Neil Bennett has been interested in the Merryweather company since his childhood ownership of toy and model Merryweather fire engines. At University he explored ancient bound journals of ENGINEERING journal and found that the company goes back to the year 1692 and has a diverse and rich engineering heritage. He was looking for work in 1983 and finding that Merryweather had moved to South Wales, he got a position as Draughtsperson with the company - which he kept until the 'moonlight flit' of the company on Friday 13th April 1984.
The company had started about 25 years after the Fire of London, on the corner of Bow Street and Long Acre. In 1738 a Nathaniel Hadley joined, followed by Simpkin who was a master plumber. Henry Lott joined in 1791. Fire squirts, like large hypodermic needles were made, along with leather buckets and more ambitious pumps. Henry Lott and Braidwood of the London Fire Engine Establishment did not see eye to eye, perhaps having backgrounds from different ends of the social spectrum. Lott was the son of a rich landowner, Braidwood was a 'man of the people'. Moses Merryweather was taken on as an apprentice in 1807 and in 1836 he married Lott's daughter. They had three sons, Richard Merryweather, James Compton Merryweather and Henry Merryweather. Edward Field was a consulting engineer who designed the boiler used in most Merryweather pumps and tram engines.
The Merryweather Sutherland large steam-powered horse-drawn fire engine won first prize at an international fire engine competition at Crystal Palace in 1836. It can be seen at the London Science Museum.
James Compton Merryweather was head of the firm from 1871. In 1873 the Long Acre factory was burnt down, to be replaced. The company manufactured such a range of products that it might not even be appropriate to call them a fire equipment company. Products included all kinds of water supply equipment, ice boats, safety rafts, tanks for camel transport, dye extractors, steam dredging apparatus, compressors, an electric clock and a petrol-cycle. The petrol cycle was described by Neil as the first British car and arguably the world's first car. It was designed by Edward Butler and initially built in the Greenwich High Road factory. Neil requested help in regard to 'tanks for camel transport' - were these something the camel carried on its back, or did you put the camel inside it? A letter to London Zoo had produced no enlightenment.
The steam tram engines, like the petrol cycle, were hampered by the Locomotive Acts. The trams were quite sophisticated, requiring to condense their own smoke and steam and being forbidden to produce noise or visibly moving parts or to exceed a strict speed limit.
The company took Limited Liability status from 1892 (Merryweather & Sons LIMITED). Mr C J W Jakeman was a director, and his name appears along with 'Merryweather' cast into some of the company's boilers. He was the manager of the Greenwich factory when it opened in 1876. A factory in York Street, Lambeth had opened in 1862. Charles Dickens refers to the fire engine makers in Long Acre in his book The Uncommercial Traveller.
Mr Bennett recalled a storeman named Mitchell, described in a book by James Merryweather. Mitchell would give out cash to local residents when the factory's testing of water jets and smoky machinery had spoilt the ladies' washing as the washing was hung out to dry. This was quite evocative and paints a clear picture of the times, which in some ways haven't changed much.
Neil described the fitting of 100-foot ladders to DUKW vehicles for scaling the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc in the D-Day landings. He also recalled some of the later events when the company, under its parent company Siebe Gorman, disappeared overnight from Ebbw Vale to Plymouth. The name Stuart Le Gassic comes up in reference to the company's recent history, but today it is run for the import of hand fire extinguishers by Jeff Wright at Tuesnoad Grange, Bethersden, Kent. I think Mr Wright would be interested to learn of new aspects of the company's past, or to buy old Merryweather catalogues, but he probably cannot help much with historical research or with spare parts for old machinery!
Neil received a round of applause despite not feeling very well prepared, and the fact that the projector and Powerpoint could not be made to work. On Steve Daly's suggestion he promised to come back again when the issues with the visual display had been resolved. Neil would be interested in talking to anyone who can do research at the South London Press offices, SW16.
Neil made some useful contacts and will be working on his book 'Sustained by Extinction' on the history of Merryweather.