Virtual display on our companies and staff in the First World War
28 Oct 2018
Posted by: Anna Stone
Subjects: First World War
For the launch event of the Aviva's Tommies exhibition in Norwich, Tom and I put together a small display of original material from the archive collection which related to our companies and staff during the First World War. As we couldn’t have it up for long, and because it is much easier to share these things as blogs, here is a virtual version of the display.
Archive display, 2018
Before the war
Looking at photographs of our sports clubs from the years immediately prior to 1914 always makes me wonder what happened to the team members in the war. Most of the men in this photograph of General Accident’s cricket team from 1912 served in the conflict, and three made the ultimate sacrifice.
General Accident's cricket team, 1912
Similarly, six members of this Norwich Union junior reserve football team of 1902 served in the war: one received the Military Cross, and two were killed.
Norwich Union reserve football team, 1902
A number of Norwich Union’s staff, and those from other Aviva companies, were already volunteers in the army before the outbreak of war. This photograph from 1909 shows a group of staff from the fire and life offices, with one guest, at the 6th battalion Cyclists Norfolk Regiment camp at Northrepps. All of those in the photograph, which included Alfred Belding who was also in the football team, went on to serve in the war, and two were killed.
Norwich Union staff at Northrepps camp, 1909
Sitting in the middle in the front row is Stanley Cockrill who was about 18 when the photograph was taken. He worked for Norwich Union Life Insurance Society and would have sat on a stool at a high desk out in the Marble Hall in Norwich, not very far from where I sit now. This is what the Marble Hall looked like when he knew it.
The Marble Hall at Norwich Union Life Insurance Society's head office, c1914
About 116 men (no women were employed at Norwich Union Life’s head office until 1937) worked in the Marble Hall and at least 68, many of them probably somewhere in the photograph above, served in the war. Twelve men did not return to their desks in the Marble Hall and their stories are told in the Aviva's Tommies exhibition which will be up in Surrey House until 15 November.
Aviva's Tommies exhibition in the Marble Hall, 2018
Even before war was officially declared, staff at General Accident’s head office were encouraged to enlist. In his message in the staff magazine for October 1914 the company’s General Manager, Francis Norie-Miller, wrote:
“On Monday, the 3rd August… I called together the whole of the Head Office Staff in the Board Room, and made a short but earnest appeal to everyone who was capable of bearing arms … to at once join … and I was sure that those who were unable to have the great honour of going and fighting, or even dying for their country, would be envious of those who could do so.”
Many staff at General Accident did as Mr Norie-Miller had instructed and enlisted straight away. Their names, including those of Adams, Doig, Gardiner, Malloch, Nairn, and Scrimgeour from the 1912 cricket team, can be seen in this 1914 Roll of Honour.
General Accident list of staff serving, 1914
The Roll of Honour below, for staff at the Hand in Hand branch of Commercial Union, shows the number of staff who signed up to serve on 04 August, the day war was declared.
Commercial Union Roll of Honour, 1914 - 1918
At other Aviva constituent companies, members of staff were making the same decisions, including territorials, like those at Norwich Union, who were called up straight away. One of the first to reach the Front was Lieutenant Stanley Howard of the Signal Service, who had previously seen action in the Boer War.
Stanley Howard of Norwich Union, 1899
Extracts from one of his letters to the General Manager, John Large, were printed in the Michaelmas 1914 issue of the Norwich Union Staff Magazine:
“Am going on well; we have plenty of food, not like the SA [South African] Campaign in that respect, but in others that much-vaunted war sinks into insignificance. The things which we have seen and heard as to the behaviour of the enemy are hardly to be believed, and certainly cannot be written… We have lately been entering the towns they have left, and the sights alone are enough to make any self-respecting man thoroughly enraged".
I was also able to find the reply Mr Large sent to Lt. Howard, preserved in a copy letter book from 1914. The letter refers to the fact that Stanley thought the war might last another two years but says “we all hope to see you safe and sound at Surrey Street long before that time expires and that you will have the felicity of sharing in the triumphal entry into Berlin.” Mr Large also enclosed some cigarettes.
