Today (February 5) in London History – 1st steam fire engine & a bullet in the spine

Two “same day/same family” anniversaries: London’s first steam fire engine and a bullet in the spine.


I imagine him making a reflective entry in his diary at day’s end. 

“February 5th – 12th anniversary of father’s death. The Argyll burned down. They used the engine.”

Ok, let’s translate that. The diarist is John Braithwaite junior, the engineer. The Argyll was the Argyll Concert Rooms off Oxford Street. The father was John Braithwaite senior, the engineer and diver. The engine was John Braithwaite junior’s steam fire engine. The year is 1830. 

What happened was one for the diary – one for the books – one for the Today in London History podcast – because it was the debut of the steam fire engine. The steam fire engine had been invented the year before by our diarist, John Braithwaite the younger.

The Argyll Concert Rooms fire broke out in the kitchen, under the eastern wing that housed the grand concert rooms. 

Seven engines rushed to the scene but it was so cold the plugs were frozen. Pails of hot water had to be fetched from the nearby Marlborough Head to thaw the frozen plugs. The fire engines were out of action for 75 minutes. By the time they got going the fire was completely out of control, had reached the roof, beyond the range of their hoses. The new invention – the steam fire engine – did get stuck in. But it wasn’t enough. And in any case, it had its own problems. It was slow getting up steam, it was cumbersome to use and it needed more water than the street hydrants could supply.

It was blooded – that’s about all you can say. Except that had it been a match for the fire it would have put a dampener on the most impressive sight in London until the Houses of Parliament burned down four years later. 

A newsman on the scene said, “the splendour of the sight exceeded anything we ever witnessed. The view from Portland-Place, through the portico of All Souls Church, was extremely picturesque. A splendid light was thrown on the chapel in Regent Street and when the dome of the Argyll-rooms became ignited the conflagration was splendid beyond description. 

He goes on with mounting excitement. “The long roof of the rooms was in flames, whilst immense volumes of smoke burst from the windows. The engines now were in full play. The New Police – this was right after Home Secretary Robert Peel’s creation of the Metropolitan Police Force – the New Police greatly exerted themselves. A spacious area was presented for the play of the engines; improper characters were removed. At 12 the roof of the room facing Argyll Street fell in; but so far from smothering the Immense flames underneath in an instant, the volume of fire burst forth with increased magnificence”

Love that “improper characters were removed.” Wonder who they were. And did “proper characters” get to stay on, keep their ringside seats.

Anyway, the premiere of the first steam fire engine in London. 

But come on, that’s just Quiz Trivia stuff, fun though it is. 

What’s so London about this is the pickings are infinitely richer than a mere Quiz Trivia ‘first,’ fun though it is. For starters, since it was the Argyll that burned down you have mention another premiere. 

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony premiered – yes, the world premiere – at the Argyll Concert Rooms. And it doesn’t end there. It’s classic London, this. The Argyll was the venue for the most caustic – the deadliest and most famous social encounter in Regency History. There was a masquerade ball at the Argyll. The guests were masked. The guest of honour was the Prince Regent. He of course arrived late. Four men were there at the door to greet him. One of the four was Beau Brummell and Regency dandy and arbiter of fashion who had been, in former times, a member of the Prince Regent’s inner circle. But things had moved on to some extent. Had moved on more than Beau Brummell appreciated.  Anyway, when the Prince Regent arrived – and remember, he was corpulent and very sensitive about his excess poundage – he warmly greeted the other three men. But when he came to Brummell he looked past him, cut him dead. What was called The Cut direct. The Prince Regent was confident that there’d be no comeback from Brummell. He, the Prince Regent, was after all, royal – “the first gentleman of Europe.” There was no crossing him.

