250 years of
insurance fire brigades

Part 2 - The end of the fire offices and their brigades

(1824 - 1929)

Rising from the ashes of
the Great Fire of Tooley St.

A salamander, a mythical lizard-like creature which could not only live in fire but extinguish the flames.
Although this fire mark variant was mainly for use overseas and as a promotional item, a few specimens are known in situ in England.

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Warehouse insurance tariffs rise

The Tooley Street fire had consumed 1000 tons of hemp, 3000 tons of sugar, 500 tons of saltpetre, 5000 tons of rice, tea, spices and other items of merchandise (mercantile risks). Over 21,000 square yards of warehouses were totally destroyed. The loss amounted to between £1 million -£2 million pounds, which in today’s terms would represent hundreds of millions. It was a staggering blow to the insurance market.


The fire offices stopped insuring riverside properties at the existing rates of premium, on the grounds that the majority of them had paid scant attention to Braidwood’s fire safety recommendations.

The rates (mercantile tariffs) for fire insurance on riverside properties thus rocketed by up to 300%. The warehousemen, wharfingers and merchants rose up in outrage. The insurers promised to review their rates, but only when the huge warehouses had provided acceptable subdivision of risk and attended to other recommendations that Braidwood had been struggling to achieve over many years.

Tooley Street fire, image courtesy of the Aviva Group Archive.

The Commercial Union is formed

Protests were made to the mercantile tariff companies about the high premiums, but no satisfactory compromise was reached. At a meeting of prominent merchants and brokers held on 5 August 1861, it was decided to form a new company with a capital of £2,500,000 to underwrite mercantile risks at ‘fair’ rates.


The venture quickly got underway and on 28 September the Commercial Union Assurance was officially established as a joint-stock company.

The Commercial Union took much business from old-established companies insuring wharves and warehouses, and the rating introduced by the company undercut the whole range of the tariff system except over extreme risks.

There followed two years of struggle for supremacy in mercantile insurance, until an agreement was eventually reached in November 1863 between the Commercial Union, the tariff companies and the northern companies for an amended London mercantile tariff.

The company did well in the life and marine department, but the fire business suffered heavy losses. In 1865 the fire fund was so depleted that it had to be topped up with £25,000 from the reserve fund, and the company failed to pay a dividend that year. The fire business made erratic progress until the late 1880s, when it increased steadily. In 1865 fire premium income was £53,000, in 1870 it was £190,000, in 1884 it was £591,700 and by 1890 it had risen to £1,183,000.

Agencies and branches were established in the United Kingdom and worldwide and many smaller companies were taken over – among them the Hand in Hand Fire and Life Insurance Society and the Union Assurance Society – until the Commercial Union became one of the largest British insurance groups.

Commercial Union instructions for overseas agents. Image courtesy of the Aviva Group Archive.

The rise of Regional insurance companies

The fire offices continued to expand, notably in the big cities outside of London, who used existing business connections to grow their market overseas.

Insurers based in big cities outside of London, such as Liverpool, Leeds and Manchester used their mercantile and trading connections to become important players in international markets. From the 1860s, Liverpool became a centre for fire insurance that was on an equal footing with London and by 1914 only two of the UK’s largest fire insurance companies were based in the City of London.


Liverpool Fire and Life Insurance was founded in 1838 by a local cotton broker and a banker, in response to increased premiums from the London firms. It became the largest fire insurer in the world through a series of acquisitions overseas in the 1850s and 1860s. It used its network of agents to expand its business, including in New York, Newfoundland, Shanghai, San Francisco  and Hamburg. In 1864 it acquired The Globe of London, changing its name to Liverpool and London Globe Insurance.

By the 1860s, it was the third largest insurance company in the US by premium income, but this left it exposed to substantial fire claims. It suffered a string of calamitous losses in 1871 including the great Chicago and Boston fires.

As with all other UK insurers, it met all its claims in full, enhancing its reputation.

An insurance policy from The Liverpool & London Fire & Life Insurance Company, image courtesy of the CII Archive

New provincial insurers

Words by Brian Wright. Insurance company fire mark images courtesy of the CII Archive

New Scottish & Irish insurers

Words by Brian Wright. Insurance company fire mark images courtesy of the CII Archive

New London insurers

Words by Brian Wright. Insurance company fire mark images courtesy of the CII Archive

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Insurance development

The insurance sector continued to professionalise its processes and practices.
With shared data, some standardisation and a more informed understanding of risk management.

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Insurance profession

With fire insurance academic Robin Pearson.

