Preserving our heritage – a journey into the archives

Standard Life archives

News & Insights

MoneyPlus Features Team

15th June 2015 at 4:17pm

International Archives Day

Did you know that 9 June commemorated International Archives Day? A celebration of the hard work of archivists all over the world and the devotion they put into storing and maintaining our historical records.

How important is it to support the world’s archives? The answer is ‘very’, archives are not just about mothballing important data, for a company such as Standard Life who’ve been around as long as 190 years, they’re about accumulating, storing and maintaining our heritage.

After a recent trip to visit our archives to help pull together information for our timeline, I was pleasantly surprised to discover not a dusty dark room in the basement of Standard Life House, but a highly organised treasure trove of history, lavished with rare gems and stories charting our colourful past.

I spent a very pleasant couple of hours sifting through an abundance of curio, and here’s just a few examples of stories and pictures we’d have lost without the dedication and time our archivists have put in over many years capturing and containing them.

Blitz damaged policies

During the Second World War employees in both our London offices were evacuated to an office in Surrey, which proved a prudent move as our London office on Victoria Street was heavily hit during the Blitz.

As part of the ensuing clean-up, a keen volunteer scooped up a large pile of burnt policies and posted them to our Head office in Edinburgh in case they could be salvaged. They couldn’t be but our diligent employees kept them as a reminder and the envelope still sits in the archive today.

London Blitz

Policy Ash

The two-tonne PC

How times have changed. As I sit here penning this on my slick and modern PC, my heart goes out to the men and women that had to tussle with this monster!

1958 saw us commission the first computer for our head office in George Street and our archives still hold an image of it being installed. Described at the time as ‘relatively small’, the two-tonne machine had to be lifted in through an office window by crane.

The computer, originally purchased to calculate the 1959 bonus declaration, turned into a bit of a damp squib on its arrival. After all the bother and expense of installation, frustrated staff were unable to actually get the computer to work. PC help desks still being a thing of the future and no immediate help to hand, plus I’m sure many attempts of turning it off and on again proving fruitless, they were left resorting to their age old and traditionally labour intensive methods.

1st Computer

A horse called Snowball

John Hamilton became manager of our West Indies Branch in 1944, a highly successful manager who doubled our profits there; he was a real stickler for duty. In the summer of 1960, a near complete strike by the oil industry led to problems obtaining petrol and the majority of the population struggled to travel anywhere including to work. However, Hamilton, using his ingenuity and his horse, Snowball, managed to beat the traffic chaos in Port-of-Spain, arriving at the office bang on time each day. Snowball became quite a local celebrity and was kept in Hamilton’s reserved parking space in the Company’s Marine Square building, with a bucket of water and a bale of hay to keep him happy until the working day was over.

John Hamilton and Snowball

The travelling salesman

How’s this for a sales trip? I would fathom there’s not many red-blooded travelling salesmen that would fancy taking over this chaps territory.

John O’Hagan, the inspector of agencies at Colonial Life, undertook a remarkable sales tour around the world beginning in the autumn of 1862 and not ending until his return to Edinburgh in 1865, a staggering three years later.

John O hagan

1862 would see John embark on an epic sales trip that would have him navigate the treacherous Cape of Good Hope, suffer threat of attack by bushmen in Australia, chance exposure to exotic disease, swim swollen rivers and creeks and sleep under the stars in places so remote there was no lodgings to be found.

But his endeavours were not in vain, as he succeeded in forging fresh avenues for Standard Life opening up new branches across the world. He was practically an anthropologist, as each time he arrived in a new place he sent a report back to the Edinburgh office describing the economic conditions and the way of life of the people living there. And if he believed that there was a sufficient market for life assurance, he appointed sales agents and, in some cases, new local boards to conduct the company’s business.

His efforts were duly rewarded as on his return the gallant O’Hagan went on to become the manager of Standard Life’s London Branch, retiring in 1892 at the age of 65, sadly passing away two years later.

John O Hagan Map

Having their day

The archives certainly opened my eyes to Standard Life’s rich history and this cabinet of curiosities with artefacts ranging from air warden’s helmets to the first policy ever written was a veritable Aladdin’s cave of heritage, where everything seemed to tell a tale. I could have spent many more hours wandering through its lengths guided by of our resident and very knowledgeable archivist Karyn.

This short visit went a long way to hammering home a new found respect for archiving and archivists; Standard Life has an estimated 6km of records and just one person to manage it all. It’s heartening to hear through initiatives like Global Archivists Day that the hard work of people like Karyn is now being acknowledged across the world.

Share your thoughts

Join the conversation and follow us on twitter @StandardLifeUK and Facebook and let us know what you think about our journey into our archives.  Are you an archivist? We’d love to hear your thoughts if so!