On 30 November 1676, the General-Feuer-Cassa - the world's first insurance company still in existence today - was founded in Hamburg. The city's pre-existing fire contracts were combined and a public insurance company was created, which still exists today under the name Hamburger Feuerkasse, albeit now as part of a large insurance group. The historical holdings stored in the State Archive Hamburg are also relevant for genealogical research.
Fire was a major problem in the Middle Ages and early modern era. Most houses were built of wood and were therefore easily flammable, technical aids were still poor and there was no fire department in the modern sense. Accordingly, fires occurred frequently, often affecting entire neighborhoods. For those affected, this could quickly mean complete ruin.
So-called fire guilds (Brandgilden) existed in the rural areas of today's Schleswig-Holstein probably as early as the 15th century, an in 1537 at the latest. Several farmers joined together to help each other in case of fire and to pay compensation for damages. In Hamburg, the first so-called fire contract was concluded by beer brewers on 03 December 1591. 101 citizens committed themselves to support each other financially with a fixed amount in the event of a fire. The prerequisite, however, was reconstruction within one year. In this way, the risk was spread among several people and was easier for the individual to bear. Subsequently, more such fire contracts were formed in the Hanseatic city, each with about 100 "consorts".
It is no wonder, by the way, that it was the brewers who concluded the first fire contract, since Hamburg was the center of European beer production at that time.
The foundation of the General-Feuer-Cassa and its development
Since fires were often particularly widespread in cities, it was not uncommon for several of the citizens who had joined together in the contracts to be affected by them. Thus, unfortunately, the concept only worked to a limited extent. Various fires in Hamburg during the 17th century, as well as the Great Fire of London in 1666, may have contributed to the search for a more comprehensive solution that would redistribute the costs among a larger number of people.
Therefore, on 30 November 1676, the General-Feuer-Cassa was established by the council (date of the creation of the corresponding ordinance, from 1867 onwards named Hamburger Feuercasse). The existing private fire contracts of the Old and New Towns were now combined in this insurance company under public law. From now on, fixed annual contributions were to be paid. Entry into the insurance was optional, while withdrawal was possible but subject to approval. In the event of damage, there was a deductible amount of a quarter of the costs and the building still had to be rebuilt in order to receive a payment. Fire protection was also one of the duties of the established Feuerkasse deputation (authority), which consisted of senators, senior citizens and citizens. The Hamburger Feuerkasse became the model for many similar institutions, including one in Harburg as early as 1677.
In addition to fire insurance companies under public law, other private fire insurance associations were also founded, most of which were of more local significance. The first German insurance company in the form of a stock corporation, the Assecuranz-Compagnie für See-Risico und Feuers-Schaden, was also founded in Hamburg in 1765. It existed until 1815.
In 1753, withdrawal from the fire insurance fund was prohibited; entry remained voluntary. In 1817, however, all building owners were finally obliged to insure themselves with the Hamburger Feuerkasse (compulsory and monopoly insurance). In 1910, after the fire of St. Michael’s Church, churches were also included in the compulsory insurance.
From the 19th century onwards, the fire insurance companies of the suburbs and rural areas were gradually integrated into the Hamburger Feuerkasse.
A severe test: The Great Fire of 1842
Between 05 and 08 May 1842, the so-called Great Fire of Hamburg occurred, which spread rapidly, destroyed or damaged about 20% of Hamburg's housing stock, and caused total damage of about 135 million marks. It had a lasting impact on the cityscape of Hamburg. The buildings of the then City Archive and the old City Hall were also destroyed. The latter was blown up in an attempt to stop the fire. Parts of the archive material and the files and minutes of the town hall could be saved into the St. Michael’s Church (probably about 35% of the archive material, unfortunately the newer rather than the older documents).
The pure building damage was to be compensated by the Hamburger Feuerkasse. For this purpose, it was necessary to take out a state bond. This was not fully paid off until 1888. Some of the smaller fire insurance companies that had insured furniture, etc., including the Association Hamburgischer Einwohner zur Versicherung gegen Feuergefahr (also known as Biebersche Compagnie, founded in 1795) and the Zweite and Fünfte Hamburgische Assekuranz Compagnie, did not survive the cost burden of the fire.
The separation of the Hamburger Feuerkasse and the fire department
As mentioned, firefighting was also one of the tasks of the Fire Fund. In 1868, a separate deputation for firefighting was created, and the firefighting equipment was transferred to the city. In 1872, a professional fire department was founded in Hamburg.
The Hamburger Feuerkasse in the 20th and 21st centuries
Over the course of time, the Hamburger Feuerkasse expanded its services. As one of the first insurance companies in Germany, it for example also covered storm damage from 1930 onwards. From 1940, furniture could be insured with the Hamburger Mobiliar-Feuerkasse (sold to Provinzial Nord in 1990).
In 1994, uniform European regulations led to the privatization of the Hamburger Feuerkasse and, at the same time, to the elimination of the compulsory insurance and the building insurance monopoly. The Hamburger Feuerkasse was converted into a stock corporation and sold to the DBV-Winterthur insurance group Wiesbaden. In 1997, Hamburger Feuerkasse became part of Provinzial Nord in Kiel, and in 2005 of Provinzial NordWest. In 2020, Provinzial NordWest and Provinzial Rheinland merged. Within this group, however, Hamburger Feuerkasse still exists today as a regional insurer for all aspects around the house.
The importance of the records of fire insurance companies for genealogy
The fire insurance companies (public or private), which were usually called Brandkassen, but also Feuer- or Brand-Sozietäten (societies) or Brandversicherungsanstalten (insurance institiutions), or rather their records, are also relevant for genealogical research. Especially if, as in Hamburg, there was compulsory insurance for a long time, the chances are good that information can be found about a house that an ancestor owned. With luck, this may even go beyond the information noted in the insurance books (Versicherungsbücher/Brandkataster; e.g., on owners/insureds, heirs if any, and insurance value), if documents such as appraisal certificates or on claims settlement have been preserved. It is therefore worthwhile to look at possibly preserved records, such as those in the State Archive Hamburg, if one assumes that one's own ancestors were homeowners. In most cases, the documents are sorted by address, which can make a search without knowing it very difficult.