West of England Fire and Life Insurance Company
Established in 1807 as the West of England Fire Insurance Company (including Devonshire, Somersetshire, Cornwall and Dorsetshire), the company changed its name to the West of England Fire and Life Insurance Company on August 4 1808. It was empowered by an act of parliament on December 17 1813 and was acquired by the Commercial Union Assurance Company Ltd in 1894.
West of England printing block, pre 1894
The company was established by Samuel Francis Milford in response to a fire at Chudleigh in May 1807. The name initially proposed at a meeting in the Old London Inn, Exeter, on October 1 1807, was the Devon & Cornwall Fire Insurance Company, but was changed a few days later to the West of England Fire Insurance Company (including Devonshire, Somersetshire, Cornwall and Dorsetshire).
The company's first fire policy was issued in November 1807 on the property of Joseph Woolmer, 1-3 Hills Row. In the same year, the company purchased its first fire engine, known as "little west". Soon after, the company had engines in Plymouth, Bath, Bristol, Newton Abbot, Crediton, Moretonhampstead and Barnstaple.
As the name suggests, business was initially limited to fire insurance in the West Country. From February 1808, the company extended its operations to the rest of the United Kingdom and, in August, began offering life assurance. In 1809, the company extended its business to include the purchase and granting of annuities.
By 1829, the company's business covered :
"insurances of buildings, furniture, merchandize, farming stock, shipping and other property situate in any part of the United Kingdom, and in the islands of Guernsey and Jersey. Also insurances on lives and survivorships and the grant and purchase of annuities."
By 1850, West of England was the sixth largest insurer in the UK and, in 1876, it added a loan department.
|1807||The company is established|
|1808||Name changes to the West of England Fire and Life Insurance Company|
|1894||The company is acquired by the Commercial Union Assurance Company|
Did you know...?
West of England receipt, 1855
West of England fireman's helmet, 19th century
- The first company secretary, John Gliddon, was dismissed in 1810 and accused of defrauding the company of £700. The allegations were not proven.
- In 1841, the company clerk Nathaniel Bennett, who lived with his sister in Colleton Crescent, decided to spend the evening at the Cattle Market Inn, a well-known brothel and beer house. During the evening, he had many drinks and several visits upstairs to "Mazed Meg" and "Long Annie". Some friends saw him home and left him at the end of the street where two men, Pitts and Brinsmead, approached him and demanded money. He offered them sixpence and was last seen taking them for a drink in the Artillery Inn, Holloway Street. His body was found the next day in the river just above Trews weir. The two men were apprehended. Brinsmead turned queen's evidence and Pitts was found guilty of manslaughter and transported for 15 years.
- The company premises and personnel were closely associated with the establishment of the Exeter and South Devon rifle corps, set up to combat the threat of possible invasion by Louis Napoleon in 1852. The first volunteer rifle corps in the country, preliminary meetings were held in the garden of the West of England head office in Exeter by invitation of the secretary William Cann, who also became treasurer to the corps.
- The last fire attended by the West of England fire engine "little west" was the great Exeter theatre fire of 1887. This fire, in which 150 people died, led to calls for improvements to theatre safety standards and the introduction of mandatory fire safety curtains.
- The company held a mortgage on Haldon Estates, which included rights to mineral and barites deposits.
Head office premises
|1807 - 1809||3 Hills Row|
|1809 - 1821||Corner of High Street and North Street|
|1821 - 1894||240-242 High Street (a new front portion was completed in 1833)|
|by 1829 - 1890 at least||20 Bridge Street, Blackfriars|
Staff and officials
|1807 - 1810||John Gliddon|
|1810 - 1854||Charles Lewis|
|1854 - 1868||William Cann|
|1868 - 1880||Charles Lewis Jr|
|1880 - 1884||George S Crisford|
|1884 - 1888||Robert John Gray|
|1888 - 1894||Edward Henry Smithett|
West of England notice, 1815
- Sir John Kennaway
- John Burridge Cholwich
- Samuel Frederick Milford
- Jonathan Elford
- John Phillipps Carpenter
- Arthur Kelly
- Jonas Morgan
- Robert Kennaway
- John William Williams
- Ralph Barnes
- Richard Eales
- James Manning
- Joseph Hunt
- Samuel Kingdon
- John Holman
Home branches and agencies
West of England rate book cover, 1850
According to promotional material, the company had agencies throughout England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland by 1810.
- Crediton (1808)
- Kingsbridge, South Devon (by 1818)
- Manchester (by 1822)
- Glasgow (by 1829)
- Liverpool (by 1829)
- Edinburgh (by 1829)
- Okehampton (by 1835)
- Jersey (by 1836)
- Bury, Lancashire (by 1846)
- Bath (by 1860)
- Wokington, Cumberland (by 1872)
Overseas branches and agencies
West of England policy header, 1851
- Dublin, Ireland (by 1821)
- Cork, Ireland (by 1826)
- Paris, France (by 1829)
In the archives
The Aviva archive contains records relating to the running of the West Of England Fire and Life Insurance Company between 1807 and 1894. The collection includes fire marks, instructions to agents, company seal, photographs, prospectus and rate books, policies, agreements, reports, fire brigade memorabilia, receipts and fire brigade notebooks. The majority of older records were destroyed in the Exeter blitz of May 4 1942.
Visit Devon Archives and Local Studies Service for more material relating to the West Of England Fire and Life Insurance Company.