John Large letter to Stanley Howard, September 1914
By the end of 1915 Francis Norie-Miller at General Accident claimed that the company had a larger proportion of its staff with the colours than any company in the British Empire, “no less than 80% of the entire male staff between ages of 18 and 40.”
At Norwich Union Fire Insurance Society the Roll of Honour above was printed with the names of 260 members of staff who were serving in his majesty’s forces, while over at Sun Life Assurance the Actuary, Mr Salmon, noted that they had 192 men on active service.
With such large numbers of men in the forces it was inevitable that some would be lost. In March, news reached General Accident of the death of Daniel Malloch, who had been part of the 1912 cricket team.
Daniel Malloch from cricket team photograph, 1912
Daniel had been with the corporation 7 years and was a clerk in the Life Department when he enlisted in October 1914. He had been in France less than a month when he was killed on 11 March 1915. The following account of his death appeared in the staff magazine.
General Accident staff magazine article re Daniel Malloch, 1915
At Norwich Union Fire’s head office in Surrey Street, staff scoured the newspapers every day for reports on those who were away fighting, even men who no longer worked for the company. In May, this lovely letter was sent from the chief clerk and the sub manager to the family of former clerk Arthur Martins who had been killed while fighting in Gallipoli.
Letter sent by Norwich Union on the death of Arthur Martins, 1915
In his response Mr Martins apologised that he had not replied sooner because his heart was “too full to write”.
Reply to Norwich Union from Mr Martins, 1915
In September 1915 he suffered a second loss when his younger son, Daniel, who had taken his brother’s place as a clerk at Norwich Union, was also killed in action in the Dardanelles.
Back in the Marble Hall, the remaining clerks of Norwich Union Life had started a new book to record European War Claims (it was not yet called a World War). Here is a page of entries from 1915 which includes men lost in the sinking of the Lusitania in May that year.
Norwich Union Life war claims register, 1915
Close up of page from war claims register, 1915
Down the right hand side the company was keeping a note of the cost of deaths caused by war, which by this date already amounted to £54,671. By the end of 1918 one of our companies, North British and Mercantile, reported that the cost of the war on the life department was £614,469. In 1919, the insurance press estimated that the total loss on young lives with small reserves on their policies was £20 million and it was suggested that British assurance institutions were considering claims against enemy governments for the losses.
For the general insurance companies, 1915 saw the introduction of the Government Air Bombardment Scheme to insure property against damage caused by enemy planes and bombs.
General Accident poster for property insurance, 1915
Under the scheme the insurance companies acted as agents selling policies and collecting in the premiums on behalf of the government. Commercial Union sent this circular to policyholders just after the scheme was launched in July 1915.
The scheme introduced a flat premium rate for a private house of 2 shillings per £100 insured for damage by aircraft, which rose to 3 shillings if cover for bombardment was included. It replaced policies, such as the one below, which had been offered by General Accident, where higher rates were charged for some parts of the country and premiums for South and East Coast towns fluctuated from day to day depending on the perceived threat of Zeppelin raids.
The new scheme was clearly welcome and 168,000 policies had been issued by June 1916, unfortunately creating additional work for the depleted insurance workforce. At Norwich Union a whole new department was set up to deal with policies under the scheme; it was managed by John Cavell whose sister, Edith, had been executed in May 1915 for helping soldiers escape German occupied Belgium.
The staff magazine of another company, General Accident, recorded for posterity the challenges faced by staff in the Belgian branch during the occupation. Writing in 1919, M. De Marbaix, the Society’s Chief Medical Officer in Belgium, recalled his first encounter with a representative of the occupying force in 1915. He also recounted the arrival of Dr Dorn, the General Comptroller of British and French Insurance Companies in Belgium, who told him:
“I am here to try to ruin your Company in Belgium as far as I can do it; not only during the war, but after the war also. …I know how you are working, and all my knowledge will go to the German companies, so that they can make the best of it.”
The article also describes how the staff risked punishment to rescue some of the company’s papers, which had been locked up by Dr Dorn, so they could keep the business running.
This photograph of Belgian soldiers outside General Accident’s London headquarters in 1916 demonstrates the part the company was playing in supporting the displaced countrymen of its staff in Belgium.
