A History of Nova Scotia Page


Book #3: TOC
The Road To Being Canada
(1815-1867)
Chapter 18, Fighting Fires & Insurance Companies

In early Halifax, fires broke out with frequent regularity causing great damage. We see that in 1816 two fires were reported. On October 9th, there was a large fire on Sackville Street, extending to Bedford Row. On December 17th, another on Water street, at Grassie's wharf.1 A couple of years later, on November 11th, 1819, the Naval Hospital, near the dockyard, was destroyed by fire. A year later, on September 22nd, a major fire burnt houses on Sackville Street. The difficulty in fighting these fires increased according to the height of the building. We see, therefore, in 1822, wooden buildings are subject to height restrictions.

Though there are no reports that come readily to hand to show that there were other fires through the years that were as large as those mentioned above; doubtlessly there were others of varying variety. The next large fire we can report on is that which, on January 1st, 1857, swept Hollis and Prince Streets at Halifax. In that same year an act to limit the erection of wooden buildings was passed.

On January 12, 1861, there was another disastrous fire on George and Prince Streets and Bedford Row. This was the third big fire in downtown Halifax, in about as many years. D. C. Harvey observed that this was to change the look considerably not just because major buildings had burnt to the ground but it led to the use, thereafter, of brick and stone in the construction of new buildings.2

Because of these fires, a number of insurance companies were incorporated by statute, starting as early as 1819 and extending through the years examined (to 1862).3 Of course insurance companies existed much before 1819, but they were located at a considerable distance, such as in England. Proper assessments of the risk to be insured, especially as it relates to a local building burning down, could only be made by local underwriters.

Another risk which a number of prominent Halifax merchants bore and would like to trade off for a price, was the risk of shipping cargo over the seas. The practice of marine insurance is older than insurance against fire and upon lives. While most all fire and life insurances are made at the risk of incorporated companies, a large proportion of marine insurances in the early days were made at the risk of individuals called underwriters. Indeed, that was the way marine insurance was conducted in Nova Scotia in the earlier years. A look at Perkins' Diary will show that those who were shipping Nova Scotia's raw products such as fish and lumber had committees4 who met and set premiums and shares; in each case the risk of the voyage was assessed -- Where the vessel was going? Who was her captain? Who owned the boat? etc., etc. However, as the 19th century progressed marine insurance companies came into being displacing individual share takers.5

The people exposed to the risk of loss on account of fire, to a larger and larger degree as the century progressed, were the shareholders of insurance companies. The equiptment of the fire fighters of the early to the mid-19th century, included: "Three gallon leather-buckets and lengths of heavy leather hose to convey water by pumps from the harbour." So, too, would be found ready to hand, "axes and hooks to gain access to the flames and to pull down buildings to create fire breaks ... [however] the single most important piece of equipment was the manually-drawn, hand-pumped engine." By 1843 Halifax had an engine, Engine Number One, the city's finest with its nine inch chamber and stroke, discharged 149 gallons of water per minute ..." By 1848, water pipes had been laid in the "principal streets." The first use of a fire hydrant ("fire plug") occurred in 1848; by 1850 there were over 50 fire hydrants throughout the city.6

Akins wrote of how the fire companies were organized at Halifax in 1817:

"The fire companies of Halifax at this time were, perhaps, the most useful institutions in the community. These companies consisted of several hundred gentlemen each, who formed themselves into a company for the purpose of rendering assistance at fires. Each member provided himself with a leather cap, two or three buckets, canvas bags, etc., on which were painted the name of the owner and device of the company. The members were elected by ballot. They held quarterly meetings and occasionally dined together, and gave annual balls at Mason Hall. The Heart and Hand and the Hand in Hand Companies were the oldest, but the Sunfire Company was the most exclusive. The Phoenix Company was also very efficient, being composed chiefly of young tradesmen of the town. The Engine Company was a very ancient institution, and tolerably efficient, considering the kind of machinery they had to work with. The Axe Company, as now [1887], was composed of carpenters and others suitable for such work at fires. It was customary for the soldiers in garrison to turn out at fires and form lines with the inhabitants for the conveyance of water by buckets, handed through the line from the harbor or the wells and tanks of the town. One feature which is now never seen at fires was the guard which was furnished by the military to take charge of the property removed to the streets from the burning houses. Scarcely a pile of furniture or goods could be observed without a sentry over it with fixed bayonet pacing up and down."7

NEXT: [Chapter 19, Geology and Industry]

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Peter Landry