Powered by the Industrial Revolution

The expansion of fire insurance

(1760 - 1823)

Manufacturing growth

The first signs of industrial change gathered pace in the mid-18th century. Over the next 150 years, Britain moved out of an agriculturally based economy and into an industrial one. It brought radical change to the livelihoods of the population, created urban centres, stronger trade around the world, and spread the country’s wealth to regions outside of London.

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Why it started in Britain

One reason the Industrial Revolution began in Britain, was the ingenuity of a small number of inventors and scientists. During the 19th century, Britain was known as the “Workshop of the World”. While this was indeed a core reason for the commercial success of Britain, there were many other factors at work. 


For example, Britain had established international trade connections, had a growing population, easy access to raw materials, capital to invest, plus a large agricultural population ready to supply food for the workers in the factories and cities. On an individual level, success also required business acumen including an understanding of law and a grasp of marketing. 

Fire insurance also played its part in Britain’s industrial growth. By providing protection for investment in raw materials, machinery and the buildings that housed them, fire insurance helped mitigate risk.

Cotton ‘spinning mule’, invented by Samuel Crompton in 1779. Combining the spinning jenny and water frame, stronger and finer thread was produced, and revolutionised the textile industry.

Cotton mill expansion

It was the explosive growth of the cotton industry that powered the industrial revolution more than anything else. 

Cotton had been the preserve of the wealthy, until technological advances such as the creation of larger spinning mules and water frames, made cotton available to the masses. Demand was huge. At one point there were about 900 mills across Britain – all making vast profits for their wealthy owners and accounting for about 5% of the national income. 


In Britain, the cotton industry was focussed in the North West of England, particularly Nottingham, Manchester and Lancashire – increasing the wealth of these regions.

Factories offered more money to workers than agriculture did. Up until the 1830s, children were often employed, working long hours and in harsh conditions. Quite often they worked 12 hours a day and six days a week. In return the children were provided with food, shelter and a basic education.

Cotton plant seeds surrounded by fluffy cotton fibers, harvested to produce cotton.

A significant fire risk

Minor fires were a frequent occurrence in cotton mills.

The nature of the materials, process and the heat friction caused by the moving parts of the machines contributed to the risk of fire.


Mills destroyed by fire included:

Bate Mill, March 1820: in a little less than an hour, the fire consumed the machinery, the stock, the furniture and dwelling house.

Beard Mill, April 1832: cotton dust took fire when it came into contact with part of a new blowing machine causing heat friction. The mill was not insured.

Schofields Mill, October 1838: the building and machinery were all destroyed. The mill was insured for £4,000 – considerably below the amount of the loss.

Cotton mill fires were frequent (AI generated image).

Innovations in the textile industry

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Newfangled fire risks

Industrial growth and the social and economic impact of the changes it brought, led to the emergence of new complex fire hazards. However, by reducing the uncertainty and fear of property loss through fire, fire insurance acted as an incentive for accumulation, investment and innovation during the 17th and 18th centuries.

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The risks

Growth in industry led to many new risks for fire insurance and the development of specialty risk.

Insurance expert

Learn more about the impact on insurance of the changing social, economic and technological advances of the day with Insurance expert Robin Pearson.


Not everyone was happy with the changes brought in by the Industrial Revolution and arson through protest or fraud became an additional challenge for the fire offices.

Insurance expert

The challenge of Arson, with Robin Pearson.

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London and beyond

Following the South Sea Bubble Act of 1720, insurance faced a period of stagnation, until the 1760s when there was a period of rapid growth with regional and global expansion.

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Global expansion

In January 1782 a new insurer, The Phoenix Assurance Company opened its doors for business in London, the first new fire office in the capital for 60 years and the first to specialise in insuring large industrial risks. 


In the second half of the 18th century, fires at sugar refineries accounted for a large proportion of all bankruptcies in England. Only two of the fire insurance companies at the time insured sugar refineries, albeit at inflated rates with meagre policy limits.

The Phoenix was an initiative of a group of London sugar refiners who had become tired of the expense and difficulty in obtaining adequate insurance cover from existing offices. Out of about 100 sugar refiners in the capital 84 subscribed to the new venture. 

