The introduction to England of automatic fire sprinkler 1881 - 1888

The story of the instruction to England of the Automatic Sprinkler as written by John Wormald in December 1923

Although the story of the invention and development of the Automatic Sprinkler as a fire-fighting device has so often been told, more particularly on the other side of the Atlantic, few people realise that it was, after all, a British invention.  It was an Englishman - John Carey - who in 1806 conceived the idea of a heat-operated device by means of which water was distributed through a system of perforated pipes to extinguish a fire.   In 1864 Major Stewart Harrison of the 1st Engineer (London) Volunteers, gave to the world the first Automatic Sprinkler Head, his design being as a matter of fact superior to many that followed it.  But, as so often happens, it was not to the country of its birth that this epoch-making invention owed its practical development, and it is to Henry Parmelee, of Newhaven, Conn., and Frederick Grinnell, of Providence, R.I., that the credit must be awarded for giving to the Automatic Sprinkler its practical application and laying the foundation of what is now a worldwide industry.

It is not my present purpose, however, to traverse the evolution in America of the Automatic Sprinkler on either its mechanical or commercial side, but to tell the story, as simply and as briefly as I can, of its introduction to our own country and the difficulties with which its pioneers were beset.

It was in the early days of 1881 that Mr George F Parmelee arrived in Manchester from America, bringing with him the Sprinkler invented by his brother Henry in 1874.  The Parmelee Sprinkler had already achieved a considerable amount of success in the States, and the first demonstration of its working in this country naturally aroused much interest.  For this purpose, Mr Parmelee erected in the Wholesale Market Square of Bolton a wooden shed 20ft x 30ft which he fitted with six of his Sprinklers. 

The floor was strewed with a mass of chips, shavings, tallow, cask shavings, barrels, etc, all well saturated with paraffin oil, and to this combustible material light was set in three places by Superintendent Philips of the Bolton Fire Brigade.  Immediately huge volumes of flames burst forth and drove the spectators back some distance from the shed.  In one minute and twenty seconds, the first Sprinkler opened, followed by two others, and in a short time, not a vestige of the fire remained.  My old friend and partner, Mr John Taylor- then a very young man - was a keenly interested spectator, and he well remembers the deep impression made on his mind by the experiment. 

One week later a second test was given in the same building, but on this occasion, the fuel consisted of "a large store of old mule carriages, broken up and intermingled with wood shavings, strewed down three sides and in the centre".  According to a report that appeared in the Bolton Evening News of 30 June 1881 - "fire was set to this inflammable material in five places, and in 58 seconds one of the caps had burst off and the Sprinkler was at work.  The flames had no sooner appeared to be getting hold, and from the open doorway could be seen leaping to the ceiling, then they were hidden to sight in a cloud of smoke, and in three minutes the fire was practically quelled."  It was afterwards found that all the Sprinklers had been unsealed.

During the remainder of 1881 and the early months of 1882, Mr Parmelee devoted himself to educating the Insurance Companies up to an appreciation of the value of the Automatic Sprinkler as a means of reducing the loss ratio.  He realised that he could never succeed in obtaining contracts from the mill owners necessitating the expenditure of considerable amount of capital unless he could at the same time ensure for them a reasonable return upon their outlay in the shape of reduced premiums.  In this connection he was fortunate enough to enlist the sympathies of two men, both possessed of considerable influence in the insurance world.  The first of these was the late Major Hesketh, who, in addition to being a cotton spinner in a large business in Bolton, was Chairman of the Bolton Cotton Trades Mutual Insurance Company; a concern which had been founded some 10 years earlier by the Fine Cotton Spinners of Bolton and the surrounding neighbourhood, to undertake, on what were practically co-operative lines, the insurance of mills belonging to its members.  The Directors of this Company and more particularly its Secretary, the late Peter Kevan, C.A., took the keenest possible interest in Mr Parmelee's early experiments, and eventually it was to Major Hesketh, its Chairman, that Mr Parmelee owed his first order for the Sprinkler Installations which were installed in the Cotton Spinning Mills of John Stones & Co., at Astley Bridge, Bolton, to be followed soon afterwards by the Alexandra Mills belonging to Mr John Butler of the same town. 

