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Insurance Brigades 1837 to 1884


Collection of insurance Fire Marks on display at the Museum of Fire [Museum of Fire Collection]
Collection of insurance Fire Marks on display at the Museum of Fire [Museum of Fire Collection]

During the mid-1800s, after military brigades had been disbanded due to their limited success as firefighters, private insurance companies began to form their own private fire brigade units. These were in theory, designated to protect those whose homes and businesses caught on fire for a price. Insurance fire brigades originate from England, with these companies' providing homes and businesses with “fire marks”, a plaque which consisted of the company's logo and was installed on the facade of your building to signify that you paid the insurance company to protect your home. These brigades were not formed for the benefit of the general public, rather they were created to protect the properties insured by the affiliated company. By 1833, the private insurance brigades of London had conglomerated into a single association known as the London Fire Engine Establishment, providing London with a singular fire brigade rather than a multitude of smaller operations. Roughly 30 years later in 1865 the City of London assumed control of the fire brigade and instituted the Metropolitan Fire Brigades Act.


Whilst England may have had a turbulent history of private insurance companies protecting only buildings which paid them, in Australia, and in Sydney it was much different. Considering that Insurance brigades did not form in Australia until 1837, 4 years after London had assimilated their insurance brigades into a single entity, Sydney had a much better role model when it came to insurance brigade operations. Similarly, it began here in Sydney with several private insurance brigades forming across the city, however, there was never the issue of insurance companies refusing to put out fires for the reason that they were not being paid to do so. The Buildings Act (1837) ensured that the first fire brigade to put water on the fire received compensation from the government of 30 shillings, with the subsequent second and third brigade to arrive receiving 20 and 10 shillings respectively.


Sydney Fire Insurance Company Fire Mark on display at the Museum of Fire [Museum of Fire Collection]
Sydney Fire Insurance Company Fire Mark on display at the Museum of Fire [Museum of Fire Collection]

It would be this financial incentive which would create fierce competition between insurance fire brigades to attend fire calls as quickly as possible, and these financial incentives would continue for the majority of the lifetime of insurance fire brigades all the way to 1879 under the Sydney Improvement Act (1879).

In 1841 several companies formed the Mutual Fire Insurance Association to operate a combined brigade. This ultimately would not last long as it ended in 1844, effectively leaving the association to be run by the city authorities. It would be in 1851 that such a movement would rise again with insurance companies coming together acting under one unified body with the creation of the Insurance Companies Fire Brigade which would also be later known as the Sydney Fire Establishment.


Insurance fire Brigades Company fire Station on corner of Bathurst and George Street Sydney, 1907 [Museum of Fire Collection]
Insurance fire Brigades Company fire Station on corner of Bathurst and George Street Sydney, 1907 [Museum of Fire Collection]

In 1854 the first “volunteer” brigades were formed. Volunteer as a name remains a misnomer with these firefighters receiving an income for the work they did. However, the folklore of firefighting during the era of insurance and volunteer brigades has been written as volunteer brigades being necessary creations due to insurance companies refusing to put out fires. On the contrary, the case was more that there were particular businesses that insurance companies refused to insure due their high-risk nature. These buildings were theatres, printing presses and breweries. Alternatively, insurance brigades have been noted on many occasions attending fires at buildings which were either uninsured or insured with a different company.


The Sun Fire Insurance Company Fire Mark on display at the Museum of Fire [Museum of Fire Collection]
The Sun Fire Insurance Company Fire Mark on display at the Museum of Fire [Museum of Fire Collection]

Whilst in Sydney our insurance companies would extinguish the fires regardless of the building's insurance status, we still had a variety of our own fire marks for companies such as Phoenix, the Sun Insurance Company, the Alliance Assurance Company and of course, as previously mentioned the Insurance companies Fire Brigade also had its own fire mark too.


The Alliance Assurance Company Fire Mark [Museum of Fire Collection]
The Alliance Assurance Company Fire Mark [Museum of Fire Collection]

As it can be imagined these instances of insurance brigades extinguishing fires of buildings which were uninsured or were insured with different companies was impactful on the business operation of these brigades. As a result, the call was made for the state government to manage fire services on behalf of the general public which happened in 1884 when the Metropolitan Fire Brigade was formed in Sydney, with the boundaries extending across the entire state of NSW in 1910, and the brigade changing their name to better reflect this by being known as the New South Wales Fire Brigade.


-Story written by the Curator

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