Formation of the CII

Professional organisatons began to form in the insurance sector, including the Institute of Actuaries in 1848 (focused more on life insurance) and later the Insurance Institute which was established in Manchester in March 1873. This later became known as the Chartered Insurance Institute (CII). Members were drawn from those with senior positions within the sector (mainly from the fire insurance offices).


 It was set up as a place for the exchange of knowledge and ideas, with a particular focus on fire insurance, given the large number of textile manufacturers in the region.

The second local institute was founded in Glasgow in 1881, which held education as its main focus. This was soon followed by others, including Dublin 1885, Norwich 1886, Birmingham 1887 and Yorkshire 1888.

There was a growing interest in the idea of a central institution and in 1897 the institutes came together to form the Federation of Insurance Institutes of Great Britain and Ireland.

In 1912 the Chartered Insurance Institute was incorporated by Royal Charter.

Increasing specialisation and  professionalisation of the sector.Professor Robin Pearson, author and insurance expert.

Women in insurance

As business boomed in the second half of the 19th century, a workforce was needed to carry out increasing volumes of paperwork. In particular, they needed someone to copy policies for clients and for filing.


This was detailed, repetitive work which needed focus and attention, as it was crucial to keep accurate records. Women were seen as ideal for filling this role, as it was widely assumed that women were temperamentally better suited to undertake routine, repetitive tasks – and they were cheaper. A Liverpool clerk’s journal in 1888 stated: “such work as copying out policies, which could be done almost if not quite as well by girls as by men…at a considerable reduction of costs”. 

The women employed for these roles were well educated and from middle class backgrounds.

Figures from the Integrated Census Microdata database (extrapolated from the censuses 1851- 1911 of England and Wales) show:

1851 census shows 75 women insurance agents and 16 insurance officials/clerks

1861 census shows 167 women insurance agents and 36 insurance officials/clerks

1881 census shows 435 women insurance agents and 132 insurance officials/clerks

1891 census shows 413 women insurance agents and 247 insurance officials/clerks

1901 census shows 960 women insurance agents and 768 insurance officials/clerks

1911 census shows 1,994 women insurance agents and 889 insurance officials/clerks

Scottish General Fire Assurance Corporation employed Aviva’s first known female member of staff when M Louisa Shelton was appointed as a clerk in July 1895. Her salary was £26 pa – the equivalent of £18,670 today.

1896 Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.
Courtesy of the MetLife Archives

Goad's fire maps

Goad maps or plans, are detailed street maps that include information on individual buildings, as well as their uses. To this day, they are used as a useful resource for town planners and developers, as well as by historians, though they were initially created for insurance purposes. Charles E Goad, a Civil Engineer, initially produced the maps via by his London-based firm Charles E. Goad Ltd. and they date back to 1885.


The maps were commissioned to provide insurance firms with vital information for assessing fire risk. This included building footprints, their use (commercial, residential, educational, etc.), the number of floors and the height of the building, as well as construction materials (and thus risk of burning) and special fire hazards (chemicals, kilns, ovens). Sometimes names and addresses are recorded. All this information helped with more accurate risk assessment and estimation of premiums.

Goad plans were made for the most important towns and cities of the British Isles at the scales of 1:480 (1 inch to 40 feet), as well as many foreign towns at 1:600 (1 inch to 50 feet).’

Goad fire map, courtesy of Brian Sharp's collection.
Photograph by Brian Henham.

Marketing innovation

Insurance companies continued to lead the way in marketing and began to use branded merchandise to promote themselves, as some of these examples from the Aviva Archives show.

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Global expansion

By the end of the 19th century, single risks were being redistributed right around the world through the technique of reinsurance

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Agents and brokers initially expanded business overseas and then, from the 1820s used co-insurance and early forms of reinsurance to develop their business. Using superior knowledge and scientific and technical expertise they spread their risks geographically, making agreements with European and Russian insurers to reinsure property in the UK and Europe, and later the US.


During the 1830s and 1840s, British insurers moved into India, China and the Malay Peninsula and by the 1850s into Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.  

From the 1870s through to the first World War, there was a busy time of mergers and acquisitions, with UK insurers acquiring foreign companies and UK companies with an overseas operation.

By the end of the 1900s British market share in Europe declined as competition for business grew more fierce in that region. However, other parts of the world grew in importance including Canada, Australia and America.

Competition and co-operation and professionalisation.
Professor Robin Pearson, author and insurance expert.

San Francisco fire​

Estimates suggest that the US market accounted for 40% of British premium revenues between 1870 and 1914, but this left them vulnerable to significant claims.


