Houses in Castle Street, Thornbury

The Pyronaut and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Pageant.

Talk by Clive Brain, volunteer boat coordinator and skipper at M Shed, Bristol, on 14 November 2023

Report by Stephen Griffiths

Before the 1800s when the floating harbour was built, the ships in Bristol’s docks were inclined, when the tide was out, to topple over into the ooze, and so were often lashed together ‘Bristol fashion’ to keep them upright. This increased the risk of fire spreading from ship to ship and the ancestor of the Bristol fire-boat Pyronaut was commissioned in the 1780s to mitigate this risk. Clive Brain, who became coxswain of the Pyronaut in 1963, was at the November meeting of the Society to tell us about her adventures.

Pyronaut started work in Bristol in 1934, attending fires at saw mills, shipyards and warehouses up and down the length of the floating harbour. Because she had to reach fires quickly she needed to pass underneath the Prince Street swing bridge without it being opened. This required temporary removal of her wheel and prostration of the helmsman. Clive recounted bashfully that on the occasion of one exercise in the 1960s, whilst showing off to a group of attractive young ladies standing on the bridge, he omitted to execute the proper procedure and found himself stuck tight underneath the bridge, to the raucous delight of the ladies.

It’s no surprise that the busiest times for Pyronaut were in 1940, during the ‘Bristol Blitz’. At this time she was manned 24/7, together with two other modified launches, one of the firemen being Clive’s own father. In 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. Perhaps the worst conflagration was in 1951 at the Regent Oil depot in Avonmouth, when Pyronaut pumped perpetually for 48 hours, (unless it was the fire at the address of questionable morals where Clive was recognised by two of the ladies he gallantly rescued, but the least said ...).

In 1973 the city docks closed to commercial traffic and Pyronaut was put up for sale. After a number of interesting lifestyle changes such as being a diver’s boat and house-boat, she was bought in 1989 by Bristol Museum and now works her passage doing trips around the harbour for the M Shed, and soaking unsuspecting spectators at the Bristol Harbour Festival.

They say that every fire-boat has its day, and perhaps Pyronaut’s was taking part in the procession along the Thames for Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee. Having struggled along the M4 to London (I sympathise) on a low-loader designed for 22 tons rather than Pyronaut’s 32 tons, she then processed, stately as a galleon, along the Thames in a flotilla of historic boats. Clive was itching to set off the water jets but if you remember the weather that day I don’t think anyone would have noticed. One of Pyronaut’s neighbours that day was a Grimsby lifeboat which, in 1914, had rescued a lady who had also been rescued from the Titanic two years previously. Now, just as an aside, was that lady very lucky or very unlucky? I’m still working on it.

Clive and the Pyronaut team received gracious thanks from the Palace for their strenuous efforts, as well as a slap-up meal provided by the Home Office (no, they were not in prison). We give our own gracious thanks to Clive for a very entertaining trip around the harbour aboard Pyronaut, and we are hoping to do the trip for real in the summer of 2024.

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