Lloyd’s Registry of Shipping

It will be seen, on examining the preceding page, that when the book containing it was published, in 1764-65, the registry of shipping had already arrived at great perfection, the twelve columns giving information of all the most material points relating to the condition of each vessel inscribed in the list. In the opinion of an expert in these matters, Mr. William John, one of the surveyors of Lloyd’s Register of British and Foreign Shipping, it must have taken many years to bring the list to such a state of completeness, and it may, therefore, not be far wrong to assume that the establishment of this work, presumably the oldest register of shipping, took place about, or not far later than, the year 1726, which saw the foundation of “Lloyd’s List.”

It is difficult to explain the meaning of all the signs in the twelve columns of the preceding table. The first six columns, giving the former and present names of the vessels, those of the master, the sailings from port to port, and the tonnage, are sufficiently apparent; and so are also the meaning of columns eight, nine, and ten, stating the number of the crew, the year of construction, and the name of the owners of each ship. As regards the letters, their signification is obscure; but it is probable that A, E, I, and O, applied to the state of the hull, and G and M, with, now and then, a B, not shown in this page, to equipment; G standing for good, M for middling, and the rare B for bad. There are, it will be seen, various other letters and figures in different columns, but it is impossible even to guess their meaning. Those best acquainted with the subject venture a surmise that these were secret signs, only known to the initiated, and varying in successive publications, by which the underwriters were able to discover, aside of all other circumstances, the actual condition of each vessel. Needless to say that, then as now, the men at Lloyd’s had deeper interest than all the world in the great question of seaworthiness.

In the collection of old registers in White Lion Court, the next in date to the oblong volume of 1764-65, is for the years 1768-69. This latter volume differs entirely, both in outward shape and contents, from the former one. Its information is much more scant, and is not nearly so lucid and well arranged, the total being compressed in nine columns, with no headings to any of them, except the year. The following is a reprint of one of the pages of the register for 1768-69:—


In the opinion of the expert before cited, the book represented by this page was the offspring of the publication known as established in 1760, and generally called the “Underwriters’ Register,” being issued for many years under the auspices of a committee consisting of the leading members of Lloyd’s. How it came that a publication much more perfect should have existed aside of the “Underwriters’ Register,” and have disappeared afterwards, is a mystery that can be solved only by the discovery of the missing books of the series represented by the oblong volume of 1764-65. It is shrewdly conjectured by Mr. John, on the ground of small letters being used as signs, which subsequently gave way to capitals, that, when the register for 1768-69 was published, there were still successors of the 1764-65 series in existence, and that the former, therefore, was a rival publication. As regards intelligibility, the book of 1768-69 stands, as in other points, below its predecessor of 1764-65, in the absence of headings to the columns. While the meaning of some of these may easily be guessed, that of others must remain entirely a matter of vague conjecture.

The next oldest book in the collection of White Lion Court bears date 1775-76. It is evidently a successor of the volume of 1768-69, or the “Underwriters’ Register,” but differs from it in having ten instead of nine columns, differently arranged, and likewise in the use of capital letters for signs. It is this adoption of capitals, which as just mentioned, furnished material for the subtle guess that the old series of register books was in existence in 1768-69, and that, it having once disappeared, the clearly better designation of the character of each vessel, its hull and equipment, was adopted by the publishers of the “Underwriters’ Register.” The following is a reprint of a page of the register for 1775-76, showing the alterations introduced.


It will be seen that the letters A I appear here for the first time, evidently denoting the state of the hull, the simple numbers describing the equipment. The sign A I has continued to express the class of first-rate wooden vessels ever since, for a period of just a century.

