Fire Marks

Fire marks were used as a way of telling the insurance company which buildings and houses were insured. In the early days houses were not numbered and they had very little formal "addressing system" these marks ensured that the company could tell at a glance if the building was insured and with who. No insurance often resulted in no help if there was a fire!

Before the days of the local fire brigade the insurance companies often organized there own response teams (or private brigades) in areas where they had buildings insured.

When these private brigades turned up to a fire they looked for their mark.If their mark was present then they set straight to work with the help of bystanders who were given arm bands and all the beer they could drink in return for manually pumping the water. On return of the arm band the next day they were given a small monetary payment. If it was not present then a quick deal may have made with the owner or they would have stood back and watch it burn.

The insurance companies also insured themselves and a fee of £100 was required by from each fire man as a promise of good behavior, looting was a popular pastime to many.

Eventually the fire teams and insurance companies decided to work together and out of this came the municipal brigades. Even today in some countries marks can still be seen and the superstitious amongst them feel safer if their houses still have the fire mark attached to it.

The last building in Port Glasgow to still show it's fire mark was that of East Yard office building belonging to Lithgows shipbuilders.
The building was at one time a mance and had been insured even before it's completion for £300.
The policy No: 278940 it was dated 28th December 1769.
It read "Premium 6/- Renewal date Christmas 1770. Agent:Buchanan, William Dunlop of Port Glasgow Shipmaster.On his tenement only Stone and slate situated on North side the road leading from Port Glasgow to Greenock Not yet finished Not exceeding £300.

The photgraph shown here dates back to 1962. This building is no longer standing.

fire mark with policy number

Example of a Fire Mark

You can see where the mark was placed above the middle windows.

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One of the old mansions was insured but was destroyed as detailed here when fire tore through it in 1905

The immunity which Port Glasgow has had for some time from serious fire was broken on Saturday when Benclutha one of the largest mansions in the district was practically laid in ruins.
Long the residence of the late Mr John Hamilton and Mr William Hamilton, (shipbuilder) having been built in 1878.  Benclutha stands near the head of the Clune Brae and overlooks the Clyde. It is a stone building of two storeys with basement and attic. There are two houses each containing twenty rooms the eastern section belonging to Mr T W Hamilton and the western to his uncle Mr William Hamilton now residing in Arran. It was in the latter house which has for the past year been occupied by Mr Hamilton's son-in-law that the fire originated.

How the out brake occurred is a mystery as the house had been closed for a couple of days when the servant called on Saturday there was no traces of fire were perceptible. The first indication that something was amiss was the issuing of smoke early in the afternoon from the roof immediately above the window at the west corner. Two or three people staying in the vicinity informed the occupants of Mr T W Hamilton's house and the dwelling was entered, but not the least signs of burning could be found in any of the apartments. As the smoke outside grew in volume, clearly indicating that there was something seriously wrong the fire brigade was telephoned for and Mr John Smith the new fire master and his men totalling about 9 were quickly on the scene.
The smouldering went on for sometime and while the firemen were trying to locate the whereabouts of the burning flames suddenly shot out under the roof and in a short space of time the upper part of the mansion was wholly ablaze.
This was about 4pm. The hose was brought into operation but owing to the high situation of the house which is only a few feet below the level of Parkhill tank the water lacked pressure and beside this the brigade had to contend with a stiff wind from the south east.

Fanned by the breeze which played round the building the flames spread right along the roof the east most houses thus becoming involved. The attic used as a billiard room soon collapsed and with the fall of the roof of the second story the fire assumed great proportions and at eight O'clock it looked as if it would be impossible to save the house from being completely destroyed.

The firemen's task was no light one as they were exposed to falling masonry but they worked with great energy and were at length successful in mastering the flames. In the early stages of the fire one of the brigade Donald McInnes had an exciting experience. He was on the roof when the flames burst through but by getting down a rhone pipe and kicking open the drawing room window he escaped unhurt. Another fireman J Caswell had one of his wrists badly cut and was attended to by Dr Kydd. The brigade was on duty through the night only leaving for home the next day

A large number of paintings and other valuable household effects were burnt in the first story and the ground floor extensive damage has been caused by the water and the green houses to the rear of the property did not escape.
In the course of the evening large crowds gathered on the Clune Brae but excellent order was maintained by the police under Superintendent Craig and throughout the following day many people visited the scene to see it for themselves.

The loss which is covered with insurance is estimated at about £14,000

John Smith was the firemaster in Port Glasgow between 1904 and 1907. The brigade had attended a fire at Benclutha in 1896 and at that time had submitted a report to the Water Committee for the want of Fire Plugs on the Clune Brae. Another report submitted after the fire in 1905 put the cost of dealing with the fire at £20.
More details of the Port Glasgow Fire Brigade can be found here.

This page last modified on Thursday, April 14, 2011