Putting the Engine Before the Horse

We’re all familiar with the big red shiny fire engines that hurtle down our streets on their way to put out fires. But have you ever thought where fire engines started out? At first, fire pumps were pulled by horses. But, the invention of the petrol combustion engine changed the fire-fighting game forever.

Dundee City Fire Brigade’s first motor fire engine entered service in October 1908. It was a 50hp Argyll Motor Fire Tender Escape and came complete with all fittings and accessories and cost £746. That’s around £58,000 in today’s money. You can see a picture of the new truck at the top of this article. The new fire engine revolutionised how the Brigade could respond to fires. In comparison to horses it proved itself to be faster, more efficient and cheaper to maintain. Other motor fire engines would follow in 1912 and 1915.

1911006 Fire Masters annual report
Excerpt from the 1911 Firemaster’s Annual Report

In 1904 the Fire Brigade employed 4 horses but by 1912 there were only 2 left. On the 8th February 1917, Dundee’s Firemaster wrote a letter to the Police and Lighting Committee. In it he proposed to dispose of the Brigade’s last 2 remaining horses and replace them with a new motor fire engine. The letter was short and to the point:

“I beg to recommend that the pair of horses belonging to the Department be disposed of, and a suitable motor vehicle purchased instead. I make this recommendation on the grounds of efficiency and economy, and especially in view of the increased cost of forage.

The horses are presently used for hauling the 70 foot Fire Escape to and from fires, and for other general work connected with the Department. The proposed motor vehicle could be used as a tractor for the Escape, and also for the other work referred to.

The horses are costing about £120 per annum, and if it is decided to continue them in use, provision will have to be made for a new horse in the 1917-1918 estimates, which would probably entail an expenditure of about £100, less the amount received for the old horse.

The cost of a suitable motor vehicle would be about £450, but the sale of the horses presently employed would probably realise about £100, thus reducing the cost of the motor to £350. This cost could be written off at the rate of £25 per annum, and the cost of running and upkeep would work out at about £40 per annum, thus showing a material annual saving to the Department.

Another advantage of the proposed change would be that part of the stable could be utilised for additional workshop accommodation, of which the Department is greatly in need.”

The Committee left the decision of what to do with the Committee’s Convener and the Brigade’s Firemaster.

We find the decision they arrived at in the minutes of a Police and Lighting Committee’s meeting dated the 6th of March. At this meeting, tenders were being opened to buy a new 30cwt “Garford” chassis. It cost £425, which is roughly £25,000 in today’s money.

So what happened to the horses?

The horses were now surplus to requirements and went up for sale. Their time working in an emergency service role was not over yet though. On the 10th of March, the Police Chief Constable wrote to the Police and Lighting Committee stating that he would like to buy the 2 Fire Brigade horses. They would replace his horses doing ambulance and prison van duties. The Committee agreed to the Chief Constable’s proposal.

There was one final hurdle to jump through – were the horses fit enough to do ambulance and prison van duties?

An assessment by a veterinary surgeon ensured all was well and the transfer of the Brigade’s horses went through as planned. The era of horse drawn appliances in Dundee City Fire Brigade was over.

Watch a short clip of the Horse drawn fire engines on the BFI Player.

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