In the Museum’s collection is a wonderful historic fire engine, the 1923 Merryweather Turntable Ladders, which celebrates its 100th birthday this year. In honour of such it has been commemorated as the Museum of Fire’s vehicle of the year for 2023. Whilst a somewhat allusive fire engine in the historical record, the Merryweather has certainly got some stories to tell over its 100-year tenure.
Early History of Merryweather and the Petrol Fire Engine Revolution
The turntable ladder was a concept that had been experimented with as early as 1868 by Daniel Hayes, an engineer from the San Francisco Fire Department. Magirus, a German company known for their pioneering work in firefighting equipment, announced their first turntable ladders product in 1892. The design of turntable ladders has continuously evolved, beginning as wooden ladders with hand-operated movements, with the eventual improvement of springs and compressed gas for assistance, to eventually fully electric and motorized ladders powered by the vehicle’s traction power. Ladders would transition from wood to steel during the 1930s and mechanical drives would be superseded by hydraulics with today’s turntable ladder vehicles being computerised with the most advanced safety features.
Whilst the turntable ladder as a concept existed since the late 1800’s, it would not be until the early decades of the 1900s that we see the turntable ladder installed on a motorized vehicle for firefighting use. In 1903 we have the earliest example of a self-propelled petrol motor fire engine which was built by Merryweather for the Tottenham Fire Brigade in Britain. Merryweather would continue to experiment with motorized fire engines, with companies such as Dennis and Leyland following suit with a variety of different petrol motors, petrol-electric motors, and even battery-electric motors. However, the petrol motor took the crown proving to be the most reliable system with Dennis in 1908 and Leyland in 1909 respectively, launching their finest petrol motor fire engines to date.
Whilst many companies across the UK competed for the market, by 1922 when Shand Mason and Co., a magnate in the steam fire engine market became absorbed by Merryweather, the primary fire engine manufacturers of the western world would consist of Dennis, Leyland and Merryweather. Merryweather would then make a name for itself amongst its competitors as the only British manufacturer of turntable ladders, whilst the likes of Dennis and Leyland would favour the German produced ladders of Magirus and Metz.
The Fire Engine Itself
On 10 May 1923 the South Australian Board of Fire Commissioners ordered the Merryweather Turntable Ladders for the price of £3315 ($301,575.47 today). The vehicle was then installed later that year on 23 November and posted to City Station on Wakefield Street in Adelaide. Packing a 65-horsepower petrol motor the fire engine could be operated by one man, controlling the engine and ladder. The ladder itself acted as a water tower to assist in extinguishing flames from multi-storey buildings. In 1937 the turntable ladder which once could extend to 30m was restricted to only 20m due to safety concerns. By 1940 the Merryweather was decommissioned from service due to its aging and was replaced by a 39m Leyland Metz Turntable Ladders. During its 17 years in service, the Merryweather was the only ladder vehicle of its kind in the South Australian Fire Brigade Fleet and remains as an example of a rare vintage ladder fire engine of its time across Australia.
Whilst decommissioned from use by the Fire Brigade, the Merryweather would remain in storage with them until 1956 when the South Australia Electricity Trust, the managing body of South Australia’s electrical network, would purchase the engine for £300 ($10,950 today). The Electricity trust however were only interested in the turntable ladder apparatus rather than the entire vehicle and proceeded to remove the ladders and its turntable from the chassis of the engine. The ladder would then be mounted on a 10 NR Mack truck chassis and was utilised for power line maintenance across Adelaide.
The chassis during this time was given to the Vintage Sporting Club of South Australia to manage and take care of, with the vehicle when not in use being stored at the Birdwood Mill Museum (now the National Motor Museum) in South Australia. Eventually in 1972 the National Motor Museum would accept the vehicle into its collection along with the ladder which the Electricity Trust no longer required, allowing for the chassis and the ladder to be reunited once again. During the time the ladder was in use by the Electricity Trust, their alterations to the mechanisms in driving the ladder can still be seen today, with the ladder coated in a different paint job compared to the fire engine. Whilst on display for a short time at the National Motor Museum, it remained primarily in storage, with the Museum of Fire taking custody of the Merryweather in 2019, which is when it made its journey from South Australia to New South Wales.
-Story by the Curator, special thanks to the National Motor Museum for their collaboration on information