Following the flame: Manchester - matchstick men and...
23 Jun 2012
Posted by: Anna Stone
Subjects: Interesting stories
We can trace our history in Manchester back to 1806 when Norwich Union Fire was represented by James Saunders. By the time the advertisement was issued, in 1809, the society's agent was Samuel Gasquoine.
The company ran a fire brigade in Manchester with an engine house in St Peters Field and spent the huge sum of £2,783 11 shillings and 4 pence covering fire losses in 1820. It seems the firemen needed to be kept under tight control and a set of rules from 1836 includes a series of fines to be extracted from firemen who were drunk on duty or any brigade member "observed throwing water or fire brands over another fire man, or in any manner annoying his comrade while on duty".
By this date Norwich Union Life was also operating in Manchester having appointed John Hughes agent, operating from 2 Cross Street, in 1817. North British was also operating in Manchester, by 1823, and Yorkshire was represented by a solicitor, Mr Timperley, with offices at 16 Princes Street by 1828.
Other group companies operating here by 1836 were Scottish Union , Edinburgh Life whose agent was J F Beevers, and West of England whose agents produced this receipt for Messrs Edgley and Murtee for insurance on twist and utensils in their warehouse on Halfmoon Street in 1834.
Also in existence by this date was one of our oldest Manchester constituent companies, the Sackville Estate Company of Manchester. I have been unable to find out when it was established but it certainly existed by 1830 and eventually became part of Commercial Union.
Other local companies which eventually became part of Aviva included Guardian Plate Glass which was established in the city in 1863.
Most of our larger constituent companies opened branches in Manchester in the 1860s. Edinburgh Life appointed Robert C Howarth their manager there in 1862 and a year later Scottish National opened a Manchester branch. In 1866 Northern Assurance opened a Manchester branch covering Lancashire, Cheshire, Derby and the West Riding of Yorkshire. Their manager James Robb, below, who according to later reminiscences always wore a top hat and frock coat, became well-known in local insurance circles and helped establish the Insurance Institute in Manchester.
By 1872 Mr Robb was operating the Northern branch from 52 Spring Gardens at the corner of King Street,...
...Scottish National was at 110 King Street under George T Cook and North British & Mercantile was operating from Hartford Chambers in St Ann's Square.
By the end of the decade Norwich Union had appointed Charles Naismith as manager, Union Assurance had opened a branch under Joseph E Coates and General Life was operating from this building in Cross Street.
The 1880s saw Commercial Union move into new offices in King Street while Ocean Accident opened a Manchester branch under Walter Dickinson and Norwich Union Fire appointed H Danvers Curnick manager of their branch at 100 King Street.
Curnick, who took charge of a staff of 10 in 1886, had previously worked for another local company, the Mutual Fire Assurance Corporation, whose manager wrote to Norwich expressing his "displeasure" at the company poaching his staff. Mutual Fire, which had been established in 1870, also became part of Aviva and was originally the parent company of another locally based Aviva constituent, Palatine Insurance.
Palatine was established in 1886 and the 1880s also saw the establishment of two more local companies which were to become part of Aviva, Lancashire and Yorkshire Reversionary Interest Company (established 1884) and Manchester and London Accident (established 1888). By the end of the decade another local constituent, Lancashire and Yorkshire Accident , was under the management of a Mr McBride assisted by his son John Corbet McBride.
McBride junior later established yet another local company, Globe Accident Insurance, which was acquired by Commercial Union in 1901. Lancashire and Yorkshire Accident itself also acquired the accident business of two other local companies Manchester and London Fire (established 1878) and the much older Manchester Fire (established 1824).
Manchester certainly seems to have been a popular place with accident insurers with Ocean Accident, Railway Passengers and Scottish Accident all operating there alongside the local companies.
Among the references to local accident claims paid we have examples of injuries at work such as the surgeon who hurt his finger with a bristle while scrubbing up for an operation and the builder injured by falling building materials.
Local leisure-time injuries included a merchant "struck in the eye" with a billiard ball, a solicitor who injured his knee playing golf and a grocer who sprained his right ankle playing with children.
In 1900 Commercial Union acquired the local company Palatine Insurance, although, as this contemporary cartoon suggests, staff were less than convinced that it was a good buy.
