Fire Insurance

Sources for Epsom and Ewell History
Sources for Epsom
and Ewell History

Life was hard in the eighteenth century, but there were ways to ward off your share of risk and sudden disaster – if you could afford to. The calamitous urban fires of the previous century, which culminated in the Great Fire of London, led to the setting up of insurance companies. Three of these have left extensive records – the Hand-in-Hand, founded in 1696; the Sun, founded in 1710; and the Royal Exchange, founded in 1720. Transcripts of some of these policies relating to Epsom, with a few from Ewell, can be found here:

Royal Exchange records

Sun records

There were three rates of insurance (or 'assurance' as it was called at the time). These were Common, Hazardous and Double Hazardous, and the premiums for these were originally set at 2, 3 and 5 shillings per £100 per year. In 1825 the premiums went up by 6d for each rate. If you insured more than £1000, you paid a slightly higher rate. There was also a duty, initially set at 1/6d for every £100 insured, which was payable by the insurance company to the Government. The figures following each insurance policy should therefore begin with the total sum insured and the premium (or premiums, if there were different levels of risk), followed by the total yearly insurance payment and the yearly payment of duty. The actual figures don't work out quite so easily, as they include other, unidentified costs such as charges for first–time users and clerk's fees. Sometimes figures under £100 were charged pro rata and sometimes they were rounded up. Some policies seem to be have been carried over partway through a year. But the general drift of the figures is clear.

Included in the total fee would be the cost of putting up a firemark. These little signs, about six inches high, were stamped with a pictorial emblem identifying the insurance company and, underneath it, the policy number. At first they were made out of lead, but from the 1790s onwards companies used fire plates of cast iron or tin, which had the advantage that the company emblem could be picked out ostentatiously in coloured paint. The marks or plates were fixed on a house as visible and indisputable evidence, in the event of an insurance claim, that the owner had taken out a policy. Since some of the insurance companies maintained their own fire brigades, the marks were also a simple way to identify houses in the days before street numbers. It has been said that brigades would race their horses to a fire, check what mark was fixed on the house, and then if it bore the sign of a rival company they would canter off and leave the building to burn. This, however, has been dismissed as a myth.

Firemark from the Cedars, Sun policy 357323
Firemark from the Cedars, Sun policy 357323
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

The insurance companies worked through local representatives. John Scott, who ran a combined shop and school on the High Street/ East Street corner, was the agent for the Royal Exchange in 1799, and next year we find him taking out a policy for his own premises, with a rented cottage next door and two more in Burgh Heath: total value £500, insured at the Hazardous rate and therefore costing 15s a year before overheads. By 1839 there were other agents in Epsom for the Alliance, British, County, Crown, Guardian, Norwich Union, Phoenix, Sun, and Surrey Sussex & Southwark. They all seem to have been canvassing for business locally; it is noticeable that many policies were taken out at the quarter and cross–quarter days, to fit in with the cycle of rent payments. There are even policies registered for 25th December, although this may have been a conventional form of dating and not the work of some underpaid Bob Cratchit slaving away after midnight on Christmas Eve.

The insurance companies wanted to know what the houses were built of, whether they communicated with each other or not, whether they were directly occupied or let, and – if they were rented – who the tenants were and what trade they carried on at the premises. In February 1810, the local agent was sent to inspect John Forth's racing stables to confirm that they were, as he claimed, divided from his house by a brick wall to roof height, and therefore not able to act as a fire tunnel. The company expected reassurances that was no accumulation of inflammable materials and any plant posing a danger from fire, such as ovens, kilns or stoves, had to be under control. In 1803 James Hasted the coachmaker and wheelwright confirmed that 'his dwelling house, brick built and tiled situate in the High Street' (but probably to be identified as 51 South Street in today's numbering) had a stove for trade use.

In the same year Sarah Dibble warranted for her premises at 9 West Street 'that no Process by fire in the aforesaid Trade be carried on in any of the Buildings above mentioned except the Workshop & that no Carpenter's Work be carried on in the aforesaid Building occupied by Mr. Finch'.

A painted beam from Dibble the tallow chandlers, now in Bourne Hall Museum
A painted beam from Dibble the tallow chandlers, now in Bourne Hall Museum
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

Since insurance was the responsibility of the landlord, we find three kinds of payment: owner–occupiers insuring both house and contents, letting landlords insuring the house only, and tenants insuring only the contents. The two main categories for these were 'furniture', which covered domestic fittings, and 'utensils', which meant stock used for trade and business. Contents insurance is slightly more common than house insurance.

Most insurers took general cover for their possessions, but some were more particular and itemised different categories of household items. George Smith of Westgate House (then known as Woodcote Place) valued his furniture at £1200, his silver plate at £400, the glass, china and earthenware in the house at £400 and the books at £200. At the other end of town, in a more modest property on West Hill, Matthew Gibson rated his furniture at £200, the plate at £50, the glass and china at £25, and the books at £25 – the same proportions as at the mansion, though only a sixth of the total value, and Gibson also had pictures which he evidently treasured as they were estimated at £100. On a much smaller scale, Thomas Greatrex the millwright listed the contents of his house in Ewell High Street: £30 for glass, china and earthenware, £10 for the books, and £30 for 'plate, watches and trinkets'.

