Hand in Hand Fire and Life Insurance Society

Established as a mutual society in London on November 12 1696, the Hand-in-Hand was once the world's oldest existing fire insurance office and was a forerunner of the modern co-operative system.

Company History

B Blenkinsop

B Blenkinsop

Hand in Hand calender

Hand-in-Hand Fire and Life Insurance Society calendar

Hand in Hand fire brigade

Insurance company fire brigade uniforms through the years, including the Hand-in-Hand

Hand in Hand fireman badge

Hand-in-Hand fireman's arm badge

Hand in Hand fire life society

Minutes of the first meeting for what became the Hand-in-Hand Fire and Life Insurance Society

The Hand-in-Hand was established at a meeting in Tom's Coffee House, St Martin's Lane, London and was first known as Contributors for Insuring Houses, Chambers or Rooms from Loss by Fire, by Amicable Contribution. Two other fire offices, the Fire Office and the Friendly Society, already existed at this time but the Hand-in-Hand was the first established on the mutual principal.

In May 1697 the society's first loss, £1 12 shillings, was settled on two houses in St Stephen's Alley in the parish of St Margaret's. In March 1698, the society realised the need for somewhere to keep valuable items such as exchequer bills and petty cash. The minutes record that an iron chest, which is still in the archive today, was ordered with three locks

"for ye keeping and preserving all money; writeings and other effects".

In 1706, the company was renamed the Amicable Contributors (or Contributorship) for Insuring for Loss by Fire. It became known as the Hand-in-Hand Fire Office by 1720. The society was one of the first insurance companies to have a fire engine of its own, ordering its first engine in 1716 to supplement the fire buckets, crow bars and axes already in use.

In 1714, the Union Assurance Society was formed and agreements were made between the two companies that Hand-in-Hand would insure only houses and the Union only contents - a situation that continued for almost a century. From 1805, the Hand-in-Hand began to insure not just buildings from fire but also goods, merchandise and stock in trade and extended its business outside London for the first time.

In the same year, the society changed its name to the Hand-in-Hand Contributionship or Society for the Insurance of Houses and Goods from Loss or Damage by Fire. On July 12 1836, the company name was officially changed to the Hand-in-Hand Fire and Life Insurance Society and it commenced transacting life business and granting annuities under a deed of settlement.

In June 1905, the society's assets and business were transferred to Commercial Union, under the Commercial Union Assurance Company Ltd. Act. This signalled the end for the Hand-in-Hand and the company was dissolved in the same year.

Key dates

Year Event
1696 The society is established
1706 Name changes to the Amicable Contributors (or Contributorship) for Insuring for Loss by Fire
1720 Name changes to the Hand-in-Hand Fire Office
1836 Name officially changes to the Hand-in-Hand Fire and Life Insurance Society
1905 Assets and business are transferred to Commercial Union
1905 The society is dissolved

Did you know...?

  • On January 12 1696 the mark of the society was chosen as

    "two handes joined with a crown over them".
    This symbol became so well recognised that the society soon became known as the Hand-in-Hand, and eventually changed its name to suit.
  • In 1699, the company began to employ watermen to act as firefighters. Initially, six watermen were employed and given blue uniforms lined with red. The names and addresses of the members of this fire brigade were listed so that policyholders would know who to turn to in the event of a fire.
  • Cornelius Walford in his Insurance Cyclopaedia of 1878 claims Daniel Defoe was involved in the establishment of the society. No evidence has been found to support this claim.
  • In 1707, the society insured Schomberg House, later the Hand-in-Hand office of the Commercial Union. The building had been occupied by Thomas Gainsborough between 1774 and 1788 and was home of Princesses Marie Louise and Helena Victoria and Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein. It was later occupied by the quack, Dr Graham, who renamed it the Temple of Health and Hymen where he rented out a "celestial" bed for the procreation of perfect children, and ran an illegal gambling den.
  • In 1710, the society insured the house of Robert Walpole, who would become Britain's first prime minister.
  • In 1711, the society insured the house of famous woodcarver and stone mason Grinling Gibbons
  • In 1713, the head clerk, John Hankinson, admitted to owing the society £1,054 and was dismissed.
  • In 1717, the society insured a house belonging to Sir Isaac Newton.
  • In 1724, the society insured Guy's Hospital, London.
  • In 1725, the society insured the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London.
  • In 1740, the society insured Lambeth Palace for the Archbishop of Canterbury.
  • In 1741, the society insured the Opera House in Haymarket, London.
  • In 1750, Samuel Whitbread's brewery at Chiswell Street was first insured by the society.
  • In 1752 the society insured Samuel Johnson's house
  • By the mid-18th century, new policyholders included the Dukes of Ancaster, Beaufort, Bedford, Bolton, Bridgewater, Devonshire, Grafton, Harvey, Kent, Montague, Newcastle, Noroflk, Queensbury and St Albans; the lords Carmarthen, Castlemaine, Falmouth, Falkenberg, Grantham, Grandison, Hamilton, Palmerston and Tyrconnell; the Earls of Albermarle, Aylesbury, Berkley, Clanrickard, Coventry, Holderness, Rockingham, Scarsdale, Tankerville and the Bishops of Bristol, Durham, Ely and Worcester.
  • In May 1758, the society insured the temporary London Bridge following the destruction of the original temporary bridge in a fire.
  • In 1817,the society insured Apsley House, known as No. 1 London, for the Duke of Wellington
  • In 1818, the society was insuring both the auctioneer Mr Sotheby and his competitor Mr Christie.
  • In 1819, the society insured Booths distillery, which was later famous for the production of gin.
  • The poet William Cowper refers to the society in his poem, Friendship, written in 1872. The verse reads:

