From a cigarette-smoking crocodile to a canine fire-starter - Norwich fire insurers looks back at a colourful history

A Hand in Hand fire brigade. Picture: Aviva

A Hand in Hand fire brigade. Picture: Aviva - Credit: Archant

As it nears 350 years since one of the country's most destructive infernos, a long-running Norwich fire insurers has trawled through its archives to shed light on a colourful past. Lauren Cope reports

The Norwich Union Gloucester branch. Picture; Aviva

The Norwich Union Gloucester branch. Picture; Aviva - Credit: Archant

From its band of brigades to its roster of famous clients - Winston Churchill and John F Kennedy to name but two - Aviva has no end of stories to tell.

And ahead of the 350th anniversary of the devastating 1666 Great Fire of London on Friday, the insurer has dug through the annals to reveal just a handful.

They include a list of some of its quirkiest claims - ranging from false teeth tossed into the fire to a canine arsonist.

Among the records is a claim for a fire from 1958, caused when a boy poured water onto a radio to see what the BBC announcer would sound like gargling.

A Norwich Union brigade from the 1700s. Picture: Aviva

A Norwich Union brigade from the 1700s. Picture: Aviva - Credit: Archant

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Another, from 1953, was paid for a fire caused by a magnifier in front of a television - when the set was taken away for repair, the sun came through a window, was magnified and set light to a chair.

Stephen Pond, managing director at Aviva Prevention and Services, said the claims made 'absolutely fascinating reading'.

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'It's not just the claims, but also how fires were managed in bygone days,' he said. 'In the 18th and 19th centuries insurance companies actively sought to reduce fire damage by running fire brigades. By 1821 Norwich Union was running 25 fire brigades throughout the country.

'Thankfully fire prevention has improved greatly over the years, with smoke detectors and sprinkler systems now commonplace in UK buildings.'

The former Norwich Union fire station. Picture: Aviva

The former Norwich Union fire station. Picture: Aviva - Credit: Archant

In 1928, the Manchester branch received a claim for fire damage to a set of false teeth, after their own took them out to eat an orange - before tossing them into the fire with the peel, while in 1961 a dog set fire to a bed when he chewed through, and ignited, a box of matches.

The snippets also show that the firm was asked to provide fire insurance for a lady whose hobbies included keeping a cigarette-smoking crocodile called Percy.

And according to notes in the Norwich Union staff magazine from 1941, after one fire in the 1880s the bill for beer for the firemen came to what would today be worth about £3,196.

A note of thanks from Norwich Union asked whether the beer had been used to damp down the flames.

Aviva, formerly Norwich Union, Surrey Street, Norwich. Photo: Steve Adams

Aviva, formerly Norwich Union, Surrey Street, Norwich. Photo: Steve Adams - Credit: Steve Adams

Last year, Aviva settled more than 1,300 UK claims for fire damage, with common causes including lightning strikes to aerials, out of hand garden fires and kitchen blazes.

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Aviva - a history

Aviva - today the largest general insurer in the UK - can trace its roots back to the 17th century Hand in Hand, one of the oldest fire insurers in the world.

The mutual society was set up in 1696 and was one of the first to have a fire engine of its own.

During the 1700s, it insured homes belonging to high-profile customers including Robert Walpole and Sir Isaac Newton.

Hand in Hand was dissolved in 1905 and its operations were transferred to Commercial Union, which, through a series of mergers, later became part of Norwich Union.

It was in 1797 that Norwich Union was established by Thomas Bignold and 27 backers, with its earliest existing policy issued to Seth Wallace, a blacksmith of New Buckenham, on Christmas Day.

The firm grew over the following centuries, broadening its cover.

In 2000, the union merged with CGU - itself a merger between Commercial Union and General Accident - to form CGNU.

Two years later, CGNU was rebranded as Aviva.

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