This article challenges the view that the decades around 1900 saw the unconditional celebration of scientific fire risk assessment and fire safe engineering in Britain and North America. It demonstrates that ‘rationalist’ convictions co-existed with sceptical voices critiquing systematic, empirical strategies. It does so by reconstructing the long-term origins of fire insurance plans – maps visualising the distribution of fire hazards in urban and industrial centres – and their prominence in disputes between ‘rationalists’ and ‘sceptics’ about the proper direction of industrial fire safety in Britain between the 1880s and 1900s. It draws on the rich archives of Goad Ltd., which introduced insurance plans on a wide scale in Britain during the 1880s and continued to dominate the market through the first half of the twentieth century, including an extensive collection of risk and damage maps, correspondence with insurers, factory owners and engineers, and surveyors’ notes, sketches and schedules. It combines these materials with insurance archives and documents from the British Fire Prevention Committee to recreate this fascinating and important episode in the history of urban and industrial hazards. The article finds a multitude of contrasting attitudes and practices towards urban and industrial hazards coexisting. This promotes a historical view in line with the “industrial hazard regime” framework by Melling and Sellers rather than the evolutionary sociological perspective of Beck’s “risk society”.
By Niels van Manen