Rising from the ashes
The birth of fire insurance
The Great Fire of London
2nd - 6th Sept. 1666
A massive fire swept through the City of London,
destroying everything in its path.
Eyewitness accounts provide a unique insight
into this catastrophic event.
To explore more first-hand eyewitness accounts from the Great Fire of London, you could look up the following people.
English naval administrator Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) wrote an eyewitness account of the great fire in a diary he kept from 1659 to 1669. In it he states that he saw:
“The fire continuing, after dinner I took coach with my wife and sonn; went to the Bank side in Southwark, where we beheld that dismal spectacle, the whole citty in dreadful flames near ye water side; all the houses from the Bridge, all Thames Street, and upwards towards Cheapeside, downe to the Three Cranes, were now consum’d”.
Another contemporary eyewitness was John Evelyn (1620 – 1706) who wrote of the fire:
“Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them into lighters that lay off; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one pair of stairs by the water-side to another”
Why the fire spread so quickly
The fire started in Thomas Farriner's bakery in Pudding Lane.
Its rapid growth was caused by a number of factors.
It began at a bakers in Pudding Lane
Historians believe the fire probably started when a spark or ember from baker Thomas Farriner’s oven ignited something combustible, perhaps kindling wood or even flour dust from a busy day’s baking. By the time a maid had woken the Farriner household, the fire was already sweeping through the building.
The Farriners escaped by crawling from an upstairs window onto a neighbour’s roof, shouting ‘Fire, fire..,’ to raise the alarm. But the fire spread incredibly quickly and within minutes had reached adjoining buildings.
The maid who had alerted the Farriners to the fire, sadly was the first casualty of the fire, as she was too scared to jump from the burning building to the street below.
The spread of the fire from the bakery is vividly described by London Resident Edward Waterhouse, in the audio track below.
Buildings and contents
The speed with which the fire took hold was partly due to the fact that the City of London had many narrow streets filled with tall, narrow overhanging houses, all sitting dangerously close to each other.
In addition, many buildings in the area were poorly maintained, with exposed timber roof slats that would have been highly flammable.
At this time, properties were used for a mixture of activities. Many people would have lived above their place of work, as Thomas Farriner the baker did. They may have had a workshop, perhaps for weaving, upstairs and they stored a myriad of items for selling, use in their business or in return for some rental income.
Along with the merchant warehouses on the wharf, there was a multitude of combustible goods stored within the city.
It had been an unusually hot summer and the many buildings that were made of timber were all very dry and therefore combustible.
Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary, ‘So I at home all the evening doing business, and at night in the garden (it having been these three or four days mighty hot weather) singing in the evening, and then home to supper and to bed.‘
Just another fire...
Had it been taken seriously, the fire had a chance of being contained at the start – had it been taken seriously. However, fire was a common occurrence at this time, so initially it was seen as ‘just another fire’.
Contemporary eyewitness Samuel Pepys seemed so unconcerned about it, he went straight back to bed after first hearing about it.
More concerning was the lack of action by the Lord Mayor of the time, Thomas Bloodworth. He was reluctant to create a fire break by pulling down large houses belonging to rich merchants. This may have been because he would have been responsible for the cost of replacing them afterwards. He is also reported to have dismissed the fire as not serious, saying that a woman could simply “piss it out”.
Fire was also often seen and accepted as the will of God’s and outside of their control.
Learn more about the spread of the fire.
With Pete Zymanczyk
Filmed in front of the memorial to the Insurance Fire Brigades, at the London Fire Brigade in London.
(Excuse the noises-off from the fire station,)
How the fire was fought
At the time of the Great Fire, no fire brigades existed to slow the advance of the flames. Instead people fought fires with the help of their friends and neighbours. Even King Charles II and his brother the Duke of York, were directly involved in fighting the fire.
Parish churches were expected to store fire prevention tools such as those explored in this section.
Engines and tools from the period of the Great Fire of London.
