Vic Keegan: Lloyd’s of London and the City’s historic layers

Vic Keegan: Lloyd’s of London and the City’s historic layers

The coffee house opened in 1686 by Edward Lloyd in Tower Street – today’s Great Tower Street – near the Tower of London soon became a popular place for seafarers, merchants and shipowners to exchange information of mutual interest about the movements of ships, trends in world trade and maritime insurance and more. Anyone from a docker to ship owner could join in, as long as they paid the penny entrance fee.

Lloyd’s tiny establishment gradually expanded into the global insurance colossus we know today as Lloyd’s of London. Over the years it developed linked businesses, such as Lloyd’s Register and Lloyd’s List, which provided daily news about everything from stock prices to high water times at London Bridge, along with news of ship arrivals, departures and accidents. Lloyd and his successors were among the first people to realise the importance of data to business and to make money out of it.

Small wonder that Samuel Pepys would frequent places such as Lloyd’s to get news that was often more reliable and up-to-date than what he learned in his day job at the Admiralty. Small wonder also that in 1675 Charles II had tried without success to shut down all the hundreds of coffee shops that already existed in London because they spawned too much criticism of the government. They were the mass media of their day. In this digital age we are used to companies such as Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft springing up from backstreet premises to become all-powerful global forces. But how many of them will still be with us in 300 years’ time?

Lloyd’s is one of the great financial success stories of our age. However, as the company has recently acknowledged, there is also a shameful side to its past because of its links to slavery from insuring an industry that transported an estimated 3.2 million Africans across the Atlantic. In a statement on its website Lloyd’s apologises for its involvement in slave trading and adds: “Prompted by the anti-racist activism of Black people and allies following the murder of George Floyd, Lloyd’s is on a journey of research and reflection as we acknowledge our historical connections to slavery, as well as the lack of ethnic representation – particularly at senior levels – that still exists within the Lloyd’s market.”

By a somewhat bizarre coincidence Lloyd’s iconic head office (below), designed by the Richard Rogers partnership, occupies exactly the same site today on the corner of Lime Street and Leadenhall Street as another, even bigger, organisation that was also besmirched by links to repressive colonialism and slavery.

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For over 130 years, from June 1729, this location housed the rebuilt head office of the East India Company (main image, location shown on map below), which in its time was the biggest company in the world. In its earliest days, around 1600, it was based nearby in the house of its first governor, Sir Thomas Smythe, which stood – would you believe it? – where the Walkie Talkie skyscraper is today.

Roger Williams in his book London’s Lost Global Giant recalls that the East India Company – known as the “Monster of Leadenhall Street” – had a startling 200 metre frontage decorated with statues that reinforced its view of itself as, in Williams’s words, “the controller of world trade with a monopoly everywhere east of the Cape of Good Hope”. It also had a private army of 260,000 men to enforce its rule of India, which lasted until the 1857 Indian Rebellion (or Mutiny) against it. The company was then de-privatised and brought under Whitehall’s command as the British government assumed direct control of India.

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There is a further twist to the story. The site on which Lloyd’s and the East India Company built their head offices has another link with colonialism, though of a totally opposite kind. It was not the result of Britain engaging in colonial expansion but being the victim of it when the Romans invaded.

Research by Museum of London archaeologists on the site of the Lloyd’s building has confirmed that it was the scene of successive phases of Roman building from the late first century. Finds at the eastern end of the five-acre forum built in Londinium included a basilica said to be the tallest building north of the Alps.

Other interesting features included the foundations of several rooms and evidence of a small stream which provided fresh water and, according to the archaeologists, may have been a stimulus to development. The stream was later blocked up as the city expanded and so became one of the earliest of the lost rivers of London.

No one, as far as I know, has suggested that Rome should apologise or compensate for its invasion which, for all its ills, left a positive legacy of buildings. London has many lost layers whose implications we are still coming to terms with.

This is the eleventh article in a series of 20 by Vic Keegan about locations of historical interest in the Eastern City part of the City of London, kindly supported by EC BID, which serves that area. The previous nine articles are here. On London’s policy on “supported content” can be read here.

Categories: Culture, EC BID supported series

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