Preparing for war
The months of 1938, which came to be known as the 'phony war', saw many companies which were later to be part of Aviva make preparations for the event of conflict.
On 27 September 1938 Francis Norie-Miller, managing director of General Accident, wrote to his London manager Mr Rose:
The present position of the nations compels us with the greatest sorrow to realise that war is inevitable. Just as we did in the last war, which so many of us remember, everything that we can possibly do must be done to help our country. We have decided that all those men in our service who are Territorials and will be immediately called up, but also all who enlist either in the regular Army or the Territorials for the purposes of the war, will be paid their full salary less the Army pay and allowances which they receive.
He continues: 'this must be until further notice, because we cannot bind ourselves to carry it on indefinitely. Then, as regards your lady staff, they will have the opportunity of doing splendid work for their country by carrying on the work of those male members of the staff who have gone forward to fight for their country and the protection of us all. I have decided that I will give the medal to every one of those who takes the place of a man and does work which the branch manager approves… I yet hope and pray that war may be averted'.
For a number of the offices a sensible precaution, and one advised by the Government, was to move to the country away from the risk of air raids. Provident Mutual Assurance Association was one company quick to follow the advice, purchasing Alresford Place near Winchester which they adapted to use as an office with sleeping accommodation for staff and a separate document store.
The company moved shortly before the outbreak of war and one member of staff, Vera Eldridge, later described her experiences of living and working there:
I was in a room with six others on the first floor, with only an iron bedstead and a wooden locker I could call my own. Further on was a washroom with two lavatories and three baths, no washbasins.
Some other members of staff had to walk through our bedroom to get to the washroom. Baths were painted with an orange line five inches from the bottom to indicate the depth of water allowed. A rota system was introduced for resident staff to take baths in office hours, taking 20 minutes each away from their desks.
North British and Mercantile Insurance and its subsidiary, Railway Passengers Assurance, purchased Newland Park near Chalfont St Giles Buckinghamshire in April 1939 and erected office buildings, dining rooms, kitchens and living accommodation in its grounds to house over 500 staff. The property was ready for occupation in August 1939 and its facilities included air raid shelters, a fire station, elevated and underground water tanks, allotments, a kitchen garden, greenhouses, bowling green, putting green, tennis courts, carpenters shop, rifle range, cycle sheds and an office bus. Staff evacuated there formed their own concert party, the Newland Players, whose first performance took place in February 1940.
Entertainment for the London staff of Yorkshire Insurance, who were evacuated to Littlehampton at the start of the war and later moved to Naseby Hall in Northamptonshire was, according to the later recollections of L G Tyler, slightly more basic:
A very senior member of staff purchased a football so that we could let off steam. I often wonder what his feelings were when one of us punted the ball through a priceless oil painting in the great hall.
The insurance press of the pre and early war period was filled similar notices of evacuation addresses and where known these have been given along with the individual company war records.
According to an article about the evacuated premises of British General Insurance, which appeared in their Christmas 1939 newsletter, no expense or lack of thought had been spared in preparations made for their staff whose shelter, at Batts House, Redhill, had seats fitted, an air purification system and back up electricity. The staff received anti-gas training, and were drilled in various ARP disciplines with some squads even on a duty rota to assist the local council with first aid in the event of an air raid.
Other group offices were also quick to put ARP precautions in place and as early as December 1938 DIB of Union Assurance was proudly writing in the staff magazine that the ARP arrangements for their head office at Exchange Buildings, London were 'to the forefront' and 'by 1938 standards […] very complete'.
The shelter in the company's second basement was already kitted out with chemical toilets, torches, 175 camp stools, a tin of luminous paint and "iron rations in the shape of ginger beer and biscuits". ARP arrangements at Commercial Union's head office at 24 Cornhill London were also well in hand by this date the board having approved the gas proofing of the second and third basements and the installation of auxiliary power.
By March of 1939 Employers' Liability Assurance Company had spent £6,000 on converting the basements of their head office into an air raid shelter and a further £1,500 on the leasing of alternative accommodation. On 4 April 1939 the company carried out air raid training for staff and they also later converted the basement of 36 Cornhill into an air raid shelter for the 135 staff of their subsidiary, Merchant's Marine.
The detailed General Accident ARP expenses for 1939 also make interesting reading. Amongst a whole series of items purchased were three bottles of brandy, four walking sticks, 24 quart bottles, three pairs of goggles, one wireless set, bandages, blackout blinds, helmets, picks, hosepipes and stretchers. The company also spent £35 8s 6d on 1,000 sandbags to protect the front of their Aldwych, London offices. The enterprising staff at Norwich Union Liverpool office even made use of the sandbag protection on the exterior of their building for a spot of extra advertising.
Once staff and buildings had been secured as far as possible the preparations turned to the protection of company records to ensure continuity of business. The group archives contain many examples of records which were photographed to ensure their survival in one form or another with duplicates being sent to safety, in the case of General Accident duplicates were sent as far as the corporations' offices in Canada which was prepared to become a temporary head office should the worst happen.
The Northern Assurance moved its London records to the relative safety of Aberdeen while Provident Accident & White Cross moved five tonnes of records in 28 office cars from its London headquarters at Kinnaird House to Bristol and Leicester, along with 38 staff. The records of North British and Mercantile were photographed and the film and negatives sent to Cardiff so that when the records of the Law Courts and Mincing Lane branches were destroyed in the Blitz they were quickly reproduced and the work of the branches was uninterrupted.