Following the flame: Aberdeen - Has anyone seen my pearls?
11 Jun 2012
Posted by: Anna Stone
Subjects: Interesting stories
Aviva's history in Aberdeen really belongs to Northern Assurance which was set up there as North of Scotland Fire and Life Assurance Company in 1836.
It was not the first of our companies to operate in the city, that honour goes to North British which appointed Thomas Burnett, advocate, as agent in 1809. By 1814 Norwich Union was also in Aberdeen and by 1825 West of England and Hercules both had agents there.
1825 was also the year our first Aberdeen constituent, the Aberdeen Fire & Life Assurance Company (later known as Scottish Provincial), was established.
By 1839 this company was in dispute with the recently established Northern for daring to suggest in an advertisement that it was the only Aberdeen insurer! Yet despite all these earlier insurance enterprises it is the Northern that dominates our history here. The archive includes scrap books of the company's forms and promotional material like this prospectus cover from 1864...
...this one from 1888...
...and this from the turn of the century written in Scottish Gaelic.
We also hold a book with details of fire policies taken out with the company in 1838 including the one below for fruit merchant Alexander Crombie covering his stock and "other goods" which apparently included umbrellas.
The staff magazine of 1929 reproduced this photograph of the staff in 1861.
The photograph features, among others, John, Hugh and James Valentine the latter of whom went on to become general manager. The photograph below shows him in about 1891 - can you recognise him as a young man?
By the time the earlier photograph was taken the company was based in offices at 3 King Street into which it had moved in 1839. Further down the street at No 18 another Aberdeen constituent company, Bon Accord Life and Fire Assurance, was established in 1845. The policy below was taken out with the company by local merchant Thomas Webster the following year.
The Northern office, shown below decorated for a visit of the future King Edward VII in 1884, was one door down from the junction of Market and King Street.
In 1881 the company acquired their longed-for corner site, at 1 Union Terrace. Here it was to remain until its acquisition by Commercial Union in 1968 at which point the building became the home of Commercial Union in Aberdeen. Built at a cost of £20,000 the office was completed in 1884 and the archive contains numerous photographs of it over the years.
Although the street furniture in the photographs changes slightly the building itself remains constant with its four iconic doric pillars whose cage-like appearance earned it the local name of "the monkey house".
According to press cuttings from 1972, when the building was re-opened after refurbishment, the spot was popular with courting couples. If your parents or grandparents fell in love at the monkey house I'd love to hear.
The archive also contains copies of the plans of the building showing rooms on the upper floors which were to provide "dwelling houses for two officials"...
...and the magnificent public office which was divided by polished columns of local granite.
This photograph from the mid-20th century sadly does not allow us to see the colours of the Californian redwood and American white walnut panels...
...but this, from 1972, shows the office in all its (slightly cluttered) splendour.
The company's new home certainly occupied a prime position in the main Aberdeen insurance district. By 1876 North British & Mercantile was operating from 103 Union Street under local secretaries Murray and M'Combie and by 1887 General Accident was at No 177 with a local secretary operating from the offices of Mssrs Strachan and Spence. By the following decade these two companies had moved to No 91 and 129 Union Street respectively and Norwich Union was at No 74 under manager Henry W Bain.
In 1909, when the branch manager was A T Grammer, General Accident acquired the last of our Aberdeen constituents, Northern Place Glass which had been established in 1888.
By this date the branch was based at 220 Union Street to which they had moved in 1906. Derick McRobert, who worked in the branch from 1963, recalled the building at 220 Union Street and the fact that they had to confine themselves to the office at lunchtimes during the 1964 typhoid epidemic. His memoirs also refer to "great days out" on the stands at local agricultural shows like this one photographed in 1928.
He also remembered working under Mr Harry Leishman "a real gentleman" and his predecessor Simon Hucheson, below, who "always worked in highland dress" though clearly not on the days he was photographed.
He recalled also that the chief clerk, Fred Davidson, could never master the office dictating machines and would often end dictation of a letter with "th's nae use. I'll start again".
In 1965, along with the rest of General Accident's staff, Derick McRobert moved to 1-4 Albyn Terrace.
The traditional house warming party was held...
...after which the general manager wrote to the manager, Mr Leishman: "Congratulations on your excellent offices. They are really first class".
I can't leave Aberdeen without mentioning the story of the £3,500 pearl necklace lost by a Norwich Union Aberdeen branch customer in 1928. The lady in question lost her pearls while out retrieving snipe on a shooting expedition on a remote and boggy moor.
An intrepid member of staff, Mr Dewar, journeyed to the site and undertook a search, swishing his way through the heather and rushes with his trusty golf club. After two days of fruitless hunting he was joined by a group of scouts and their leader whom he paid 3s 6d each for a final day of searching. His article on the subject describes his growing despondence "sinking over the ankles in water and slime" looking for "a thing that could be conveniently tucked away inside a walnut shell".
Against all the odds, however, the necklace was found by the scout master one minute before the search was due to end and was returned to its astonished owner.