With Roy Rice, collector of manual fire engines (...and clocks)
Below are some of the tools used for firefighting
Buckets were used as the main fire extinguisher at the time of the Great Fire. Friends and neighbours would form human chains passing buckets of water back and forth from the source of water to the fire.
Buckets were made from vegetable-tanned leather and were sealed with pitch, waxes and oils. They were leather stitched and had a leather clad rope handle.
(Image courtesy of R Long)
Fire squirts were like giant water pistols. The squirt was used to suck up water (perhaps from a bucket) which could then be squirted at the fire. Some squirts needed two or three people to use them as they were quite heavy.
(Image courtesy of National Emergency Services Museum)
A wrought iron fire hook like this one was used to pull flammable thatching from the roofs of buildings in an attempt to halt the spread of flames. It would have been attached to a wooden pole with a total length to about seven metres. Fire hooks were also used when pulling down houses to create fire breaks, to halt the spread of a fire.
One or two people and even a horse would be needed to help to pull some buildings down.
(Image courtesy of R Long)
Gun powder was sometimes used to blow up buildings to create fire breaks. The building that had been destroyed would be removed or soaked in water to stop or slow the progress of a fire.
Manual fire engines
Manual fire engines were in use at the start of the 17th century as a way of getting a force of water directed at the seat of the fire, but they weren’t terribly effective, as there wasn’t enough pressure to give them much power.
The engine consisted of a barrel of water with two pump arms either side, both ends worked by men, who would pump the arms to drive the piston, pushing water up like a giant syringe.
An early example of this type of engine were those produced by John Keeling.
Introducing a 17th-18th Century manual fire engine
With Roy Rice, collector of manual fire engines
'Douse the fire'
Kids, can you help put out the Great Fire of London?
Grab a bucket and help stop the fire
Play the game
(Opens in new window)
'London was, but is no more.'
John Evelyn recorded in his diary:
“ The poore inhabitants were dispers’d about St George’s Fields and Mooresfield’s as far as Highgate, and several miles in circle, some under tends, some under miserable hutts and hovells, many without a rag or any necessary utensils, bed or board, who from delicatenesse, riches and easy accommodations in stately and well-furnish’d houses, were now reduc’d to extremest misery and poverty. ”
The City of London in ruins
With Pete Zymanczyk
Before the fire, London had contained about a tenth of the population of England and half its wealth. As a result of the fire, over 100,000 people were left homeless, camping in makeshift tents in the fields surrounding the city and facing a winter without enough food and with totally inadequate shelter.
Many people had lost everything they had in the fire, including their livelihoods and business assets. Soon the debtor’s prisons of Ludgate, Fleet and Marshalsea were full of victims who suddenly found themselves in debt and many were never seen again.
Only six people were on record as having been killed by the fire, but an unknown number died in that first bleak winter following the disaster.
No-one was insured against the impact of the fire, so most were dependent on the charity of friends and the community. The Church of England raised charitable funds for recovery through a system of charitable drives, raising money for the victims of the fire.
With the destruction of homes, warehouses, machinery, public buildings and goods, the cost of rebuilding London was estimated at £10 million, at a time when London’s annual income was £12,000.
London had been England’s principal trading and manufacturing hub and its destruction diminished the government’s tax revenues. Aware of the necessity of supporting the city, King Charles II needed to take swift action.
As early as 13th September the King expressed the need to rebuild in brick or stone (as opposed to timber) and proposed street widening schemes. Although neither fully took off, The First Rebuilding Act laid down the standards for construction, receiving royal assent on 8 February 1667.
The government also faced the challenge of securing funds for the reconstruction of London. The Fire Court was set up to arbitrate disputes between landlords and tenants over the allocation of rebuilding costs. But it was the government’s responsibility to finance the reconstruction of public buildings. Much of this revenue was found through a new tax on coal entering London. By the early 1670s most of the public buildings in London had been rebuilt.
Surprisingly there was no initiative to create a fire brigade to protect the city against future fires.
