The Corsbies — a family of Norwich Union clerks

Aviva Group Archive
15 min readDec 3, 2019


One of the best things about being an archivist is acting as a detective, tracking down answers in the evidence left behind in the archive collection. Sometimes we are searching for information on obscure books of business, so we can tell customers who is responsible for their policies, or perhaps tracing how the claims process has changed over the centuries we have been providing insurance cover.

Cartoon of Sherlock Holmes from staf magazine, 1962

I particularly enjoy trying to piece together information on the people who worked for our companies in the past and looking at how their experiences compare to those of employees today. We are really lucky at Aviva that little snippets of information about our staff can be found throughout the archive collection, in records such as scrap books, photograph albums, company magazines and board minutes.

Recently I’ve been looking for evidence of the Corsbie family from Norwich whose members worked for Norwich Union for well over a century, and I thought I’d share some of my discoveries.

The first Corsbie I was able to find was Joseph Clarke Corsbie who joined the Norwich General Assurance Company in 1810. Norwich General is the oldest of our Norwich companies and was founded in 1792 by Thomas Bignold, who then went on to establish Norwich Union Fire Insurance Society in 1797. The two fire insurance companies operated in competition until 1821 when they were merged under the Norwich Union name and Joseph Corsbie moved to work in Surrey Street where Aviva still operates today.

Joseph would have joined staff working in Bignold House where the office was run from the family home of Samuel Bignold who was then secretary of the company.

Bignold House Surrey Street, c1897

In November 1819 Samuel wrote a set of rules for his clerks which would have been in force when Joseph Corsbie arrived in Surrey Street. According to the rules, office hours were from 9 o’clock till half past 1 and from half past 2 to 6pm. Staff who were late in the morning or after lunch were fined 2d for each 5 minutes they were late. Clerks were also fined for tending the office fire:

“The office fire to be attended to by Mr Driver, or the junior Clerk, and any Clerk who may assume his duty shall be fined 3d. Clerks are permitted to warm themselves at the Fire in Office hours, but only one at a time to be at the fire and no Clerk is expected to remain there longer than may be sufficient for Warming himself.”

Clearly Samuel Bignold suspected that without such a rule his clerks would spend too much time chatting while warming themselves at the fire. Despite these strict rules it seems that clerks at Norwich Union were generally content with their lot, and most spent their entire working lives with the company. When Samuel Bignold was knighted in 1854 he took the clerks from the Norwich Union Fire and Life Societies out for a meal to celebrate and at least half of the forty clerks who attended had reached more than 26 years’ service with one or other of the companies.

Samuel Bignold, 1852

The following year, Joseph Corsbie presided over a meal of Norwich Union clerks to celebrate the Queen’s Birthday and by that date he was the oldest clerk in the establishment.

Joseph spent 50 years working for Norwich General and Norwich Union and was granted his retirement by the directors in January 1860 when he was awarded an annuity ‘in consideration of his long service’. He received £130pa, the equivalent in income value of £129,300 today. According to the board minutes, Joseph had not been fully able to attend to his duties for two years before he retired, and he died in September 1861 after a long and painful illness.

Joseph was not the only Corsbie to be working in Surrey Street in 1821. In June that year his nephew, Dennis Tooke Corsbie, took a position with the Norwich Union Life Insurance Society. According to a staff list, Dennis retired in August 1874 as managing or chief clerk having clocked up an impressive 53 years’ service with the society. During his time with the Norwich Union he would have been involved in the take-over of the Amicable Society, the world’s oldest mutual life insurer, which happened in 1866.

Dennis may also have been responsible for starting an Easter tradition which was carried on by his successor as chief clerk, George Holmes. According to the memoires of another staff member, Henry Butler, Mr Holmes would call all the staff together at noon on the Thursday before Good Friday and give them each a glass of sherry and brown and white biscuits known as ‘fair buttons’. At one o’clock the office would close and all the clerks would go to the fair at Tombland.

The next generation of Corsbies to join Norwich Union arrived in the 1850s. In 1852 Henry Webster Corsbie, son of Joseph, joined the Fire Society and the following year his brother, Horace Webster Corsbie, joined the Life Society.

