A Brief History of Insurance: Part Six- The First Insurance Company

The World’s First Insurance company -The Fire Office and a man called Halley

In the last article in this series we had arrived at the seventeenth century after a whistle-stop tour of the continuous evolution of insurance across the last 7,000 years or so!

We had just discovered that what is generally regarded as the worlds first ever Insurance company – The Fire Office, was created from the ashes of the Great Fire of London and it is with the Fire Office that we shall continue our journey through the history of insurance….

‘The Fire Office’ was opened by Nicholas Barbon not long after the Great Fire had ravaged some 13,000 homes across the English capital. Barbon himself is acknowledged as being one of the first proponents of the free market and a leading economist and financial speculator of the time – he also had a ruthless eye for a business opportunity.

Predictably as the Fire Office flourished so other companies soon mirrored his business model and a precedent had now been created for insurance to evolve once more. Providing insurance was no longer limited to wealthy private individuals, but instead a developing industry, with dedicated companies establishing specialist commercial insurance and personal insurance products.

This period thus introduced a legacy of professionals who would ultimately establish an insurance industry which would impact upon the lives of almost everyone within the modern world. It is interesting to note that one of The Fire Office’s earliest major competitors was the Sun Fire Office, who, after numerous mergers and acquisitions across the centuries we now know as RSA – one of the worlds largest insurers.

Whilst these early insurance companies actually resembled something more akin to a private fire service (there was no state fire service until 1865), they were soon to develop into far more sophisticated organisations and a large part of this development was made possible by the scientific and more specifically mathematic progress of the time.

As the great fire had swept through London, so through Europe spread an appetite for understanding and a series of extraordinary advances in mathematics established themselves and flourished across Germany, France and England. With them the ability, need and desire to asses and place a valuation on personal risk through more refined, scientific systems also appeared. Economic concepts such as compound interest were re evaluated and revitalised for this modern era where innovative fledgling financial products were rapidly appearing. At the same time more complicated concepts such as probability theory emerged allowing for more sophisticated methods of evaluating risk to appear.

It was through the application of these newly developing mathematic disciplines that London draper John Graunt was able to establish predictable patterns of longevity and death within a defined group of people, regardless of any uncertainty about the future longevity and death of any one individual.

The work that Graunt completed was to become the foundations of an actuarial life table, which is absolutely fundamental to establishing costs for premiums in modern insurance.

However, it was a certain Edmond Halley (yes the same chap that discovered Halley’s comet) who further expanded upon Graunt’s work some thirty years later. Halley was able to demonstrate how to create an insurance scheme to provide life insurance for a group of people, and then calculate with a far greater degree of accuracy than had ever previously been possible, exactly how much each person in the group should contribute to a common fund assumed to earn a fixed rate of interest. Indeed Halley went on to create a life table to calculate the  premium a person of any given age should pay when purchase a life-annuity.

With a business model beginning to establish itself through the development of the Fire Insurers and a new attitude towards assessing risk and applying premiums accordingly being shaped for the first time by complex mathematical theory, insurance was primed to flourish and it soon did.

It was at this point, as the end of the seventeenth century approached, that we see one of the insurance world’s most famous names appear for the first time. In 1688, in Tower Street, London Edward Lloyd opened a coffee shop.

In the next  insurance history article in this series Insurance Blog will reveal how from these relatively humble beginnings his venture went on to become Lloyd’s of London, one of the most powerful organisations in insurance today.

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