Peculiar claims, famous firsts and celebrated customers

Old marketing poster showing hand-drawn illustrations of accidents and mishaps

Aviva has opened the vaults on its 325 year history in commercial insurance to unearth cases of flying sheep, rivers of burning whisky and even the Great Train Robbery.

From the earliest days of insuring British businesses, when brewer Edward Price took out insurance with the Hand in Hand Fire & Life Insurance Society in January 1697 to protect  his Knightsbridge brewhouse from fire, Aviva has been working with British businesses on some of the strangest, but valid, insurance claims.

Hand in Hand policy register showing Edward Price's policy
Hand in Hand policy register showing Edward Price's policy

A look back through Aviva’s archives shows the prominent role Aviva companies have played in protecting British businesses for more than three centuries. Across the years, some of Britain’s largest and best-known businesses have relied on Aviva for their insurance needs, from Rolls Royce to both Sotheby’s and Christie’s auctioneers, and Lea and Perrins to Whitbread Brewery. 

A few of the quirky claims unearthed for the 325th anniversary of Aviva’s Commercial Lines business include:

  • Up in smoke: We paid a claim for £1,000 following the Dundee whisky fire of July 1906. The fire started in the warehouse of whisky merchant James Watson & Co. and eye-witnesses described rivers of burning whisky flowing through Dundee.
  • The Great Train Robbery: On 7 August 1963, a mail train from Glasgow was stopped by a signal between Leighton Buzzard and Cheddington in Buckinghamshire and £2,595,291 in used notes was stolen from the train. We insured some of the securities stolen in the Great Train Robbery, and paid out £1,091,340 10s 0d – or £59 million in today’s money1.
  • Gone with the wind: Farm workers were carrying sheets of corrugated iron in a high wind. A young apprentice of small build was given a large sheet which caught hold of a gust of wind and lifted the employee and the sheet across the yard, only to drop him to into a liquid manure storage tank. According to the claim, “the employee's clothes were ruined.”
  • Flying sheep: In 1960 we paid a claim to a shop owner for a broken showroom window for an incident involving a a sheep running through the door of the showroom, taking a flying leap through the plate glass window and disappearing.
  • Liquid gold: In 1975 a whisky firm put in a claim for missing whisky - which it turned out was being syphoned off by an electrician!
  • Ouch! In 1961 we paid a claim from a dentist who was kicked out of a window by a patient coming round from an anaesthetic.
  • In 1878 a hotel keeper in London suffered a blow to the eye from the cork of a bottle of champagne he was opening. He successfully claimed £25 10s , or £20,120 in today’s money1.
  • Lock him up: In 1996 we insured Woody the Cuprinol man who appeared in the company’s adverts. When he was stolen and later recovered, we advised the special effects company which owned him to lock Woody up at night.
  • In 1984 we paid a claim for a fishmongers’ van which was caught in the Siege of the Libyan Embassy. It was parked nearby and could not be moved until the siege ended by which time the fish had rotted.

Industry firsts

Aviva companies pioneered many new forms of insurance to help protect UK businesses so they could trade with confidence. A few notable industry firsts include:

  • Employers Liability Insurance: Aviva constituent company The Employers' Liability Assurance Corporation, established in 1880, was the first company in the UK to offer employers' liability insurance – now a legally required form of cover. The company was established in response to the Employers’ Liability Act (1880). The company’s first chairman believed that employers liability insurance incentivised employers to work harder to better protect their employees, as they could refuse cover to businesses that did not take proper precautions.
  • Fidelity Insurance: The Guarantee Society Ltd was established in London in June 1840 and was the first fidelity insurer in the UK. Fidelity insurance protected employers against loss in the event an employee embezzled or defrauded them. In 1854 the company had its first large claim when a bank official attempted to defraud his employer for £3,000 - the equivalent of over £3,000,000 today1.
  • Plate Glass Insurance: constituent company the Plate Glass Universal Insurance Company became the UK’s first plate glass insurer when it was established in 1852. In its first year of business the company replaced between 500 and 600 broken windows and doors and gave policyholders cash compensation of over £2000 – the equivalent of over £2.4 million today1.
  • Burglary Insurance was another first, when Aviva constituent company the Mercantile Accident and Guarantee Company Ltd was established in Glasgow in 1885.
Yorkshire Insurance Co poster for burglary insurance (circa 1960) and a General Accident burglary proposal featuring a photograph of a burgled safe (circa 1905)
Left: Yorkshire Insurance Co poster for burglary insurance (circa 1960) / Right: General Accident burglary proposal featuring a photograph of a burgled safe (circa 1905)


Aviva has long-relied on brokers to help sell commercial insurance. The earliest of these intermediaries were called ‘agents’, and they were responsible for selling and renewing policies and collecting premiums in return for a commission.

Our first agents worked for the Newcastle-upon-Tyne Fire Office in 1783, when the office had 9 agents.  In 1806 Norwich Union Fire had 101 agents, growing to 448 in 1818; by 1873 they had grown to 734 agents. General Accident had 20,000 agents in the UK in 1911, doubling by 1940 when they had 41,008 agents.

Agents for early fire companies often also ran the companies’ local fire brigades. In 1821 twenty-four of Norwich Union’s agencies had fire brigades attached to them and by 1864 forty-five of the company’s agencies had fire engines.

Norwich Union, Worcester Fire Brigade stand at local show (possibly Three Counties) 1910
Norwich Union, Worcester Fire Brigade stand at local show (possibly Three Counties) 1910

Nick Major, Managing Director, Commercial Lines, said: “Aviva has played an important role helping businesses protect what’s important to them, enabling them to continue to trade through good times and bad, something we have continued to focus on through the Covid-19 pandemic. As our records show, we’ve seen the strangest and  most unusual claims, which goes to show that planning for the unexpected is good business practice.

“It’s no surprise to see that brokers have played a long and significant role in Aviva’s history. Brokers remain as important to our distribution strategy today as they ever have, and we are continuing to invest in the broker channel – whether that be in our people, our capability or our capacity – in order to help the brokers we work with to best serve their business customers.

“Aviva today continues to adapt and evolve to new and emerging risks. From our partnership with the Darwin Innovation Group – insuring a fully autonomous passenger shuttle – to our exit of the fossil fuel market, our concern for the impact of climate change on our communities and the growth in the renewable energy space, we continue to meet the changing needs of our business customers.”

1 All figures use relative income equivalents, as calculated at


Erik Nelson

Motor Insurance and Compensation Culture, Fraud and Data

Notes to editors:

  • We are the UK's leading diversified insurer and we operate in the UK, Ireland and Canada. We also have international investments in India and China.
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