Aviva companies in WW2 — insurance work on the home front

The fifth in a series of blogs written to mark the anniversary of VE day by sharing the stories of Aviva companies on the home front.

The lives of those who stayed at home were dramatically changed on the outbreak of war. They faced the challenges of evacuation, rationing, and air raids while they shouldered additional burdens in the office and in their various civil defence duties.

Once war began in earnest and the men began to disappear, life for those left behind in the offices settled into a new routine. Unlike in the first war all our offices were already employing women. Norwich Union Life’s head office had employed its first six women October 1937. In 1940 the company’s General Manager, W W Williamson, wrote: ‘we have increased our female staffs very considerably [to 75] and I hear from all quarters excellent reports of their work’. Never-the-less, the strain of training up new staff and the relatively high turnover of the female staff, especially after December 1941 when conscription was extended to women, was bemoaned in staff magazines.

Provident Mutual staff at work in evacuated office, c1940

In August 1939 the War Risks Insurance Act was passed for the insurance of ships and their cargoes, and of goods in the UK. Its objectives were to ensure that the stocks of food, which were essential during the conflict, were adequately insured at a time when neither merchants nor the insurance companies could be expected to provide cover.

All commodities were insured with the Board of Trade which employed the fire insurance companies, many now part of the Aviva group, to act as agents to collect the premiums and pass them on. The board minutes of Commercial Union for 15 August 1939 record their agreement to act as agents in this way. In 1942 the War Damage Act was extended to include buildings, plant, equipment and household goods. Damage to buildings was covered by an increase in income tax but everything else was dealt with for the Board of Trade by the fire insurance companies.

Norwich Union staff at work in evacuated offices, c1940

This was an extra burden at a time of reduced staff levels. In the first year of the act’s operation staff at Commercial Union dealt with war risk premiums of £10,000,000 and by the end of the war in Europe the company and its subsidiaries had issued over 1.25 million policies under the war risk schemes.

Harold Francis, who ran Norwich Union’s war claims department, later recalled: ‘there were some frightening claims in that time. A commercial risk could involve us in £250,000 which was an enormous sum of money in those days!’

Norwich Union staff at Horsenden Manor, c1940

The company’s staff magazine of Spring 1941 included a quote from Efficiency Magazine:

‘This is a time to appreciate the value of insurance. It is like a huge flywheel that carries a nation steadily over the rough places and up the hills. We can now see the need for the huge reserves of our insurance companies.’

The quote continued: ‘they must be large enough to carry us safely through all the dangers of sea and land. We can now better appreciate the work of the whole body of insurance men who keep the great flywheel going, as we can see more clearly the usefulness of their work in these perilous days’.

As war continued, those who were running the offices adapted to changing circumstances and reduction in supplies such as paper. Staff were encouraged to use the reverse of older correspondence for notes and interdepartmental memos. Many interesting relics of older companies have come into the archive through being on the reverse of letters written on salvaged paper in this period. Members of staff were not only economical with their own use of paper but also contributed to the National Paper Salvage Drive by collecting old company paperwork for the cause. At Friends’ Provident the task was often undertaken by staff on fire watching duty at the London head office. One of them, Mr Nightingale, later wrote: ‘Many a night we made an onslaught upon the destruction of old files. There was a great demand for waste paper and we sent away tons of it. I wonder how often we have been blamed for missing papers relating to matters later reopened.’

Friends Provident London Head office at 7 Leadenhall Street, c1928

Staff at Commercial Union’s 24 Cornhill head office, which was kept open throughout the war, collected 18 tons of paper in the three months to 31 December 1941. At Norwich Union, seeing a potential danger in this zeal for paper salvage, an appeal was put in the company magazine in Spring 1942 that people assisting the war effort in this way should think of the museum first and send anything particularly old to the curator rather than to salvage.

Commercial Union’s head office staff also contributed to the war effort by saving energy. Members of staff were specifically appointed to supervise light saving: ‘naturally this diminution of light, causing in some cases eye strain and headaches, was not welcomed, but it was tolerated as part of our contribution to the war effort.’

All lift journeys of two floors or less were prohibited for those without physical disabilities and the company cut down the length of time the office was heated and the temperature of the boiler: ‘At times we felt cold, but temperatures rose as we reflected that our enemies were the primary cause of our discomfort and anathematized them, accordingly’. In 1943 the company saved the equivalent of 116.5 tons of coal in just this one building.

