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December 15, 2011

Colonial Williamsburg’s Antique Fire Engine Centerpiece of New Exhibition

Colonial Williamsburg’s newest museum exhibition highlights a single antique object from the Colonial Williamsburg collections — a fire engine constructed in mid-18th-century that is similar to one purchased to protect the Capitol in 1754.

“Richard Newsham’s Fire Engine” opens Feb. 18, 2012, in the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum.

The fire engine was originally constructed by Newsham & Ragg of London between 1744 and 1765 under the specifications of Richard Newsham’s patents of 1721 and 1725. His design was the first to discharge water in a very powerful continuous stream. A Newsham broadside, printed in 1727, claims that the engine could hold 125 gallons of water, discharge at the rate of 125 gallons per minute and spray effectively at a distance of 45 yards.

“Richard Newsham’s fire engines became the clear choice for anyone in England or America who was serious about combating fires,” said Erik Goldstein, Colonial Williamsburg’s curator of mechanical arts and numismatics. “So effective were Newsham’s engines that some were used for more than a century. Many survive today in museum collections on both sides of the Atlantic as a testament to their popularity, quality and usefulness.”

Based on the size of its water cistern, or reservoir, this engine appears to be the fourth largest of six available sizes. Its estimated weight is 700 pounds empty and 2,000 pounds fully loaded and equipped. It is constructed of wood, iron, various copper alloys, leather, oil and paint.

The fire engine was refurbished and updated around 1830 by Hadley, Simpkin & Lott, also of London, probably in conjunction with the engine’s sale at that time. The company’s cast plaque remains on the engine and is thought to have been placed over a painted signature of Newsham & Ragg.

Sir Thomas Crawley-Boevey purchased the refurbished used fire engine in 1830 for slightly more than £53 to be used on his estate at Flaxley Abbey in Gloucestershire. It was used there until well into the 20th century. Colonial Williamsburg purchased it in 1960 from a British dealer.

In addition to the fire engine, the related equipment includes three buckets, a coil of hose and other ancillary equipment.

“Richard Newsham’s Fire Engine” will be on view through 2013. A Colonial Williamsburg admission ticket or Museum ticket is required. The DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum is located at 326 W. Francis St. and is open daily throughout the year.

The exhibition of Colonial Williamsburg’s antique fire engine — fully restored by director of conservation David Blanchfield — is funded by a grant from the Ambrose and Ida Fredrickson Foundation of Summit, N. J. The Fredricksons were Raleigh Tavern Society Charter members who established through their estate a foundation that has continued to support Colonial Williamsburg.

The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg include the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum and the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum. The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum is home to the nation’s premier collection of American folk art, with more than 5,000 folk art objects made during the 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. The DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum exhibits the best in British and American decorative arts from 1670–1830.

The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg are located at the intersection of Francis and South Henry Streets in Williamsburg, Va., and are entered through the Public Hospital of 1773. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. For museum program information, telephone (757) 220-7724.

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is the not-for-profit educational and cultural organization that preserves and operates the restored 18th-century Revolutionary capital of Virginia as a town-sized living history museum, telling the inspirational stories of our nation’s founding men and women. Williamsburg is located in Virginia’s Tidewater region, 20 minutes from Newport News, within an hour’s drive of Richmond and Norfolk, and 150 miles south of Washington, D.C., off Interstate 64. For more information about Colonial Williamsburg, call 1-800-HISTORY or visit Colonial Williamsburg’s website at

Media Contact:
Jim Bradley
(757) 220-7281