The Most Important Book in Maritime History? Lloyd’s Register

February 2021

Dr Sam Willis speaks with Charlotte Ward to explore the remarkable history of Lloyd’s Register, perhaps the most influential boo

k for the maritime world ever to be published. It all begins in a coffee house run by Edward Lloyd, and a book, called the Register of Ships, first published in 1764, to give underwriters and merchants an idea of the condition of the vessels they insured and chartered. Maritime history from that moment on was funda

mentally changed, particularly in relation to safety at sea. The Lloyd’s Register Foundation now curates an immense archive of material relating to global maritime history.

But we begin this episode as ever by catching up on our sailors on the whaleship swan of Hull, trapped in the ice off the west coast of Greenland in the new year of 1837. Each week we have been reading a little from their logbook – which is now kept in the archives of the national maritime Museum in London. They have been trapped now for almost four months. Life has been terrifying and they are entering a period of intense cold. Even the most minor of events is a major occurrence for these men perched on the cliff edge of their existence.

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    Sam Willis

    From the Society for Nautical Research, in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis, and this is the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. We begin as ever by catching up on our sailors on the whaleship Swan of Hull, trapped in the ice off the west coast of Greenland in the New Year of 1837. Each week, we have been reading a little from their logbook, which is now kept in the archives of the National Maritime Museum in London. The sailors have been trapped now for almost four months, life has been terrifying, and they are entering a period of intense cold. Even the most minor of events is a major occurrence for these men perched on the cliff-edge of their existence.

    Whaler Swan

    Thursday 2nd February, light variable winds the whole of this day, the average of the thermometer being 29 degrees below zero. Latitude by observation 71 degrees 30 north. Friday 3rd February, light variable winds the whole of these 24 hours with intensely cold weather. A 330-gallon shake cut up for fuel. Thermometer 30 degrees below zero. Latitude by observation 71 degrees 28 north. Sunday 5th February, light airy winds from the northwest with fine clear weather, the land in sight. Black Hook bears per compass, south southeast, distance 35 miles. This day a bird about the size of a loon was shot near the ship in a hole of water and trifling as the circumstance may appear still to us it is a favourable omen. Divine service performed between decks as usual. The attention and behaviour of the men deeply show with what interest they repaid so solemn an occasion. A 320-gallon shake cut up for fuel, number 79. The thermometer still ranges no higher than 28 degrees below zero. Latitude by observation 71 degrees 30 north.

    Sam Willis

    A loon, the bird which brought them such joy and hope, is about the size of a large duck or a small goose.

    Hello everyone and welcome to a new episode. This week we are exploring the most important book in maritime history. I know that is some claim, but I do believe it to be true. We are exploring the history of Lloyd’s Register, and I spoke with Charlotte Ward education and outreach coordinator of the excellent Lloyd’s Register Foundation’s Heritage and Education Centre. The centre contains a library and archive that holds material covering 250 years of maritime history, with a particular focus on marine and engineering, science and history. The archive is astonishing. It holds over 1.2 5 million ship plans and survey reports, a historic photograph collection, documents relating to the corporate history of Lloyd’s Register, and much, much more. But how did all of this start? Why was this archive collected? Well, it began with a coffeehouse run by Edward Lloyd and a book called ‘The Register of Ships’, first published in 1764, to give underwriters and merchants an idea of the condition of the vessels they insured and chartered. It’s probably safe to say that maritime history from that moment on was fundamentally changed, particularly in relation to safety at sea. Now, today, they are not just the curators of an immense archive, but they are active educators and innovators in the interface between maritime history and you, the public. They have all sorts of plans and schemes to get people involved in maritime history, and in helping to understand their immense archive. I use that word carefully to describe both the immense scale of the archive and also the quality of it. Charlotte told me more about the Lloyd’s Register Foundation.

    Hi, Charlotte, thank you so much for talking to me today.

    Charlotte Ward

    Hi, Sam. It’s a pleasure.

    Sam Willis

    I think we should start with a brief history of Lloyds. Is it even possible to do a brief history of Lloyds or not?

