Aviva companies in WW2 — branch offices in the Blitz
The seventh in a series of blogs written to mark the anniversary of VE day by sharing stories of Aviva companies on the home front.
Although London suffered badly during the Blitz it was not just our London staff and branches that were attacked from the air.
Plymouth’s Norwich Union office had a near miss in the raids in March 1941 as later recalled by Wally Hirons:
‘On the night of 20 March I was on duty with the chief clerk when we experienced by far the heaviest raid to date, involving 125 aircraft and lasting 4 1/2 hours. The following night the raid was even heavier involving 168 aircraft and lasting three hours. The whole of Westwell Street was ablaze up to the Norwich Union building.
By then everyone had taken cover in a public shelter opposite. The manager crossed the road to the office and as he was away for some time, somebody went over to investigate. He was found with his foot stuck in a plaster ceiling, chopping away with an axe its timbers which had been set alight by the heat from the burning building next door. He prevented the fire getting a hold and the office was still standing next morning.’
The staff magazine of Autumn 1941 reported that the branch was now operating between two sites and said of the original Westwell street office:
‘Though the nether regions hang in festoons of wallpaper, laths and cobwebs, the general office has a moderately normal aspect: consequently, clients refuse to be very convinced that we are not quite ourselves. We have no records, no books, no policies, no files, no ledgers, no sir, we have no way of turning it up but we will find out for you…!’
Sadly, the same could not be said for the Plymouth Road Transport and General branch in Bedford Street which was totally destroyed, as was the General Accident branch and that of Employers’ Liability Assurance whose business was transferred to Exeter. Sun Life’s Plymouth branch at 59 Bedford Street was also completely destroyed on 08 April 1941 and staff took up temporary residence at Muddiford House near Barnstaple. By 25 April the branch had received copies of all its policy records and work was underway again although hampered by the lack of local transport because the bus to Barnstaple only ran on a Friday.
Working in the Maidstone office of Norwich Union Fire HJ Watts recorded the serious interferences to which day-to-day work was subject there:
‘What work could reasonably be done down in the shelter was done there, but our typists, with machines on the top floor of our building, had to put forward an extra special effort during the all clear periods, and they deserve every credit for crowding much work into a sadly reduced number of hours.
The inevitable serious post and telephone delays added to the general dislocation and yet somehow the work of the branch was always maintained very nearly up-to-date.’
Staff at General Accident’s branch at 33 St George’s Place in nearby Canterbury informed head office on 31 May 1942 that their office had been damaged by a blast and was temporarily evacuated because of a Delayed-Action Bomb in the road. The report ended: ‘So far the building has had marvellous escapes and the entire opposite side of St Georges Place is a heap of blasted rubble’. A similar account was received from staff at Sun Life in Canterbury in 1942 whose office, like most of the street, was described as a heap of ‘smoking ruins’.
Elsewhere in the country, the Yorkshire Insurance office at Castle Buildings Fisher Street, Swansea, which also housed subsidiary company Scottish Boiler, was partly destroyed by enemy action in 1940. The Yorkshire then moved to Castle Street Swansea which was itself destroyed by fire in February 1941.
In Southampton, in December 1941, group companies, Road Transport and General, Norwich Union, and Ocean Accident all lost their branches; that of the Road Transport and General being completely gutted by fire after a bomb hit the building next door. The destruction of the Ocean Accident premises was described in the staff magazine by WWV:
‘Many premises were still burning when, with great difficulty, 85 Above Bar was reached. At first it appeared we had again had a miraculous escape, but closer inspection revealed that, while the rather attractive façade of the old building had been left standing almost complete, the whole of the rest of the premises right down to the bottom of the basement was utterly destroyed, and nothing but smoking ruins remained…’
The Southampton branch of Employers Liability, above Lloyds Bank, had a near miss in one of the raids as can been seen in the photograph below.
The same was true for Sun Life’s Southampton office, shown below, which was on the first floor of a different bank. The staff then evacuated and spent the rest of the war at the chief clerk’s home in Ashurst in the New Forest.
Other provincial Offices impacted included the Bristol branch of General Accident which had to be evacuated after a near miss from a 1,000lb bomb and the company’s Coventry and Birmingham branches which were damaged by blasts from H E Bombs.
General Accident’s board minutes for 10 January 1941 recorded that the Portsmouth branch had been completely destroyed by fire: ‘The area of King’s Terrace has been razed to the ground and is one of the most badly bombed areas in Britain.’ The board minutes of Employers’ Liability Assurance similarly record damage to branches from Newcastle to Portsmouth and Sheffield to Swansea. The company’s Liverpool branch was also hit on May 1941, as was the Sheffield branch of United Kingdom Provident which was gutted by fire at the end of 1940.
In Norwich one of the buildings housing the head office staff of the Norwich Union Fire Society on Surrey Street was hit in the ‘Baedeker’ reprisal raids of April 1942. The staff magazine reported that one member of staff, 15-year-old Joyce Fox, had been killed when her home was hit and another member of staff and his wife had been buried up to their necks in earth thrown up by a bomb that hit their garden.
In the same series of raids Commercial Union’s York office was totally destroyed on 28 April 1942 and on 4 May 1942 the company’s Exeter branch, housed in the former West of England Head Office, was bombed out.
This raid was described as follows in the staff magazine:
‘It started, after the city had been well illuminated by flares, with the dropping of high explosives around the perimeter […] This was followed by showers of incendiaries on the main shopping centres, accompanied by some more high explosives and time bombs. And the Germans made a pretty thorough job of it all.’
The branch relocated first to the Rougemont Hotel and then to a house called Altamira in Topsham. In August 1942 the manager sent a letter to branch agents stating:
‘It is pleasing to report that most of our strong-rooms and safes stood up to the fierce heat and the bulk of our most vital records were saved except our ledgers. The ledgers were destroyed as were other valuable records and all current correspondence.
As the Exeter General Post Office was also destroyed on the same night, many letters from and to our office were also lost. Some time will elapse before we are able to build up our ledgers and render accounts, but the work is proceeding apace and the indulgence of our agents is asked for in the interim.’
I’ll end with this quote taken from North British and Mercantile’s summary war record:
‘factual statements do not convey adequately […] such personal reactions as the feeling on coming to the office in the morning after a severe night blitz, perhaps through streets littered with hoses and hose-ramps, and with that smell of burning which persisted sometimes for several days, to find with a sense of almost surprise that the building, when it came in sight, was still intact. Nor do they reveal the quickening of ones steps on the homeward journey (after perhaps two days at the office with the intervening night on duty) by the sight of some fresh damage in the neighbourhood, and the sense of relief obtained from coming into sight of home and finding it without serious damage.’