Unlocking Our Collections: John Lofting's Fire Engine

Our guest curator, Heather Rowland, is the Society's Head of Library and Collections, and she has written on a drawing from our Harley Collection. 

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Design showing the operation of John Lofting’s fire engine (1714-1727), Harley Collection, Volume 5 ‘London Prospects etc.’

Up to 1666 the quality of firefighting in London was poor, and people didn’t give much thought to the dangers of fire to human life or property. This radically changed after the Great Fire. There were few recorded deaths, but estimates put the destroyed property value at £10,000,000 (£1.5 billion in today’s money). Days after the fire thoughts returned to rebuilding the city, this time with the protection of building regulations and a system of fire-fighting. In 1668 the Act for the Prevention and Suppression of Fire within the City of London was passed. It divided the City into four zones, each given 100 buckets, 50 ladders, 24 pickaxes, 40 sod shovels and a hand-squirt so that future fires could be tackled.

The demand for such equipment accelerated technological innovations in fire-fighting. In particular the fire engine, which had previously been crude and ineffective, became increasingly ingenious. John Lofting (c.1659 – 1742) was probably the first person in England to advocating the use of a wired suction hose. Called a leather worm it could carry water over distances and throw it as high as 400 feet. The engines were used at several royal palaces, and were even praised by Christopher Wren.

This engraving from the Harley Collection shows Lofting’s fire engine in operation in a variety of scenes annotated with letters and a key. It depicts various ways the sucking worm can be used including fighting the fire on different stories of buildings, in distilleries and on ships. Famous London landmarks such the Royal Exchange and the top of Monument are also featured with the water reaching the top with ease. There is even a depiction of the watering of a formal garden, promoting alternative uses for the machine.

John Lofting, whose medallion portrait is at the far-right of the engraving, was a native of the Netherlands who came to England before 1686. He was a merchant and manufacturer of engines and he became a citizen of London in 1699. His patent was for the sole making and selling of ‘an engine for quenching fire, the like never seen before in this kingdom.’ The inclusion of a distillery in this image is probably not a coincidence as he also marketed an engine for ‘Starting of Beer and other Liquors’. After 1696 nothing is known of Lofting’s engines and production may have ceased.


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