When it came to insuring properties, the cheapest were the labourers' cottages, many of them on the outskirts of town, insured at between £50 and £100. Next in value, and more often to be found in the High Street, were tenements let out to one or two people, usually artisans, and insured for between £100 and £150. After that come the houses of the town's traders, manufacturers and shopkeepers, some of them leaseholds and some owner–occupied, which were insured for varying sums; several of these are only £100 but the figures go up beyond £300. The two highest sums, £400 each time, are for tallow chandlers. Their business involved rendering down fat to make candles, and presumably the insurance was high in response to the risk.

Fire plate from 4 Church Street, Royal Exchange policy 149551
Fire plate from 4 Church Street, Royal Exchange policy 149551
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

Farmhouses had much the same value as shopkeepers' homes; Rushett Farm (just over the border in Chessington) and Highfield Farm were both insured for £150. Pubs were more valuable, and we find the Queen's Head insured for £310, the Albion (then a coffee house) for £350, the Rubbing House for £500, and the Kings Head for up to £600. But valuations could be erratic, at least for the more expensive buildings. The Kings Head was insured successively for £350, £500 and £600, and Rushett Farm for £150 and £350. Clearly under–insurance was common, as it was among the properties of the gentry. George Smith insured Westgate House for £1200 in 1801 but for £3000 in 1806; it was still £3000 in 1813 when Felix Ladbroke occupied the house, although three years later the figure had gone back down to £1500. These variations in cover make it difficult to assess the true value of houses occupied by the professional classes, especially when we allow for the extension of cover to associated buildings; in 1806 the valuation for Westgate House was increased by a further £500 for its 'Coachhouse, Stable, Laundry, Dairy, Brewhouse & Granary'. The middle range for insurance of gentry houses was about £450 to £2000; William Kitchener's house at the Old Wells, valued at £850, stands about halfway along the scale.

Because landlords insured the houses of their tenants, insurance policies give us some insight into the investments of those who were renting for profit. The most common arrangement was to have one or two tenants; very often this took the form of a house in two tenements, probably because it had been subdivided. People who rented out a single property liked it to be near their own home, presumably so that they could keep an eye on things; it might be a few doors away or across the road, or it might have been developed on vacant space in their own plot. Some landlords owned three or four properties – there were about half as many of these as of those renting to one or two tenants. In 1806 Thomas Furness the tailor had gone into partnership with a shoemaker called William Collins and had acquired the properties from 92 to 98 High Street, renting them out to tenants including John Lewis Jaquet, who was a schoolteacher, postmaster, and agent for the Sun insurance company.

And Epsom also had a handful of more ambitious rentiers, men who obviously derived significant income from property. William Cobbold the brewer insured the Rubbing House and the Kings Head in 1813–14; other brewers were doing the same, following a policy which would eventually result in the tied house system. John Watson was a cabinet–maker who seems to have acquired or developed a run of labourers' cottages, occupied by nine tenants in 1827. James Bradley the baker owned a whole stretch of the High Street, between nos. 31 and 87. In 1814 this comprised his own house, two others let out to a worker in the bakery and a gardener, a fourth house divided between two labourers, a run of four tenements on the street, and another of five along the alleyway that now leads to Town Hall: thirteen tenants in all. When he reinsured in 1823, 'two houses adjoining near, not yet finished' had been added to the complex.

Not everyone who owned a house would insure it, although the imperfect survival of policy registers makes this hard to establish. Certainly the variations among different trades in taking Royal Exchange policies suggests that some sectors of the economy were more likely to take out insurance than others. The most prominent group, perhaps because they were also the most affluent, were the producers or wholesalers of food – butchers, cornchandlers, brewers and bakers. In 1810 the house of William Hebbard, the butcher at 2 West Street, was insured for £300 including the stables and slaughterhouse.

Some butchers were evidently acting as graziers on a small scale, feeding their animals until they were ready for slaughter, and therefore needed to secure a supply of fodder; Jarman Hope insured a haystack in 1801, as did John Humphrey thirty years later. Presumably this was against risks of the hay over–heating and combusting, although given that Humphrey was insuring in the wake of the Captain Swing riots, he might have been anticipating deliberate arson. Humphrey's house, at the corner of High Street and Church Street, was valued at £300, with a further £100 for the 'Slaughterhouse, Bullock Pounds, Cowstalls, Pigsty, Privy and Coal Shed with loft'

Farmers (sometimes describing themselves, in the old way, as yeomen) were also common clients of the insurance agents. They had a lot at risk; in 1812 John Weston took out cover of £1,310 for 'Utensils and Trade in all the Barns, Stables or other Buildings in his Farm including the Ricks, Stacks, implements of Husbandry, Wagons, Carts and all other Utensils in the Yards or in the Grounds', and in 1827 John Mercer of Highfield Farm was paying for as much as £100 to cover two ricks – one of oats, the other of beans.

