In 1859, Whanganui was a small military town where the soldiers acted as firefighters.
If fire broke out, the soldiers retrieved the Merryweather fire engine stored at the Rutland Stockade and backed it down to the river where it would source the water from.
As the town grew, the need for a dedicated fire service grew along with it and the Wanganui Volunteer Fire Brigade was formed in 1866. Their first major fire was at the Rutland Hotel on Christmas Day 1868.
Initially water was pumped from the Rutland's well, but this had little effect on the flames, and the fire was eventually put out by the "bucket brigade" – a line of men, women and children passing buckets and tins of river water to the site of the fire.
The town continued to grow and as the property value increased, so did the fear of inadequate firefighting equipment.
In June 1902, the Wanganui Borough Council held a meeting to discuss the purchase of a new fire engine. The council was in the process of increasing the town's water supply which would result in increased water pressure, but would this be sufficient for fighting fires with the current equipment?
At the time, when the alarm was raised a horse or human-drawn fire engine was dragged to the source of the fire, then the boiler was lit to generate the steam pressure required to propel the water the required distance to the flames. It took around 6-10 minutes for the pressure to build up; meanwhile, the flames raged.
Mr TD Cummins, an experienced firefighter, was asked for his professional opinion. Cummins advised the council that a motor steam fire engine was necessary.
His concern was that the water pressure would cause frequent ruptures in the mains and the fire engines would not be able to make use of them. He recommended a steam-powered machine with a ladder carriage that could have multiple uses as a fire escape and a water tower if needed.
Other added benefits included that, being an automobile, there were no ongoing costs when it wasn't in use as there were for horses; it was able to climb hills and travel long distances without tiring; and it could generate steam pressure as it travelled to the fire rather than having to start the process when it got there.
The council opted for a Merryweather self-propelled steam fire engine, capable of pumping 400 gallons per minute, with 30 feet of suction hose and a telescopic ladder.
The total cost of the new appliance was £1004 (or nearly $190,000 today), and it made Whanganui famous as the importer of the first self-propelled steam fire engine in Australasia.
Merryweather & Sons is the oldest fire engineering firm in the world, with business origins that date back to 1690.
They worked with engineer Edward Field to mount his vertical steam boiler onto a horse-drawn appliance, and in 1836 a Merryweather horse-drawn steam-powered appliance won first prize in a fire engine competition at Crystal Palace, resulting in the firm being granted a Royal Warrant.
The photograph here shows the engine with the crew outside a fire station. The plaque on the left reads "Merryweather London first grand prize patent steam fire engine". This engine was later sold to the Ohakune Volunteer Fire Brigade in 1921.
• Sandi Black is the archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.