Street outside Commercial Union’s Cornhill head office, c1940

As well as helping the war effort by reducing waste and saving energy, most members of staff were engaged outside office hours in civil defence work. The staff magazines are full of descriptions of work done by members of the Home Guard, Fire Watch and First Aid Crews.

Sun Life fire squad at Delrow House, c1940

Later in the war these were joined by the Roof Spotter Teams who helped reduce working hours wasted in the shelters by sounding an alarm only when planes were spotted on daylight raids.

Roof spotters at Commercial Union, 1940

In his Governor’s message of 1941, Francis Norie-Miller of General Accident reported: ‘In addition to the 130 men who have enlisted from head office in one or another of the services, over 80 lady members of our staff at head office are in civil defence services-nursing services (32), telephonists (25), ambulance drivers, wardens, etc, and there are also two blood donors […] every member of the staff not enrolled under these services is doing her bit, either in canteen work or in knitting for the forces. Of the male members of the staff not serving with the forces, over 90 are engaged in civil defence. No less than 47 acting as special constables, 20 are members of the home guard, while others act as wardens, stretcher bearers, auxiliary fireman’.

Blood transfusion test at General Accident’s Exeter office, 1940

Several members of staff were engaged in more secret work like Peter Ives of Norwich Union who was recruited as a VI to intercept enemy radio messages and later recalled:

‘As to be expected, these nocturnal activities meant there was a very sleepy junior clerk at the office who received several reprimands and whose social life was practically non-existent… There was however one nasty moment when compulsory night time fire watching was enforced at the office in order to reduce the effect of incendiary bombs. I reported the situation to my controller as such duties clashed with my intercepting schedules.’

He continues: ‘I received a brief note signed by none other than Lord Sandhurst, which stated that I was doing important work for the war effort, and was not to be involved in fire watching. I was instructed to show this to one person only and maintain secrecy as to what I was doing. I saw the secretary of the life office who raised his eyebrows and had me struck me off the fire watching rota and, to give him his due, he asked no questions’.

Another staff member thought to have had a covert mission was Basil Manbey of North British and Mercantile who died in a motor cycle accident in 1940 and is believed to have been a member of the Auxiliers, a ‘secret army’ recruited to hide and reappear behind enemy lines after the expected German invasion.

Northern Assurance, Manchester ARP squads, 1939

Civil defence activity was not confined to staff in British branches, staff in the Far East quickly joined ARP squads, poems appeared in the staff magazines about the Home Guard in South Africa, and a correspondent from an Australian branch of Commercial Union wrote in 1943: ‘Everyone has had to accustom himself or herself to regimentation by Government Regulation, has joined ARP services or is doing some other form of war work in their leisure hours; has seen Income Tax soar; and…has responded to the urge by the Government to grow vegetables and to accept rationing and short supplies as a necessary concomitant of wartime conditions’.

Commercial Union’s fire squad in action on office roof in London, 1940

In addition to fire watching at night and working by day, the staff also gave time and donated percentages of their salaries to worthy war efforts both nationally and within their companies. So, the Northern Assurance staff magazine of autumn 1941 reported:

‘Support for the knitting club during the two years of its existence has been splendid. Knitters have responded well, having knitted approximately £630 of wool. Subscriptions towards the fund have reached us from as far away as our New Zealand and Cape Town branches. These, together with the other numerous and generous subscriptions have enabled us to send, in addition to knitted garments, subscriptions to the comforts funds of the three services and through the Red Cross to the comfort fund for prisoners of war. We have also subscribed to the Merchant Navy comfort service towards emergency rescue kits for torpedoed merchant officers and semen and we were able, on your behalf, to answer the urgent appeal for chocolate for the men returning from Dunkirk.’

By 1942 the club had dispatched over 3,000 garments. Not to be outdone, the Canadian Branch of the company set up a ‘Cigarette and Knitting Fund’ which, in 1943, proudly announced that: ‘50,200 cigarettes have been sent overseas of which 5,200 sent to our own staff and 30lbs of tobacco sent to our staff overseas. Pipes, cigarettes, candies, magazines, and personal comforts sent to our staff both overseas and in Canada’.

