Pyronaut’s 90th Birthday

Posted on by Fay Whitfield.

Pyronaut, a navy and red fire boat, on the water. There is one crew member on board wearing all yellow. The boat is shooting water in different directions out of several hoses. This June M Shed’s fire boat, Pyronaut, turns 90 years old!

She served for almost 40 years in the City Docks for which she had been designed, before being chosen as a diver’s boat for the Port of Bristol, and later beginning transformation into a pleasure boat. 

To celebrate her birthday we have a short history of her working life and how she graduated from pleasure boat to much-beloved part of the M Shed collection  

Pyronaut’s History 

Reviewing their fire boats in the early 1930s, the Fire Brigade decided to build two new vessels. The first of these was the Bristol Phoenix II, later to be renamed Pyronaut, launched on 18 June 1934.  

A black and white newspaper clipping showing Pyronaut being pulled on shore by ropes. Several men stand on the deck and one observes from the ground. She was equipped with two Petter Atomic 4-cylinder 2-stroke diesel engines delivering about 55bhp each. For firefighting, the engines each drove a Merryweather 3-cylinder reciprocating pump though shafting and chains. These could deliver 500 gallons of water each though two monitors and a six-branch hose outlet on deck. Her crew consisted of three firemen, including an engineer stationed below in the noisy engine room.  

A helmsman in black naval uniform steers the ship.During her first two years at work Phoenix II attended major fires at Robbins Ltd, Imperial Saw Mills, Cumberland Road, Charles Hill & Sons Ltd’s shipyard and William Butler’s tar distillation works at Crews Hole. To allow the fire boat to reach the fires quickly, it was vital she should be able to pass under Prince Street swing bridge, the lowest in the Docks, without the bridge opening. This limitation meant that the fire-boat’s air-draught (the hull and superstructure above the waterline) was very low, and the helmsman had to lie flat on the deck when navigating this bridge. 

A scene of the docks in the early 1940's. Pyronaut sits in the water next to a crane, behind the crane is a large cloud of smoke obscuring most of the scene. The air raids of the Bristol blitz damaged and destroyed many warehouses, factories, shops and homes around the Floating Harbour. Along with all fire-fighting appliances and crews, she became part of the National Fire Service in 1941 and was painted battleship grey all over, a colour scheme she retained for some years. 

The return to peacetime duties meant less work for the fire boat, but major fires still occurred. In February 1948 there was a serious blaze at the Hippodrome Theatre, and Pyronaut was summoned to pump water from the head of St Augustine’s Reach. It was the height of the pantomime season, and amongst the salvage was some of the clothing for the cast, including orchestra director Syd Phasey’s dress suit. 

Pyronaut sailing in the water with two men on deck, she has a new mast.To make her compliant with the Merchant Shipping Regulations, in 1965 the Board of Trade recommended modifications to Pyronaut. This included the requirement to fit a mast to support a navigation lamp above Pyronaut’s deck, something that the Deputy Chief Fire Officer suggested would look ‘somewhat freakish’.  

In 1972 a review of the fire cover in the City Docks noted that very few buildings could not be reached on all sides by land-based fire-engines. With the imminent closure of the City Docks to commercial traffic in 1975 a fire boat was clearly unnecessary and in 1973 Pyronaut was put up for sale.  

She was sold to the Port of Bristol Authority for £2250, who converted her into a divers’ boat. However, before the work was completed, the Port decided it no longer needed to employ its own divers, so the project was abandoned. She was sold again to a private owner in 1983, who intended to fit the craft out as a pleasure boat. However, he too, was unable complete the work and in 1989 offered it for sale to the Museum. 

Museum History 

Pyronaut being lifted out of the water by a large grey crane.Pyronaut was lifted into the water on 14 June 1989 and towed back to Bristol by the museum’s tug Mayflower. 

The modifications made to Pyronaut since 1973 were quite marked and not at first fully understood. The first job was to ascertain exactly what we had, which parts belonged to the fire boat and which had been acquired for later purposes. The discovery that the original engine mountings were still in place decided that a full restoration to her 1968 configuration was the aim. 

The project was effectively completed by summer 1994, when for the first time Pyronaut performed a water display at the annual Harbour Festival. She has opened and closed each day of the festival ever since. She operates regular passenger trips in the Harbour and is in demand for displays at special events. In 2012, she was taken by road to Gravesend and launched into the Thames to take part in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Water Pageant, the only one of Bristol Museum’s three boats able to travel there. 

Celebrating Pyronaut  

To celebrate Pyronaut’s 90th birthday, we’re having a party at the museum over the weekend of 22 and 23 June from 10am until 4pm each day. Attractions include: 

  • Demonstrations by Pyronaut 
  • Vintage fire engine and equipment 
  • 1906 horse-drawn steam fire pump from the Duke of Beaufort’s estate 
  • Band of the Avon Fire and Rescue Service (Saturday only),  
  • and more! 

Come and join the celebrations! Entry is free (donations welcome). Click here to find out more about the event.

Help us support the vital conservation work needed for Pyronaut so she can continue to share her history with generations to come: Pyronaut – JustGiving

The Working Exhibits 

Some of our biggest exhibits are outside M Shed and can be seen even when the museum is closed. Read more about M Shed’s working exhibits. 

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