Intrigue at the George and Vulture
24 Jul 2018
Posted by: Anna Stone
Subjects: Interesting stories
Two hundred years ago today a meeting took place at the George and Vulture, an inn off Lombard Street in London. The attendees described themselves as "sufferers from insurance effected with the Norwich Union". They discussed their treatment by the London agent and their concerns about how the business was being run, and precipitated a series of events which culminated in the removal of the founder, Thomas Bignold, from the employment of the societies. That meeting, and the events which followed, were a pivotal period in the history of Aviva. It is a tale of competition, corporate intrigue, violence, and abandoned family loyalties; so of course I had to share it with you.
The true facts of the case may never be known, but what survives in the archive is a series of pamphlets, reports and newspaper cuttings giving the points of view of the various individuals and groups involved. I'll try to write a balanced overview of events as they transpired but you'll have to forgive me if I sometimes favour one side over the other; Thomas Bignold, the gentleman in the portrait below, is hard to resist as he sets out to defend himself against "Calumny So Malignant And Premeditated" and I'm afraid I have a sneaking sympathy for him.
It appears that in 1814 Thomas Bignold, founder of Norwich Union, had persuaded the boards of directors (at that date Norwich Union was run as two distinct organisations, one for fire and one for life) to allow him to go to London and attempt to drum up business in the 'metropolis'. According to later reports, the directors agreed to Mr Bignold's request because he was getting a bit above himself as Secretary of the company in Norwich and they thought he would be less of a problem in London. Mr Bignold, no doubt, saw the potential to grow the business in the capital and was probably keen to escape the control of the directors; he is reputed to have taken leave of the board saying:
"I have prospered, it is true, in spite of you, but not because of you."
Whatever the motivation, by 1816 he was established with offices at 38 Bridge Street Blackfriars and a series of agents in Cornhill, Bow, Brentford, Camden Town, Deptford, Greenwich, Highgate, Hoxton, Islington, Kennington Cross, Kentish Town, and Richmond.
Everything seems to have continued in a positive manner until July 1817 when Norwich Union's agent in Ireland, Mr Roose, became engaged in a debate in the newspapers with Michael Murphy, agent for the Royal Exchange, and Henry Moore, agent for the Atlas. Messrs Moore and Murphy attempted to put off potential policyholders by pointing out that the basis on which Norwich Union was established, insurance by mutual guarantee, as well as allowing its members to share in profits, also made them liable for any losses. In July 1818 a Mr Wood from Bristol raised the same issue and engaged in a debate, through a series of published letters, with Mr Savory who was agent in Bristol for Norwich Union.
Then, on 23 July, the "sufferers from insurance effected with the Norwich Union'" met at the George and Vulture. Depending on whose version of events you read, the meeting consisted of around 7 disgruntled customers or "numerous and highly respectable" members of the Society. Mr Alderman Thorp MP, later a Lord Mayor of London, was appointed chairman and a committee was established to investigate the financial strength of the institution and several complaints that the payment of claims was being "vexatiously delayed or litigated". Those attending also questioned the oversight that the Norwich board had over the activities of Mr Bignold "who appears to be the sole person effectively acting in the management of the same."
The attacks made in Ireland and Bristol on the Norwich Union business model and the additional questions raised in London over what we would now call 'claims experience', were a blow to the business and caused, as might be expected, enormous reputational damage. Thomas Bignold, defending himself and the directors, wrote that they had been "held up to the scorn and hatred of the whole nation."
Mr Bignold, and indeed the board of directors in Norwich, felt that the major motivation behind the attacks was the jealousy of their competitors. Norwich Union was a young company, the fire business had only been going 21 years and the life business 10, but it had been experiencing great success. Business was booming, no doubt encouraged by the chance to share in the profits and the regular advertisements, like that below, listing amounts returned to members. In 1810 the fire society had received £22,291 7s 0d in premium income and by 1817 this had more than tripled to £78,839 11s 7d.
Norwich Union was taking business from the more established companies and, as Thomas Bignold wrote in a letter to the directors the day after the George and Vulture meeting, "an attempt is now made not only to charge me with misconduct but by identifying me with the society to effect its downfall".
As had been the case in Ireland, the questions in Bristol over the Society's stability as a mutual guarantee insurer had been raised by a competitor; Mr Wood was local agent in Bristol for Phoenix insurance. In a pamphlet published by Thomas Bignold, deliciously entitled "Exposure of the Unjustifiable Proceedings and Unworthy Motives of Mr Thorpe and Others, Holding the Late Meetings at the George and Vulture Tavern: refuting The Fabricated Reports Which They Have Lately Issued", he suggested that lurking "behind the curtain" of the London complainants was Mr Jenkin Jones, Secretary of the Phoenix.
