From exploding wine to the Titanic: Take a stroll through the rich history of Norwich Union in the Aviva archive
- Credit: Sonya Duncan
To descend into the Aviva archives, deep beneath the floor of the company's famous Marble Hall, is almost to travel back in time.
It's a journey from the offices of the modern-day corporate multi-national to a time when firemen were paid in beer, workers brought their own coal to work to keep warm, and insurance policies were agreed on a gentleman's reputation.
The vaults contain records from more than 200 years of social history and within the thousands of documents is a rich tapestry of Norwich life, from the mundane to the mysterious.
The insurance giant's records include the companies which have become part of the group over the centuries, from documents insuring parts of the Titanic to motor policies for presidents of the United States.
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The first surviving insurance policy for Norwich Union, as it was then, dates back to Christmas Day in 1797 for a Seth Wallis to cover his home, for £60, and blacksmith's forge, for £20, against fire.
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While it might seem unusual today for an insurance company to be at work on Christmas Day it was a common occurrence two centuries ago.
In the 1800s, as Charles Dickens – who once was rejected for life insurance by Sun Life for 'working too hard' – was being inspired to write A Christmas Carol, it was in the staff rules that each employee brought their own coal contribution and they were only allowed to sit by the fire for as long as it took to get warm before going back to work. A policy to warm Mr Scrooge's heart.
The combined archive of material from Commercial Union, General Accident, and Norwich Union was established in 2000, and is added to whenever modern-day Aviva makes an acquisition.
It is maintained by archivists Anna Stone and Thomas Barnes, who are meticulously logging the voluminous records and artefacts, as well as updating a regular blog on points of interest.
These days insurers have access to all kinds of data but back in the 1800s it was much harder to decide how risky a life insurance policy might be.
One method employed by Norwich Union was to ask the applicant to hand out forms to reputable friends and colleagues which could be returned anonymously. Questions included if the potential policy holder had ever suffered from gout or if they were known as a heavy drinker.