North British and Mercantile Insurance Co Ltd

The North British & Mercantile Insurance Company was established following a meeting on April 17 1809 at the Royal Exchange Coffee House. Soon after, a notice appeared in the Edinburgh papers announcing a proposal to found a fire insurance company called the North British Insurance Company.

Company history

North British and Mercantile logo

North British and Mercantile Insurance Company engraving

North British and Mercantile advert

North British and Mercantile Insurance Company Ltd advertisement

North British and Mercantile booklet

North British and Mercantile Insurance Company Ltd endowments booklet

North British and Mercantile book

North British and Mercantile Insurance Company Ltd instruction book

Princes building

Building of new offices, Princes Street, Edinburgh, 1903

Princes state

The State Procession to St. Giles Cathedral passing the offices in Princes Street

On October 19 1809, a contract of copartnery was submitted and the new company commenced business on November 11. One of the first policies recorded was for Messrs Dunn, wholesalers, for £3,000. In 1823, the company extended its business to include life insurance.

The company continued to grow and obtained a royal charter on February 6 1824 as its capital was predicted to exceed the one million pounds that was permitted by the contract of copartnery. In 1862 the company merged with the Mercantile Fire Insurance Company, subsequently changing its name to North British & Mercantile Insurance Company. In 1890, the company entered into an arrangement with the Civil Service Insurance Society whereby society members would be insured by North British & Mercantile on certain special rates. This link continued until 1996.

From 1901, business was extended to include all classes of marine risks and later, through its subsidiaries, to general insurance. By 1911, the company was transacting fire, life, marine, accident, fine art, burglary and motor insurance. In May 1911, the company's burglary and contingency department was transferred to the Railway Passengers Assurance Company, one of its subsidiaries.

The company was incorporated as a limited company on November 1 1920 and became a subsidiary of the Commercial Union Assurance Company Ltd in 1959. Since June 30 2006, it has been registered as a non-trading company.

The company was also often known as the North British Insurance Company against loss by fire, North British Fire Office and North British Fire Insurance Company.

Key dates

Year Event
1809 The company is established
1824 Obtains a royal charter
1862 The company merges with the Mercantile Fire Insurance Company and changes its name to North British & Mercantile Insurance Company.
1911 Transfers its burglary and contingency department to the Railway Passengers Assurance Company
1920 Incorporated as a limited company
1959 Becomes a subsidiary of the Commercial Union Assurance Company
2006 Registers as a non-trading company

Did you know...?

  • The first major fire in the company's history occurred in Glasgow on the evening of June 4 1810. During celebrations for the king's birthday, which included a display of fireworks, a rocket entered the window of Messrs Aitken & Company, a dry goods warehouseman on Glassford Street, starting a fire that caused serious damage. The company's loss was £6,463,18s 3d. It could have been much less had the firemen not been so liberal in toasting his majesty. According to a report to the directors,

    "The fire engines were soon on the spot, but, unfortunately, and to the great disgrace of the Glasgow Police, under whose management they were, they were in such a miserable state of disorder, and the firemen all drunk, it being the evening of His Majesty's Birthday, that they were of no use, and the fire was literally allowed to burn and thereby occasion a loss of many thousands of pounds, which otherwise could only have amounted to a few hundreds".
  • The decorative headpiece which appeared on fire policies for the company was designed by Samuel Bough, RSA landscape artist.
  • Among the company's early directors was Archibald Constable, the collapse of whose publishing business brought about the ruin of Sir Walter Scott.
  • In March 1822, James Stuart of Dunearn, one of the company's first directors was involved in the last duel fought in Scotland, in which he shot and killed Sir Alexander Boswell. Stuart went bankrupt in 1828 and fled to America before returning to found the United Kingdom Life Assurance Company in 1834, which later became part of North British & Mercantile.
  • After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the company advised its United States managers to

    "proceed with good risks at advanced rates. Settle losses promptly, draw at three days sight, subscribe 5,000 dollars for the sufferers".
    The liability of the company following the fire was $1,840,000.
  • Following the San Francisco earthquake disaster of 1906, the company paid out £666,000 to settle claims.

