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The History of the Wheeled Escape Ladder


Medieval depiction of ladders used to rescue lives from a fire [Museum of Fire Collection]
Medieval depiction of ladders used to rescue lives from a fire [Museum of Fire Collection]

The earliest use of ladders for firefighting appears to have been for the accessing and removing of thatched roofs of buildings, with suggestions the practice dates back to the Roman Empire. As buildings grew taller, their use for saving life became apparent, and following the invention of fire hoses the opportunities for gaining access to upper stories for firefighting also increased.


The early pumping engines were too small to carry ladders on board, so they were carried by the responding firefighters. The need for longer, and disproportionally heavier, ladders and the later use of extendable ladders of even greater weight soon led to the development of means of transporting them.


In the United States, “Hook and Ladder Trucks” had appeared by the start of the 19th century. These were usually a four-wheel wagon, either hand or (later) horse drawn, with racks and brackets by which a number of long ladders, hooks, buckets, axes, etc. could be transported to the fireground.

A typical small hand or horse drawn Hook and Ladder Truck of the 1890's [Museum of Fire Collection]
A typical small hand or horse drawn Hook and Ladder Truck of the 1890's [Museum of Fire Collection]

Conversely in the early 19th century, the United Kingdom began to develop its version of ladders utilised for rescue. Taking a slightly different approach then the USA, England saw the formation of a group known as “The Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire. The organisation began in 1836 and their main focus was on the deployment of Escape Ladders and portable ladder units to assist in the rescuing people from fire.


The early versions of Escape Ladders comprised of a single ladder length of about 6-7m, with a canvas “chute” to assist in evacuation of victims. Additional heights could be achieved by adding a portable ladder. Large versions evolved from this, using one or two addition sliding lengths within the ladder allowing height up to 20m. These were transported on vehicles, initially hand drawn, and horse drawn carriages.

By 1865, the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Act in the UK placed the responsibility of providing an efficient fire brigade onto the Metropolitan Board of Works and the equipment and staff of the Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire were absorbed into the new organisation.

Escape Ladders in use at a fire in Kent St, October 1902 [Museum of Fire Collection]
Escape Ladders in use at a fire in Kent St, October 1902 [Museum of Fire Collection]

Escape ladders would be introduced to Australia in 1854/55 by T. Bown, the Superintendent at the time for the Insurance Fire Brigade Company in Sydney. Bown would acquire a single Wivell Fire Escape Ladder unit which would be used by his company for the next decade. Whilst Bown went about acquiring the Escape Ladder, Andrew Torning, the “father of volunteer firefighting”, who had a vested interest in rescue techniques formerly complained in 1877 that the insurance brigades were more concerned with saving property than with saving life and hence the Escape Ladder was falling into disrepair from neglect. As a result, Torning would commission the manufacturing of his own Ladder Truck which was made in 1877 by Mr William Halley, being inspired by the Hook and Ladder Companies which could be found in the USA.


Merryweather Wheeled Escape Ladder on display in the Museum of Fire with Japanese Fire Engine in the foreground, 2023
Merryweather Wheeled Escape Ladder on display in the Museum of Fire with Japanese Fire Engine in the foreground, 2023

Interestingly, by the late 1880’s, Escape Ladders would continue to be uncommon with few brigades actually possessing their own Escape Ladder unit. Superintendent Bear, the first Chief Officer of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB; now known as Fire and Rescue NSW, FRNSW) would go on to state in 1888 how their use in Sydney was hindered by overhead tram and telephone wires as well as the operation of such Escape Ladders and appropriate crew being too costly a service to ever ask the average taxpayer to support. Ultimately this led to Escape Ladders not being more widely adopted in Sydney until the turn of the century once issues like telephone wires had been resolved by being installed underground.


During the 1910’s some of the wheeled escape and curricle ladders of the horse drawn era were transferred onto motor appliances in the fleet but by the 1920’s they were removed and no longer utilised by the brigade.


Whilst Wheeled Escape Ladders fell out of use in Sydney in the 1920’s, other states and territories would continue to utilise them for much longer. The one on display at the Museum of Fire was manufactured by Merryweather for the Darwin Fire Brigade in the 1950’s. Other states would continue using them until the 1980’s and Melbourne would possess a Wheeled Escape Ladder which they use up until 2006.


-Story by the Museum of Fire Heritage Team


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