Following the flame: Westminster - 316 years of history and a gold medal winning Olympic athlete
26 Jul 2012
Posted by: Anna Stone
Subjects: Interesting stories
Today the Olympic flame reaches Westminster where we can trace our history back to 1696 and the foundation of the Hand-in-Hand.
The company's original deed states that members have "agreed to become Contributors for the Insurance of Houses, Chambers, or Rooms Within the Cities of London and Westminster". Our very first policy was taken out by James Gilbert on property in St James Street, Covent Garden.
A decade later Amicable Society started operations from an office in Fleet Street. Sadly the early policy registers don't record addresses so it is not possible to say when the first policy in Westminster was written but it is likely to have been fairly early in the company's history.
In 1714 Union Assurance was established and would, like Hand-in-Hand, with which it worked closely, have been operating in Westminster from its foundation. The print below, by Hogarth, dates from 1862 and features a Union fire engine in the centre.
Our first reference of the nineteenth century comes courtesy of Norwich Union which produced this press advertisement advising that the office for the "metropolis" was at 16 Waterloo Place, Pall Mall.
The following decades saw numerous other Aviva companies opening branches in the West End to compliment their city-based head offices. By 1863 North British and Mercantile had a West End branch at 8 Waterloo Place while 1874 saw Commercial Union at 17 Charles Street under agent George A Addison, and Railway Passengers at 10 Regent Street.
Sadly that company's lists of claims paid do not specify different areas of London but the claims listed for the capital as a whole seem predominantly to feature accidents caused by animals or happening to those pursuing a career on the stage. Animal accidents include bites from fish and parrots and falls off donkeys and over dogs, while injuries to performers mostly relate to falls on or off the stage and include a comedian injured "leaping from rocks on to stage." My favourite London claim comes from the list for 1900 and I've included the relevant extract below.
In 1879 Commercial Union opened a West End branch at 49 Pall Mall and appointed Major C Hughes Hallett as first manager. Two years later more permanent offices were taken at 8 Pall Mall on a 21 year lease with rent set at £450 a year. That year Mr Hallett was replaced by Mr William Morris who was himself replaced five years later by the Honourable Frederic William Anson.
Union also had a branch at Baker Street which had been established in 1876 with the appointment of Oswald Whiting. The story of the branch establishment and the upset caused by the re-distribution of staff from the 81 Cornhill head office was vividly recorded in song for the annual staff dinners.
More West End branches opened throughout the decade with Scottish Union and National at 6 Pall Mall, Norwich and London Accident at 13 Waterloo Place and Ocean Accident at 11 Pall Mall. In 1898 Yorkshire Insurance opened a West End branch which issued its first policy on the life of Edgar George Gubbins who, by 1902, was resident secretary at the branch based in Commercial Union's old offices at 49 Pall Mall.
The General Accident records also include a wonderful set of photographs of staff inside the branch at around the same period. I particularly like this one of the man in the top hat and would love to hear from anyone who can identify him or any of the other Pall Mall staff featured.
It was this branch which handled the insurance of the Royal Family, a connection which lead to the award of the Royal Warrant to the company as “Insurer of Motor Cars to His Majesty the King”. The letter below was received by branch manager Mr Pollard, with the Royal Warrant itself, in 1911.
By this date Norwich Union's West End branch had moved into this imposing building on the corner of Piccadilly and St James. Officially opened in 1908 it was described in the staff magazine as "one of the most important sites in the West End of London" and "one of the handsomest (buildings) in the district being faced with jasper and heliotrope, a unique form of embellishment, supplemented with bronze statuary of imposing and chaste design".
By 1910 Norwich Union's former premises at 7 Waterloo Place had been taken by North British and Mercantile and the following year General Accident moved its main London office to Westminster taking up residence at General Buildings 99 Aldwych.
Another Westminster-based head office, as opposed to West End branch, was Hamilton House on Victoria Embankment which was first occupied by Employers' Liability in 1901. The photograph of the building, below, appeared in a company history booklet in 1930.
The company's West End branch was based at 15 St James Square and the photograph below shows the frontage of the building which had been reconstructed following damage in the blitz.
Another company with a head office in Westminster was Road Transport and General which moved in 1931 from these offices at 20 Victoria Street...
...to these splendid new premises at 3 Grosvenor Place, Hyde Park Corner.
Contemporary newspaper reports of the move concluded that "for the first time in the history of the great City of London, business enterprise has penetrated one of the most exclusive and fashionable parts of the West End." The photograph below shows the view from the new office window.
In 1959 Commercial Union's West End branch moved into prestigious premises at 82 Pall Mall. The new building, Schomberg House, had had an interesting history and was itself insured by Hand-in-Hand in 1707. Among its famous residents was the artist Thomas Gainsborough and the notorious quack Dr Graham. Graham ran an illegal gambling den there and at one point renamed the house the "Temple of Health and Hymen" where, for a fee, couples could rent out a "celestial" bed for the procreation of perfect children.
On the staff at this date was long distance walker Don Thompson who had represented Great Britain in the Melbourne Olympic Games of 1956.
In 1959, when staff moved into Schomberg House, Thompson was already busy preparing for the 1960 Olympic Games practising walking up and down in his bathroom where he recreated the humid conditions he was expecting in Rome. Preparations paid off and Thompson, who was nicknamed “il topolino” or “mighty mouse” by the Italian press, won gold in the 50 kilometre walk. His was the only athletics medal for Great Britain in the 1960 games and he was only the second British man to win an Olympic medal for athletics since the Second World War.
Thompson, photographed below trying a different athletic discipline at one of the company sports days, used to start his training at 4am so that he could be in the office on time for the working day.
I'll end with the drawing below which was received by staff at Schomberg House in 1971 from a lady who had been involved in an accident on a West End Street - it is worth reading for all the detail included about damage to glasses and loss of birthday cards!