Although the iron gates at 50 Fleet Street clearly show the words ‘Serjants Inn’, the dove and serpent above the wording have nothing to do with the former lawyer’s inn, other than consecutively using the same address. Serjeants Inn, Fleet Street, was originally one of the addresses from which members of the Serjeants-at-law conducted their business, the other was in Chancery Lane. In the 1730s, the Fleet Street lease was not renewed and the serjeants all moved to Chancery Lane. In 1737, the lease was taken over by the Amicable Society for a Perpetual Assurance Office (the Amicable Society for short) who erected a new building on the site in 1792/3, designed by Robert Adam (1728-1792).
In The European Magazine, and London Review of 1801, the above engraving of the new building in Fleet Street is given as well as an account of the history and regulations of the insurance corporation:
“Queen Anne, by letters patent, dated 25th July 1706, incorporated William [Talbot], then Bishop of Oxford, Sir Thomas Aleyn, and others named, and the future subscribers, by the name of the Amicable Society for a Perpetual Assurance Office”.(1)
In fact, the society was the brainchild of John Hartley, a bookseller in Fleet Street. The printing press was put to good use in advertising the new assurance society, for instance, in the anonymous Letter from a Member of the Amicable Society for a Perpetual Assurance; giving his Friend an Account of That Society, as it now stands Incorporated by Her Majesty’s Letters Patent of 1706. The author says that the original “design has undergone many material alterations, since the first proposals were publish’d by Mr. Hartley”, but if his friend wanted to know every particular, he must wait for the by-laws that were in the process of getting accepted.(2)
In the original plan a maximum of 2,000 members were to pay £7 6s for a policy and £6 4s annually. Members could hold up to three shares on one life. The funds thus collected were divided among those eligible for a payout “at an equal rate per share, with only such reserve as is necessary for defraying the charges of management”. The European Magazine assures the public that “on inspecting the accounts of the dividends for many years past, the average share appears to have amounted to about 200l”. If anyone wanted to have information, they could go the Society’s office which was open every day from 9 in the morning till 2 in the afternoon “where books containing the Charters, Regulations, and Names of the Members, may be had on application”. So much for privacy. But things did not always go as smoothly as suggested in the European Magazine account. In the early years, a clerk embezzled some £1,700; in 1713, the treasurer walked away with £6,500; and in 1830, the manager of the society absconded with the funds.(3)
The reason for the dove and serpent in the coat of arms of the Amicable Society have been forgotten, but they were already carved above the door of their Hatton Garden office in 1716. The motto is Prudens simplicitas (careful simplicity) which would be a great motto for modern-day bankers to adopt.
The original maximum of 2,000 members, was gradually increased; in 1790 to 4,000, in 1807 to 8,000 and in 1836 to 32,000. The set price per share was also abandoned in the new charter of 1807, premiums now depended on age and circumstances, something other insurance companies had already introduced earlier. In 1866, the Society merged into the Norwich Union Life Insurance Society, now part of Aviva and they moved their London offices to 50 Fleet Street. In 1912, the road was widened and during the rebuilding, the gates were lost. They were rediscovered in a scrapyard in 1937 and taken to the Norwich Union head office in Norwich, which proved to have been a blessing, as in WWII the Fleet Street buildings were destroyed. The gates were reinstalled in London in 1959 and moved to their present location in 1970. The gates now lead to a fancy hotel, but the link with the Serjeant Inn is not entirely lost. A group of solicitors have set up a barrister’s chambers, 3 Serjeants’ Inn, at 50 Fleet Street.(4) They are in no way related to the original Serjeants-at-law, but it is still a nice thought that the legal origins of the place and the connection with the Amicable Society are not completely forgotten.
(1) Volume 40, July 1801, pp. 7-8.
(2) British Library, shelfmark 8225.e.46.
(4) 3serjeantsinn.com. Information on the fate of the gates from their website.