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  • Writer's pictureLondon On The Ground

The Cornhill Pump, The Royal Exchange, Fire and Insurance

The 224 year old pump links the City of London, fire, insurance and the Royal Exchange.

The water pump on Cornhill features helpful signs telling the passer-by much about its history.

It was placed here in 1799 on the site of a much earlier well that had been built here in 1282. The well had eventually been covered over and lost, but an unexpected depression in the street led to its re-discovery in 1799, when the present structure was created to stand over it.


Summer schedule of tours available for booking

The London On The Ground summer schedule of tours through to September, is now available for booking. Please click here.


The pump was designed by architect Nathaniel Wright, also responsible for the City church St Botolph Aldersgate. It is around nine or ten feet tall, with a large handle and a spout facing the road, where a trough once stood. Closer inspection reveals four small, but sharp, spikes at the corners of its plinth, designed to deter loiterers.

The Cornhill Pump's handle and spikes

A plaque on the pump tells us that it was paid for by "the Bank of England, the East India Company, neighbouring fire offices, together with the bankers and traders of the Ward of Cornhill".

At the top of the pump on its four sides are the badges of four 'fire offices', or fire insurance companies, who contributed funds. These are the Royal Exchange Fire Office, the London Fire Office, the Sun Fire Office and the Phoenix Fire Office.

Fire insurance was an idea that emerged after the Great Fire of London, which destroyed so much of the City in 1666. That fire caused around £10 million worth of damage (more than £1.5 billion at today's prices), none of which was insured.

The first fire insurance company was established in 1680. Simply called the Fire Office, it was set up "at the backside of the Royal Exchange" by Nicholas Barbon, a trained doctor, property developer, speculator and economist.

He was born to a family of Fifth Monarchists, a Protestant Nonconformist sect that was active during the Commonwealth of 1649 to 1660. His father was Praise-God Barebone, who gave his name to Barebone's Parliament, the last assembly before Oliver Cromwell was installed as Lord Protector in 1653.

It is said that Nicholas Barbon's baptismal name was "If-Jesus-Christ-had-not-died-for-thee-thou-hadst-been-damned", which makes his father's name seem almost boring.

Barbon wrote tracts on economics and was a pioneer of the mortgage market as well as fire insurance. Both developments were important in helping to finance the reconstruction of the City after the Great Fire.

Barbon is also regarded as something of a crook, engaging in sharp practices in his business dealings. However, his idea of insuring properties against fire soon spread and other offices were established.

By 1690, one in ten houses in London were insured. By 1720, 17,000 policies had been underwritten, with a total value of £10 million (the same as the value of property destroyed in 1666).

The fire insurance companies realised it would be cheaper to employ teams of men to extinguish fires than to pay to rebuild burnt properties. Barbon employed Thames watermen and supplied them with uniforms and fire fighting equipment.

Metal plaques, known as fire mark plates, displayed insurers' logos on the buildings they insured. The fire fighters could then identify whether or not a burning house was covered by their company (street numbering was not common until the 1760s).

The insurers' fire brigades often left properties to burn if not insured by their own company. Soon, however, the fire offices agreed reciprocal reimbursements if they put out a fire for another company.

It was a long time before this co-ordination of fire fighting eventually led to the creation of the London Fire Engine Establishment as the first truly London-wide fire brigade in 1833.

The version of the Royal Exchange that was on Cornhill when the pump was erected in 1799 was the second incarnation of the building. Its image is captured in the badge of the Royal Exchange Fire Office on the pump.

The first Royal Exchange, a place where City merchants could trade, opened in 1571, but was destroyed by the Great Fire in 1666. Another fire, ironically started in the offices of Lloyd's Insurance, claimed the second one on 20 January 1838.

In spite of a water supply close at hand from the Cornhill Pump, the still infant London Fire Engine Establishment could not control the 1838 fire, which broke out on the coldest day ever recorded in London. Water flowed from the pump, but froze when poured into the fire engines, rendering them ineffective.

The Cornhill Pump

Today's Royal Exchange, the third and longest lasting incarnation, was opened in 1844.

After the two Wren churches of St Michael and St Peter on Cornhill, the pump is now the oldest structure on the street and very much part of the landscape of the City.

The pictures below compare the view towards St Michael's today with one portrayed by artist William Luker Junior in c.1890 (photographed by me from a screen display at an exhibition at the London Metropolitan Archives).

The Cornhill Pump is a reminder of the frequency of calamitous fires in London's history and of the close ties between the Royal Exchange, fires and insurance.

Summer schedule of tours available for booking

The London On The Ground summer schedule of tours through to September, is now available for booking. Please click here.

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