Many major disasters and events of the past two hundred years can be witnessed through the records of insurance companies, and ours are no exception.
Sank with the Titanic 1912
The loss of the Titanic in the early hours of 15 April 1912 was described as the "most stupendous disaster in the maritime history of the world". The fully fitted ship was valued at an estimated $12,000,000 and contemporary estimates put the total wealth represented by her first class passengers alone at over half a billion dollars, concluding that "nowhere in the annals of Insurance is there a parallel for the loss of insured life and property occasioned by the sinking of the Titanic".
Insurance on Titanic's hull and machinery, though nowhere near covering her full value, was the largest marine insurance ever placed and the Aviva constituent company Commercial Union took the first line of insurance on the underwriting slip agreeing to accept £75,000 of the total £1,000,000 risk on both the Titanic and her sister ship the Olympic.
Other Aviva group companies identified on the slip are Indemnity Marine and Ocean Marine, each of which agreed to take £30,000 of the risk, and Merchants Marine which signed up for £10,000. In total just under 15% of the risk on Titanic was underwritten by companies which are now part of the Aviva Group and the full sum was paid within 30 days of the loss despite it being "the heaviest individual loss that has ever befallen underwriters".
Aviva Group companies also insured securities lost with the vessel, with Commercial Union paying £60,723 to cover the loss of the 200 bags of registered post, which survivors of the tragedy recalled postal clerks trying valiantly to move ahead of the advancing water. Other group companies insuring share certificates and coupons which went down with the ship were Scottish Union and National and North British and Mercantile which reported its losses on the Titanic as £43.040, "mostly being on bonds".
The real tragedy of the Titanic, however, was not in the loss of the magnificent ship, nor of the treasures she was said to be carrying, but in the loss of human life. Very few individuals are referred to in the surviving records of Aviva companies, but it is fitting that the first reference in the archive to an individual on the Titanic does not relate to a financial loss through an insurance claim, but to a personal loss to the board of London and Lancashire through the death of their Canadian board member, Charles M Hays. According to the minutes of 23 April, Mr Hays, president, Grand Trunk Railway, had been on the Canadian board for 13 years and had visited the London board on one of his previous visits to the country.
In terms of losses of insured lives the company records refer to only six named individuals; three passengers and three members of the crew. Titanic's chief purser, Mr McElroy, and her chief engineer, Mr Bell, both held personal accident policies with General Accident for £1,500 and £1,000 respectively, while Senor Gatti, the manager of the on-board à la carte restaurant, held a life policy worth £400 with Norwich Union whose death claims register records cause of death as "sank with Titanic".
Of the passengers Walter D Douglas of Minneapolis, a first class passenger, was insured with Ocean Accident and another first class passenger Mr Austin Partner held a life policy for £114 8s with Norwich Union.
Perhaps the most poignant claim was that made on the 21 May to the Ocean Accident board in the name of Henry P Hodges, an instrument vendor who was a second class passenger and who left a wife and eight children. According to the board minutes Hodges held an accident policy with the company which was limited to "Europe only" and, as such, his policy did not cover his voyage to New York on the Titanic, but the claim for £300 was considered and paid without a quibble.
First World War heroism 1915
In 1915 the German occupying authorities sealed the safe in the General Accident offices in Antwerp, Belgium. However, the staff crept in at night and broke in to take back vital records without the Germans ever finding out.
Back in Britain, General Accident was deeply involved in helping the Belgian refugees, going so far as to hand over space in the company’s London offices to the cause. This space was used as a base for the Belgian Refugees Committee and visited by many Belgian refugees and soldiers during the war years.
Read more about our companies in the First World War.
San Francisco disaster 1906
On 18 April 1906 the inhabitants of San Francisco were woken by an earthquake estimated to have registered 8.25 on the Richter scale. The quake itself lasted only a minute but a combination of ruptured gas mains and sparks from newly installed electrical equipment lead to fires which ravaged the city for three days. Arriving several months later from head office to survey the damage, E. Roger Owen of Commercial Union wrote “It is beyond my power to describe the enormous extent of the calamity it is indescribable and no idea can be conveyed to anyone who has not seen it of the damage done”.
Naturally the biggest worry for the insurance companies, once they knew their staff were safe, was their liability to claims following the disaster. Many companies decided to pay claims in full including the Aviva constituents Scottish Union and National, and North British and Mercantile, which paid out £666,000, and was included in what the local press entitled the ‘roll of honour’ a list of companies which had met their obligations at once and honourably.
While some companies, like the North British and Mercantile, used their ability to cope with such huge claims in later advertising campaigns many smaller companies went to the wall, among them the American of Philadelphia which was then acquired by Commercial Union. Of the British companies involved the biggest victim of the disaster was perhaps the Union Assurance Society. It paid out £828,446 to its policy holders which amounted to 5% of the total sum paid out by all the insurance companies and, thus weakened, was shortly afterwards acquired by Commercial Union.
Read more about the San Francisco earthquake.
Toronto fire 1904
In 1904 a spectacular conflagration in Toronto started in a necktie factory and raged through the night. With no water to feed fire engines the city was engulfed and a small arms factory caught fire and blew up. The fire destroyed three-and-a-half blocks and 120 buildings causing damage estimated at £1,500,000. Fortunately, there was no loss of life, but Commercial Union paid out $40,000 as a result.
Tragedy aboard the Cospatrick 1874
In November 1874 New Zealand Insurance Company and South British Fire and Marine Insurance Company of New Zealand were both involved in a tragic marine loss, when a fire on the emigrant ship Cospatrick led to the death of all but three of her passengers. Both companies paid claims on what was descried as the worst sea disaster in the history of sail.
Read more about the Cospatrick tragedy.