The building trades were also well represented, with carpenter–builders plumbers, timber merchants and a bricklayer. Barnabas Gardom, 'Carpenter Upholder and Broker', owned the Assembly Rooms in conjunction with John Bailey the draper; in 1799 his half included a fenced–off workshop and sawpit. Bailey's half, insured at £2000, was much the more valuable of the two. By then the Assembly Rooms had long ceased to function as an inn, but these also featured in the policy books, with victuallers, coffee house keepers and a lodging house keeper taking out insurance. There is mention of the Marquis of Granby and the Dukes Head. Joshua Jones took out £190 of cover for stock at the Queens Head, including casks in the cellar. In 1813 William Cobbold insured three stables and a chaisehouse at the Kings Head, a range of accommodation for travellers suitable to the principal inn of the town; later the Pagden brothers took out cover for 'a stable with loft over and a cottage used as a tap to the inn', which would later become the Kings Shades.

Other trades which recur in the insurance records are the cordwainers or shoemakers, the tailors, and the tawers, who made white leather. Shopkeepers are not as common as you might have though, since the day of the retail tradesman had yet to arrive. Among the professions, there are surgeons and an apothecary, and several references to schoolmasters, probably because as literate book–keeping types they were often employed as agents for the insurance companies. The trades most at risk of fire, such as blacksmiths, do not seem to have insured at all: no doubt the premiums would have been too high.

The historic value of insurance records has only been recognised in recent years. Interest began with the study of their firemarks, something which caught the popular imagination in the 1960s. At that time Epsom and Ewell had five surviving marks. Two of them were on front of the Cedars in Epsom's Church Street, where they can still be seen: one is for the Sun, policy 357323, and the other for the Westminster, policy 26218. A third was removed from the Folly, near the Albion, by H.L. Edwards. This was an early Sun firemark, policy 83078, for 'four new brick and tiled houses only, on the Walks going up to the Long Room, not quite finished' at £80 each. Edwards, recognising that this would illuminate the later history of the entertainment complex at the New Wells, published the policy in the Bulletin of the Nonsuch & Ewell Antiquarian Soc. 3rd ser 2ii (1965) pp9–11. Later the Nonsuch Antiquarian Society, as it had become (now the Epsom & Ewell History & Archaeology Society) published a note in their newsletter 1974/3 on the entry for the Royal Exchange fire plate on 4 Church Street in Ewell, policy 149551. A fifth firemark could be seen on 26 Ewell High Street until the late 1960s, when a lorry drove past with one man driving and another standing behind some boards on the back. The lorry stopped just before the crossroads, and when it moved on, the firemark wasn't there anymore. Although it can be seen in early photographs, these are not clear enough to show the company details or the policy number.

The major collections of fire insurance policies are at the Guildhall Library in the City of London: see They hold the registers of the Hand in Hand, which concentrated on the London area (MS 8674 to 8), and of two companies with national coverage – the Royal Exchange (MS 7252 to 5) and the Sun (MS 11936 to 7). Topographical indexes were made for the Hand in Hand from 1805 onwards, although these have not yet been searched for Epsom and Ewell references. The Sun and Royal Exchange registers were not indexed in this way, but a place index for the 1775–87 policies of both companies was compiled and can be consulted on microfiche at the Guildhall, although this hasn't been used in compiling the present listings. In 1998 the Surrey Local History Council announced plans for to index Surrey entries in the Sun registers: see The aim was to start after the microfiche ended in 1778, and continue to 1794, the last date before separate registers began to be compiled for each county. This would have involved indexing the books numbered MS 11936/349 to 398, a total of 46 volumes (since 350, 354–5, 371–2, 380, 383, 393–4 and 396 are missing). In the end only 13 of these (352–3, 357, 359–61, 363 and 365–70) were indexed, and the local references found there have been included in the listing for the Sun registers. Since then, the London Metropolitan Archives have scheduled volumes MS 11936/375 to 469 in detail as part of their online catalogue and these entries have also been included. They give details of the person insuring, but not necessarily of their property; apparently each person was taken to be insuring their own residence, while any other properties mentioned were additional, and this assumption has been followed in the listing summary, although it may be that some of them were only insuring the additional properties and not their own.

These indexes have been valuable, but by far the largest collection of transcribed fire policies is the work of one person, Jeanette Norrington, who took time off her family history research to work through the registers of the Royal Exchange, and occasionally of the Sun, transcribing entries for Epsom. Most of the material here was collected by her over many years.

Thanks are also due to Sheila Ross, who transcribed Jeanette's typescript, and helped make some sense of the baffling arithmetic used by the insurance companies, and to Louise Aitken for editing.

Jeremy Harte © 2013