The early strength of the Phoenix lay in its connections to the sugar industry and in its adventurous approach to marketing. It cut premiums on London dockside insurances, moved swiftly into the markets for mills, distilleries and breweries and acquired the lion’s share of London’s sugar insurances. This powerful new office fuelled the competition which had already begun to emerge with the provincial foundations of the late 1760s and 1770s.

Before 1800 the Phoenix had built three fire engine houses in London, the first in Old Cockspur Street on a site now occupied by Canada House.

The phoenix next used its connections in the sugar trade to establish an international sales force of agents. By the early 1800 it had 42 agents across the world, including in Europe, America and the West Indies.

Robin Pearson discusses the Phoenix.

Fireman’s uniform for the Phoenix fire office’s London brigade.

The next generation of insurers

Fire mark examples courtesy of Ron Long's collection

London insurance fire offices 1760 - 1823

Words courtesy of Brian Wright, images courtesy of the Chartered Insurance Institute

Provincial insurance fire offices 1760 - 1823

Words courtesy of Brian Wright, images courtesy of the Chartered Insurance Institute

Scottish insurance offices 1760 - 1823

Words courtesy of Brian Wright, images courtesy of the Chartered Insurance Institute

Irish insurance offices 1760 - 1823

Words courtesy of Brian Wright, images courtesy of the Chartered Insurance Institute

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Insurance comes of age

During the Industrial Revolution, British fire insurance became a leader in business innovation. It was at the cutting edge of business development, marketing, cartel formation, the corporate takeover and investment strategies.

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Insurance expert

Robin Pearson


The insurance industry became more professional at this time as it faced new challenges, which included managing new risks, whilst remaining profitable in an increasingly competitive market.

Job roles

If you were interested in working in insurance during the 18th and 19th centuries, here are some of the roles that may have been open to you:

Mergers and acquisitions

Some of the first corporate mergers in history took place in British fire insurance during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. 

The new smaller provincial companies were proving increasingly troublesome as they were offering competitive rates and the older established companies responded by simply buying them up.


The first recorded takeover in British insurance was in 1782 when the London based Sun Fire Office acquired the Leeds Fire Office. Between then and 1850 there were at least 50 mergers and acquisitions, most of which was the result of a small number of large London offices wanting to establish stronger positions outside the capital in cities such as Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and Dublin. Only six cases had an English provincial or Scottish office as the acquiring company. 

As a result, the market share of a small number of large insurance companies increased. Insurance offices in South West England in particular were swallowed up by takeovers. Between 1827 – 1844 three local fire insurance offices in Bristol and two in Bath disappeared. Only the largest office, the West of England based in Exeter, survived.

Robin Pearson discusses the cycles of co-operation and competition.

West of England Fireman, courtesy Ron Long’s collection.

Campaigning for change

Attempts to regulate buildings in London were not new. In the wake of the Great Fire a new type of legislation appeared, which focused on improving structures by regulating party walls and limiting the use of wood. Much of this failed and the Brick Act of 1727 was widely ignored, mainly due to lack of enforcement.

Insurers complained that fire damage was greater than it should have been, because builders ignored existing regulation.


In 1763 six London insurance offices formed a joint committee to campaign for further fire prevention legislation and the need to reinforce the regulations on party walls to prevent the spread of fire.

The Building Acts of 1764-1774 were part of a wider movement which embraced street widening, paving and lighting in London and Westminster, bridge building and the rebuilding or repair of public buildings. The act of 1764 regulated the thickness and projection of party walls and the use of wood near hearths and chimneys and introduced compulsory inspection for all new buildings. Builders who failed to comply faced a £50 fine or imprisonment.

The Building Act of 1774 improved and sought to enforce these previous acts.


The stamp duty on insurance was introduced in Lord North’s budget of 1782, to help raise funds while fighting the American War of Independence. It had a negative impact on the industry as a whole, but it also shows how important fire insurance was to the British economy.

The contribution of fire insurance soared from under 2% in 1782 to 16% in 1783, before falling back to eight per cent until the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815.


