Guildhall Library, as the local record office for the City of London, holds the records of over 80 London based insurance companies or subsidiaries, approximately half of which were involved in insuring property against fire. These include the Hand-in-Hand Fire and Life Insurance Society (established in 1696), the Sun Insurance Office (established as the Sun Fire office in 1710) and the Royal Exchange Assurance (established in 1720). Brief details of many of the insurance records held at Guildhall Library and elsewhere are given in H.A.L. Cockerell and E. Green, The British Insurance Business, 1547-1970 (2nd edition, Sheffield Academic Press 1994), a copy of which is available at the Manuscripts Section's enquiry desk. A full list of those records held by the Library is contained in the Manuscripts Section's catalogue.
Fire Insurance Offices
Fire insurance offices were established in London from the late 17th century and in the provinces from the early 18th century. Some London based companies, such as the Hand-in-Hand and the Westminster Fire Office, restricted their business to the London area, whilst that of the provincial based offices was initially almost exclusively local and of relatively minor significance. However, the major London based companies such as the Sun, Royal Exchange and Phoenix (the records of the Phoenix are held at Cambridge University Library, not Guildhall Library) developed substantial business throughout Britain, working through a network of provincial agents. Although their business was always concentrated in the South, by the 1780s these companies were represented in most major towns and provincial centres in England, Scotland and Wales. Insurance of property in Ireland and overseas, however, was not undertaken by London based companies in a significant way until the 19th century.
Almost all types of property, from domestic to industrial, could be insured, with the exception of property not subject to fire risk or occupied by an unacceptable hazardous trade. Contents of property were normally specified separately. In the 18th century, the Sun had a virtual monopoly of insuring industrial property, which makes its records invaluable for the historian of the Industrial Revolution.
Substantial, if incomplete series of fire policy registers survive for the Hand-in-Hand, 1696-1865 (Ms 8674-8: 166 volumes, including supplementary series); Sun, 1710-1863 (Ms 11936-7: 1262 volumes); and Royal Exchange, 1753-9, 1773-1883 (Ms 7252-5: 173 volumes, including supplementary series). Some other insurance companies, such as the Globe, Law Union and Rock, London and Lancashire, and London Assurance, have preserved a few individual policy registers, but the vast majority of companies whose records are deposited at Guildhall Library have no surviving policy registers at all. Nor are any policy registers known to survive for the Phoenix.
Where fire policy registers exist, they generally include the following information: policy number, name of agent/location of agency; name, status, occupation and address of policy holder; names, occupations and addresses of tenants (where relevant); location, type, nature of construction and value of property insured; premium; renewal date; and some indication of endorsements. (N. B. references to endorsements in Sun policy registers refer to Ms 12160, a series of 168 endorsement books which survive for 1728-1865). Sun fire insurance policies were renewed after five years at which time a new policy was issued under a new number.
Entries are generally arranged in a chronological i.e. policy number order. In the case of the Sun, the volume of business meant that several clerks were engaged in making entries in separate concurrent registers, each with their own allocation of batches of policy numbers. Numerical indexes, by which a given policy number can be related to an individual policy register, are held at the Manuscripts enquiry desk.
From 1793, a separate series of country department policy registers was used by the Sun for non-London policies (i.e. Ms 11937).
Indexes to policy registers; Hand-in-Hand, Sun and Royal Exchange
The majority of the Hand-in-Hand policy registers have personal name indexes. In addition, there are topographical indexes to some registers, 1805-59, and numerical indexes, by which policies and renewals can be related to individual policy registers.
The policy registers of the Sun and Royal Exchange remain largely unindexed. However, indexes have been compiled for certain periods as follows:
1) A card index to personal names in Sun policy registers, 1714-1731 (Ms 17817), compiled by Alan Redstone, is available at Guildhall Library. It is arranged by county and alphabetically by name of policy holder within each county. It gives the name and occupation or rank of the policy holder or tenant; the location of the property by county, parish or village (and occasionally street or house name); and the policy register reference. It excludes London, Scotland and Wales.
2) A microfiche index to Sun and Royal Exchange policy registers, 1775-87 (Ms 24172), compiled by Professor R. Floud and students at Birkbeck College and financed by the ESRC, is available at Guildhall Library and at certain research institutions and libraries elsewhere. It includes personal name, trade and valuation indexes, and, for Royal Exchange policies only, an assignment index. It excludes Ms 11936/252 which was subsequently transferred to Guildhall Library. Its nature and scope are described in a companion guide by D. T. Jenkins (Ms 24174).
3) An online index to Sun policy registers Ms 11936/419 -560 dating from 1800 - 1839 is available to search at the National Archives website. You can use the global search facility (the search bar that you see at the top right hand corner of their homepage) to search the index. You should type in the name/occupation/street name you are looking for along with the word "insured" into the search bar. This will produce a list of relevant results which you can click on to obtain the full manuscript reference and policy number. These will be required to consult the manuscript at Guildhall Library or to order copies from us. You can use the "Advanced Search" facility to limit the date range of your search.
The index is being compiled by volunteers, who are adding new registers to the website on a regular basis. It was started by the London Archive Users' Forum and was financed by the Heritage Lottery Fund, now supported by the City of London Corporation. It includes personal names, occupations and addresses of policyholders, location details of property insured and names of any other individuals mentioned. It also gives names of vessels and their masters where these occur. More detailed instructions for using the index and for obtaining copies of policies are available.
4) Numerical indexes, which relate policy numbers to individual Sun policy registers, 1723-1863, are available at the Manuscripts enquiry desk (Mss 21595 and 21596/1-2).
Searches in the policy registers
The extent of the records and relative lack of indexes make a search in the policy registers of the Sun and Royal Exchange a lengthy business when the policy number is unknown. An article by M.W. Beresford, "Building History from Fire Insurance Records", Urban History Yearbook (1976), a copy of which is available at Guildhall Library, suggests ways of reducing the time required for such a search. In addition, a number of registers are no longer extant or are rendered unfit for consultation by their physical condition.
Board and committee minutes, agents' records, share records, endorsement books, claims records, investment records, surveyors' plans and reports, accounts, correspondence and other related records survive for some companies. Brief details are given in Cockerell and Green, The British Insurance Business, as above. For a full list, consult the Manuscripts Section's catalogue. Some such series of records are on restricted access (see below).
Access to insurance records
Guildhall Library Manuscripts will be temporarily closed for refurbishment from 17 April 2009 for several months. Access to all records will be provided at London Metropolitan Archives and details of access arrangements can be found here.
Scans of individual policies can be ordered from the Sun and Royal Exchange only. Orders should be on an official reprographics order form and accompanied by payment in full. Please email the Manuscripts Section with details of the number of policies you wish to order and your country of residence, so that the cost of copying and postage can be worked out.
A leaflet entitled "Sources for the study of fires and insurance claims held at Guildhall Library" is also available.
Last updated September 2009
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