Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Merryweather talk - report

The May meeting of GIHS featured Neil Bennet on the Greenwich High Road based fire engine manufacturer (the factory has been demolished in the last few weeks). Here is a report on his talk:
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.


Martin M. said...

A great-uncle of mine, Gerard Lee Tuppen, is understood to have had the task of delivering Merryweather equipment to the Rangoon Municipal Fire Brigade - but I have no further information, although I have a photograph of the handing-over, in Rangoon, of a mixed consignment of vehicles to that City in 1925, in which he appears, and which has his signature on the reverse, together with that of the City Health Officer.
I also have a newspaper cutting, undated and unexplained, recording the funeral of one Edward Field, for many years a foreman painter with the Company. It includes the names of 11 principal foremen.
Some direct contact to discuss this might be interesting?
Martin M.

Julie said...

I used to work for Siebe which owned Merryweather in later years. I have a booklet of the histry of the company which may interest you.
Please contact if you are interested

Mary said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mary said...

Julie - and Martin - yes - we would love to hear from you with your material - and so I guess would Neil who gave the talk and wrote the article. My direct email is indhistgreenwich@aol.com

Anonymous said...

Many many years ago I had a letter from a Mr Smith asking if I knew the burial place of the Merryweathers of the fire engine family. I'm not related and didn't know. 20 years later, he was still searching and alas for him after his death they were found in the important cemetery at Abney Park, Stoke Newington.

When at the National T0rust Snowshill Manor in Gloucestershire a few weeks ago, I saw two Merryweather fire engines. There must be many surviving but has anyone any idea how many were made?
Alan Merryweather, Cirencester Glos.

Anonymous said...

Can someone tell me when the Merryweather Fire Engine makers closed down for good? For genealogy purposes. Many thanks if you can help.

M said...

Anonymous - I am sure someone will get back to you with info on this but my understanding is that a firm called Merryweather still exists;

Anonymous said...

This is all really interesting. I would love to have a copy of the photograph that Martin M discusses for a school project. Please could I?

Anonymous said...

I have an original merryweather and sons catalogue that my father had kept for many years during his 30 year service in fire brigade and many years of collecting memorabilia.The catalogue is more of a book and I believe there is no other copies of this as the factory was bombed and records were lost.
The catalogue is undated but probably between 1897- 1900 and includes hand drawings engineering designs and black and white photographs of all models of fire fighting equipment, steam engines,uniforms and water pumping equipment which includes original prices at the time. It also has listings of stately homes and institutions gardens where equipment was installed.
I can provide photographs and or information to anyone interested
Thanks Paul

M said...

I am sure that someone would be interested but we need to know how to get in touch with you. If you leave a comment and ask for it not to be published we can do that

Anonymous said...

With regards to merryweather and sons complete catalogue - it's for sale on e- bay 346 pages . It's listed under fire brigade memorabilia

Michiel van Zon said...

I am a retired firefighter in The Netherlands and a supporter of the Dutch Steamengine Museum, located in Medemblik, The Netherlands (http://stoommachinemuseum.nl/).
Our museum has a large collection of working (!) steamengines.

In this museum we have a Merryweather and Sons type “Greenwich Gem size 6” fire and salvage pump. We want to restore this pump and get it fully working again.
We are searching for technical documentation of this pump or similar kind of pumps to help us restore ours.

We know this pump was on a crane-ship in 1940 as a fire and salvage pump. We don’t know the name of this ship and its origin. The capacity of this pump is 1000 gallons water per minute. The serialnumber of our pump is 1567.

If you have any documentation please contact me at saefcu@kabelfoon.nl

Best wishes,
Michiel van Zon

Louise Blackburn said...

Moses Merryweather was my 4th great grand uncle. Are there any pictures available of him?

Malcolm Mitchell said...

Just a note to say that the Massey Shaw Fireboat and Dunkirk Little ship has the original 1936 Merryweather pumps aboard, they can produce 3000 litres per min and can often be seen on the Thames giving a water display.

Peter Jones said...

Hi Paul,
I am looking for information relating to Greenwich Gem steam fire engines that I can use for display in the museum I work In. Does the catalogue contain any pages showing the Greenwich Gem or equipment made for it?
Peter Jones