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Home | Looking Back with Aurore Eaton

Aurore Eaton's Looking Back: Devastating fires provide opportunities to shine

March 25. 2013 4:48PM

The massive fire in the early morning of July 8, 1870, in Manchester flattened nearly all the buildings in the six acres bordered by Hanover, Manchester, Elm and Chestnut streets. The rooms occupied by the New Hampshire Fire Insurance Company in the Merchants Exchange Building on Elm Street sustained some damage, so the company moved into another space in the building.

New Hampshire Fire (as it became known) had started issuing policies only three months before the fire. Its agents were no doubt relieved to discover that the company covered only one of the destroyed properties. This was the First Baptist Church, on the corner of Manchester and Chestnut streets. All that remained of the building was the outside walls. The leaders of the First Baptist Society were inspecting the ruins the next day when the officers of the New Hampshire Fire Insurance Company showed up. With the embers of their beloved church still smoldering in the background, the church officials were relieved and surprised when the insurance men presented them with payment in full of their $2,500 policy.

In those days, it was highly unusual for an insured to receive prompt claims service and equally unusual for an insurance company to make a payoff without quibbling. The First Baptist Society had switched its coverage to New Hampshire Fire only weeks before, after having done business with out-of-state companies. The Society published a glowing endorsement in the Daily Mirror and American newspaper on July 9, stating that it had decided to do business with the new company in order ".to patronize a home company, the only one in the state and second because of (our) confidence in the soundness of the company and the integrity of its office." The Society's officers, therefore ".cheerfully join this unsolicited certificate of our hearty and sincere appreciation of the prompt and honorable action.of the New Hampshire Fire Insurance Company and our unqualified confidence in its entire soundness, and we unhesitatingly recommend it to the people of this city and state for this patronage, in preference to companies outside the state."

This enthusiastic public backing from a respected local church group benefited the company tremendously. In fact, it sold so many policies in its first few months that its management decided to expand into Massachusetts. Its agents began selling in the Boston market in early 1872, and quickly gained a foothold. Unfortunately, at 7:20 p.m. on November 9, a fire started in the basement of a warehouse on Summer Street in Boston. The flames burned for 12 hours and spread over a 65 acre area in the center of the city. The conflagration destroyed 776 buildings, including many in the financial district. At least 30 people were killed and the total damage was estimated at $73.5 million dollars.

The New Hampshire Fire Insurance Company paid out $10,000 in claims in Boston. This was a hefty sum for the small company to lose, but its prompt and uncontested payout to insureds once again worked to its benefit in the court of public opinion. The company had now established a golden reputation in Massachusetts, which led to profitable sales.

On April 6, 1872, New Hampshire Fire's founder, John C. French, marked the second anniversary of doing business by writing a letter of advice to his agents. He counseled them to be careful, and to seek out only high-quality risks. He wrote, "We desire, first, the good detached Dwelling-Houses, then brick mercantile buildings, Churches, School-Houses, Court-Houses and Public Buildings, that are properly constructed and well cared for." The agents were directed to avoid "Steam-Mills, Tanneries, Planers, Door, Sash, Bedstead, or Pail Factories, Woolen-Mills, Alms-Houses (and) Junk Stores." They were also told to be very cautious to avoid unoccupied farm buildings and country stores. Furthermore, the agents should only issue policies on buildings worth at least $500, and the policy premium must never be less than $1.

He further advised his sales force to be aware of the financial standing and reputation of the insureds and to ".give the Company the benefit of your knowledge and discrimination." He stated that, if they followed these guidelines, they would be ".relieved of much annoyance and correspondence."

Next week: A new headquarters buildings and a golden anniversary.

Aurore Eaton is executive director of Manchester Historic Association; email her at

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