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Waterloo Bridge, with boats on the River Thames, 1816.

​Waterloo Bridge from the west, with boats on the River Thames, 1816.
Reference: Collage 29751

We continue our series of articles inspired by A Place in the Sun, the long-running and continuing project to index the Sun Insurance Office fire policy registers. There are now 179 registers indexed online, representing more than 310,000 policies, ranging in date from 1787 to 1840. Derek Morris and Isobel Watson write about evidence of Spontaneous Combustion, and Scotsmen Alexander Nasmyth and John Rennie.

More registers online

The annual upload of indexed registers to The National Archives‛ (TNAAccess to Archives database took place over the Summer. For 2013 there are 18 new register indexes comprising 29,000 policies. The material‛s inclusion in London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) own online catalogue takes place more steadily. There are now 179 registers indexed online, representing more than 310,000 policies, ranging in date from 1787 to 1840. Enormous thanks go to everybody - volunteers past and present, and LMA and TNA staff - for making it all possible.

Spontaneous combustion

Derek Morris

We have indexed hundreds of policies taken out by farmers across the country, especially since we picked up the full national scope of the Sun‛s business in the years before 1793.

In the ‘New Scientist’ on 13 April this year a reader wrote that he assumed ‘that the belief that haystacks can burst into flames spontaneously was a convenient myth to cover for careless farm workers having a crafty cigarette break while forgetting their surroundings’. In subsequent editions the scientific cause of such fires was laid out, but I decided to add a historical dimension.

In the issue of 25 May, ‘New Scientist’ published my reply, which points out that in the 18th century this was so much regarded as a genuine phenomenon that insurance companies  specifically dealt with the point by excluding cover for it countrywide. A standard phrase, which appears hundreds of times in the Sun registers, states that the policy’s cover is ‘free from loss on such hay or corn as shall be destroyed or damaged by its natural heat’. So the Sun Fire Office for one clearly believed spontaneous fire was possible.

LMA staff are standing by for a rush of enquiries from readers of the ‘New Scientist’!

Brief (Scottish) lives

Isobel Watson

Everybody will recognise the work of Alexander Nasmyth (1758-1840), even without knowing it: his was the much-copied portrait of his friend Robert Burns which became the universal image of the poet. Talent-spotted in his youth by the painter Allan Ramsay, Nasmyth trained in London then returned to Scotland to become the country‛s foremost portraitist and a leading landscape painter. Six of his many daughters, and one of his sons, followed him into the profession. The Sun registers (CLC/B/192/F/001/MS11936/352 policy number 544850, 10 June 1788) find him at home in a standard Edinburgh dwelling - an upper storey of a tenement in ‘James’s Square, Edinburgh’, an austere Georgian square knocked down in the 1970s for the shopping centre now at the east end of Princes Street. The household goods and apparel he insured in his home there were valued much lower than the £250 worth of ‘utensils and stock, including pictures prints and drawings’ housed in his separate ‘painting room’ or studio in nearby Register Street.

Another Scotsman, John Rennie (1761-1821) is remembered, alongside Thomas Telford, as one of the greatest engineers of his day: he declined a knighthood, and eventually was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral. He started life as a millwright, studied at Edinburgh University and after developing the engines at Albion Mills for Matthew Boulton and James Watt, became something of a specialist in bridges. Waterloo Bridge (replaced in the 1930s) is regarded as his masterpiece, though he had a hand also in the former London and Southwark bridges. He also laid out canals, acted as engineer to the London and East and West India docks, and designed machinery for the Royal Mint. He is to be found in the Sun registers in St George’s Road, Southwark, insuring a wide range of personal and professional items, including mathematical instruments and models (CLC/B/192/F/001/MS11936/352 policy number 344324, 22 May 1788).

31 October 2013
Last Modified:
29 September 2017