The Best Laid Plans: Fire Insurance Mapping on Prince Edward Island by John Boylan

Used with permission. For private study and research.

Hot Time in the Old Town

"Large flakes of burning shingles were carried for miles up the Hillsborough River and the roar and rush of the flames; as they leaped from house to house; might be heard for miles round; whilst the heat was so intense that no person could stand within one hundred yards range of the fire, even on the windward side of it, without being almost scorched or suffocated. The streets and squares presented a strange and saddening spectacle. Piles of household furniture, and goods broken and shattered, were scattered on all sides, and cows, pigs, horses and poultry roamed at large without regard to the City Laws, Hog Reeves, or Acts of Parliament."
Charlottetown Herald, 18 July 1866


Fire was an ever-present danger in the largely wooden cities and towns of 19th century Canada. Then as now, property owners often took out fire insurance policies that would at least offer some recompense in the wake of disaster. Offering such policies presented several difficulties for the insurance industry. How was a company to gather enough information about a potential client's property, and those around it, to determine the likely risk of fire? Also of concern was the number of insured properties a company might have in one area. A fire in a particular neighbourhood could prove as disastrous for the insurer as the insured if the firm had over-extended itself. In the true spirit of free enterprise, providing the information required by the insurance industry became a business in itself. The tool used to provide this information was a unique type of map known as a fire insurance plan.
At first glance a set of fire insurance plans can be somewhat confusing. Printed as large format maps, fire plans are made up of a cover page followed by detailed block-by-block maps of a given community. The cover page usually features a map of the community, a street index, and a key explaining the symbols and colour coding used in the plan. The block-by-block maps provide street names and building addresses, and more importantly, considerable information about the buildings themselves. A researcher can quickly determine the footprint of a building, how many stories it had, what it was built of, and what it was used for. Researchers ranging from genealogists to architectural historians have discovered that fire insurance plans provide a unique portrait of a community at one point in time. That this is still the case so many years after their creation is a testament to the man whose name is synonymous with early fire insurance mapping in Canada: Charles E. Goad.

Charles Goad: The Man with the Plan

Charles Edward Goad was born in Camberwell, England in 1848. Although sources disagree, it seems likely that he was either largely self-taught or had apprenticed as a draftsman before working for several years in public works construction in his native country. In 1869 the 21-year-old Goad emigrated to Canada. He quickly found work in his field and over the next few years served as an engineer and surveyor for companies in Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia.
At some point, Charles Goad must have become acquainted with the fire insurance plans produced by the Sanborn Map Company of the United States. Since 1866, D.A. Sanborn had been publishing detailed maps of American cities and towns that could be used by insurance agents to determine the level of risk involved in insuring a particular building. Demand for such a product existed in Canada as well; and in 1874 Sanborn mapped a number of Canadian cities at the request of local insurance companies. Seeing a business opportunity; Goad followed Sanborn's example and began producing his own fire insurance plans for the Canadian market. He began by mapping communities that Sanborn had not, starting with Levis, Quebec in 1875. By 1878 Goad appears to have bought out the Canadian work previously done by Sanborn. Perhaps the American firm viewed the Canadian market as being too small to be of interest. Whatever the reason, the amicable departure of the competition left the insurance mapping field open for Goad.


