Kings, cows and Kennedy - stories from over 120 years of motor insurance
31 Mar 2018
Posted by: Anna Stone
Subjects: Interesting stories
Commercial Union, motor proposal cover, 1907
Aviva companies have been providing motor insurance since 1896: on 2nd November 1896 Francis Norie Miller, manager and secretary for the General Accident Assurance Corporation, announced to the board that he was about to issue a specific prospectus for motor cars. The announcement was made less than two weeks before the Locomotives on Highways Act came into force freeing car drivers from the strict rules which had limited their speed to four miles an hour and required them to be preceded along the road by a man carrying a red flag.
Railway Passengers, illustration from booklet, 1901
In the late 1940s there was a brief debate in the insurance press about which company was the first to issue motor insurance cover: Scottish Employers’ Liability and Accident Assurance, Law Accident, National Cycle and Motor Car Insurance and our own General Accident were all named as potential claimants to the title, but sadly none could produce proof of the date they sold their first policy.
Tom and I have also tried to solve the mystery and although we have discovered that National Cycle and Motor Car Insurance didn’t actually issue any motor policies in 1896, we are no nearer to being able to prove that General Accident was any more successful. What we can say is that General Accident was one of the pioneers of motor insurance in the UK and, as far as we can tell, is the only company still operating today, (as Aviva Insurance Ltd), which can claim to have taken part in the earliest days of motor insurance.
Fortunately, there is one motor insurance 'first' we can definitely claim for an Aviva company as it was the Red Cross Indemnity Assurance Company, later part of Commercial Union, which introduced the first motor cover with different premiums depending on the horse power, age and type of vehicle. This new type of policy was introduced in 1906 to replace the early motor policies which up to that date had simply been variations of those already produced for horse drawn vehicles.
The founder of the Red Cross Indemnity Assurance Company, Mr Walter Bersey, was no stranger to innovation: in 1897 he had founded the London Electric Cab Company to run a fleet of electric cabs in the capital. Bersey, who was particularly interested in electrically powered cars, had designed the cabs himself and they were the first in London not pulled by horses. He was also a keen motorist who had taken part in the 'Emancipation Run' on 14 November 1896 and been fined 40 shillings in August that year for driving a car around Parliament Square at over two miles an hour and without the obligatory red flag man.
Another motor pioneer with an Aviva link was Mr Victor James Ashby, General Accident’s agent at Towcester, who claimed to have been the first man to legally drive a motor car without having a red flag in front, having risen at four in the morning to achieve this distinction.
Scottish Accident, illustration from promotional letter, 1907
In the first few years of the twentieth century the early prophesies that motor transport would revolutionize our lives became ever more believable. Cars, which had been described in the newspapers in 1896 as ‘intolerable to those of a nervous disposition,’ ‘abominably’ smelly and with looks that would ‘revolt any properly constituted and artistic mind’, began to prove their worth in terms of speed, reliability and economy.
General Accident, photograph of insured vehicle, 1905
By the end of 1904, 18,055 motor cars had been licensed in Britain and by October 1905 that number had increased to 27,065. With the growth in the number of cars on the road came a corresponding increase in the number of motor accidents between the flashy newcomers and their fellow road users. Some claims, like that received by General Accident for a horse which had died of fright after a car drove past its field, were based on old prejudices against automobiles, but there is also no doubt that scenes like that below, from a Scottish Accident promotional booklet, did become more common.
Scottish Accident, illustration from booklet, 1907
General Accident, which had begun to describe itself as ‘the motor car insurance company’ was quick to cater to the needs of the growing population of motorists; in 1904 the company launched a comprehensive motor policy which covered 'claims by the public, damage to car, fire, explosion or self ignition, burglary or theft, and personal accident to owner or paid driver'. By this date the company had already appointed an Advisory Motor Board attached to the West End branch to promote its motor policies. The advisory board, listed on the poster below, included pioneering motorists such as Colonel Mark Mayhew, a founder member of what later became the RAC, who, according to the motoring Annual and Motorists Year book of 1904 had driven over 50,000 miles and aimed to introduce "mechanical haulage into commerce and war, and the motorcar into private life." If you look carefully you can also spot the name of Mr C S Rolls, who was later to join a Mr H Royce in the production of a well-known make of motor car.
