Fire Insurance Plaques in Oxford and nearby villages

Clarendon Building

Fire plaques were placed high on properties to deter thieves, who sometimes removed them and placed them on their own houses. Hhence they can be hard to spot when they are on large buildings; the arrow above points to the one on the south side of the Clarendon Building in Broad Street.

Originally each company had its own fire brigade, but in 1826 the Sun Fire Office, the Royal Exchange Assurance, and the Phoenix fire office agreed to combine their fire brigades when necessary.

Some of the fire plaques spotted in Oxford and nearby villages are shown below.

Sun Insurance Office Ltd

(now part of Sun Alliance)

Plaque depicts the sun with a man's face and sixteen rays.
The Sun Fire Office, which was established under that name in 1710, was the first to use this kind of plaque,
“in order that the houses of those persons insured may be known by [their] firemen ... which Mark is to be number'd with
the Number of the Subscriber's Policy, and there to remain so long as the Subscribers continue to pay their Quarteridges”

Clarendon BuildingClarendon Building, Broad Street, Oxford
Building erected in 1711–13
Policy No. 16839 (early date: five figures only)

The Plough, CornmarketThe Plough, 38 Cornmarket Street, Oxford
Building dates from 1665
Policy No. 31665 (early date: five figures only)

21 St GilesBlack Hall, 21 St Giles' Street
The policy issued to Jane Trollope on 25 February 1775 provided cover of £1000 for the main house, £300 for her goods, £50 for the adjoining farm house, £50 for the coach house & stable, £50 for the stable kitchen & granary, and £150 for the barn. Now part of St John's College
Policy No. 350271: dating from 1775

Headington Manor HouseHeadington Manor House, Osler Road
This mansion, which became Headington Manor House in 1801, was built by Sir Banks Jenkinson in c.1770.
The Manor House was sold to the Radcliffe Infirmary in 1919, and the John Radcliffe Hospital was built in its grounds in the 1970s. The Manor House is now hospital offices 
Policy No. 371401: probably late 18th century

35 High Street, Eynsham
35 High Street, Eynsham
Policy No. 425573: Probably c.1800

Royal Insurance Company Ltd

(established in Liverpool in 1845)
Their sign depicts a crown above the word ROYAL and a liver bird beneath it. Policy numbers not given
Later fire markers such as these were made of thin copper plate, tinned sheet-iron, or cast iron and known as fire plates

1 & 2 Windsor Street
2 & 4 Windsor Street, Headington
First and second of terrace of four houses built c.1872

3 & 4 Windsor Street
6 & 8 Windsor Street, Headington
Third and fourth of terrace of four houses built c.1872

County Fire Office

The County Fire Office was founded in 1807 by an “associaton of noblemen and gentlemen” for the particular benefit of residents in country districts, specialising in insuring country homes and farms.
Cowley and Marston were rural areas outside the city of Oxford when the houses below were built

The plaque depicts Britannia armed with a spear and shield above the word COUNTY. (The shield bears the Royal Arms as they were in 1807, with an inescutcheon of the arms of Hanover.)
Policy numbers are not given

Temple Road
79 Temple Road, Cowley

14 Oxford Road, Old Marston
14 Oxford Road, Old Marston

Guardian Assurance Company Ltd

Established in 1821 as Guardian Fire & Life
Plaque depicts a figure of Athena above the word GUARDIAN, and no policy numbers are given

Beaumont Buildings
20 Beaumont Buildings, Oxford
House built in 1826



Royal Exchange Assurance

Founded at the Royal Exchange, London in 1720
Plaque depicts the Royal Exchange building
in London with a crown above.

North Hinksey
North Hinksey Lane
Policy No. 60408, possibly dating from 1770


Phoenix Fire Office

Founded in 1680
Plaque depicts a phoenix rising from the fire
with the word PROTECTION underneath

27 Blenheim Road, Horspath
Policy number illegible


Beware of reproductions

The Salop Fire Office insurance plaque shown on the right is fixed to 2 St Andrew's Lane, Headington and appears to be a reproduction.

