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The feminisation of the insurance office during the 19th century

Blog article

As Inga Beale, the first female CEO of Lloyd's (and CII's Deputy President), is made a Dame in the 2017 New Years Honours in recognition of her contribution to the economy, this article traces the roots of female employment in our profession.

Find out: 

  • How women were introduced into the profession
  • Which company was the first to take on female staff
  • When the CII lifted its ban on women taking its professional examinations

During the first half of the 19th century the insurance office was an exclusively male territory and there are a few accounts of widows who carried on running family businesses after the death of their husbands. The earliest known female agent was Ms Barnes, who in 1822 was appointed by the Norwich Union Life Insurance Society to take over her late husband's business. These women were an absolute exception and unfortunately their stories were largely undocumented.  

Chronicles of women's work during that period are scarce for several reasons: women's work was difficult to classify and was not regarded as important enough to record, especially when this involved home-working or helping in a family-run business. Women may have also preferred to keep their earnings a secret from their husbands - let's not forget that until the introduction of the Married Women's Property Act 1870 any money earned by a woman automatically became the property of her husband.

After 1841 professions were included in the census, allowing us to draw a better picture of female employment. It was a time when public discussion of women's work was proliferating and the government was beginning to legislate about certain aspects of women's working conditions. By then, industrialisation was wide-spread and as a result commercial activity soared creating larger companies who in turn created larger heaps of paper-work to process.

Women provided a cheap and flexible workforce to the expanding insurance business, and were considered temperamentally better suited than men to undertake dull tasks.

Women's entry into the insurance office was not motivated by the good will of their male counterparts. Female clerks were employed as cheap labour to undertake routine tasks in response to the demand of expanding businesses. It was widely assumed that women were innately better suited to repetitive work, 'such work as copying out policies which could be done almost, if not quite, as well by girls as by men, and what is still more important in these days of small dividends, at a considerable reduction of costs' (Liverpool Clerk's Journal, 1888).

The Prudential opened the path to women's work in insurance. As early as 1855 it employed women as 'canvassers', who pushed working-class housewives into taking life cover - once potential business was identified, they would pass it on to the agent and would keep a commission. Interestingly, they were not allowed to work on Saturday, probably because the husbands were home.

The Prudential employed the first female clerks at the end of 1871. Others followed, all specialising in 'industrial insurance', another by-product of the Industrial Revolution which gave life cover for weekly wages. Having to deal with small and numerous sums, these companies were forced to economise in staff costs earlier than others.  

Qualifications were important in the selection process, but almost as important was that applicants 'must all be the daughters of professional men'. 

Technical advances such as telegraphs, typewriters and card indexes also required extra hands to operate them. The feminisation of the office was encouraged by the mass adoption of the shift-key type-writer during the 1890s, which was easier to operate than previous models. Female typists, who were themselves referred to as 'lady type-writers', began to substitute male operators in insurance companies. In 1900 the Yorkshire in Glasgow, the Friend's Provident and the Thames & Mersey in Liverpool employed their first female typists. Companies in London followed. 

Qualifications were important in the selection process, but almost as important was that applicants 'must all be the daughters of professional men' (The Office magazine, 1890). They were generally young middle-class women who could afford to take on poorly paid jobs and expensive training. Subsequently, business colleges flourished, often run by women entrepreneurs, who offered tuition in shorthand, typewriting and bookkeeping. However, women faced discouragement to advance their formal insurance studies until 1919 when the CII lifted the bar on women sitting exams. 

Business growth and technical innovations played a decisive role in the employment of women in the 19th century. The numbers speak for themselves: in the 1851 census, nineteen women were listed as commercial clerks; by 1891 there were 17,859.


  • A sense of security: 150 years of Prudential. Laurie Dennett. London: Granta Editions, 1998.
  • The white blouse revolution: female office workers since 1870. Gregory Anderson (ed.). Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989.
  • Women in England 1769-1914: a social history. Susie Steinbach. Phoenix, 2005.
  • 'Women in insurance and in the CII'. CII permanent files. 1960s.
  • 'Women in insurance' by Hugh Cockerell, in CII Journal. London: CII, 1980.
  • 'Womens work' by Professor Pat Hudson. BBC website. Accessible via [] 

About the Blog

This blog post inaugurates a series of articles in which we will explore both the roles played by women working within the insurance profession and the evolving attitudes towards them since the late Edwardian era. In the next article we will look at what was a day in the office like for these pioneers.