Stories from the archive solar system - black sheep and unsung heroes
27 Apr 2016
This is the second in a trilogy of blogs highlighting our new interactive displays, the 'Solar System' and 'Archive Mirror', recently unveiled at our headquarters in London.
Aviva Solar System and Archive Mirror at St Helen's
It is also a chance for me to share some of the stories I've uncovered while working on the project, starting with our less illustrious ancestors.
Amongst the historic companies which make up Aviva, as in every family tree, there are some black sheep. I came across a number of these companies during my research – such as the short-lived General Live Stock Insurance Company which, according to the Insurance Cyclopaedia, carried on a 'considerable amount of business' before passing into 'disastrous liquidation'.
General Live Stock, Press advertisement (1855)
Another ancestor to be less than proud of was the Public Life Assurance Company which had the dubious claim to fame of turning life assurance into a game of chance. According to its prospectus, making life assurance more like a game would appeal to the public and make people more likely to insure! The scheme worked like a lottery: for 1 guinea (21 shillings) a person entered a class of insurance which was closed once it reached 500 members. The beneficiaries of the first person to die in the class received £125 of consols (government bonds) and the lucky person with the next number in the list immediately received £250 of consols. The other members of the class received nothing but could pay another guinea to join another class and hope that they had better luck – the rest of the entrance money went to the company as profit.
The Public Life Assurance Company aside, often these early companies failed because, despite good intentions, their plans were flawed. Another of our companies, the Consols Insurance Company, planned to invest a large percentage of its funds in consols, with a fixed interest rate and no date of maturity. The company advertised that investment in their life plan was 'entirely free from doubt or uncertainty' but, sadly, due to the wildly varying sales prices of consols, this proved not to be the case. The company became, according to the Insurance Cyclopaedia, 'one of the most miserable fiascos recorded in modern insurance history' (modern being pre-1872).
General Accident, Cartoon of exhausted business man from staff magazine (1968)
The founder of the company was a Mr T H Baylis, whose father, Edward, founded a total of nine insurance companies, three of which became part of the Aviva family. Mr Baylis senior was a philanthropist who wanted to combine insurance with charitable aims – one of his companies, British Nation Life, put a percentage of its profits to various different uses for the benefit of policyholders and shareholders including the provision of support and shelter for any who found themselves in distress, and a fund to provide immediate relief for those facing insolvency or bankruptcy. A percentage of the company's profits were also to be used to establish a classical, mathematical and commercial school for the sons of policyholders and shareholders (from the ages of 5 to 16), and an asylum for any of their children who might be orphaned.
British Nation Life Assurance Association, Press advertisement (1855)
In 1852 the editor of the Post Magazine wrote of Mr Baylis: 'I believe him to be an amiable, generous-hearted man, rich in intelligence, of inexhaustible energy, indomitable in resolution but a mistaken enthusiast on the question of life insurance'. In September 1856 Mr Baylis resigned as manager of another one of his companies, Unity General Assurance, over a board decision not to pay the full amount of policy which he felt should be paid. According to the Insurance Cyclopaedia, he later emigrated to the Cape of Good Hope following 'repeated disappointment occasioned by the failure of his projects'.
Unity General Assurance Association, Policy header detail (1856)
Another group of companies which sometimes faced problems were those set up to target business from specific sectors of society like the Brewers' and General Fire and Guarantee, or the Catholic and General Insurance Association who hoped that Brewers and Catholics would flock to them to take out insurance, and failed when the expected rush never came. In this category I might also mention the short-lived Etonian and General Life Assurance and Endowment Society which put a percentage of its profits into a fund to 'help old Etonians who had fallen on hard times'.
This does not mean that all insurance companies set up to provide for specific groups were failures; some of them thrived and did real good such as Friends' Provident, which was established to allow Quakers to benefit from life tables calculated on their specific life expectancy experience...
Friends Provident, Prospectus cover (1907)
... or the United Kingdom Provident which did the same for members of the temperance movement.
United Kingdom Provident, Prospectus cover (1899)
Similarly, the Provident Clerks' Benevolent Fund, which was established in parallel to Provident Mutual, was intended specifically to provide annuities for elderly clerks or their widows. The fund also provided medical advice in times of illness and kept a 'Situation book' listing clerks in need of work, which was shown to merchants and other potential employers to help people back into employment.
Provident Mutual, Press advertisement featuring benevolent fund (1846)
Another company intended to benefit a specific group was the Volunteer Service and General, which was established to provide insurance for members of the Volunteer Force (a civilian army of part-time soldiers formed in 1859 and a forerunner of the Army Reserve). The company's agents were all required to be Volunteers and it ran a Volunteer Accident Fund to provide for Volunteers who were injured while serving or training. Members paid one shilling a year to join the fund and then received compensation towards medical expenses or to provide an income if they were unable to work while they recovered. Amongst those to benefit from this provision was Private James Findon whose hand was infected when the green dye from his uniform got into a wound inflicted by a thistle!