After 1815, while other sources of tax revenue declined or stagnated, the percentage duty on fire insurance nearly doubled in yield and rose three fold as a proportion of public revenue. By mid-century over £1.1m in duty was being paid to the Treasury by policyholders each year. 

The weight of taxation on insurance continued to grow until by the late 1820s, when the average policyholder was paying as much in duty to the government, as they were paying in premiums to the insurer.

Fire insurance thus made a not inconsiderable contribution to the revenue of the British state.

Source: Robin Pearson “Insurance in the Industrial Revolution.

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Satirical drawing of Lord North’s Taxes
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Thomas Bignold

1761 – 1835

Norwich Union was the creation of Thomas Bignold – another of the extraordinary insurance entrepreneurs who emerged from the sector. The Norwich Union was the first mutual fire office to attempt national coverage from its base in East Anglia and had over 500 agents spread throughout the country.


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Thomas Bignold CV

Born in Westerham, Kent in 1761 where he worked as an exciseman.

Moved to Norwich in the early 1780s.

Became a wine and spirits dealer in 1785.

Appointed secretary of the Norwich General Assurance Company which he did as a side-line, from his grocery store.


Experience in Insurance

In 1797 Bignold quit his post as secretary to the Norwich General Assurance and turned to wealthy Norwich tradesmen, to form his new company, the Norwich Union Fire Office. The 28 founding members each paid £1,000 into a guarantee fund and underwriting began from Bignold’s wine shop.

Bignold was able to manipulate the other shareholders to stipulate that as the founder he should receive 10% of annual premiums. By 1815 he was earning £10,000 a year from Norwich Union’s fire and life office (founded in 1808). This was far more than his counterparts, in even the largest London offices, were receiving at the time.

Also written into the society’s constitution was that Bignold could only be dismissed by a majority vote at a general meeting of members. When he fell out with his fellow directors in 1805 over his plans for expansion, he defeated his opponents by winning a vote of confidence, dismissed the old board and elected a new board full of his supporters. He was left to run the society with almost a free hand. 

The Norwich Union began to expand rapidly outside East Anglia and the number of agents increased to over 500 by 1815. Soon Norwich Union became Britain’s third biggest fire insurer. However, by 1818 in the wake of rising losses, declining bonuses, eccentric behaviour and delays in the payment of claims, members finally rebelled against him. Bignold initially refused to resign but was eventually dismissed.

Thomas Bignold's signature on a Norwich General policy of 1793

A History of Norwich Union

The origin of the society lies with a former secretary of the Norwich General Assurance Company Thomas Bignold, who wished to start a mutual society. The scheme was to have no capital and be based on true mutual principles. Profits minus working expenses, were to be returned to the assured every seven years.

By 1804 it had over 40 agents in Norfolk and Suffolk and by 1820 it had nearly 500 agents in all parts of Britain. Committees of local inhabitants were set up in different parts of the country to enquire into each application for membership and to look into fires and loss adjustment.


The society established fire brigades in many towns and cities with firemen uniformed in green and red, with an arm badge wearing the figure of Justice. 

In 1821 the Norwich General amalgamated with the Norwich Union and in 1865 the society extended its business to most of the British Empire, China, Japan and most parts of Europe.

Policy header for the Norwich General Assurance Company. Note the fireman, fire engine and fire fighting tools. Image courtesy AVIVA Archive Group

Norwich Union

Objects courtesy of the Aviva Group Archive, photography by Lloyd Sturdy.*

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Drama in the boardroom

It was reported in The Norwich Mercury newspaper, that at a board meeting in 1805, Bignold had leapt onto a chair wielding a pair of fire tongs, threatening to break open the head of any director who tried to take the company accounts away from him. 


Towards the end of his reign at Norwich Union, Bignold’s behaviour was said to have become increasingly bizarre, arrogant and arbitrary. He engaged in expensive lawsuits, started to refuse claims and in one instance was said to have taken part in a farcical chase with a claimant up and down between Norwich and London.

Bignold took an interest in the shoe industry, patenting the invention of revolving heels for ladies shoes. This pursuit bankrupted him.

