Lloyd’s on Its Eminence

XII. Lloyd’s on Its Eminence

AT the commencement of the eighteenth century, the position of Lloyd’s had become a very singular one, resembling, though only superficially, that of the East India Company. Like the body of simple merchants who from their offices in Leadenhall-street ruled an immense empire, so the directors of Lloyd’s, humbly styled the “Committee for managing the affairs of the Coffee-house,” exerted a far-reaching sway over British commerce, influenced the movement of merchant fleets, and were acknowledged by the government as the heads of a powerful institution. Prime-ministers had to keep on good terms with Lloyd’s, were it only to obtain the earliest news of what was going on all over the world, reports of important events usually reaching the Coffee-house in the Royal Exchange some time before getting to Westminster and Whitehall; and in all questions concerning the protection of the kingdom’s foreign commerce, whether referring to the convoys assigned to merchantmen in time of war, or to treaties of shipping and navigation with other countries, the Committee of Lloyd’s tacitly assumed towards the government the position of a power in the state. It could not be but a matter of just pride and gratification to the body of the members of Lloyd’s; but the pride, if it existed, was an ennobling one, engendering the resolution of worthy deeds. Two such, standing forth as singularly notable achievements of Lloyd’s, were accomplished within a couple of years, at the commencement of the nineteenth century, the first the institution of life-boats around the coasts of Great Britain, and the second the establishment of the famous Patriotic Fund.

In the institution of life-boats the members of Lloyd’s took a leading share, owing to a rather curious combination of accidental circumstances. The inventor of life-boats was Henry Greathead, a native of Richmond, in Yorkshire, born January 27th, 1757, the son of an excise officer. Having learned the trade of boat-builder at Shields, he went to sea after the expiration of his apprenticeship, embarking in 1779 as ship’s carpenter in a voyage to the West Indies. The vessel in which he sailed, nominally bound for the Island of Granada, had, in reality, a quite different destination—that of being wrecked on the Goodwin Sands. It had become a sort of business at the time to scuttle vessels, or run them wilfully on shore, so as to defraud the underwriters, and it was on this errand that the vessel in which Henry Greathead found himself had left Shields. Being a shrewd man, much given to reflection, he saw the state of affairs at a glance, perceiving that the vessel had but an insignificant cargo, while he knew that she was heavily insured. Communicating his suspicions to some of his shipmates, they kept on their guard, and managed even to keep clear of the Goodwin Sands, but only to incur their destined fate a little further on the road. Seeing himself foiled in his intentions, the captain turned the head of the vessel upon the French coast, succeeding at last to run her upon a sand-bank not more than a couple of miles from Calais Harbour. His next movement was to take, in company with the mate, to the best boat, to get back to England, but before he could accomplish his purpose, the crew, strongly objecting to be drowned for the benefit of other parties, had sent up distress signals. The consequence was that, in the course of half an hour, a number of boats, some of them manned by soldiers, had come from Calais and taken possession of the vessel. England being at war with France, the good people of Calais rejoiced at having got, at very little trouble, another prize.

Nothing daunted by his ill success in not getting back to England, the captain under whom Henry Greathead served went before the authorities at Calais, making an affidavit that his vessel had been lost by stress of weather, and calling upon all the crew to sign a document affirming it. A few did so, but Henry Greathead not only absolutely refused, but induced several others not to lend themselves to a false statement intended for a fraud. To prevent it, he moreover put himself in communication with Lloyd’s, and the consequence was that the underwriters refused to pay upon the policy, directing the owners to the law courts, an intimation which they were careful not to follow. The honest and manly conduct of Henry Greathead, while it gained for him the gratitude of the underwriters in London, whom he had rendered a welcome service, likewise obtained him respect in France, and while the captain of the stranded ship was retained at Calais, he was allowed to leave in a ransomed vessel for Portsmouth. Having had enough of the sea by this time, Henry Greathead intended to make his way back to Shields, and, if possible, to set up in business as a boat-builder, but—for the good of the world, if not his own—he was foiled in his object when landing in England. His Majesty’s navy being short of hands, the work of impressment went actively on at Portsmouth,and the ship’s carpenter of Shields had a narrow escape from entering involuntarily into the royal service, he effecting his safety only by going away overnight in a Scotch brig, the “Aldie,” Captain Brown, the canny commander of which managed to evade the vigilance of the impressment officers.