Commercial Union, Army themed cartoon from staff annual (1911)
Despite the odd black sheep, our ancestor companies left us a legacy to be really proud of and many were pioneers in their fields; such as Hand in Hand (the oldest mutual fire insurer),
Hand-in-Hand, Calendar (1904)
Amicable Society (the oldest mutual life insurer),
Amicable Society, Logo (1796)
Guarantee Society (the first fidelity insurer)
Guarantee Society, Booklet cover (c1920)
and Railway Passengers Assurance (the first accident insurer).
Railway Passengers, Promotional booklet (1907)
Our ancestors also include the first companies in the UK to offer employers' liability, plate glass and burglary insurance, through Employers' Liability, Plate Glass of the City of London and Mercantile of Glasgow respectively. Through General Accident and White Cross Insurance we also have pioneer motor insurers and the General Accident Guarantee and Indemnity Insurance Company was the first company founded to provide third party insurance. We can also claim to have been the first in the niche market of key insurance. This type of insurance, which allowed keys to be returned to their owners (or replaced if necessary), was established by the Scottish National Key Registry, a company which later became part of Norwich Union.
Scottish National Key Registry and Assurance Association, Press advertisement (1950)
I already knew the stories of most of these pioneering companies but during my research I also found companies I knew less well, but whose activities helped save lives and reduce destruction of property. These unsung heroes went beyond assessing risk and working out appropriate premiums and made genuine attempts, with some success, to reduce the risks people faced. The first group of companies which I think are deserving of some time in the spotlight are the boiler insurers which, according to an article in Insurance World in March 1885, 'do more towards preventing the sacrifice of human life than any other organisation of individuals in the world'.
Norwich Union, Advertisement for boiler insurance and inspection (1936)
A number of companies set up specifically to provide boiler insurance have been absorbed into the Aviva group and, without exception, their aims were to provide insurance for boilers in tandem with an inspection service to reduce the risk of explosion and the consequential damage and loss of life. Engineers from companies like Midland Steam Boiler inspected every boiler in their care four times a year and wrote reports suggesting improvements or repairs which needed to be made. The success of their inspection process was referred to in company annual reports and the company was described in 1881 as one which has: 'been the means of saving many lives by their insurance inspections'. As a useful by-product of these inspections, the boiler insurance companies also enabled their customers to increase fuel efficiency – perhaps giving Aviva its earliest green credentials.
Another company I would like to pick out for special praise is the Mutual Fire Insurance Company whose stated aim, like that of the boiler insurers, was not only to sell insurance cover but also to reduce the risks of fires breaking out in the first place, and to limit the potential damage caused. The company was the first insurer in Great Britain to try to minimise the number and severity of fires by introducing a system of premium discounts for those who had installed sprinklers in their properties. Initially 20% premium discounts were offered for manufacturing buildings which installed sprinklers. In 1886 the company offered a 50% discount for non-manufacturing buildings, such as warehouses, to encourage their owners to embrace the new technology.
J N Lane, General Manager of Mutual Fire Insurance (1892)
The company's manager, Mr Lane (see above), was one of the first to officially recognise the value of sprinklers which were then new and comparatively untested; this apparently caused quite a sensation in insurance circles and was 'sternly reprobated by many of his brother managers'.
Norwich Union, Cartoon of man being sentenced (c1904)
The company's chief surveyor John Wormald, later Sir John, was also involved in early demonstrations by sprinkler manufacturers to persuade the owners of cotton mills to install sprinklers. Wormald became an acknowledged sprinkler expert through his work for the company and prepared the first ever rules for sprinkler installations which were published by the company in 1885. The new rules were based on their experiences of installing sprinklers in various buildings and gave advice on the number of sprinkler heads, how pipes were to be laid and what water pressure was required.
As well as using its influence to encourage sprinkler installation, Mutual Fire also followed the example of the boiler insurance companies and instituted an inspection service. The company sent out specially trained fire inspectors every 6 months to examine every mill, warehouse or hazardous risk: between March and December 1887 the inspectors made more than 5,500 visits and, according to the company's annual report, there was a marked reduction in the number and severity of fires. The company also realised that many fires were caused by people using inferior and dangerous oils for lubricating or greasing and, as a result, J Carter Bell of Manchester was appointed company analyst to provide policyholders with free testing of samples of oil and grease to check for sustainability and purity. I am really proud that this company is part of Aviva - I don't think we could find a better example of good thinking!
Keep an eye out for my next blog to discover our links (some of them tenuous) to the famous and the infamous.
I'll leave you with a quote from an advertisement produced by the Gresham Insurance Company in 1925:
better have insurance a hundred years and not need it, than need it for one moment and not have it.