Following the flame: Brighton and Hove - Mr Wafer's glass case...
16 Jul 2012
Posted by: Anna Stone
Subjects: Interesting stories
Aviva's history in Brighton dates back to 1818 when Norwich Union Fire and Life were both operating there. By 1858 the fire company was represented by a firm of auctioneers with the wonderful name of Reason, Hobbs and Tickle, and by the following year our constituent company General Life had three Brighton agents.
In 1889 Scottish Accident appointed their successful Middlesbrough agent, Herbert Cheetham, to Brighton with an office at 6 Vere Road.
By this date Railway Passengers was also operating in Brighton and the company's lists of claims for 1895 includes £35 paid to a local pawnbroker who had a bucket of mortar thrown at this head while walking down the street.
1895 also saw Norwich Union Fire appoint Reason, Hobbs and Tickle as their district managers with offices at 31 Queen's Road. A branch was officially opened in 1911 when Mr Hobbs (from the aforementioned firm) was appointed sub manager under J P Green at 130c Queen's Road. By this date Commercial Union had a branch in Brighton at 30 Old Steine and General Accident's local office was based at 6 North Street Quadrant, a former butcher's shop, under resident secretary H S Isherwood.
In 1920 Norwich Union's fire branch moved to these new premises at 14 Pavilion Buildings Castle Square. The site had formerly housed Lloyds Bank's chief Brighton office and the basement vaults were originally part of the Castle Tavern which stood on the site from 1776 - 1814. It was while they were in this building that they received a claim for a fire caused, according to the insured, by "cold feet, careless absorption in newspaper and a unguarded gas fire."
In 1922 General Accident's Brighton office became a full branch and resident inspector S H Underhill, below, became the first branch manager. Chief clerk in this period was Mr J S Gray who later recalled an incident when an unfortunate office junior dropped the cakes for Mr Underhill's afternoon tea in the gutter and was rubbing the worst of the dirt off on his sleeve when he spotted that gentleman watching him from the window. Another set of reminiscences, this time from a member of Commercial Union staff, recalled the silk hats worn by the porters at the branches which were often borrowed by male staff when they were getting married. The photograph below shows Commercial Union's Brighton porter, Mr Smith, outside that company's Brighton branch at 56 Old Steine in 1924. Sadly the photograph is in black and white but the accompanying letter describes his uniform as chocolate with yellow buttons.
I am not sure whether General Accident coveted the impressively attired Mr Smith but the General Manager certainly aspired to Commercial Union's 56 Old Steine offices, shown below.
On a visit in 1927 he remarked on the good offices occupied by other important insurance companies in Brighton and singled Commercial Union out for special mention. In contrast he found General Accident's premises "far from impressive". His report continued "The ground floor has too much the appearance of a shop. The title of the company above the ground floor looks cheap, and the gold lettering affixed to the outside walls of the upper floors is badly in need of repair. One of the letters even had a piece knocked out of it". The description put me instantly in mind of this cartoon from the General Accident staff magazine which I couldn't resist putting in to this blog.
As ever, the result of the general manager's disapproval was a new branch for General Accident in Brighton and the 45 members of staff moved into these premises at 34 West Street in 1933.
It was here in April 1936 that members of staff were surprised to receive the following letter in response to a payment made for a claim.
By this date Ocean Accident was occupying the offices at 20 West Street where the branch had been based for over 30 years. The company's Brighton staff appear to have been an artistic lot, this drawing of the refurbished staff room was the work of Mr Thurmer...
...who also took this photograph of the general office in 1957.
In 1952 Ocean Accident's staff were called upon to assess an unusual risk when they took on insurance of the "glass case and personal effects" of a Mr Jack Wafer. Mr Wafer appears to have been the David Blaine of his age and took out the insurance prior to his attempt to break the world record for fasting. He successfully broke the record, remaining in the glass case for 76 days and living off nothing but cigarettes and soda water.
Meanwhile, outside the glass case, Norwich Union's staff had moved from their 14 Pavilion Buildings office to new premises at 1 Marlborough Place on the site of the former Blenheim Hotel. Less than a decade later the branch boasted its own cat, Smoky, whose photograph duly appeared in the staff magazine.
In 1962 it was General Accident's turn to build new offices, on the site at 157-159 Preston Road.
As usual staff members were keen to record events and the branch file includes this photograph of the architect's model...
...and this of manager, E G Bell, lending a hand during the digging of the foundations.
In 1965 the building was completed and staff finally moved in with obligatory photograph of the exterior and interior, below, appearing in the staff magazine.
Four years later the office was invaded by a film crew which was following staff member Timothy James Jenkins. Mr Jenkins, as a baby, had been filmed for a 1946 documentary film called A Diary for Timothy and a new film was being made showing him as an adult.
Meanwhile Norwich Union's staff had moved to premises at 19 New Brighton Road, from which they moved in 1982 to this building in North Street overlooking the Brighton Pavilion.
I'll end with this lovely Brighton branch contribution to the General Accident staff magazine from 1964.