The Bolton Mutual Company was after all only a small local concern (at least in those days), and they neither sought nor accepted business even in the other cotton districts of Lancashire.  It was therefore very necessary that Mr Parmelee should seek the support of a far wider influence, and this he found in the late Mr James North Lane, the Manager of the Mutual Fire Insurance Corporation of Manchester.  This Company was founded in 1870 by the Textile Manufacturers' Associations of Lancashire and Yorkshire as a protest against the high rates of Insurance then charged by the Fire Offices for their Mills, and with the declared policy of encouraging risk improvement and more particularly the adoption of the most up-to-date and scientific apparatus for extinguishing fires.  The Mutual Company's operations were, however, not confined to an extensive business with the Cotton Mills of the North, for it operated largely in the wooled and worsted districts of Yorkshire, the West of England and South of Scotland, in the jute and linen mills of Dundee and the North of Ireland, and in fact in every description of manufacturing risk throughout the country.  It was then, very natural that this automatic fire-fighting device, to which the Americans had given the name of a "Sprinkler," should attract Mr Lanes's keen interest.

It was at this Juncture - i.e the summer of 1881 - that my connection with the Automatic Sprinkler began.  After passing two extremely useful and interesting years in the Cotton Mills of Barlow & Jones Ltd of Bolton gaining much valuable experience,

I obtained, in 1878, an appointment on the staff of Mr Lane's Company in Manchester, and became its chief surveyor about the time of Mr Parmelee's arrival in England. Mr Lane at once introduced me to him with the request that I should take up the study of this new system of fire extinction.  It was not long before I became most deeply interested in the Automatic Sprinkler, not only on its scientific but its practical side, and I threw myself with all available energy into the work of pioneering the new invention.

About a year later Mr Parmelee decided that a more thorough test, under conditions approximating to those of a Cotton Spinning Mill, was needed to convince the Industrials of Lancashire of the efficiency of his Automatic Sprinkler.  In conjunction with the Bolton Insurance Company, the bold step was taken of hiring the Spa Mill in Bolton, an old cotton spinning factory of non-fireproof construction, five stories in height, with wooden boarded floors which were saturated with the oil of 50 years work.  The test was made on the 22 March 1882, and the Bolton Evening News of the same date published the following report of what took place: 

"It will be remembered that, in June last, a trial was made in a specially erected wooden building on the Wholesale Market, and it was then considered that the contracted space condensed the heat, and therefore the Sprinklers came into operation sooner than would have been the case under less circumscribed conditions.  The present experiment was therefore arranged, and on the fourth floor two pairs of spinning mules were erected.  Thirty-two Sprinklers were fixed in this room, and a similar number in the top storey.  A quantity of shavings and combustible material was scattered around one pair of mules and a light applied.  Within a very short time the flames obtained complete mastery and dense volumes of smoke filled the room; in fact, it was all but impossible to breathe within two minutes after the light was applied.  At the expiration of a minute and a half the first Sprinkler came into operation, and two others shortly followed.  Within three and a half minutes the fire was extinguished and the spectators, who had made a hasty and somewhat undignified exit, were able to return.  It will, therefore, be seen that the experiment was entirely satisfactory, and furnishes the best recommendation for the general adoption of the system. It is clear that a general stampede of the inmates would have taken place before the fire was extinguished."

I attended, and assisted Mr Parmelee with this demonstration, the complete success of which made a profound impression on the large and influential company present.  For a few brief moments after the fire had got well alight I feared that nothing could save the mill, and along with others rushed to the staircase to escape the intense heat and dense smoke, only to find on returning that the Sprinklers had done their work splendidly and performed all, and even more than had been claimed for them.

But despite all our efforts it was slow and weary work getting Sprinklers established in this country, and during 1882 and 1883 not more than a score of factories were protected by Mr Parmelee.  Nevertheless much valuable pioneering work was accomplished.  The old and immensely influential Tariff Insurance Companies were still standing aloof, but the day of their conversion was at hand.

The next chapter in our story is an extremely interesting one.  Mr (Sir William) Mather, the head of the old-established Engineering firm of Mather and Platt, of Salford Iron Works, Manchester, who was then a member of Parliament, had been appointed a member of the Royal Commission on Technical Education, which, in the summer of 1883, proceeded to America to gather evidence for their report to our Government. 

