I think everybody still remembers Norwich Union, although it has been called Aviva since 2009. This was a pioneering company back in the last years of the 18th century when it was begun. It wasn’t the first insurer in England, but the idea of insuring property against loss was still in its infancy.
East Anglia’s wealth had been based on the wool trade for centuries, and it was still an important local industry in the economy. The shoe industry in Norwich, which was to become a major employer, had yet to be established when the Norwich Union opened its doors. It represented the cutting edge of the future, when service industries such as insurance would replace traditional manufacturing in the wealth of the nation. In 1797, when the Norwich Fire Office first opened, the Industrial Revolution was at its height, and factories manufacturing everything from paper to steam engines were all the rage; but the next stage in the economic progress of the country, the provision of services had already begun here in the East.
It was all down to one Thomas Bignold. The Bignolds were not a local family, and Thomas’s father John (a farmer) spent all his life in Kent. Thomas Bignold was born at Westerham in that county, and moved to Norwich in his early twenties. Marrying a local widow in 1785 he had taken over her late husband’s business as a wine merchant in Norwich city centre. It was in 1797, while in his thirties, that he had the idea of insuring property against loss through fire. He worked from an office above the wine vaults at No. 18 Gentleman’s Walk. This wine business was still trading in 1806, when his twenty year old son John is recorded as a victualler there. Eleven years later the Norwich Union Life Office was set up by Thomas.
He moved to London in 1815 to further expand the business, but disagreements with the Board in Norwich led to his removal from office. In a confusing sequence of events Thomas’s youngest son Samuel became Secretary of the Fire Office in Norwich, and his middle son John became the Life Office Secretary. Their father Thomas remained Secretary in London but not in the opinion of the rest of he company in Norwich, and he was starved of business by the Board. Thomas was eventually squeezed out of his creation, the Norwich Union businesses. By 1829 a rapprochement between father (who had returned to Kent) and son was reached, and when John Bignold died the two businesses both became the responsibility of Samuel.
Another founding director of the Norwich Union was Francis Noverre. He was also a newcomer to Norwich, having been born in London; his father, the dancing master Augustin Noverre was Franco-Swiss in origin. As a new force in the local economy it was appropriate that men from outside the area played prominent parts in the insurance industry’s development. The business went on to have a global reach, while retaining its Norwich headquarters. This looked to be in doubt in the late 1830s, when dissatisfied policyholders attempted to remove control of the business to London. A great opponent of Samuel Bignold at this time was Richard Mackenzie Bacon, the editor of the Norwich Mercury, and they were of opposing political opinions. Bignold was a Tory while Bacon supported the Whigs. Despite their arguments being ostensibly over business affairs, I think the basis of their antagonism lay in politics.
The Secretary Samuel Bignold was in office from 1818 until he died in January 1875; he did the real work of managing the Norwich Union, while the title of Chairman was at first largely ceremonial. The first member of the Bignold family to hold the latter position was Sir Robert, Sir Samuel’s great-grandson, who was appointed in 1943. In 1820 Samuel moved the business to Surrey Street, which is still the centre of operations. He bought the large Georgian house which is now known as Bignold House. This was both his residence and the office of the insurance businesses. Samuel was knighted for his support for the Government over the Crimean War, and he later became MP for Norwich. Samuel Bignold was an close political ally of Lord Douro, the Duke of Wellington’s son, and later became a good friend of Disraeli the Prime Minister.
Sir Samuel died on 2nd January 1875 after nearly sixty years as Secretary of the Norwich Union. Of Sir Samuel Bignold’s sons the eldest, William, was a farmer; Samuel was a clergyman and John a barrister who was appointed Factories Inspector. The youngest, Arthur, was also knighted for his political work. He became very influential in the Highlands of Scotland, where he purchased a large hunting estate in Ross-shire. As an excellent linguist he soon mastered the Gaelic tongue and thus became popular with the locals. He even had a bagpipe march named after him. He was MP for the Northern Burghs (the far North of the Highlands) for ten years until 1910.
After gaining a First at Trinity Hall in Cambridge he became extremely rich as a Stockbroker. He bought a lot of property in London as well as building Hunting Lodges on his Scottish estates. In his personal life Arthur appears to have been something of a rascal; he did not marry his wife until 1893, after nearly thirty years of cohabitation. His wife (Mary Anne Lake) was from a very humble background; her father Thomas was an agricultural labourer from Holkham, which may explain his initial reluctance to tie the knot. The story that Mary Anne was the daughter of an Irishman called John was probably circulated to put people off the scent.
His wife’s daughter May was born in 1868 and had a surname that suggests that she may not have been Arthur Bignold’s biological offspring. May married a Spanish nobleman she met while on a family holiday in the Canary Islands. She was twenty. She divorced him twelve years later, and the fact that she almost immediately remarried indicates that she was not the injured party, despite her claims in the divorce papers. It was usual in those days for the husband to take the blame in divorce, which was rare and restricted to the very rich. May later divorced her second husband too, which for a hundred years ago suggests a rather flighty personality. Meanwhile Sir Arthur, widowed at the age of sixty-five, went on to marry a young lady over 40 years his junior. The old dog.
This left Sir Samuel’s son Charles Edward to take up the reins at Surrey Street. He began work as junior clerk at the age of 17, but he was not dedicated to Norwich Union as his father was. He had a parallel career in the local Militia, retiring with the rank of Lt Colonel when he inherited his father’s position at the head of the Fire Office. Although the insurance firm increased its turnover by a large factor during his period of office, he was not himself very interested in money. The Financial Director threatened to stop his salary cheque if he did not pay it in immediately; it had been languishing in his pocket for weeks. When he died his executors found over £500 that had been forgotten, stuffed into the page of books and various vases around his house. He oversaw the extension of Norwich Union’s insurance activities into Europe, Canada and the United States. He had a commanding presence but no close knowledge of financial detail; the business had grown too large for that.
Norwich Union has always moved with the times; during Sir Samuel’s lifetime the company was receiving electric telegrams from London. By the dawn of the twentieth century the company was among the first in Norwichto possess a telephone (just one!). Policies were no longer written out in longhand – the typewriter had arrived, although at first typists were still men. It was in 1912 that the iconic building pictured above, Surrey House, was completed. Etiquette demanded that junior clerks removed their cigarettes from their mouths on meting their seniors in the street!
The Fire and Life insurance companies eventually became one in 1925, and until 1997 they remained a mutual organisation, which in theory distributed profits to policyholders. Although I have been a policyholder with Norwich Union in the past, I must say that I can never remember getting anything back from them by way of profit-sharing. The business has now fallen out of the Stock Exchange list of the 100 top companies, but it remains one of the country’s most successful insurers. In his 1948 book Five Generations of the Bignold Family Chairman Sir Robert Bignold recorded the history of the Norwich Union up to that date. Sir Robert was not the last relative of the Bignold family to rise to be the head of the organisation. Although this fact is not widely recognised, thirty years after Sir Robert became Chairman his first cousin, Desmond Longe, became Group Chairman of Norwich Union. Such family involvement has now in the 21st century vanished for ever, with the updated form of ownership. The mutual organisation had allowed the same family that began the business in 1797 still to be in control nearly 200 years later.