The Historic London Bell That's Off Limits To The Public

Eleana Overett
By Eleana Overett Last edited 81 months ago
The Historic London Bell That's Off Limits To The Public

There are only two ways for the public to see the Lutine Bell stationed in pride of place in Lloyd's underwriting room: hoping that Lloyd's takes part in the next Open House London, or if you know someone who works there, they can arrange private tours. Otherwise, you're sadly out of luck when it comes to getting a glimpse of this piece of nautical history.

Should you manage to wrangle a visit, a grey visitor badge will grant you access to the first of a series of impressive escalators that climb the building's majestic atrium. You only need to take the first set to arrive at the vast underwriting room, which becomes a hub of frenzied activity from 11am until close of the day. The next three open floors also contain underwriting rooms, but that's not why we're here.

It's hard to miss the Lutine Bell — it's almost luminescent, its gilded coat shining brightly against the contrasting beautifully carved dark wood structure around it.

The bell began life on French naval frigate La Lutine, which was captured by the British at Toulon in 1793. The ship was consequently renamed HMS Lutine and sailed under the British flag for six years as a battle ship and then as a transport ship until its final voyage to Germany in 1799.

On 9 October 1799, HMS Lutine was transporting a vast sum of gold and silver insured at Lloyd's and bound for Hamburg, when the ship was blown onto Dutch sandbanks and wrecked. Of the 240-strong crew, only one survived, and the entirety of the ship's cargo was lost. It was a huge blow for Lloyd's financially, but it also cemented the company's reputation for settling even the most incredible losses.

Many attempts were made to recover the cargo with limited success, but in 1858 the bell was recovered from an entanglement of chains and eventually came to be hung in Lloyd's underwriting room in the Royal Exchange. When Lloyd's moved to Leadenhall Street, and then to Lime Street where it is today, the bell moved with it.

The bell had a very important purpose at Lloyd's. When overdue ships came in safely, the bell was rung twice to sighs of relief from the underwriters. If a ship was lost, the bell would ring once. This way, everyone knew the fate of the ship and the cargo they had insured at the same time.

When a ship went down, an entry was also made in a log book, of which there are now many preserved in storage at Lloyd's, though one historic copy is always on display beneath the bell.

Eventually, after years of ringing, the bell developed a crack in its structure. With the advent of the internet and email, ringing the bell was no longer deemed necessary, but it is still rung on ceremonial occasions or in times of great tragedy, such as on the day of the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York.

However, lost ships all around the world are still recorded in log books at Lloyd's, with the same sweeping handwriting and traditional ink pen.

The latest entry occurred the day before our visit. The information was obtained from a press report as you can see below, a little differently to how it was once done over 100 years ago.

A prevailing mystery surrounds the origins of the Lutine bell — it has the name 'St Jean' instead of Lutine engraved on its shell. Two theories have been put forward by shipwreck historian Tom Bennett, which sound pretty feasible.

The first is that the ship La Lutine was originally to be called St Jean while the bell was being made, but the name changed when the ship was launched.

The second theory takes into account that another French ship called St Jean was captured by the British in 1779. When the British recommissioned La Lutine as HMS Lutine, they would have stripped her of her finer fittings, furniture and original bell. Once the battles she was being used for were over, she would have needed a bell and the one from St Jean could have been fitted for that purpose and never removed until the ship went down off the shores of Holland.

Once you've had your fill of the bell itself, you can also peruse a display cabinet dedicated to Admiral Lord Nelson. As underwriters of marine insurance, Lloyd's was heavily indebted to the protection and safety the Royal Navy and Nelson provided for ships to cross the oceans. It even donated a silver dinner service to Nelson, which has since been returned to form part of Lloyd's own collection. Other memorabilia on display includes a telescope reportedly given to Nelson by his uncle, a wooden box presented to him made from the timbers of the San Josef of 1797, a cheque signed by Nelson for £300, and several swords.

Want to know more about London's bells? You can read more here, from well known Big Ben to the Death Bell.

Last Updated 28 July 2017