Whilst in the States, Mr Mather, during a visit to the Brown University at Providence, met Mr Fredrick Grinnell, formerly the chief mechanical engineer and general manager of the Jersey City Locomotive Works, who, on his retirement from the Railway's service, had purchased the Providence Steam and Gas Pipe Company's plant and settled down in that town.  Mr Grinnell had already become associated with Mr Henry Parmelee, for whom he not only manufactured the "Parmelee" Sprinkler, but designed and erected the piping installations in which the "Parmelee" Heads were fitted.  Recognising the essential importance of sensitiveness in any self-operated fire extinguisher, Mr Grinnell-who was possessed of great mechanical genius-set to work to improve upon Mr Parmelee's invention and eventually evolved the well known "Grinnell" Sprinkler, in which he secured greatly increased sensitiveness by removing the fusible joint from all contact with the water, and, by the ingenious method of seating a valve in the centre of a flexible diaphragm, relieved the low fusing soldered joint of the strain of water pressure or hammer.  By this means the valve seat was forced against the valve by the water pressure, producing a self-closing action, so that the greater the water pressure, the tighter the valve.  The flexible diaphragm had a further and most important function, viz; that it caused the valve and its seat to move outwards simultaneously until the solder joint was completely severed. 

The invention of Mr Grinnell's which was entirely novel in the field of Hydraulics was destined to revolutionize the whole sphere of fire protection.  It appeared at once to Mr Mather, who there and then secured the Patent rights for the whole world outside the Continent of America.  On his return to England he proceeded to place the Grinnell Sprinkler on the market, and not long afterwards the brothers parted with their business both in America and England to the Grinnell interests. With the Parmelee Head withdrawn in both America and England, the way was left clear for Mr Grinnell's wonderful invention. 

The advent of such a well-known firm as Mather and Platt to the Fire Engineering field naturally gave the Sprinkler movement considerable impetus at home and abroad, and when shortly afterwards the British Tariff Insurance Companies decided to give official recognition to the Grinnell and grant rebates of premium for its installation, things commenced to go ahead. 

At this point I wish to place on record the great debt which this country owes to the late Mr J N Lane for the immensely important part he played in the development of the Automatic Fire Protection this side of the Atlantic.  It was in fact due to his sagacity and prescience that the Automatic Sprinkler obtained its real foothold in this country. Mr Lane had long before Mr Parmelee's days, been the first insurance manager to advocate and encourage tangibly the adoption of fire-fighting devices, such as hydrants, hose, steam fire pumps, private fire bridges, chemical extincteurs, handpumps, etc., and it was his Company-the Mutual Fire Corporation of Manchester-that published the first schedule of discounts for non-automatic fire appliances by which their insurers could obtain rebates from their premiums of two and a half per cent to fifteen per cent, according to the value and quality of the appliances provided.   

It was but a natural step for Mr Lane, once he had gripped the importance of the Automatic Sprinkler, to lead the way boldly by offering for installations of Parmelee Sprinklers a discount of twenty per cent over and above what his Company were allowing for non-automatic appliances. Mr Lane's Company was not at that time a member of the Fire Offices Committee; it was a non-tariff office -in fact the only one of influence outside the tariff fold, and his courageous action in recognising officially this new and comparatively untried American device created at the time quite a sensation in Insurance circles and was sternly reprobated by many of his brothers managers. 

During the next two years I was largely occupied in studying methods of installation involving such vital factors as the areas of pipes, the determination of water supplies, the capacities and elevation of tanks, the provision of auxiliary pumps, etc.  It had always been the subject of surprise to Mr Lane and myself that, with their much wider experience of Sprinkler practice, the Insurance Companies in America or their Engineers had never established their own rules.  As nothing of the nature had appeared, and with the feeling that it was high time that regulations for the control of all Sprinkler work were provided, I decided to try my hand, and so gain for my own country the credit of being the pioneers in Sprinkler legislation. On October 22nd 1885, I copyrighted and published the first code of Sprinkler Rules that had been given to the world, and these were based on the data and experience provided by the previous three years of experiment and practice.  So saturated was my mind with the subject in all it's detail that I well remember composing the whole pamphlet on a Sunday afternoon without having to refer to any notes.  I did not expect that these regulations would find general acceptance, but as a mater of fact not only were they adopted by the British Tariff Companies, but in America they paid us the compliment of taking them as the groundwork of their own rules subsequently published.  Many of the original provisions of this first edition of Sprinkler Rules remain unaltered today although nearly forty years have since elapsed. 

