Friday, 17 June 2011

A Flaming Red Herring!

I have just finished researching an 18th century house on the river Thames, near Richmond. The house has a long and fascinating history that I hope to write about in more detail one day in Building Storeys. But right now, the story of this elegant double-fronted riverside house is for the owners’ eyes only.  However, there was one aspect of the house which I feel I can share with you.

Set in the centre of the wall, above the front door, is an intriguing fire plaque. These plaques were displayed outside houses as evidence that the building was insured in the event of a fire. Fire brigades would only come to the aid of insured houses; so if you didn’t display a plaque, you could say you were toast, or even that your goose was cooked! The fire brigade would leave your building to burn and you’d feel gutted!

In the case of the house by the river, this plaque is of a portcullis and the Prince of Wales feathers. Research revealed that it was the symbol of The London Fire Office, an insurance company that covered thousands of homes in and around London from the late 18th century to the beginning of the 20th century. I also found that in 1906 the company was bought by Sun Alliance and that information about individual policies can be found at The Guildhall Library, in the City of London. I was convinced that one quick trip up there could open up a whole new line of research  and information about the house. However, a researcher's hunch then told me otherwise.

When researching the history of a building it is very easy to get carried away and take everything at face value. You want something to be true so much that you forget about the ever-present likelihood of a red herring. For instance; that date displayed on the front of the house … is that really the date of construction or merely when they refurbished the building? Those neo-gothic windows – do they really date to 1815 or are they later reproductions?  Is that 17th century panelling original to the room or recycled from somewhere else?  That fire plaque – was it always with the house?

In the case of the house by the river, just before I set off for the City of London, I double checked all the photographs and drawings I had found of the house dating back to the 18th century. To my disappointment, no plaque was visible in the images until the late 1970s. Although a genuine plaque it had not originated with the building. 

But that doesn't mean the London Fire Office plaque doesn’t have its own significance and place in history. Does the original house still exist and more to the point, was the fire insurance ever needed? I'll save that for my next visit Guildhall visit and come back and tell you.

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