Henry was involved in a court case in 1857 after he was ‘struck’ in the face by a certain William Tuck who was angry that other Norwich Union clerks had cancelled the periodicals they usually purchased from him. During the case, Tuck claimed that the clerks, who followed the Conservative political views of Sir Samuel, had turned against him after he had voted for the Whigs in the local elections.

Henry left Norwich Union in 1865 but Horace worked for the Life Society until his retirement in 1891 after 38 years’ service, by which time he was earning £350 a year. Presenting him with an inscribed timepiece from the Directors, Mr Forrester said: ‘throughout your forty years’ service you have born an unblemished character, distinguished by integrity of purpose, devotion to your duties, courtesy to the higher officials and kindness and sympathy toward the other members of staff”. In his response Horace thanked the directors for the gift and the generous provision for his retirement and said he ‘could look back upon nothing but kindness during his long connection with the society, both from those now in office and those who have been long in their graves’.

Also joining Norwich Union in the 1850s were Henry John Abs Corsbie and his brother Charles James Abs Corsbie, sons of Dennis Corsbie, who started working for the Norwich Union Life Society in 1854 and 1856 respectively. There would have been five Corsbies in the employment of the two societies in May 1862 when each clerk was given £5 by the management to go and visit the Great Exhibition at Kensington which was also insured by the Fire Society.

Reproduction of Great Exhibition Policy, c1863

In 1871 the names of the four Corsbies then working for the Life Society featured in an illustrated letter which was presented to Sir Samuel Bignold to mark his 80th birthday.

Illustrated letter to Samuel Bignold on this 80th birthday, 1871
Close-up view of life clerk names on 1871 letter

The names of Horace, Henry John, and Charles also appear on a list of staff who attended Sir Samuel’s funeral in January 1875. Samuel Bignold died in the Surrey Street office which was also his family home and, according to contemporary newspapers, on the morning of the funeral hundreds of people filled the pavements of Surrey Street wanting to pay their respects. ‘As the time announced for the starting of the procession arrived, the Market-Place and approaches to Surrey Street became almost impassable by reason of the thousands who had there congregated.’ Twenty-five carriages were included in the funeral procession which followed a route along Rampant Horse Street, the Market Place, London Street and Queen Street, through Tombland and along Magdalen Street to the family vault at Catton.

Norwich Market Place, 1890s

All Norwich Union staff attended the funeral and they were allocated places in the carriages in order of seniority of service. Charles Corsbie should have been in coach three with his brother and cousin but instead watched proceedings from the window on the office stairs as he was too ill to attend. The staff list notes that he died the following month.

List of clerks attending Samual Bignold’s funeral, 1875

Charles was only 34 when he died and had still spent nearly twenty years working for Norwich Union. His brother, Henry John Abs Corsbie, was still working for the Life Society in 1906 when this proposal booklet was produced listing him as an agency inspector.

Norwich Union life proposal cover, 1906

He had been first appointed an inspector for the South Eastern Region in October 1884 at which point his salary was raised to £225 pa with 2nd class rail travel and an allowance of 12s 6d for each day he was away from Norwich. Henry was promoted to inspector for the Eastern Counties in 1894 and is the first of the Corsbies to be clearly identified in a photograph, the one below which was taken in around 1900.

Norwich Union inspectors, c1900
Close-up of Henry John Abs Corsbie, c1900

Henry was apparently still working for Norwich Union when he died, aged 73, in 1909 and the notice of his funeral refers to ‘upwards of 55 years’ service’ with the society.

The next generation of Corsbies to join Norwich Union were the grandsons of Joseph Corsbie. In total five of his grandsons began work for the company between 1877 and 1889. The first was Arthur Benjamin Corsbie who joined the Policy Department of the Fire Society in May 1877 and died in service just over two years later.

In January 1882, Horace Frank Corsbie, the eldest son of Horace Webster Corsbie, joined the Life Society on a princely salary of £20 pa. His time with Norwich Union coincided with the introduction of a Thursday half holiday for clerks and the arrival of the office telephone, but he left in December 1891, eventually working as a municipal clerk.

Next to join was his younger brother Ernest Benjamin Corsbie who joined the Policy Department of the Fire Society in April 1883. The notice of his death in the staff magazine records that he also worked for the Loss Department, Accounts Department and Secretarial Department before being appointed head of the Marine Department. He moved to London with the department and died in service there in July 1917. Ernest also contributed to the social life of the office, he was auditor for the staff football club and wrote articles for the staff magazine, which is probably why his photograph appears in the magazine’s photograph album.

