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Coffee that means business

Lloyd's coffee house

The biggest insurance market in the world began life as a small coffee shop in London...

London has often been considered as a hotchpotch of little towns rather than a real city. It is certainly true that some of the best-known monuments of this most eminent of capitals sometimes have obscure beginnings. These accidents of history seem to have made this deeply puritanical city what it is today, as if a shot of impurity was just what London needed to come to life. Privateers made it rich, pop music was born in its garages, Soho was once the city’s underbelly before it became its beating heart and the prestigious Tate Modern contemporary art museum is housed in a disused power station. The distinguished establishment that is Lloyd’s of London set out on the road to becoming the largest and oldest insurance market in the world at the back of a coffee shop. It is now more than two hundred years since this institution helped build the financial and commercial strength of Great Britain, becoming the key to its success. At the time, it was called Lloyd’s Coffee House and it was nothing more than a workingclass establishment that sold coffee. The drink was extremely popular in London at the time – witness King Charles II’s futile attempt to ban it in 1676. This prohibition was out of step with the times and was more aimed at the dens that instigated liberal ideas opposed to the absolutist edicts of the Crown, than at the drink itself. But that is another story…

Edward Lloyd provided chalk and a blackboard for his customers...

One day towards the end of the 1680s, Edward Lloyd realised that merchants, ship owners, captains and important international trade representatives had taken to meeting in his Tower Street shop to exchange first-hand shipping news and agree insurance contracts. He had the idea of providing chalk and a blackboard for his customers, who started writing down information on the types of cargo and the ships that they wanted to have insured. Those who had the means and will to insure the “sea fortunes” of an expedition wrote their name under the information of the ship that they agreed to guarantee. This is where the word “underwriting” comes from, a term that is still used today in the insurance industry. The initiative was such a success that Lloyd’s had to find bigger premises and moved to Lombard Street, where the business became the institution that we know today. Edward Lloyd even started his own newspaper, “Lloyd’s News”, for publicising shipping news, which became the first daily published in London. Now the former coffee house, once party to the assessment of a whole manner of risks, has moved to a futuristic palace in the heart of the City. Richard Rogers, who was one of the architects of the Pompidou Centre in Paris (along with Renzo Piano), used the same concept for its design. The stairs, lifts, electricity, water and ventilation ducts have all been installed on the outside to save space inside, as if the former lack of space still haunted the halls of Lloyd’s even today.

Text : Julien Bouré




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