The three leopards' heads is the symbol used by the Salop Fire Office, and their records show that Policy No. 5266 was issued on 25 March 1807 to George Crockett Nichols, a gentleman of Windmill House, Madeley, Shropshire, for use on that house. It is possible that this is the one auctioned in Plymouth in 2014.

The number on each plaque is unique, but as well as the original plaque in Shropshire and this one in Headington, there are at least another two Salop Fire Office ones with the same number 5266 (in Thame and Hungerford).

Advice on distinguishing original fire marks from reproductions

St Andrew's Lane


Insurance companies with agents in Oxford

By 1830 twenty insurance companies (of which seventeen offered fire cover) had agents in Oxford. Pigot's Directory for that year lists the following:


ALBION (life): Joseph Andrews, Ship Lane
ALLIANCE: Crews Dudley, Broad Street
BERKS, GLOUCESTER & PROVINCIAL (fire): Richard Smith, High Street
BIRMINGHAM (fire): William Cooke, High Street
CLERICAL & MEDICAL (life): John Freeman Wood, St Mary Hall Lane
COUNTY (fire): John Coleman, St Mary Magdalen's
CROWN: Michael Underhill, High Street
GLOBE: Charles Talmage, St Aldate's
GUARDIAN: William H. Butler, St Aldate's
HERTS and CAMBRIDGESHIRE (fire): Samuel Ste[a]ne, Cornmarket
MANCHESTER (fire): Charles Mallam, St Aldate's
PALLADIUM: Charles Watts, High Street
PELICAN: George Cecil, Beaumont Street
PHOENIX (fire): Thomas Sheard, High Street
PROTECTOR: Michael Underhill, High Street
PROVIDENT (life): John Coleman, St Mary Magdalen's
ROYAL EXCHANGE: Thomas Wyatt, Holywell Street
SUN: Richard Cox, High Street
UNIVERSITY (fire): Rev. John William Hughes, Holywell
WEST OF ENGLAND (fire): George Rackstrow, St Mary Magdalen's.

Back in 1823, Pigot's Directory had listed thirteen insurance offices which had agents in Oxford, and these included three which were unrepresented in 1830: the COMMERCIAL, the HOPE, and the NORWICH.

Brief background to the establishment of Oxford's Fire Brigade

Those men who had to purchase their freedom of the city as well as the fee often had to supply additional money to the council for the purchase a leather bucket: this ensured that there was a good supply ready when there was a fire in Oxford.

On 7 August 1654 the Mayor of Oxford announced to the council the need for purchasing an “engine for the quenching of fire”. A tax was levied in every parish, and Oxford's first fire engine was bought in London.

By 1661 the city council had another two fire engines. Salter in Oxford Council Acts records on 17 September 1661:

On the report of the gentlemen appointed to consider how best to place the fire engines for public use, it is agreed that the great engine shall be kept in the Lower Hall and a lean-to built for the other two near the workhouse at a place chosen by the aforesaid gentlemen, the expense of which is to be paid for out of the money which remains from that collected in the City towards providing the engines. The care of the engines is to be entrusted to John White, carpenter, who, with his two sons, is to keep them in good order and “be alwayes in readinesse to play them upon all occasions”, for which is is to be allowed 20s. p.a. from next Michaelmas from the City.

By 1845 nine of Oxford's fifteen fire engines were owned by the University or by individual colleges. The other six were singletons owned respectively by the City, the County, Oxford University Press, St Mary the Virgin parish, St Michael-at-the-Northgate Parish, and the Sun Insurance Company.

Nine years later, however, the City and County fire engines were disposed of, and only privately owned machines and those belonging to the University and colleges remained.

In 1870 a volunteer fire brigade was created, with their headquarters and engine house built in New Inn Hall Street in 1874. These premises were replaced by the fire station in George Street in 1896, and this remained in operation there until 1971. .

Stephanie Jenkins