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A Short History of the Hand Drawn Hose Reel

Prior to the advent of the modern motorised appliances used by Fire and Rescue NSW today (FRNSW), brigades responded to fire calls with hand (or horse) drawn devices. These manual appliances typically required at least two personnel to operate and were essential for transporting firefighting equipment to the scene of an incident. This blog will give a brief overview of the manual hose reels utilised in New South Wales firefighting efforts from the 1870s up until the 1940s.

Hose Reel, c. 1890 by T. Green & Co

As pressurised reticulated water supplies became more common in the late 1800s, the hose soared in popularity among those tasked with fighting fires. To obtain a water supply, a standpipe would be attached to the hydrant fitting on the water pipe, and one or more lengths of hose with a branch and nozzle fitted to the other end would then be used to direct the water stream onto the fire. However, the issue of transporting the hefty-weighted hose soon became apparent.

Hose reels provided the means to easily transport several lengths of hose and the required fittings and tools from the station to the scene of the incident. In New South Wales, the appliance was first taken to the fire and then to the hydrant, unfurling the lengths of hose on its way. The standpipe was then removed and ‘shipped’, and the hose end connected. The hose was wound onto a freely rotating drum on the main axle, which could be locked in place from the drag handle. Once the brake was released, the lengths of hose could be effectively be ‘unwound’. A dog clutch was provided between the drum and wheel hub to enable hose to be would back on after use by propelling the whole reel.

While the hose reel needed to be transported to the site by hand, the large wheels enabled personnel to manoeuvre and smoothly pass over all types of terrain. At minimum, two firefighters were required to pull and operate the hose reel, but this number could be dramatically increased. Ropes were often attached to the shaft of the reel, and in some cases, were ‘harnessed’ to the firefighters tasked with transporting the device (as shown in the below photograph of East Willoughby Brigade, c. 1905).

The earliest known references to hose reels in Sydney have been found in the Annual Report for 1870 of the Sydney Fire Establishment and the 1874 Annual Report of the Sydney Insurance Fire Brigade. These reels are thought to have been acquired by the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB; now known as Fire and Rescue NSW) once the Fire Brigades Act came into effect, which required all brigades in Sydney to register with the Board of Fire Commissioners. Country station equipment inventories showed 112 reels were in use at the time, although many were reported to be in poor condition. This number slowly decreased over the years, and the used of reels as primary appliances appears to have ended as late as 1947 when stations at Paxton and Kearsley were issued with motor hose carriages.

Although they were no longer used as primary appliances, many brigades retained their reels for training or nostalgia purposes. Hand reel events were a regular display at inter-brigade competitions (now known as championships) from their arrival in the late 1800s. There was a formal drill involved in the use of these reels which required a fire-man crew, and each would be assigned a position “to get to work”, so their demonstrations at championship events is easily understood. Some brigades had special “competition” reels specifically built for the purpose of attending championship events. By the 1960s, eight reels were retained for use in the regular competitions held within the various state zones.

Hose reel event at Championships, Scarborough team

The Museum has a beautiful hose reel made in 1893 by W. H. Robertson for the Moss Vale Volunteer Fire Brigade on display. Alongside the brigade’s hose cart, this reel was the primary appliance in use at Moss Vale until this status was revoked with the arrival of their motorised Garford appliance in 1926. It was later transferred to Leeton Brigade in 1972 for the purposes of competition training, until it was withdrawn and placed into the care of the Museum in 1980.

The 1893 Robertson hose reel at the Museum of Fire

We hope you enjoyed this short snapshot into the history of the hose reel in New South Wales. If you have any photographs of an old reel in action, we would love to see them.

-Story by Museum of Fire Curatorial Team


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