FIREMARKS were a means of communicating that a property was covered by insurance. They were metal plates affixed high on a building in visible position so that should the building catch fire, the private fire brigade would know that it would get paid for extinguishing the flames.

If a burning building had no firemark, the brigade could have turned around and gone home, leaving the fire to rage.

The Northern Echo: Silvio House in Hurgill Road was built by Silvio\'s jockey, Charles Dawson, in the 1780s

Silvio House in Hurgill Road was built by Silvio's jockey, Charles Dawson, in the 1780s

The Northern Echo: The sundial and, top, the Phoenix firemark above the door of Silvio House in Richmond

The sundial and, top, the Phoenix firemark above the door of Silvio House in Richmond

We started on our quest to find firemarks in Richmond a couple of weeks ago after stumbling over a Phoenix plate on Silvio House, a former racing stables in Hurgill Road.

Phoenix was formed in London in 1667, the year after the Great Fire, and was one of the first companies to offer insurance against fire. For 30 shillings, it would cover your house for up to £100 for seven years and in London, it had a private brigade to respond to customers’ blazes.

The Phoenix – of course, a mythical bird which miraculously appears from the ashes of a fire – was reformed in 1782 by London sugar bakers, whose ovens reached such high temperatures, other companies refused to insure them.

The firemark on Silvio House is an early design, with the policy number stamped on it, and so it dates from 1782 until 1815.

The Northern Echo: Finkle Street in Richmond, with the \"Pheonix\" firemark on the right

Now we learn that there is a second Phoenix plate in Richmond, in Finkle Street (above), leading into the Market Place. This one is a little later than the one on Silvio House, as there is no policy number on it, and, over the course of time, someone has rather crudely repainted it and misspelled the name of the company so that it now reads “Pheonix”:

The Northern Echo: The ‘Pheonix’ firemark in Finkle Street, Richmond


The Northern Echo: The charity shop in Victoria Road, Richmond, with the Royal Assurance firemark to the right of the arched window at the topSeveral people also pointed us in the direction of a Royal Exchange Assurance Company plate on the St Teresa’s charity shop near the Georgian Theatre (above: it's top right of the arched window) and – thrillingly, moments before going to press – an anonymous reader directed us to the foot of Gallowgate, where a cottage has a beauty of a Royal Exchange firemark just above its door.

The Northern Echo: The cottage in Gallowgate which has the firemark above its yellow front door

The Northern Echo: The fabulous firemark in Gallowgate, which probably dates from the 1810s

The Royal Exchange recruited its first firefighters in the 1720s, although as the concept of firefighters was then brand new, it referred to them as “watermen”. In the 1820s, it had private brigades Newcastle and Manchester which, unless they were extremely fast moving, of little use to the policy holders in Richmond.

The firemarks show the Royal Exchange building in Threadneedle Street, London, which was the company’s headquarters until 1838 when, rather embarrassingly, it burned down, when a stove overheated, destroying all of the company’s records.

The two Richmond Exchange firemarks, with a space for the policy number below the teardrop-shaped emblem, are so distinctive that they can be dated from about 1810 to 1820.