In 1871 they suffered large losses from the Great fires of Chicago and Boston and then again in 1906 they suffered unprecedented losses as a result of the San Francisco earthquake. Damage from the earthquake amounted to USD 20 million and fire damage was estimated at USD 400 million. 

It was one of the largest insured catastrophes of the 20th century and showed just how dependent the US insurance market was on British insurers and continental reinsurers.

Image of San Francisco after the earthquake and fires.

Pay all claims

Claims weren’t straightforward. Differences in insurance policies created confusion over whether policies should actually pay out for fire damage caused in the aftermath of the quake.


Despite the ambiguity, all 43 companies concerned paid out $235,000,000, an amount equal to the entire US insurance markets’ previous 47 years of profit. Many UK companies had to draw on home country resources to pay claims. 

However, by paying out, they had demonstrated the value and growing relevance of reinsurance for spreading risk internationally.

In 1877, Cuthbert Heath a famous Lloyd’s underwriter ‘was approached by the Hand in Hand Insurance Company for the reinsurance of its fire policies; he made the bold decision to accept the risk. Over the following years, with Heath leading the way, Lloyd’s began to insure risks way beyond the traditional shipping ventures.’

‘At the time of the famous San Francisco earthquake, in 1906, Heath was a leading earthquake underwriter with Lloyd’s. His actions after the disaster cemented Lloyd’s reputation in the US. He insisted on paying all claims in relation to the earthquake and fires, and, in doing so, built the foundations of the modern Lloyd’s.’
Quote from Lloyd’s Corporation website.

Losses and Claims book produced by Best.
Courtesy Brian Henham.

Fire Office Committee (FOC)

Fire is one of the most expensive property insurance claims. An agreed fire policy came into being courtesy of the FOC in 1922, who encouraged a unifyied and consistent approach to fire risk across the insurance market.


It was Cuthbert Heath who developed a more comprehensive policy, designed to bridge the gap between traditional fire insurances and business interruption insurances. In so doing, Heath was told by the Chairman of the Fire Offices’ Committee that he was ‘ruining fire insurance’. 

Following the FOC’s dissolution in 1985, the Association of British Insurers (ABI) took on the responsibility for the development of market-wide standard fire policy wordings, which evolved into a standard ‘all risks’ policy that the ABI issued in 1996.

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Painting of Cuthbert Heath, courtesy of the Insurance Hall of Fame

Fire insurance disappears

Composite insurance sold multiple insurance products within one insurance policy agreement, so instead of a single fire insurance policy. Insurance policies began to cover a mixture of possible risks such as flooding, theft, storm damage and included fire within this.

This signalled the end fire insurance as a single insurance product for fire offices.

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Growth of general & composite insurance

British insurers in the 1800s specialised in one line of business, but by the end of the century, some were starting to offer a wider range of products, sometimes combining coverage such as fire and burglary, to create home insurance.


In particular, the larger insurers were keen to meet customer demand for a wider range of cover, such as personal accident, burglary and vehicle, by acquiring companies that specialised in them. This fostered a time in the early 1900s of mergers and acquisitions, when British insurers became bigger and more diverse, writing an increasing number of lines of business in the new form of composite insurance.

At the end of the 19th century, just a handful of UK insurers underwrote more than two lines of insurance. But over the next two decades the landscape changed. The number of pure fire insurers fell dramatically,  until eventually fire insurance ceased to exist as an independent form of insurance.

As a result, the number of pure fire insurers fell dramatically during the first two decades of the 20th century. Some were absorbed by the growing composite insurers, others supplied the foundation for composites themselves. One of the largest composites, Commercial Union, acquired 21 companies between 1900 and 1939.

Commercial Union overseas fire agent sign.
Image courtesy Aviva Archive Group.

Expert view

With fire insurance academic Robin Pearson

Eagle Star

Edward Mountain initially joined a Lloyd’s underwriting firm, in 1904 he acquired the marine insurance business of British Dominions Insurance and formed British Dominions Marine Insurance Company (in the five principal overseas Dominions). He then established a reputation for himself by refusing to insure the RMS Titanic on her maiden voyage. The company started writing fire and accident policies in 1911 and life assurance policies in 1916.


Within the first ten years, the company had expanded into general business, fire and motor insurance. In 1911 the name changed to British Dominions General. New departments were opened for accident and employers’ liability in 1914. In 1916 the company further expanded into life business. In May 1917 the company became Eagle and British Dominions to reflect the acquisition of Eagle Insurance Company (Fire and Life insurance company founded in 1807) in December 1916. In December 1917, following the merger with the Star, the name changed to Eagle, Star and British Dominions. In 1937 the company name was simplified to Eagle Star.

