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British Fire Insurers in Australia, 1860–1920: A Story of Enterprise, Luck, and Resilience

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 November 2020


The global expansion of British insurers in the nineteenth century has been a feature of insurance history that has highlighted the strategic nature of the multinational enterprise (MNE). The growth of the Australian colonies from the mid-nineteenth century attracted the interest of these overseas insurers. This article considers the challenges these firms faced and the way in which these trials were overcome. Effective networks were important in establishing a market presence in the Australian colonies. A combination of enterprise, luck, and resilience assisted in building these links. The experience of British insurers in the colonies sheds light on the processes of MNE expansion into markets beyond their range of tacit knowledge and expertise.

Research Article
Copyright © The President and Fellows of Harvard College 2020

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The author wishes to acknowledge the suggestions made by David Merrett, Geoff Jones, Mira Wilkins, and the anonymous referees of this journal on earlier versions of this article as well as the generosity of Dr. Garry Pursell in making available his extensive card index, which has enabled the identification of British insurers in Australia in the nineteenth century.


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87 Foreign Agency Memorandum, 30 Sept. 1878, Sun Letterbook, vol. 14, NSW, LMA; AIBR, 1879, 101; AIBR, 1882, 374.

88 Foreign Agency Memorandum, 30 Sept. 1878, Sun Letterbook, vol. 14, NSW, LMA.

89 AIBR, 1886, 351–52; Rodney Benjamin, “Private and Public Regulation of the General Insurance Industry in Australia, 1897–1992” (PhD diss., University of Melbourne, 1993), 46.

90 AIBR, 1893, 1066–67.

91 Westall, “David and Goliath.”

92 Pursell, “Non-Life Insurance,” 278.

93 Foreign Agent Report, 24 Nov. 1885 and 11 Sept. 1889, Sun Letterbook, vol. 26, LMA.

94 Foreign Agency Memorandums, 1863–1888, Commercial Union Foreign Letterbook, Australia, Pursell Collection. The Imperial Fire Office described the Commercial Union as “greedy and unprincipled.” Extracts from Foreign Agent Report, 20 Oct. 1882, Imperial Fire Office Letterbook, Pursell Collection.

95 Foreign Agency Memorandum, 26 Feb. 1880, Sun Letterbook, vol. 14, NSW, LMA.

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113 AIBR, 1931, 243.

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115 AIBR, 1895, 621. The Fire Offices Committee Foreign was established in 1869 to oversee foreign tariffs.

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118 Other fragments of information from other companies exist but not enough to draw conclusions on trends. Trebilcock for example, calculates net underwriting surplus on a five-year average for the Phoenix; see Trebilcock, Phoenix Assurance, 292. As this was not comparable it was not included in the table.

119 This agreement determined the location and number of agents, the appointment and remuneration of directors and chief agents, and the level of discounts given. In effect it prescribed the behavior of firms in relation to nonprice competition. Pursell, “Non-Life Insurance,” 412–18.

120 Supple, “Corporate Growth,” 70.

121 Supple, Royal Exchange Assurance, 297–300.

122 Pursell, card index, Pursell Collection.

123 Estimated numbers based on Victoria Government Gazette, no. 41 (23 Mar. 1910), 1920. These figures relate to the fire market only; a number of other insurers established in the new emerging markets and Lloyds brokers also started to make their mark.

124 This agreement was not dissolved until trade practices legislation in 1973 made cartel associations illegal.

125 Johanson and Vahlne, “Uppsala Internationalization Process,” 1416–17.

126 Johanson and Vahlne, 1417–18.

127 Mr Manvell's Report, 1877, Sun Letterbook, vol. 25, LMA.

128 Benjamin argues that the culture of price agreements was firmly established among British firms by the 1790s. Benjamin, “Private and Public Regulation,” 37; Supple, Royal Exchange Assurance, 90.