs. The Brigade now covered Malmesbury and the twelve surrounding rural parishes. This is about 120 square miles, with the Brigade answering an average of one call per fortnight during the summer. The Brigade also provided the ambulance service in the area, Councillor E M Scott Mackirdy having personally donated the vehicle.


In its report to the committee the Brigade reported that it had attended some seventeen fires totaling 178 hours and 30 minutes, with a call out time averaging 4 minutes and 30 seconds.


Councillor E M Scott Mackirdy and Captain John Buckle of Chippenham Fire Brigade came up with the idea of a mutual aid scheme, where all the local brigades in the area bounded by Tetbury, Corsham, Trowbridge, Devizes, Marlborough and Swindon would help each other out. They would assist in putting out a fire or they would provide cover if a Brigade was elsewhere when a call went out. The scheme centered on the Chippenham Brigade which acted as a control centre.


Malmesbury’s Fire Brigade continued to be on the cutting edge of the fire fighting field when it made several purchases between 1932 and 1934. In 1932 it bought self contained breathing apparatus sets. In 1933 the decision was taken to refit the King Athelstan with pneumatic tyres costing the council seventy six pounds. In 1934 the Brigade’s uniforms were replaced and their old Brass helmets were changed for modern composite ones. All this is quite surprising given Malmesbury’s small size and therefore it’s financial limitations.


In this year, after some sixteen years serving on the Malmesbury Fire Brigade Committee, Councillor E M Scott Mackirdy died. His death marked the end of an era and the start of change for the Malmesbury Fire Brigade. The 1938 Fire Brigade Act meant that the Rural Council took control over the Brigade; but things did not change, operationally speaking, immediately. Malmesbury still remained the centre of both population and administration in the area, so things continued as before for a while.


Responding to an outcry by the Rural District Council over their contributions towards the Fire Brigade, Chief Officer Edwards drew up a set of figures showing the number and location (urban or rural) of the fires put out in the 1930’s.


(These figures do not cover chimney fires or false alarms).

Fire Drill at Cucking Stool Mead © David Forward

Fire Drill at Cucking Stool Mead © David Forward

World War Two

Unlike World War One the 1939 – 1945 war meant a lot of changes for Malmesbury’s Fire Brigade as civilians were now considered legitimate targets on a large scale. In July 1942 the service was Nationalised and the Malmesbury Fire Brigade committee lost all its powers. With this and his long service (some forty odd years) Chief Officer Edwards retired and the Brigade was incorporated into “E” Division of number 17 Fire Force Area, N.F.S.

But the Malmesbury Fire Brigade did fight two fires during the war which were the result of military action. At 11.30 pin on the 24th August 1940, the Brigade was called out to Dauntsey Park where a hay barn had been lit by incendiary bombs dropped by an enemy aircraft. A good supply of water from the nearby river stopped the fire from spreading to other buildings including a paraffin tank, a petrol store and a generator building. On the 2nd of January 1942, the Brigade was called out to Foxley Road where two incendiary devices, one a Molotov Bread Basket, had gone off after being dropped from an aircraft. The blaze was put out with no details given about the damage.