Sunday, 16 November 2014
A Little Bit Of History
An English country cottage, tucked away down a winding lane and with a traditional thatched roof. What an idyllic place to live! But even today those who dwell in such beautiful surroundings have one huge fear. Fire.
When you live in a building with a wooden frame and a straw roof it's always going to be a worry. And back in the days when people relied on open fires for heat and candles for light the fear must have been greater still. In towns, where buildings were crammed together with barely a space between them, the risks of major conflagrations was even greater.
If your house did burn down there was very little help available. All the dispossessed householder could do was apply for a 'brief'. This was in effect a mandate from the courts recommending that money be collected in church to help these families. However there were so many such collections that Samuel Pepys records that he, for one, was no longer willing to contribute.
The solution to the problem, which became pressing after the Great Fire of London in 1666, was the development of a system of fire insurance. The man usually credited with setting up the first fire insurance company was Dr Nicholas Barebone, the son of an eminent Puritan known, rather splendidly, as Praisegod Barebone. It was said of this pioneering venture "Dr. Barebone, who first invented it, hath sett up an office for it, and is likely to gett vastly by it". However he didn't "gett vastly by it" - in fact, he quickly got ruined by it - as he was a less than brilliant businessman.
In the early days of fire insurance many companies came and went after just a few years. By the end of the seventeenth century the companies realised that, in order to minimise their payouts and encourage new subscribers, it was in their interest to organise and maintain some sort of fire brigade. As these companies were in business to make a profit they were only interested in protecting those properties insured by themselves. The "fire mark" like the one above was designed to be displayed on insured premises. The number underneath being the policy number.
In London these early fire-fighters were largely recruited from the watermen who ferried passengers upon the River Thames. Because of the good work they did it was made illegal for them to be press-ganged into the navy. Although the insurers each had their own fire fighters it was not unusual for the various brigades to co-operate with one another. Eventually the main insurance companies recognised the sense in this and amalgamated their forces which led to the formation of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade in 1833.
In rural areas it was never practical for each insurance company to have its own fire fighters. There had long been co-operation within villages however as can be seen from these two fire-hooks still hanging in my local church. These originally had long handles and were used to pull thatch off of buildings that were endangered by a nearby fire. They were kept in church so everyone knew where to find them in an emergency. In time local fire brigades were organised in villages and the insurance companies then contributed to these.
You can still see the old Fire Engine House in some villages. Such buildings usually housed a simple handcart equipped with buckets and ladders. As co-operation grew and fire fighting became increasingly organised there was, of course, no real need for fire marks or plaques at all. However they persisted for some years as they were good publicity for the insurance companies.
Nowadays these old plaques are much sought after bygones which fetch good prices. Perhaps unsurprisingly replicas are also available to decorate your period cottage.