Fire insurance claims from early 18th century London

Last week I came across photographs of a pamphlet produced by the Union Fire Office in 1735. The pamphlet was designed to encourage new business and to underline the fact that the office was ‘calculated only for a publick good’. It set out the type of policy provided, Union insured only contents and not buildings, and detailed the limitations of the cover; the policies covered merchandizes, goods, china, wares, utensils in trade, and household furniture but not plate, pictures, money, or jewels. Policies provided cover for seven years and premiums ranged from 2s to 27s per £100 of cover, depending on the hazardous nature of the goods or their situation, on whether or not they were enclosed, and whether that enclosure was made of brick or stone, or of timber.

Union Fire Office pamphlet, 1735

The pamphlet pointed out that the Union Fire Office employed watermen and porters to help move building contents away from potential damage by fire and that it was a mutual society, so all its funds went to the benefit of its members. The Union’s directors were all chosen by the members from those who held policies, and in 1735 there were 24 of them including: six linen drapers, four brewers, two grocers, two silk throwers, a druggist, an ironmonger, an oilman, and a colourman (someone who mixed dyes for textiles).

Union Assurance, list of firemen c1770

To demonstrate how its policies had ‘preserved from Ruin’ a ‘great number of Families’ the Union also listed every claim paid, from its foundation in 1714 to the end of 1734. Over the twenty-year period there was a total of 247 claims amounting to £31195 7 shillings and 17 pence, the equivalent of £82,010,000 in relative income today.

Union Fire Office list of claims paid 1714–1734

This list of claims is fascinating and made even more important because there are no surviving board minutes, policy registers or claims registers for the Union in this early period, so the information is not available anywhere else.

The list shows the range of people who were insuring their contents with the society, the various amounts claimed, and even the impact of fire on particular areas of London. Those who were compensated for the loss of their goods by the Union included butchers, bakers and candlestick makers — to be precise four bacon butchers, eight bakers, and five tallow chandlers. There were also nine each of victuallers and linen drapers, eight brewers, four hat makers, six tobacconists and 17 distillers (presumably paying additional premiums for hazardous goods). Less common occupations included two mathematical instrument makers, two peruke (wig) makers, a perfumer, a coffee roaster, a stocking trimmer, a coach painter, and a seller of leather breeches.

The smallest claim, for 4 shillings, was made by Elizabeth Laming of Bartholomew Close in 1722. Her occupation is given as calender, or someone who listed, or perhaps filed, documents. Although 14 women appear claimants Elizabeth is one of only four to have an occupation other than widow listed. The other three being Elizabeth Greswell a tallow chandler, Judith Cox a distiller, and the wonderfully named Federata Reynolds who was described as a stuff seller (stuff was a course cloth).

The highest claim, £5581, was paid to William Astell and Charles Goodfellow of Burr Street in 1720, while the second highest was £2100, paid to John Thorpe, an Apothecary of Wapping, in 1729.

Some names appear more than once on the list, such as that of Elizabeth Kroger an unfortunate widow of Wapping whose goods were destroyed by fire in 1725 and again in 1726. John Axtell an ironmonger, Gardiner and Maynard distillers, Daniel Souton vintner at the Salutation Tavern, and Charles Farrow a baker, all claimed after fires at Holborn Bridge in both 1720 and 1722.

The names appear to be listed in the order in which the claims were made which suggests where several people from the same area appear together in the list that they were all impacted by the same fire. I think it is likely that the double claimants from Holborn Bridge were close neighbours as they all claimed after fires in 1720 and again in 1722, although I did not manage to find out anything about the specific fires. Nor did I manage to find references to the fire near Burr Street East Smithfield in 1720 which impacted seven Union policyholders and cost the company £8913 15s, including the large payment to Messrs Astell and Goodfellow.

I was able to find a reference to a fire at London Bridge in 1721 which led to the first five claims paid by the Union in that year. Samuel Albritton a glove seller, Richard Durnford a pin maker, Robert Thorpe a leather seller, Obadiah Jones a hop merchant, and Samuel Bromfield a hosier received a combined £114 16s after the blaze. Details of the fire itself did not appear in my search of the British Newspaper Archive but one newspaper reported that £170 was found in the ruins of the house of a baker after the fire and returned to him.

Two fires which led to claims on the Union in 1730 also made it to the newspapers. In August 1730, a fire broke out at St Saviours Mill near Rotherhithe. According to contemporary newspaper reports it was caused by a pot of tar boiling over in the workhouse of Mr Hopkins, a sail maker. The blaze destroyed Mr Hopkins’ workhouse and home and 12 others and ‘burnt on both sides of the Way with incredible Fury’. Five claims were made on the Union, by Margaret Kenton a widow, Captain Edward Hallum, Michael Hutton a boat builder, John Bishop a shipwright, and Captain James Dornford.

Extract from print by Hogarth showing Union enigne at a fire, 1762

On 19 December newspapers reported on a fire which broke out at a glazier’s near Union Stairs in Wapping and spread to adjoining buildings belonging to a timber or deal merchant. Five claims were made on the society as a result of this fire. Sadly, the photograph is not clear enough for me to be certain of the amounts claimed but a significant sum was paid to Thomas Parsons whose occupation was deal merchant and whose property may well have been that which adjoined the glazier’s where the fire started.

The fire which involved the largest number of claims on the Union occurred in 1726 when 25 claims are listed from people living at the Hermitage, Wapping. According to contemporary newspapers, the fire broke out between 12 and one in the morning on 18 March at the premises of Mr Nicol’s, a sailmaker. It burnt for about 5 hours and consumed between 100 and 130 houses as well as six ships, which could not be moved away from the danger of the flames because it was low water. In addition to the damage to property and possessions, two firemen and four other people died when a partition wall fell during the blaze. One newspaper report ends: ‘The Damage must be very great, and happening in the dead of Night, the Consternation, Confusion and Distress it occasioned, is not to be express’d’. Claims from those impacted by the fire ranged from £284 for mathematical instrument maker John Henshaw, to 6 shillings claimed by the widow Mary Watts. In total the fire cost the Union £1179 5s 6d.

The Union pamphlet with its list of claims really needs more study, I would love to have time to look up all the individuals and learn about their lives. For now, I will have to content myself with knowing a little bit more about some of our earliest policyholders and being able to put names to some of the families we ‘preserved from Ruin’.

Extract from Union policy header, 1899