262 High Holborn And Pearl Assurance

One of my issues with modern architecture is that at street level buildings tend to be very bland. Lots of glass, steel and stone cladding, falling far short of the original architects usual description which frequently seems to include the work “iconic”. Office buildings in the City today are often multi-tenant rather than built for a specific occupier and blandness of the exterior offers no indication of the occupier of the building.

Whilst the existence of the majority of companies is obviously to make a profit for their owners, the function within the company that produces these profits often appears to be a sideline for financial manipulation. Buildings that have any external pride or recognition of the business of the occupiers are now rarely seen.

This was not always the case, many older buildings in London retain symbols of their past occupiers. A couple of examples I have written about include Imperial Chemicals House on Millbank and the Faraday Building on Queen Victoria Street.  Unilever House at Blackfriars is another building that has company related decoration.

There is another building that has some fascinating decoration, 262 High Holborn has a relief that looks more suited to Glastonbury than adorning an office block in High Holborn.

The following photo is of 262 High Holborn, once a property owned by the Pearl Assurance Company. Their main office was the very grand 252 High Holborn, the edge of which is just seen to the right.

262 High Holborn

In contrast to their main building, 262 High Holborn was a very bland and functional office block but look to the far right of the building and an elaborate relief can be seen running up alongside floors 1, 2 and 3.

At first glance it looks as if the designer of this relief may have had some substance assisted creativity, but in reality this tells a company history and relationship with London.

262 High Holborn

I have wondered about the detail of the relief every time I have walked past, however a chance find of the book “Pearl Assurance – An Illustrated History” published in 1990 provides a full description of the individual elements of the relief and how they relate to Pearl Assurance.

The relief is a representation of the armorial bearings assigned to Pearl Assurance on the 30th November 1911. The following picture from the book shows the armorial bearings in their standard form and it may take a bit of back and forth comparison between the two pictures, but the common elements should be clear.

262 High Holborn

The book includes the following description of the individual elements from information gleaned from an article in the Pearl Magazine of 1950 reporting research by the editor of the time, Len Miller.

The book explains:

The Shield: In general terms the shield refers to the geographical origins of the company and the figure represents Pearl. The Covered Cup is associated with St. Dunstan, the patron saint of the Borough of Stepney, where the company had its first office, in Denmark House, Commercial Road. 

The Sword represents the City of London (the sword of St. Paul). as does the dragon in the crest above the shield. Both refer to the company’s association with the City through Adelaide House, London Bridge. 

The Wounded Hind and the Red Cross, or Saltire, are taken from the Arms of the Borough of Holborn. Although in 1911 the company’s head office was at London Bridge, the move to Holborn had been planned. The wounded hind refers to St. Giles in the Fields, an allusion to the legend that St. Giles received a crippling injury whilst saving a hind from the huntsman. The cross refers to St. George the Martyr and St. George, Bloomsbury, both churches in what was, in 1911, the Borough of Holborn. 

The Crest: This consists of a figure representing St Margaret, with a Pearl in her right hand, a palm branch in her left hand and a dragon at her feet. Saint Margaret of Antioch, the Christian daughter of a pagan priest, was imprisoned for her faith and devoured by Satan, in the form of a dragon. With the cross that she wore she possessed the power to burst the dragon open and she emerged unhurt. 

Margarita (Margaret) is Latin for a pearl, hence a pun links the name of the company with the legend. The palm branch is an emblem of honour and a symbol of success. 

The Motto: ‘Damus Plus Quam Pollicemur’ when translated reads “We give more than we promise’ “

The motto was not included in the relief on 262 High Holborn, however the rest of the relief is a brilliant interpretation of the armorial bearings of Pearl Assurance and provides a graphical history of the company.

The Pearl Life Assurance Loan and Investment Company Limited was formed on the 8th July 1864. It was very much an East London company with all the original directors living within a mile of the Aldgate Pump and the company was registered at the home of one of the directors in Commercial Street.

The name Pearl goes back further to 1857 and the Pearl Loan Company, also operating in Commercial Road, with four directors of the company also becoming directors of the 1864 company.

Pearl Life Assurance expanded rapidly and moved into offices in City Road, then in 1878 to Adelaide House adjacent to London Bridge. In 1914, the company had outgrown Adelaide House and a new, considerably larger office building was constructed at 252 High Holborn. In the same year the company changed name from Pearl Life Assurance Company Limited to Pearl Assurance Company Limited allowing the company to expand its range of products.

Pearl Assurance operated from 252 High Holborn until the 1980s when the company relocated to Peterborough. The old building not being suitable for a financial company transferring over to computerised operations.

252 High Holborn is now the Rosewood Hotel.

The building of 262 High Holborn is a bit of a mystery. I have seen references on the Internet to it being of 1950s construction. The website of the architectural practice T.P. Bennet refers to a period between 1967 and 1979 when the company opened a number of new offices  “as well as the main office at 262 High Holborn, designed by the firm for Pearl Assurance”.

The style of the relief does look more of this later period. I suspect that despite being adjacent to their head office, Pearl Assurance did not occupy the building. They were investors in property and 262 High Holborn was probably one of their investments. The book “Pearl Assurance – An Illustrated History” seems to confirm this as the book, which covers in detail the growth of the company, buildings occupied, staff facilities etc., makes no reference to 262 High Holborn.

