Fire Mr Fawlty!

Wine cellarYou might not think that an insurance policy could make interesting reading, but cast back a couple of centuries and suddenly you discover they can reveal a great deal about how people lived. Property owners were understandably concerned about the risk of fire at a time when many houses and particularly outbuildings were thatched. Every individual building had to be listed saying what it was built from, how it was roofed, and its function. In the house, the insurance usually covered household goods, furniture and wearing apparel, while in the outbuildings crops such as hay, straw, grain, clover etc, and cheese as well as horses and other animals were included.

One Shrewsbury townhouse owner in 1797 thought it wise to insure his household goods for £250 in 1797, but then added extra insurance for ‘his wearing apparel, linen and books’ for a further £50. He had stables and offices next to his house and a stock of oats, hay, horses and straw in one of the stables which was valued at £20. Meanwhile two doors away and ten years later a respectable widow living in her brick and tiled dwelling house valued at £400 also had a stable and ‘warehouse with a vault underneath (having a stove therein)’ worth £200. In this vault she stored ‘utensils and a stock of wine and liquors’ insured for a staggering £2,000. That’s an awful lot of utensils and wine.

Where's my cow house?A possible decline in fortunes appears to have occurred in Ludlow when a tenant insured his workshop, utensils and stock for £100 in 1802. Five year later he just covered the workshop for £80. However by 1835 he had converted his workshop into a cowhouse, and one imagines his neighbours may have taken a view on this change of use.

Even mid-20th century policies catalogued all the buildings, providing a tour of the premises: ‘a grocers and confectioners shop with dwelling rooms and domestic offices lighted by electricity and heated by ordinary coal fire, secure £700’.

One place not insured was Whitton vicarage in Radnorshire whose incumbent had not taken the precaution of storing the registers in the parish chest. The church registers were missing because ‘the old register book was burnt in a dreadful fire which consumed the parsonage house on April 23 1772’.

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