Fire! Managing the rural risk

At St. Albans, which is a market where they unload and set down their corn, every sack or load of wheat pays a pint to the Corporation.    Arthur Young

Before the present corn market was built in 1857, corn was brought to an open sided market house on the same site in the centre of the town. The corn came from the many farms around St Albans. As the population grew there was an increasing demand particularly for wheat and new eighteenth century outbuildings were erected.

‘The Farmers Guide in Hiring and Stocking Farms’ printed in 1770 in London gives advice. The anonymous author (Arthur Young) lists indispensable buildings as barn, stables, cow-house, granary, hog sties, hen-house, cartlodge and farmyard. The buildings should be placed adjacent to walls in a farmyard, and a large farm needed two yards with the mouth of a pond inside.

The barn needed to have sufficient room for the crops and the threshing floor in the barn needed to be large enough for several men to work at the same time. For ‘a fine, bright sample of corn’ to be had the floor of the barn should be of oak planks 2-3” thick, not of clay. The granary must have space for all the wheat and barley of two crops at least and be built to keep rats and mice out.

A considerable sum could be invested in buildings and the value of the crops and utensils therein. The risk of loss from fire was real so it is not surprising that agents from insurance companies found eager clients around St Albans. The Sun Insurance Company was widely used but there were also clients for the Royal Insurance company.

One farmer, William Kinder, mindful of the value of his farm at Searches in St Stephens Parish took out a policy from the Royal Insurance company dated 27th September 1805. The farm is listed by Historic England and dates from the late 15th century. The farmhouse was was probably originally a hall house supported by two end crucks, with one small room. Then John Smith suggested that between 1577 and 1598 the house was rebuilt with an internal wood chimney, a lobby-entrance replacing the cross passage and a kitchen or parlour. An 18th century barn is also listed – a barn with a plain tile roof, 10 bays, a gabled cart entrance and two threshing floors. Added later was a granary with pyramid shape roof of red brick.

The policy no. 217842 dated September 27th 1805 that William Kinder took out lists:

Dwelling house, fur, plate and books, brewhouse and dairy and contents, stable, carthouse, dumb barn, little stable, a granary, cowhouse, a new carthouse and rickyard, contents. Total valued at £2,600 for which a premium of £6.19s was paid.

By 1838 the St Stephens Ward Tithe map shows William Kinder has become a tenant of local landowner Samuel Reynold Solly. The fields listed now include ‘the vinyard’ and the ‘new orchard’ as well as the orchard that can be found at all the farms. High status fruit could be sent up to Solly at Serge Hill.

John Kinder inherited the tenancy of the farm comprising 156 acres and he employed seven men (1851 census) He is 25 and single and one of the farm labourers lodges at the farm with his wife a straw plaiter. Three more labourers stay there.In St Michaels parish William Hollinshead, farmer, at Kettlewells Farm took out insurance with the Sun, policy No. MS11936/378/588768 on 19th Sept 1791 somewhat earlier than William Kinder at Searches Farm.

From 1799 St Michaels tithe map data the farm is described as 98 acres, owner Lord Grimston, tenant Wm Hollinshead.

The policy covered:

  • On his utensils and stock .. in his two barns Carthouse Cowhouse and Henhouse adjoining and situate aforesaid not exceeding £140
  • Another barn stable granary and carthouse adjoining near not exceeding £220
  • In the Rickyard on the said farm not exceeding £140
  • Total £500

NB Free from such loss on hay or corn as shall be destroyed or damaged natural by the natural heat.

This last condition applied to all the Sun insurance policies I have seen – important because if corn or hay is stacked wet (more than 18% moisture) it may heat and be liable to catch fire, a real risk when the weather is bad at harvest time.