    Charlotte Ward

    Probably not brief, but I’ll give it a go! I can do Lloyd’s Register in a nutshell. Lloyd’s Register started in Edward Lloyd’s coffee house in 1760. And Lloyd’s coffee house was on Lombard Street in the City of London. And it was a place where merchant and marine business gathered to do their business. It’s the same coffee house that Lloyd’s of London started in and Lloyd’s List, and we often get mistaken for either one of those, but we’re very different to both of them.  Lloyds of London being more about insurance Lloyd’s List being more about shipping news. It was getting to that point around 1760, where ship owners and merchants were getting a bit fed up with losing ships around the world, losing cargo, and unfortunately, losing lives. They could figure out what to do after the ship was lost, claim on the insurance, but there was no thought into what to do before the ship even sailed. So a group of men, in the coffee house, gathered and thought they should look at ships even before they sail. Are they safe? Should they be going around the world? And this idea of classification and certification was a relatively new concept not been done or seen before? They said, let’s do that. So, 1760 was when it all kicked off?

     Sam Willis

    What did they decide to do?

    Charlotte Ward

    What they did was, it started just in the UK. They wanted to pull together what’s known as the Register Book, which is the bulk of our collection, our Register Books. The earliest known surviving one we have is from 1764. We don’t know of any prior to that. But, if anyone ever stumbles across one from 1760 to 1764, please do let us know. We want it we will take it. It was gathering information for these register books. These gentlemen went around the country, they usually were ex-Navy, maybe a naval architect, shipwrights, sort of that profession. They’d go around the country to the various ports and start looking at ships and seeing if they were safe or not. Then the ship would get a rough classification based on its hull and its outfit with the rigging. And the classification started, it can be quite complicated but starts with A, E, I, O, U, and then they get ‘Good’, ‘Middling’, ‘Bad’. So, a ship might get an A-G classification, meaning that it was perfect, it could go anywhere in the world, they were quite happy to send it off. But then another ship might get an I-B classification, which is clearly not very good. And they might either say it’s best if you destroy it, or maybe only keep it coastal or going into Europe.

    Sam Willis

    Did they have any authority: did their advice have to be taken? Say I own a ship, and someone gives me an I-B and say I think it’s time for you to destroy your ship, I might actually think, well actually it’s not. I don’t want to destroy my ship. What was their authority? How did that work?

    Charlotte Ward

    So, in the early days, the authority wasn’t quite there. And it was, you know, that people would pay. So, you would pay a fee to have your ship classed. So of course, there was the first thing of saying, ‘Well, I’m not going to pay for someone to tell me that my ship isn’t very good. And I’m just going to carry on anyway, because what’s the point in this!’ And, initially, those that were paying, it was a case of ‘Oh, well’, you know, there’s a level of respect for the expertise of the surveyor who, as I said, may have been in any kind of marine naval background. And it’s only really when Lloyd’s Register starts to get going in the late 18th and 19th century, do ship owners say, actually, it’s really good to have this classification. Because when I want to sell it, I can show its record, like a car having an mot, and its service history, you kind of, I’m not going to buy a car that looks like it’s on its last legs, or has never passed its mot. It’s the same with the ship. So once the expertise starts building over time, then ship owners go ‘actually, yeah, I need that good classification, and if Lloyd’s is telling me, it’s not very good, then I’m not going to bother with it’.

    Sam Willis

    And this is only British ships? What ships did they apply this to?

