Danger, men at work - Silk hats must be worn!
27 Aug 2009
Posted by: Anna Stone
Subjects: Interesting stories
In our three hundred year history Aviva companies have employed an enormous number of people. This month I’ve been digging around in the archive to find out about the rules that governed their working lives.
By 1705 the hours had become a standard 7-7 with two hours for lunch and by 1713 all three of the clerks were lodging rent free in the company’s offices, quite probably because it was hardly worth their while to go home. In contrast, extracts from the board minutes of the Amicable Society in 1716 indicate that clerks in that office had a much easier time with hours being 9 until 3 and mention made that the office took in newspapers which, presumably, the clerks could read in any spare time.
The earliest written set of “staff rules” I have been able to find in the archive date from 1819 and were produced by Samuel Bignold, then Secretary to Norwich Union Fire and Life Societies According to these rules, office hours were from 9 till 1.30 and from 2.30pm to 6 during which period, Mr Bignold remarked, “ every clerk must be at business ”.
Fifty years later staff and Norwich Union were expected to work 9.30am - 4pm for a six day week while in the same period office hours at the Northern Assurance Company were some what open-ended being “ from quarter before 10 - until the secretary and vice secretary have left the office ”.
Despite the comparatively late opening times for the various office companies still had issues with staff punctuality. The rules of the Northern Assurance stated that “ any Clerk not arriving at the Office before a quarter to 10 o’clock is fined 2/6 unless he can give a reason for his lateness satisfactory to the chief of his department ”.
Similarly the rules for the London office staff of General Accident in 1910 show that staff had to sign in on arrival and a red line was drawn at 9.15 so that latecomers could be easily identified and a reason for their “tardiness” written in. Office work was to commence “ immediately after the Time Book is signed .” Staff at Norwich Union were fined for late arrival in the morning or after lunch with fines rising by 2d for every 5 minutes of delay.
The fines were then donated to the Staff Benefit Fund. The archive contains one of the staff attendance books from 1870 in which names written below the line are marked, presumably to indicate collection of the fine.
Perhaps the ultimate sanction for lazy youth was a letter home like this from the South British London Secretary to the mother of one of the office juniors in the 1920s.
“ Dear Madam I regret to advise you that your son is constantly late in arriving at the office. He is due here about 9.45 am and it is frequently considerably after 10 am that he comes in. I have spoken to him on the subject until I am tired of doing so and I will be obliged if you will see that he leaves home in time in future .”
Again staff experiences differed wildly depending on the company they worked for: staff at North British & Mercantile got a 20 minute break for lunch while those at the Northern Assurance could choose to break for 30 minutes and stay later at the end of the day. Perhaps the most fortunate were those who worked for Employers’ Liability Assurance
Corporation where, from 1885, lunch was provided for staff in the board luncheon room five days a week and subsidised by the company at 5d per head. Later staff magazines claimed that it was the first company to introduce a staff canteen. By 1960 the company was paying £5,400 pa towards the cost of staff lunches and this increased the following year by £2,000 to cover “ provision of morning and after lunch coffee and afternoon tea ”.
Staff in the Head Office at Norwich Union were also well provided for and by the 1920s they received a free lunch, consisting of cold meat and soup and a cold sweet, to be consumed in their half hour break.
Staff absence - (train delays, chatting by the fire, down in the basements, off with the typists)
The 1819 Norwich Union rules concentrated on eliminating staff absence during working hours. For those who wished to go out on a personal errand the manager had to give his blessing and he had to record any absence in “the book” giving time and cause.
Mr Bignold was also anxious that time was not wasted by staff warming themselves and chatting in front of the office fire (the water cooler of its day). A fine of 3d was imposed if any unauthorised person tended the fire and he wrote “ Clerks are permitted to warm themselves at the Fire in Office hours, but only one at a time to be at the fire and no clerk is expected to remain there longer than may be sufficient for warming himself. ”
On 29 June 1864 a change was made to the Northern assurance rules presumably due to high levels of fines paid by those living on unreliable train lines.
“ In the case of those clerks who come to town by railway, whenever it happen that a late arrival at the office is owing solely to the detention of a train which, if punctual, would have allowed the clerk to reach the office in good time, the fine will not be imposed. This alteration of the rules to be retrospective and the sum of 30/s incurred by Mr John Anderson refunded. ”
Managers at the Northern obviously also had reason to suspect that time was being wasted in the basement as the rules firmly state “ the rooms in the basement are to be used for the purposes for which they have been set apart, and no other: and it is expected that Gentlemen will not spend any longer time in them, whether during or out of office hours, than is absolutely necessary. Any infringement of this rule will be regarded as a dereliction of duty and dealt with accordingly ”.
Basements certainly were used for illicit activities, at one point in the 1840s staff at General Life were known to retire to the basement to share a bottle of port which had been “liberated” during celebrations for the Lord Mayor’s procession, while one junior member of staff on the Norwich Union solicitors’ office in the 1920s later fondly recalled the shove halfpenny tables laid out in their strong rooms.
With the introduction of women into the office the lure of typists was added to the list of potential time wasting activities and companies were quick to regulate against fraternization.
The 1910 rules for General Accident stated “ in all cases the typists are to be summoned by means of the bell provided for that purpose, and the staff of other Departments are not to enter the typists’ rooms unless specially instructed .”
One retired staff member at North British and Mercantile later recalled that the “ typists were in a very private room and if one had the occasion and particularly the temerity to require their services one had to enter a small box room, encased in ground glass with a small sliding panel through which, when lifted, the Amazon in charge would enquire of your wishes. ”
General Accident also prided itself on customer service and this is evident in the staff rules for 1910 “ all letters must be replied to or acknowledged the same day as received ” and “ members of the public calling at the counter must be attended to at all times with the greatest promptitude ”. .. “ The utmost courtesy and attention are to be shown to the public, as the directors attach the greatest importance to this branch of the work. Any failure in this respect will be severely dealt with.”
This echoes the instructions of Scottish Union and National at a slightly later date “ the greatest economy must be exercised in the use of stationery and its use for private purposes is prohibited ”. Also potentially open for abuse was the office telephone which, under the General Accident rules, “ is not to be used for private purposes by the staff ”.
Managers at Scottish Union and National had a slightly more relaxed attitude “ The telephone may be used for private purposes but the company must be reimbursed for all such calls initiated within the office. Personal calls to members of the staff from outside the office are not to be encouraged. ”
The only mention of a dress code in official office rules are those of the General Accident in 1910 “ Each official … will be expected to wear a black coat during office hours, with the exception of Saturday morning, when a relaxation of this rule will be permitted. At the same time the Directors would prefer that an official making a business call on members of the public should wear a silk hat ”.
A final (quiet) word
“Whistling on the premises or shouting between officials will be sternly repressed” – General Accident staff rules 1910.
A page from General Accident's staff rule book in 1910.