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Sunday, 10 July 2016

Fire Insurance as Jane Austen would have known it.

Insurance in the 18th and early 19th century

London had always feared fires and had legislation in place to try to minimise risk, which had begun with a statute in the thirteenth century forbidding thatched roofs in the city.  However, after the devastating great fire of 1666, the potential loss to individuals as well as the danger to the populace was something which led to the institution of fire insurance companies.

The Guildhall Library, the local records office to the city of London, contains records of the earliest policies.[1]

The Hand-in-Hand Fire and Life Insurance, established 1696
The Sun Fire Office, established 1710, later the Sun Insurance Office
The Royal Exchange Assurance, established 1720

[Details of policies may be found at  for anyone interested in more detailed research.]

Initially London based, some insurance offices quickly spread to offer policies in the provinces.  The Hand-in-Hand and the Westminster Fire Office remained exclusively in London, but the Sun, Royal Exchange and Phoenix [records of this last held at Cambridge University Library] spread to other parts of the realm, working through local agents.  Initially they were to be found predominantly in the south, but by the 1780s might be found in every major town throughout England, Scotland and Wales.

When an insurance policy was taken out, a plaque was issued to be attached to the wall of the insured property.  This was called the fire-mark, and ensured that those displaying it would have a fire engine sent from the insurance company involved.  There were no publicly maintained emergency services, of course!  But the insurance companies preferred to save buildings than to pay out for those destroyed by being burned down. 

Some fire marks to be found in Ipswich Transport Museum, including one from a Norwich company

This one still extant on the wall in Ipswich in St Nicholas St

The first effective fire-engine was invented in 1732 by Richard Newsham, who is credited with the re-discovery of the force-pump, to permit a continuous flow of water. [2]  This principal had been known to the Romans but had been lost.   The fire engine depicted was built by Newsham for Dudley North, of Little Glemham Hall, and is on permanent loan to the Ipswich Transport Museum by the current owner, Lady Blanche Cobbold.  It was restored to working order by Fireman Brian Madder. 

Needless to say, if a building did not have an insurance mark on the wall, the fire-engine would not bother to save their property!  However, if a property next door was threatened which did bear the fire-mark, they might work to stop the fire spreading. In theory a reward was paid by the parish for the first engine on the scene, but theory and practice do not always go hand in hand ….

The amount paid for insurance varied with the hazardous nature of the building and the goods therein.   A brick house with slate or tile roof would pay a basic rate, somewhere between 7/- and 10/- per annum, with extras if it were timber framed.  Other hazards might be in the nature of goods held in a shop, such as timber, distilleries, apothecaries, chemists, colourmen, chandlers selling candles, tallow, pitch or other inflamables, oil merchants or purveyors of alcohol [wine merchants or inns].  One might pay another 3/- , or 5/ for double hazard, ie a timberframed building with a hazardous trade carried on within it, these sums also per £100 value, per annum.  Often there was a higher rate for properties worth more than £1000 in value, and an even higher one for those worth over £2000.

 Naturally, preventing fire was a priority, and the head of the household was responsible for seeing that all fires were out or covered, and candles snuffed before retiring for the night. The advice, if trapped upstairs and unable to clamber onto another roof, was to tie sheets and blankets together, attached to a chair, and to open a window only part way, to hold the chair securely, and climb down, “they should by all means endeavor to be cool, and not be too much alarmed—fear overcomes reason, and will prevent studying your safety.”[3]

One company still in operation today is the Royal And Sun Assurance company, which was formed when Sun Alliance and Royal Insurance merged in 1996.  The oldest of these companies, the Sun Fire Office, merged with the Alliance British and Foreign Life and Fire Assurance Company.  This was formed in 1824 by Nathan Mayer Rothschild and Moses Montefiore, with the intent of rivalling Lloyds.[4]  [The London Assurance and Phoenix were also purchased by this group in 1965 and 1984; The Royal Insurance was not founded until 1845.]

Lloyds Insurance is a subject in itself and one I will address in a separate blog.

[2] Ipswich Transport Museum notes
[3] Susannah Ives quoting Trusler, 1809, details on the policies of several insurance companies.


  1. So if I didn't damp down all the fires in my house, one or more of which set the house on fire, would I then have been responsible for the costs of putting the fire out?

  2. No, but John might. A lot depended on the wording of the policy, then as now, I believe, and if you think insurance companies then were more benign than they are now, I fear I shall have to disabuse you... they might not have been up to all the insurance frauds people manage, but if they could prove you were careless, well bang goes your claim! There's a wealth of material to be had in insurance investigation, which is why I shall be having a few cases where Caleb and Jane are hired by insurance companies for this purpose!

  3. Fascinating post, Sarah. I had never even considered insurance during the 18th & early 19th century. It strikes me as a system that would have been ripe for abuse from both sides (not so unlike today, really).

  4. Oh definitely! of course as the Victorian age brought in civic responsibility for things like fire fighting, the insurance companies no longer had to maintain engines or fire fighting crews but I bet the premiums didn't go down!

  5. Insurance was invented in 1547 which I may have to investigate further