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Fire Engine

ca. 1744-1765
Origin: Great Britain, England, London
Cylinder interior dia: 5 ¾", Tub width: 21 ¾", Brakes width: 46 ½", Tub length: 90 ¼", Overall max. length: 114 ½", Overall height: 67"
Wood, wrought iron, tinned iron, copper alloys, leather & oil paint.
Museum Purchase
Acc. No. 1960-236,1
Richard Newsham's patented "4th size" hand pump fire engine. A coiled leather hose, a hard hose, miscellaneous fittings and 3 fire buckets (1960-236, 2 thru 1960-236, 8) remain with the fire engine since its period of use.
Label:The first significant improvement to fire engine design came not from the likes of a Benjamin Franklin or Sir Isaac Newton but from Richard Newsham, a London button maker! Initially granted a patent on December 26, 1721, Newsham's "new water engine for quenching and extinguishing fires" became the clear choice for anyone in England or America who was serious about combating flames.

Philadelphia became the first colonial city to acquire one of Newsham's machines, ordering a pair in 1730. New York City did the same the following year, and Salem, Massachusetts, ordered one in 1749. So effective were Newsham's engines that some were used for more than a century. Many survive today in museum collections on both sides of the Atlantic as a testament to their popularity, quality, and usefulness.

What set Newsham's design apart was function, pure and simple. His engines;

- Could pump water in a continuous stream (other engines pumped water in spurts)

- Could spray water with enough force to reach the roofs of most buildings and break through window glass to soak their interiors

- Could draw water directly into its reservoir from a well or a pond, or be supplied by a bucket brigade

- Could be operated by many men working the pump, all without obstructing the bucket brigade's access

- Could be operated by both hand and foot power

- Could be moved fairly easily because they had wheels (some other engines were mounted on sleds)

Colonial Williamsburg's example is of the sort Richard Newsham sold as his "4th size" (the 6th being the largest) as per his 1727 advertising broadside. Since he continually improved and expanded his offerings, when this fire engine was built closer to the middle of the 18th century, it may have been classed differently. Regardless, this engine's specifications indicate that it;

- Could hold about 125 gallons of water in its cistern (or reservoir)

- Could spray water at the astonishing rate of 125 gallons per minute (or about 2 gallons per second!)

- Could effectively spray water a distance of about 45 yards (or 135 feet)

- Was optimally operated by 16 to 18 men, in addition to those in the bucket brigade

- Weighed about 700 pounds empty or about 2000 pounds fully loaded & equipped

Many of the Newsham fire engines in museums today have histories of long use, and our example is no different. The first clue to that is the nameplate of Hadley, Simpkin & Lott on the front of the air chamber tower. A London firm specializing in fire engines, the company repaired and updated this 80-plus-year-old engine when it was resold in 1830 to Sir Thomas Crawley-Boevey for a little more than £53 (or about $5500 in today's money). The engine was employed on Sir Thomas's estate at Flaxley Abbey, Gloucestershire, until well into the 20th century. Colonial Williamsburg purchased it in 1960.

The fire engine and its accoutrements entered the spotlight once again in 2008. With specialized staff on hand, the ensemble was brought into the Objects Lab at the DeWitt Wallace Collections and Conservation Building. There it was disassembled as far as possible for the analysis, documentation, cleaning, and structural stabilization of every inch of the machine.

On parts of the engine, conservators found some 9 coats of paint. Within the first layers of paint on the air chamber tower, they found traces of what they believe was a painted label reading "Newsham & Ragg." Because Newsham & Ragg was the name of the business that was the immediate successor to Newsham's original business, this inscription helps date the initial construction of the engine to the 1744 to 1765 period.


Provenance:Purchased "used & reconditioned" by Sir Thomas Crawley-Boevey in 1830 for use at Flaxley Abbey, Gloucestershire, where it remained until the mid 20th century. Colonial Williamsburg purchased it in 1960.
Inscription(s):Within the first layers of paint below the nameplate on the front of the air chamber tower are traces of what is believed to be a painted label reading "Newsham & Ragg."