Following the flame: Norwich - top hats, bowler hats, burning hats
04 Jul 2012
Posted by: Anna Stone
Subjects: Interesting stories
I have been dreading the Olympic flame getting to Norwich. A search for "Norwich" on our archive database produces nearly 8,000 hits and this does not include the treasure trove of photographs, drawings and news items collected in over 100 years of the Norwich Union staff magazine.
The city is inextricably linked in our history with that of Norwich Union, which, as the float above says, carried the name Norwich, and the image of its cathedral, all over the world.
It comes as a bit of a surprise then that Aviva's earliest appearance in Norwich was not the foundation of Norwich Union but of Norwich General which was established by Thomas Bignold in 1792.
In 1821 the two fire companies were reorganised to form a new company which kept the Norwich Union name but took on the Norwich General's superior organisational structure.
The success of Mr Bignold's life and fire offices clearly inspired other Norwich men to establish insurance companies, a large number of which are now part of Aviva. The next of our Norwich constituents to be formed chronologically was the Norwich Equitable which was established in 1829 to offer fire insurance.
This was followed in 1843 by General Hailstorm which was established in response to the great Norfolk hailstorm of August that year which caused widespread destruction of crops in East Anglia. The destruction caused by hail is made evident in this advertisement produced by one of the company's agents in 1859.
Sticking with the agricultural theme the next Norwich-based Aviva company to be established was Norfolk Farmers' Cattle Insurance Society. This company was set up in 1849 to insure livestock and eventually became part of Commercial Union although interestingly enough the copy of its Deed of Settlement reproduced below was found in Norwich Union's records.
In 1856 the Gilman family, this time Charles Rackham Gilman, established an accident insurer known as the Norwich and London Accident Insurance Association . Among the lists of claims paid by the company we find a draper scratched in the eye by a baby, a publican injured opening a bottle of lemonade and a corn merchant who slipped getting out of the bath. By 1861 the company was operating from offices in St Giles which feature on this promotional calendar from 1886.
St Giles remained the home of the accident branch for Norwich Union after that company's acquisition of Norwich and London Accident in 1909. By this date our two final Norwich constituents had been established: Norwich and District Master Builders, which was later part of General Accident, and Norwich Mutual Plate Glass, which was acquired by Norwich Union Fire in 1955.
Also by 1909 Norwich Union Life had moved from this office, next door to the Fire Society at Bignold House...
...into new premises across the road in Surrey House.
This series of cartoons by an unidentified artist on the staff shows the move across the street.
Also by this date General Accident had opened a Norwich Branch from whose office windows staff had an excellent view of the procession in 1909 marking the first visit of a reigning monarch to the city since Charles II in 1671. The postcard below shows the decorations put up by Norwich Union in Surrey Street for the occasion.
Two years later, in 1911, when these photographs were taken for Commercial Union's staff magazine, that company's office was at Prince of Wales Road under the management of Sir Kenneth H Kemp who had been appointed in 1889.
It is tempting to imagine that the staff at these various offices would have met regularly on the football pitch or cricket ground and there is certainly much evidence of Norwich Union's sporting prowess in the archive. This photograph of the 1886 office cricket team (complete with top hats) is one of my favourites...
...and this football team of the 1890s which features John Nix Pentelow who left the office to pursue a literary career. He became a noted authority on cricket but was probably better known as a war time editor of the boys' comic Magnet which featured the first stories of Billy Bunter and chums at Greyfriars. For any fans out there he is particularly remembered for writing a story in which "Courtney of the sixth form" was killed off.
The bowler hat worn by Mr Rudd in the photograph reminds me of the recollections of Walter Gemmer who had started with the company in 1889. He wrote in the staff magazine of 1943 about the closest he had come to seeing someone fired: "A man became so unruly that George Oliver Clark ordered him out of the office and kicked his bowler hat after him saying 'stay away until we send for you'."
Walter Gemmer was certainly a character; he established what he called a "string band" which grew into the office orchestral society and he is featured at the front of this photograph of the musicians from 1902.
You might also be able to spot him in this office cartoon produced 30 years later.
Gemmer's reminiscences also cover the arrival of ladies to the fire office in 1906. He recalls that they were put in a separate room and only allowed contact with the male staff through a specially appointed go-between. His colleague, Geoffrey Hart, also wrote about their arrival in the staff magazine of 1938.
This state of affairs can't have lasted long because the staff magazine proudly recorded the first all-head-office wedding in 1911. By 1927 the lady staff had organised their own cricket side...
...and this photograph of 1931 shows their involvement in the, extremely successful, Norwich Union Rowing Club.
At this date Commercial Union was still at based on Prince of Wales Road and General Accident had moved into this building in Surrey Street in the heart of Norwich Union's territory.
In 1931 the General Accident branch would have would have proudly displayed the Royal Warrant over the door but the company's neighbours, Norwich Union, scored a royal coup of their own in 1947 when the Fire and Life head offices were visited by Queen Mary.
When their visitor's son was crowned King George VI in 1937 the company produced the advertisement below which is just one from many hundreds of examples of Norwich Union advertising and promotional material in the archive collection.
Among my other current favourites are the calendars featuring the cathedral...
...this motor boat insurance poster from the 1950s...
...and this press advertisement supporting the Olympic team in 1976.
I also really like this chess advertisement from 1939 which caused much discussion in the pages of the staff magazine as members of the head office chess club worked out whether moving to the "Norwich Union" square was really the only safe move!
I'll finish with a chess (and hat) related claim put in to the company in 1927.