Sunday, 9 January 2011

No. 237, High Street: The West of England Fire and Life Insurance Company

Before 1942 one of the most impressive neo-Classical facades in the city was at the former head office of the West of England Fire and Life Insurance Company left © Aviva.

The company was founded in Exeter in 1807 by Samuel Milford, a Deputy Lieutenant of Devonshire, as a response to a devastating fire in the small town of Chudleigh, about 10 miles west of the city. On 22 May 1807, at a bakehouse in Culver Street, a pile of dried gorse that was used to stoke the ovens caught on fire.

After weeks without rain the town rapidly went up in smoke as the fire spread through the narrow streets igniting the thatched roofs of the houses. Within just four hours the town had been almost completely destroyed with only the church and seven houses left intact. The West of England Company bought their first fire engine in Exeter in late 1807 and named it 'Little West' and was soon issuing both fire insurance and life insurance, backed by the enormous sum of £600,000.

It was the first company to issue life insurance policies outside of London and operated primarily throughout Devon, Cornwall, Dorset and Somerset, but by the 1820s it had agents in most of the major towns in England. The head office was initially situated on the corner of the High Street and North Street, but in 1821 the Company moved to No. 237 High Street.

The image right shows a detail from the 1905 map of Exeter overlaid onto a modern aerial view of the same area. The West of England Fire and Life Company's location on the High Street is highlighted in red, almost opposite St Stephen's church.

As with so many of Exeter's buildings which no longer exist, accurate information concerning the Company's offices is as rare as hen's teeth and I can find only two descriptions of the building itself. The first as a footnote in a book entitled 'Domestic Architecture' published in 1841: "The front of the West of England Fire Office in High Street, Exeter, though inappropriate in its style of architecture, is an exceeding good copy from Sir John Soane, particularly the rotund hall within the building. It was composed by the late Mr. Paty, a native architect of great taste, but he being a copyist cannot rank high." The second comes from the 'History, Gazetteer and Directory of the County of Devon' from 1879: "[The Company's] chief office is a large and elegant building at 237 High Street, erected in 1833. The facade of this edifice is of Portland stone, and is about 50 feet wide and 26 high. It has a portico in the centre surmounted by a pedestal, on which stands a figure of King Alfred. Behind this is a large building, erected in 1820, and containing an excellent board-room and the secretary's residence."

The image left shows a tin plaque issued to policy holders and which were attached to properties covered by the Company. The figure represents King Alfred, the emblem of the West of England Fire and Life Insurance Company.

The "late Mr. Paty" was actually Andrew Patey*, a local architect who designed a significant number of buildings in Devon, including St Leonard's church in Exeter, and the Assembly Rooms and the neo-Norman St Michael's in Teignmouth. Andrew Patey also submitted a design for Exeter's Higher Market building which earned him third place in the architectural competition and the sum of £25.

Patey certainly designed the 1833 neo-Classical facade in the High Street but what about the rest of the building? It's clear that the West of England Fire and Life Insurance Company commissioned a new building on the site c1820, prior to its departure from its premises on the corner with North Street, and that must've been when the "excellent board-room and secretary's residence" was built. But was the "rotund hall" mentioned in the first quote a circular board room? Or was the author referring to a rotunda used as a public space behind the facade? Was Andrew Patey also the architect of the 1820 building? Or was he brought in just to design the facade 13 years later? The 1905 map of Exeter shows a building of two halves divided by a central courtyard. Maybe the portion of the building north of the courtyard was the 1820 structure with Patey's design being the remaining half which fronted onto the street. As far as I am aware there are no photographs or plans of the interior prior to its destruction. I contacted the archivist for Aviva and she said that the archives don't contain any images showing the interior.

The 1833 facade was certainly a great stylistic change from everything else which had been built in the High Street up until then, and nearly all of Exeter's great neo-Classical public buildings, including the Lower Market, the Higher Market and the new Post Office in Queen Street were still several years in the future (although the Royal Subscription Rooms, destroyed in 1942, were constructed in 1820).

Clearly the owners of the company wanted something prestigious. As a building material, Portland stone was almost unheard of in Exeter at the time and much of the High Street would still have contained a significant number of timber-framed houses from the 16th and 17th centuries (the building next door, to the east, was the mid-17th century timber-frame townhouse of the Earls of Morley).

The single-storey facade consisted of six fluted limestone columns crowned with Corinthian capitals supporting a plain architrave with a modillion cornice above. The central portion of the facade above right projected slightly towards the High Street and served as the main entrance. The entrance was framed with pairs of columns behind which was the enormous doorway topped with a classical triangular pediment. Ranged along the top of the building was a series of limestone blocks with mouldings and a cornice, an Attic storey, interspersed with sections of stone balustrade. Perched on top of this, like miniature radar dishes, were a number of circular and semi-circular medallions inset with scallop shells and flowers. And finally, in the centre, with one hand on his sword and looking over the city towards the east, was a colossal, almost twice-life sized statue of King Alfred the Great, the Company's emblem.

The photo left © Express & Echo shows the view down the bomb-damaged High Street towards the Guildhall, the remains of the 1833 facade visible on the right.

The rotunda, the board-room, the secretary's residence and all the other rooms were totally destroyed by fire during the air-raid on Exeter in 1942. But the flamboyant facade was still standing, almost completely undamaged and it could easily have been salvaged if the city council had chosen to do so. Instead, as happened with nearly all the war-damaged buildings in the city centre, under the council's orders the entire facade was smashed to pieces and demolished. Only the head of the statue survived, apparently being knocked off when the edifice came tumbling to the ground.

During the post-war reconstruction the High Street was massively widened, the north side being set back considerably. Today the former location of the facade of the West of England Fire and Life Insurance Company is actually in the middle of the pavement close to the current Lloyd's bank building below.

*Andrew Patey died of consumption in Exeter on 01 September 1836 just three years after the facade of the building was completed. The West of England Fire and Life Insurance Company merged with the Commercial Union Fire Insurance Company in 1894 (Commercial Union was still operating out of the building on the High Street in 1942). Today Commercial Union is part of the Aviva insurance group. The Exeter Company's first fire engine, 'Little West', still exists.


1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hi there - when my Dad, Henry Holladay, authorised the publication in the Original 1963 Golden Hammer Booklet the following was written about The West of England Fire & Life Company. Where the words in the text state "Golden Hammer" this refers, according to the date, to either Kingdon & Sons, Garton & Jarvis. Garton & King or Garton & King Ltd.
A copy of the updated version of the Golden Hammer is obtainable - visit

There is a record still extant of the payment of £1,500 by the West of England Insurance Company, which to-day still does business with the Golden Hammer as the Commercial Union.
For over 150 years the connection has been maintained. Samuel Kingdon II was one of the original local directors of the West of England Insurance Company, and the archives of the Golden Hammer contain a copy of the original policy applying to the Kingdon premises, issued one year after the West of England Insurance Company was founded. Thenceforward the latter maintained continuous assurance coverage on that property, and this was carried on when the Commercial Union Company took over the older concern. .
The business connection has always been a two-way traffic, for the Golden Hammer received a contract, which is still held, for railings and other ironwork outside the old West of England Insurance Company's premises. Though this work was demolished during the Second World War, it was fortunate that a photograph had been taken, and this is held with the contract.
When the present Commercial Union building was erected in High Street after the war, tradition was still maintained, for the contract for the electrical and domestic installations went to the Golden Hammer.

Regards, Richard Holladay

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