A DECADE ago the refurbishment of one of Colchester’s significant buildings began.

For those passing through the town centre on a regular basis the Essex & Suffolk Fire Office might seem like part of the furniture.

And since it dates back to the early 1800s, its history is most certainly indelibly linked with the town’s.

For a while it became a bit rundown but at the beginning of 2009 an overhaul began as the former offices became flats and the outside and gateway to St Peter’s Church were revamped.

The Grade II listed building was originally the home of the Essex Fire and Insurance Office, which existed in the days before the municipal fire service.

Colchester historian Andrew Phillips, who has described it as the “Grand Old Lady of the High Street”, says it was the last triumph of agriculture over industry.

“It was originally built with the colonnades at the bottom, housing the corn market.”

The building was important in that it was the first fire office outside of London.

Since it was built in 1802, the Georgian building has undergone a number of changes, including being significantly rebuilt in 1820.

It originally had one upstairs floor and now has two.

There were no shops on the ground floor, just an open walkway through the pillars to St Peter’s Churchyard behind, with the horse-drawn fire wagons standing below. Instead of shops, which were added later, there was the corn exchange.

Another unusual feature of the building is that its pillars and walls were made of cast iron, created in the Wallis foundry, just a few short steps away.

This proved to be vital when fire ravaged the High Street in 1835, burning down a line of properties at the top of the High Street but leaving the fire office unscathed.

In recent years another Colchester historian Heather Johnson has also thoroughly researched the office including its war memorial to those employees lost in the First and Second World Wars.

The office was considered the Essex and Suffolk Equitable Insurance Society’s head office, originally just Essex from 1802 but Suffolk being added four years later.

Her interest began as a result of her father-in-law’s cousin Clifford Walter Garling, having worked as an insurance Clerk for the company in Ipswich and then in Colchester, going on to become the vice president of the Insurance Institute of Ipswich and Suffolk in 1949 and then its president in 1950 to 1951.

The double doorway memorial was installed within the general office, unveiled and dedicated on November 15 1923 bearing the names of ten Society employees who died during the First World War.

“The names of the six staff members killed during the Second World War were added in the early 1950s and the wooden panel remains in the building, in a communal passage - but a mirror had replaced the dedication panels,” says Heather.

Heather appealed for information about the panel and local man Dick Barton came forward to say he had it - having himself rescued it from a warehouse in another county after visiting the offices for a meeting and being involved in a discussion about its whereabouts.