The following introductory paragraphs to this first edition provide interesting reading:-

 "As the application of Automatic Sprinklers for the protection of property against fire is daily becoming more general, it seems desirable that there should be some official record of the bases upon which our completed installations in England and Scotland have been founded.  It is therefore proposed to set forth, within the briefest possible limits, the lines upon which we have been working, with the view to such information forming a groundwork for all future installations in which the Corporation is interested. 

Before going into details, it may be explained that in dealing with the protection of risks with Sprinklers we lay down three fundamental conditions, compliance with which we insist upon, each and all being made a sine qua non to a perfect installation.  These are as follows:- 

  1. The provision of a duplicate water supply, automatic in its action
  2. Compliance as regards the areas of main and distributing feed pipes, with the accepted sizes.
  3. Protection of all non-fireproof portions of one hazard.                                                                                                                                

The interest excited by the appearance of these Rules both at home and in America was so wide that within a few months ( 20 April 1886 ) I found it necessary to print a second and revised edition, to which the following is the preface:-

It was also due to Mr Lane that Automatic Sprinklers were first applied to the protection of non-manufacturing properties in this country.  Recognizing that 25 or 30 per cent discount would afford no inducement to insurers to protect their low-rated risks, he issued a circular in 1886 notifying that his company would be willing to allow a discount of 50 per cent for Sprinklers in risks rated at 6s. per cent or under, a bold step, but one that showed the immense confidence he had in this new form of fire protection.

Between 1885 and 1888 I published four revised and enlarged editions of these Sprinkler rules, embodying the experience gradually gained from an intimate knowledge of every Sprinkler Installation that had previously been erected within the United Kingdom.  For example: the protection of Corn Mills was first legislated for in the 4th edition of the Rules, issued in March 1888.  Up to that time there had been considerable doubt as to whether it was really practicable to give any adequate Sprinkler Protection to Corn Mills, but some exhaustive tests made in 1886 and 1887 set at rest all doubts on the matter.  The first Corn Mill in England to be protected with Sprinklers was Barrow Flour Mill, belonging to Messers Walmsley & Smith.

I superintended the designing of this equipment, and laid down the rule, that in the protection of Flour Mills there must be at least one Sprinkler for every 64 superficial feet of floor area, instead of the usual 100 feet, and that in addition there must be a Sprinkler fitted inside the box of every elevator head, placed in such a position as to discharge water down both legs.  The experience of Insurance Companies in writing protected Flour Mill risks has been unexpectedly favourable. 

In this 4th Edition of the Sprinkler Rules ( of which unfortunately only one or two copies survive ) is to be found some interesting information.  We find it stated in the preamble that since their introduction to this country in 1883 Sprinklers had operated in 15 fires, in every instance with marked success. 

There is also given a classified list of installations completed, or in course of completion, within the United Kingdom up to 1 January 1888, as follows:-


Cotton Mills in England                                                    233
Cotton and Thread Mills in Scotland                                    29
Woollen Mills                                                                    14
Cotton Waste Warehouses                                                 11
Flax and Jute Mills                                                               6
Biscuit Works                                                                      2
Corn Mills                                                                            8
Saw Mills                                                                             8
Engineering Works                                                                4
Paper Mills                                                                           1
Indiarubber Works                                                                 2
Sugar Refineries                                                                    2
Theatres                                                                               3
Warehouses                                                                         4
Large Drapers' Shop                                                              3
Calico Printers                                                                      1
Floor Cloth and Linoleum Works                                            2
Newspaper Printing Works                                                    1
Miscellaneous                                                                      4                                                                                               

                                                                        Total         338


Not a very creditable showing considering that Mr George Parmelee arrived in this country in 1881! 