Ernest Corsbie, c1900

I think I have also found a photograph of him at his high, sloping office desk.

Possibly Ernest Corsbie at his desk, c1900

Also joining in 1883 was their cousin Walter Lewis Corsbie whose father, Samuel Webster Corsbie, worked as a solicitors’ clerk. The application letter he sent asking to join the Fire Society still exists in the archive collection. He was 22 when he applied to join the company and had already served out his apprenticeship with Dexter & Moll the ‘old established family linen warehouse’ based in Upper Market Norwich. By the time he applied to join Norwich Union Walter was working at Henry Snowdon’s Drapery in Bridge Street Norwich and, according to his letter, was looking for employment with a shorter working day. As seems to have been standard in application letters to the society, he made it clear that he was not looking for a particularly high salary.

Walter Lewis Corsbie’s application letter, 1883

By the time Walter joined, Norwich Union Fire had already established a compulsory staff Superannuation and Benefit Fund which had opened the previous year. Each member of staff contributed 2% of his salary to the scheme and in return received a guaranteed pension and guaranteed payments to his widow and children if he died in service.

The fund also provided medical attendance for each member of staff. This benefited the company by helping reduce time off for sickness and benefited the members of staff who could have access to a doctor, which might otherwise have proved too expensive in a time when there was no National Health Service.

Extract from Superannuation and Benefit Fund rules, c1910

It also provided an unanticipated benefit for future archivists as detailed reports were made each year about which staff had been attended by the doctor and these were recorded in the fund minutes. The reports contain fascinating information about staff who were working for us in this period and what illnesses or injuries led to them having time off work. According to the reports, Walter was attacked with influenza on 3rd Feb 1890 and suffered with severe inflammation of the lungs but recovered sufficiently to return to the office on 31 March. However, he had suffered from symptoms of heart disease for several years which became rapidly progressive after this and ‘he was obliged to give up work on June 25 and finally succumbed on 8 August.’

The last of the third generation of Corsbies to work for Norwich Union was Louis Frederick Corsbie, the brother of Ernest Benjamin and Horace Frank. He had initially ignored family tradition and taken a position in April 1886 with Norwich and London Accident Insurance Association, a company which was later absorbed by Norwich Union. He obviously saw the error of his ways and in July 1889 left Norwich and London Accident and started work for Norwich Union Fire. According to the staff magazine, he spent the first ten years of his service in the Fire Policy Department before moving to the Fire Loss Department where he remained until he retired in 1930. He was known as ‘Uncle Louis’ to many of his contemporaries and was described as ‘a man of equable and genial temperament and popular with his colleagues’. He was an enthusiastic bowls player, secretary and librarian of the orchestral society from 1896, and played second violin in the office orchestra. His name appears in many concert programmes for the orchestral society and he was photographed with the orchestra in around 1902.

Norwich Union orchestra, c1902
Close-up of Louis Corsbie, c1902

Both Louis and Ernest were working for the Fire Society when it celebrated its centenary in 1897 and the staff received a 10% bonus, double that handed out a decade earlier to mark the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. Ernest can be found in this staff photograph taken for the centenary but for some reason Louis is missing.

Norwich Union clerks at anniversary garden party, 1897
Close-up of Ernest Corsbie, c1897

I think I may have spotted one of the Corsbie brothers in this photograph of a staff outing in around 1910.

Norwich Union staff outing, c1910
Close-up of possible Corsbie, c1910

It looks more like Louis but is not wearing the glasses he is sporting in the orchestra photograph.

I think I have spotted Ernest in this group photograph from around 1905.

Norwich Union staff group photograph, c1905
Close-up of Ernest Corsbie, c1905

Both their names also appear in this booklet presented to George Oliver Clark on his retirement in 1905.

George Clark’s retirement album, 1905
Page from George Clark’s retirement album, 1905

A fourth generation of Corsbies started at Norwich Union when Harold Gordon Corsbie joined the Life Society in March 1900. A great grandson of Joseph Corsbie he appears in this group photograph of Life Society staff, looking much younger than his 18 years.

