History at the heart of our business

This week’s blog focuses on the work currently being undertaken by the Standard Life Group Archive to turn their underused archive into a first class business resource.

Since it was founded in 1825 (as the Life Insurance Company of Scotland) Standard Life has collected records, photographs and artefacts relating to its history.

In November 2014, a full-time archivist was appointed to manage the collection. One of the first decisions taken was to relocate the archive from Portobello in Edinburgh to a central location in the city, opposite Standard Life’s global HQ on Lothian Road. The aim was to make the collection more accessible for its employees and highlight significant pieces of Standard Life’s near 200-year history.

With only one archivist, the 18-month timescale was ambitious. Support was on hand, with three volunteers working one day a week to list, securely pack and ready the collection for the move to its new home. Items in the move included an award made from an empty World War 1 artillery shell, a plaque of the company’s crest from our offices in Uruguay circa 1910, and copies of our employee magazine – The Standard – dating back to 1922. There were also variety of branded items, including pens, umbrellas, tracksuits, hockey shorts, light up pigs and rubber ducks!


The collection was successfully moved to its new home in March 2016. And thanks to the use of a specialist archive moving firm, nothing was damaged in transit! The new space consists of two temperature and humidity controlled rooms that ensure the collection is kept in optimum conservation conditions. Mobile shelving maximises available storage space and display cases were installed to allow the archivist to run tours and to showcase the collection.

Work has now started on location-mapping the records to ensure everything is in the right place and the collections are accessible. Future plans include a launch event to officially open the new Standard Life company archive, and a new catalogue to make the collection and historic records available to our people right across the company. The aim is to reach as many people as possible and promote the unique stories and items which make up the company history. We’ve included one such story about one of our more forward thinking managers below.

Who: William Thomas Thomson

Job: Manager of Standard Life

Where: Edinburgh

When: 1834-1878
william 1

The first half of the nineteenth century was an exciting time for Standard Life. The light at the end of the tunnel was becoming brighter as the company emerged from a short lived slump, with a steady rise in profits and huge potential for expansion.

The man largely responsible for this turn of fortune was William Thomas Thomson, arguably one of the most influential and forward thinking managers the company has ever had. Thomson joined the company in 1834 as secretary and was promoted to manager in 1837 after a string of well timed ideas helped revolutionise the company’s expansion strategy and improve company processes. It has been said that “There can be no doubt that since he joined Standard Life in 1834, Thomson had been the driving force behind its development”.[1]

Thomson believed that acquisition as well as business growth was the key to company success; a revolutionary idea among the financial sector elite of the time, and to this end Standard Life absorbed eight other companies between 1844 and 1878, including Commercial Assurance, in 1846 and the Victoria & Legal & General in 1865.

Acquisition was just one of the business growth strategies implemented by Thomson. His time at the helm of Standard Life (1837-1974) was also the company’s largest period of international expansion. Thomson formed the sister company Colonial Life Assurance Company in 1845 which was designed to share offices and staff with Standard Life; a move which at the time was highly unusual business practice. The company not only increased Standard Life’s profile in the Canadian Market, but over a thirty year period opened new offices in London, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, India, Uruguay, China, South Africa and Hamburg.


A large portion of Colonial Life’s success overseas (and that of Standard Life in the UK) can be attributed to Thomson’s’ dedication to the proper use of morbidity statistics. Thomson worked closely with Robert Christison, Standard Life’s second appointed chief medical officer, to revise the way in which insurance applicants were questioned on their lifestyles. “As its name implied, the company was focused on accepting only good or standard lives. On the advice of the medical officer those considered to be high risk were either charged an extra premium or were not insured at all”.[2]

These management strategies and principles were continued after Thomson’s retirement in 1878 by his successor, and his son who had been born in the managers flat above our George Street Head Office, Dr Spencer Campbell Thomson. Spencer managed the company until 1904, during which time he also published four books related to medical science and mortality.

Outreach is important to the archive and it is hoped that all the work being done now will lead to a first class resource to be used by both staff and researchers alike. For more information please contact the Company Archivist, Karyn Williamson at karyn_williamson@standardlife.com .


[1] Moss Michael, Standard Life 1825-2000, Mainstream Publishing, 2000, pg106

[2] Moss Michael, Standard Life 1825-2000, Mainstream Publishing, 2000, pg58

One comment

  1. Olivia Clarke

    Hi Karyn. What an interesting article! My name is Olivia Clarke, the great granddaughter of Spencer Thomson and great great granddaughter of Wlliam Thomson. I happen to be in Edinburgh (from Australia) for the next few days, perhaps we could have a chat?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: