The Corsbies — A Family of Clerks!

Charles Dickens, writing in April 1835, describes running into a fellow office clerk:

“He was a tall, thin, pale person, in a black coat. He had an umbrella in his hand – not for use, for the day was fine – but, evidently, because he always carried one to the office in the morning.”

This particular story would not have been written without the help of a professional archivist, someone who proved instrumental in bringing together information about the somewhat obscure Corsbies’. Never heard of them? Well, that would not be at all surprising since theirs is not a house-hold name. In fact, they would have remained within the sphere obscurity had not this diligent archivist brought them back into the light. Up until that point, the name Corsbie lay hidden in time-worn files, scrap books, photograph albums – company magazines and board minutes; most detail having been kept for a very long time in dusty draws before digitisation came along. Theirs is a simple story which offers a glimpse into what office life of the past was like, particularly for the generations of Corsbies who all worked, at some point, as humble clerks before rising up their own particular career ladder. However, they did have one thing in common – apart from the surname; they all had the distinction of having worked for one of the most famous and greatest Insurance companies ever to have once existed – Norwich Union.

“In 1792, Thomas Bignold helped in the creation of ‘Norwich General Assurance Company’ and was appointed its secretary. He left there in 1797 to found the Norwich Union Fire Insurance Society with support from local shopkeepers and in 1808 he founded the Norwich Union Life Insurance Society. After 1815 the post war recession began to bite and claims against the Society increased; initially he resisted many of those claims – some legitimately but some not so. Eventually his sons collaborated with the other directors to force him to retire. In retirement he became increasing eccentric forming a business to make shoes with revolving heels: this venture pushed him into bankruptcy and he eventually into prison. He died in 1835. It was in 1821 when the companies founded by Thomas Bignold, and which had operated in competition, merged under the Norwich Union name.”

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Samuel Bignold in 1852.
Born in Norwich in 1791, Samuel Bignold was the third and youngest son of Thomas Bignold and his wife Sarah, widow of Julius Long. He was educated at schools in Norwich and Bury St Edmunds.
From 1814, he worked as secretary for the Norwich Union Fire Insurance Company and from 1818 had the same office at Bignold House for the Norwich Union Life Assurance Society; both companies founded by his father, Thomas Bignold. The Bignold’s and their office staff used Bignold House as the companies’ head office when they merged. Samuel died at Bignold House in 1875 and was buried at St Margaret, Old Catton.

The Corsbie family were from Norwich and several generations of them worked for the Norwich Union for well over a century. Our archivist’s research discovered that the Corsbie family, from Joseph Clarke Corsbie downwards, amassed more than 370 years of combined service for the Company. Joseph himself joined the Norwich General Assurance Company in 1810. and when company moved to its Surrey Street office in Norwich, Joseph went went with it. He joined the rest of the office staff who would then work in Bignold House, the actual family home of Samuel Bignold, the then Secretary of the Company.

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Bignold House Surrey Street, c1897

In November 1819 Samuel Bignold wrote a set of rules for his clerks which would have been in force when Joseph Corsbie arrived in Surrey Street. According to those rules, office hours were from 9 o’clock till half past one, and from half past two to 6pm. Staff who were late in the morning or after lunch were fined 2d for each 5 minutes they were late. Clerks were also fined for tending the office fire:

“The office fire to be attended to by Mr Driver, or the junior Clerk, and any Clerk who may assume his duty shall be fined 3d. Clerks are permitted to warm themselves at the Fire in Office hours, but only one at a time to be at the fire and no Clerk is expected to remain there longer than may be sufficient for Warming himself.”

Clearly Samuel suspected that without such a rule his clerks would spend too much time chatting while warming themselves at the fire. Despite these strict rules it seems that clerks at Norwich Union were generally content with their lot, and most spent their entire working lives with the company. When Samuel Bignold was knighted in 1854 he took the clerks from the Norwich Union Fire and Life Societies out for a meal to celebrate and at least half of the forty clerks who attended had reached more than 26 years’ service with one or other of the companies.

During following year of 1855, Joseph Corsbie presided over a meal of Norwich Union clerks to celebrate the Queen’s Birthday and by that date he was the oldest clerk in the establishment. Joseph spent 50 years working for Norwich General and Norwich Union and was granted his retirement by the Directors in January 1860, when he was awarded an annuity ‘in consideration of his long service’. He received £130 per annum, the equivalent of around £130,000 in today’s terms. According to the Board’s minutes, Joseph had not been fully able to attend to his duties for two years before he retired, and he died in September 1861 after a long and painful illness.

Joseph was not the only Corsbie to be working in Surrey Street in 1821. In June of that year his nephew, Dennis Tooke Corsbie, took a position with the Norwich Union Life Insurance Society. According to a staff list, Dennis retired in August 1874 as managing or chief clerk, having clocked up an impressive 53 years’ service with the Society. During his time with the Norwich Union he would have been involved in the take-over of the Amicable Society, the world’s oldest mutual life insurer, which happened in 1866. Dennis may also have been responsible for starting an Easter tradition which was carried on by his successor as chief clerk, George Holmes. According to the memoires of another staff member, Henry Butler, Mr Holmes would call all the staff together at noon on the Thursday before Good Friday and give them each a glass of sherry and brown and white biscuits known as ‘fair buttons’. At one o’clock the office would close and all the clerks would go to the fair at Tombland.

The next generation of Corsbies to join Norwich Union arrived in the 1850s. His name was Henry Webster Corsbie, son of Joseph; he joined the Fire Society in 1852 but left in 1865. Henry had been involved in a court case in 1857 after he was ‘struck’ in the face by a certain William Tuck who was angry that other Norwich Union clerks had cancelled the periodicals they usually purchased from him. During the case, Tuck claimed that the clerks, who followed the Conservative political views of Sir Samuel, had turned against him after he had voted for the Whigs in the local elections.

In 1853, Henry’s brother, Horace Webster Corsbie, joined the Life Society and went on to work for the Life Society for 38 years’, retiring 1891 and by which time he was earning £350 a year. Presenting him with an inscribed timepiece from the Directors, Mr Forrester said:

“…… throughout your forty years’ service you have born an unblemished character, distinguished by integrity of purpose, devotion to your duties, courtesy to the higher officials and kindness and sympathy toward the other members of staff”.

In his response Horace thanked the directors for the gift and the generous provision for his retirement and said he ‘could look back upon nothing but kindness during his long connection with the society, both from those now in office and those who have been long in their graves’.

The 1850s also saw Henry John Abs Corsbie and his brother Charles James Abs Corsbie, sons of Dennis Corsbie, join the Norwich Union Life Society in 1854 and 1856 respectively. There would have been five Corsbies in the employment of the two societies in May 1862 when each clerk was given £5 by the management to go and visit the Great Exhibition at Kensington which was also insured by the Fire Society.

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The Great Exhibition of 1862 at Kensington, London. Image: Wikipedia.
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Reproduction of Great Exhibition Policy, c1863.

In 1871 the names of the four Corsbies then working for the Life Society featured in an illustrated letter which was presented to Sir Samuel Bignold to mark his 80th birthday.

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Illustrated letter to Samuel Bignold on this 80th birthday, 1871
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Close-up view of life clerk names on  the 1871 letter.

The names of Horace, Henry John, and Charles also appear on a list of staff who attended Sir Samuel’s funeral in January 1875. Samuel Bignold died in the Surrey Street office which was also his family home and, according to contemporary newspapers, on the morning of the funeral hundreds of people filled the pavements of Surrey Street wanting to pay their respects:

‘As the time announced for the starting of the procession arrived, the Market-Place and approaches to Surrey Street became almost impassable by reason of the thousands who had there congregated.’

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Norwich Market Place, 1890s

Twenty-five carriages were included in the funeral procession which followed a route along Rampant Horse Street, the Market Place, London Street and Queen Street, through Tombland and along Magdalen Street to the family vault at Catton. All Norwich Union staff attended the funeral and they were allocated places in the carriages in order of seniority of service. Charles Corsbie should have been in coach three with his brother and cousin but instead watched proceedings from the window on the office stairs as he was too ill to attend. The staff list notes that he died the following month.

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List of clerks attending Samual Bignold’s funeral, 1875

Charles Corsbie was only 34 when he died and had still spent nearly twenty years working for Norwich Union. As for his brother, Henry John Abs Corsbie, he was first appointed an inspector for the South Eastern Region in October 1884, at which point his salary was raised to £225 pa with 2nd class rail travel and an allowance of 12s 6d for each day he was away from Norwich. Henry is the first of the Corsbies to be clearly identified in a photograph (see below) which was taken in around 1900. Apparently, he was still working for Norwich Union when he died, aged 73, in 1909 and the notice of his funeral refers to ‘upwards of 55 years’ service’ with the Society.

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Norwich Union inspectors, c1900.
Henry John Abs Corsbie sits second from the left in the centre row.

The next generation of Corsbies to join Norwich Union were the grandsons of Joseph Corsbie. In total, five of his grandsons began work for the company between 1877 and 1889. The first was Arthur Benjamin Corsbie who joined the Policy Department of the Fire Society in May 1877 and died in service just over two years later. In January 1882, Horace Frank Corsbie, the eldest son of Horace Webster Corsbie, joined the Life Society on a princely salary of £20 per annum. His time with Norwich Union coincided with the introduction of a Thursday half-holiday for clerks and the arrival of the office telephone, but he left in December 1891, eventually working as a municipal clerk. Next to join was Horace Frank’s younger brother, Ernest Benjamin Corsbie, who joined the Policy Department of the Fire Society in April 1883. The notice of his death in the staff magazine records that he also worked for the Loss Department, Accounts Department and Secretarial Department before being appointed head of the Marine Department. He moved to London with the department and died in service there in July 1917. Ernest also contributed to the social life of the office, he was auditor for the staff football club and wrote articles for the staff magazine, which is probably why his photograph appears in the magazine’s photograph album.

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Ernest Corsbie, c1900.
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Ernest Corsbie at his desk, c1900.

Also joining in 1883 was their cousin Walter Lewis Corsbie, who’s application letter he sent asking to join the Fire Society still exists in the archive collection. He was 22 years of age when he applied and had already served out his apprenticeship with Dexter & Moll the ‘old established family linen warehouse’ based in Upper Market Norwich. By the time he applied to join Norwich Union Walter was working at Henry Snowdon’s Drapery in Bridge Street, Norwich and, according to his letter, was looking for employment with a shorter working day. As seems to have been standard in application letters to the Society, he made it clear that he was not looking for a particularly high salary.

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Walter Lewis Corsbie’s application letter, 1883.

By the time Walter joined, Norwich Union Fire had already established a compulsory staff Superannuation and Benefit Fund which had opened the previous year. Each member of staff contributed 2% of his salary to the scheme and in return received a guaranteed pension and guaranteed payments to his widow and children if he died in service. The fund also provided medical attendance for each member of staff. This benefited the company by helping reduce time off for sickness and benefited the members of staff who could have access to a doctor, which might otherwise have proved too expensive in a time when there was no National Health Service.

It also provided an unanticipated benefit for future archivists as detailed reports were made each year about which staff had been attended by the doctor and these were recorded in the fund minutes. The reports contain fascinating information about staff who were working for Norwich Union during this period and what illnesses or injuries led to them having time off work. According to the reports, Walter was attacked with influenza on 3rd Feb 1890 and suffered with severe inflammation of the lungs but recovered sufficiently to return to the office on 31 March. However, he had suffered from symptoms of heart disease for several years which became rapidly progressive after this and ‘he was obliged to give up work on June 25 and finally succumbed on 8 August.’

The last of the third generation of Corsbies to work for Norwich Union was Louis Frederick Corsbie, the brother of Ernest Benjamin and Horace Frank. He had initially ignored family tradition and taken a position in April 1886 with Norwich and London Accident Insurance Association, a company which was later absorbed by Norwich Union. He obviously saw the error of his ways and in July 1889 left Norwich and London Accident and started work for Norwich Union Fire. According to the staff magazine, he spent the first ten years of his service in the Fire Policy Department before moving to the Fire Loss Department where he remained until he retired in 1930. He was known as ‘Uncle Louis’ to many of his contemporaries and was described as ‘a man of equable and genial temperament and popular with his colleagues’. He was an enthusiastic bowls player, secretary and librarian of the orchestral society from 1896, and played second violin in the office orchestra. His name appears in many concert programmes for the orchestral society and he was photographed with the orchestra in around 1902.

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Norwich Union Orchestra, c1902.
Louis Corsbie sits at the extreme right of the front row with the violin bow facing downwards between his legs.

Both Louis and Ernest were working for the Fire Society when it celebrated its centenary in 1897 and the staff received a 10% bonus, double that handed out a decade earlier to mark the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. Ernest can be found in this staff photograph taken for the centenary but for some reason Louis is missing.