    Charlotte Ward

    So initially, it was just British ships or any ship in a British port. And there was a bit of a divide between those ships built in the north and those ships built in the south. So, a ship would get a classification such as A-G, and then after a while, it was decided, actually, what’s the point of having various classifications it should just have one classification, which was A1, hence the expression A1. A1 at Lloyds, everything’s good, everything’s perfect. Then alongside the classification, they would get a number of years that a ship could go off on its voyages around the world without needing to be surveyed again. So, it might be 12 A1, so 12 years it’s going to last, and then it can come back. In the ports around London in the south, they were given a longer period of time of avoiding classification, those in the north, it was a shorter period of time because they didn’t necessarily trust ships built up in the north. And so, there was this sort of difference of opinion, that caused the Society to split in 1799. And then it’s also around this time, and in the early 1800s, as I’m sure listeners are well aware with the Industrial Revolution, that you get different sort of ideas for shipping, so you get iron coming in, you get steam power coming in. And there were some thoughts in Lloyd’s Register that we should be flexible with this, we should embrace this, and this was one side of the Society. And then there was the other side that says, ‘No, iron and steam are bad, everything needs to be wood and sails, that it will be wood and sails forever’.

    Sam Willis

    They didn’t want to register anyone at all if they had an iron or steel ship?

    Charlotte Ward

    No, they were very reluctant to. So, they would put, when eventually they could see that steam power was being used, they would put a note that says ‘experimental’ or ‘built of iron’. And the ship would have to have two, maybe three surveys a year. So yeah, there was a lot of different schools of thought going on in the Society at the time. But eventually, this all irons out in 1834, when Lloyd’s Register combines as one Society. And it’s at this point that we were moving to, we’d already started, well Lloyd’s Register had already started work in Canada. And then ships that were coming into our ports in Britain, from other parts of the world with other, you know, with ship owners around the world, were saying, actually, we like what Lloyd’s Register is doing. Can we have our ships surveyed here? Or would you mind popping over to Canada to – where else we are going – Spain, France, wherever it was, and go and surveying our ships over there? So, then we start to become global.

    Sam Willis

    And from there, I mean, how global did it become? I mean, was everyone wanting to have their ships classified by Lloyds?

    Charlotte Ward

    Yeah, we became very, very global. It seemed that there was not a continent, maybe apart from Antarctica and the Arctic and everywhere, but maybe not a continent without Lloyd’s Register on it. And we started, so in 2019 we celebrated our 150-year anniversary working in China. We were over in Japan, in Australia, New Zealand, and then over in South America, North America, we were everywhere, it seems.

    Sam Willis

    Absolutely amazing. Does that mean that there are archives relating to what happened all over the world? Or have they all been kind of consolidated back in one place in London.

    Charlotte Ward

    So, what happened with staff at Lloyd’s Register, who were based globally, they would have to send their surveys and plans back to the HQ in London, for the official classification. So, most of the bulk of the archive, our ‘ship, land survey, port collection’, our corporate archive is based in London. But what we do find is that offices around the world that we still have that work for Lloyd’s Register, have collected their own bits and pieces. And surveyors, who, you know, are based over there who are either from those countries or from the UK may have gathered things at those offices and just kept them there. So, what we’re trying to do at some point in the hopefully not too distant future is consolidate everything that could be around the world, and look at it, see what there is because there’s so much we don’t know about.

    Sam Willis

    I mean, that’s one of the exciting things about you guys is you have such an enormous variety of material which people can access now and look at. But there’s – just reminds me of a story – there was a library I used to go to, a little private library, and it’s one of these great places where you take a book off the shelf, and behind it is another row of books. And then behind that is another row of books and they’re like three stacks deep. No one’s got any idea what’s there at all. So yeah, not only is there so much material that people can look at Lloyd’s Register, but also, there’s the potential for so much more, which I think is really, really exciting. I’d be particularly interested in the relics from Asia. I think that will be fascinating. So, what kind of material do you have in your archive then? Give us some kind of idea.

    Charlotte Ward

    Yeah, so we’ve got a quite a variety of material. So, the bulk of our collection is our ‘ship plan, survey report collection’. So that was the business of Lloyd’s Register. And from 1834, when the Society came back together and unified, that’s when our records really start. And that’s where this meticulous, so a ship would have its survey, and then it might have more surveys throughout its long career, hopefully, and then there might be a plan associated with it, or several plans, and then they’d be correspondence too from the shipowner, the surveyor, the chairman of Lloyd’s Register. So, you’ve got that, and that equates to about 1.2 5 million documents in our archive.