On 25 August 1914, Francis Norie-Miller offered two vacant floors in the office at Aldwych rent-free to the War Refugees Committee. The offices became the committee's central headquarters and it was to General Buildings, as the Aldwych office was known, that Belgian refugees came for assistance to find accommodation, and soldiers on leave came to register. This photograph was taken of refugees queueing outside the offices in October 1914.
After the war, the Belgian branch reproduced the 1916 photograph of the soldiers on a postcard with a message on the back in French saying:
"Siège Social à Londres de la Cie d’Assurances General Accident Fire & Life Assurance Corporation Ltd. Ici ont été reçus et accueillés avec hospitalité les refugiés belges pendant toute la durée de la guerre."
Which translates as: The London headquarters of General Accident, here Belgian refugees were received and greeted with hospitality throughout the war.
For the help given to the people of Belgium, Francis Norie-Miller was awarded the Belgian Medaille du Roi Albert in 1920.
Certificate of La Medaille du Roi Albert, 1920
Meanwhile, the full horror of war was beginning to be reflected in the letters home which appeared in General Accident’s staff magazine. Private Thomas Pyke of the company’s Liverpool office wrote:
“I soon got into conversation with their [the French] machine gunners, being a machine gunner myself, and I heard ghastly tales of the terrible slaughter in front of Verdun, in fact the carnage was so terrible there that the French machine gunners were sick over their guns while mowing down the advancing hordes of the enemy”.
Letter from Thomas Pyke in General Accident's staff magazine, 1916
Later in the same letter Private Pyke described going over the top in the Battle of the Somme:
“During June it was evident… that shortly we would commence the advance… and it was grand to see how energetically the lads worked without a word of complaint knowing it was all for the “big push”. During the last week in June, the guns increased their activity, and it became a perfect pandemonium; we had to shout to be heard even by the men standing near us. The French on our right (our brigade being to the extreme right of the British line) said that our bombardment was worse than Verdun, and they had not heard anything like it. The bombardment increased in violence and an hour before the attack was timed to commence it was terrific; it's really impossible to describe it: it was just like “Hell let loose”. They did their best to locate our guns but failed, and our casualties were very slight indeed, much less than anticipated. The first wave went over at 7.30 am on 1st July, and it was a sight never to be forgotten to see the men, who two years ago were Liverpool city clerks, going across No Man's Land quite unconcerned, with their rifles slung over their shoulders as if on parade”.
One of 31 Aviva staff killed on that first day of the Battle of the Somme was Cecil Ransome who had been photographed at the volunteer camp in 1909 and was one of the men who worked at the high desks in the Marble Hall.
He had joined the company as a junior clerk in March 1908, aged 17, and, being a territorial, had been amongst the first to go and fight. He had obtained his full Lieutenancy while on service in Egypt and was killed in France while serving as a Lieutenant Machine Gun Officer in the West Yorkshire Regiment (Prince of Wales's Own) 16th Battalion. This is the photograph the company kept of him.
Cecil Ransome from Norwich Union Life Society's photograph album
In August 1916, Mr Mahon at Norwich Union Fire received this note from Reggie Saul who was in the Edmonton Military Hospital recovering from wounds.
Despite not being in a hurry to return to the Front, Reggie served out the rest of the war and was wounded on two further occasions before returning safely to Norwich after demobilization. His son, Eddie, who also worked for Norwich Union, was born in 1920 and died in the Second World War.
In October, Charles Page, one of Norwich Union’s 1902 reserve football team, was awarded the Military Cross: “For conspicuous gallantry in action. After heavy casualties among the officers, by his pluck and utter disregard of danger he brought on the waves of both leading companies to their final objective.”
Charles Page from football photograph, 1902
The general manager wrote to congratulate him: “how glad I am that you should have so distinguished yourself and in so doing made all in the service of the Norwich Union proud to claim you as a colleague.”
Norwich Union letter to Charles Page, 1916
In his reply, Charles thanked him and wrote: “I sincerely trust that not many months will elapse before I may again be actively employed in the good old “Norwich Union”.”
Letter from Charles Page to Norwich Union, 1916
The following month news reached General Accident of the death of John Nairn, the secretary of the cricket club, and another one of those in the 1912 team photograph.
