The insurance industry can accurately trace its formation back 350 years to the Great Fire of London on 2 September 1666, which destroyed more than 13,000 homes and 87 churches as it blazed for four days. Thousands of timber buildings, crowded together, proved highly susceptible to the flames.

If such a fire engulfed the City of London today, the Association of British Insurers estimate the cost in insurance pay-outs would be £37bn.

London had a poor history with fire and there had been many severe fires over the years. Fires, sometimes severe fires, were commonplace. Straw roofs would catch fire and burn, only to be replaced by more straw roofs.

By the mid-1600s, London was a city ripe for a conflagration. Many of the buildings were built of wood, many of them old. Even many of the brick and stone buildings had thatched roofs. Where there were sidewalks, they were made of wood with no fire-stops inside them.

There was no fire service. Any building that caught fire was pretty much doomed!

The fire started early in the morning in a baker’s shop in Pudding Lane, and quickly spread. Unfortunately, one of the first structures to burn was the huge wooden waterwheel on the Thames that supplied water to the city. Losing the waterwheel significantly reduced the amount of available water throughout the city. The bucket brigades didn’t stand a chance.

It had long been a practice to use long poles, with hooks on the end, to pull down adjacent buildings to a fire to keep the fire from spreading.

Unfortunately, the combination of heat, wind, and lack of water kept that from working.

By the time it was over, London was devastated. Four-fifths of the city lay in smouldering ashes. England’s biggest city, containing roughly two-thirds of the wealth of the empire was ruined. Fortunately, the death rate was amazingly small.

350 years on, fire prevention has moved on significantly

It will never be possible to completely eradicate fire, but there is sprinkler technology, for example, to drastically reduce the chances of it taking hold and spreading. At the moment only a fifth of warehouses between 2,000 square metres and 10,000 square metres have sprinklers fitted.

We now see ever larger warehouses stocked ceiling-high with goods in response to the boom in online shopping for example. There is a government recommendation that warehouses over 20,000 square metres have sprinkler systems, but there are no rules to enforce it.

Too often, parts of our major cities are still brought to a halt by large building fires. A blaze not so long ago in Battersea, London, is just one example. 100 firefighters were needed to tackle a fire on an industrial estate which spread through 8 units and caused major disruption to transport.

Insurance is a vital safeguard for millions of homes and businesses today, helping them back on their feet when the worst happens. But, as the Great Fire of London taught us, it is equally important to prevent disaster whenever possible.

For a no obligation business insurance risk review please contact me on 020 8207 7385.

PS – Insurer Aviva has trawled through their archives to reveal some of its most quirky fire claims over the last 3 centuries. Click here to read them!

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