Norwich Union life clerks, c1900
Close-up of Harold Gordon Corsbie, c1900

He can also be identified two cartoons produced to mark the move of the Life Society into its new offices in Surrey House in 1904. Here he is moving with his typewriter across the road to his new abode.

New Exodus cartoon showing move to Surrey House, 1904
Close-up of HG Corsbie with his typewriter, 1904

The unidentified cartoonist in this version of the move has exaggerated Harold’s small stature.

Cartoon of move into Surrey House, c1904
Close-up of sketch of HG Corsbie, c1904

Harold stayed with the company until at least 1914 and cashed in his company life policy in 1924 before emigrating with his family to Australia the following year. I think he may be in this photograph of staff taken in the Surrey House garden in around 1910

Norwich Union Life staff in Surrey House garden, c1910
Close-up of possible HG Corsbie, c1910

Harold was still with Norwich Union when these decorations were put up in Surrey Street to mark the coronation of George V in June 1911. The banner spanned the street between the head offices of the two societies and Harold probably had to pass under it to get to work.

Surrey Street decorations, 1911

It is also likely that he is somewhere in this photograph of life office staff in the Marble Hall of Surrey House at around the same date.

Staff in the Marble Hall of Surrey House, c1911

By 1911 another Corsbie had joined the Fire Society across the road in Bignold House; Elsie Gertrude Corsbie joined the society in 1911 as a typist in the fledgling typing section. The Fire Society had first employed women in the Norwich head office in 1906 and the board minutes of 7th February that year record the decision to form a Typing Department ‘consisting of 6 lady typists with a member of the current staff to be appointed superintendent to act as an intermediary between the typists and the departments’. The staff member chosen was Percy Noverre whose family had a long association with Norwich Union and who had come to insurance late in life having been a dancing master in Norwich (the family was well known in dancing and the Noverre ballroom in the Norwich Assembly Rooms is named after them). This photograph shows Percy and the lady staff, including Elsie, in around 1914.

Norwich Union typing department, c1914
Close-up of Elsie Corsbie, c1914

According to the memoires of another long-serving member of staff, Geoff Hart, Percy’s role was to prevent fraternisation between the clerks and the lady typists.

Geoffrey Hart’s reminiscences from staff magazine, 1938

Elsie was Joseph’s great grand daughter, the daughter of Ernest Corsbie, and she moved to London with her father and the rest of the Marine Department during the First World War. The war may well have been the reason Elsie never married. When war ended she returned to Norwich to the Secretarial Department where she spent some time as personal secretary to Sir Robert Bignold, the 5th generation and last of the Bignolds to run Norwich Union. She remained with the department until 1948 when she retired after 37 years’ service.

Elsie was the last Corsbie to work for Norwich Union and her retirement ended an unbroken 138 years of family service.

There were, however, another two descendants of Joseph Corsbie who also worked for Norwich Union.

Geoffrey William Cecil Corsbie who joined Norwich Union Fire in April 1935 was the 5th generation of Corsbies to join the society and the great great grandson of Joseph Corsbie. Geoffrey worked in the Workmen’s Compensation Department and died in 1944 at the early age of 28. The notice of his death in the staff magazine indicates that he was never physically very fit and remembers his skill on the piano accordion and his ability to mend all things mechanical, especially watches and clocks.

There was also one other of Joseph Corsbie’s great grandchildren to work for Norwich Union. In May 1854 Joseph’s daughter Rachel married George Oliver Clark who himself worked for Norwich Union Fire Society for 57 years and whose retirement book Ernest and Louis signed in 1905.

George Oliver Clark, c1890

Their daughter, Laura, married Walter Chalker in 1896 and her son Edward George Oliver Chalker joined Norwich Union’s Marine Department in January 1914. Edward enlisted in February 1917 as soon as he was old enough to fight and was killed in action at Cambrai. He was remembered in his obituary as ‘a quiet lad, greatly respected’. His father wrote to the society after his death: ‘He was very proud of his connection with your office and we had hoped that as time went on he would have risen to a position of trust and responsibility but all our hopes are dashed to the ground, with those of many loving parents.’

Edward Chalker, c1917

In total Joseph Corsbie and his family amassed more than 370 years of combined service for Aviva companies — that is some record.