Lutine – The Ship That Refuses To Give Up Her Treasure

The Lutine bell installed in the underwriting room at Lloyd's super-modern building in London
The Lutine bell installed in the underwriting room at Lloyd's super-modern building in London

by Ray Setterfield

October 9, 1799 — The British and American bombing of Hamburg in the Second World War was one of the most devastating attacks on Germany. Intended to cripple the country’s industrial strength, the attack lasted for eight days and killed 42,000 people. But some 145 years earlier, it was a very different story.

Then, London chose to lend Hamburg a helping hand. In 1799, the economy in the German city was on the brink of collapse. To prevent it – and a possible stock market crash – City of London merchants produced a vast quantity of silver and gold bullion which was loaded aboard the British Navy frigate HMS Lutine. It was despatched to Hamburg in the hope that the funds raised would help avert a financial crisis.

But the Lutine didn’t make it. A North Sea storm blew up on this day as the frigate passed the Dutch coast and the Lutine foundered off the West Frisian Islands. There was only one survivor, 239 crew and passengers losing their lives.

The cargo of silver and gold bullion – reportedly then worth about one million pounds, or one hundred million pounds in today’s terms – was also lost.

Shifting sandbanks disrupted later salvage attempts and most of the treasure has never been recovered. It was, however, insured at Lloyd’s of London, the specialist insurance market, whose underwriters paid out the claim in full two weeks after the disaster.

Although most of the Lutine’s cargo stubbornly remained beneath the waves, some items and artefacts were eventually recovered. They included the ship’s bell, which was taken to London and installed in the vast underwriting room at Lloyd’s, where it remains to this day.

Traditionally, the bell was struck when a ship became overdue – once for the vessel’s loss and twice for her recovery. The purpose was so that all brokers and underwriters would know at the same time the fate of a ship and the cargo that they had insured.

Technology and modern communication methods have rendered the system obsolete and the practice of striking the bell has ended, not least because it has developed a crack after constant use over the years.

The Lutine Bell was last rung to tell of a lost ship in 1979 and to herald the return of an overdue ship in 1989. Since then it has been rung only on ceremonial occasions or to mark tragic events such as 9/11, US President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the death of the Princess of Wales, Diana Spencer.

*Footnote: It was rumoured not long after the disaster that as well as its cargo of silver and gold bullion, the Lutine was carrying the Dutch crown jewels, en route from repair in London. But obviously, if there had been such a loss, the world would soon have known about it.

Published: September 12, 2019
Updated: November 19, 2019

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