Following the flame: Edinburgh - literary links and golf links
13 Jun 2012
Posted by: Anna Stone
Subjects: Interesting stories
No less than 16 Aviva companies were established in Edinburgh!
Many of these were small and short lived such as Scottish Masonic (1831-1848), Scottish Freemasons (1844-1846), United Deposit Assurance (1845-1853) and Accident Insurance Association of Scotland (1877-1879). Of slightly longer duration we have Hercules Fire (1809-1845) and Scottish National Key Registry which was established at 30 St Andrew Square in 1885 as the Scottish Lost Key Recovery Association.
The following year another Edinburgh constituent, Scottish Metropolitan, was established at 25 St Andrew Square by Mr William Gibson Bloxsom.
Mr Bloxsom was an avid golfer who once played 12 rounds on the Royal Aberdeen Golf Club links in one day covering 32 miles as he completed the 180 holes. Incidentally, 40 years later Norwich Union's staff magazine ran a feature on another golfer, Edinburgh manager William Breck Torrance, who represented Great Britain in the Walker Cup in 1922.
Our oldest major Edinburgh company is North British Fire Office which was established on 11 November 1809 in rented offices at Parliament Close.
This company is also our Edinburgh constituent with the longest independent existence, clocking up 150 years prior to its acquisition by Commercial Union in 1959.
By 1823 the company had moved to offices at 429 High Street under the management of Sutherland Mackenzie and this year also saw the establishment of another Edinburgh constituent, the Edinburgh Life Assurance Company . Founded by James Thomas Murray this company opened with offices at 24 George Street...
...and company accounts show that £122 11d 6d was spent on office furnishings and £661 5s on salaries in the first year of business.
Expensive taste seems to have been a feature of the establishment and the archive contains detailed information on sumptuous annual "festive boards" they held. The dinner in 1875, for only 29 gentlemen, cost £84 18s 6d (the equivalent of £6,240 today). The occasions were undoubtedly well lubricated as you can see from the number of toasts, below.
Along with the food and drink there was entertainment provided and members of the board took turns to write and perform songs for the occasion such as this from 1877.
The records don't reveal whether the company's most famous director, the novelist Sir Walter Scott, attended such gatherings but Edinburgh Life was very proud of the Scott link. His portrait appeared on company posters...
...and promotional leaflets even three-quarters of a century later quoted entries from his diary referring to attendance at their board meetings.
Scott also took out a life policy with the company which, along with the proposal, below, is still in the archive.
Edinburgh Life was not our only Edinburgh constituent to proudly record its links with the great novelist. Scottish Union, established a year later in 1824, regularly promoted the fact that Scott had been their first governor. The company also insured his home, Abbotsford, and paid out on a claim he made for a fire there in 1827.
In 1841 a company destined to merge with Scottish Union was established in Edinburgh under the name National of Scotland Fire and Life. Its name later changed to Scottish National...
...and put the “National” into Scottish Union and National which operated independently until its acquisition by Norwich Union in 1959.
The last of our major Edinburgh constituents to be established was Scottish Insurance Corporation which was founded in 1877 as Scottish Accident . This company has left a legacy of beautiful scrap books in which they kept examples of the fabulous and innovative promotional material they produced including this headed notepaper showing their offices at 115 George Street.
The company also sent out annual lists of claims paid to act as an incentive to those thinking of taking out accident insurance. In retrospect many of the claims seem trivial and often make me smile. Among my favourite local claims are a civil engineer injured playing football, a surgeon who claimed £37 for a fall on ice which broke his arm, and no less than three men injured "while dancing".
Naturally, the local companies were not the only ones operating in Edinburgh. Norwich Union had an agency at 200 High Street under Francis Bridges by 1815 and by 1829 Yorkshire was operating there under Peter Watt at 14 Leopold Place and West of England was represented by Francis Cameron.
The Aberdeen-based Northern Assurance had a branch at 20 St Andrew Square by 1846 from where it was still operating more than 60 years later. The building gives our Edinburgh history another literary link as it had previously been occupied by James Boswell, author of the Life of Samuel Johnson.
Meanwhile General Accident appeared in the city in 1887 at 10 St Andrew Square and leased offices at 37 Hanover Square in 1891.
The early 20th century saw our companies rushing to build new and impressive offices in Edinburgh. First to take the plunge was North British (now merged to form North British and Mercantile) which commissioned new offices on its original site at 64 Princes Street.
The company caused a slight headache for the architect, J M Dick-Pedie, by insisting that work take place in two phases so staff could continue to occupy one part of the site until the first half of the new building was ready. Work started in 1903 and part one was completed in 1905. One contemporary description marvelled at the use of luxifer glass windows in the basement making it "so light that on a bright day print can be read at a distance of about 100ft".
Other modern conveniences included electric light, a telephone, and lamson tubes used to transmit documents between departments.
Mr Dick-Pedie was again in demand in 1907 when Edinburgh Assurance put up new premises on a site at 26-28 George Street and 53 Hanover Street. The resulting domed masterpiece...
...was topped with a female bronze by Percy Portsmouth representing “Prudence”. The usually profligate company was uncharacteristically frugal in panelling the new board room with Utrecht Velvet which had hung in the old boardroom for nearly 25 years.
By this date Norwich Union was also operating from George Street, at No 47, and in 1913 General Accident moved to No 2 which was described as "more in keeping with the reputation of the 'General'". In 1929 they moved again in the same street to No 134 under manager J Graham Watt.
The staff magazine described the new premises as a "triumph in office designing and equipment." As is sadly not at all evident from the photograph below, the office boasted a "handsome window ornamented with the royal warrant " and wall decorations "executed in new stipling paint " which gave a "pleasing marled effect"!
At the opening ceremony it was remarked that George Street and its two associated squares (St Andrew and Charlotte) housed over 50 insurance offices at that time. Amongst these were Norwich Union's enlarged premises at 49 George Street...
...and Northern Assurance's new premises at 17 Charlotte Square. This building gives us yet another literary link having been the setting for Sheriff Lyell's novel The House in Queen Anne Square.
Still more office moves took place towards the end of the century when Norwich Union built new premises at 32-34 St Andrew Square...
...next door to Scottish Union's former premises at No 35, which they had occupied since 1878.
Finally, in 1984 General Accident's 100 staff moved in to 1-8 Atholl Crescent, the former College of Domestic Science which had been purchased in 1980. The photograph below shows the refurbished interior reception area.
Before I finish I must just mention a couple of sporting links with other places on the route today. General Accident's Kinross agency insured world motor racing champion Jim Clark in the 1960s and the company's assistant inspector at Dunfermline, Robert S McLaren, was capped 11 times for cricket in the 1940s. Incidentally the visits of General Accident's general manager to Edinburgh branch in the 1940s seem to regularly coincide with internationals of a different sport, taking place at Murrayfield - one might almost suspect it was planned!