John Nairn from cricket team photograph, 1912
John was an accountant assistant (one of the "most able") who had enlisted in October 1914 in the Highland Cyclist Battalion. He was killed in action on 18 November 1916 while serving as a Private in the Highland Light Infantry.
By 1917, Commercial Union, and its subsidiaries, had 1,312 members of staff serving with the forces and had employed 700 ‘ladies’ to help keep the offices running. At the company’s Annual General Meeting, the Chairman of one of those subsidiaries, Ocean Accident and Guarantee, referred to the “great deal of assistance” given them by the ladies who had come in and enabled them to “carry on”. He spoke of the company’s business, which included inspecting boilers for the Ministry of Munitions, as nationally important “almost as important to the nation as the production of food”.
At General Accident, where 90% of available male staff were serving with the forces, Francis Norie-Miller bemoaned the fact that the company was training female clerks who then promptly left for the higher wages offered by Government Departments.
The July issue of the staff magazine referred to a woman leaving General Accident for a different reason as Miss Margaret Cumming joined the Women’s Battalion, which had been formed in February that year, and left for service in France. The editor wrote:
“by discharging her duties in her present position as well as she has always discharged them during the years she has been in our service, she will do well for the country.”
Other female members of staff known to have joined the war effort include Miss Nora Campbell, who worked for Norwich Union Fire in the London office and was mentioned in dispatches during her service with the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, and her colleague, Miss L Foster of Leeds branch, who served with the same corps.
As the war continued, General Accident’s staff magazine published yet more letters from serving staff, describing their experiences on the battlefield. In January 1917, Private Percy Brewis, formerly of Newcastle branch, wrote about the tanks which had first gone into battle in September 1916:
“You will have read all about the tanks which went into action with us; they are really marvellous, and the way they get over the ground which is torn up by shells is truly wonderful and puts the wind up for the Bosche.”
Lance Corporal John Stotesbury, chief clerk at the East London office, sent home a letter including this description of his involvement in an attack:
“The gun had been left behind, so I went back for it, having to crawl part of the way while the bullets were singing into the earth above. You can be sure I felt thankful to be alive, as I had already had two escapes, one bullet grazing my neck, and another my arm…”
As the year progressed, news of staff members who were not so fortunate continued to arrive. In April, General Accident received notice that another of the 1912 cricket team, Robert Macadam, had been lost.
Robert Macadam in cricket team photograph, 1912
Robert had joined the corporation from school, aged 15, in November 1908 and was assistant accountant at the time he enlisted. He was killed in action in France on 09 April 1917. His obituary in the Post Magazine Roll of Honour said he was: “endowed by nature not only with brains but a handsome and manly appearance” and had “shown in his work ability far above the average, and thus had made rapid progress”.
Robert Macadam from General Accident's staff magazine, 1917
Later the same month, Terry Read, one of the men photographed at the 1909 army camp, died from wounds received in action in Gaza.
Terry Read from Northrepps camp photograph, 1909
He had worked for Norwich Union Fire in Norwich from 1902 and gone to Shanghai on the Society’s business in 1912. He joined local volunteers at the start of the war and came back to England in December 1914 to enlist. According to his obituary: "His enthusiastic patriotism meeting with many rebuffs at the hands of the military authorities, he went direct to the War Office, and, greatly daring, asked for his commission. A wordy warfare ensued, but Read eventually emerged triumphantly from the building, his commission - his passport to eternity, as it turned out - in his pocket."
Terry was remembered in the staff magazine as an: “absolutely reliable and unflinchingly loyal friend… killed in Gaza playing the game to the last.”
Terry Read in uniform, c1916
Another blow to the head office staff at Norwich Union Fire came at the very end of April when the wife of Stanley Earles sent on this copy of a letter she had received from his commanding officer. It included the sentence: “Your husband was killed on the morning of 28/4/17 and I can truthfully say that he died instantly, and was buried close to Monchy-le-Prieux.”
Stanley Earles from Norwich Union photographic memorial
In June, the company received the letter below from the father of Richard Lee who had been killed in a flying accident. It contains the phrase: “My son’s death is our share of the sacrifice in the present need, but it is a very great one which we try to make as cheerfully as he made his.”
