Charles Povey: What We Learn from The Richard Branson of 17th Century England

20 Aug 2018

By Marjorie Brans, Managing Director of SSE

I just returned from London, UK where SSE Ontario staff attended the joyous 20th anniversary celebration of SSE as an international franchise. Our thousands of graduates scattered across the British Commonwealth know well the story of SSE’s founder, the legendary Michael Young (1915-2002).

With a reputation as the “supernova” of British social enterprise, Michael founded nearly 60 social enterprises, and our graduates can legitimately say they are descendants of social innovation “royalty”.

What SSE graduates may not know, however, is the the story of Charles Povey  , another visionary London-based social entrepreneur whose actions more than 300 years ago set the stage for long-standing collaboration between SSE and insurance giant RSA.

Think of Povey as the “Richard Branson” of London in the late 1600 and early 1700s. Povey tried his entrepreneurial hand at many a business including a parcel delivery service, coal mining, and manufacturing of musical instruments.

Having witnessed first-hand the devastation caused by the Great Fire of 1666, a blaze that is estimated to have burned down the homes of 70,000 of the City’s 80,000 residents, Povey also invented a fire extinguisher and the world’s first modern insurance company, Sun Insurance. Povey was convinced that insurance was essential to people’s livelihoods by making things better when the worst happened.

Sun Insurance went on to insure historically important customers and their assets, such as naval explorer Captain James Cook and Down House where Charles Darwin wrote his masterpiece On the Origin of Species. Wildly successful in his venture, Povey funneled a substantial portion of his wealth into charity by supporting widows and children and their education.

Spurred on by the industrial revolution, Povey’s company grew over the next three centuries into Royal and Sun Alliance, and eventually into RSA, the multinational company it is today with over nine million customers in more than 100 countries.

SSE’s growth into a successful international social franchise is in part due to the generous support of RSA both in the UK and Canada.

In 2013, RSA established a multi-year partnership with SSE’s head school in London UK and extended the relationship to the school in Canada a year later. Here in Ontario, RSA Canada has supported our programs with generous financial and in-kind support including mentorship, business expertise, office equipment, and space for program events.

The benefits of the collaboration are shared both ways.

Mark Edgar, Senior Vice President, Human Resources, RSA Canada explains that “this collaboration is rooted in our heritage as a business founded to meet a social need, providing protection to people and businesses. Working with SSE offers us not only a great opportunity to support community leaders who are reducing risks associated with social inequality and environmental stress, but also an opportunity to develop insights into the needs of small businesses and the fast growing social enterprise industry.”

While in London, I had the pleasure of visiting RSA’s offices where I met with Jennie Colville, Group Corporate Responsibility Manager, and Georgina Francis, Corporate Responsibility Manager.

In our meeting overlooking the spectacular skyline of the city, we had the chance not only to look back at the wonderful collaboration between SSE and RSA, but also to look forward to ways our cooperation might evolve in the context of SSE Ontario’s increasing work on climate change.
As the effects of a warming planet make themselves felt through more frequent bouts of extreme weather including wildfires, it will be social entrepreneurs who help communities navigate and adapt. Luckily, we have the splendid example of Charles Povey, founder of RSA, as our guide.