Following the flame: Exeter - 'CUTIE' and the crocodiles
20 May 2012
Posted by: Anna Stone
Subjects: Interesting stories
Aviva's presence in Exeter can be traced back to 1807 with the establishment of the local firm, West of England Fire Insurance Company. The company was established in response to a disastrous fire at Chudleigh in May of that year which destroyed more than two hundred of the three hundred houses in the town.
As well as providing insurance the company also established its own fire brigades and by 1809 its Exeter engine was housed at North Street. The engine, known as "Little West", attended countless local fires including the infamous Exeter Theatre fire of 1887 in which 150 people died.
By 1818 Norwich Union Fire also had an agent and a fire brigade operating in Exeter. Company accounts for the following year show that £25 was spent on renting an engine house. In 1820 the company spent £140 8s and 6d on fire fighting and a further £52 on uniforms for the firemen. The Norwich Union brigade was handed over to the control of the corporation in 1887.
Files on our history in Exeter include references to two staff members who briefly made it into the local newspapers. John Glidden, first secretary of the West of England, was charged in 1810 with defrauding the company of "upwards of £700" (over £500,000 in today's money). Glidden was eventually acquitted and in 1841 another West of England staff member, Nathaniel Bennett, made the papers but this time as a victim of crime.
According to reports, after an evening celebrating the Lamas Fair in a local house of ill repute, he was almost at his home in Colleton Crescent when he fell in with two men who demanded money. He accompanied them to a local ale house and his body was found the following morning at Trews Weir. One of Bennett's attackers turned Queen's evidence in the subsequent trial at which the other, a man named Pitt, was found guilty of murder and sentenced to 15 years transportation.
The archive also contains records for less notorious members of staff such as Thomas Hartnoll who represented Norwich Union in Exeter from 1820 to at least 1860...
...and these members of staff of Commercial Union's Exeter office photographed in 1900 in the garden of the old West of England branch office at 337 High Street following the acquisition of that company in 1894.
In 1928 General Accident's Exeter branch at 259 High Street was given full branch status and the staff listed as serving under manager H J Bush were: N L Richards, A D Pyne, Miss Bonor, L E O Evans, Miss Foot, N G Moore, R Patterson, W Phelon, D Rattue, D J Shearer and Miss Wills. In 1930 the company moved to new offices at 32 Southernhay West where the photographs below were taken.
By 1941, 32 of the General Accident's Exeter branch staff were serving in the forces and those left behind had to deal with the destruction of the offices on 24 June 1942 in the Exeter blitz. This followed a raid on the 4 May which turned Commercial Union's offices at 337 High Street from this ...
In the rebuilding that followed the war Commercial Union moved to new offices at 242 High Street.
In 1954 the branch received a letter from their Barnstaple agent concerning fire insurance to be taken out by a lady who "can be regarded as somewhat eccentric and has two crocodiles known as Percy and Albert who have a full run of the house... Percy is the more expensive of the crocodiles to keep as he smokes cigarettes". Also in 1954 General Accident staff moved to 1 & 2 Northernhay Place where the photograph below was probably taken...
...and in 1956 Norwich Union staff moved into new offices, at Bedford Street.
In 1962 Commercial Union chose Exeter for the establishment of their first computer centre.
The computer, which according to newspaper reports "does the work of about 200 girls", was nick-named CUTIE which stood for Commercial Union Totally Integrated Electronics. It was built for the company by the English Electric Company at a cost of over £250,000.
A contemporary description of the opening ceremony described the unveiling of a modern sculpture in the foyer along with the anecdote that two members of the domestic staff had been overheard discussing the sculpture clearly believing it to be the computer itself!