Stories from the archive solar system - the famous and the infamous
29 Apr 2016
This final blog is intended to give a flavour of stories to be found within the Aviva Solar System that relate to famous (and not so famous) customers, staff and directors, as well as those of less esteem!
General Accident, Leaflet advertising insurance against burglary (c1945)
I've roughly divided my famous people into the literary and the scientific, although there are many other famous (ish) people in other walks of life to discover in the Solar System and, as you will see, some of the links are very tenuous indeed.
First up under literary links I'll start with some genuine literary giants with clear association to our companies: Norwich Union insured both the author Agatha Christie and the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Below is the proposal on Shelley's life from July 1814.
Norwich Union, Declaration of health for Percy Bysshe Shelley (1814)
Two of our companies, Edinburgh Life and Scottish Union and National, had links with the novelist Sir Walter Scott...
Edinburgh Life, Extract from promotional booklet (1908)
... and Northern Assurance employed the poet John Drinkwater between 1897 and 1909. Drinkwater later wrote of his manager in the company's Birmingham branch: 'W H Knight liked insurance and he was patient with me because he knew I didn't'.
Meanwhile, in January 1838, the Sun Life Assurance Society missed the opportunity to list Charles Dickens amongst its customers when it turned down his proposal for life assurance just at the beginning of his literary career. Dickens made the following note in his diary: 'Went to the Sun Office to insure my life, where the Board seemed disposed to think I work too much'.
Sun Life, Facsimile of Charles Dickens proposal form (c1936)
Aviva companies with more tenuous literary links include Scottish Imperial, which provided life insurance to the parents of the writer Aldous Huxley, and Universal Life whose treasurer, Pasco St Leger Grenfell, was the father-in-law of the novelist Charles Kingsley who wrote the classic The Water Babies.
Universal Life, Prospectus and almanack (1851)
General Live Stock wins the prize for most tenuous link, relating to the author Jane Austen: one of the company's trustees, the Honourable Stephen Rumbold Lushington, lived near her and was a social acquaintance, while one of the company's directors, the Rev. John Papillon, was the nephew of John Rawson Papillon who was rector in the village where Jane Austen lived. The Austen family often joked that Jane should marry the elder John Papillon and it is suggested that he is the basis for the character of Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice.
General Live Stock, Press advertisement (1855)
Our famous (ish) scientists include many of the doctors who were employed by our life companies as medical officers; like Dr Andrew Buchanan who was medical advisor to Western Fire and Life Insurance Company and is regarded as one of the founders of biochemistry.
The medical officer for the London and Southwark Insurance Corporation, John Cooper Forster, performed the first gastrostomy operation in England. The Briton Medical and General had links both to Charles Hastings, the founder of the British Medical Association, (professional body for doctors in the UK), and to Thomas Wakley, who was founding editor of the medical journal, The Lancet.
Briton Medical and General, Proposal cover for Monmouth district (1874)
Earlier in his career Wakley's name had also been linked to the famous Cato Street conspiracy – a plan to murder members of the British cabinet. He was badly injured and his house burnt down by those who thought (wrongly) that he had been the one to execute Arthur Thistlewood and members of his gang following their trial for involvement in the conspiracy.
Another medical officer whose name was linked to the seedier side of life was Sun Life medical officer Sir William Gull. At one point in the 1970s he was included on a list of possible candidates to be Jack the Ripper: the notorious, unidentified, Whitechapel murderer of 1888. Gull (pictured below) actually has better claims to be listed under our famous scientists; he was doctor to both Queen Victoria and the then Prince of Wales, he was the first to name and describe anorexia nervosa, and he was an expert on quadriplegia.
Sir William Gull, Sun Life medical officer (1859-1863)
As an example of a tenuous Aviva link to scientific fame I will put forward the Scottish Union Insurance Company, whose Glasgow manager in the 1870s, Mr William Ramsey, was the father of Sir William Ramsay who later discovered the element argon and co-discovered helium, neon, krypton and xenon.
Ocean Accident, Radio isotopes proposal form (1956)
Part two of this final blog focuses on brushes with fraudsters and infamous murderers like William Palmer, who was dubbed the Rugeley Poisoner or the Prince of Poisoners by the press of his day. In 1854 Dr Palmer took out a Sun Life policy for £5,000 on his wife Ann, who died later the same year of what was supposed to be cholera. Two years later, Palmer was hanged for poisoning his friend John Cook and it was strongly suspected that he had murdered several others, including Ann (and her mother). As a result of this, the board minutes of the Sun Life company made a note that more checks needed to be made before accepting risks on the wives of 'medical men'.
Extract from the Illustrated Times (1856)
Norwich Union was another company which paid out on the life of Ann Palmer, while Universal Life was warned against accepting insurance on Palmer's brother by a medical referee who wrote: 'most confidential – his brother insured his late wife's life for many thousands and after the first payment she died. Be cautious'.
Another poisoner linked to our companies was the French language teacher Eugene Chantrelle who took out accidental death policies on the life of his wife Elizabeth with two of our companies, Accident Insurance Association of Scotland and Star Accident Insurance, shortly before he poisoned her and tried to make her death look like an accident.
Railway Passengers, Press advertisement (1889)
The Yorkshire Insurance Company claimed to have helped bring George Joseph Smith, the so called 'brides in the bath murderer', to justice. Prior to her marriage, his second wife had taken out a policy with the Yorkshire showing Smith as the beneficiary and detectives on the case thought that if the company was ready to pay out on the policy, then Smith would contact his solicitor. The company duly said it was ready to pay, the police watched the solicitor's office, and Smith was caught.
Norwich Union, Member of staff (Le Neve Rice) in character as policeman in 'The Magistrate' (1908)
The Solar System includes a number of other stories of customers and staff attempting to defraud our companies, such as Andrew Valenti, who made a good income by pretending to be injured in railway accidents, and William Cracknell, who stole nearly £3,000 from his employers, the Compensation and Guarantee Fund. These I will keep for later blogs, along with our links to events like the largest man-made explosion of the pre-nuclear era in Halifax Nova Scotia, 1917, and the Dundee fire of 1906 – when the streets of the city ran with rivers of burning whisky.
General Accident, Cartoon fire brigade from staff magazine (1964)
A visit to the Solar System will also reveal our links to James Bond and Sherlock Holmes and tell you which of our companies selected its staff by the toss of a coin.
I'll leave the final word with the Financial Insurance Company, which was modestly described in advertisements in the 1860s as:
the most beneficent institution ever established by man - Financial Insurance Company (1860s)
- how advertising standards have changed!