Edward Mountain was knighted for his contribution to insurance in 1918, by which time the company had become the largest composite offices in the United Kingdom. Advertising was a key component in the success of the company, mainly through the work of A F Shepherd, Publicity Manager. All-In policy (1915) and Victory War Loan (1917) were launched with high-level publicity campaigns. Between the First and Second World Wars further schemes included free newspaper insurance, Pluvius weather underwriting business, and an department specialising in women’s insurance needs. Expansion saw the development of a network of agencies and branches in United Kingdom and abroad, supported by local boards consisting of business and professional men from each region. After 1945 further extensions to the network were made alongside the establishment and acquisition of companies world-wide including specialist insurance companies such as Navigators and General, and Home and Overseas.

During 1916 and 1917 he acquired, in quick succession, the Eagle, Sceptre and Star Insurance Companies integrating them with his own business to create Eagle & British Dominions, which grew to become one of the largest insurance companies in the United Kingdom, ultimately Eagle Star Insurance.

For many years its Head Office was at the prestigious address 1 Threadneedle Street, London EC2. In 1981 it fought off a takeover bid from Allianz, the German insurance Group. It was acquired by BAT Industries for £968m in 1984. It continued to trade, under the Eagle Star name, until acquisition by Zurich Financial Services in 1999.

The Eagle Star leveraged advertising campaigns very successfully to build their business into one of the largest in the UK.

Expert view

With fire insurance academic Robin Pearson

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End of an era

The insurance firefighting brigades provided the foundations for today’s firefighting services and were the only organised firefighting service available for most communities until the end of the 19th century. The last fire insurance brigade attendance at a fire was in 1929 in Worcester, almost 250 years since Dr Nicholas Barbon’s fire office and watermen firefighters were formed in 1680, 14 years after the Great Fire of London.

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Firefighting in the provinces

There were no national requirements to provide fire engines or brigades in provincial cities, towns or villages, so not surprisingly outside London, firefighting remained largely uncoordinated. Levels of cover varied greatly from one area to another, in terms of types of brigade, equipment available and efficiency.


Some towns formed municipal brigades. For instance in Manchester, the town brigade was so efficient that by 1832 the insurance companies had withdrawn theirs. Other towns were reluctant to establish municipal brigades because of the additional cost, especially if they felt adequate protection was already provided by the insurance brigades or by local volunteer brigades. Between the 1840s and 1880s a large number of volunteer brigades were also established.

In rural areas, where the amount of insured property was too low to encourage an insurance company to set up a fire brigade, the gap was sometimes filled by private brigades such as those belonging to large country estates. Owners of industrial premises (for example, cotton mills) also set up their own works brigades, with insurance companies sometimes donating equipment.

Early model of the steam powered Merryweather Fire King fire engine.
Image courtesy Ron Long.

The final days of the insurance brigades

Throughout the 1870s and 1880s the insurance companies were becoming increasingly reluctant to maintain their own fire brigades or even contribute towards the running costs of municipal brigades.


The maintenance of an insurance company brigade was closely linked to the amount of business they had in the area, so if the amount of insured property fell too low, they would disband their brigade.

They were also concerned about running costs, particularly with the increasing number of fires breaking out in growing cities. In January 1875, the Yorksire disbanded their brigade, handing over their fire engines and equipment to the council.

In Bristol 1877 the five insurance companies, the Imperial Fire Insurance Company, the Liverpool & London & Globe Insurance Company, Royal insurance Company, Sun Fire Office and West of England Fire Insurance Company sent a joint letter to the city council giving them notice that they would be discontinuing their fire brigades within a few months.

By 1875 it was generally recognised that firefighting and the provision of an efficient supply of water in case of fire was the responsibility of local authorities. Gradually many local authorities took over responsibility for firefighting, raising the money to establish a fire brigade and cover its running costs with a “fire rate”.

Merryweather Fire King fire engine.
Image courtesy of Insurance Museum Chairman, Reg Brown, from his insurance postcard collection.

The last brigade

Some insurance companies continued to maintain their own brigades, when they considered local authority provisions to be insufficient. But by the last quarter of the 19th century, insurance company fire brigades were quite uncommon and became rarer every year.


The last ever fire dealt with by the last fire insurance brigade – Norwich Union Fire Brigade – was on 25 February 1929, at two thatched cottages at Peopleton. The following week, the Norwich Union disbanded their fire brigade at Worcester and thus ended 249 years of the direct involvement of British insurance companies with firefighting.