The growing commerce of Great Britain in the eighteenth century meets with interesting illustration in the increasing thickness of the early volumes of the Register of Shipping. In the first books already described, there were only about 1,500 vessels entered, but the number before long grew to 2,000 and above. The size of the vessels also increased gradually, as will be seen by a comparison of the copied pages of the three registers for 1764-65, for 1768-69, and for 1775-76. The largest vessel in the first register is but of 340 tons; while in the second there is one vessel of 499 and another of 450 tons; and in the third there are two vessels of 500 tons each. Vessels of 700 and even 800 tons appear in the register for 1781-82—the next in succession of age in the collection of “Lloyd’s Register of British and Foreign Shipping.” The arrangement of columns and classification of vessels in this publication for 1781-82 does not in the least differ from that of 1775-76, but the book is interesting in several other respects. While in all the older volumes the front pages are wanting, this one, though without the title-page, has the one succeeding, containing “a list of the members of the society,” 150 in number. The “society” issuing the register is found to be so far identical with that of the Society of Underwriters in the Royal Exchange, as containing all the most eminent members of “New Lloyd’s,” including its founder, Mr. John Julius Angerstein. In the register for 1781-82 there is also the first indication of surveyors appointed to inspect vessels. A printed slip, partly destroyed by the cutting out of a name, states that, “at a general meeting of the society on the 12th of December last, it was unanimously resolved that Mr. Alexander Stupart be henceforth appointed to survey any damage sustained by [shipping] which is to be repaired in the River of Thames; and [that] underwriters be desired to employ him in that service, [which is] supposed will be attended with many advantages.” It is added, as a second resolution, “that the expense of Mr. Stupart’s surveys be paid [by the] society, to be determined annually.” There seems no doubt, both from this notice and the list of members of the society, that their publication was deserving of the title of the “Underwriters’ Register.”

There is internal evidence in the succeeding volumes of the registry, down to the end of the eighteenth century, that the survey of vessels was made gradually more strict, due, probably, in part, to the great naval war in which the country was engaged, and partly to the losses occasioned by frauds. This increasing strictness, and the fact of the registry being solely under the management of underwriters, led to great dissatisfaction among shipowners, which finally culminated in their setting up a publication of their own. denominated “The New Register Book of Shipping.” The first edition of this book, issued biennially, like the old “Underwriters’ Register,” was brought out in 1798, it being stated on the title-page that it was published “by a Society of Merchants, Shipowners, and Underwriters.” But from the lists of members of the committee and of subscribers, given on subsequent pages, it appears that the “merchants and shipowners” immensely predominated, and that there was not among them the name of a single known underwriter. In the preface, headed “explanation,” and dated April 2, 1799, the committee of the “Society for conducting the publication of the Register Book of Shipping,” stated “the motives which induce them to undertake a work of such importance.” The motives, set forth at great length, were in the main, that the survey of vessels, and classification in the underwriters’ registry, had become too strict to suit the views of the shipowners, particularly in that the age of vessels was made unduly prominent in the classification. The latter had been a recent improvement in the Registry, and the shipowners complained of it, expressing themselves—in terms curious to read—intensely desirous to retain the old state of things. The following extracts contained the chief part of the “explanation.”

“It is well known,” say the starters of the opposition register, “that a book has, for a long scries of years, been annually printed under the direction of a committee of a society, formed of subscribers, for the information of underwriters; which book, after a variety of alterations, was at length arranged in a manner that gave general satisfaction; and, having continued above twenty-four years to be the record of the age, burthen, build, quality, and condition of vessels and their materials, marked according to the opinion of skilful and diligent surveyors, employed by the society in all the principal ports of the kingdom, had become a book of authority, and in a great degree governed the merchant, the shipowner, and underwriter, in their opinions of the quality of ships for the purpose of freighting goods, or insuring, and consequently, in a great measure, regulated their value. In the preceding year, the committee of the society, without consulting the subscribers at large, made an entire change in this system, so long established and so universally approved, and substituted in its place a plan founded on a principle diametrically opposite and perfectly erroneous. Instead of classing the ships which they gave an account of, according to the actual state and condition ascertained by a careful surveyor, a new system was adopted of stamping the character of the ship wholly by her age, and the place in which she was built, without any regard to the manner in which she was originally constructed, the wear or damage she might have sustained, or the repairs she might from time to time have received, or even being rebuilt: thereby at once obviating the necessity of surveying the hulls of vessels, lessening the inducement to build ships upon principles of strength and durability, and taking away the encouragement to keep them in the best state of repair, that they might maintain their character in the Register Book.” Thus far the promoters of the “New Register Book of Shipping” take their stand upon purity of motives, but in what follows they reveal too much of the existence of mere class interest, professedly as that of “shipowners”:— “On the first appearance of this new system,” the “Explanation” goes on to say, “meetings were held by a numerous body of shipowners of this city, who came to resolutions expressing, in the strongest manner, their disapprobation of. the conduct of the committee of the society, and, amongst other resolutions, declared their opinion that it was ‘founded in error, and calculated to mislead the judgment of merchants and underwriters, and, if continued, would not only prove of very injurious consequences to individual shipowners, merchants, and underwriters, but to every branch of trade connected with repairing and refitting vessels, and, in a great measure, tend to destroy the shipping of the country.’ Meetings were held, and similar resolutions formed, in the principal out-ports of the kingdom. The shipowners of London appointed a committee to represent to the authors of this new plan the injurious tendency of their system; but that committee thought proper even to refuse them an interview. Under these circumstances, the shipowners had no remedy but to raise subscriptions, and make the necessary arrangements for publishing a book founded upon principles so long established and so universally approved.” The “New Register Book of Shipping” thus established, was kept up for a term of thirty-four years, published at an annual loss, which had to be covered by the subscriptions of some wealthy members of the class which brought it into life. It was called generally the “Shipowners’ Book,” and also, more derisively, the “’Long-shore Book.”

