Your house is on fire. All your worldly goods are going up in flames and the roof over your head is burning down. You’ve raised the alarm.

You’ve dredged all the water out of the local well to throw on the flames and you’ve even flung on your milk and ale – to no avail. But here comes the brigade, clip-clopping down the street at a furious gallop, “lusty able body’d firemen” in smart dark blue uniforms with a shiny, silver sun badge on their arm. They’ll soon have it quenched. The ladder is up – but they’re not fighting the flames, they are checking the insurance plaque between the windows on the first floor. Oh no! They are the Sun insurance company’s brigade. The plaque tells them you are with Protector. You are not covered. They will not be paid. They’re taking their ladder down. They’re clip-clopping away. Hey! What about my possessions, my house, my life? Aren’t you going to help?…

THE Great Fire of Darlo showed how devastating blazes could be in medieval times. It broke out on May 7, 1585, and within two hours the “most fierce and terrible fire” had burned down 273 timber houses in the High Row and Skinnergate area, making about 800 of Darlington’s population of 1,200 homeless.

There was no effective way to fight these wildfires, particularly not if, like Darlington’s, they broke out during a drought when the wells were dry.

Instead, firebreaks were created: people pulled down other people’s houses to make a big enough gap to stop the flames from leaping onto their own property. This did not improve neighbourly relations.

Uninsured, the Darlington victims sought shelter in barns in the villages around while they tried to scrape together enough money to rebuild.

Other towns may well have tried to help by holding a “brief”, or collection – Darlington’s records show that in 1670 it raised 5s 5d in “a breefe for a fire in the towne of Wolsingham”.

But in 1585, most of the victims were still camped out in the barns come harvest-time four months later. The villagers booted them out of the barns – they needed somewhere to store their crops and animal feed, which was far more valuable than the lives of victims of fire.

Matters didn’t change until the Great Fire of London broke out on September 2, 1666. Dr Nicholas Barebone – whose father had been an eccentric member of Oliver Cromwell’s Parliament with the brilliant name of Praisegod Barebone – thought he could make money out of people’s misery by setting up a fire insurance company.

He called it The Fire Office, which he started in 1667, but he died in 1698 heavily in debt.

Other entrepreneurs set up similar companies: Hand-in- Hand (1696), the Sun (1710), the Union (1714)… Soon the companies realised that if they were to minimise their payouts, they needed to employ firemen. The Sun Fire Office in 1710 boasted of having “30 lusty able body’d firemen… who are always ready to assist in quenching fires and removing goods”.

But these firemen offered a commercial service. How could they be certain, in the days before addresses were definite, that a burning house was properly covered?

In 1710, the Sun issued the first plaque that was to go on an insured house between the windows on the first floor – high enough so no one could steal it. These plaques were made of lead and had the policy number stamped into them (one of these is believed to exist in Stokesley High Street – can anyone confirm?).

Stories of private fire brigades cantering away from uninsured burning buildings may just be an urban myth.

Apart from moral obligations, there is evidence of the 200-plus insurance companies joining forces to provide collective fire-fighting facilities, often in collaboration with local authorities.

In Darlington in 1757, the churchwardens were ordered to station a fire engine (a steam pump that would throw water onto flames) in the south-west corner of St Cuthbert’s churchyard, near the Market Place. The churchwardens paid whitesmith William Jewitt 20 shillings a year to look after the engine. He also got ten shillings for each fire he attended and 2s 6d if he turned out for a false alarm.

Such community-wide cover decreased the need for individual companies to mark their customers with “fire marks” containing policy numbers, and the practice died out as the 18th Century drew on.

Instead, they issued customers with “fire plates”

which were pressed out of copper plate or tin, and were usually brightly painted. Fire plates were as much about advertising as they were about acknowledging insurance cover. They are now exceedingly rare. The last one in Darlington, in Bondgate, disappeared in the mid-Eighties, and there are rumours of one in Barnard Castle, as well as in Stokesley. If you know of one, please let us know.

There is definitely one in Hurworth, to the south of Darlington.

It is opposite All Saints Church, and next to the Onward Coffee Palace (now a dentist’s) and Teetotal Cottages.

It shows a brave fireman tackling a burning building with a hose – are there any others about?