The Real Cost of a House Fire
By Gailie Ruth Caress, author of Fearful Symmetry
"To your horse, man! Longbourn is on fire!’”
-Mr Darcy to Mr Bingley, Fearful Symmetry, Ch. 1
Nothing could have terrified a rural Regency family more than realizing their home was on fire. In opening Fearful Symmetry in such a dramatic way, I was initially unaware of the full context of firefighting history in which I placed the disaster at Longbourn. But as I dug in, I uncovered two strategic elements a family in that era might have at their disposal to bolster their efforts to save as much of the house as possible: sturdy housing materials and communal firefighting methods.
If we presume that Longbourn, an established English country manor house, was built sometime in the near generations prior to Mr Bennet’s birth, the building materials from the late-17th to mid-18th centuries can guide us. I envisioned Longbourn as a house much like the 1995 BBC Pride & Prejudice adaptation’s choice for its stand-in: Luckington Court, a 9,600 sq.ft. house remodeled over an earlier, ancient manor using local materials in stages between the 1630s and early 1800s.
The outer shell of such a house was made of brick or local stone (in Luckington’s case, Cotswold stone), and highly durable against flame. Inside, the walls dividing the rooms and supporting the upper floors would have had a brick or stone core to support weight, and would be covered over again in smooth lath and plaster likely made of either lime or gypsum mixed with sand and perhaps animal hair to make it viscous. Plaster has been used in homes since the time of the Babylonians to make houses as fireproof as possible, and to deter pests. These “fire walls” of sorts could help slow the spread of fire from room to room.
A fire in Austen’s time would feed on the natural materials found in wooden furniture, wall papers, cloth fibers, and the like—at least until it reached a store of lantern oils, wax, varnishes, or other household combustibles. This was the prospect that truly terrified those attempting to rescue important files from the famous 1814 Old Custom House Fire in London, for once the fire fed on all the paperwork inside, those who worked in the Custom House knew that a cache of gunpowder and spirits stored in its basement awaited the flames. When the fire reached there, the explosion spread debris for blocks around. Households of that time, storing much lower quantities of such dangerous materials, nevertheless would need to be prepared for these risks in the event of fire. Some might have stored these things in the kitchen areas, which were often fashioned with walls of stone as an early safety design.
The relatively slow start to domestic fires could buy a family like the Bennets a bit of time to escape and call for aid in the initial stages of the fire, although the actual firefighting methods available to an estate in the countryside were primitive and sadly slow to materialize. In London, a century spent dealing with the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1666 had launched a booming business in the form of professional fire brigades that were contracted specifically to insurance companies.
If you were insured (and had a tin-type “fire mark” from the company affixed to the home), a brigade would come to your rescue with a simple pump-engine and tons of buckets and calls for volunteers to keep the pump going with water refills and manpower (“beer tokens” were offered to those who helped with this exhausting task). The brigade’s main aim was to save first the people inside, and then save as much of the structure and goods as possible.
A professional team or even a pump-engine would have been hard to come by in such small countryside villages as Meryton. Mechanical pumps of the popular type patented by Richard Newsham were costly for a town or parish benefactor to buy, at close to £50 to purchase in the late 1720s—and likely costing more than triple that amount in Austen’s era.
Thus, it was a race against time to save both lives and as much property as possible. Nearby neighbors, tenants, and safety practices such as keeping buckets near doors and fireplaces were the best and quickest defense against fire. Bucket brigades could form a line from a water source to the burning building, passing buckets from hand to hand to reach and quenching the flames efficiently. If Longbourn’s water source was close to the house, this line could be shortened; the more hands available to form multiple brigade lines to douse the blaze, the better.
Restoring Longbourn after the fire would have come at significant cost to Mr Bennet, who had a habit of “spending his whole income” rather than laying aside significant savings. In the absence of precise receipts and accounting, historians can use only what firm figures they can find and pair them with informed estimates. As one model for comparison with Longbourn, we can look at the approximate costs for construction that began in 1812 to build Sheringham Hall, an 8,800 sq.ft. country house in Norfolk. The full cost, including labor, to build the house was figured at £12,618. More than a third of the expense went towards its “casing” (the Gault brick exteriors and chimneys, and the heavy timber for supports and materials for the roof) and a matching portion for the “finishings” within (furnishings, embellishments, shelving, wall plasterings, and papers, etc.).
After a fire, much of Longbourn’s casing would be salvageable, especially if it was made of stone, while more significant renovation would need to be done to the finishings over several months.
In Fearful Symmetry, the contractor and his team are faced with gutting and patching up just over half the inside of a house of that scale, so I kept £5,000 as roughly the figure Mr. Bennet was eyeballing as he faced down estimates for repair as well as refinishing and refurnishing!
If Mr. Bennet had fire insurance, which was relatively popular at that time, it would likely cover only about a third of real rebuilding costs, and often less, depending on the premium homeowners wished to pay. Mr Bennet might have taken out a modest policy offering around £2,000 in coverage, reflecting roughly a third of Longbourn’s original building costs. With only about £2,000 to aid him from his insurance claim, Mr. Bennet would be left with at least £3,000 to pay out of pocket. And such a sum, coming out of the earnings of Longbourn’s small estate, would necessitate repayment to their creditors over the course of several years—and would require that Mr Bennet institute a new and very tight budget in the Bennet household!
Emotions would run high with such economic drama; the financial strain to rebuild and restore Longbourn would require a huge change in lifestyle for the Bennets. The family’s lives would be altered significantly in terms of comfort, capacities, and security, creating the pressure that Elizabeth feels keenly as the fire’s aftermath plays out in Fearful Symmetry. Despite this added vulnerability, I hope readers will be pleased to find this Elizabeth Bennet as courageous as ever.