Subsidiaries and constituents*

Year Company name
1840 - 1855 Morayshire Fire
1783 - 1859 Newcastle Upon Tyne Fire Office
1834 - 1862 United Kingdom Life Assurance Company
1861 - 1862 Mercantile Fire Insurance Company
1861 - 1865 Volunteer Service Life
1852 - 1889 Scottish Provincial Assurance Company
1897 North British and Mercantile Insurance Company of New York
1834 - 1901 Universal Life Assurance Society
1859 - 1907 Ocean Marine Insurance Company Ltd
- 1907 Commonwealth Insurance Company of New York
1849 - 1910 Railway Passengers Assurance Company
1910 Westminster & Kensington Freeholds Ltd
1915 The Mercantile Insurance Company of America
1825 - 1917 Pennsylvania Fire Insurance Company
1890 - 1917 Fine Art & General Insurance Company Ltd (and subsidiaries)
1910 - 1922 Insurance Office of Australia Limited
- 1922 The Occidental Fire Insurance Company of Canada
- pre 1925 Underlying Securities Corporation (of America)
1927 The Homeland Insurance Company of America
1901 - by 1948 Pall Mall Insurance Company Ltd (transferred from the Fine Art & General Insurance Company)
1906 - by 1948 Southwark Insurance Company Ltd (transferred from the Fine Art & General Insurance Company)
1906 - by 1948 Aldwych Insurance Company Ltd (transferred from the Fine Art & General Insurance Company)
1938 - 1948 508-510 Walnut Street Corporation, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- 1955 Central Surety and Insurance Corporation of Kansas City, Missouri
1905 - 1958 Alpha Insurance Company (transferred from the Fine Art & General Insurance Company)

* 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

Edinburgh

Year Address
1809 - 1812 Parliament Close
1812 - 1825 429 High Street, on the corner of Bank Street
1825 - 1842 1 Hanover Street
1842 - 1963 64 Princes Street (sold in 1964)
1963 - 1975 at least 26 George Street (integrated with Commercial Union's Edinburgh office)

London

Year Address
1845 - 1855 at least 4 New Bank Buildings
1862 - c1865 58 Threadneedle Street and 4 Bank Buildings
by 1865 - 1960 61 Threadneedle Street
1960 - 1968 24 Cornhill
1969 - St Helen's, 1 Undershaft

Staff and officials

Manager

Year Name
1809 - 1812 J W Brougham (joint manager)
1809 - 1922 George Moncreiff (joint manager until 1912)
1822 - 1824 Sutherland Mackenzie
1824 - 1858 James Borthwick
1858 - 1880 David Smith (general manager from 1862)
1880 - 1894 Adam Gillies-Smith
1895 - 1907 Philip R D Maclagan
1907 - 1913 James Chatham
1913 - 1926 Owen D Jones (Edinburgh general manager from 1917)
1917 - 1936 Sir Arthur Worley (London general manager from 1917 to 1926)
1937 - 1946 H S Milligan
1946 - 1949 Sir Thomas Frazer
1949 - 1954 E Lansdowne
1954 - 1962 R G Harman
1962 - 1964 H G Moore
1964 - 1970 H T Frost (as manager and secretary)

Secretary - Edinburgh

Year Name
1809 - 1822 Ebenezer Mason
1822 - 1838 John Brash
1838 - 1877 John Ogilvie
1877 - 1882 Thomas McMurtrie
1882 - 1894 Philip R D Maclagan
1894 - 1926 H J Stevenson
No Edinburgh secretary after 1926

Secretary - London

Year Name
by 1849 Henry T Thomson
by 1855 Robert Strachan
1862 - 1902 F W Lance
1902 - 1926 Robert Carmichael
1926 - 1946 Thomas Frazer
1946 - 1948 A E Ridoutt
1948 - 1959 H G Moore
1959 - 1970 H T Frost (became manager and secretary in 1964)
1971 - 1977 D R Cobden
1977 - G T Spratt
Princes exterior

The exterior of new offices at Princes Street

Directors - Edinburgh (1809)

