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HMS Lutine – capture, wreck and salvage

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HMS Lutine

Lutine is the name of a London recruitment agency, a Liverpudlian pub and a Dutch restaurant. Most famously, it is the name of a bell, one which hangs to this day in the Lloyd‘s underwriting room. Lutine is french for a sprite, an imp, a tease, something which gently plagues, and for centuries the Lutine has lived up to its name, tantalising generations with a tale of war, loss and treasure.

The bell was originally cast for a French frigate called La Lutine. This ship was originally built for the ill-fated King Louis XIVth, magicienne class. And it was French monarchists who gave the ship to the Royal Navy at Toulon in 1793. She was then, not very imaginatively, renamed Her Majesty’s Ship Lutine and employed to fight Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops, who were besieging the loyalist city. She was converted into a bomb ship, pointed towards her home port, and instructed to fire mortars.

In 1799 HMS Lutine was chosen for an important mission. The economy in Hamburg was on the brink of collapse and the Lutine was ordered to deliver a vast sum of gold and silver, collected by City of London merchants, to the German port. And it was Lloyd‘s underwriters who insured the Lutine‘s highly valuable cargo.

On the 9th October she left the British port of Great Yarmouth for Cuxhaven in Germany – a familiar route. But HMS Lutine encountered a “heavy gale” and ran aground on the treacherous Dutch coast, by the island of Vlieland, or as it was called at the time, Fly. The crew was lost, Captain Lancelot Skynner went down with his ship, and it was left to the Commander of the Squadron, Nathaniel Portlock, to inform the Admiralty of his “extreme pain” at the loss.

This was putting it mildly. 269 sailors and passengers were either swept away or buried in the gloomily named Doodemanskisten (Dead Man’s Coffins). The Admiralty could do little for them. Instead they turned their attention to the specie on the ship, which could survive the fierce tides of the Frisian coast. “Their lordships”, Vice Admiral Mitchell was informed “feel great concern at this very unfortunate accident”, commissioning him to recover the cargo forthwith.

In the City of London, other interested parties acted quicker, despatching agents to the island of Fly ahead of the Navy, to hunt for immediate salvage – agents who were underwriters from Lloyd’s.

The exact size of the loss remains unknown. Before the wreck, Admiral Duncan informed his superiors that he had “received a pressing invitation from some merchants to convey a quantity of bullion…a considerable sum of money” but no figures are mentioned.

Immediately after the loss, press reports spoke of over a million pounds of gold (£76 million in today’s money) but they were quickly scaled down to £140, 000, possibly to contain panic, possibly because this was the true figure. There were rumours she was carrying the Dutch crown jewels, which had been sent to London jewellers Rundell and Bridges for cleaning, but this seems likely to be another wild rumour.

But one thing is well documented – that Lloyd’s, under the leadership of John Julius Angerstein, paid the claim in full, and just two weeks after the disaster. A hundred years before Cuthbert Heath sent a telegraph to his San Francisco agent, the Lutine gave Lloyd‘s more than a bell, she created Lloyd’s reputation for paying valid claims – and for having the financial wherewithal to withstand a loss of legendary proportions.

Next time… treasure and salvage

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