Following the flame: Plymouth - hockey on the Hoe?
19 May 2012
Posted by: Anna Stone
Subjects: Interesting stories
The earliest archive reference to Aviva companies operating in Plymouth dates back almost 200 years to 1813 at which point W Davie junior and W Courtis were representing the West of England Fire Insurance Company. It is likely that agents for West of England had been operating in Plymouth since the company was established in 1807. By 1818 they had been joined by Norwich Union Life, which was represented by William Welch, and by Norwich Union Fire whose agency accounts for that year record £31 15s 4d spent on fire losses in Plymouth.
Local trade directories indicate that by 1850 three further Aviva group companies, North British, Scottish Union, and Guarantee Society, were operating there and in 1863 Commercial Union appointed H Lindon, ship agent, as their representative. By 1892 the Palatine Insurance Company had established a Plymouth agency under A H Mugford and the same year Railway Passengers Assurance recorded a payment of £41 compensation to a Plymouth accountant injured when a box of gold coins fell on his foot.
By 1906 Norwich Union Fire were operating a branch at 59 High Street under the management of J A Venn and the staff magazine of 1910 records an example of a very small claim, for 2s 6d, put in by a naval officer's wife for fire damage to a child's bib.
In 1928 General Accident's Plymouth office at 17 Whimple Street became a full branch and Ernest J Rundle (who had been awarded an Military Cross (MC) and a Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) in the first world war was appointed first manager. Company records give the branch premium income for that year as £27,003.
In 1932 the General Accident branch relocated to 2 Athenaeum Terrace, a former hotel, for which several photographs exist in the archive collection.
Sadly on the 20 March 1941 the branch received a direct hit from a high explosive bomb and the building collapsed in the centre. The following night the ruins were hit by incendiary bombs which gutted the building and destroyed the contents. The 20 March was also the day Len Griffiths, later fire superintendent at Plymouth, was interviewed for a job with the company and he had to be re-interviewed a few weeks later as the raid had destroyed all the paperwork.
General Accident were not the only Plymouth-based Aviva company to be hit by the air raids, Norwich Union moved out to nearby Brixton after their offices were damaged in the raid of the 20 March and Road Transport and General's office at 24 Bedford Street was destroyed by bombs on the night of the 21 April 1941.
Newspaper cuttings in the archive reveal that while the main branch safe was recovered the following day the petty cash safe only resurfaced during building work for a subway at Royal Parade in 1973 at which point it was found to contain several singed £1 and 10 shilling notes.
In the aftermath of the war Aviva group companies were at the forefront of the rebuilding of Plymouth. When Norwich Union House opened at 2 St Andrew's Cross, overlooking Royal Parade roundabout, in 1951 it was the first of the post-war city-centre office blocks to be opened.
The post war devastation can clearly be seen in this photograph of the new building taken on the same day but from a different angle.
Meanwhile, General Accident had moved out of the city centre retaining only a small office there at 1 Sherwell Arcade. This was reputedly "one room above a bicycle shop" and manned by two members of staff.
When the managing director visited Plymouth in 1956 he condemned the town centre office as "quite unworthy of the status of the organisation" and further wrote that the staff of the main office at "Highfield" Tavistock Road, Hartley "impressed me as being an average lot". It is perhaps just as well that the team, shown below working on the General Accident Stand at a Plymouth agricultural show in 1957, remained ignorant of his opinion.
Following the criticism of their city centre accommodation the 40 General Accident staff moved, in 1957, to 160 Armada Way. In 1970 to complete the merger with their neighbours, Yorkshire Insurance Company, at number 164 Armada Way a hole was knocked in the wall and a set of steps installed to allow movement between the two buildings. Eventually, in 1975, the branch was moved to purpose built accommodation, General Buildings at Loosleigh Roundabout 1 Brest Road. The "Blue Peter" style model produced of this building is shown in the photograph below.
Looking at the surviving Plymouth branch records it is clear that the staff of all our companies enjoyed the social side of office life. Regular notices appear in staff magazines about their exploits in the community such as the appointment of Norwich Union manager Mr Venn as Mayor of Saltash and the success of Miss May Watkins, also of Norwich Union, who was a member of Plymouth Ladies Choir, winners of the Stansfield trophy at Blackpool in 1927. Meanwhile staff at General Accident enjoyed outings such as the one below to Torquay in 1958...
...and established a social club which held regular dinners and dances for staff.
My favourite story, however, concerns the importance of hockey to staff at the Plymouth branch of Employers Liability Assurance in whose magazine of 1955 the following "alleged" interview between Mr Goold, the first district manager (DM) at Plymouth, and a prospective employee appeared:
DM - Can you read?
Applicant - No sir.
DM - Can you write?
Applicant - No sir.
DM - Can you play hockey?
Applicant - Oh yes sir.
DM - Right, then the job is yours.