Fire up the engines

Fire crews tackle the wood yard blaze near Wass
A Yorkshire Insurance Company fire mark. 
A Phoenix Insurance Company fire mark in Pickering (Picture by Pauline Eccles, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.)

I was very sorry to read in the news this week that our local timber merchant, who is based near the village of Wass, has been hit by an awful fire that destroyed 120 tonnes of wood and one of their wagons.

Thankfully, the blaze did not spread to their nearby home and no-one was hurt. Fire crews from Easingwold and Thirsk were on the scene in just 12 minutes, which no doubt was the reason why the damage was not worse.

In times gone by, especially in rural areas, such a fire would have resulted in far more damage due to the fact that there was no organised service to tackle incidents. And in the days of no insurance, victims would likely lose everything they had.

The notion of insurance against fire came about following the Great Fire of London in 1666 which lasted four days, consumed 13,200 houses, destroyed 87 parish churches and displaced up to 80,000 residents. The death toll is officially very low, one reason being that many people fled rather than try to fight the flames themselves. But also the poor were not properly documented and techniques to identify cremated remains didn’t exist, so it’s impossible to say how many of them perished.

Of course, none of these poverty-stricken Londoners owned their own homes, yet their tenancy agreements held them liable for repairs, and they were expected to pay rent while their burned houses were being rebuilt. As well as being extremely unfair, this system was clearly unworkable so an emergency ‘Fire Court’ was set up by the authorities to settle any disputes arising from the rebuilding programme.

The disaster demonstrated that improvements in fire safety were essential. A very entrepreneurial economist and physician called Nicholas Barbon established the first ‘Fire Office’ in 1667 which, in return for prepayments, offered to rebuild homes affected by fire. Similar companies soon sprang up so that by 1690, one in 10 houses in London was insured.

By 1700 they realised that it was more cost effective to limit fire damage and repair a home, than to have to rebuild it from scratch. Therefore they trained up teams of employees, gave them uniforms, and bought their own fire-fighting equipment. This team would be dispatched as soon as they heard that a fire had broken out.

But as these were privately-owned fire brigades, they would only tackle fires at establishments covered by their own insurance and, as my dad explains in his column from 18th August 1979, the way to recognise their own clients was by fixing a lead plaque to the exterior of the premises.

These markers bore designs unique to each insurance company, so that those raising the alarm would know which company to call out, and those summoned to the fire could tell that the building was covered. The system wasn’t failsafe though, and situations arose where the wrong company’s fire brigade were called, only to stand by as the building burned to the ground. Not long afterwards, the insurance firms came to an agreement that if they extinguished a fire in a building covered by a competitor, the costs would be reimbursed by the correct insurer.

In 1825, the Royal Exchange, the Union and the Sun insurance companies united their fire fighting forces, with others following suit not long after, and by 1833, an association named the London Fire Engine Establishment comprising all the principal insurance agencies was formed. On January 1st 1866, all these brigades were brought under the control of the Metropolitan Board of Works and named the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, later to become the London Fire Brigade.

It meant that there was no longer any need for the fire marks to be fixed to buildings, although some of these markers can still be seen adorning older establishments. I have seen one on the wall of a shop in Gillygate, York, but many have disappeared over time.

Incidentally, Nicholas Barbon is not only noted for his role in establishing insurance against fire. He is also famous for his fantastic middle name. Are you ready for this?

His middle name is ‘If-Jesus-Christ-had-not-died-for-thee-thou-hadst-been-damned’. I kid you not. Apparently, it was common in the 17th century for Puritan parents to give religious ‘slogan’ names to their children.

It makes me rather thankful that when naming me, my own parents were happy to stick to simple Sarah Jane.

Read more at Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 16th August and the Gazette & Herald on 14th August 2019

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