The book is a fascinating history of Pearl Assurance from 1864 to 1989. From their East London origins, the company grew globally with offices across India, Africa, Australia and America. Pearl Assurance was typical of large companies in the 20th century in building a company culture and providing facilities for staff that embedded them within that culture. There are photos of the Sports Ground and Clubhouse at New Malden (now the Kings College London Sports Ground). There was the annual cricket match between teams from field and head offices, football tournaments, and a photo of the Policy Department Thames river outing in 1926:

262 High Holborn

1989, the year of publication, was a crucial year for Pearl Assurance as in that year the company was purchased by the Australian Mutual Provident Society. At the time of purchase, AMP’s managing director stated that “We aim to build upon its (Pearl) strengths, and continue the impressive process of change currently underway. This will involve retaining the Pearl name and identity whilst also expanding the business.”

It was not to be. This Guardian article from 2004 details the demise of the company. It was later spun off and amalgamated with other assurance companies and funds and the Pearl Assurance name disappeared.

The company had a significant amount of archives and there was a Company Archivist. The archives included not only documents and photos covering the history of Pearl Assurance, but also artifacts such as clay pipes from the 17th century found during excavations at 252 High Holborn. I believe that the National Archives now hold a significant part of the Pearl Assurance archives.

Today, the relief on 262 High Holborn is the only visible sign in London that I am aware of, of a company that operated in London and was a major employer for well over 100 years – I am pleased that I now understand the meaning behind the details of the relief.

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9 thoughts on “262 High Holborn And Pearl Assurance

  1. David Barnard

    Very many thanks
    In The Book of Bloomsbury (Gordon and Deeson 1950) the authors comment on the Pearl Assurance Building that it is ‘immensely solid and imposing, as are the headquarters of most domestic insurance concerns who have studied well the psychology of the people with whom they do business.’
    Again, thanks – I look forward to your posts
    Best
    David

    Reply
  2. David Brown

    I have wanted an explanation of this design for years. Thank you for finding the details. It would be good to know the designer/sculptor though. I guess Bennett’s archives might help.

    Reply
  3. Geraldine Moyle

    What a wonderful post. A cryptic puzzle in plain sight for all these years & you’ve found the key.

    Reply
  4. Malcolm

    Even if Pearl never occupied 262 High Holborn, I suspect it was originally intended to be an annex to the main building. This Streetview image of the alley between the two buildings seems to show that they were linked at second floor level and above: https://goo.gl/maps/R3qWnfGMew12. There would have been no point in building the link over the alley if 262 High Holborn had been intended just for investment rather than occupation by Pearl.

    Reply
  5. Mike Paterson

    Excellent. The usual story of the takeover company giving assurances (pun not intended) etc respect for heritage and traditions blah blah then immediately reneging. We’re such mugs. The Pearl Assurance building in Harare/Salisbury, Zimbabwe/Rhodesia has long been a landmark with a massive globe lantern on its roof, representing a pearl, of course. Seen from miles in all directions day and night. I’ll email you a picture.

    Reply
  6. Ben

    The Pearl Assurance Company building, which is now the Rosewood Hotel, also used to be the London Renaissance Chancery Court Hotel. It was my favorite hotel when coming to visit London from the United States – beautiful and grand – I must have stayed there 20 or 30 times. The interior of the hotel, preserved from the days of the Pearl Assurance Company, is well worth noting. Unbelievable marble and wood staircases especially. The building was also used as the set location for a variety of movies, include Wilde (about Oscar Wilde, using the fantastic marble staircase), one of the Mission Impossible movies (can’t remember which one), and also one of the Jason Bourne movies (a restaurant scene). Please consider going inside the building if they would let you, and taking some photographs there.

    Reply
  7. London Remembers

    Thank you for this great post. Do you know the pair of similar large reliefs on the Woolworths building in Marylebone Road, corner Harewood Avenue? https://goo.gl/maps/q5xUkAtDdwn Just as puzzling as the one in your post – we’ve not done any research ourselves except fail to find a Woolworth logo of any complexity. Certainly about the same date, possibly the same sculptor. Any one got an “illustrated history of Woolworths”?

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  8. Mrs Q.

    I worked for the Pearl at 252 High Holborn , as an junior clerk, my first job on leaving school. I was there from 1968-early 1970, when I left to take up a career in engineering drawing. A few years ago, I was in the area for a gig with friends from Hamburg, and was telling them about the building. One of the doormen chatted with us outside, (this is when it was the Renaissance) and when I told him I’d worked there in the late 60s, he invited us in and gave us a tour of the first two floors. As a teenager, I’d only wanted to get away from the place to somewhere a lot more hip, and had never really taken in just how grand a building it is – all the marble, the vast spread of the staircases, the imposing corridors. After wandering around, we left for the bar on the other side of the main entrance. If anyone wants to have a look at the interior, ask whoever is on the door. At 17, I had a boyfriend who worked at 240 High Holborn and he told me that from his window, he could see the Pearl Building leaned slightly outwards – a mildly leaning tower of Pearl!

    Reply

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