Insurance policy registers (described in the leaflet entitled “Fire Insurance Records”) give information on policy holders and their property. However, the registers leave an important question unanswered: did the policy holder ever have reason to make a claim?
This is a difficult question to answer as few claims papers have survived. However, the Manuscripts Section holds various records relating to fires (some which cover the UK). Most of these records are part of the Sun Insurance Office archive.
FIRES AND OTHER DISASTERS:
The London Fire Engine Establishment kept a general record of fires in London (Ms 15729). We hold volumes covering the years 1833-48 and 1850-65. They are indexed by place and person. The information includes date, time of discovery, name and profession of occupier, possible cause of the fire and details of insurance.
We also hold surveyors’ records of dock and wharf fires, 1884, 1904-75, compiled by the London Wharf and Warehouse Committee (Ms 14945). These volumes are indexed and contain details of damage caused, preventative measures taken, lessons to be learned and cause of fire where known.
The following papers from the Sun Insurance Office archive relate only to particularly noteworthy fires or similar disasters:
Three manuscript volumes of reports of fires in the UK, 1818-37 (38879). The style of these reports suggests that they were copied from newspapers.
Scrapbook of press cuttings concerning fires in the UK, 1807-87 (Ms 38839/1). This volume is indexed by business or type of building and by place.
Scrapbooks of press cuttings mainly concerning the Tooley Street fire, 1861, the King & Queen Granary fire in Rotherhithe, 1871, and the explosion at Regent’s Canal, 1874 (Ms 38840).
Photograph album of fire and tornado damage, 1894-1912 (Ms 38881). The album includes tornado damage in Birmingham, 1913; and fire damage in Tabernacle Walk, 1894, and Drury Lane Theatre, 1908.
These 19th century lists of fires were compiled by the Sun Insurance Office but include property insured by other companies, and uninsured property:
London, 1805-21 (Ms 38877)
Belfast, 1858-67 (Ms 38815/2)
The following lists of fires only relate to properties insured with the Sun Insurance Office:
London, 1851-66 (Ms 11934B)
“Country” (the UK outside London), 1803-64 (Ms 11937A)
Belfast, 1843-58 (Ms 38815/1, pp.96-110)
Bristol, 1878-80 (Ms 38815/3)
The records of fire insurance companies at Guildhall Library only rarely include records of claims. The most substantial collection, and even that is patchy, is for the Sun Insurance Office:
There are “claims papers” (that is, affidavits sworn before a justice of the peace) for the period 1770-88 (Ms 31688). The series relates to about 500 claims. It is arranged by county, and then alphabetically (Ms 31688/7 is a name index). The papers include a description of the premises where the fire took place and a very general description of the items claimed for. They occasionally include more detailed inventories. There are also a few miscellaneous papers relating to claims, 1771-88, in separate bundles (Ms 12019B, 15040, 21075). These miscellaneous papers have not been indexed.
Although we do not hold any affidavits for the 19th and 20th centuries, we do hold some legal papers, correspondence, press cuttings and similar papers which give information about a few claims:
Scrapbook labelled “losses” containing press cuttings and original and copy correspondence, 1840-81 (Ms 38841/10). This volume is indexed.
Three boxes of legal papers, correspondence and other papers concerning disputed claims, 1860-98 (Ms 38875/1-3). Ms 38875/4 is a list of contents of the boxes.
Three bundles of papers relating to a few policies and claims, 1904-26 (Ms 38869)
There are two scrapbooks of newspapers cuttings and correspondence relating to claims and prosecutions concerning various insurance companies, 1845-87 (Ms 38839/2-3). These scrapbooks are indexed.
The Sun Insurance Office archive also includes some papers relating to the salvage and sale of goods for the period 1860-73 (Ms 18861), mainly relating to large claims. The papers comprise printed sale catalogues, accounts, letters, reports and details of apportionment of proceeds of sales to the various fire insurance offices involved.
The London Salvage Corps compiled a “black list” of fires which occurred under suspicious circumstances, and of persons involved in suspicious insurance claims or who might be a hazardous insurance risk, 1854-1942 (Ms 15734).
The following sources of information are all held by Guildhall Library Printed Books Section:
A good place to start looking for information on fires is local newspapers. For London, the Gentleman’s Magazine (from 1731) gives notices of notable fires until the mid 19th century.
The reports of the Chief Officer of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, 1866-1883, give statistics of fires by trade or type of building, and a list of causes and numbers of people wounded or killed. This information is invaluable for business and social historians, but unfortunately they do not give details of individual incidents.
A discussion of sources for researching urban fires can be found in E. L. Jones, S. Porter and M. Turner, A Gazetteer of English Urban Fire Disasters, 1500-1900 (Norwich, 1984)
Last updated December 2008
Leaflet Guides to Records
Guildhall Library Manuscripts Section