Schemes for those who suffered a fire loss
With Robin Pearson
The father of fire insurance
Dr Nicholas Barbon
(1637 - 1698)
An introduction to Dr Nicholas Barbon
With Pete Zymanczyk
Dr Nicholas Barbon's CV
Born in London, the eldest son of a religious eccentric belonging to the Fifth Monarchists called Praise-God Barebones. It is believed he was christened “If-Christ-Had-Not-Died-Thou-Hadst-Been-Damned” Barebones, but preferred to go by the name of Nicholas.
Training and qualifications
Studied medicine in the Netherlands and received his Doctor of Medicine qualification in 1661. Made an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 1664.
Insurance job experience and achievements
In 1667 set up the first fire insurance scheme in London to protect his private property investments.
In 1680 established the first joint stock insurance office with three partners. This was called the Fire Office and was later known as the Phenix, due to the image of a Phoenix on their letters and fire marks.
The first to use fire marks to identify their insured buildings.
The first to use watermen as firefighters to extinguish fires on insured buildings – setting in motion the foundations for today’s fire fighting service.
Building developer and the 1st ‘modern’ speculator (Mincing Lane, The Strand, Red Lion Square) of his day. Built or financed property developments to the value of £200,000 (£27.8 million in 2022)
Author of books on economic theory, including “A Discourse in Trade”, inspiring Adam Smith and quoted by Karl Marx.
MP for Bramber 1690-1698, to benefit from privilages to avoid creditors.
Created a Land Bank, innovating the use of property mortgages.
Owned Osterley House (built by Thomas Gresham), which he lost this due to his mounting debts.
Roger North on Barbon
Barbon retained a number of lawyers to protect his complex financial and commercial interests, Roger North, a lawyer and biographer, wrote of Barbon:
‘He judged well of what he undertook, and had an inexpugnable pertinacity of pressing it through. He never proposed to tempt men to give way or join but by their interest, laid plainly before them . . .
…And he would endure all manner of affronts and be as tame as a lamb . . . He never failed to satisfy everyone in treaty and discourse, and if he had performed as well, had been a truly great man. His fault was that he knowingly overtraded his stock, and that he could not go through with undertakings without great disappointments to the concerned, especially in point of time. This exposed him to great and clamorous debts, and consequently to arrests and suits, wherein he would fence with much dexterity, with dilatories and injunctions.’
‘…his house in the morning (is) like a court, crowded with suitors for money. And he kept state, coming down at his own time like a magnifico, in deshabille, and so to discourse with them. And having very much work, they were loath to break finally, and upon a new job taken they would follow and worship him like an idol, for then there was fresh money.’
IMTV Introduces Nicholas Barbon
The Fire Office
After witnessing the devastating effects of the fire, Barbon sought to protect his building investments and in 1667 according to some accounts, he set up the Insurance Office for Houses at the rear of the Royal Exchange. At first he ran this to protect his own new property developments, but in 1680, along with 3 associates he merged this into the first joint-stock insurance company, called the ‘Fire Office’. This company offered fire insurance for up to 5,000 households in London and was the first fire insurance scheme of its kind.
Fire Office, Policy of insurance No 1402
This fire insurance policy held by the Association of British Insurers (ABI), is one of the oldest fire policies in existence. It is signed by Nicholas Barbon and covers a house owned by Sir William Twisden south of the Barbican.
Because house numbers were not yet used, the position of the house was described instead.
A similar policy numbered 1403 held by the Museum of London, has been transcribed as: ‘The third house westward from Redcross Streete and distant from thence to the middle of the said house about seventy-four feet’. The house was insured for £130 for a premium of £5, 19 shillings and two pence. Today most insurance policies last only one year, but this policy was for 31 years. If it burned down, Sir William would have been paid £130.
The only earlier surviving British fire policy is dated October 1681 and belongs to the Corporation of London.
