2nd March 2020

Picture this: a spark from an open fire has caused a blaze in a house on a city street and the flames have spread to next door. The residents have all escaped safely and the fire brigade has been called. Fire appliances are soon on the scene and hosing water onto one of the blazing houses – but not the other.

Why just one house? It’s 1770 not 2020 and the fire chief has spotted an insurance company’s fire-mark plate on the front of the house getting the dousing. The chief works for that insurer and only fights fires on premises it has covered, as evidenced by a metal fire-mark.

That’s how things worked in 1770. After the Great Fire of London in 1666 destroyed many homes and brought multiple disputes between landlords and tenants over rebuilding costs, minds had turned to how the financial impact of fire damage could be mitigated.

As a Museum of London historian explains: “In 1680 the first fire insurance company was set up by Nicholas Barbon. Other insurance companies followed and by 1690 one in 10 houses in London was insured. By 1700 companies began to employ their own fire brigades [to cut claim costs].

It took another Great Fire, in Edinburgh during November 1824, to accelerate a further beneficial change – the development of fire brigades under local authority control. The insurers’ direct firefighting role ended, but they continued providing cover to meet the expense of fire damage.

A lot more has changed since. Buildings insurance cover can include subsidence (an excess may apply), flood, storm and fire damage. Cover for contents may also include theft, accidental damage and use away from home. Getting the right buildings and contents cover is vital – like having a fire-mark on your wall in 1770.