I was looking for something else when I found, behind a Victorian maternity pincushion, Edwardian starting pistol, Trench Art paperknife and all the other detritus that exists in the cupboard in my study, this –
It is, of course, a Fire Insurance Plaque. It belonged to my grandfather, who was probably responsible for the colour, though some were once painted. These date to the eighteenth and early nineteenth century and were affixed to houses to show who they were insured with, and allowed the private fire brigades, run by the insurance companies to give those houses priority if they caught fire. It is apparently a myth that the private fire brigades would deliberately ignore uninsured houses, or those insured with other firms, simply because fire was such a terrible danger in the towns of the period.
In Blandford in Dorset, for example, a fire in 1731 destroyed most of the town, this provided the opportunity for John and Willian Bastard, arguably the finest provincial architects of the first half of the eighteenth century to show their skill. Their name can cause confusion amongst people who are unacquainted with Dorset’s architectural history, when I said of a village church;
“It has a very fine Georgian interior, which is hardly surprising as the patron of the church was a Bastard.”
Some people thought I was reflecting on the morality of the gentleman, not indicating his architectural ingenuity.
Blandford Forum Church
Today some people tell you to constantly check that you are getting the best deal in your insurance by shopping around, complaining that most people just renew with the same firm year after year. This practice of regular renewal is not a new phenomenon. In the 1790’s Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh insured his country house, Uppark in Sussex, with the Sun insurance company, and a lead plaque was attached to the property advertising the fact. This was an unusually sensible move for a very rakish gentleman, the house still contains a dining table on which the young Emma Harte danced ‘in a state of nature’, she later married Sir William Hamilton and is known to history as Lady Hamilton. The insurance premiums were paid, year on year as an elderly Sir Harry married a teenaged dairy maid, who continued to pay the company as she carefully managed the estate, adding state of the art servant’s quarters which were partly underground, which inspired a young H G Wells, whose mother was housekeeper there, to create the subterranean lair of the Morlocks.
As wars were won and lost, and empires rose and fell, the premiums to the Sun Insurance Company for Uppark continued to paid, with little significant claims being made, until 1989 when a careless builder set the roof alight. The subsequent restoration of Uppark caused a significant dip in the profits of Sun Life Insurance, and led to the house being aptly renamed ‘The Phoenix of the Downs.”
And that was what I thought about when I found this two hundred year old bit of lead at the back of a cupboard.