We Brits love a good anniversary – and a round number. This year we’re celebrating, among other things, the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth and the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.
It’s also been 350 years since the Great Fire of London, the devastating blaze which burned for four days and in the process wiped out more than 13,500 homes and 87 churches in the capital. Its destruction was such that it is credited with creating the modern property insurance industry and, in turn, the fire service.
Thanks to the plethora of insurance plans on offer in the 21st century, we’re no longer reduced to burying cheese in the back garden in the event of a fire (although admittedly that worked a treat for Samuel Pepys). In fact, new research from the Association of British Insurers (ABI) shows that we’re far more likely to save credit cards, cash and photographs than anything else. Just 1 per cent would emulate the celebrated diarist by snatching up luxury food and drink.
The ABI survey also showed a third of people would reach for their mobile phone, but only 16 per cent would save jewellery or other valuables. Your mobile, really? If flames were licking round my property that would be the last thing I’d care about.
James Dalton, director of general insurance policy at the ABI, said: ‘The Great Fire of London caused damage on an unprecedented scale. Unlikely as it is, if such a fire were to tear through London today we estimate it would cost £37 billion to rebuild the city. What’s particularly hard to imagine is that there was no organised firefighting force, and no insurance to cover the thousands of properties destroyed.
‘As well as shaping modern London as we know it, the Great Fire inspired businessmen to offer fire insurance policies, which have evolved into the world leading insurance industry we have today. The crews the insurers employed to protect their investments became the first publicly funded fire service. We hope as few people as possible face the trauma of a fire in their home or business but, when they do, there are now trained firefighters who will come to their aid, and insurance available to help rebuild and repair.’
The year 1681 marks the date on one of the oldest fire insurance policies in existence. Since then, Britons have become pretty adept at claiming on their insurance, as well as applying for cover on a variety of eclectic objects.
My favourite anecdote comes from what was then Commercial Union (now Aviva.). In 1954 the company’s Exeter office was asked to provide fire insurance for a lady whose eccentricities included keeping a crocodile, called Percy, who smoked cigarettes.
Then there was the 1958 claim for a fire caused when a small boy poured water onto the radio to see what the BBC announcer would sound like gargling. Earlier, in 1928, Norwich Union’s Manchester branch received a claim for fire damage to a set of false teeth whose female owner had taken them out to eat an orange and accidentally thrown them into the fire with the peel.
In 1895 Norwich Union Fire’s Glasgow branch dealt with a fire claim for £1 for ‘loss of eyebrows and portion of head of hair belonging to son John – aged 19’.
And according to reminiscences in the Norwich Union staff magazine of 1941, after one fire in the 1880s the bill for beer for the firemen came to £38, equivalent to around £3,196 in today’s money. A note of thanks from Norwich Union asked if the beer had been used to extinguish the flames.
Today our insurance claims are much more mundane. In 2015 Aviva settled more than 1,300 claims in the UK for customers whose homes had been damaged by fire. Common causes included lightning strikes to aerials and phone lines, garden fires getting out of hand, and kitchen/appliance fires in the home.
Of course, mundane doesn’t mean ordinary or boring. A fire of any degree is appalling for the person it affects. Thankfully, fire prevention has improved greatly over the years, with smoke detectors and sprinkler systems now commonplace in British buildings.
Don’t allow yourself to become complacent, though. Perhaps one of your tasks for today should be checking the smoke alarm is working – or, if you haven’t got one, making a note to snap one up as soon as possible.
Helen Nugent is Online Money Editor of The Spectator