Following the flame: Birmingham - 'floating in a sea of ale'
30 Jun 2012
Posted by: Anna Stone
Subjects: Interesting stories
Aviva's earliest recorded Birmingham agents were R & T Jones who were representing Norwich Union Fire by 1806. By 1818 Norwich Union Life had also appointed agents, Joseph Lovell and Charles Juxon, who ran their business from Paradise Street. Norwich Union Fire's agency expenses for 1818, reproduced below, include £52 10 shillings paid as a reward to a Mr Hodges for "apprehending an incendiary". A further £10 10 shillings was spent on a cup presented to Mr Bristow for his efforts in protecting insured property during a fire.
By 1821 John Green of Bennett's Hill had been appointed agent to both Norwich Union Fire and Life and, as the advertisement below indicates, was running a company fire engine stationed in Friday Street.
By 1839 Mr Green's chief clerk, Elijah Barnett was chief officer of the fire brigade and eventually took over the agency when Mr Green retired in 1868. By this date the Norwich Union engine, and those of other insurance companies, was operating from Cannon Street as part of a pooled fire service and in 1874 running of the brigades was handed over to the Birmingham Corporation.
By this date numerous other Aviva constituents were operating in Birmingham: West of England had a agent at 47 Bull Street by 1828, the Guarantee Society appointed a Birmingham agent in 1841, and Scottish National appointed W Montague Junior and A Marston agents in 1849.
Also by this date the first of our local constituent companies, Birmingham Alliance Life Company, had been established and in 1867, after only two years of operation, had sold its accident business to Accidental Insurance Company .
Another local concern, the snappily named Employers Liability and Work Peoples' Provident and Accident Insurance Company of Birmingham, was established in 1881 at Colmore Chambers and later acquired by Lancashire and Yorkshire Accident . By this date the Norwich Union agent Elijah Barnett had retired after 55 years service and had presented the new branch in Bennett's Hill with a snuff box to keep on the office counter. The following year Robert J S Perowne was appointed Norwich Union Fire's manager in Birmingham in charge of a staff of three.
1883 saw Northern Assurance open a Birmingham branch under H Jennings while the following year Commercial Union appointed J Headley Boocock manager of their branch. In 1886 Yorkshire Insurance established a branch under Mr Lockwood who moved to premises at 87 Colmore Row in 1887. Commercial Union also made a move in 1887 into these premises at 25 Bennett's Hill.
The grandiose premises, on the corner of Congreve Street and Edmund Street, were acquired by Norwich Union Life in 1896.
Built in 1887 as a Liberal Club and subsequently a girls school the new premises were renamed Norwich Union Chambers and described in the staff magazine as "the finest, loftiest, and most picturesque in Birmingham". From the windows the staff of 14 could enjoy views of the Town Hall, Free Library and Chamberlain Square Municipal Offices. The building was "heated throughout by hot water pipes; but for ventilation and cheerfulness most of the rooms also have open grates". The invitation below was received by the great and the good to officially open the premises in 1898.
In 1899 another local company, Equitable Plate Glass of Birmingham, was established with offices at 1 and 2 Waterloo Street. The company was later acquired by Northern Assurance whose Birmingham Office played host, from 1901, to the poet and playwright John Drinkwater following his transfer from Nottingham. One of Drinkwater's senior colleagues at the branch was W H (Harry) Knight who had started in the office in 1892. Drinkwater later wrote of Knight: "W H Knight liked insurance and he was patient with me because he knew I didn't".
In 1903, by which time Drinkwater's salary had reached the dizzy heights of £80 pa, the last of our Birmingham constituents, Parcels and General Assurance Association Ltd, was established. Founded initially to protect Birmingham's many wholesale and retail jewellers from pilfering of postal packages, the company was later acquired by Norwich Union.
Meanwhile, General Accident had started operations in Birmingham and in 1910 moved in to premises at 92-94 Colmore Road. By this date Northern Assurance were occupying these impressive offices at 81 Colmore Row,...
...where they were still happily ensconced in the early 1920s when they received the following cryptic fire claim: "Advice re suffocated cat, 3s 6d."
The 1920s saw a number of important office moves for Aviva group companies starting in 1923 when General Accident purchased these offices at Snow Hill Corner.
Commercial Union were uncharacteristically keen on photographing every stage of the rebuilding of their 25 St Bennett's Hill premises which began around 1927. The photographs include some wonderful scenes of the site during demolition...
...and nearing completion. I rather think the photographer on this occasion was more interested in the girl (or the car) in the foreground than in the new building behind.
During the Second World War the results of a high explosive bomb forced General Accident's staff to evacuate their Snow Hill site and move to 88 Hagley Road. The premises were obviously not large enough to accommodate all the staff and by 1948 the branch was split with fire business being carried on from these premises in Waterloo Street.
The branch kept a phenomenal photographic record which includes the image below of staff at work in the building.
A decade later Norwich Union's staff finally moved into their new premises at Lombard House, Great Charles Street, which had been purchased in 1953.
The first floor was re-designed with open plan office space for 100 desks and "several private rooms for managerial use". According to the staff magazine the paintwork was "finished in pleasant yellows, greys, reds and blues to set off to best advantage the polished woodwork of the panelling and the counters." From the sounds of it, and the look of the very "busy" wallpaper, we are probably fortunate the photograph of the interior, below, is black and white.
In 1964 Commercial Union's new offices, at Martineau Square, appeared in ‘glorious Technicolor’ for the cover of their staff magazine.
The same cannot be said for photographs of General Accident's new building at 104 Hagley Road which was occupied in 1961 but what the "GA" Birmingham branch photographs lack in colour they more than make up for in the exuberance of their subjects. General Accident's Birmingham staff certainly had fun, as is evident in these photographs from the Christmas party in 1960...
...and even on this soggy looking trip to Weston-super-Mare in 1962.
In this spirit I'll share a final Birmingham story which was recalled by Commercial Union's Leslie Wood on his retirement in 1954. His early working days were spent as an office boy in the Hand-in-Hand Birmingham office at Cornwall Buildings, New Hall Street where his duties included bringing the manager his lunch. Lunch consisted of sandwiches from a nearby shop and a glass of ale from a barrel kept in the basement strong room.
One fateful day the young Leslie forgot to turn off the spigot fully and in the late afternoon it was reported that the basement had flooded. Investigation proved that the cask had run dry and the branch endorsement papers and copy policies were floating in a sea of ale.