From this pamphlet we find that the first fire extinguished in this country by Sprinklers was in the South Arthurlie Print Works, Barrhead, Scotland, on 14 July 1883, when one Parmelee Sprinkler extinguished with trifling damage an outbreak in a room used for storing grey cloth after singeing.  The second reported fire was in July 1885, in the non-fireproof Alexandra Cotton Mill, Bolton, which was a much more serious affair.   

The outbreak occurred in the headstock of a Spinning Mule, and the flames spread so rapidly that the Mill hands - after getting to work with the fire hose and buckets - had to beat retreat, overpowered by smoke and heat; 20 Parmelee Sprinklers came into operation, a pair and a half of Mules were burnt, and the loss paid by the Insurance Companies was £915.  There is a footnote to the report to the effect that the loss would have been much less had not the Fire Brigade turned on the water again after the fire had been completely extinguished.  Usually it is the other way about, and we find Fire Brigades turning the water off before the fire is out! 

It was early in 1888 that I was called in by the late Mr William Whiteley, Universal Provider, of Weatborne Grove - to advise him in regard to the protection of his immense premises.  He had been the victim of so many serious fires, involving the  Insurance Companies in enormous losses, that it was with difficulty that he could get his property insured at all

The Queen's Road block had just been completely burnt out so we set to work to protect the older and very complicated premises in Westborne Grove, extending the equipment to the Queen's Road block after it was rebuilt.  The work was completed in July 1888, when I issued a detailed description of the whole equipment and it's water supplies, pointing out the extraordinary precautions that had been taken with a view to securing it against any possible tampering.  For example, the whole of the Main Stop Valves controlling the water supplies were enclosed in a specially built fireproof and burglarproof safe, whilst all the supply pipes were from 20 per cent to 40 per cent above the Insurance Schedule scale.  There were 5609 Sprinkler Heads comprised in the various installations, the water supplies to which were in triplicate consisting of connections to the Grand Junction Company's mains, a tank of 1350 gallons with its base more than 20 feet above the highest Sprinkler, and a set of 10in. triple ram pumps, with 80lbs. of steam guaranteed to be maintained throughout the year.  It is a significant fact that on the completion of the Sprinkler Equipment, Mr Whiteley was able to obtain all the Insurance Cover he required, my own Company (the Mutual Fire Insurance Corporation of Manchester) taking the lead with £50000.  This was the first retail shop risk to be fitted with Sprinklers outside America. 

We have already noted that for a time following the introduction of the Automatic Sprinkler to this country the Tariff Companies stood aloof - some were incredulous, others preferred to wait and see.  A small minority were frankly opposed to any form of risk improvement on the ground that it was no part of the business of an underwriter to concern himself with such things, but to assess risks as he found them, and after taking into account the moral hazard, fix a rate of premium that would cover the risk and leave him a reasonable profit.  The economic factor was ruled out.  This view did not and could not prevail in an age of progress, and when the Tariff Companies realised that our great Industrials had been won over by those who were pioneering this new movement, they abandoned their official imprimatur to the Automatic Sprinkler.  Already they had lost too much business to the non-Tariff Companies who had from the beginning encouraged their installation in manufacturing risks, and there followed a fight which, by 1888, drove up the Sprinkler discount to 80 per cent and even over. 

Whatever may be the case today I do not think so high a rebate was justified 35 years ago, having regard to our then limited experience of the incidence of the Automatic Sprinkler on the fire loss ratio.  My own view is that Sprinklers have always been deserving of a 50 per cent rebate, and that if every Manufacturing Warehouse and Shop Risk in the country were to be equipped with Sprinklers with the inducement that the annual fire insurance bill was to be cut in two, the Offices would make far larger profit than they have ever been able to show. 

Here I think my story will end.  The seven years 1881 to 1888 covered all that is worth the telling battle of the Automatic Sprinkler in our own country.  It was a thrilling struggle carried on good faith and temper, in which it was a pleasure and privilege to have been a participant. 

My work in pioneering the Automatic Sprinkler in foreign countries and our own Colonies is another story, which one day I may find the time to tell. 

John Wormald  
North Stoke, Oxon. 
December 1923. 


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