The Lutine Bell at Lloyd’s of London

When a ship sinks, significant assets slip beneath the waves – lives are lost, the vessel is fragmented, and the cargo is buried under shifting sands and colonizing sea life. The owner of said ship would be none too pleased, which is why seagoing vessels are insured against such calamities. Who would take on this risk? Enter centuries-old Lloyd’s of London, one of the world’s most famous insurance markets with roots in marine liability.

It was Lloyd’s who, in 1799, insured the HMS Lutine on a cargo transport from London to the German city of Hamburg. The HMS Lutine had begun its naval career two decades earlier as the French 32-gun frigate La Lutine, before being captured by the British at the Siege of Toulon in 1793, rebuilt and recommissioned as a 38-gun battleship for the Royal Navy, and then retired into duty as a transport ship.

Of course, this latest commission wasn’t an ordinary freight transport. Hamburg was then in the midst of a financial crisis. It was hoped the delivery of a vast sum of gold and silver, amassed by City of London merchants, would calm investors and prevent a stock market collapse. The Lutine was laden to the brim.

On October 9, 1799, sailing at full mast and with glistening bullion in tow, the ship foundered in a heavy north-westerly gale between the Terschelling and Vlieland islands off the Dutch coast. It splintered and sank.

Over $1.4 million in gold and silver bars and Spanish doubloons, equivalent to roughly $150 million today, was lost. All but one of the 240-strong crew perished in the breaking seas. Rumors even swirled that the Dutch crown jewels, en route from repair in London, were secretly stowed beneath the stern.

While a massive hit to Lloyd’s financially, the insurer settled the staggering capital loss promptly and in full, just two weeks after the disaster. In so doing, it bought the rights to the ship and its cargo, should any ever be recovered. For centuries, folks have been trying to do just that.

A bell rises and rings anew

Almost as soon as word spread that a gold-laden vessel had sunk in the relatively shallow seas off the Netherlands, there were fisherman, divers, opportunists, and adventurers clamoring for just a piece of the precious cargo. Most failed. In that stretch of the North Sea, currents turn at a moment’s notice, flash storms force ships onto shore, and the water depth fluctuates drastically. 

A handful of precious metals has been salvaged over the years, but despite extended operations, up to 80 percent of the original treasure remains undisturbed. On July 17, 1858, the ship’s bell was recovered from the wreckage and found its way to Lloyd’s, becoming a symbol of the insurer’s resolute commitment. The Lutine Bell has hung from the rostrum in four successive Lloyd's underwriting rooms: The Royal Exchange from 1859-1928; Lloyd's building in Leadenhall Street from 1928-1958; Lloyd's first Lime Street headquarters from 1958-1986; and, since 1986, the present Lloyd's building in Lime Street.

Historical photograph of the Lutine Bell at Lloyd's of London

Image: The Lutine Bell surrounded by a tangle of chains, as it had been found in the shipwreck and then originally displayed. The chains were separated when the bell was rehung from the rostrum of the Lloyd's underwriting room. Courtesy: The Times and Times Newspapers Limited.

When an underwritten ship was lost at sea (bad news), the Lutine Bell would toll once – giving any brokers and underwriters within earshot a signal to end all reinsurance transactions. If a wayward or overdue ship made it to port safely (good news), the bell was tolled twice, presumably to great sighs of relief. After a crack developed along the bell’s lip, it was decided to retire it from daily use and only ring it on moments of distinct importance. It last rang for a lost ship in 1979 and for the return of an overdue ship in 1989.

The Lutine Bell rang once at the sinking of the Bismarck during World War II. It rang once following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The crisp toll of the Lutine Bell was heard once after the deaths of Diana, Princess of Wales, and Queen Elizabeth II. Most recently, the bell was sounded twice to mark the accession of King Charles III. The Lutine Bell continues its tradition of commemorating important occasions, both bad (one toll) and good (two tolls).

Profile of the Lutine Bell

The Lutine Bell is not grand in scale, measuring 18 inches in diameter and weighing 106 lbs., but its gilt surface lends ceremonial splendor against the dark wood rostrum from which it hangs at the center of Lloyd’s cavernous underwriting room. The bell is simply engraved with the figure of a cross on its waist, splitting the year of casting 1779, and a royal emblem on reverse. Across the shoulder, the text SAINT JEAN is bisected by a fleur-de-lis.

Lutine Bell hangs from the rostrum in the underwriting room of Lloyd's of London

Image: The Lutine Bell hangs within the rostrum at the center of the bustling underwriting room at Lloyd's of London.

Why does the bell say St. Jean and not Lutine? Several theories have arisen. It could be that the ship La Lutine was originally to be called St. Jean, but the name changed before launch (and after the bell had been cast). Another researcher has suggested that the wrong bell was recovered in 1858 from the wreckage, meaning that the original Lutine Bell is still beneath the waves. Is either scenario possible? Yes, but neither is too likely.

A likelier theory posits that, while the British were rebuilding the French La Lutine into a Royal Navy battleship called HMS Lutine, they were assembling an amalgam of spare parts from other vessels. La Lutine would have been stripped bare before work had begun and perhaps that original bell went missing during the ensuing rebuild. Needing a replacement ship’s bell for the newly christened HMS Lutine, the shipbuilders grabbed one from another French vessel named St. Jean which, coincidentally, had been captured by the Royal Navy a few years prior.

We may never know the full story of the bell, just like we may never recover the full treasure from the wreckage, but the mystery of the inscription adds allure to the story of the enigmatic Lutine Bell.

Cover image: The gilt Lutine Bell hangs above the rostrum at the center of the Lloyd’s of London underwriting room located in the City of London financial district.