General Accident, motor insurance poster, 1904
By 1909, General Accident was offering motor insurance as far afield as China and the United States, where the company employed stunning glazed advertising signs, like the one below, and insured all the previous winners of several prestigious American motor races.
General Accident, glazed advertisement USA, c1910
Back on home soil the company had attracted the attention of royalty: on 01 May 1908 the Prince of Wales, the future George V, took out the first of many royal motor insurance policies. As you can see, by the time the letter below was written in 1911, the King had 5 cars insured with General Accident.
General Accident, letter re royal motor insurance, 1911
Later that year the company was granted the Royal Warrant as ‘Insurer of Motor Cars to His Majesty the King’ which entitled it to use the Royal Arms on its policy literature and office buildings.
General Accident, Grey Street Newcastle premises with Royal Arms on display, c1930
We still have this version in the archive collection.
General Accident, Royal Arms originally display on office exterior, nd
The Royal Warrant was held under three successive monarchs, until 1941 when the rules were changed and Royal Warrants could only be issued for supplying goods rather than for professional services.
General Accident, Royal Warrant, 1929
Files in the archive collection describe this royal connection as: 'the most important insurance held by the corporation throughout the whole of the world', and include a letter from Clarence House which refers to the sadness that the company is precluded from the grant of a Royal Warrant 'particularly after your many years of helpful service'.
As well as taking pride in its links with royalty, General Accident also encouraged the growth in motor ownership for all, by establishing a subsidiary company, Motor Credit Services, to provide hire purchase facilities and enable payment for cars by instalments.
Motor Credit Services, booklet extract, c1928
General Accident, hire purchase advertisement, 1924
Motor Credit Services was established in 1922 and the new hire purchase service was heavily promoted on General Accident’s trade stand at the Olympia Motor Show the following year.
General Accident, Motor Show trade stand, 1923
Did you spot the poster below in the trade stand photograph?
General Accident, poster, 1925
The 1924 motor show stand, below...
General Accident, Motor Show trade stand, 1924
...featured the 'safe hands' which remained a theme in General Accident's motor advertising for the next four decades and appeared in this poster from the 1930s...
General Accident, poster, 1938
...as well as this showcard from the 1960s.
General Accident, showcard for motor insurance, c1960
In August 1924 the company’s motor business took another leap forward when it joined forces with Morris Motors to provide one year’s free comprehensive insurance with each new Morris car sold. The scheme ran for two years and 83,000 policies were issued.
General Accident, Morris policy extract, 1925
From a claims perspective this was not an entirely successful venture as the company had to cover every car regardless of the driving experience and history of the new owners; indeed, a member of staff later recalled that the Birmingham branch once received 75 claims from Morris policyholders in just one morning.
By the time it ended, two years later, the Morris scheme was estimated to have cost General Accident over £285,000, but it did firmly establish the company in the minds of motorists and probably put it in a strong position in 1931, when motor insurance became compulsory with the introduction of the Road Traffic Act.
General Accident, road traffic act booklet, 1930
The act introduced mandatory insurance for the first time and required all motorists to have third party cover at the very least. As a result, the number of motor policyholders grew almost overnight with General Accident alone issuing 50,208 more policies in 1931 than it had issued the previous year. As well as providing cover for the previously uninsured, the insurance companies also had to issue new insurance certificates for all existing policies and many staff at Norwich Union were plucked from other areas and set to work overtime in the Motor Department to meet the deadline. General Accident had six weeks to provide new certificates for over 47,000 existing policyholders and from mid-November 1930 about three hundred members of staff, a large proportion of the total head office employees, spent several hours each evening preparing the certificates.
By 1936 the General Accident's staff magazine proudly reported that it now had 'the largest motor insurance business in the world, the second largest being the Travelers of New York with a few hundred thousand less than our last year’s motor premium income of £5,207,870.'