Insurance Plan Production

In promotional literature released in 1881, Charles Goad wrote that the principal aim of his business was to "assist in the introduction of a more rational, more systematic and more profitable means of conducting business." To ensure timely and up-to-date fire insurance plans, Goad developed a remarkably efficient survey and production process.
Each insurance plan was based on extensive survey work. If a community was being mapped for the first time, Goad's survey team began by securing any existing maps that provided information on the layout of streets, street names and fire-fighting resources. After the town had been reconnoitered, the principal streets were chained and the frontage of properties and buildings recorded. Once the base map was complete, details were added regarding the height of buildings, their construction and the presence of fire-fighting infrastructure like hydrants, wells and sprinkler systems. The final step involved assigning block numbers and recording the street numbers of each individual building. Completed survey records were then forwarded to the home office for processing.
Once Goad's head office had received the survey information, the process of creating the actual fire insurance plan began. A scale of 1"= 40' (sometimes 1"= 50') was generally used for built-up areas. The maps used both colour coding and a set of symbols to depict building features such as height, construction materials, and even certain interior arrangements. Each plan featured a legend that explained the symbols and colours used.
After the draft plan had been prepared it was transferred to lithographic plates for printing. The plans were printed on a high-grade paper in very small runs numbering no more than 150 per set. Given the high cost of colour lithography at the time, the colouring of the plans was done instead by hand. Workers applied colouring to the lithographed base maps using stencils and watercolours. A new plan was generally ready for distribution within four months of the completed survey.
To be of use to the insurance industry, fire plans had to be as up-to-date as possible. To accomplish this without costly reprinting of entire sets of plans, the Goad company issued correction slips. Working with the insurance companies, Goad determined what parts of a given community required updated mapping. Surveyors would prepare new plans of the areas concerned and forward these to the company. Using the updated information, Goad then printed correction slips that could be pasted over the original plans, thus bringing them up to date. When the accumulation of these slips made the plans difficult to read, new sets of plans would be produced. The end result of this process is that the early insurance plans found in archival collections today will have been printed in a certain year, but typically revised to a later date through the use of correction slips.
Since Goad's print runs were small, the company charged high fees for their plans and attempted to limit access to them. Sets of plans were forwarded to the head offices of insurance companies and to certain of their agents. The twist in this seemingly straight forward transaction is that Goad did not typically sell his plans to insurance firms, he rented them. Because the agents didn't own the plans, they were supposed to return them to the Goad company once they were no longer of use. Upon their return, the plans were destroyed. This policy was not of concern to the insurance companies since they were only interested in up-to-date information. It does mean, though, that relatively few Goad insurance plans have survived for the use of modern researchers.
In retrospect, Charles Goad's attempts to control access to his product appear purely monopolistic. Goad himself explained his actions by arguing that property owners might refuse surveyors access to their buildings if there were too many companies in the field. In a few extreme cases, burglars were rumoured to have cased their potential victims in the guise of plan surveyors! A measure of public confidence was no doubt essential to Goad's work.

Transition and Decline

By any standard, Goad's assessment of the needs of the insurance industry and his courting of its financial support was successful. His company went from producing a set of 15 surveys in 1875 to a series of 340 by 1885. By the time he died in 1910, Charles Goad had produced plans for approximately 1300 communities both in Canada and overseas. After his death, Goad's family-owned company was restructured and operated under the name Chas. E. Goad Company. By 1917 the company had withdrawn from the production of fire insurance plans altogether. They continued to operate briefly as a general mapping business before closing entirely in Canada in 1931. Despite the closure of the Canadian operation, the Goad name lives on through the London branch of the firm established by Goad himself in 1885. Still an active concern, the London-based Chas. E. Goad Company ceased production of insurance maps for the British domestic market in 1971. In 1973 the company transferred its remaining Canadian plans and business records to the National Map Collection of the Public Archives of Canada, now Libraries and Archives Canada.

Fire Insurance Plans on the Island 


An image explaining how fire insurance maps work.

Every fire insurance plan includes a key that explains the symbols and colours used to represent building features. Using the example of the building now known as Beaconsfield Historic House (2 Kent Street), we can see how insurance plans concisely convey information. In the hand-coloured original, the yellow shading of Beaconsfield indicates a wooden building. The main body of the house is two-and-a-half stories with a mansard roof. The mansard roof features shingled sides and a composite material top. The one-and-a-half storey wing closest to West Street has a similarly- finished mansard roof. There is a verandah around much of the main body of the house, with a one storey entrance porch facing Kent Street. The back of the main body of the house features a bay, with a second bay off the side wing. Street addresses associated with the property are also indicated; a number "10" closest to Kent Street, and numbers "14" and "18" attached to ancillary buildings on West Street. The check mark with a cross-hatch through it on the main house and the carriage house is a pencilled-on mark likely added by an insurance agent. Researchers familiar with the Beaconsfield property will be interested to note the location of the carriage house before it was moved and substantially added-to. More mysterious is the small one storey building numbered 14 West Street. Long gone, its purpose is not clear. When working from black and white microfilmed copies of fire insurance plans, researchers should remember that the originals use colour to indicate construction materials. Darkened patches (such as on the bottom half of the Beaconsfield carriage house) or irregular lines on microfilmed copies often indicate where correction slips have been pasted over original base maps. If in doubt, consult the original whenever possible.

