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.


Take care.





17 comments:

  1. That was a most interesting read! I've never even considered how the fire brigade came into existence and it's not something I've ever learned about before - now I know!

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  2. What a very fascinating post. I didn't know any of that before, though I do remember my grandpa showing me the old horse-drawn fire engine on the Welbeck estate (Notts) where he worked. Reading your blog is like studying the nicest possible OU course!

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  3. When I lived in my old thatched cottage we had fire extinguishers in each room (just in case)! Plus our fire brigade was about 10 miles away! However we had our own brigade in my hubby (who was a firefighter) and advised us to have the half hour rule at the end of the evening - turn everything off, shut doors and by the time you went to bed you would know if there was a problem. Coming from a family of firefighters I am pretty sure that there would have been one of us stepping up to the mark as one of the first - I'll have to do some research :-)

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  4. So interesting. I can imagine how flammable those houses were, and so near to each other. It's a wonder there are any left! I've spotted a couple of the insurance markers and was quite excited, but now I'm wondering if they were reproductions and thinking they probably were!

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  5. Excellent bit, John. With fire being such a constant danger, it's a wonder that so many of those beautiful thatched cottages remain. The closest American equivalent, wooden shingles, is very rare today.

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  6. That is very interesting history! And I love your photos of the little thatched cottages.

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  7. An interesting bit of history. I would imagine that insurance companies evolved in a similar way in the states. In reading history notes from my own hometown, I've found reference to house fires--old 'cellar holes' mark the places where a dwelling burned and was never replaced.
    In our current home county we pay yearly 'fire dues'--which means that we aren't charged if the local fire brigade has to be called to our property.

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  8. Another of your wonderful, informative posts. Thatch is quite uncommon in the USA, but we have wooden houses in many parts of the country (like New England), so perhaps the risks were similar. Hartford was the USA's insurance capital, and no doubt there are mementos like those badges all over town.

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  9. Hi John - lovely photos and descriptions ... I've come over from Jenny Freckles at Saltaire ... my mother used to own a thatch cottage in Cornwall - thankfully it didn't go up ... I'll be back to read through some of the others posts ... loved the photo of the ribbed beach at Holkham ... cheers Hilary

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  10. Fascinating reading - I've enjoyed your post. We used to hae some of the old fire insurance signs in one of the museums I worked in so had learned a little about them but I've learned such a lot more today:)

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  11. What a wonderful, enlightening post. I had no idea of such a rich and interesting history of fire fighting there. Great to see these old thatch-roofed homes still standing. Quite beautiful.

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  12. Interesting post! I live in a rural area that is serviced by a volunteer fire department. That makes my house insurance higher.

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  13. There are still a few of those wonderful insurance medallions to be seen aren't there? We have a wood framed house near to us and it caught fire a few weeks ago when they were re-roofing the porch with felt and used a blow lamp. Luckily they noticed it straight away and the firebrigade were there in five minutes and put it out. Always scary though.

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  14. Thanks for the history lesson John. The cottages with the thatched roof's are beautiful. How in the world did they keep out the rain and yes I can see where they would burn quickly if they caught fire.

    The plaque's with the sun on are really pretty too.

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  15. A fascinating read and the cottages are gorgeous! I was wondering if they used some kind of fire retardant straw nowadays or if there is such a thing.

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  16. A nicely told piece of our history, John - it almost makes insurance companies sound decent - and beautifully illustrated as usual!

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  17. These gottages are really lovely. The historia was interesting (shade it wasn't written by finnish :) but very beautiful post.

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