Richard Lee had been with the company since 1908 and was a regular in the staff cricket team and in the amateur dramatic society. As a member of the territorials, he was called up on the outbreak of war and initially served with his battalion, the Norfolk Regiment 1st/6th Cyclist Battalion, on coastal defence. He joined the Royal Flying Corps and served in France before becoming a test pilot. He died at Mousehold Norwich when the new design of plane he was testing, crashed. The notice in the staff magazine on his death ended: “Lee was a real sport. May the earth rest lightly on him!”
Richard Lee in uniform, c1915
As the year drew to a close, yet another letter arrived at Norwich Union from a grieving father. This time Walter Chalker informed John Large about the death of his son, Edward, concluding: “we had hoped that as time went on he would have risen to a position of trust and responsibility, but all our hopes are dashed to the ground with those of many loving parents.”
Norwich Union reply to Mr Chalker, 1917
Edward had only joined the company in 1914 and enlisted in 1917, as soon as he was old enough to fight. He was killed at Cambrai on 02 December 1917.
Edward Chalker c1914
In London in that December one of the tanks described by Private Brewis, was engaged in a different arena – moving between offices of the major insurance companies collecting subscriptions to war bonds. Below is a photograph of a painting showing the tank on its visit to Commercial Union’s head office at Cornhill where the company handed William Schooling, of the War Savings Committee, a cheque for £100,000 for war bonds.
The role of insurers, and other big businesses, in contributing financially to the war effort is something that should not be overlooked. Life insurers in particular were well-placed to support the treasury by investing the funds they held on behalf of their policyholders in war loans and bonds. By February 1917, Aviva's constitnuent companies and subscribed more than £29,177,000 to the war loan, which would be the equivalent of £1,554,000,000 today.
Commercial Union clearly supported the war bond campaign the following year as well because we have in the archive collection an artillery shell engraved: “Presented to Commercial Union... who bought £100,000 of War Bonds in the Feed the Guns Campaign October 1918".
Commercial Union commemorative shell, 1918
As the war continued, Norwich Union Fire produced new lists of staff serving, by May 1918 the number had grown to 491. Although the cover of the booklet refers to men serving it also includes the names of the two female members of staff who had enlisted.
Norwich Union list of staff serving, 1918
Staff at Norwich Union Life Society, on the other side of Surrey Street, gathered photographs of their colleagues serving with the forces into an album which they annotated with information on those who were wounded, gassed, or killed. The page below shows William Basher and Gerry Wells.
Norwich Union Life photograph album for 1914 - 1918 war
In August that year the company received notice that Gordon Jode, another member of the 1902 football team, had been killed in action on the Western Front.
Gordon Jode from football team photograph, 1902
Gordon, who had joined the staff in 1901, was a very active sportsman who played cricket as well as football for the company and was in the office rowing team.
Gordon Jode from Norwich Union Life photograph album
At the Union Assurance offices in London, another book was being put together containing the details of all members of the company’s staff who were with the services. It noted changes of address when they moved camps or were sent to the Front as well as injuries, promotions, and deaths. This page shows the entry for Arthur Ellison, who was killed in October 1918 and whose family have kindly sent me photographs of him in uniform.
Union Assurance memorial book, 1914 - 1918
In May 1918, Norwich Union received this letter from Harold Sayer, who wrote: “My wound is getting on splendidly - it is not a serious one and generally classified by soldiers as “a good Blighty” machine gun bullet through the lower part of thigh. I am, Sir, one of those very fortunate men granted a release, temporary probably, from a veritable Hades for that word alone conveys the correct meaning.”
In June, Francis Norie-Miller, wrote a letter of sympathy to the parents of James Mair, who had been a clerk in the Aberdeen office since 1913, and was killed in action at the Battle of Aisne. His family shared the letter with me only a few days ago and it includes a reference to Norie-Miller’s own experience of loss with the death of his eldest son, Claud, who had been reported "missing presumed drowned" en route to Egypt when the ship he was travelling on was hit by a torpedo.