The “Shipowners’ Book” at the outset was a very curious publication. The description of the vessels classed in it embraced little more than the names of owners and masters, together with tonnage and year of construction, and such further items of information as S D B, “single deck with beams,” or S D W, “single deck with deep waists.” The classification was fourfold, under the letters A, E, I, and O. It was stated in the “Rules adopted by the Committee of the New Register Book of Shipping,” that the letter A, first class, was given to “river-built ships, if built entirely of British oak;” the B, second class, to “all ships kept in perfect repair;” the I, third class, to “ships which shall not appear upon survey perfectly safe to carry dry goods, though such vessels are deemed seaworthy as far as regards the carrying of goods not liable to sea-damage and, finally, the letter O, fourth class, to “vessels out of repair, and not deemed safe and seaworthy for a foreign voyage.” Added to the letters, there was a classification of “ship’s materials,” by the figures I and 2, the first being declared to signify “well found,” and the second, “indifferently found.” To curry favour with the great body of shipowners, the conductors of the “New Register Book,” during the first few years of its publication, placed nearly the whole of the shipping in the lists under the classification A I, and only occasionally, in the case of very old vessels— in some instances ships marked as being built previous to 1750, and therefore half a century old—the letter E was appended, nearly always with the figure 1. That such classification was an absurdity, and of no value whatever, had soon to be recognized by the shipowners themselves, and it was not long before the majority of them, including the most respectable members of the body, withdrew from the support of the “New Register Book.” This gave rise to an agitation, which, being continued for more than twenty years, finally resulted, in 1834, in the establishment of an entirely new system, both of survey and classification, supported alike by underwriters and shipowners, known as “Lloyd’s Register of British and Foreign Shipping.”

In the meanwhile, the old “Register of Shipping,” or the “Underwriters’ Book,” continued to be the chief publication, and the only one looked upon with confidence, for the classification of vessels. It was generally supposed to emanate direct from Lloyd’s, but this was not actually the case, although so far correct that almost all the members of “the Coffee-house” were likewise members of the body carrying on the publication, and going by the name of “the Society for the Registry of Shipping.” The committee of this society was also nearly identical with the committee of Lloyd’s, consisting of the leading underwriters, so that, on the whole, there was a thin line of division between Lloyd’s and the “Society for the Registry of Shipping.” With the nineteenth century, the publication of the “Register,” formerly bi-annual, became annual, with notice to the subscribers that the “books should be posted every week,” and the request “that the members will be particular in delivering them when they are called for, or otherwise the office cannot be responsible for their correctness.” Prefixed to the annual edition, for many years, was a list of “the names of the gentlemen who compose the committee for conducting the affairs of the society,” the list containing eleven names. They were as follows, respectively, for the publications of 1800 and 1825:—


John Julius Angerstein William Bell John Bourke John Campbell Alexander Champion George Curling Charles Henry Dubois William Hamilton Robert Hunter Robert Pulsford Edward Vaux 1825.

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