Whilst chatting to our esteemed editor about the iconic Willis Towers Watson building, I began reminiscing about my youth working there. This casual ruminating on the past prompted him to request an article on the subject. He suggested you may find it interesting! We’ll see…. If you were there, please forgive any errors. It was all a lifetime ago.

In 1974, as a callow youth of seventeen, I embarked on the dubious adventure of my career in the insurance industry with Willis Faber and Dumas, as it was back then.  Along with numerous other new recruits from Ipswich, I caught a coach from the town centre which transported us to sunny Southend-on-Sea where Willis had an office above a large department store called Keddies, a bit like Debenhams. 

My first job, along with other teens, was calculating the signed lines on insurance covers from the written lines. Frankly, it was tedious, so I won’t explain further, suffice to say it’s probably left to a computer these days. I do recall that we were supervised by a dragon of a woman. Think Mrs Slocum from Are You Being Served? without the humour. I also recall being ordered to my feet during a visit by Lord Chelmsford, a large Churchillian type who sat on the Board of Directors.    

Photograph: Brian Mateer’s  photograph of the Willis building, 1980s (from our Image Archive)

In early 1975, I forget exactly when, we excitedly relocated to the newly-opened, glass-walled spaceship that had landed in Ipswich town centre. All the newbies thought the Lego plastic flooring in reception, bright green carpets in the office space, yellow walls and royal blue upholstered chairs were amazing. Most of the ‘old lags’ who had relocated to Suffolk from dismal buildings in London and elsewhere, bemoaned the passing of the old days and sneered at their garish new surroundings. It may seem commonplace now but in 1975 open plan office space and bright airy buildings in the shires were a pretty new concept.

For the teens, this was a magical place: modern and bright with its hanging glass outer skin and a fabulous, subsidised, staff restaurant on the roof, surrounded by a roof top garden with wonderful views. Then there was the pièce de résistance, a swimming pool. I loved that pool; my dad dropped me off every morning around 7 am, on his  way to work, and I swam for half an hour or more before work. Often there was just me; it was eerily quiet and my imagination conjured up ‘things’ lurking at the deep end that were battered down by logic as I crawled through the water toward them. 

After washing the chlorine off and knotting a tie, the next stop was the cafeteria which sat on the ground floor next to the pool and behind the escalators. A mug of coffee and a sausage in a bap with mustard and brown sauce, then a short ride up the escalator to work. Sadly, for modern day employees, the pool has been covered over to make more office space and the cafeteria is a distant memory. 

The escalators, of course, are still an imposing sight as you enter the building. They rise up through a large light-well in the centre all the way to the roof top restaurant. Maybe you can get your morning sausage bap up there now. 

I remember potted palm trees at the top of each escalator. Jokes weren’t uncommon, we once left a plastic jug and a memo on a colleague’s desk, advising that it was her turn to water the trees on our floor.  She queried this task with the manager who gathered us together and tried to tell us to grow up whilst fighting a grin. 

We weren’t allowed to make private phone calls from our desks and had to go down to the ground floor to use payphones. How did we survive without the mobile? We were allowed to smoke at our desks – ah, the old days! I can remember the outrage when the budget increased the price of a packet of 20 to £1. Of course, the cost of living is relative; at that time I earned less than a £1,000 gross per annum. 

From around December until late February, each division was treated to an annual party, held in the restaurant. These events, known as ‘Beer & Bangers’, were for staff only and free. Imagine several dozen teenagers and twenty-somethings being given access to food and loads of free booze from 6 pm till late. Oh, the things that went on! But this is a family publication so probably safest to leave it with ‘a good time was had by all’.    

They were great days and I remember good friends. I won’t name names, but I recall one young lady who now lives in the States, another who sadly died from cancer a few years back – as did my sister-in-law, also a Willis alumni, not that long ago.  Others stayed and married each other and occasionally divorced each other, and/or rose to the dizzy heights of senior management. Some, like me, went to the City, either with Willis or, as in my case, to pastures new. 

At least one guy, there may be others, profited handsomely from a staff share option scheme and retired early. Someone told me the chap made a million plus but that’s possibly an exaggeration. 

As mentioned, I worked for Willis Faber & Dumas and I believe at some point the Dumas name was dropped.* Later the Willis Group merged with an American company, Towers Watson & Co., to form Willis Towers Watson. 

Whoever runs the shop, I hope all those 21st century teenagers starting life’s journey in the glass spaceship have as much fun as I did.      

Neil Thompson

[*We recall also ‘Willis Corroon’ in the 1990s. –Ed.]

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