To grow a business to such a size in the 40 years since the advent of motor insurance General Accident, like other Aviva companies, relied on attractive advertising. The archive contains a huge number of posters and press ads for motor insurance and I've included a few examples below (because I can't think of any other way to squeeze them in to this blog).
General Accident, poster for Philadelphia, 1920
Union, poster, c1920
I love the strapline 'a good office for a good car' in this Norwich Union press ad from 1935 and the illustration in the one below from 1947.
Norwich Union, press advertisement, 1935
Norwich Union, press advertisement, 1946
This one, from Commercial Union in 1986, I am less sure about.
Commercial Union, press advertisement, 1986
One of our companies, Ocean Accident, even took to promoting its motor policies in lights, as is shown in the photograph below from 1925.
Ocean Accident, motor advertisement Farnham Place, 1925
To complement their advertising material our companies also produced a wide range of motor proposals, often with attractive covers featuring images of the vehicles to be insured. As well as specific proposals for private cars...
Yorkshire Insurance, private motor proposal cover, 1952
...and commercial vehicles...
Commercial Union, commercial vehicle proposal cover, 1915
...many companies produced individual proposals for different makes of car such as Ford, Daimler, Bentley, Chevrolet, or the less well-known Castle-three.
Scottish Insurance, castle three proposal cover, 1921
Looking through proposals over the years you can see Aviva companies responding to the changing needs of their customers; for example, by offering a no claims bonus, which first appeared in General Accident’s motor proposals in 1909. Similarly, early policies only covered accidents to the owner and any paid driver but from 1912 General Accident began to offer accident cover for passengers as well, for an additional premium based on the number of seats in the vehicle.
Cover of car accessories also developed over time with early proposals only covering damage to lamps (headlights) if there was also damage to the rest of the car, a stipulation which was removed by General Accident in 1914. From 1916 Commercial Union’s policies covered luggage, rugs and coats in cars and from 1935 General Accident’s policies extended this cover to include medical or surgical instruments, presumably responding to the needs of the growing number of doctors using cars to make their house calls.
1935 also saw the introduction of cover for ‘wirelesses attached to vehicles’; initially the cover was available for a small additional premium, but by 1939 insurance of car radios had become part of General Accident's standard motor cover. There are even early examples of multi car insurance; in 1910 Commercial Union offered a 20% discount to people insuring two cars, although this was reduced to 10% if both vehicles were to be driven at the same time.
Our companies also offered their motor customers other useful benefits which might come as a surprise: in 1906 the International Motor Insurance Company’s policies entitled their customers to annual examinations of their vehicles to ensure they were safe to drive, 54 years before the Ministry of Transport introduced MOTs to make such basic safety checks compulsory for all vehicles on the road.
International, private motor proposal cover, 1906
As well as allowing us to trace the development of cars and their uses, motor proposals also show how the information required about the policyholder changed over time. Early proposal forms asked only for name, address and occupation and it wasn't until 1929 that the insurance companies requested information on the age of the person requiring cover and how long they had held a licence. Given current concerns about customer data privacy it is interesting to read this letter from a motor policyholder, received by General Accident in 1937:
May I thank you for so charmingly (through your resident secretary) making enquiries about my age? But it makes me quite bashful! Just between you and myself, I was born some time after the battle of Waterloo. Isn’t it funny that I have insured my car with you for over 15 years and you are only now taking a personal interest in my welfare?
If you would like to know a few more personal details for your books, I do not mind letting you know that I do not like
(b) most modern Novelists,
(c) coloured finger-nails,
(d) the Northcliffe and Rothermere Press,
(e) Insurance Companies who make impertinent enquiries.
Any further enquiries will be gladly answered. Yours very truly….
Just as today, a key part of the success of the fledgling motor insurance business was in its claims process, and several of our companies produced booklets with testimonials from their customers about the service they had received following claims.
General Accident, cartoon re motor insurance service, 1954
Many of these letters are along the same lines as this one received by Scottish Accident in 1907:
Bolton. 17th December 1907.