Thomas Bignold opened his pamphlet with a quote from Shakespeare:
"Who steals my purse steals trash; 'Tis his, 'twas mine, and has been slave to thousands; But he that fliches from me my good name, robs me of that which not enriches him, but makes me poor indeed. "
He then described how agents of the insurance companies were "distributing hand-bills from house to house throughout the Kingdom" with the aim of destroying the reputation of the Norwich Union.
We have an example of one of these handbills in the archive; it cleverly combined the issues raised at the George and Vulture with the concerns about the liability of members for losses, which had been raised earlier in Bristol and Ireland. The pamphlet attacked Thomas Bignold and his son Samuel and suggested that the directors had no real power and were only a front for the Bignold family:
"for it is quite ridiculous to think that the Directors (who are mostly Farmers and Tradesmen) have anything to do with the Concern more than to act as the Automatons of these Private Bankers".
Norwich Union was described as "Neither sound in its principles, liberal in its management, nor safe in its consequences" – damning indeed!
There is nothing on the pamphlet to identify those who produced and distributed it, but a circular from Jenkin Jones of the Phoenix, sent to his agents on 31 July, makes it very clear that even if they had not orchestrated the Geroge and Vulture meeting they were certainly keen to capitalise on events and obliterate the competition.
Mr Jones wrote:
"It gives me much satisfaction at this moment to communicate to you the prospect of at length being rid of the delusive and indecent competition of the Norwich Union Office, which has for some time so much interupted the exertions of the Company's Agents… A committee is now appointed…who are investigating into the impostures and abuses practised by the Norwich Society; and as it is very desirable to assist the object of that Committee, and to bring to light the numerous cases of injustice which have marked its management, I shall be obliged by your exerting your self in urging persons dissatisfied with the treatment they have experienced… to state their cases fully in writing."
In his pamphlet Thomas Bignold went on to suggest that the money supporting the investigations of the George and Vulture Committee, £300 from 3 anonymous benefactors, had been put up by his insurance rivals, and he wrote "so ruinous is the plan of mutual guarantee to these companies that an expenditure of one thousand pounds would be of little movement provided they could succeed in so far misleading the public as to induce them to abandon it."
As far as Mr Bignold was concerned, the meeting at the George and Vulture was part of a campaign waged by mean-spirited established insurance companies protecting their profits against the directors and secretaries of Norwich Union:
"men who were exerting themselves in the cause of Humanity, in projecting every means in their power to save property and life from the ravages of fire and to promote the interest of the life insurer by reserving for the service of the widow and the fatherless, the sum which an insurance company would divide annually amongst themselves as profit".
In the face of the attacks on the company's reputation the 'Farmers and Tradesmen' of the board in Norwich acted quickly. They published their resolutions:
"that it is their principle to pay due and ready attention to the claims made upon them
that the justice and impartiality of their decisions are acknowledged by Committees formed of the most respectable individuals throughout all parts of the country
that they recommend the appointment of a London Committee to inquire into and adjust any claims that might exist in that department."
A meeting to appoint the London Committee was called on 27 July at the York Hotel, which was next-door to their London offices.
The York Hotel meeting was attended by Samuel Bignold, shown below in a portrait from 1852. Samuel, who was a son of Thomas and joint secretary for the Fire Society, assured those attending that the society had nothing to hide and would be "as a house of glass".
Various members attested to the liberality with which claims were usually paid. A Mr Kemble then addressed the meeting on the importance of paying claims promptly and pointed out that the conduct of Norwich Union was at all times highly liberal in the country districts where they insured property to the amount of £40,000 000 and there was not a single outstanding claim. He then drew comparison with the London department which insured only £5,000,000 worth of property but had many claims unsettled, suggesting that "glaring errors of judgement seemed to have crept into their conduct which tended to poison the springs of confidence."
This was the first indication to Thomas Bignold that plans had been put in place by the directors, and his own sons, to deny any link between the rest of the business and his activities in London.
In his pamphlet "Observations on the conduct of the directors of the Norwich Union Fire Association and of the York Hotel Committee with explanations and remarks refuting the charges made in their report against the SECRETARY" Thomas stated that he believed the London Committee, and his sons Thomas jnr and Samuel, were motivated by ambition and greed to remove him and improve their own positions.
