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Royal & Sun Alliance Insurance Group plc.
The Great Fire of London began on the morning of Sunday 2nd September 1666. By the time the flames died down five days later, the city and much of the surrounding area had been destroyed. Under the patronage of the King, Charles II, reconstruction of the city began immediately. Pioneered by Sir Christopher Wren, a new London emerged from its medieval ashes, with forty nine new churches, St Paul's Cathedral, and the foundations for the city as we know it today.
New measures to avoid the devastation of fire were developed in the aftermath of the catastrophe. While architects and builders sought to replace wood and straw with brick and stone as building materials, owners of property looked to the new Fire Insurance companies to safeguard them from future disasters. The last three decades of the 17th century saw the development of the first mutual Insurance societies who, in the absence of any satisfactory public provision for extinguishing fires, formed their own individual brigades of men trained in the use of manual fire engines and fire fighting appliances. This situation continued throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, until the London Fire Brigade Establishment was formed in 1833, when the separate Fire Brigades agreed to work together. The various brigades, often recruited from the Thames watermen, soon became a familiar sight in London, attending fires in their distinctive liveries, wearing the silver arm badge of their company. Fire marks, lead emblems placed on the outside of buildings, were introduced towards the end of the 17th Century to indicate which company had insured a particular property, and to assist the fire brigades.
The 'Sun Fire Office' was formed by Charles Povey (d.1743) and started trading in 1710. This date marks the birth of what is today known as Royal & Sun Alliance Insurance Group plc. Initially there were twenty four members, each with a 'share' in the company. In an advertisement prior to setting up the company, Charles Povey refers to funds he has available in an Iron Strong Box (Lot 28). He later refers to a seccond strong box:
'That a strong and substantial Iron Chest (Lot 26) with a slanting till in the middle of it shall be bought, having five different locks and keys with different wards, which shall be fixed to the floor with screws from the inside of it, in the Office of the company, to be absolutely immoveable. Keys to be delivered to different trustees.'
The company adopted the emblem of the Sun as its fire mark, and stated in its original proposals that they 'employed in the Service of the Office thirty lusty able-body'd firemen who are cloath'd in blue liveries and having silver badges (Lots 361-394) with the Sun mark upon their arms.' By 1789 the Sun Fire Office had six fire engines and two water barges in use.
While the origins of Royal & SunAlliance Insurance plc. can be traced to the founding of the Sun Fire Office, the 18th and 19th Centuries were to witness the creation of a number of other prominent Fire Insurance companies, that would eventually amalgamate, along with many other later companies, to form the multinational organisation of today. The most significant of these companies was the Westminster Fire Office (founded 1717), The Phoenix Assurance Company Ltd. (1782), the County Fire Office (1807) and the Alliance Assurance Company (1824).
On the 3rd September 1717, the first meeting of the 'Westminster' Fire Office was held in Tom's coffee-house on St.Martin's Lane. An agreement was signed between 150 tradesmen and craftsmen of Westminster, with some professionals and gentry, subscribing between them a total of £2,860. The Westminster Fire office purchased an iron strong box in 1717 (Lot 27) and it was not until 1792, when it was agreed that they had 'in their hands a larger sum of money than they thought it was prudent to place in the chest,' that they opened a bank account. The Westminster Fire Office moved to Bedford Street in 1751. It was for this new office that in 1792 the board commissioned 18 chairs (Lot 100) incorporating the Westminster portcullis crest, and the feathered badge of the Prince of Wales, from cabinet makers and upholsterers John Mayhew and William Ince, both of whom served on regular occasions as company directors from 1763. The men of the Westminster Fire Brigade were issued with silver badges bearing the portcullis and feathers, with silver gilt for the foremen. In 1810 the company moved to King Street, Covent Garden, where it remained until the second half of the 20th Century.
The Phoenix Assurance Company Ltd., also referred to as the 'New Fire Office' during its early years, was founded by an influential body of merchants consisting of sugar refiners and bakers, and its first policy was issued on the 17th January 1782. The first director of the Phoenix was George Grifffin Stonestreet, whose portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence PRA (Lot 30) hung in the boardroom of Phoenix House, King William Street, London. According to legend, the Phoenix was a magnificent Egyptian bird that lived for five hundred years. Conscious that it was nearing the end of its days, the mighty bird built itself a funeral pyre of wood and aromatic gums. Fanning the flames with its wings, the Phoenix rose from the fire with a new life. This became an emblem of the Phoenix Assurance company (Lots 46, 445 and others). The Phoenix Assurance company was the first British insurance company to establish an overseas agency, in Hamburg (1786), and later in New York (1805).
The County Fire Office was established by gentlemen and noblemen from twelve counties in England. Each county was allocated two hundred and fifty shares at £100 each. The first Managing director was John Thomas Barber Beaumont (d.1841), the renowned miniaturist and portrait painter (Lots 40-43), and the opening meeting is recorded as having taken place at his home at 25 Southampton Street, Covent Garden, on the 28th April 1807. Originally based in Southampton Street, the company moved to Regent Street in 1819 where it remained until 1970. The company adopted as its emblem a Britannia-like figure (lot 15), carrying shield and spear, and often accompanied by a lion. It has long been held that Barber Beaumont's wife was the model for the figure.
Royal & SunAlliance Insurance Group plc. was created in 1996 with the merger of Royal Insurance and Sun Alliance, Britains two largest insurance companies, and is now one of the worlds leading multinational insurance groups. The extensive lineage of the company can be traced back to over 300 companies worldwide. The Alliance Assurance company was founded in 1824 by Nathan Rothschild (Lot 95) and Sir Moses Montefiore (Lot 96), two leading figures in the London financial world. Adopting the 'Castle' as an emblem (Lots 34, 35, 507 and others), they desired to create a new insurance company with an influential board of members and a larger share capital than any insurance company before them. The Alliance merged with the County Fire Office in 1906, and with the Sun Fire Office in 1959. The Royal Insurance Company was started in 1845 by wealthy Liverpool merchants frustrated at the high London premiums. Today Royal & SunAlliance Insurance plc. employs approximately 26,000 staff, has major operations in the UK, Scandinavia, Canada, Ireland, the Middle East and South America, and underwrites business in one hundred and thirty countries worldwide.
With the eventual amalgamation of the Sun, Westminster, County and Phoenix offices, and so many other insurance companies, Royal & Sun Alliance Insurance Group plc. came to possess an outstanding collection of pictures, furniture, silver, fire memorabilia, fireman's badges, clocks, porcelain, works of art and wine. Housed at 88 St James's Street, London, SW1, the building designed by Richard Norman Shaw for the Alliance Assurance company in 1904 and until 2004 used as offices for company executives, this unique and important collection reflects nearly three hundred years of British Fire Insurance history.
Fire Marks were emblems affixed to the exterior of buildings to indicate to the different company fire brigades which company had insured the building. Most 18th Century Fire Marks were made of lead, with copper becoming increasingly popular from around 1800. Despite a flurry of inventive designs in the 1820s, quality declined and few were issued after the 1850s.