Lloyd’s. Il Club at the historic London head office



What are dozens of artefacts, paintings and relics of legendary figures, such as Nelson and Churchill, along with relics of memorable events, such as the tragedies of the Titanic and 9/11, doing under the same roof?

We are in the Lloyd’s building, in the city of London (photo 02), that strange creation by the architect Richard Rogers, which astonished London’s finance community when it was completed 1986 (model of the building in photo 03). It isn’t easy to gain entrance unless you work there, but thanks to Mr Ivo Impronta, Chief Executive Officer of Marine Aviation & General Ltd (MAG), a Lloyd’s broker, we are able to visit this magical place, a couple of hours before everything comes to life and the hum of the negotiations begins. “Lloyd’s isn’t a company,” explains Mr Impronta, “it’s a market.  Inside this market, there are different competing companies, but they all appear with the same name (Lloyd’s) and they have a common solvency margin, a fund that prevents bankruptcy should one of the companies find itself in difficulty. Sometimes the various companies divide the insurance cover for a particular risk. This method of operating has existed for 300 years.”

The name Lloyd’s appeared for the first time in the London Gazette in February 1688. On Tower Street there was a coffee house that belonged to Edward Lloyd. Because of its proximity to the Thames and the docks, the coffee house was frequented by ship-owners, ship captains and merchants and it began to be used for negotiating contracts that resembled modern insurance policies. At the time, there were already over 80 coffee houses within the walls of the City and each one was a meeting point for entrepreneurs and merchants. Lloyd’s Coffee House specialised in providing information on maritime transport and travel. The history of Lloyd’s, which spans three centuries, can in part be understood from the pages of the Lloyd’s List, a specialist journal published since 1734 and one of the oldest surviving periodicals in the world.

One of the high points of our visit to Lloyd’s, which operates from a gigantic building that is part office and part museum, is the bell of Her Majesty’s ship, the HMS Lutine.  The bell used to be on board the French frigate Le Lutine (The Elf), which was captured by the British in 1793. Six years after its capture, HMS Lutine set sail for Hamburg. Its cargo of gold and silver was insured by Lloyd’s and valued at one million pounds. But it never arrived in Hamburg: it was struck by a storm and on 9th October it ran aground on the Dutch coast. They crew perished and Captain Lancelot went down with the ship. Lloyd’s paid full compensation for the value of the cargo. After numerous failed recovery attempts, the bell was found in 1859 and now hangs in the underwriting room at Lloyd’s. Tradition dictates that every time a ship cannot be found, the bell is rung once and when it is found, the bell is rung twice (photos 04 and 14). Losses of a certain size are still recorded in a register, which is also displayed in the dealing room and must be filled in by hand with pen and ink (photos 07 and 08). The bell has already been moved five times: from HMS Lutine it was hung for the first time at the Lloyd’s head office at the Royal Exchange (1890-1928), then in Leadenhall Street (1928-1958), and then in Lime Street (1958-1986), before moving to the current building in 1986. A painting depicts the official inauguration of the first building on Lime Street, in the presence of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, on 14 November 1957 (photo 11).

“There is another interesting episode connected to the relocations,” Mr Impronta tells us. The managers of Lloyd’s were so attached to the Committee Room that they asked Richard Rogers to transport its walls from the old building to the new head office (see photo 05). As often happens in Britain, tradition is combined with the most modern solution possible (in this case, the Lloyds’ Building in 1986).”

The great room features a painting of Winston Churchill under an oak tree at Chartwell. The career of the statesman crossed paths with Lloyd’s more than once. Having become the First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911, Churchill was better able to clearly perceive the historic relationship between Lloyd’s and the Royal Navy. At the beginning of the 20th century, the British Empire dominated global trade and the United Kingdom boasted the largest shipyards in the world. Unlike its competitors, Lloyd’s had always provided insurance cover against military losses. According to the Lloyd’s List, in 1936 Churchill visited the offices of Lloyd’s. He was invited to lunch by the Chairman, Neville Dixey, and then visited the underwriting room (see photo 13, an old desk used for negotiating), the library and the collection of memorabilia associated with Nelson, another icon of the United Kingdom. There is a collection (photo 01) containing the legacy of Horatio Nelson (photo 09) to Lloyd’s, in particular, a model of HMS Victory, the ship of the famous admiral, and silverware, which includes a special piece of cutlery, a combined knife and fork, with which Nelson managed to eat, even though he had lost an arm in battle.

But there is another reason why the insurers were grateful to Churchill: without the victory of the allied navies in the Battle of the Atlantic during the Second World War, the cost of the compensation in the event of defeat would have been too high and could have perhaps bankrupted Lloyd’s. In 1944, Lloyd’s showed its gratitude by electing Churchill as an honorary member of their Society. Displayed in this room are the letter of appointment (photo 12) and the painting of Churchill (photo 06), painted in 1954 to mark his 80th birthday. The following year, when Sir Winston announced his resignation as Prime Minister, the newspapers were on strike. But the Lloyd’s List, the only London journal (along with the Guardian of Manchester), reported the news on the morning of 06 April 1955.

Ten years later, on 25 January 1965, the day after Churchill died, the Lutine bell was rung as a sign of respect for the illustrious Honorary Member.

“Respect for the past creates a feeling of trust. Trust is at the heart of this business,” explains Mr Impronta. There are many episodes that illustrate how Lloyd’s rewarded the trust placed in it by its subscribers. In 1906, after the San Francisco earthquake, Cuthbert Heath, who had insured thousands of citizens against earthquake damage, insisted that claims for losses resulting from the fires that destroyed the city for three days after the strongest tremors should also be paid. These were the instructions to the agent in San Francisco: “Pay for everything that was owned by those who had our policy, regardless of the policy conditions.” If we then consider the Titanic tragedy, insured in January 1912 for 1 million pounds, the largest maritime risk ever insured, only those who don’t know Lloyd’s would be surprised to learn that the claim was paid in full within a month after the disaster. The most substantial “single” claim ever paid by Lloyd’s, however, was connected to the Twin Towers and the attacks of 11 September 2001.

The Club would like to thank Ivo Impronta and Marine Aviation & General Ltd (MAG).