Lloyd's of London is possibly the most famous insurance company in the world, catering mainly for the shipping trade. Lloyd's had interestingly humble origins.
During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I there was an economic boom in England. There had never been so many rich and successful people at court and the demand for luxuries1 from around the world grew rapidly. To cater for this increased demand, English merchants would charter cargo ships to sail to far flung countries in order to bring back exotic goods for the courtiers to enjoy.
However, sea travel was extremely treacherous. The weather was highly unpredictable and many ships never returned, having been sunk in the heavy gales at sea. Most journeys were very long and many took years to complete. Supplies would run short and crews would often mutiny. They would take over the ship and any cargo it might have for their own profit.
Sometimes these merchant ships, filled with rich cargo, might find themselves the victim of a pirate attack. Spanish pirate ships would lie in wait in the Bay of Biscay, off the coast of Spain, to plunder any merchant ships on their way back to England.
All this made life very difficult for the merchants whose livelihood depended on their ships returning safely with their cargo intact.
A Need for Insurance
London, in those days, was a thriving seaport. So merchants plied their trade in the streets of the City near the dockyards. The most popular venues for trade were the numerous coffee houses in the city. Here the merchants would sell their wholesale goods to shopkeepers.
It was also in these coffee houses that merchants would complain bitterly about the number of losses they were sustaining as a result of cargoes being lost at sea.
Some businessmen, sensing an opportunity, began to make deals whereby they promised to reimburse to the merchants the value of the cargo if it did not arrive at port in a fit state for sale.
In return for this insurance they demanded a premium. The value of the premium varied with the value of the cargo and, more importantly, with the risk being undertaken. For example, the premium for a short journey that did not go past Spain would be less than for a long journey across the Bay of Biscay and round the southern tip of Africa.
Those that offered the insurance, the underwriters, would hope to make money on the shorter less risky journeys in order to pay for the losses made on the longer, riskier ones. It became a very profitable business and it grew rapidly.
Lloydï¿½s of London
One of these coffee houses where underwriting took place was owned by Henry Lloyd. His coffee house was located in Lombard Street, which was close to the docks and so underwriting was very popular at his premises.
Each morning Lloyd used to send his waiters down to the dockside to bring news of the new ships that had arrived that night and he used to post this information on the walls of his establishment. This became known as Lloydï¿½s List and was soon being published as a daily newspaper of that name.
As time went on insurance became extremely popular. After the Great Fire of London in 1666, insurance protection for property was provided by new insurance companies as well as at Lloydï¿½s.
The little coffee house in Lombard Street quickly became too small to house all the underwriters, and the premises were moved to a room above the stock exchange with box-like tables and benches. These tables became known as 'boxes' and the room became known as the underwriting room or just 'the room'.
Today the staff in Lloydï¿½s are still called waiters, although food and drink are not allowed in 'the room' during office hours. Lloyd's of London has itself grown to become the biggest insurer of shipping in the world, with the risks still taken and profits made by individuals or syndicates, known as 'names', gambling their own money.