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Norwich Union clerks at the anniversary garden party in 1897. Ernest Corsbie stands at the extreme right of the fourth row from the front.
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Norwich Union staff group photograph from around 1905. Ernest Corsbie is standing left of centre of the front row.
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Norwich Union staff outing, c1910.
Louis Corsbie sits third from the right on the back row

Both the names of Ernest and Louis Corsbie also appear in a booklet presented to George Oliver Clark on his retirement in 1905.

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George Clark’s retirement album, 1905
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A page from George Clark’s retirement album showing  the signatures od Ernest and Louis, 1905

A fourth generation of Corsbies started at Norwich Union when Harold Gordon Corsbie joined the Life Society in March 1900. A great grandson of Joseph Corsbie he appears in this group photograph of Life Society staff, looking much younger than his 18 years.

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Norwich Union life clerks, c1900
Harold Gordon Corsbie sits extreme right of front row.

Harold Gordon Corsbie can also be identified in two cartoons produced to mark the move of the Life Society into its new offices in Surrey House in 1904. Here he is moving with his typewriter across the road to his new abode.

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New Exodus cartoon showing move to Surrey House in 1904. H.G. Corsbie is the sixth image from the left carrying his typewriter. The unidentified cartoonist has exaggerated Harold’s small stature.

Harold stayed with the company until at least 1914 and cashed in his company life policy in 1924 before emigrating with his family to Australia the following year.

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H.G. Corsbie is in this photograph of staff taken in the Surrey House garden around 1910. He stands on the extreme right.

Harold was still with Norwich Union when these decorations were put up in Surrey Street to mark the coronation of George V in June 1911. The banner spanned the street between the head offices of the two societies and Harold probably had to pass under it to get to work.

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Surrey Street decorations for the coronation of George V, 1911.

It is also likely that he is somewhere in this photograph of life office staff in the Marble Hall of Surrey House at around the same date.

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Staff in the Marble Hall of Surrey House, c1911

By 1911 another Corsbie had joined the Fire Society across the road in Bignold House; her name was Elsie Gertrude Corsbie who joined the society in 1911 as a typist in the fledgling typing section. The Fire Society had first employed women in the Norwich head office in 1906 and the board minutes of 7th February that year record the decision to form a Typing Department:

“consisting of six lady typists with a member of the current staff to be appointed superintendent to act as an intermediary between the typists and the departments.”

The staff member chosen was Percy Noverre whose family had a long association with Norwich Union and who had come to insurance late in life having been a dancing master in Norwich (the family was well known in dancing and the Noverre ballroom in the Norwich Assembly Rooms was named after them). This photograph shows Percy and the lady staff, including Elsie, in around 1914.

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Norwich Union typing department, c1914
Elsie Corsbie stands at the extreme right of the back row. Percy Noverre sits front centre.

According to the memoires of another long-serving member of staff, Geoff Hart, Percy Noverre’s role was to prevent fraternisation between the clerks and the lady typists.

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Geoffrey Hart’s reminiscences from a staff magazine of 1938.

Elsie was Joseph’s great granddaughter, the daughter of Ernest Corsbie, and she moved to London with her father and the rest of the Marine Department during the First World War. The war may well have been the reason Elsie never married. When war ended, she returned to Norwich to the Secretarial Department where she spent some time as personal secretary to Sir Robert Bignold, the 5th generation and last of the Bignolds to run Norwich Union. She remained with the department until 1948 when she retired after 37 years’ service. Elsie was the last Corsbie to work for Norwich Union and her retirement ended an unbroken 138 years of family service.

There was, however, another descendant of Joseph Corsbie who worked for Norwich Union. His name was Geoffrey William Cecil Corsbie who joined Norwich Union Fire in April 1935, and was the 5th generation of Corsbies to join the society – and the great-great grandson of Joseph Corsbie. Geoffrey worked in the Workmen’s Compensation Department and died in 1944 at the early age of 28. The notice of his death in the staff magazine indicates that he was never physically very fit and remembers his skill on the piano accordion and his ability to mend all things mechanical, especially watches and clocks.

THE END

Source:
Gratitude and thanks to Anna Stone of Heritage.Aviva who made this blog possible. She contributed most of the information and supporting images contained herein; exceptions are annotated otherwise.