Friday, January 11, 2013

Scottish Widows' Fund - Founded 1815

At last autumn's used book sale, I found a treasure inside a book--two treats for the price of one! This surprise was a book mark and, as you can see, it is charming. I would think, from the design, that it dates to the 1930's or thereabouts. But it was the date 1815 that caught my eye. This was worth investigating.

I discovered that the Scottish Widows' Fund and Life Assurance Society was indeed founded in 1815, but it was three years before, in March 1812, that the idea had been broached of the need for "a general fund for securing provisions to widows, sisters and other females". The Napoleonic Wars were, of course, the cause for this concern.

The idea of 'life insurance' has been around since antiquity. Romans paid into 'burial clubs' and and traders looked for a means of providing benefits for their survivors. But the business of offering life 'assurance' really took hold in the eighteenth century. There were several English companies by 1800, but the Scottish Widows' Fund was the first such company in Scotland.

The story goes that several eminent Scotsmen met at the Royal Exchange Coffee Rooms in Edinburgh, in 1812, to discuss the possibility of the Fund. It took them three years, but in 1815 they were open for business. By 1821 they were doing so well that they purchased their first office building.

The sketchy details of the founding of the company are what really interest me. I tried to discover the names of the 'eminent Scotsmen' but the Scottish Widows' Fund did not answer my email. (Yes, they do still exist, and are a highly regarded provider of financial services, apparently.) I would love to know the names and the histories of the men who put this idea into action.

I was also fascinated by the location of the meeting. The Royal Exchange, I discovered, is a well know Edinburgh building begun in 1754 and completed in 1761. It was a commercial building specifically built for merchants to conduct their business.
Royal Exchange in green on this early map of Edinburgh
It was a handsome building, as the print of 1829 below displays. In its earliest years, it must have been an icon of the newest architectural designs and a gem of the 'Modern Athens'. The Royal Exchange--now the City Chambers of Edinburgh--still exists. And its exterior is very little changed from this view.
The fact that the 'eminent gentlemen' met in the Coffee Rooms of the Royal Exchange was interesting also. We know that the 18th and 19th century coffee-houses were extensions of gentlemen's offices and clubs and certainly this new building was well-provided with them--there are three.
This plan above must be one of the original architectural drawings of the Royal Exchange. The Coffee-rooms are marked D, E, and F, and are noted as being 'on a level with the street'. Coffee-room F has two smaller private rooms appended to it. Were they for meetings? Did the 'eminent gentlemen' meet in one of these rooms?

It is interesting to speculate on the 'widows, sisters and other females' that the Scottish Widows' Fund aided in its earliest years. Their stories were no doubt sad, but perhaps their circumstances were mitigated by formation of the Fund. My surprise find certainly led me to some interesting research and a fund of ideas for stories!

'Til next time,

After Friday's post, my readers rallied round with more information. Many thanks to Joanna and Eleanor for their help with the Scottish Widows Fund. 

Regency researcher extraordinaire Joanna Waugh discovered the Annals of the Scottish Widows Fund at the Internet Archive. It has all the information I wanted, and more. Follow the link for more fascinating facts.

From Twitter, @eleanormharris, an Edinburgh resident, sent me the following fabulous clipping from the Caledonian Mercury of 23/11/1815:


Joanna Waugh said...

I found one name associated with the fund "from the outset" -- Sir Francis Walter Drummond of Hawthornden. And check out p.20 of the "Annals of the Scottish Widow's Fund" for more founders' names.

Anne Gallagher said...

I love your research Lesley-Anne. It always spurs me to think up another story. As a matter of fact, something you said a few weeks ago, spurred me into my own research and ended up using it in my latest book. I'll be posting about my find on Sunday if you want to take a look.

Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

Joanna, you are such an amazing researcher! How did you find that? I Googled and searched but didn't come up with that--tons more information there about the Fund and its founders. Thank you!

Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

Oh, I'll certainly have a look, Anne! I'm so glad if I can initiate a train of thought and study for someone. I don't try to be definitive here, just incite curiosity.

Joanna Waugh said...

I don't know how I manage to find things others cannot. I first learned of this "talent" while researching the genealogy of my husband's family. I was able to discover information a professional researcher had spent 15 years looking for. Some people are lucky at cards and raffles. I'm lucky at research. :)