Letter from Francis Norie-Miller to the family of James Mair, 1918
James Mair, image courtesy of his family
In November, when the war finally ended, many of our companies recorded their thanks for the peace in their board minutes. Some, like Commercial Union, Union Assurance, and Norwich Union, produced illuminated copies of the minutes, which are now part of the archive collection.
Union Assurance illuminated board minute, 1918
Commercial Union illuminated board minute, 1918
Once peace had been declared, serving staff were gradually demobilised, and prisoners of war returned home. General Accident’s staff magazine recorded the following cable from released prisoner of war Private Ian Fraser of the Highland Light Infantry:
“Pleased to inform you that I have arrived here (Scheveningen) on sick exchange party. Got magnificent reception from Dutch people. How splendid it feels to be free again. Kindest regards to all at GA.”
As the prisoners were repatriated, so some families, who had waited in hope for news of their missing sons and husbands, finally learned their fate.
In May 1919, Norwich Union’s district Manager for Newcastle passed on the news that returning prisoners from the battalion of William Pritchard, missing since April 1918, had confirmed that he had been killed in action.
Norwich Union letter on the death of William Pritchard, 1919
William had joined the company in 1911 on leaving school and enlisted in January 1916 in the Northumberland Fusiliers Durham Light Infantry. He had only been in France a fortnight after receiving his commission when he was reported missing. His manager wrote that he: “proved himself one of the keenest and ablest juniors we have ever had.” and noted the double blow to his family as his brother, Captain Ralph Broomfield Pritchard MC DSO, had died of wounds on the same day.
William Pritchard in uniform c 1916
The wife of Lewis Pye also received unwanted news in 1919. Lewis had been with Norwich Union Fire since 1901 and worked in the workmen's compensation department. Mrs Pye first wrote to the company in April 1917 to say that he had been posted missing and then to share her relief that he was not dead but a prisoner of war in Dulmen Camp. Having not heard from him for several months, Mrs Pye eventually received notice from the Central Prisoners of War Committee in February 1919 that Lewis had died at Munster Kommando 525 in Germany on 17 October 1918.
Lewis Pye from Norwich Union photographic memorial
The manager at Norwich Union wrote to her: "It is particularly sad after all the privations which your husband must have undergone, that he should not have been spared to return home to you."
Copy letter on the death of Lewis Pye, 1919
The final man, from our pre war photographs, to die as a result of the conflict was William Banham. He was a member of the 1902 Norwich Union football team and his death was reported to the company in August 1919.
William Banham from football team photograph, 1902
William had joined the staff in 1900 and worked as an accountant. He enlisted on 26 April 1915 and served with the East Anglian Field Ambulance until April 1917 when he was posted to the regular army. He was sent to Mesopotamia in November 1917 and was still serving there in November 1918 when he became ill after an attack of influenza. William eventually died in hospital in Norwich from heart failure.
His wife Mabel wrote to the company: “his death leaves such a vacancy that up to the present I cannot grasp or realise it”. In his reply, the General Manager wrote: " Your husband was held in high regard by both the management and his colleagues on the staff and his untimely death has deprived the Society of the services of a valued and capable member of the staff who will be greatly missed."
William's obituary in the staff magazine said his: "chief characteristic was his keen interest in life. Many hobbies and outdoor pursuits appealed to him with a freshness and depth of interest which are the possessions of few of us. A sportsman in the truest sense of the word, he is remembered by us for several years preceding the War as a keen and competent yachtsman, and his genuine and sympathetic disposition won him a host of friends."
William Banham in uniform c1916
William’s name, along with those of the 64 other Norwich Union men who died during the war and the 487 additional members of staff who served, was inscribed for posterity in the company's war memorial which was unveiled in June 1920.
Norwich Union Fire Society's war memorial unveiling in Bignold House, 1920
I have only be able to share a few of the stories of our staff during the First World War in this blog. If you would like to know more about the 925 members of our staff who made the ultimate sacrifice then please see my Remembrance blog which is updated on the 100th anniversary of each man's death. You can also look up individuals on our Roll of Honour pages which are currently being updated with additional information we have discovered over the 10 years since the roll was first produced. You might also like to see our pages on staff in the First World War.