Dear Sir, – I beg to enclose form of discharge signed and witnessed and to thank you for the prompt and business-like manner in which you have dealt with my claim. – Believe me, yours very truly."
"P.S. – I shall have great pleasure in testifying to the above to any person on the lookout for a good Company to insure with.
General Accident, cartoon re motor claim, 1931
In September 1906, General Accident, which prided itself on its motto, 'Service that Excels', received this glowing review in the motoring magazine Autocar:
My experience for promptness of payment of claim will take some beating. I was recently the victim of a rather bad accident. My claim was sent into the insurance company on Tuesday of last week, and the following Thursday – two days after – I received a cheque for the full amount of the claim. The insurance company referred to is the General Accident Fire and Life Assurance Corporation Ltd.
Other examples of excellent service were recorded in the company’s staff magazine, such as a report from Nottingham branch in 1931 that they had replaced a van belonging to a local fishmonger only an hour after receiving notice that it had been destroyed by fire. In 1935 the Manchester branch even produced photographic evidence of another speedy motor replacement; the car attached to the tow truck in the photograph below was burnt out at 8am and had been replaced with a new vehicle (the one on the left) by 12 noon the same day.
General Accident, photograph of fast claim service, January 1935
Presumably the owner of the car in question had visited his branch straight away, which might have been a better course of action for the motorist who opted instead to send the drawing below to General Accident’s Keynsham agent in 1959.
General Accident, motor claim notice, 1959
Once an insurance company had been informed of a motor accident they required the policyholder to complete a claim form. Typically, these forms recorded the details of the assured, the date, location and circumstances of the accident, and the details of any third party or witnesses. A key part of the form was a sketch of the scene of the accident showing the road layout, position of those involved, and direction of travel. The sketch might then be written up in the office using stamps from sets like the Simplex Accident Reporter, which produced a plan view of a selection of road users from omnibuses to motorcycles and sidecars.
Commercial Union, Simplex Accident Reporter, c1925
Despite the range of vehicles available in the Simplex set, some motoring mishaps would have been beyond its capabilities, such as these sketches of a broken windscreen...
General Accident, motor claim form extract, 1964
...and an encounter with cows, which appeared in claim forms received by General Accident in the early 1960s.
General Accident, motor claim form extract, 1964
I also really like this one for a stolen car...
General Accident, claim form extract, 1962
...and I wish we had the form from a claim made in 1965 for a car damaged when a lorry load of turnips rolled down a hill, or for this claim reported in the staff magazine in 1934:
the van was stationary at the side of the road with the driver in the seat, waiting for a circus to pass by. Greatly to his consternation one of the elephants put its trunk through the window, discovered the driver's lunch and ate this, and then finished it off with a loaf of bread. Unfortunately, an elephant is a tight fit in a Morris Minor Van, and the result was a broken Triplex window panel. Mr S - wrote to the owner of the elephant to hold him responsible for the beast's antics, and the enclosed letter has been received. He did not complete a claim form as most of the questions don't seem to fit, but he is quite sure that the elephant did not sound his horn.
I'll end with a few of our famous motor policyholders.
General Accident, proposal for George VI, 1939
As well as insuring royalty, General Accident also provided motor cover for racing driver Jim Clark in the 1960s while he was World Motor Racing Champion. In addition, the company insured the future British Prime Minister Anthony Eden in 1947 and two US Presidents, Kennedy and Eisenhower, in the 1960s.
General Accident, motor policy President Kennedy, 1963
Scottish General insured the cars of the actor Peter Sellers, famous for the radio series The Goon Show and his portrayal of the hapless Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther films. Staying with film stars, our motor policies have covered vehicles as diverse as the magical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang...
Norwich Union, staff magazine extract, 1987
...and an Aston Martin, originally driven by Sean Connery as James Bond in the film Goldfinger.
Commercial Union, staff magazine extract re Bond car insurance, 1971
In 1969 General Accident even provided insurance for the vehicles of the Loch Ness Investigation Bureau while they were hunting the elusive Loch Ness Monster.
General Accident, cartoon of Loch Ness monster, c1970