20 Jan 2012
Posted by: Anna Stone
Subjects: Interesting stories
Every so often in the course of my research I am fortunate to come across something really special in the archive and a story that cries out to be shared.
While answering an enquiry on a father and son who were secretaries of one of our constituent companies, Union Assurance, I discovered just such a story in a series of programmes, menus and seating plans for annual dinners held by the staff of that company in November every year. The programmes of entertainment for the dinners include humorous stories, songs and poems written by the staff referring to notable incidents in the preceding year and offer a tantalising glimpse of what life was like for the men who worked in the office at 81 Cornhill.
Intended for a very small and select audience the programmes are full of “in jokes”, so much so that they almost seem to be written in code.
If I had only been given one or even two programmes I might not have been able to work out who was referred to as "the Dr", "the Count" or the mysterious "P L" but we are fortunate that 12 programmes have survived covering the years 1872-1889 and these, together with a staff list from 1889, have enabled me to translate most of the nicknames and build up, for the first time, a vivid picture of the world of these Victorian insurance clerks.
It is ironic that, for many of those mentioned, the references in the annual dinner songs are almost the only existing evidence of their employment by the company as no salary registers or even board minutes for this period survive and the decades covered precede the arrival of the treasure troves of information which were staff magazines.
If I had salary registers or board minutes I might have been able to provide enquiring descendants with details of dates of employment and promotion and annual salary increases as I can for many of our other companies but from the annual dinner records I can tell so much more; such as who rolled their r’s, who liked to wear high collars or short jackets and who wore their hair so long that one customer asked “If we have young ladies in the place”.
I know who went walking in Wales for their holiday, who visited Paris and Berlin and who broke their leg on some steps at Eastbourne. I know who suffered terribly from gout and wind, who took snuff, who looked back longingly to the era of the stage coach and dozens of other inconsequential facts which make these people seem real in a way which seldom happens in the course of normal genealogical research.
I feel that I have come to know the inhabitants of 81 Cornhill so that I can picture Byers messing up desks and taking pens and Bury and Mitchell racing to the counter if a pretty young lady happened to come in about her insurance.
I know that Muzio the life clerk always held things up at the end of the day with his paperwork, that the cashier, Muller, liked painting cows and never seemed to keep enough cash in the cash box and that Bains had such bad handwriting that he accidentally sent Higgins to the wrong place to carry out a fire survey.
Some things about the office then are naturally very far removed from office life today, (the absence of women and modern equipment and the greater evidence of rodents spring to mind), but in many other ways little has changed. The perennial petty squabbles of people sharing a working environment mean that references to colleagues arguing over opening the windows or lighting the stove and complaints about the lift could just as easily have come from the comments typed onto our staff forums today as from the pens of our insurance clerk predecessors over 130 years ago.
The Victorian world outside the office as described in the songs and poems is every bit as dangerous as the Accident Claims examples in my last blog should have led me to expect. Descriptions of Cobham falling of his tricycle, getting lost in fog or having his tendon broken by a kick from a horse, Keller nearly being dragged under a train, Rice almost being crushed by van and horses after falling in the street and Muzio’s regular run-ins with cab and dray horses make a very clear case for the taking out of personal accident insurance.
Indeed, Muzio, a portly man with a short temper, fairly leaps from the pages of the song sheets like a Victorian Buster Keaton hitting a cab horse with his umbrella in his frustration at almost being crushed before escaping the wrath of the cabbie on a passing tram.
The programmes also tell of altercations over organ grinders, of con men and thieves, of fishing trips, family feuds and of celebrations after which certain members of staff failed to get up in time for work.
The programmes are also testament to the kinds of entertainment people provided for themselves in this era and the talents this group of staff had for writing songs, for singing and playing instruments and for illustrating their programmes.
I was struck again and again by how quickly a new song, from the latest Gilbert and Sullivan for example, could be taken up and a year later be sung at the dinner, appropriately re-worded with details of the latest office events.
Nor was this talent for lyrics and poetry limited to just one or two members of staff, songs were written not only by Cobham (nicknamed Poet Lauriat or PL for his skill in this regard) but also by Muzio, Byers, Bolton, Noble, Pagden, Leonard and Muller.
As well as setting words to Gilbert and Sullivan the staff parodied music hall favourites (now long forgotten) like “ An Norrible tale”, patriotic ballads like “ The roast beef of old England” and songs still recognised today such as “Oh Dear What can the matter be”, “Men of Harlech” and “Roly Poly, Gammon and Spinach”. Poems such as Tennyson’s The Brook and Break Break Break (Ones leg on those stairs by the Sea) and Longfellow’s The Village Blacksmith are given similar treatment.
There are also references to contemporary events such as the death of the second Duke Of Wellington, the shipwreck of Oko Jumbo (a Chieftain from the Niger Delta), the bombing of Scotland Yard by the Fenians in 1884 and the threats of socialist riots on Lord Mayor’s day in 1886 when “the Union was fortified and put into a state of siege, and everybody made their wills and even prepared to die for the establishment".
Despite these references to the wider world the focus of the stories is on the minutiae of daily life like Cobham’s salami being eaten by mice, Herman Wilkins pouring cod liver oil on the lavatory fire and complaining about the size of the cups of tea at the Aerated Bread Company and Keller going to a fancy dress party in a Greek Brigand costume.
The picture of office life that emerges from these little details shows a group of men who worked and socialised together for decades. Colleagues at the Union in this period became like family, and in some cases actually were family as two generations of Mullers, Nobles and Wilkins worked at number 81. Naturally, there were petty arguments, upsets over office moves and occasional fallings out but they were quickly forgotten and “chaffing” and teasing at the annual dinner were taken in good part as intended.
It has been a great pleasure and a privilege to share the private “Union family” jokes and to add colour to my previously black and white picture of the life they so evidently enjoyed.
I am listing the names of those featured in the annual dinner songs below in the hope that their descendants will come across them and get in contact to ask for some of the details I have gathered to add a new and vibrant dimension to their family histories.
- A F Bailey
- John Bains
- Charles M Blunt
- J T Bolton
- Ellis J Boor
- William Fuller Bury
- Frederick T M Byers
- Thomas (Tommy) Carnell
- J Sheldon Carter
- William Royle Cobham
- Auguste Keller
- Alfred Bilton Leonard
- Septimus Beardmore Mitchell
- Daniel (Dan) Muller
- J Herbert Muller
- Edward ( Teddy) Muzio
- Charles Rossiter Noble
- William Noble
- Lionel King Pagden
- John Tavernor Perry
- Frederick Henry Reed
- John Rice
- William Robert Stewardson
- William Wallis
- Oswald Whiting
- William Hermann Wilkins
- William George Wilkins
- Frank F Worthington
- William Joseph Worthington