  • Alexander Pitcairn
  • Robert Boog
  • Kenneth Mackenzie
  • Patrick Borthwick
  • James Stuart
  • James Hamilton
  • William Miller
  • Robert Wright
  • William Robert Keith Douglas
  • Claud Russell
  • Archibald Constable
  • James Walker

Directors - London (1863)

  • John White Cater
  • Charles Morrison
  • A De Arroyave
  • Edward Cohen
  • James Du Buisson
  • P Du Pre Grenfell
  • Adolphous Klockmann
  • John Mollett
  • Junius S Morgan
  • John H William Schröeder
  • George Garden Nicol
  • George Young

Home branches and agencies

  • London (from 1832)
  • Glasgow (by 1845)
  • Plymouth (by 1850)
  • Liverpool (by 1862)
  • Newcastle (by 1862)
  • Manchester (by 1864)
  • London, West End (by 1865)
  • Bristol (by 1866)
  • Birmingham (by 1866)
  • Belfast (by 1866)
  • Leeds (by 1872)
  • Middlesbrough (by 1876)
  • Aberdeen (by 1876)
  • Norwich (by 1878)
  • South Devon and Cornwall (Devonport) (by 1888)
  • Sheffield (by 1891)
  • Nottingham (by 1891)
  • South Wales and Monmouthshire (Cardiff) (by 1891)
  • Inverness (by 1891)
  • Croydon (by 1901)
  • Hull (by 1901)
  • Leicester (by 1912)
  • Grimsby (by 1912)
  • Burnley (by 1912)
  • Bolton (by 1912)
  • Stoke (by 1912)
  • Stratford (by 1912)
  • Swansea (by 1912)
  • Exeter (by 1913)

Overseas branches and agencies

  • Dublin, Ireland (1835)
  • Adelaide, Australia (by 1862) also Melbourne
  • Antwerp, Belgium (by 1862)
  • Bremen, Germany (by 1862) also Dresden, Hamburg, Lubeck, Saxony
  • Bombay, India (by 1862) also Calcutta, Chennai, Pondicherry
  • Cape Town, South Africa (by 1863) also Durban
  • Galatz, Romania (1862) also Ibraila
  • Gothenburg, Sweden (by 1862) also Stockholm and Norrkoping
  • Hong Kong (by 1862)
  • Oslo, Norway (by 1862)
  • Rangoon, Myanmar (Burma)(by 1862)
  • St Petersburg, Russia (by 1862) also Vyborg
  • San Francisco, United States (by 1862)
  • Singapore (by 1862)
  • Tenerife, Spain (by 1863)
  • Victoria, Canada (1862)
  • Xiamen, China (by 1862) also Fuzhou and Wuhan
  • Yokohama, Japan (1862)
  • Alexandria, Egypt (by 1863)
  • Auckland, New Zealand (by 1863)
  • Copenhagen, Denmark (by 1863)
  • Havana, Cuba (1863)
  • Finland (by 1863)
  • Mauritius (by 1863)
  • Penang, Malaysia (by 1863)
  • Prussia (by 1863)
  • Valparaiso, Chile (by 1863)
  • Warsaw, Poland (by 1863)
  • Ceylon (Sri Lanka) (1864)
  • Gibraltar (by 1864)
  • Malta (by 1864)
  • Istanbul, Turkey (1864)
  • Odessa, Ukraine (by 1864)
  • New York, United States (1866)
  • Netherlands (1868)
  • Cyprus (by 1869)
  • Italy (1870)
  • Austrian and Hungarian Branch (Hungary) (by 1876)
  • Argentina (by 1908)
  • East Africa Branch (Kenya) (by 1957)
  • Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (by 1959)
  • Borneo (by 1963)

Published history

North British and Mercantile Insurance Company - Centenary 1809 - 1909. Banks & Co Edinburgh, 1909.

In the archive

The Aviva archive contains records relating to the running of the North British & Mercantile Insurance Company between 1809 and 1997. The collection includes board and committee minutes; shareholders registers, ledgers, advertising, policies, proposals, prospectuses, photographs, promotional items, correspondence

Other resources

Further resources related to North British & Mercantile can be accessed through the Guildhall library, the Cheshire Record Office and the Cumbria Record Office.

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