In late 2017 English Heritage were planning to clean the 360,000 litre Osborne House estate reservoir. From a grounds management perspective, it was a simple matter of displacing the water and setting about the task, projected for the period 8 January to 26 February the following year, but it represented a fire protection issue.

The water in the reservoir fed one primary source – a fixed electric pump that if required, can produce sufficient pressure of water to supply the hydrants that spur from an off-grid fire protection system, allowing for the deployment of hose and branch, and streams of firefighting water to be produced quickly and efficiently to any part of the heritage structure. Clearly draining the reservoir would render this system inert.

T04P1 pictured outside Sandown Town Hall during a training exercise.

Although the estate was served by an additional six mains hydrants, English Heritage assessed this as insufficient. At that time the IW Fire and Rescue Service had a pre-plan in place for the property, OT 01.7 Fire Plan – Osborne House. The pre-plan, a comprehensive document, dealt with six key aspects of response that dealt with all matters, including that of salvage of priceless antiquities. One of those aspects, the most critical, was the ability to access and deliver water to, and on the estate.

English Heritage had made plans to install temporary fixed water supplies. What the fire service needed was a temporary amendment to OT 01.7, to allow for a response during the period in question.

As Crew Commander of Ryde’s T04P1 I was tasked with making arrangements to meet the Estate Manager, assess the temporary water supplies, and draft a report with a recommended temporary water plan. Additionally, it was sensible to take the crews of T04P1 and Newport’s T01P1 so that they too had some awareness of the temporary measures at Osborne - plus it’s always beneficial to ask your colleagues opinion when considering such matters.

On arrival at Osborne, I met with the Estate Manager, and it soon became clear that English Heritage had arranged for three temporary fixed water supplies. Referring to the plan, submitted with my original report, this comprised two 100,000-litre capacity rubber pillows at both Point 4 (Tennis Court) and Point 5 (Durbar clump), in addition to a specially excavated 200,000 litre rubber-lined open source at Point 7 (Horse Field) – taking note that fish recovered from the reservoir were to be temporarily accommodated in the same source.

With that information gained and observed the Estate Manager took me to the pump-house. At this point (Point 6) I was surprised to find a substantial brick building, very close to the main house but cleverly concealed by trees and bushes, adorned with a small and weathered signage stating, ‘Fire Station’. Although I was there in a professional capacity, my parallel fascination for firefighting history was piqued.

The Estate Manager didn’t know much about the fire station per se, except that in 2017 it housed the electric pump, a modern replacement for an older model, and that at one time the estate fielded its own fire brigade. I completed my task, submitted the report and recommendation, finished my shift, and set about discovering more of the historical aspect.

Researching the history of local authority fire brigades has its challenges. Researching the same of private fire brigades and firefighting is even more difficult. In this case the modern incumbents at the head office of English Heritage stated they held no records or archive connected with Osborne and were of no assistance at all.

However, fate rewards persistence. By coincidence I obtained a copy of Oh! Captain Shaw, a life story of Captain Eyre Massey Shaw, the first superintendent of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade. Author Ronald Cox explained a peculiar friendship that developed between Capt. Shaw and Prince Bertie (later Edward VII), second child and eldest son of Queen Victoria.

In the chapter titled Shaw in Society, Cox opened with – During Braidwood’s time (referring to Shaw’s predecessor), attending fires and even helping to put them out had become a fashionable sport, attracting the bored and the technically minded. Foremost among these aristocratic fire-fighters had been the 14th Earl of Caithness and the 3rd Duke of Sutherland, and Braidwood had allowed them to train with his men so long as they subjected themselves absolutely to his discipline.

The latter was also on the committee that organised the Trial of Steam Fire Engines at Crystal Palace in July 1863. First prize was won by a Merryweather steam engine christened the Sutherland, no doubt in honour of the Duke.

Trial of Steam Fire Engines at Crystal Palace in July 1863

Sutherland’s original engagement books evidence that he invited Captain and Mrs Shaw to supper at his Trentham Estate in Staffordshire three weeks after the Crystal Palace event, suggesting that they may have struck up a friendship during the engine trials. For the next 24 years until Sutherland’s death, his diaries are full of references to meeting with Captain Shaw. Sutherland, the largest landowner in the country and far richer than his royal friend Prince Bertie introduced the monarch-in-waiting to Shaw during one of his soirees.