The company's Manchester branch moved into the former Palatine head office building at 32 Brown Street which had been built in 1869 as warehousing and office space for merchants Olivio and Startali. Photographs of these offices appeared in the jubilee staff magazine in 1911. P B Sherwood, who started at the branch the following year "fresh faced from school and balancing a bowler hat precariously", remembered the more senior staff with their "pomaded moustaches" sitting at high stools wearing "cuffs and starched shirt fronts and funereal suits". It is a shame none of them were in the photograph of the branch, below.
Also missing from the exterior view of the building, below, is the commissionaire in his claret jacket and gold buttons who sat in a 'box' by the front door ready to receive visitors. According to one story a commissionaire who had been to a local hostelry at lunch returned to his post the worse for wear and ushered local director, Sir Charles Firth, into the manager's office with the introduction "Charles the First to see you sir."
Meanwhile at around the same time in General Accident's offices at 20 Cross Street another young man was taking his place. The artist L S Lowry started at the branch on 4 November 1907 on a salary of £46 16 shillings and had reached the dizzy heights of £52 a year by the time he left in 1910.
By this time the branch had moved to 234 High Street and staff moved again, in 1915, to Lloyds Bank Buildings in King Street where G E Rodwell was appointed manager in 1919.
In 1923 the branch formed a social club whose first event was a tennis tournament and social evening. In the same period their fellow insurers at the Northern Assurance branch also arranged staff outings like the one photographed below in 1922.
By this date Northern's branch was at 1 Albert Square...
...while Norwich Union was at 73 King Street. The photographs below show the building…
...and the staff in 1928.
The company's staff magazine received regular updates and reports from the Manchester branch including reference to a claim under a fire policy made by a lady who ate an orange and threw her false teeth into the fire with the peel. The branch also received a request from an undertaker to cover passenger risks on a hearse, while a claim form for a domestic servants' policy elicited the amusing response "elbow grease" in reply to the question "what is the motive power used on your premises?"
In 1929 General Accident's staff moved to these premises in South King Street.
By this date the company had a staff of 47 in Manchester which was now one of its largest branches with a network of over 1200 agents. In 1935 the branch achieved an outstanding example of living up to their motto "service that excels". They were notified of a motor claim at 8am and had supplied a replacement car by noon the same day, even taking the time to photograph the event.
One of Commercial Union's agents in this period wrote a fond, mock-exasperated, note in response to a reminder from that company's Manchester branch manager Frederick Holden, below, that his account was 5 shillings short: "Dear Holden, you are a very nice gentleman, but a damned nuisance - enclosed is 5 bob. Call and see me next Tuesday as I have some business for you."
The Northern's staff magazines for the 1930s give yet more insights into life in our Manchester branches for example we know that a belisha beacon was erected outside the office in 1934 because the Manchester correspondent reported "Mr Hore-Belisha...has caused to be erected outside our front window a miniature sun. Unaffected by smoke, fog or clouds, our own little sun beams upon us all day!" The same year the poem below was written about the problems of working as an inspector at the branch.
By 1959 Norwich Union had moved from their 73 King Street offices (which they had occupied since 1902) into temporary accommodation at 28 Princes Street while a new building was erected on the site. Staff moved into the completed offices, built at a cost of £180,000, in 1960.
Six years later Commercial Union's staff moved into their new offices at 75 Mosley Street which had been built on the site of the old Union Club, bounded on two sides by Nicholas Street and Back George Street. An article on the new building appeared in the staff magazine which described the manager's room as "quiet and spacious with plenty of unobtrusive cupboard space"!
By 1971 the inhabitant of that office was N Humphries who came up with an "ingenious" idea to keep the audience at a seminar interested in the finer points of the company's new engineering elect insurance policy. He used a life-size model of Raquel Welch and removed an item of clothing as each new point in the policy was revealed.
I'll end with another plea for information but this time about a specific policy taken out with Norwich Union in Manchester in 1927. The policy was unusual because the policyholder paid a one-off premium for cover to last 100 years on a piece of stained glass erected in a local church in memory of his late wife. Unfortunately the staff magazine doesn't tell me the name of the customer or any details about the church, but I would love to know if the window is still in place and the name of the lady it commemorates.