Saturday 08 August 2020

The Salop Fire Office Firemark

What is a Fire Mark?

During the reign of Charles II, the Great Fire of London broke out in a baker’s house in Pudding Lane, near London Bridge on 2nd September 1666. The fire raged for 5 days and destroyed 13,000 houses and many public buildings, including nearly 80 churches.

In some ways the fire was a boon, as it also swept away the haunts of the Black Plague which raged in 1656, and which, at its peak, killed an estimated 10,000 people in one week.

The City of London could now be rebuilt in a healthier and more-considered fashion. Another result of the Great Fire was the first arrangements ever made for insurance against losses or damage caused by fire.

By the end of the 17th century, three London societies were actively engaged in the business - the ‘Fire Office’ (later known as the ‘Phoenix Fire Office’, established in 1680), the ‘Friendly Society’ (established in 1683), and then the ‘Hand-in-Hand Office’ (established in 1696). Others soon followed.

In those days, very few streets in English towns had names; the houses and other buildings in them were also neither named nor numbered as they are today. Signs and emblems were used by traders and inn-keepers to denote their business and services, and to generally attract attention, but private houses were very difficult to identify for anyone not familiar with the area.

It was the practice of each insurance company to mark the properties ‘in their care’ with a distinctive emblem, or ‘Fire Mark’ - these were usually plaques nailed high up on the front of the property.

These early Fire Marks were made of lead - cast in a mould, with the number of the policy stamped on the panel below the design. The marks of each company varied in shape and size. All were brightly coloured - usually in gold-leaf and red or blue, and often included black. Early in the 19th century, there was a sharp rise in the price of lead, so copper, tinned iron and other metals were used instead.

Between 1680 and 1880, over 150 fire insurance companies issued marks. Many of them re-designed their marks during the course of their business life, leading to ‘variants’

The introduction of the penny postal system in 1840, and consequently the numbering of houses and naming of streets, challenged the original necessity of using Fire Marks to distinguish properties. However, as one purpose of the mark was advertising for the issuing company, some of the later ones were issued purely for promotional purposes.

The other (one could say more important) purpose of the Fire Mark was to identify, for the benefit of Fire Brigades, the company which covered the property. In the absence of any satisfactory public provision for extinguishing fires, these early fire offices and companies were compelled to form their own individual brigades of firemen, trained in the use of primitive fire engines and appliances.

The most suitable men for this work were watermen from the Thames - strong, reliable, used to danger, and easy to locate when needed. These brave men, clad in the distinctive livery of their companies, soon became familiar figures at fires in London. It was the practice for the company ‘claiming’ the fire to pay for the services of the brigades from other fire offices and companies who had arrived to help.

Other towns and cities gradually adopted this practice.

The Salop Fire Office Firemark.

When this company started trading, persons who transferred insurance from another company were given free policies; otherwise a charge of 8s. 6d was made, which covered the cost of the policy and firemark over and above the premium.

The emblem shows the arms of Shrewsbury - 3 leopard heads.

Can you discover whereabouts in the village of Pulverbatch these firemarks are displayed?