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AI illustration of Thomas Bignold fending off his company directors

Fire Office branding

Fire offices’ use of branding in everything from paperwork, through to their buckets, fire marks and firefighting uniforms was far advanced compared to what other sectors were doing at the time. Both regional and London fire offices used individual designs and branding for their firefighter uniforms and company property to distinguish themselves from each other. This practice was partly for practical purposes, but also to ensure maximum promotion for the fire offices and to attract new customers.

Download a 3D model of the County Fire Office bucket below, by scanning the QR code, or by using this link

County Bucket with QR

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Fire policies are a perfect example of the importance fire insurance offices placed on branding.

The headers are often beautifully illustrated with each company’s iconography carefully considered, using some of the top engravers of the day.


This example of a North British policy header, was engraved by Robert Scott 1777-1841. It shows St Andrew with a lion and unicorn. The thistle represents Scotland and the rose, England.

Scott was a Scottish engraver, most known for his small book illustrations. He was also known for his landscapes and work for the Scots Magazine.

Policies from the AVIVA Group Archives


Watermen employed by fire offices to fight fires were of great benefit, not just in extinguishing fires, but as useful advertisements for the insurance companies who employed them. Their brightly coloured uniforms helped distinguish them at fires and also made for a colourful spectacle at the Quarterday Marches.


All insurance firefighters were provided with brightly coloured caps, breeches and badges and each company wore different uniforms. These uniforms weren’t very practical for firefighting and most had to be replaced every year due to wear and tear.  

As part of their uniform, firefighters wore silver arm badges on the upper half of the left arm, which identified them individually and linked them to the fire office they worked for.

Insurance brigades of the 18th and early 19th century usually provided each fireman with an axe as part of their uniform. Most had a broad cutting blade on one side and a straight or curved pickaxe-like point at the back, set on a shaft of about 2-3 ft long. Axes were often stamped with the company name, most likely for identification purposes

The Norwich Union Insurance Society also provided its men with axes to use on ceremonial occasions such as the Days of Marching. This had a black-painted blade with gold lining and the company’s emblem of clasped hands painted on it. The shaft was over 3ft long and was painted red.

The Sun Fire Office also had axes with its emblem painted on the blade and gold lettering down the red-painted handle.

Firemen of the Phoenix Assurance Company arrive at an inn at the end of their Day of Marching to enjoy a dinner paid for by the company Directors

Arm badges

Many arm badges issued by the offices in the first half of the 18th century were made of sterling silver. Later Sheffield plate came into use together with less expensive metals such as copper and brass, but sterling silver was still being used  in the 19th century.


The badges were worn on all occasions to help identify individual firemen as bona fide insurance firemen. They also helped the public identify individuals for praise or complaint and helped clarify who attended each fire.

The badges were all numbered, with most companies giving badge no. 1 to the foreman of their brigade. Foreman badges were sometimes larger and guilded to show seniority and were on occasion worn around the neck by a chain.

Old badges were usually returned to the silversmith in part exchange, hence few have survived to the present day.


Arm badges were melted down to create new badges, so few still exist, especially from the earlier periods. The earliest known surviving example is the Union Assurance badge no. 1, made by John Swift in 1758.

The design of the badges usually reflected the tastes of the day, with the earliest versions being more baroque in style. By 1730 the mood changed to the more exaggerated decoration of the Rococo period and then by 1765 when the fashion was for the Neoclassical style, designs featured more simplified, classical forms.

There was a change in manufacturing techniques in the last half of the 18th century. The introduction of machinery was causing a revolution in the silver industry. Wire could be machine drawn to ever more complex designs and thickness.

West of England arm badge couresy of the Aviva Group Archive


The 18th century bucket was formed from soaked leather which was stretched over a mould, hand sewn and then lined with pitch to make it waterproof. A leather handle completed the bucket.

Buckets were the only means available for carrying water in the early 18th century. With them, watermen extinguished small fires and filled the cisterns of the few parish fire engines which were in working order and able to be brought to the fire.


Buckets were branded to each individual fire office, so when companies worked together at a fire, it was clear which bucket belonged to who. Using branded buckets was also another way of promoting the company and many of the buckets are beautifully hand painted.


