As far as it can be established, the first fire engine was Egyptian and not a Roman invention. It was in the city of Alexandria that this first primitive device sprayed water and by the third century BC the ancient inventor Ctesibius converted the principle into a pump. This contraption was later improved by Heron in the first century B.C. Much like a primitive engine, Heron’s pump had pistons that were moved by a rocker arm that pivoted from a centre post. A pipe led out of the pump and could be manipulated up and down, or left to right. The remains of such a pump have been found both in Italy and in England.

A huge fire in Rome occurred in 6 AD that prompted the Roman Empire to establish a “Corps of Vigiles” (a concept that due to political reasons, remained only in Rome) that would last until around 500 AD.


The history of firefighting in Britain commenced within settlements created following the Roman invasion in 43 AD. Originally slaves were recruited and formed into units known as “Familia Publica” to fight fires.

These units would generally be station around the walls and gates of the established towns and cities. Unfortunately they were not very well trained or equipped and as slaves, they were not particularly motivated. However, they were provided with those basic pumps. Another device created that was the forerunner of a screw mechanism. A wooden box with a handle attached to a screw fitted over the water distribution channels. As it was rotated the screw lifted water to be transferred into waiting buckets. The buckets were man handled to the fire where the “Familia Publica” inserted the Ctesibius/Heron pumps to discharge water onto the fire.


It is widely believed that King William the Conqueror instigated the very first fire safety legislation following that invasion in 1066. It comprised the instruction; that all fires in houses were to be extinguished at nightfall.

This was generally achieved by simply placing a metal type cover over the open fire place, grate or hearth. This action according to the French language was referred to as “Coveur Feu” and subsequently translated into English, simply meaning Curfew, and for many years hence, the curfew bells would ring out across Britain.

The following has been contributed by John Meakins – January; 2010

Early fire fighting – Following the departure of the Romans from these shores in the 5th Century, it was more than a thousand years before any form of organised fire-fighting re-appeared.

The Great Fire of London occurred in 1666 and, as a result the city merchants pressed for some form of fire insurance. Insurance pioneers realised it would be in their interests to set up their own private fire brigades to limit financial loss should a fire break out in any of their insured properties. However, insurance fire brigades did not appear in Kent until 1802 when the Kent Fire Office formed a brigade in Deptford (which was at the time part of Kent). In the same year, and completely separately from insurance companies, Hythe became the first town in Kent to set up its own fire brigade, followed by Ashford in 1826. By the 20th century, it was quite fashionable for local authorities to have their own fire brigades. Maidstone had seen the formation of its borough fire brigade in 1901 when the Royal Insurance Company provided a new Shand Mason horse-drawn steam fire engine, named The Queen. This company had taken over the Kent Fire Office in the same year, simultaneously disbanding their own brigade. Things often became very competitive between individual town and village brigades, in many instances, each one trying to outdo its neighbour. In 1910, Bromley became the first town in Kent to house motorised fire engines, with two new Merryweather vehicles being stationed there.

The threat of war – Until 1938, the provision of a fire brigade was a discretionary power, and naturally, there were a few local authorities that regarded it as an unnecessary expense. However, encouraged by the threat of war, Parliament made it a duty and so created over 1,600 individual fire authorities across the nation. It was these local brigades and the Auxiliary Fire Service – also formed in 1938 – that valiantly coped with the consequences of the Battle of Britain and much of the Blitz. In August 1941, local brigades and the AFS were absorbed into one organisation called The National Fire Service.

The fire service was returned to local authority control on 1 April 1948, with responsibility in England and Wales being given to the 146 counties and county boroughs of the day. The County of Kent and the City and County Borough of Canterbury combined to form Kent Fire Brigade, taking over 79 fire stations from the National Fire Service.

Change and evolution – Subsequent local government reorganisations have had their effect upon the brigade, most significantly in 1965 when eight fire stations in the northwest of the county were transferred to the newly created Greater London area. Further reorganisation in 1974 saw Canterbury lose its county borough status and the fire brigade became the exclusive responsibility of Kent County Council.

In 1998, the structure of local government changed again and Kent combined with the new Medway Towns unitary authority for fire brigade provision.

On 1 October 2003, Kent Fire Brigade was renamed Kent Fire and Rescue Service to better reflect the requirements demanded of it for many years.

Leave a Reply