Researchers should always look for revision information in order to determine what year an individual plan has been updated to. Small printed paper revision labels often appear on the introductory page of a set of plans. These labels indicate the year of the original survey and what year the plan has been revised to. Revision information is also printed on the individual sheets of most insurance plan sets.
On Prince Edward Island, the use of fire insurance plans was closely linked to the operations of the Prince Edward Island Board of Insurance Underwriters. Founded in 1883, this board was made up of local representatives of insurance companies doing business in the province. While the PEI board appears to have had access to a variety of services (such as fire insurance mapping) provided by national insurance organizations, it was for many years largely autonomous in its operations.
This changed in 1962 when the Prince Edward Island Board became a branch of the Canadian Underwriters’ Association. One of the principal roles of the Island underwriters’ board, and in turn the CUA, was to set minimum rates that members could charge for insurance on buildings in the Province. The setting of these rates was based on inspections and the information provided by fire insurance plans.
The local underwriters’ board office played an important role in both providing access to insurance plans and in keeping them up to date. The agents of member insurance companies could consult the fire plans kept by the board, and at the same time request revisions to the plans as needed. This high level of local input insured that the plans were as accurate as possible. The minutes of the Prince Edward Island Board of Insurance Underwriters make regular mention of fire insurance plans. As early as 1884 the Goad plan for Charlottetown was being mentioned by name, individual buildings referenced using the Goad numbering system. The September 22, 1884 meeting of the board dealt with the issue of new Island plans. The board resolved that in their opinion, Goad need only revise and extend his present plan of Charlottetown and make a plan for the Town of Summerside. Apparently it was felt that areas outside of the two principal communities need not be mapped. Minutes from 1917-18 hint at some tension between the Chas. E. Goad Company and the local board. An offer to sell plans loaned to the Island body was rebuffed in the belief that the plans had in fact been bought by the board in 1910. Some accommodation must have been arrived at since the local board later bought a set of correction slips in order to update the plans in their possession.
With the end of wide-spread fire insurance mapping in 1975, use of insurance plans on Prince Edward Island appears to have soon died out. Insurance agents may have been able to update plans in their possession on an informal basis for a few years, but an outdated plan would soon be a hindrance rather than a help. Here as elsewhere, what had been an essential tool became a relic of the past in a rapidly-changing industry.

"Fire Insurance Plans in the Collection of the Public Archives and Records Office of Prince Edward Island"

Goad insurance plans of Prince Edward Island 1888, revised to 1910 (Charlottetown and Summerside to 1917), Acc.# 4458, Series 6 (original and on microfilm) - includes insurance plans for: Alberton, Cardigan, Charlottetown, Coleman, Crapaud, Georgetown, Hunter River, Kensington, Montague Bridge, Mount Stewart, Murray Harbour South, Murray River South, O’Leary, St. Peters Bay, Souris East, Tignish, Summerside, Tyne Valley and Victoria
Underwriters' Survey Bureau Ltd. insurance plans of Charlottetown 1919, revised to 1922, Acc.# 3303/1 (on microfilm)
Insurance plans of the Town of Alberton, P.E.L 1919, revised to 1947, Acc.# 4537 (original)
Insurer's Advisory Organization of Toronto insurance plans for Tyne Valley and Breadalbane 1919; 1919, revised to 1937, Acc.# 4121 (original) - includes two1919 plans of Tyne Valley and one of Breadalbane dated 1919, revised to 1937.
Insurance plans of Montague 1922, revised to 1937, Acc.# 4538 (original)
Insurance plans of Charlottetown and other communities 1956 (Charlottetown revised to 1968), Acc.# 2815 (renumbered 0,618-0,635 and indexed in the map collection) (original) - includes plans for: Alberton, Borden, Charlottetown, Crapaud, Georgetown, Hunter River, Kensington, Montague, Morell, Mount Stewart, Murray Harbour, Murray River, O’Leary, St. Peter’s Bay, Souris East, Summerside, Tignish, and Victoria. In 1950 the Underwriters' Survey Bureau reduced the size of fire insurance plans from 2i"x25" to i2;;xi3". The smaller size, along with improved printing techniques, meant that individual sheets could be readily printed when required.
Insurance plans of Charlottetown and neighbouring communities 1956, Acc.# XHF.83.70.109 (original) - includes plans for Charlottetown and neighbouring communities such as Spring Park and Parkdale. Set of plans includes 1963 revision sheets and hand-written annotations, likely by an insurance agent.
Insurance plans of Charlottetown and neighbouring communities 1956, revised to 1963, Ace. XHF 83.70.108 (original) - includes plans for Charlottetown and neighbouring communities such as Spring Park and Parkdale. Set of plans includes hand-written annotations, likely by an insurance agent.

