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Insuring the contents of a house
in pre-WW2 England

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In July 1938 my parents married and set up home at 9 Brook Avenue, Edgware, Middlesex on the northern edge of London. The house was quite an ordinary semi-detached, typical of the pre-WW2 houses of London's suburbia. My father insured its contents from July 5th 1938 in what was called a 'Hearth and Home' policy from the Prudential Assurance Company. Both it and its subsequent endorsements have survived. They give unique insights into the social norms and value of money at the time.

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The physical size and paper quality of the insurance policy

What is immediately striking about the policy document is that it is on one very large and heavy sheet of paper.

1938 house contents insurance policy from London's Prudential Assurance Company, showing its large size

House contents insurance policy from London's Prudential Assurance Company, showing its large size.

1938 house contents insurance policy, folded to show its front face

The folded house contents insurance policy.



1938 UK house contents insurance policy, thumbnail

1938 UK house contents insurance policy.

Click this thumbnail for a larger, legible version.

The photo gives an indication of its size, but does not convey the parchment-like feel of the paper which is quite thick.

World War Two with its ensuing shortages was still more than a year away. So it is not surprising that the size and paper quality of the policy document show a left over from earlier times when official documents were written on parchments. These were often of odd sizes and generally larger than the paper size used to today. So I suspect that the Prudential Assurance Company was aiming to impress with tradition and reliability.

Subsequent endorsements, stuck onto the policy in later years - ie during World War Two and in the following years of continuing shortages - are much smaller in size and on thinner paper, as was my father's only surviving house buildings insurance policy of a decade later.

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Insights into social norms from the insurance policy

Some parts of the contents insurance policy highlight how much life has changed since the 1930s. Yet other parts are rooted in the past, even from the perspective of ordinary working class households in London's suburbia just before World War Two.

You can read the full details from an enlarged image by clicking the thumbnail, but here are some of the particularly anomalous inclusions:

A. Loss or damage cause by

Articles dropped from aircraft

This inclusion highlights the fact that the aircraft of the 1930s were open to the air, such that the pilot could, if he so wished, drop things overboard.

Impact with horses or cattle

Horse drawn vehicles were still in widespread use. Motor cars were increasing in number, but were still mainly owned by young men who were fairly well off.

B. Servants' goods

Apparently the Insurance Company regarded it as was quite normal for anyone insuring the contents of their house to have servants. My genealogy research suggests that this was probably the case before World War Two. Those who were servants or of the servant classes probably didn't own enough for the possibility of household insurance to enter their heads. (This was in contrast to insuring for funeral expenses, which was the norm for everyone except the very poor.)

C. Damage to mirrors except hand mirrors

This clearly applied to wall mirrors, possibly of the type that hang in stately homes and which must have been relatively expensive.

E. Loss of rent

Many of the people owning property might well be renting it out.

F. Accidents to servants

See above on servants.

No-where in the policy is insurance of the house itself mentioned. Perhaps my father thought that this was unnecessary, or perhaps he did insure the house but the documents haven't survived, or perhaps war had broken out by the time he thought about it. I don't know whether insurance companies insured buildings in World War Two when they might very probably be razed to the ground in the German blitz. When my grandparents' house was bombed out of existence, the Government paid some compensation after the end of the war, but my grandparents still lost out significantly. (A policy of my father's for house insurance does exist but it dates from 1948.)

Gold and silver articles, jewellery and furs

Gold and silver articles, jewellery and furs were specifically excluded from my father's policy, although they could have been included for an additional premium. Not that my parents would have had any such things apart from my mother's engagement and wedding rings.

Note the specific mention of furs. These were status symbols when I was growing up, and they were from animals, as there were no man-made imitations. At social gatherings like weddings, women would bring out their furs. The better-off would have fur coats, and the less-well off would sport a length of fur round their collars, often with the head of the unfortunate animal still in position - with glass eyes. To add to the quality of the status symbol, the type of animal was important. One of the most demeaning things to be said about a woman was that she was sporting 'a bit of rabbit'.

If you can shed more light on anything here or explain it more clearly, please let me know.

Pat Cryer, webmaster

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