He described how he was side-lined from the committee meetings and how the London Committee set out to agree with many of the complaints raised at the George and Vulture meeting and to place the blame for any failings firmly at his door. Rather than join him in denouncing the competition and defending his record of fighting fraudulent claims, they settled with the London claimants and sought only to produce testimonials to support the business outside London. A decision had clearly been taken somewhere that Thomas Bignold had to be sacrificed for the greater good; or perhaps the directors took it as an excellent opportunity to rid themselves of a man who had long been a thorn in their sides.
It can have come as no surprise to Thomas that when the committee met on 25th October to report their findings, although they praised the principles of the institution and the "zeal and attention" of his sons to the interest of the business, they found that "Mr Bignold Senior did not at all times pay that implicit deference to the Norwich Board which the committee felt they were entitled to exact." Their report included letters of praise from across the land, set out fully the benefits of the mutual guarantee model, and demonstrated the financial stability of the organisation. But, it ended with the observation that Thomas Bignold's "immediate retirement from the office of secretary to this Society, is indispensably necessary for its future welfare and prosperity."
The board in Norwich took immediate steps to distance themselves from their founding father. On 3rd October an article appeared in the Times which, according to Thomas Bignold, was "calculated to destroy my reputation, and to wound in the most acute manner, my feelings". Sadly, we don't have a copy of the article in question but other London newspapers that day carried a notice from the directors cutting Thomas Bignold from their business and stating that the activities of the company were no longer being carried out at his 38 Bridge Street Blackfriars address.
Less than a week later, a special general meeting was convened at the Angel Inn, Market-place Norwich at which the directors stated their resolution to remove and dismiss Thomas Bignold from the situation of Secretary to the Society. They explained that his actions in refusing claims had damaged the reputation of the Norwich Union and complained that he had continually taken cases to trial without informing them. In particular, the meeting referred to his trial with the assignees of Samuel Waldegrave which had brought "public odium" on the institution. The board also praised the two younger Bignolds who had been forced to turn against their father in order to do the right thing for Norwich Union, and noted that Samuel Bignold had been physically attacked by his father who had come to Norwich and "attempted by violence to obtain possession of books and papers of the institution".
The attack on Samuel was not the only accusation of violence levelled at Mr Bignold Senior; on 11th October he came before the magistrate, accused of assaulting a Mr Graves and his friend Mr Sherwood, who had come to inspect fire damaged goods with a member of the London Committee. The case was dismissed but it could not have helped his already damaged reputation.
So, Thomas Bignold was sacrificed and Norwich Union was saved to grow into a household name which would last nearly another 200 years.
Had the directors acted differently, the damage to its reputation caused by the treatment of some of the London policyholders and helped along by the whisperings of competitors might have led to its collapse. If Norwich Union had become just another failed provincial insurer, then I, and many others would not be sitting in Norwich today.
As well as putting the London problems down to their maverick secretary and allowing the resurrection of the company's reputation, the report of the London Committee contained many suggestions which improved the running of the societies. It is likely that these, which included regularising the deposit of agents' balances, and appointing official surgeons and scrutinizing agents, may have contributed to Norwich Union's longer-term success. It is also apparent that the events of 1818 encouraged the board to take greater control over the business and run it in a more professional manner than might previously have been the case.
It is tempting to leave the story there, but for the sake of completeness I must add a little more. On 18 December, another meeting was held at the City of London Tavern when the London Committee read their final report. At this meeting it was announced that the directors had decided to withdraw entirely from London and would not be renewing any of the policies of their customers in the metropolis. Into this void stepped one Thomas Bignold and his supporters who resolved, at a meeting held in the same tavern on 31 December, to set up the National Union Fire and Life Society along the same lines as Norwich Union and with money loaned to them by Samuel Bignold.
The National Union Fire and Life Society was duly established in 1819 and, although the sullied name of Thomas Bignold was not mentioned in its advertisements, the company's head office was at his Bridge Street address. Listed as directors of the new concern were a number of men who wrote to Norwich Union later that year to state that they believed "the charges brought against Thomas Bignold were all very frivolous and that Mr Bignold, rather than being blamed should have been entitled to the gratitude of the members".
Sadly for Thomas, the honeymoon period did not last long and by March 1821 he was in court again in dispute with his new directors and accused of keeping the company's books from them. By 1822 the National Union had disappeared, apparently absorbed into the National Fire, another short-lived insurer.