THIS week’s object at the Swindon Museum and Art Gallery takes us back to an era of unstinting bravery and dedication, when the men of Swindon’s fire brigade routinely hurtled towards danger on what was little more than a horse and cart.

Today’s firefighters are quite rightly heralded for their courage in facing a perilous situation when others are rapidly heading in the other direction. But they are backed with hi-tech equipment, state-of-the-art tactics and decades of experience in bringing huge infernos under control.

Back in 1853 the science of firefighting amounted to not much more than hurling water into the conflagration until it went out.

There were no breathing apparatus or cutting edge protective suits in those days, just heavy tunics and metal helmets – and a lot of derring do – to protect the men from the intense heat.

While most buildings were brick or stone, there was plenty of wood and fabric to burn and generate that heat. Little was known about building design to prevent fire spreading and what started as a routine job could quickly escalate into a potential catastrophe.

Swindon’s primary weapon against a blaze was a horse-drawn fire tender bought from Shand-Mason & Co in Blackfriars on the south of the River Thames in London. The firm was one of the foremost developers of firefighting technology, thanks to the input of engineer William Joshua Tilley.

His engines may seem pretty rudimentary now but in the mid-1800s they were a vast improvement on running to the fire and hoping there would be enough water to feed a human chain of buckets.

His early engines, equipped with a large manually-operated pump, used canvas and rubber hoses to draw up water and direct it at the fire.

Later he went on to develop steam pumpers to do the job even more efficiently, but it would not be until 1870 when the railway works’ own fire brigade bought one that it was seen on Swindon’s streets.

It wasn’t even until 1860 that the tenders were fitted with running boards so the firefighters could travel on the tender with the pump, rather than run alongside and arrive at the fire exhausted from the effort. It must have been hard enough to walk in those heavy tunics, let alone sprint.

The tenders were beautifully crafted pieces of equipment, replete with brass fittings and painted logos. Keeping them clean and shiny must have been a full-time job.

Among those involved with the infant fire brigade in Swindon was William E Morris, son of the Swindon Advertiser’s founder.

Within 17 years of its arrival the Tilley engine was considered not fit for purpose and its use declined as the updated steam pump tender owned by GWR was made available for use in the railway village as well as the works itself.

The engine was based near the water tower that still stands at the Swindon UTC site. The tower was used to fill the engine and a wooden structure alongside was put up to dry its hoses after use.

By then Tilley himself had retired but Shand-Mason & Co was developing even more advanced tenders, equipped with ladders and more powerful hoses. But the advances in firefighting owe much to the raw courage of those men who risked their lives to save others on that rickety old cart.