The irreverent Prince and the bawdy Duke were an alliance based on thrill-seeking, drinking and gentleman’s clubs. In pursuit of the former, and with the Duke’s experience under Braidwood, they identified Captain Shaw as an asset to be plundered. The Prince had witnessed a fire in the Prince of Wales Tower, Windsor Castle when he was a child. Twelve years later, in 1865, accompanied by Sutherland, he attended a fire that devastated the Saville House music hall in Leicester Square, partly in the dress of a fireman – according to contemporary reports. Four months later he experienced a blaze in the ventilation shaft of his own London home. Determined to show he had the acumen for firefighting he organised the servants into a bucket chain. Assisted by a guard the Prince began to hack away at the floorboards, stumbling and placing his foot through the ceiling below, and throwing in so much water that when Captain Shaw arrived his opening remark was – What’s all this mess?

Soon after this event Prince Bertie and the Duke, by arrangement with Shaw, were allocated complete sets of firefighting kit, compelling them to spend many evenings playing billiards at Chandos Street Fire Station, in the hope of catching a shout. I can’t imagine what the duty firemen made of that, least of all not being able to get on their own billiards table.

Naturally there were many occasions when the cues were cast upon the green baize as the privileged pair leapt aboard the engines and proceeded to fires. According to Ronald Cox, the Prince never attempted to take charge at a fire, instead pottering about doing odd jobs until the Stop, at which point he would liberally dish out the cigars. Bertie’s presence at fires became so common it became unremarked upon by grass roots Londoners and high society. When the Hankey Committee asked an insurance company witness for his opinion of the Metropolitan brigade’s efficiency, he replied – I could not give you an opinion. His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales, would give a better opinion on that point.

Prince Bertie expressed an extreme dislike of Osborne, preferring the smoky clubs and hubbub of life in the City. Nevertheless, given the long-established friendship between he and Capt. Shaw, it seems highly likely that he played a part in his mother, Queen Victoria, inviting Shaw to Osborne to carry out a fire safety inspection of the House in 1883, in the wake of several stately homes that had suffered serious blazes.

Chandos Street Fire Station, Marylebone.

Following his initial visit Her Majesty wrote – Captain Shaw thinks Osborne to be one of the safest houses he knows, which is a great thing, and was intended to be so when it was built. He has made several suggestions for future precautions against fire.

Shaw’s remarks concerning the safety of the structure may have been more in deference to the home that the Queen so loved and the design input of her late husband Albert, than his professional judgment. Among the several suggestions was the substantial cost and work required to purchase and install the firefighting water system that compelled my professional visit in 2017.

Whether the formation of the Osborne Estate Fire Brigade was also at Captain Shaw’s suggestion remains unproven, though the timing seems more than coincidental. What is known is that the modest Fire Station housed more than just the pumping machinery. It also afforded adequate space for firemen’s appliances, equipment, and kit. When I visited in 2017, the building contained the modern electric pump and very little of its past – a collection of weathered standpipes, keys and bars, and signage concerning pump operation that didn’t relate to the original or the current appliance. Yet it is a largely unchanged and underused space - a fascinating minor time capsule of IW firefighting history.

Several years ago, in an attempt to learn more about the original pumping gear that was housed in the fire station, I received a tip-off. The Engineer was a monthly journal launched in January 1856 by Edward Charles Healey, personal friend of Robert Stephenson and Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The magazine was so popular that it continued in print format until 2012 when the publishers opted to focus on the brands digital offering. Such was the demand that the print version was reestablished a year later, with ten copies printed annually to this day, supported by the hosting of an annual conference.

I was advised that if I could locate a copy, the edition of 15 August 1884 contained a feature on the Steam Fire Engine, Osborne House.

Finally in the summer of 2023 I found a copy.

By discovery of the detail within the report, it is evident that Sandown Fire Brigade’s acquisition of a Shand Mason steam fire-engine in 1907 was not, as I had thought, the first of its type on the Island. It was inarguably the first wheeled version, but the Osborne estate firemen had a fixed steam powered firefighting water capability some 23-years earlier.

What follows below is the original technical drawings and text from that feature. I have produced the transcript verbatim from the original. Given the nature of the magazine’s audience it is of a technical nature and not light reading but is included here in testament to the advanced scheme of fire protection afforded to Osborne House, much of which remains in place today, and to Captain Shaw, Superintendent of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, to whose specification the system was built, supplied, and installed.

