Aviva companies in WW2 — preparations for war

This is the first 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 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 continued: ‘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 a medal to every one of those who takes the place of a man and does work of which the branch manager approves… I yet hope and pray that war may be averted’.

Fracis Norie-Miller of General Accident at his desk in 1937

Our companies were 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.’ The photograph below shows the exterior of the building with its protective layer of sandbags.

Union Assurance head office 1 & 2 Exchange Buildings, 1939

The enterprising staff at Norwich Union’s Liverpool office even made use of the sandbag protection on the exterior of their building by boxing it in and using it for a spot of extra advertising. You can also see the brown paper inside the windows to help with the blackout and to protect the interior from shards of glass in the event of a bomb blast.

Norwich Union’s Liverpool branch, c1940

ARP arrangements at Commercial Union’s head office at 24 Cornhill London were also quickly undertaken and by the end of 1938 the board had approved the gas proofing of the second and third basements and the installation of auxiliary power. By December 1939 preparations at the company were being described in the Post Magazine as ‘most efficient and extensive’. The office had been rebuilt in 1927 after its partial collapse due to building work next door and had a ‘modern’ steel frame construction. This gave it an advantage over many other buildings in the city in terms of strength and fire resistance. According to the Post Magazine: ‘every unit of plant in the building, lighting ventilation etc. has been duplicated and can be worked from an emergency diesel set if the main supplies fail. The air raid shelter is a very fine piece of work, fully equipped and complete with air locks, gas proof doors, first aid bay, ventilation etc. with a first class push button tuning wireless set fitted with a special aerial to ensure clear reception.’

Commercial Union’s head office, 1930s

Much was also made in the magazine of the training given to Commercial Union staff. The first aid squad had prepared by visiting the casualty ward of a large London hospital while a special hut had been built at the company’s sports ground at Catford to train the fire squad ‘under realistic conditions, dense volumes of smoke and innumerable obstacles.’

Commercial Union’s fire squad on the office roof, 1940

Northern Assurance was another of our companies fortunate enough to have a number of very strong vaults beneath its head office at 1 Moorgate. There the company set up a fully equipped shelter for 450 people with emergency ventilation, food, water supplies, and gas-proof doors. Preparations also included gongs which, according to the Post Magazine, ‘are operated by push button and work on a time switch’ and were installed throughout the building to sound the alarm.

Northern Assurance Moorgate building, c 1939

By the March of 1939 Employers’ Liability Assurance Company had spent £6,000 on converting the basements of their head office, Hamilton House on Victoria Embankment, into an air raid shelter. On 4 April 1939 the company carried out air raid training for staff and later they 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. Some of this equipment was presumably intended for their London basement shelter which was designed to hold up to 400 people. The company also spent £35 8s 6d on 1,000 sandbags to protect the front of their offices at 99 Aldwych on the Strand. The Post Magazine noted that the front of the office was well sandbagged and described a carpet of sandbags underneath the great dome in the entrance hall.

General Accident’s Aldwych office, 1929

The photograph below shows E.A. Taylor and L.W.F. Fredericks standing in front of the sandbags which were protecting the head office of North British and Mercantile at 61 Cornhill. In the background you can also see the company’s neighbour Sun Life, another Aviva company, beginning to protect their premises with sandbags. As well as providing a shelter for staff, part of the basement of the North British and Mercantile building was turned into a public shelter during the war and some members of staff became official shelter wardens.

North British and Mercantile’s office, 1939

Another Aviva company to provide a public air raid shelter was United Kingdom Provident. By December 1939 the company’s head office at 196 Strand contained a public shelter which could hold up to 150 people and wardens had been appointed to help anyone who wanted to stay there during an alarm. The staff shelter in the sub-basement could accommodate 100 people and was fitted with emergency lighting, a direct outside telephone line, and enough food supplies to last for 2 days.

Alongside work to safeguard offices and staff the companies also began preparations to protect company records and ensure continuity of business. The group archive contains many examples of records which were photographed to ensure their survival with duplicates being sent to safety. In the case of General Accident copies were sent as far as the corporation’s office in Canada which was prepared to become a temporary head office should the worst happen.

Northern Assurance moved its London records to the relative safety of Aberdeen while Provident Accident & White Cross transported five tonnes of records in 18 office cars from its London headquarters at Kinnaird House to its offices in Bristol and Leicester. Norwich Union was another company to photograph policy registers and at Sun Life D R Halson took a recordak machine on a tour of all the branches to make copies of essential records. The preparations at Sun Life were repaid when Plymouth branch was destroyed in an air raid and the copy documents had to be sent out to get it back up and running. The same was true for North British and Mercantile when its Law Courts and Mincing Lane branches in London were destroyed in the Blitz. The company’s forethought in photographing records and sending negatives to Cardiff for safety meant the work of the branches continued almost without interruption.

Northern Assurance records leaving London, 1939

For a number of our companies a sensible precaution, and one advised by the Government, was to move to the country away from the risk of air raids. The evacuation of Aviva offices will be the subject of my next blog.

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