    Sam Willis

    Wow!

    Charlotte Ward

    Yeah, we think there could be more.

    Sam Willis

    It’s interesting that you know, it’s not just about a certificate for a ship sort of saying, ‘yes, this has been certified A1’, or whatever it is, but you’ve got the whole – there were some kind of grey areas weren’t there? There was a bit of a debate about each one when they’re trying to work out issues as they arose. And it’s in that conversation, I think that you get a real sense of the history of actually of what’s going on here.

    Charlotte Ward

    So, the ‘ship plan is every port collection’, because we’re digitizing it and making it freely accessible on our website, is the first time that that collection has been catalogued. So, this is the first time we’re seeing documents and stories that we never knew existed. And what we are seeing is that correspondence between ship owners to surveyors, and maybe ship owners complaining that a surveyor isn’t professional enough, or surveyors complaining that the shipowner – we’ve had one that was drunk all the time, and there’s this correspondence going between the two. Or we have, you know, those stories of – there was one that we had absolutely no idea about, and it was a surveyor who was in Wales, and he was unwell, so couldn’t carry out his job, so his wife did it instead. And there are documents going from the shipowners at that yard saying, ‘Oh, she’s brilliant’. And this was the 1850s, 1860s. Saying ‘oh yeah, she’s brilliant; just as good, if not better than her husband’. We had no idea about her. So that’s incredibly exciting for us; these stories that are coming out.

    Sam Willis

    Yeah, I think any sense of hidden expertise, like that, is really good. And then you can you uncover these people that are sort of lurking between the lines. I mean, it’s always a challenge with any kind of archive, but particularly one that’s a technical archive, or is based around things like ship plans, or certificates, it’s very difficult to get to those human stories, but there are wonderful little gems in your archive, aren’t there of stories which you can come to?

    Charlotte Ward

    Yeah, we do struggle a bit. And sometimes with people just thinking, ‘Oh, it’s just boiler plans’. And between you and I, I’m not a big fan of boiler plans. I find them a bit boring, they’re pretty to look at, but you know, it’s not that exciting.

    Sam Willis

    It’s a challenge for me, actually, I’m going to try and make the boiler plans as exciting as possible. I promise you I am going to come back and try and sort this all out.

    Charlotte Ward

    If anyone can I think it will probably be you. So, we do sort of, what we’re trying to do even more is bring out the human element, the stories that are in there, and lifting those ships from the pages. So, we are supported by our kind of what we call our corporate archive, which now also sounds quite dull. But in there we have the, we have a sports archive, from the cricket club and the football clubs and everything. We have records of personal records of staff that we’re pulling together to build a picture around what was happening with the construction of the ship. And then we’re taking the actual ship and what happened to it beyond. So, one of my favourite pieces that – I kind of remembered it this morning, and we just absolutely love this – it’s a survey for a ship. The ships, not particularly famous or important, but what’s on there are, I think it’s from about the 1860s, 1870s, and there are cat pawprints just all over it, and then a suspicious yellow stain that’s still on the survey. And it’s things like that where we think Ah, he’s probably working from home, writing up his survey and his cat’s just bothering him chewing it away – so its little highlights like that. Then we also have little snapshots of history. So, one document we found recently in our archive is a postcard. It’s just a small, small postcard. Nothing really that important on the postcard it was sent from one of our offices in Germany to London, and it was just, I think it just sort of says, you know, ‘working on a ship at the moment expect documents soon’. But on the front of the postcard are several stamps, because this was during hyperinflation. So, the little postcard is full of these stamps, that gives you that tiny little snapshot into history at that time – having to spend all that money sending a tiny little postcard overseas. So we’ve got, and I think it’s, these are these stories that we just, you know, we don’t know all the stories, and we’re so keen to get people in to look and say, ‘Ah that ship or that person, that link is, you know, we had no idea’, and build that bigger picture.

    Sam Willis

    You talk about opening up the archive and trying to understand it more. Is there a way that volunteers can get involved and to help?