The recent destruction by fire of so many of the ancestral mansions of our nobility and gentry has caused the authorities responsible for her Majesty’s marine residence to consider whether Osborne was sufficiently protected from fire. It was found that there were some fire hydrants about the grounds, but these were supplied with an indifferent pressure of water and were quite inadequate for dealing with a large fire.

Captain Shaw, C.B., of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, was consulted, and after a personal inspection of the place, he devised a scheme for its protection which has been carried out under the supervision of Mr J.K. Mann, surveyor of works on her Majesty’s Osborne Estate.

We may state that the main water supply for fire extinguishing purposes is obtained from a pond at Barton, about half a mile from the house, where a pumping station delivers the water through underground mains into two large tanks situated in the towers. These tanks are always kept full, and the fire mains within the house charged ready for instant use. The Barton pumping station also supplies an ornamental pond or reservoir, and the steam fire engine which we are about to describe is placed in a small building near to Osborne House but hidden by trees; it receives its water through a suction pipe 248 yards long, and delivers into a main connected with other mains in and around the house, and on which mains hydrants are placed in positions to command the whole building.

We illustrate above and on Page 124 the steam fire engine, which is one of Messrs. Shand, Mason and Company’s equilibrium type, having three steam cylinders, the piston rods of which are connected direct to the rams of three double-acting bucket and plunger pumps; from a jaw at the bottom of each ram the connecting rod extends to the pin of a three-throw crank; the slide valves are worked by a simply arrangement of levers, each cylinder working the valve of the adjacent one.

There are two of Messrs. Shand, Mason and Company’s inclined water-tube boilers, specially adapted for raising steam quickly, each capable of supplying sufficient steam to drive the engine at full speed. The steam exhaust and feed pipes, &c., are so arranged that either boiler can be used separately or both in unison. We subjoin a letter from Mr Mann, giving his own, and not the makers’, test of the steam fire engine; and it must be a source of general satisfaction to be thus assured that everything has been done that is possible to protect Osborne in the event of an outbreak of fire, and it would be well that many other noble mansions, with their historical associations and their stores of art treasures, were equally well protected.

Mr Mann, writing from Osborne says:- “You ask me, now that the suction is connected and furnishing an adequate supply of water, to furnish you with the results obtained with the new fixed steam fire-engine you have just fixed here. I have great pleasure in doing so, the more especially as the work the engine does very considerably exceeds the stipulations of your contract.

I will refer to a trial made on the 9th May, as it was the one most carefully observed. By calculation, your engine, under the conditions of that trial, worked up to just 130 indicated horse-power, that is the power put into the pistons for transmission was 130 horse-power – and the calculation of the actual work done thereby exactly accords with this.

I would note that the reservoir that supplies the water to the engine is situated at a considerable distance, so that the suction is 248 yards in length, being 10in. in diameter for 168 yards, and 8in. for 80 yards; and the mains that deliver the water from the engine to the twenty-two hydrants in and around the house, and to the fire tanks, are in length about 600 yards. These mains vary in diameter as required, from 7in. at the engine, to 3in. at the furthest point. The fire tanks, which are placed close under the roof, hold always upwards of 8,000 gallons of water, for use solely for fire purposes; and now as to the work done by the engine in this trial.

By detail calculation, 44 of the 130-H.P. would be absorbed in the engine and pumps, leaving just two-thirds, or 86-H.P., to be put into the mains. This is a very satisfactory percentage, and it was verified by the pressure gauge and rate of flow at the entrance to the mains, showing that this was the actual amount of power put into the mains. I should here state, that to test the delivery or rate of flow, the pumps were tested for slip by counting the number of revolutions, and by measuring the quantity of water actually delivered into the large fire tanks, and to my surprise the amount of slip was shown to be practically nothing. The half volume swept by the pump buckets therefore gave the quantity of water delivered.

Returning to the work done, there was, as previously stated, 86-horse power delivered by the engine into the mains, and detail calculation shows that the friction in the mains, hydrants, and hose would absorb 12-horse power of this, leaving 74-horse power for use at the jets; and as ¾ in. jets would as a rule be used here, the actual work done, or power given, at the jets was tested by attaching six of the ¾ in. jets by hose to various hydrants along the length of the mains, and the height the water was thrown by these was measured at the jet furthest away from the engine which played on to the Flag Tower, where the height it attained could be accurately measured.

