When the Great Fire of London ravaged the city in September 1666, it destroyed everything inside the old Roman walls from houses to churches to St Paul’s Cathedral to the Palaces at Westminster. We only know how it happened in detail because of the diary of Samuel Pepys, one of the great English writers.
However, on Monday evening, when a fire started in the attic of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France, it was captured on video and in pictures within minutes and shared online only seconds later.
The world watched, glued to their screens, as smoke billowed into the sky and the church’s spire fell to the flames.
The difference is stark.
Emergency services in France will now spend days assessing the scene after the fire was extinguished on early Tuesday morning. The bell towers and much of the outside stone structure has survived, and French cultural minister Franck Riester said that the Cathedral’s “most precious treasures” have been saved.
However much of the wooden roof, parts of which date back to the 13th century, as well as the spire and some relics, have been lost to the fire. Much restoration work needs to be undertaken.
Michael Angell, church operations director at Ecclesiastical Insurance, told Insurance Business UK that in wake of the Notre Dame fire, it would be sending the same simple message to church owners in the UK that it sends consistently: ensure you are insured.
“Really what we’re saying, the message we’re sending is the message we’re sending every day, which is make sure you have the right cover and enough of it,” Angell said.
Angell thinks that, for the most part, once people are educated about the importance of insurance, and of getting tailored packages and risk management, that the message sticks.
“Yes, the message has gotten through,” he said. “The people responsible understand. Once they’re educated, they know.”
Ecclesiastical is one of the leading church insurers in the UK, and has a wealth of experience in helping institutions rebuild after disasters.
The company was the insurer for York Minster, which caught fire in 1984 and had £2.25 million worth of damage caused to it.
“We were the insurer there and were able to get in after and help them rebuild after,” Angell said. “There are other cases too, of smaller churches, where we helped. It means a lot to the local communities.”
Ecclesiastical had, just before the fire broke out, been offering training to representatives from cathedrals and larger churches in the South West and West Midlands, to help them better understand fire risks.
While fire is the hot topic in insurance at the moment, there are other things that churches and cathedrals need to be insured for, like the contents of the building, public liability insurance for any visitors, insurance for staff working at churches that are tourist attractions, and even theft.
“It’s really a package of insurance that churches need,” Angell explained. “Each package is unique. It’s bespoke, we build everything because every building is different and has unique risks.”
The estimated damage to Notre Dame is not yet known, but millions of euros have already been pledged to help rebuild the cathedral by some well-known companies and businesspeople.
More than €600 million (£519 million) had been pledged as of Tuesday. €500 million of the total pledged is from three of France’s luxury fashion houses: Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH), L’Oreal and Kering Group, which owns Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Balenciaga and Alexander McQueen.
Ultimately, the most important part of all this, is that a great building has been lost. Accidents happen, but as Angell said, you can’t prevent everything.
“We have to try and protect these buildings as much as possible because they are national treasures,” he said. “But if something does happen, that is what insurance is there for.”