Here comes the Sun!
18 Apr 2016
Posted by: Anna Stone
Subjects: Company acquisitions
Sadly, this is not a blog about a barbeque summer ahead but an update on what is happening in the Group Archive with the arrival of the Sun Life archive collection.
Sun Life, Leaflet advertising life assurance (c1937)
Two weeks ago I started work in the basement of the Aviva Centre, our offices in Bristol and former headquarters of Sun Life, taking the collection off the shelves...
Sun Life archives in situ at Bristol
... and packing it into crates...
Crates awaiting collection
... 87 of them.
Just over a week ago the crates arrived in Norwich and were unpacked in what is normally a meeting room in Surrey House, ready to be sorted!. This is what the room looked like when we had finished unpacking:
On first arrival - unpacking
The sorting out is a bit like trying to do an enormous jigsaw puzzle with no box so you can't see the picture you are trying to produce. To make it harder you can be pretty much certain that a number of the pieces (probably useful ones like corners or edges) will be missing.
You have to get to know the new company; its structure, how it worked, what material has survived (and what hasn't), and it can be a steep learning curve. You also have to find out which other companies it took over or established, where it had its branches, and who its decision makers were.
Sun Life, Newcastle branch (1913)
You also have to tune yourself into that company's terminology: for instance, what most of our existing companies called proposals Sun Life called 'prospectuses'; their head office was known as 'Chief Office' or CO, and I've discovered that what another company might have called a staff manual was instead called 'Instructions for Procedures', later abbreviated to 'I for P' (which was a bit cryptic until I worked it out).
Like all our constituent companies, the Sun Life collection has its own particular strengths and weaknesses. Most archives grow organically and what they contain often reflects the different circumstances of their company's history. For example, General Accident, whose head office was based in Perth and moved only twice in its 100 year plus history, has a fairly comprehensive archive including numerous photographs of staff and advertising ephemera. Here's a nice example:
General Accident, Poster (c1989)
Norwich Union also benefited from a stable head office location in a provincial city and its collection includes a vast number of insurance business records such as proposal books, policy registers and reference letters. Commercial Union, on the other hand, was based in London where storage space was expensive and although its collection has a good core of corporate records like board minutes it is lacking when it comes to the visually attractive advertising items such as posters. There were some avid cartoonists amongst the staff however.
Commercial Union, Cartoon from staff magazine (1910)
In the Sun Life collection there seems to be particularly good material relating to marketing and staff training, but very few insurance records, such as policy registers, because almost all were destroyed in the bombing during the Second World War. Unrelated, but illustrative of wartime perils:
Northern Assurance Company, Wartime cartoon from staff magazine (1939)
Also missing from the company's archive collection are the corporate records which usually give us so much information on why a company made the decisions which shaped its progress. We know that the minutes, which date back to 1810, were stored in the company's offices at 107 Cheapside in 1994. Despite the valiant efforts of Sun Life Pensioners and numerous enquiries on my part, however, we are yet to track these down.
The search continues
Another of the frustrations of dealing with any archive collection is that you don't have the same level of knowledge as the people who were originally using the records – they knew which branch a book belonged to (or which company for that matter) because they were working there. However, decades later, after numerous amalgamations and moves, the context of a document is lost and the poor archivist is left struggling to guess which agency completed a series of proposal books or when a particular leaflet was produced.
If I had a time machine I'd go back and make people put the date (and ideally the company name) on everything they produced!
At the moment I'm trying to work out how the Sun Life archive material fits together and where the gaps are. Ideally we want to recreate the original order: the way the volumes or files were arranged when they were in use by the people who created them. Sometimes this is easy, as with series of policy registers which are numbered sequentially, and sometimes it is much harder. I've had a lot of trouble with the New Business Completed books (image below) which came from individual Sun Life branches but had all been stored together in the basement in Bristol and had become mixed up over time. The name of the branch rarely appears in the books so I've had to work out which books go together using the date ranges in each volume and trying to trace names of agents. There are still a small number of books which all go together but where I have not yet been able to identify the branch.
New Business Completed volumes
Despite the frustrations of missing and mixed up records, taking in a new archive collection is a really exciting event for an archivist (we don't get out much). Although it is hard and dirty work it promises the thrill of new discovery because you never know what you are going to find when you open the boxes and brown paper packages.
Work in progress
The Sun Life collection includes a really interesting series of books completed by the company's medical officers giving their comments on the suitability of the proposed lives for insurance. The books run from 1854 to 1920 (with the odd gap) and they show the increasing sophistication of life insurance as the doctors' notes developed from comments on the complexion and size of the proposers to more scientific details such as height and weight and blood glucose levels. They are a fascinating series of records and I don't have anything similar for any of the other life companies in the group.
The collection also includes some really attractive advertising material such as the examples below.
Sun Life, Leaflet advertising Protector life assurance policy (c1939)
Sun Life, House purchase scheme booklet cover (c1951)
On Friday I was cataloguing one volume from the collection and scanning the list of occupations held by prospective policyholders in 1852. They included:
... accountant, and...
(Queen Victoria to be precise).
The same volume included several of Victoria's children, a member of the Courage brewing dynasty, a founder of the luxury goods company Asprey, and the unfortunate wife of a Dr Palmer (later known as the Rugeley poisoner), who died suspiciously soon after he insured her life.
Extract from the Illustrated Times (1856)
Once the material has been organised and catalogued it can be wrapped or boxed and moved to the archive...
Wrapped volumes ready to be put away
... where I can use it to answer questions from within the business or from academics and family historians.
It feels as though there is still a long way to go, at the moment the room looks like this...
... but in the meantime I'd like to say thank you to everyone who was so helpful to me in Bristol and to apologise to those people in Norwich who are missing using the big meeting room (at least you know what I'm doing in there now).
I'd also like to make a plea to anyone who might know what happened to the Sun Life board minute books (or is still in contact with former colleagues who might be able to help); if you have any thoughts on where they might be then please let me know as I would dearly like to find them.
Sun Life, Logo (1890)