The home front
On the home front, those who had been left behind were expected to take on the work of colleagues who had gone to fight. Some companies brought staff out of retirement to fill the gaps and all recruited female members of staff as never before.
While some smaller branches, like those of Norwich Union Life, had to be closed down, on the whole the annual report and accounts of the war period recorded with pride the volumes of business being carried out despite staff shortages. The impact of the loss of, primarily, junior staff to war service is clearly conveyed in this magazine entry from the Bristol branch of Norwich Union Fire in the Michaelmas 1914 issue:
We hear rumours of highly-exalted Chief Clerks who have descended to the depths of renewal receipt writing; of cashiers who nightly wrestle with the problem of the application of moisture to postage stamps, and of Policy Clerks who, in the early morning, surreptitiously polish brass plates, fervently praying the meanwhile that no fair damsel will pass that way.
Later in the war, some companies tried hard to exempt key staff from war service to allow the business to continue to function. In 1915, boiler inspectors on the staff of The Scottish Boiler and Engine Inspection Company Ltd were exempted by the War Office as their work was considered vital to the war effort to ensure the production of necessary materials.
Staff left behind also had to cope with Zeppelin bombing raids, one of which severely damaged the offices of Provident Mutual Life Assurance Association in September 1915. The board minutes of several other group companies recorded the taking out of Zeppelin insurance for their London buildings and provisions made for staff in the event of air raids.
Staff on the home front were often, like those at General Accident, expected to contribute to war funds. Some companies, like Employers' Liability Assurance Corporation Ltd, even set up loan schemes to allow staff to purchase National War Bonds and War Savings Certificates. They also subscribed to sending gifts to their colleagues at the front.
In Christmas 1914 every member of General Accident staff not serving subscribed to send a packet to each serving member of staff containing: wool helmet, body belt, mitts, sleeping socks, one box of Scottish shortbread, one box of cigarettes and one Christmas greeting from the General Manager.
By April 1917, General Accident's non serving staff had subscribed £1,500 to patriotic funds and provided over 1,000 pairs of socks for the troops.
General Accident made another important contribution to the war effort when, on 25 August 1914, Francis Norie-Miller offered two vacant floors in the London head office at Aldwych rent free to the War Refugees Committee. The offices became the committee's central headquarters. When Queen Mary visited in September 1914 to see the work of the committee, the staff magazine proudly recorded that this was the first time a reigning sovereign or consort had visited a head office of an insurance company. For the help given to refugees, which included staff from the Antwerp branch who were all provided with accommodation and the means of livelihood, Francis Norie-Miller was awarded the Belgian Medaille du Roi Albert in 1921.
As well as the additional burdens of work and civil defence duties, non serving staff in some companies were also keeping records of their colleagues on the front. The Union Assurance Society Ltd kept a detailed record for each member of serving staff on which they noted changes of address when posted, details of changes to rank and regiments and events such as men being wounded or gassed. Other companies, like the Northern Assurance Company Ltd, Norwich Union Fire and Life Societies, and Scottish Union and National Insurance Company, gathered photographs of those serving which were later made into albums or printed Rolls of Honour.
At Norwich Union Fire, senior managers took pains to write letters of sympathy to staff who had been injured and to the families of those killed or missing. The company even wrote letters of sympathy to the parents of former members of staff.
When staff member Mr Causton was wounded, the company cabled reply-paid to his hospital in Boulogne for the latest news and wrote to his wife saying they would pass on any information. When the General Manager wrote to R L Saul expressing best wishes following the news that he had been wounded he responded as follows:
My wounds are not serious, they being a gunshot wound in the face and shrapnel splinters in the eyes and shoulders, but trust I shall now very soon be convalescent. At the same time I am really not in a hurry to return to the front.
These sentiments are echoed by Harold Sayer responding to a similar letter in May 1918.
My wound is getting on splendidly - it is not a serious one and generally classified by soldiers as “a good Blighty” machine gun bullet through the lower part of thigh. I am, Sir, one of those very fortunate men granted a release, temporarily probably, from a veritable Hades for that word alone conveys the correct meaning.
As the war continued, it took a financial toll on companies who were taking on additional staff and still paying those away at war. In November 1915, on the introduction of Lord Derby's scheme (where people gave their voluntary assent to be called up if necessary), the Commercial Union board resolved that, instead of full pay, staff were to be given full pay minus army pay. The same month, the minutes of Employers' Liability Assurance Corporation Ltd recorded:
Having regard to the fact that the War has lasted longer than was contemplated at that time [August 1914], it was resolved that, in the case of married men who had enlisted and to whom full salary had been granted, as from 1 January 1916 this privilege should be amended and the following substituted: That the board undertake to supplement Army pay, excluding allowances, so as to bring their total remuneration up to an amount equal to the full salary paid to them by the Corporation, but in no case shall the allowance from the Corporation be less than half salary.
In June 1916, General Accident decided to follow a similar course of action. The General Manager reported that 90% of the staff were serving in the forces and that the corporation had paid at the rate of £14,536 per annum to soldiers serving. From this date staff would receive half pay plus army pay and allowances.
Despite making attempts to reduce the cost of war, the companies still took care of their staff, keeping a note of dependant families and making payments to mothers and wives who were in need with ex gratia payments of up to one year's salary for those killed. Payments were even made, as in the case of North British and Mercantile Insurance Company, to the wives of men who had only been on temporary staff.
The companies also took account of the rising costs of living. Staff in the majority of group companies received war bonuses like that offered by Fine Art and General Insurance Company Ltd, who gave married men and single men with dependants earning up to £350pa an additional 20% salary plus £50 and single men without dependants, female and temporary staff, 25% additional salary.
Several of the minute books, like those of Commercial Union, refer to the entry of America into the war and the hope that it would bring an early end to the fighting. In January 1918, Francis Norie-Miller of General Accident wrote:
It has also been a source of happiness to me to see the enthusiasm with which the Americans are entering into this great war. They enter it on behalf of liberty and true civilisation, and a victorious result of the Allies is now absolutely assured.
Similar sentiments were expressed in a cable to the Employers' Liability head office in London from their United States Manager, Samuel Appleton, in April 1917.
The executive Committee authorises me to say that we share your gratification that America has enlisted heart and soul with the Allies to prove that the World has outgrown Prussianism and the Hindenburg line.
Towards the end of the war, the General Accident staff magazine recorded the following cable from released prisoner of war Private Ian W Fraser of the Highland Light Infantry:
Pleased to inform you that I have arrived here (Scheveningen) on sick exchange party. Got magnificent reception from Dutch people. How splendid it feels to be free again. Kindest regards to all at GA.