But on this occasion there was. Beau Brummell wasn’t standing for it. He turned to his friend, Alvanley, and said, “who was your fat friend, Alvanley?” It couldn’t have been more rebarbative, insulting and embarrassing for the future king of England. A poison dart right into the well-padded heart of the Prince Regent. That too happened at the Argyll Rooms. The Argyll was a London building that was historically on fire. In more senses than one. And that’s the thing about London. Again and again there’s a dopamine hit of, “ah, so that’s where that happened – that’s very satisfying to know.”

But back to the fire, back to what happened on February 5th,1830. 

By virtue of being a London story the first steam fire engine tale is also, by definition, a Londoners story.  

So let’s meet some of the principals, let’s meet those Londoners. And look, this is not out of casual, idle curiosity. The propellant here is my – David’s – lifelong obsession with this infinitely fascinating city. I’m thinking I might make a connection or two here – find out something interesting about London that I didn’t know. Deepen my understanding and appreciation of the place.

So let’s start by meeting John Braithwaite, the younger. Sure enough, he’s a Londoner. He was born on March 19th, 1797. Not long after the French Revolution. And just three days before the last invasion of Britain began. French forces, under the American Colonel William Tate, had just landed near Fishguard in Wales. Oh, and just weeks after John Adams was sworn in as the second President of the United States, after George Washington. That French invasion, that’s a rich plum. Bet you didn’t know that. I sure didn’t. Anyway, John Braithwaite the younger was a steam engineer pioneer.  He played an important part in the early development of railways. But let’s take leave of him with a last look at his fire engine – the first practical steam fire engine. Here’s a show stopper for you: it was ultimately destroyed by a London mob. As we know it had acquitted itself pretty well at the Argyll Rooms fire. And it was also called out at the English Opera House fire and the god awful conflagration of the houses of parliament in 1834. Its specs were impressive: it threw 150 gallons of water per minute to a height of 90 feet. It burnt coke. It got up steam in about 20 minutes. Its principal drawback was the fire brigade of the day loathed it. The fire brigade was so jealous that Braithwaite had to withdraw it. Go figure. But it had its moment of glory, has its place in the record books.

As for John Braithwaite the elder, he was also an engineer. Ran in the family. The elder Braithwaite was also a diver. He wasn’t a Londoner. He was born in  St. Albans. His family had run an engine-making shop there since 1695. Making pumps and engines for the brewing industry and other trades. Yes, bears repeating, these things run in families. The family left St Albans in 1768, when John Braithwaite the elder was eight years old. By 1782 the firm was established in Portland Street, near Soho Square. At the time that was a major centre of engineering in London. I did not know that and I’m glad I found it out. I’m guiding down that way, I’ll pull the curtain back on that chapter in London’s history. 

John Braithwaite the elder’s main contribution to the national story – and thus the London story – was as a creator of a diving machine to salvage goods from shipwrecks. His knowledge of pumps and hydraulics stood him in good stead in that field. 

He set himself and his sons up with an establishment – a townhouse and works – in the New Road (now Euston Road). Location location location. There on the New Road the firm was perfectly positioned for the Regent’s Canal – the Braithwaites would fit a steam propeller to a barge – and the imminent arrival, right there, in the neighbourhood of their works, of the railways.

Having done much good work in the engineering and salvage fields, John Braithwaite the elder retired to a small estate, the Old Manor House at Westbourne Grove. Near Paddington. At the time that was the northwestern edge of London. Good place for him to retire to – it was convenient to his townhouse and works in the New Road. And that brings us to his son’s diary entry: “February 5th – the 12th anniversary of father’s death.” On February 2nd his father had been attacked by a highwayman near the entrance lodge to his Paddington estate. The highwayman pulled a pistol and shot the old man in the spine. He died three days later. 

So, highwaymen operating on the outskirts of London a matter of months before Charles Babbage published his proposal for “a difference engine”, a forerunner of the modern computer.

Highwaymen operating a month after the Institution of Civil Engineers was founded. John Braithwaite the elder was a member. 

And on that note, good night, from London.

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