Urban fire Risk and the “Industrious Revolution”: London in the Last Third of the 18th Century

By Liliane Hilaire-Pérez, Marie Thébaud-Sorger

In late 18th century England, the risk of urban fire sparked new fears. As industry increasingly occupied urban space, private and competitive insurance companies emerged, such as the Sun Fire Office, founded in 1710. So far, analysis of this insurance company’s archives has entailed quantitative macroeconomic studies based on insurance policies. Our research, based on studying a restricted corpus of individual “claims”, uses a micro approach. In an initial stage, we were able to describe risk factors by analysing the socioeconomic profiles of victims. Some risk factors were related to production tools, while others were linked to business sectors or materials used. Far from resulting from the emergence of “heavy” and dangerous industry, fires were mainly caused by the material organisation of handicraft production in London, due to the city’s economic rise and the Enlightenment consumerist enthusiasm for innovative products (with a concentration of workshops, storage sites intermingled with production sites and housing, and an increased number of intensely-used fireplaces of all sorts). Our analysis then undertakes another spatial interpretation of the first modernity of the risk society during the Industrious Revolution, enabling us to map these claims according to the location of fires within the city and its port. Lastly, the final section of this article focuses on the relationship between policyholders and the insurance company, and how the risk economy was negotiated on the individual, neighbourhood and district levels – basically, at the heart of the relational system that gives rise to the craft economy. Thus, Sun Fire Office appears as a multifunctional institution, a means for emergency assistance and a tool for compensating for damage, revealing the collective and differentiated perceptions of fire risk in the working world of 18th century London.

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