Two Minute Read

Always Look Up: Fire Marks, What are They?

When strolling through villages, towns, and cities, many of us fail to look up, missing out on a fascinating layer of history.

You may have glimpsed a cheerful figure smiling from the sun, but what does it signify? Here’s the story behind it: In the aftermath of the Great Fire of London, people became acutely aware of the need to protect themselves from disasters and to plan for the future to prevent a similar catastrophic event.

New laws were enacted to safeguard the metropolis and propel its growth into a new era. These laws addressed rebuilding efforts, house styles, street design, and construction, as well as provisions for firefighting in the city.

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One particular law mandated that each quarter of the new city should have 800 leather buckets and 50 ladders available in case of fire, and every house was required to have its own buckets.

Fire mark
Fire-mark, 6 Cross Street, Mark of The Sun Fire Office, one of the oldest Fire Offices established in 1710. Credit: Keith Edkins

In 1667, Dr. Barbon, a notable writer, physician, and economist, played a significant role in the reconstruction of London and the establishment of the first formal insurance company, called The Insurance Office, located near the Royal Exchange. Other companies quickly followed suit, such as the Friendly Society and the Hand In Hand Company.

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47-49 High Street, Eton, Windsor, Berkshire. The building originated in the 15th century according to its listing details. Inevitably it has been altered over the centuries. Listed Grade II. The fire mark is circled. Credit: Brian Robert Marshall

Each insurance company formed its own firefighting team to protect the properties they insured. The oldest documented fire insurance company, founded around 1710, was The Sun Fire Insurance Company, which still exists today and has undergone various transformations, now known as the Royal & Sun Alliance.

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When a fire broke out, firefighting teams from the insurance companies would rush to the scene, in case it involved one of their insured buildings. If it didn’t, they would either leave or observe.

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Fire mark on the wall. Credit: Bill Nicholls

However, for a fee, other companies would extinguish fires for policyholders with different insurance policies, and eventually, they even put out fires for non-subscribers, as the fire could easily spread to their properties covered by their own policies.

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Nevertheless, this arrangement proved impractical, necessitating a more efficient way for companies to identify the buildings they represented. Firemarks were introduced and issued to all policyholders. Originally made of tin, they were affixed to the outer walls or under the eaves of houses.

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Fire mark, 47-49 High Street, Eton, Windsor, Berkshire. Credit: Brian Robert Marshall

Over time, firemarks were crafted from iron, lead, and brass, bearing the symbol of the insurance company and often a serial number. These firemarks were in use during the 18th and 19th centuries until municipal fire brigades were established.

The first company to employ firemarks was The Sun Fire Office, with their plaques featuring the sun with a face. In Montpelier Row, several properties still display Sun Fire Office fire marks.

fire mark
Credit: Bill Nicholls

By 1825, firemarks were no longer widely used. However, many homeowners left the marks in place, regardless of whether they were subscribers or not. In Montpelier Row, Twickenham, several fire marks have endured and can still be clearly seen today. Some properties retain their original fire marks, located on the front wall, near the eaves, or in the center.

One property proudly displays the marks of both the Hand In Hand Insurance Company and the Westminster Insurance Companies. Each company had its own unique mark representing its name.

The Westminster Insurance Company, for instance, always featured the recognizable symbol of a portcullis, which remains familiar even today.