Northern Assurance knitting club poster from staff magazine, 1941

Staff in both home and overseas branches contributed to War Bonds, Red Cross penny-a week funds, London War Weapons Week, and similar schemes. Staff at the General Accident United States branch collected enough money to provide a mobile canteen van with equipment for cooking and insulated compartments for stew, tea and coffee.

General Accident’s mobile canteen, 1942

The canteen arrived in Britain in March 1942 and, over 13 months, served more than 250,000 meals to victims of the blitz, rescue parties, ARP workers, soldiers, and firemen in London and in Hull.

General Accident’s mobile canteen, c1943

Contributions from staff were clearly encouraged by their employers, and as early as December 1939 the board of Commercial Union agreed to support staff in buying National Savings Certificates by advancing the full cost and recovering it without interest from the purchasers by instalments over a period of time.

An article by the Commercial Union Savings Group in 1942 recorded that to date they had collected £39,370 and ended: ‘The Navy, Army and Air Force are doing a grand job for us, giving up home comforts and — if need be — their lives, and it is up to us to save all we can to help them. They give — we lend, and incidentally get our money back with interest, so come along all those who are not ‘one of us’ and join the group’.

Norwich Union second victory loan certificate of honour, 1942

Many of our life companies sold war bonds to allow policyholders to contribute to the war effort. The various boards of the insurance companies were also responding to direct appeals for funds for war causes. The board minutes of companies like Commercial Union are full of references to contributions ranging from £100 to £1,000 made to organisations such as the YMCA War Service Fund, King George Fund for Sailors, the Red Cross and St John’s War Organisation Fund, The Lord Mayor’s London Air Raid Distress Fund, RAF Benevolent Fund and the Civil Defence Comforts Fund.

General Life, proposal for war savings bonds, 1941

Perhaps the most impressive contribution to the war effort from a single group was the donation by Norwich Union staff of a Spitfire. The company received a letter from Lord Beaverbrook at the Ministry of Aircraft Production on 10 August 1940:

‘It is with very deep gratitude that I accept the offer which you make on the half of the Norwich Union Insurance Societies to provide £5,000, the cost of a Spitfire […] this machine shall certainly be named NUflier as you desire. May I send to you the warmest thanks of myself and the whole of this ministry for the magnificent contribution are making to the National effort. Your gift will be an encouragement and an inspiration to all who are striving to free our skies from the Nazi menace.’

The money was duly contributed by staff and the business and NUflier was delivered in March 1941. She went into service at Manston on 3 April 1941 and flew with front line squadrons until July of that year when she was damaged beyond repair, presumably as the result of an air raid.

Norwich Union’s spitfire, 1941

Although surviving archive records mostly provide details of events related to life for those working in our home branches, it is important to note that those working in branches overseas were also involved in this ‘World War’. Some staff, like those of General Accident based in Belgium, managed to escape to the UK but others continued to operate under Nazi occupation. Robert Le Sueur, who was working for General Accident in Jersey, later recalled: ‘Petrol was rationed so the staff collected the premiums on bicycles […] Conditions in the office were very poor: no heating or lighting. Staff wore gloves with the fingers cut out and wrapped themselves in blankets to keep warm’. The photograph below shows crowds waiting outside General Accident’s branch in Guernsey including Reg Le Provost, who worked for the company there, standing on the office window sill.

Crowds celebrating the liberation of Guernsey, May 1945

An important reminder of the strain on those working in the Far East was sent in a letter home by W T Craigie of Commercial Union in 1942:

‘In those fateful days before war broke out in the Far East the spirit of the CUACO staffs was decidedly good. War was expected. Internment was an ‘odds on’ chance for those who remained in Japan and China. Yet no thought of leaving our companies’ interests unattended entered the minds of either Mr Dixon in Japan or Mr Arnold in Shanghai […] those of military age had their minds made up regarding their course of action too. There is a good deal of courage required to carry out the nerve-wracking game of waiting — especially when you appear to be a certain loser. For this reason I would like to pay tribute to those who remained behind to face it.’

In my final blog, tomorrow, you can read about the nerve-wracking experiences of staff working in our UK offices during the Blitz.

Commercial Union’s fireman mannequins on duty at Cornhill during the Blitz

Unearth some fascinating stories from our past. Learn more @ https://www.aviva.com/about-us/our-heritage/