What does it mean if you have one of these ‘marks’ on your house?

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Walking around local towns you may see strange plaques high up on the external walls of larger historic buildings. Local expert Paul Birbeck explains their origins and significance.

To be found in Sherborne, this West of England insurance company’s plaque featured King Alfred

My January BV article considered the birth of the modern fire brigade in our area. This month’s piece is a natural sequel
While walking around local towns and villages, you may occasionally notice unusual symbols and objects; for example on the external walls of buildings. One of my favourite items in Sherborne are the fire marks which are found on at least three buildings around the town.
The origin of these historical plaques pre-dates any fire brigade, but does provide a link to early fire fighting and the protection of property.

The Fire of London and the birth of insurance

As the Great Fire of London in 1666 consumed the buildings, alms houses, schools and churches of the City, property owners watched their buildings and livelihoods go up in flames, each knowing that they had lost everything – the concept of fire insurance did not exist.

One year after The Great Fire, the first fire insurance company, called “The Fire Office”, was established by Nicholas Barbon. His fire brigade employed small teams of Thames watermen as firefighters.

He also established a mutual society which offered fire insurance. This later became known as the Phoenix Fire Office – an appropriate name for the society as the Phoenix is a mythical bird which burns itself and then arises from the ashes reborn.

These Sherborne fire marks feature the Royal Exchange Assurance building (right) and the British lion.

The fire mark

To identify that a property was covered by fire insurance, attached to the building at a height easily seen from the street – but out of reach of thieves – was a sign or emblem called a fire mark which was issued by the company.
Each insurance company had its own distinctive design which made identification of the property easier for their fire fighters and the company representatives. At first they were made of lead with the individual policy number stamped upon them and a type of logo.
The designs of all the companies can still be found. The Sun Fire Office had a large sun with a face. The Royal Exchange Assurance’s mark featured their building (image bottom left); the West of England plaque featured King Alfred who was the emblem for the company (image above). British had a lion (image below right, the lion is very worn), and Phoenix’s fire mark featured a Phoenix rising from the ashes.

Find them in Sherborne

Today, Sherborne has at least four fire marks scattered around the town. Three are around the central areas and one can be seen on the west wall of Sherborne Castle, showing the Westminster company logo and policy number.

If you aware of a fire mark, treasure them as part of our heritage and do please make the owner of the property aware of its importance – they are becoming an increasingly rare sight. I would also be interested to know the location: paul@sherbornewalks.co.uk Happy searching!

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