So that insured buildings could be easily identified, Barbon created the first insurance fire mark. This was a metal plaque, usually made of lead, that displayed the company’s logo. The metal fire mark was attached to the outside of the property, so that it could be easily identified. The fire mark also displayed the policy insurance number that it was insured on. The numbers were punched into the cast metal.
If the property burned down the fire mark would survive and provide proof that the property was insured. Barbon was a proven marketeer and the fire marks also provided another means of advertising the Fire Office.
We cannot find any record or copy of the Fire Office’s fire mark, so the visual interpretation on this page is based on the emblem stamped into the wax seal on the ABI’s 1402 policy. Descriptions of the fire mark say that it featured the phoenix.
A later insurance company, the Hand in Hand, based their fire mark numbering on that of the Fire Office also known as the “Phenix”. The fire marks were usually brightly painted or gilded.
From the 16th century pamphleteering became a popular way of spreading news, political probaganda, social criticism and even romantic fiction. These single sheets of printed material were sold or handed out depending on the nature of the content.
Nicholas Barbon used pamphleting as a way of promoting the Fire Office, as in this advert printed in 1694, now held at Yale University. Pamphlets such as this one, would have be handed out to passers-by or left at one of the many coffee houses found around 17th century London.
Pamphlet wars were also not uncommon. Barbon was later to use pamphlets to set his own company against his rivals the Friendly Society. A document you will see later in this gallery called “A letter to a Gentleman” shows how he promoted the Fire Office as providing better security at a cheaper rate than that offered by his rival.
The Fire Office insurance scheme
With Robin Pearson
Fire Office firefighters
The very first insurance firefighters (made up of watermen) were set up in 1680 by Barbon’s Fire Office. The watermen wore an identifying numbered arm badge as per the example below.
Courtesy of Brian Sharp’s collection.
A paper published by The Fire Office in 1680 entitled “Arguments for Insuring Houses from Fire” referred to 35 fires that had happened in and around London since 1666. It stated, “And this must be granted, if the Office could have supported itself under those many losses, when they gave no assistance to the extinguishing and preventing of the fires…
…it may be reasonably supposed to subsist under future casualties, when it is assisted by the contrivance and industry of a company of men, versed and experienced in extinguishing and preventing of the fire“.
Daniel Defoe later wrote that the Fire Office and the Friendly Society “have each of them, a set of lusty fellows, generally watermen, who being immediately called up wherever they live, by watchmen appointed, are it must be confessed very active and diligent in helping to put out the fire.”
There were several reasons why Nicholas Barbon would have chosen to use watermen as his insurance firefighters:
- They were easy to find, as they were registered to ply their trade on both banks of the River Thames.
- They were in plentiful supply – in 1796 there were about 12,000 watermen in London….
- They were hard workers and not afraid of danger.
- They were well located – London’s major fires regularly occurred on the banks of the river, the docks being packed with wooden ships and warehouses full of highly combustible stock.
Maintaining an experienced fire brigade was a more effective force for fighting fires, and it saved the fire office money on the costs of rebuilding or paying out on claims.
With the Great Fire of London fresh in people’s minds, fire insurance was immediately popular. Barbon’s Fire Office soon had competitors. The first of these was called The Friendly Society for Securing Houses from Loss by Fire. As per Barbon's scheme, buildings that were insured were identified by company signs called "firemarks" such as this one representing The Friendly Society.
(Image courtesy of Brian Sharp’s collection)
The Friendly Society
The Friendly Society was a new kind of insurance organisation. Formed in 1684, it was a mutual insurer, rather than a profit-making company. It operated from an office in London’s Falcon Court, on Fleet Street. As a mutual, everyone who had insurance had to agree to pay a share of all losses that occurred. Barbon’s Fire Office company and the mutual Friendly Society were bitter rivals, but they were both very successful, insuring thousands of houses in London, and they soon they had even more competition.
With Robin Pearson
Visit next gallery
Fire! Risk & Revelations
Gallery 2: Fuelled by Coffee 1696 – 1760
Evolution of fire insurance, the fire offices and their firefighting brigades
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