The Great Fire of London of 1666 was the catalyst for the British insurance industry’s creation. The fire destroyed 13,200 houses, 87 churches, including St Paul’s Cathedral, and many commercial premises. Needless to say, fire insurance became a cause célèbre. Nicholas Barbon, an economist, established the first of many fire insurance companies, the Fire Office, in 1680. However, each company operated its own fire brigade, which would attend only those fires in buildings displaying their “fire mark” — a plaque that indicated which company insured the property. The insurers soon realised the folly of this practice and began to work co-operatively, but it was another 200 years before the publicly-owned London Fire Brigade came into being.
(Listen to the NPR Story on Fire Brigades, in which an historian de-bunks the myth that homes would be allowed to burn.)
So, how did my family wind up with this name?
My great-grandfather emigrated from a part of eastern Europe somewhere near Minsk, in modern-day belarus. At the time of his emigration, the United State's immigration processing centers (the most famous of which is New York's Ellis Island), were jam-packed and tremendously busy with millions of new immigrants.
As I understand it, if the immigration service agent taking your information couldn't pronounce or spell your real name, or if you just didn't have a surname to give, you were assigned your new, American name. (Usually phonetically or literally similar to the original). We believe that this is how the surname “Firemark” came to be attached to our family. To the best of our knowledge, nobody else was ever ‘assigned' this name. Thus, I can actually trace my connection to every person named Firemark in the world, because there are only 5 generations of us, so it's a small number of people.