Drawing on the past
17 Jun 2008
I recently came across an interesting cartoon in the Commercial Union material. The cartoon features two elderly gentlemen identified as old "Union" and old "Hand-in-Hand" and a sturdy looking toddler, the Commercial Union Assurance Company. The cartoon was produced in 1900 by Charles E Ogilvie for inclusion in the CU Annual.
By that date the Union and the Hand-in-Hand could certainly be described as old, having reached 186 and 204 respectively, while the Commercial Union was still a comparatively youthful 39. The caption, " Lor: how that child do grow, there won ' t be no room left for us " old uns " soon!! " , was wonderfully prophetic for within seven years both had been swallowed up by Commercial Union - Hand-in-Hand in 1905 and Union in 1907.
The cartoon also contains references to acquisitions which had already taken place. At the child's feet are a bottle labelled "West of England food" and a wrapper bearing the words "Economic rusks". The West of England Fire and Life Assurance Company, established in Exeter in 1807, had been acquired by Commercial Union in 1894. In the same year, the company also acquired the fire business of the Economic Fire Office, established in 1886, which was in liquidation.
It is no coincidence that these two companies appear in the cartoon as food for the infant Commercial Union; according to later magazine articles the West of England was the sixth largest fire insurer in the country when it was amalgamated while the Economic brought with it lucrative business from the tea estates of Ceylon (Sri Lanka).
One final and recent acquisition is referred to on the label attached to the doll and is so small it can only really be read with a magnifying glass on the original cartoon. It reads "Palatine Doll, a bargain" and refers to the acquisition, in 1900, of the Palatine Insurance Company, established in Manchester in 1886.
The company had a very strong fire department and was a pioneer in the emerging accident business so the price of £272,000 paid for it might well have been seen as a bargain. It is possible, however, that Mr Ogilvie was writing tongue-in-cheek about the Palatine "bargain". Another contemporary cartoon depicts the company as a white elephant, indicating that some staff did not regard its purchase in such a positive way.
The story of how the cartoon came to be in the archive is also worth recounting since it was actually lost to the company from 1900 until after the acquisitions it prophesised. The CU Annual was not printed; one copy was produced using original drawings, photographs and articles from members of staff and the whole thing was put together and passed round to be read.
The archive contains issues from 1898 and 1899, 1906 (when it was called the Sackbut) and 1911. It is the 1911 issue that includes the story of the 1900 annual in which the cartoon originally appeared. It transpires that this annual was lost after being accidentally left behind on a train by a member of staff. Despite offers of rewards nothing more was heard about it until the cartoon was spotted by chance in the window of a small shop near Paddington Station.
It was purchased and given to the then general manager. Hoping that a similar slice of good fortune might befall me I will take this opportunity to ask if anyone knows the whereabouts of further issues of the annual or indeed can tell me anything about the cartoonist Mr Ogilvie.
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