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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

Norwich and Norwich Union

Norwich and Norwich Union

With the news that Norwich Union has changed their brand name to Aviva, it may be of interest to see how Norwich has changed since the company was first established here in 1797.

Norwich 12 buildings feature in the history of the company.  When its founder, Thomas Bignold, first decided to dip his toes in the insurance industry he chose the Guildhall to convene the meeting.  Samuel Bignold persuaded the insurance company to fund the building of St James‘ Mill and in 1897 St Andrew‘s Hall was the chosen venue for the dinner to celebrate the Norwich Union centenary.  The company still maintains strong links with the city and has recently completed a £90m refit of their city centre offices.

In the early days of 1797 the Norwich Union or "Bignold‘s" office was at Old Post Office Court (between Lloyds TSB and H.Samuel) off Gentleman‘s Walk.  In the early years of the 19th century they began their journey to Surrey Street, stopping off briefly at Hay Hill.

The Norwich Union Life Insurance Society was established in 1808 but it was 1820 before both the Life and Fire Societies took up residence in what we now call Bignold House on Surrey Street.  This Georgian mansion was built in 1764 for John Patteson, from Steward & Patteson fame.  The company had outgrown their office space in Hay Hill and were searching for larger premises.  When John Patteson, President of the Life Society (who‘d inherited the property from his namesake uncle) heard of their needs he suggested they buy the property.  Although much altered over the years the principle salon still retains some of its splendour.  Fine Adam fireplaces grace the room together with two exceptional mirrors.  But the room‘s main attraction is the collection of four chiaroscuros (paintings in light and shade).  Subjects from Greek mythology adorn three of the walls; two small paintings show "The Youthful Revels of Bacchus" while the two larger panels feature "Apollo‘s Pursuit of Daphne" and "The Wooing of Pomona."

By the end of the 19th century the Life Society were pressed for space.  Head Office staff numbered forty seven and they were trying to fit into areas built for family occupation.  They cast around and settled on the site opposite.  The idea was to stay close to their sister society, which remained in Bignold House.  However, the street became a strong division and it was the 1960s before the term "Norwich Union Insurance Group" was used.  In fact the Fire Society was purchased by Phoenix Assurance in 1920 but was bought back by the Life Society in 1925.  For another 30 odd years or so they operated as strictly separate companies.

Surrey House, the Head Office of the Life Society, is a Norwich 12 building and its story has been covered elsewhere.  But in 1900 Bignold House was enjoying the presences of the builders and a new wing, complete with dome, was constructed.  By 1910 they had a superb open plan space that included a telephone system and electric lighting.  This extension stretched up to Bull Lane, almost at the top of St Stephen‘s Street.  It was not to be a Norwich landmark however and the building was demolished to make way for the redevelopment of St Stephen‘s Street in the 1950s.

St Stephen‘s Street was changed considerably in the 1950s, seemingly overnight.  The new properties were built behind the old shop fronts and when these were demolished the new broad thoroughfare was revealed.  The main London road emptied its traffic into this new European-like boulevard.  With the more recent increase in traffic and road accidents involving pedestrians it was agreed to introduce "traffic calming" elements and so the open vista of the street has diminished somewhat.

The car was to create a demand for parking for staff parking.  A former bomb site, where the Victory Hall on St Stephen‘s Street used to stand, was the first Norwich Union staff car park.  This was replaced by the currant one on Scarle‘s Yard, off Queen‘s Road.  Once a builder‘s yard it now offers one of the perks offered by Aviva to its Norwich based staff.

Aviva‘s main archive collection is housed in Surrey House these days but it was in a basement next to Bignold House in Surrey Street where the first Norwich Union museum was housed.  The honorary curator shared space with the displays and worked in this cave-like environment.  The museum was established to educate insurance staff.  How materials burn; what risks surveyors should look out for; life expectancy tables; etc, were among just some of the exhibits.

Surrey House itself is surrounded by office buildings created to house an ever-expanding staff.  The Life and Fire Wings, now known as Rosso and Antico were built in the 1950s, the All Saint‘s Green Wing, now Sienna, came along in the 1970s and the two Westlegate buildings, now Carrara, were built in the 1980s.  (The new names all reflect types of marble that is in Surrey House.)  The recent office refit and construction of the atrium behind Surrey House confirm that whatever the company is called its history is in the bricks and mortar of Norwich.

Aviva has been connected with Norwich for over 200 years.  In fact The Norwich Union Life Insurance Society celebrates its bicentenary in July 2008.  How different would Norwich look if Thomas Bignold had settled in Birmingham or Bristol, Liverpool or London?  Who can say?  What we do know is Aviva is proud of its historic links to this fine city.

Sheree Leeds

May 2008