    Charlotte Ward

    Yeah, we just want anyone and everyone who is interested to look at our archive. We’re keen for anyone from volunteers who may have had that maritime experience or not, who may be, you know, studying history or interested in it, to look at our archives to go through the documents we’ve made available, and to get in touch with myself or one of my colleagues and just say, ‘I love that ship, love that document, love that story. I want to do more. I want to write about it; I want to help in any way’, and at some point, and this will be a bit further down the line, we’re going to be doing crowdsourcing with our archive, and we want people to get involved there. So, there are lots of opportunities. And all we want is people to go, ‘Yeah, I’d love to!’

    Sam Willis

    Let me just add here, we’re entering a really wonderful period in history and people wanting to volunteer and to help and places like Lloyd’s Register (I mean you’re a beacon of it) is opening up the archive. And if you think back to, you know, not that long ago, where archives were very closed, it’s very, very difficult to actually get in to look at documents, it’s absolutely not the case. So, if you are interested in history and particularly interested in maritime history do get in touch. I’ll tell you how to do that at the end of the podcast. And then go and read some documents; go and do some of your own research. I think one of the most interesting things, I would say this having done quite a lot of work on shipwrecks, so your wreck reports, because so on the one hand, you’ve got this interest in safety at sea, but then it obviously raises the question of what the implication is if something catastrophic goes wrong? And inevitably does fall back onto Lloyds, who might have certified a ship to be safe. And if that ship then sinks, then who is responsible; what the hell’s going on? So, you have these wonderful wreck reports, don’t you?

    Charlotte Ward

    Yes. So, from the 1890s, we get these wreck reports, and we get our casualty returns. And the casualty returns, again, are on our website. And they’re just this incredible wealth of data about how ships have been wrecked or destroyed, or whatever’s happened to them, across the world. And they give an insight into historical weather, obviously, during the First and Second World Wars have an idea about what happened there, and anything that could happen to a ship whilst it’s out, sailing around the world. So, then 1890s, we also have the wreck reports, and these are sort official documents that are tacked to the end of a ship’s life: so, it’s got its first survey, whatever happens in between, and then it’s wreck report. And it’s in these wreck reports that we do get some great stories, often of course, tragic stories, but sometimes quite interesting. And what they would do is in the report, they would put, you know what happened that the ship the details, and then they would add newspaper clippings from the record at the time. So, you get a real snapshot of that ship and the impact it had. So, one or a couple of examples I pulled out that I’ve always really loved one was for a ship called the SO Salter from the 1940s. The ship – not particularly famous maybe or the career is not necessarily that interesting. But the wreck report has that she was wrecked because she was struck by lightning. And you’ve got the newspaper article that says that’s what happened to her. So, you get that insight into the weather at the time, and how that struck by lightning, unfortunately, wrecked the ship

    Sam Willis

    And set her on fire, didn’t it? It was catastrophic fire.

    Charlotte Ward

    Yes, catastrophic fire. And she was wrecked after that. And then one other ship, the RMS Magdalena from the 1940s. So, she was wrecked after striking rocks off the coast of Brazil. And all lives were rescued, thankfully. And she sank and everyone was safe. But one of the notes from the newspaper articles attached to the wreck report was that one of the cargos that were included was boxes of beer. And that the report sort of says, the bottles of beer remained unbroken, which is also

    Sam Willis

    Divine intervention!

    Charlotte Ward

    Exactly! So, phew, the beer was safe! But yeah, so once whatever happens to the ship, obviously, once if it’s been classed by Lloyd’s Register, so Lloyd’s Register says it’s been built to Lloyd’s Register rules, standards, and a surveyor has gone longer said that’s absolutely fine when it comes to natural disasters, what can LR do? But there are some incidents where it clearly it was possibly in the design of the ship that meant the ship sank, and then questions are raised. And one interesting one now that we think about it is obviously probably the most well-known maritime disaster being that of the Titanic. Lloyd’s Register didn’t class the Titanic. Nothing to do with her, apart from her anchor, we worked on her anchor,

    Sam Willis

    That’s interesting. So, what’s the other option? So, say you own the Titanic, how else do you get it classed if you don’t do it through Lloyds?