The actual height water was thrown was right up to the top of the flagstaff, thus attaining a height of 116ft., above the ground where the jet was held; some of the water passed several feet clear over the top of the flagstaff. From this the work thus done by the six jets, as you will find by calculation, was 74-horse power, agreeing exactly with the power delivered at the jets as calculated forward from the engine.

I need not tell you that this was most satisfactory, and it very considerably exceeds what you had stipulated the engine should be capable of doing, and I add with much pleasure, that there was no trouble of difficulty in obtaining this result.

It was an ordinary working trial, without any extraneous help, done by the ordinary labourers employed on the estate, none of whom had ever seen a steam fire-engine before working this one. The engine, whilst giving this great water pressure of over 300ft. head at the delivery, which gives for the jets – ¾ in. – used the greatest height which such sized jet can attain, delivered as much as 875 gallons per minute, sufficient for the maximum effect of six ¾ in. jets, as used in this trial.

Your contract specified only 600 gallons per minute to a height of practically 116ft.; and when I state that steam of only 100lb. pressure above atmosphere was used, you will readily understand that this was no forced trial, but that, on the contrary, a skilled forced trial would doubtless given 15 per cent more work from the engine. Having verified by calculation the abundant strength of all the principal parts of the boilers, engine and pumps as you were making them, and the mains, &c., being, I know, equal to the work, I should feel no hesitation whatever in having the engine worked for a forced trial up to, at least, 15 per cent more power, or, say, 150 indicated horse-power, should I ever be asked to do so.

In conclusion you asked me in what time steam is got up and engine at work. No special trial for this has been made, but I have noted that it is easily done in three minutes under the quarter of an hour, and, of course, by special attention it could be done in several minutes less time than this. The main point is, that the great boiler power is sufficient to keep the power up once it is raised, for that is the main consideration here, as there is ample water always stored in the tanks at pressure that will keep the jets going during the time steam is being raised. As to fuel, by the usual calculation I find that in ordinary working, as in the trial described, what is known under the misleading title of the efficiency of the steam, was 0.076 and the efficiency of the boilers was 0.655, consequently with good coal, say, corresponding to a theoretical evaporative power of 13.4lb., something just over 4lb. of coal per indicated horse-power per hour is all that is required to work the engine.

The boilers, engine, and pumps certainly prove themselves to be of an excellent design for their purpose in all respects, and the experience of their working by unskilled men is most satisfactory; in short, I have no doubt whatever that your equilibrium steam fire-engine will give the greatest satisfaction to those who approved and sanctioned the new arrangements to cope with fire now completed at Osborne.”

James Compton Merryweather - a brief reference to Osborne

James Compton Merryweather's 1884 treatise 'Fire Protection of Mansions', suggests that Osborne was furnished with more than just the fixed steam fire engine mentioned above. Beginning on Page 57 of the first edition, Merryweather, who at the time was in charge of the well known firefighting supplies business of the same name, refers to the practicality of utilising manual fire engines for firefighting purposes at mansions - This kind of engine is made in eight or nine sizes, the largest being capable of pumping 220 gallons of water to a height of 150 feet; it requires 46 men to work at its full power, but as so many will scarcely ever be available for the work upon a gentlemen's estate, I may set it down as too large for the protection of private residences. 

The engine of this class usually found at mansions, throws 115 gallons to a height of 125 feet when worked by 26 men. I have several times seen these engines worked at a considerable distance from the water supply; they were served by buckets passed from hand to hand along a line of people formed from the engine to the water, the empty buckets being returned to the water along another line. 

Occasionally, when there are two or more engines, and but a few people present, one engine stationed at the water has been made to pump into the cistern of another, placed as close as possible to the fire. Engines of this class are to be found at Osborne and Sandringham...

This suggests that the system installed at Osborne, beginning with the Shand Mason fixed steam fire engine, may have been afforded the addition of a second engine, at Merryweather's suggestion one requiring manual operation, to form a crude water relay. However, given the details in The Engineer, the addition of a manual pump seems unnecessary. 

Footnote - little is known of the Osborne House Estate Fire Brigade, the men who operated this engine and directed its jets of water. What is known can be found in Private and Works Brigades.

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