    A friendship that I frequent fits
    Of controversial rage emits
    The sparks of disputation,
    Like Hand-in-Hand insurance plates,
    Most unavoidably creates
    The thoughts of conflagration

Subsidiaries and constituents*

Year Company name
1876 - 1887 Rossendale Mutual Fire

* Please note the first date given is the date of the establishment of the company and the second date is the date the company was acquired or became a subsidiary. Where only one date is given the company was established as a subsidiary of the parent company. Where one date is preceded by a hyphen the date of the establishment of the company is not known.

Head office premises

Year Address
1696 - 1711 Tom's Coffee House, St Martin's Lane, London
1711 - 1792 Angel Court, Snow Hill, London
1792 - 1874 New Bridge Street, London
1874 - 1876 Spiers & Pond's, Piccadilly Circus, London (temporary offices used during construction of new offices)
1876 - 1905 26 New Bridge Street, London

Staff and officials

Secretary (originally called clerk, then senior or chief clerk)

Year Name
1696 - 1705 Rowland Reynolds
1705 - 1710 John Walton
1710 - 1713 John Hankinson
1713 - 1716 John Hughes
1716 - 1730 William Taylor
1730 - 1776 John Mann
1776 - 1814 Benjamin Rouse
1814 - 1829 Benjamin Rouse Jr
1829 - 1833 G N Lyon
1833 - 1851 Robert Steven
1851 - 1865 Richard Ray
1865 - 1872 J M Terry
1872 - 1903 Benjamin Blenkinsop (also manager)
1903 - 1905 Herbert Cecil Thiselton

Directors (1846)

  • William Ashley
  • Sir Felix Booth
  • The Hon Sir Edward Cust
  • John Lettson Elliot
  • James Esdaile
  • John Gurney Hoare
  • E Fuller Maitland
  • Peter Martineau
  • The Hon Charles J Murray
  • William Scott
  • John Sperling
  • Henry Waymouth
  • Henry Wilson
  • Robert Winter
  • William Wix

Home branches and agencies

The society did not extend its business beyond London until 1805 and created few agencies.

  • Birmingham (by 1903)
  • Bristol (by 1903)
  • Dundee (by 1903)
  • Glasgow (by 1903)
  • Leeds (by 1903)
  • Liverpool (by 1903)
  • Manchester (by 1903)
  • Newcastle (by 1903)
  • Bacup (by 1903)
  • Ipswich (by 1903)
  • Leicester (1903)

Published History

Hand in Hand - The story of The Hand in Hand Fire & Life Insurance Society 1696 - 1996 by Brian Henham. Spellmount Publishers. Kent, 1996.

In the archives

The Aviva archive contains records relating to the running of the Hand-in-Hand Fire & Life Insurance Society from 1696 to 1905. The collection includes board minutes (1696 - 1708), policies, ephemera, branded material, acts, deeds of settlement, policy book, prospectuses, directors' lists, portraits, fire marks, uniform arm badges, ceremonial mace and the original iron chest.

Other resources

Visit the Guildhall Library for constitutional documents, policy registers, financial material, minutes, letter books and more.

An agent's book can be found at the Pembroke archive.

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