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Example of the last Norwich Union Insurance Brigade attendance to a fire on a Merryweather Fire King engine, complete with pneumatic tyres. Image courtesy Ron Long.

Fire insurance today

Insurance continues to evolve as it looks to the future to stay relevant and vital to the needs of a rapidly changing world. While fire insurance no longer exists as a separate form of insurance, it remains a vital part of the composite insurance and specialist insurance lines that we are now more familiar with.

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With awareness of climate change, fire insurance has a particular focus on wildfires. There have been over 200 significant wildfires in the last 100 years. While traditional homeowners’ policies may be able to provide some coverage, some insurers are offering alternative risk transfer solutions, such as parametric insurance. This can take the form of a customised solution, using climate and weather data, artificial intelligence (AI) and satellite imagery. 


According to Munich Re, global wildfire losses between 2018-2022 were US 69 billion, with insurers paying approximately US 39 billion in claims. 

Not all wildfires are a result of climate change and, in 2009, ‘Black Saturday’ saw the beginning of devastating wildfires in Victoria, Australia stemming from fallen power-lines which started a fire on farmland. 173 people died and thousands of homes were destroyed. 

Many initiatives are trying to tackle the protection gap between insured and uninsured losses. In 2023, Lloyd’s approved the Wildfire Defense Syndicate 1996 targeting California-exposed commercial property risks.

A report by Capgemini, in partnership with the financial body Efma stated in May 2022 that insured losses from natural catastrophes have increased more than 250% in the last 30 years from perils such as wildfires and storms and that only 8% of insurers are preparing adequately for its impact.

The three climate-change issues concerning insurers most are insurability, profitability and regulation.

It may be that climate change will force insurers into looking at how they can play a greater role in mitigating its risks.

Wild fires across a mountain range


In December 2005, a major fire occurred at an oil storage facility in Hertfordshire as a result of a fuel tanker overflowing. This was singled out as the biggest explosion in Europe during peacetime, with the blast measured at 2.4 on the Richter Scale. Claims arising from the incident totalled more than £750 million and had a significant impact on how the insurance market approached their policies.

Closed M1 Motorway, Buncefield Oil Depot Fire
Hemel Hempstead – Hertfordshire

Piper Alpha

The fire and explosion on the Piper Alpha oil platform in the North Sea was the world’s deadliest offshore catastrophe.

The total processed claims exceeded USD 16 billion.


On 6 July 1988 an explosion and fire ripped through the Piper Alpha oil platform located in the North Sea off the Scottish coast. There were 226 workers on board the platform at the time and only 61 of them escaped, by jumping from the main deck into the sea over 30 metres below. Two responses in a fast rescue boat were also killed, bringing the total death toll to 167. The platform itself was destroyed.

An investigation (the Cullen Report) concluded that the initial explosion was caused by a leak of hydrocarbons arising from maintenance work being carried out simultaneously on a pump and related safety valve. It made 106 recommendations for changes to North Sea safety procedures. This led to the adoption of the UK Offshore Installations (Safety Case) Regulations 1992, which have improved safety regulations and culture aboard offshore facilities.


Catatrophic oil platform claim


The tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017, revealed fatal flaws in building regulations and led to huge rises in insurance premiums for leaseholders of multi-occupancy blocks.


The fire at the 23-storey social housing block was started by an electrical fault in a refrigerator. A combustible cladding system retro-fitted to the tower’s external walls was the main factor in the unstoppable spread of the flames, which killed 72 people.

Following the disaster, insurers reviewed how residential buildings were assessed, by considering that the maximum loss could be a whole building rather than just a few flats. Costs of fire damage on anything above an 18-metre block were therefore higher than originally thought, and insurance premiums increased significantly.

The FCA completed a report in January 2023 on insurance for multi-occupancy buildings. The report made clear more needs to be done to protect leaseholders and to increase the availability and affordability of building insurance to cover multi-occupancy buildings.

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The tragic Grenfell tower fire

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Fire! Risk & Revelations

Return to:
Fire Gallery 1: Rising from the ashes
The birth of fire insurance (1666–1696)

Fire Gallery 2: Fuelled by Coffee
The evolution of fire insurance (1696–1760)

Fire Gallery 3: Powered by the Industrial Revolution
The expansion of fire insurance (1760 – 1823)

Fire Gallery 4 – Part 1: 250 years of insurance fire brigades
Challenge and change for fire insurance offices (1824–1929)

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