These payment tokens, known as ‘Pumpers’ Tokens‘ and sometimes known as ‘Beer Tokens’, were used by the insurance company fire brigades to encourage assistance from the public, when putting out large fires. By the later 17th century and going into the 18th century, firefighting was becoming a sophisticated process. In London, firemen were recruited from the watermen of the River Thames, who had a lot of local knowledge. They were supplied with a uniform and equipment such as hatchets or poleaxes, and large hooks on long staffs used to pull burning material off the rooves of buildings. One of the great innovations was the water pump. Early on, firefighters had a simple hand ‘squirt’ that resembles a bicycle pump. In the middle of the 17th century, large ‘squirts’ were developed that consisted of a water tank with a water pump. These could pump water up to 20 feet high.
As the fire brigades encountered more fires, it became obvious that these machines, or engines, needed to be mobile and pump more water higher. By the late 1600s, much smaller and manoeuvrable engines were developed, so that they could be transported easily. Some were even made of the correct dimensions to get them through doorways. Eventually they were made bigger and more powerful, possibly pumping water up to 70 feet, or so it was claimed. These were pulled by teams of horses, which quickly deployed the more powerful and heavier engines.
An engine needed ‘man-power’ to work. The pump was operated by two long handles on either side and the tank was regularly filled up with water. The handle was long so that several men could take hold of it and pump at the same time. It was tiring work and relief came when the pumpers would be replaced regularly to keep the pressure up. Men may only last 5 minutes or so before they reached exhaustion. A medium sized fire engine might require 20 men to pump with another twenty to relive them.
Along with pumping, there were other roles, such as supplying water, directing the hoses, pulling down parts of burning buildings, and of course there were those in charge, directing the teams. Many people were needed for the significant fires; more than there were in the usual fire crew. In these circumstances, people from the local area would be recruited to help pump the water through the fire engines. In London, up to 400 people could be required for a major blaze, while at a fire in Warrington in the 1850s, it was said that 600 pumpers were required. There would be several fire engines on the scene.
The work was tiring and if they were lucky, beer was on hand for those participating. The pumpers were known to chant “Beer-Oh”. These ‘volunteers’ weren’t considered free labour though. For every shift completed, members of the public were given a token. These could be exchanged later for beer at a local tavern or inn or redeemed for cash when presented to the fire office.
The tokens we see here belonged to the Union Assurance Society and date back to 1714. They were simple metal discs with the name and the symbol of the fire office punched into them. During the fire, they would have been kept on a chain or a piece of string, which is why they all have a hole in them.
Such tokens were not a new idea. In the 17th century many local traders across the country produced their own trade tokens that were stamped with their own symbol or badge. They were used in place of small coinage. Tokens would be exchanged for goods within that business, or individuals may exchange them independently.
Pumpers’ Tokens represents more than just a piece of fire history. It gives us a glimpse how society operated in the early 18th century. The insurance companies were using all the resources to hand, where everybody would help out, and roles and responsibilities were blurred around the edges. It was in everyone’s interest that fires were extinguished quickly and didn’t spread.
Find out more
Roy Rice introduces a 17th -18th century manual fire engine, end-to-end pump – https://insurance.museum/rising-from-the-ashes#section-66008264/3
Wright, B, 2008, Insurance Fire Brigades 1680-1929, Tempus Publishing Ltd.
Objects and images courtesy of Aviva Group Archives and Ron Long’s Collection.