    Charlotte Ward

    So, there were international organisations that were being set up in the 19th century that were classification. But there was also the sort of official government one, the board of trade, and that’s where the Titanic went. And the problem was after the Titanic sank, was that it was claimed that Lloyd’s Register classed her, so Lloyd’s Register was blamed. And the builders and the owner said, ‘Well, she was built to Lloyd’s Register rules and standards’. But because a surveyor didn’t go it’s not official. And they can’t prove that they had been. But because Lloyd’s Register was being blamed our secretary at the time, Andrew Scott, wrote a very angry letter to The Times, and just said it wasn’t us; it wasn’t our fault; we didn’t do it; don’t blame us. Because it was ruining the reputation of Lloyd’s Register. But Lloyd’s Register were then heavily involved in the Safety of Life at Sea Commission that was set up afterwards. So yeah, even if it’s not our fault, we seem to be blamed. Because we are all about safety at sea.

    Sam Willis

    So, with these other wreck reports, if there is a wreck where Lloyd’s did classify the ship did that then affect the way that ships were designed, ships were built, did it affect rules of navigation? Did it kind of move forward if there was a problem identified?

    Charlotte Ward

    Yeah. And this is where Lloyd’s Register was always very cautious with new technologies. Because what they wanted to see was, and this is going beyond iron, and steam and steel, but when nuclear comes in, or other forms of building or welding ships, Lloyd’s Register was always very cautious to see what happens to that ship. So, they didn’t put their name on it explicitly, in case something happened. But then, if, of course, everything was then fine, and it was written into the rules about how to build an iron ship or a steel ship or whatever it might be, and then something happens, there would be an investigation, either officially with the government or just amongst Lloyd’s Register that says, ‘Ah, probably shouldn’t do that again’. One example I can think of, and I can’t remember the name of the ship, but sank not long after coming out of port because the portholes were too low down. So, people would open the window, because they were passengers and wanted some fresh air, but unfortunately, where the ship sort of rolled, the water went straight in. So that was then decided actually, maybe there should be something about closing them and moving them up so that they’re not letting water in. But then there are other things where they would always look at what happened and then what they could do to improve it and to make sure it didn’t happen again.

    Sam Willis

    The waterline is one particular aspect of you know safety at sea. I think we should save that for another episode. I’m going to come back and talk to you about that. Thanks so much for that chat. How would people get in touch with you if they wanted to help?

    Charlotte Ward

    So, they can visit our website @hec.lrfoundation.org.uk. They can visit our social media pages Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, which is @LRFHEC and they can find our contact details on our website.

    Sam Willis

    And a HEC in that respect is the History and Education Centre. Is that right?

    Charlotte Ward

    That’s it. Yeah,

    Sam Willis

    Absolutely. So HEC. Guys, I very much hope you’ve enjoyed this brief chat with Charlotte Ward, and the Lloyd’s Register Foundation are very much behind this podcast. They’re providing money to allow us to travel and to make some videos and some films and so we shall definitely be coming back to explore their archive over the coming months. Charlotte, thank you very much indeed for talking to us.

    Charlotte Ward

    Thank you.

    Sam Willis

    Well, I do hope you’ve enjoyed this episode. I did, and I’m chomping at the bit to get into their archives and bring you some of the treasures and stories that they uncover at the Lloyd’s Register Foundation Heritage and Education Centre. We will certainly be bringing you more. Next up from Lloyds will be the extraordinary tale of a Dunedin which sailed from New Zealand to England in 1880. ‘So, what!’ you cry. Well, the key point is that she made that journey with a cargo of refrigerated meat, and no one had ever done that before! So, she became the first ship to successfully transport a full cargo of refrigerated meat from New Zealand to England, thereby proving that refrigerated meat could be transported long distances, creating meat export industries all over the world, and changing the way that we eat. Fascinating stuff very much looking forward to it.

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