Before postal services and formal addresses were widespread, fire marks were displayed on buildings to identify which properties were insured and by which fire office.


Fire marks were also good opportunities for promoting the company emblem. Although fire marks ceased to be used for identification purposes from around 1834, some insurance companies continued to display plaques for advertising purposes.

Every fire mark was individually branded with the company emblem, and included the policy number. They were usually made in tinplate, cast iron or lead and some can still be seen affixed to the front of buildings today.

Example fire mark for the Phoenix Assurance, courtesy of Ron Long’s collection.

Manual fire engines

In the 18th century firefighting methods didn’t change much from the 17th century. There were some updates and improvements in the fire engines that were used, but firefighting continued to be dependent on large numbers of people passing buckets of water from a source of water to the scene of the fire. The main engine at use at the time was the Newsham patented in 1721 and 1725.


The Newsham engine was pulled by a cart and the pumps were manned by teams of 4-12 men delivering a continuous stream of water. It could pump up to 160 gallons of water per minute with a jet of up to 120 feet. The engine was used as the standard until the early 19th century.

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Sun Fire Office manual fire engine, courtesy the National Emergency Services Museum, in Sheffield.

Insurance fire fighting

The insurance fire office brigades evolved into a network of firefighters that were depended on to respond to conflagration throughout Great Britain and Ireland. Fighting property fires regardless of whether the property was insured or not.

The efforts fire insurance companies made in promoting and campaigning for better fire prevention and in setting up the fire brigades, was not purely altruistic.  They had a clear financial interest in protecting their insured property. By preventing fires or by extinguishing them as quickly as possible, they would minimise their losses.

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Cost to maintain brigades

The approximate total cost of maintaining the Sun’s London fire brigade between 1710 – 1832 

Wages: attendance at FIres £100,000
Wages: calls to arms £10,000
Compensation and medical treatment £1,100 – £1,200
Uniforms £23,000 – £26,000
Silver badges £1,200 – £1,400
Engine purchase and repairs £70,000 – £73,000
Pole axes and preventers £450 – 500

Total: £205,750 – £212,100
Source  Insurance Fire Brigades 1680 – 1929, Brian Wright

Sun Fire Office Foreman and fire brigade at work, 1808


Pay and benefits

Most firemen were paid some kind of retainer, but in addition to this, every fireman would receive a sum of money each time they attended a fire. 

Drivers of the fire engine could receive a financial reward if they arrived first, second or third, which acted as an incentive to hurry to the scene of a fire and encouraged friendly rivalry between the different insurance brigades. In addition rewards could be given for those who worked particularly hard at fires.


There was little in the way of formal arrangements for payment of compensation for injury for the firefighters, until towards the end of the 18th century, when companies including the Phoenix and Norwich Union set up funds from which they could pay claims.

Certificate to confirm a Sun Fire Office fire engine was second to attend a fire, with equipment in good order, for which the Parish paid a reward. Image courtesy Roy Rice.

Significant fires

Donating equipment

Firefighting equipment provided by the government, parishes or local authorities (when it existed at all) was usually minimal and poorly maintained. To help plug this gap, fire offices were known to donate fire fighting equipment to help local efforts in firefighting. This could include buckets, fire hooks, lengths of hose, and even fire engines.


For instance, in 1792 The Sun Fire Office provided fire hooks and buckets to Cullompton in Devon after they’d purchased a fire engine. Going further afield, Alliance Assurance shipped a fire engine to Montreal in Canada in 1826. They sent other engines to Hong Kong, Melbourne and Singapore.

As a result of the fire offices’ significant contribution to fire prevention the government was slow to take on the role as part of their civic duty. Hence, the main responsibility for firefighting in Britain remained the responsibility of the fire offices for well over 150 years, without any financial contribution from the government.

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Sun Fire Office (Cornhill) fire bucket.
Bucket and photo, courtesy of Ron Long’s collection.

Visit next gallery​

Fire! Risk & Revelations

Fire Gallery 4: 250 years of firefighting
Challenge and change for fire insurance (1824–1928)

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)

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