However, the escape proved but a reprieve after all. Henry Greathead arrived safely in the “Aldie” at her destination, a port in the West Indies, and there engaged on another homeward-bound vessel, which was, however, captured shortly after by an American privateer. Offered to take service against the troops of his country, he declined, although being offered highly advantageous terms, a rank and liberal pay, and he was thereupon sent, in an exchange of prisoners, to New York, where he again had sight of British men-of-war, and of impressment companies. In reward for his loyalty in refusing to become an officer among the “rebels,” the captain of a British sloop-of-war, the “Scorpion,” had him seized by the neck one day, and carried him off on board the ship to enter upon the duties of a common sailor, undergoing infinite hardships. From the “Scorpion” he was transferred to the “Vulture,” another sloop-of-war, where the treatment was even worse, relieved only on his promotion to the post of assistant carpenter. While filling this place, the ‘.‘Vulture” made a long stay in various North American ports where shipbuilding was going actively, which was an opportunity to Henry Greathead to follow the bent of his mind, entirely running in the direction of his trade. He studied hard; made designs of all that he saw and heard of; and in leisure hours, which became more frequent as time went on and his position improved, made models of improved rowing and sailing boats. The “Vulture” being ordered home at the end of 1783, after the conclusion of the peace of Versailles, Henry Greathead returned to England, and, in the summer of 1784, had the happiness of embracing his beloved parents, his father living on a pension at South Shields. Here he settled down also to carry on the trade he had learnt in a humble way. Of money he had very little; but, if his purse was all but empty, his head contained a great idea—the life-boat.

His first attempts to carry the schemes that were floating through his mind into execution were not very successful. Poverty stood in the way both of his making experiments and of continuing his studies, and a marriage with a poor girl he loved, contracted the year after he had set up in business, while it added to his happiness, did not improve his worldly circumstances. Still he did not abandon his plans; but, seeing that he would be quite unable to carry them out unassisted, he resolved to communicate them to others, addressing himself, in the first instance, to the underwriters with whom he had been in correspondence while at Calais, Mr. James Forsyth and Mr. Peter Warren, the latter a partner for some time of Mr. Angerstein. To his great joy and surprise, they not only sent him a liberal donation, but informed him that the designs he had sent them had been examined by competent persons, and had been pronounced very good, and likely to accomplish the purpose he had in view, that of constructing a boat able to ride safely in a rough sea. Full of new energy, Henry Great-head now set to work afresh, and spent several years upon trials, in which he. rejected one model after the other, his plans changing and developing with his ascertaining defects and devising remedies for them. Throughout his labours he received constant encouragement, both in advice and substantial help, from the friends he had found at Lloyd’s, one of whom, Mr. Warren, recommended him to the Duke of Northumberland. The latter at once took a great interest in the work engaged in by Henry Greathead; and having visited him at his place of business, personally examining all the designs and models submitted to him, made the promise to pay all the expenses connected with the actual building of a first boat for the rescue from the sea of shipwrecked or other persons. Mr. Greathead wished to call his construction the Safety Boat; but the duke, with a keen sense of the value of giving an article a good name, overruled this intention, and by his advice the new vessel came forth to the world as the Life Boat. Early in the autumn of 1789, Henry Greathead launched his first boat, giving her the well-deserved name of the “Northumberland.” It appears, from a description sent by Mr. Greathead to Lloyd’s, that his life-boat, the “Northumberland,” was thirty feet long, and ten feet in breadth, manned by ten men “double banked,” and steered by two more men with oars, one at each end, the shape being the same fore and aft. It was stated by the inventor, with becoming pride, that it was arranged at first that all the men should wear cork jackets, so as to provide for any possible accident; but that after a few trials the South Shields boatmen got so confident of the absolute safety of the “Northumberland,” that they threw aside the cork jackets, declaring them quite needless, and only an incumbrance to the free movement of their arms. The first actual service of Henry Greathead’s life-boat took place in the middle of November, 1789, when she went off from South Shields to the relief of the sloop “Edinburgh,” of Kincardine, which was seen in distress on the Herdsands, about a mile and a half from the shore. It was related in the papers, which gave an account of the affair, on the report of Ralph Hillery, one of the men in the “Northumberland,” that the “Edinburgh” was sinking when the life-boat got near, but that there was just time enough to take off her crew of seven men, which were safely brought to shore through a sea “so monstrous high, that no other boat whatever could have lived in it.”

The narrative, repeated on all sides, made a great impression at the time, and there was a general cry for life-boats, which, however, remained a cry and nothing more for several years to come. Soldiers, war-ships, cannon, and gunpowder engrossed the attention of the British Government so exclusively as to exclude even the idea of life-boats being built at the public expense, and the reply given from the treasury bench, to an interpellation in the House of Commons during the session of 1801, was that the construction of such boats was a work that should be left to “private enterprise.” It ought to have been said “private generosity,” it being evident that the establishment of life-boats along the extensive coast-lines of Great Britain and Ireland, even if selecting only the most important places, could never be a concern remunerative to those who carried it out, however rich in results, and measured by the saving, not so much of property as of human lives. The government declining the work, and no more wealthy persons coming forward to imitate the example of the Duke of Northumberland, the matter was taken in hand by Lloyd’s.

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