Fire Insurance Plans and the Researcher

The strength of the fire insurance plan as a research tool lies in its ability to provide a highly-detailed image of a community at one point in time. Accurate out of necessity, these plans can be used by researchers to: narrow down the construction date of a building; establish how street numbering and naming has changed; position a building in relation to others on a block; uncover whether or not a building has been demolished or constructed since a particular date; determine how a building's use or appearance has changed over time; establish how a community or neighbourhood has developed; and, identify previous uses of properties and potential hazards.
Fire insurance plans have proven useful to a wide variety of researchers. Architectural historians use them to demonstrate the development of building styles and construction technologies. Genealogists can identify not only the building their ancestors lived and worked in, but what stores, churches and restaurants they would have passed by everyday. Social historians and urban geographers can trace housing patterns, changes in the location of industry over time and the evolution of land use within a community.
While they provide considerable information in their own right, researchers soon discover that fire insurance plans are most useful when combined with other primary and secondary sources. Since these plans were designed to assess the risk of fire, they are more concerned with building use then building occupancy or ownership. Thus on early plans a house is marked "D" for dwelling and the American Hotel is simply "Hotel". While later plans do sometimes provide names for buildings, researchers generally have to consult city directories and land records as well as insurance plans to determine who owned or occupied a property. Using these additional sources, along with bird's eye views, cadastral maps and photographic collections that cover a range of dates, the researcher can develop a surprisingly detailed impression of how a community and its people have changed over time. When venturing into the foreign land that is the past, the humble fire insurance plan serves as a capable guide.


This article is based on work done for a University of British Columbia Master's of Archival Studies course on non-textual archives taught by Janet Turner. The opening quote comes from the Charlottetown Herald's coverage of the Charlottetown Great Fire of 1866 reproduced in Charlottetown: The Life in Its Buildings by Irene Rogers (Charlottetown, The Prince Edward I s land Museum and Heritage Foundation, 1983). This article is largely based on the work of Robert J. Hayward. Useful publications by Hayward include the foreword to Fire Insurance Plans in the National Map Collection (Ottawa, Public Archives of Canada, 1977) and "Chas. E. Goad and Fire Insurance Cartography" in Explorations in the History of Canadian Mapping: A Collection of Essays (Ottawa, Association of Canadian Map Libraries and Archives, 1988) edited by Barbara Farrell and Aileen Desbarats. Certain of Charles Goad's biographical details, including the debate regarding his education, were taken from his Dictionary of Canadian Biography entry prepared by Elizabeth Buchanan and Gunter Gad. Christopher L. Hives's book The Underwriters, (Toronto, Phelps Publishing 1985) provided a useful history of the Canadian Fire Underwriters' Association and its successor bodies. The listing of fire insurance plans held by the Public Archives and Records Office of Prince Edward Island is based on that office's brochure, "Historic House Research." The Board of Fire Underwriters minute books (Public Archives and Records Office of Prince Edward Island, Ace. 2713) provide the patient researcher with considerable information on the constantly-changing Island building stock and were helpful in tracing the early use of fire insurance plans. Mr. Fred Hyndman of Hyndman and Company Limited provided much-appreciated insight into both the use of fire insurance plans and the complex industry they were the product of. Staff at the Public Archives and Records Office of P.E.I, provided access to insurance plans in their possession and copy services. Pamela Borden of the Law Society of P.E.I. Library located information clarifying certain legal matters associated with the insurance industry. Professor Edward MacDonald of the University of Prince Edward Island kindly commented on a draft of this article. Special thanks are due to Todd Saunders, Catherine Hennessey and the City of Charlottetown. Work on the City's "Catherine Project" brought the author into close contact with Charlottetown's fire insurance plans.