History of Firemarks and Fire Insurance


What is a Firemark?
Prior to the introduction of the Penny Postal System in 1840 the naming of Streets and numbering of houses was rather haphazard. To enable Insurance Companies to identify properties which they insured, Metal Plates or Firemarks were struck and issued with Insurance Policies and they had to be securely fixed on the front of the property in a prominent position.

Strict instructions were issued with the Policies including one that insisted upon the return of the Firemark should the Policy be cancelled. Some marks carried the Policy Number however if they did and were reissued the number was usually painted over with a fresh one on top. With the inauguration of the Penny Postal System came the correct numbering of properties which in turn removed the need for Insurance Companies to issue Firemarks. Recognising their advertising qualities however Insurance Companies continued to practice issuing Firemarks for several more years, in fact Firemarks were also used overseas for a time and it was not uncommon for them to be found in America, Australia and Europe.

Various metals were used, namely lead, copper and tin being the most common however on occasions ceramic and stone were used but very few of these have survived.

Interest in Firemarks in the 1920’s prompted replicas which in themselves are quite collectable and modern day copies are usually made with fibreglass.

There are very few Firemarks still in place on properties and those that have survived are normally part of a collection and many of the larger Insurance Companies now have extremely interesting collections of Firemarks.

The Fire Insurance Company Brigades.

Before the emergence of the Municipal Fire Brigade the task of fire fighting fell upon the shoulders of the Fire Insurance Company Brigades. The alarm would be raised and the particular Brigade despatched to the fire. The presence of a Firemark provided an easy means of identification to the Brigade as they would know which fire to attend as in the 1700’s there were many fires due to the construction of the buildings being mostly of timber.

The Fire Brigade generally recruited firemen from the ranks of seamen. Firemarks on buildings signified the identity of the Insurance Company that protected the property. If a rival insurance Fire Brigade arrived first at a fire and found that the property was not insured with their Company, they would not only stand and watch the fire, but actively hinder the efforts of the other firemen when they arrived to put out the fire. Fights often occurred and instances are recorded where the fire burned on, whilst the rival firemen engaged in a melee.

Firemen had to keep fire-fighting tools with them at all times which consisted mainly of hatchets or pole-axes and also preventers – large hooks on a long staff used to pull burning material from roofs of buildings.

It was abundantly clear to the Fire Insurance Company Offices that not only were their Firemen of great benefit in the extinguishment of fire, but they also served as a useful advertisement for the Company by whom they were employed and from the early days the Firemen were dressed in brightly coloured uniforms which helped to distinguish them from the men of other Fire Insurance Company Offices, however these uniforms were hardly practical when it came to fighting a fire.

Records show that often smaller fires were attended by no more than a handful of men at times as few as two, unfortunately for the Insurance Company the large fire was a regular feature of 18th Century life in London and usually these fires often burned for several days.

At the scene of the fire the Firemen usually enlisted the help of onlookers and for each shift they were given a token which could later be exchanged at the local Tavern for beer!

One of the main functions of the Fire Insurance Company Brigade men was to salvage goods from burning or threatened buildings, particularly when these buildings bore the Firemark of the insurance Company they represented. By the end of the first quarter of the 18th century special salvage teams were being set-up in order to assist the fire-fighting team.

Typical rates of pay in the early days which varied very little between Fire Insurance Companies were to pay their men in respect of attendance at fires one shilling or now known as five new pence for the first hour and six pence, now known as 2.5p for each hour thereafter.

By comparison with today’s standards the efforts of the early insurance Office Brigades may be considered to have been of minimal benefit. Certainly it is true that often fires raged out of control mostly due to the close proximity of highly combustible buildings and partly through lack of effective fire-fighting equipment. Nevertheless, their efforts must be seen in context of providing the only really organised fire-fighting of their day in fact the Parish Engine required by law in the local Parishes, at best was ineffectual and at worst totally dilapidated or missing altogether.

Towards the latter part of the 18th century Fire Insurance Company Brigades could be found in most major towns and cities in Britain.

As the years passed the efficiency of the Fire Insurance Company Brigades increased and with the formation of more Insurance Companies so did their numbers. It was however a comparatively expensive business to equip and maintain a Fire Brigade at strategic points around the Country and large Insurance Companies such as the Sun Fire Office were paying up to 3% of their annual premium income on fire protection.

Considerable efforts were made to reduce costs and at the same time increase efficiency, inevitably there was only one way this could be effectively achieved and after several attempts many of the Fire Insurance Companies based in London merged their Fire Brigades in 1833 to form The London Fire Engine Establishment. This move spelled the beginning of the end for the individual Fire Insurance Company Brigades although a few were maintained until the early part of the 20th century.

'Author - Wayne Beach 1998'


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