In the late 19th Century, having a fire could cost you more than your home just being gutted, write Times Group historians PERCY REBOUL and JOHN HEATHFIELD

An encouraging feature of recent times is that despite competition from mobile phones, desktop computers and 24-hour drinking, there is increasing interest in family history.

Digital photography and easy-to-use tape recorders, moreover, make it easy to save such information for future generations.

A good example of this is a notebook belonging to Captain Rawlins, of the New Barnet Fire Brigade, which has been transcribed by his descendants. We are grateful to them for their drawing it to our attention.

It begins about 1889 and gives details of the fires that he attended.

The entry for December 30, 1890, records: "Called to Mr James, builder, High Street, Hadley. Found two storeys to be on fire. Buildings and contents destroyed. Building about 25 x 30 feet. Insured by County Fire Insurance." That last point is important because brigades charged for their attendance typically £1.15s (£1.75) for the fire engine (with its two horses) and 1/6d per hour for each of the men who did the hard work of manual pumping. They were entitled to a meal after three hours and, in one case which we have on record, 20 pints of beer was also supplied.

Firemen were also paid an annual retainer (usually about £10 per year, but varying from district to district) for which they worked a 60-hour week, and were expected to be available at all times, day or night. Although the job may lack appeal to our generation, it was clearly one worth having in those times.

As Captain Rawlins' report confirms, the job was one very much kept in the family.

The Hadley fire reported here shows that the following were in attendance: W Rawlins (Captain), J Dalton (Engineer), H Rawlins, H Timpson, H Mileman, J Barnes and C Timpson. Such family ties are revealed in the records of other brigades in our area.

Insurance against loss by fire was as important then as it is now. Those who were insured often had a small metal plaque on the walls of their premises, some of which can still be seen today on the outer walls of older buildings. Funds to defray the costs were also raised by public subscription.

It is recorded, for example, that on April 6, 1890, there was a morning open-air collection organised by B Frusher which raised 3s9d (19p), with later collections doing rather better at £1.6.10d (£1.34) and £1.10s3d (£1.51) respectively.

With the growth in population, the number of fires increased the most common cause being chimney fires. If we take Finchley as an example, remarkably few fires were attended. In 1900, there were 13 fires, and five years later, only 21.

It seems hardly credible that the Finchley brigade on November 1, 1889, was alerted by telegram. But even more of a problem was the lack of water.

In 1883, there was a complaint that the mains were only turned on between 8am and 8pm, and dry during the night time.

But by 1890, the Barnet Water Company had provided 225 hydrants in Finchley, all with 2-inch valves.