George Goldsmith Kirby and the Albert Life Assurance Company

I’d noticed that the Albert Life Assurance Company had been mentioned in an article called The First Fund Managers: Life Insurance Bonuses in Victorian Britain by Dr Timothy L Alborn. I contacted him at Lehman College, City University of New York, where he Chairs the Department of History.

I explained that I was researching my family history and recently discovered that my great great great grandfather George Goldsmith Kirby (GGK) was the managing director of the Albert Life Assurance Company.

I wondered whether he could give us any clues about how he might of appeared ‘out of nowhere’. Was his sudden ‘arrival’ just a part of the changing social landscape in Victorian Britain, not unlike the way my great great great grandfather Lloyd Baxendale bought his way into the landed gentry through a fortune made from the Pickfords removal firm (see more here).

GGK’s sudden appearance still struck me as strange as I was assuming he must of been reasonably well educated and connected to have set-up a life assurance company, however quick witted he may have been. Obviously, being one of the first fund managers in an unregulated and emerging market would account for what appears to be his upward mobility, but how would he have got to be in the right place at the right time. I also thought GGK might have come from the colonies, based on the Albert Life Assurance Company’s Indian operations.

I wasn’t expecting Dr Alborn to answer this genealogical riddle, but thought it would be interesting to find out more about the “socio-economics” of GGK’s situation. He very kindly got back to me yesterday and explained that he didn’t know a whole lot more about GGK, but could clarify a few things. Firstly, he had nothing to do with the Indian side of the business apart from being involved in acquiring the two companies that had a presence in India (the Family Endowment and the Medical Invalid).

He was the original managing director of the Freemasons & General in 1838; this company changed its name to the Albert in 1849 and GGK managed it until he died in 1868. Apparently, being a “managing director” was a rarity among most life assurance offices, which typically separated salaried managers from directors. He was on around £400 a year, and to put this into perspective this was at a time when only about 10 per cent of population earned over £100 a year (from extract of Dr Alborn’s forthcoming book). It was, however, the 5% commission on sales where he made his money: in excess of £15,000 between 1863 and 1868, and probably at least £2000 a year for five years before that. It’s generous compensation packages like these that led to the failure of Albert.

It’s Dr Alborn guess (and it’s only a guess, since the Albert didn’t leave any records behind when it failed) that GGK was a mason, since he was “the original projector of the company” and it would be surprising that a non-mason would do this. He also explained that given the status of the company and when it formed, it was fairly normal for someone to come “out of nowhere” to manage such a firm in 1838. He thinks GGK probably didn’t start making a lot of money until the name change and the string of acquisitions; his guess is that he earned huge commissions (in the £10,000 range) for some of these, given the purchasing price. I just shows the kind of fortune my great great great grandfather Lloyd Baxendale must have made from Pickfords to have bought the Greenham Lodge estate in 1873 for £63,000.

The Albert was taken over by GGK’s son Arthur R. Kirby, who was appointed one of the liquidators in 1869. He tried to get another company to take over the Albert’s business, but failed. Dr Alborn mentioned that Arthur appears in most accounts as well-intentioned but clueless. He also assumes that GGK was generally up to no good from at least the mid-1860s on.

I’m grateful to Dr Alborn for getting back to me, and his insight and additional pointers, including a sneak preview of section of the section of his forth coming book which discusses the Albert (Regulated Lives: Life Insurance and British Society, 1800-1914, expected publication date 2009).

He also sent me the advertisement for the Freemasons & General, from Alexander Young’s A guide to life assurance containing an account of the origin and progress, an explanation of the system (London, 1844) (see close-up below).

I love the list of aristocratic patrons that lend an air or respectability to the Freemasons & General. I can’t but smile having been reminded of another more recent family company with a peer of the realm on the board. Maybe I should be reassured, rather than disturbed, by the way history has a habit of repeating itself.

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