I worked for most of my career in the insurance industry in London. During my time that curious mix of private and corporate capital channelled into annual businesses called syndicates operating under the organisational umbrella of Lloyd’s was considered to be the bee’s knees when it came to underwriting and accepting risks. I was never quite so convinced that it really merited its world-class reputation, but after nearly driving itself into financial oblivion in the late 80s and early 90s and ruining many of its private investors along the way, Lloyd’s managed to pick itself up and regain much of its former glory.
It all started at Edward Lloyd’s coffee house, opened originally in 1688 in Tower Street, before migrating to Lombard Street. Although Edward died in 1713 the coffee shop continued to thrive. In 1760 a group of merchants, who met there to swap information and strike deals, formed an independent society by the name of the Lloyd’s Register of Shipping with the aim of surveying ships to ensure that they complied with designated standards of construction and maintenance. Their annual publication, The Register, which first saw the light of day in 1764, was designed, through a survey of the physical structure and equipment of merchant ships, underwriters and merchants some idea of the quality of the vessels they were respectively insuring and chartering.
By the 1775-6 edition a more systematic approach to characterising the quality of a ship, wooden in construction, by using a combination of letters of the alphabet, interestingly just vowels, and numerals. As the Register itself elucidated in its edition for 1800, “the vessels marked A are of the first class, E the second, I the third, O the fourth and U the fifth. The Materials of the Vessel with the Figure 1 are of the First Quality, with 2 of the Second Quality and 3 of the Third Quality”. A vessel rated as A1 was of the highest quality.
The phrase was originally A1 at Lloyd’s and was worn as a badge of honour by shipowners, eager to convince passengers of the quality and seaworthiness of their vessel. An example is this advert placed by Messrs Bain, Grahame & Co in The Daily Southern Cross, a newspaper in New Zealand, on June 25, 1859 promoting their latest vessel which was travelling to Sydney: “The fine new fast sailing Brig “Prince Edward” A1 at Lloyd’s. 170 tons register, Nowlan, Commander, will load alongside Queen-street Wharf, and have immediate despatch”.
Inevitably, this shorthand descriptor for the finest quality moved outside of the world of insurance, sometimes losing the reference to Lloyd’s along the way. Sam Weller and Mr Roker, discussing a man after my own heart in Dickens’ The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, published in 1837, had this exchange: “One of ‘em takes his twelve pints of ale a-day, and never leaves off smoking, even at his meals. “He must be a first-rater”, said Sam. “A,1”, replied Mr Roker”.
However, the Lloyd’s reference remained in nautical contexts. In Edward Oxenden’s poem entitled A1 at Lloyd’s, published in The Leeds Times on March 19, 1892, a sailor is extolling the virtues of his inamorata, Sue: “there are lasses, lads, that a tar can love;/ there are lasses a tar avoids;/ But my darling Sue is sweer and true -/Aye, she’s classed A1 at Lloyd’s”.
With the introduction of iron ships and to avoid confusion with a rating system that had stood the test of time for a century, Lloyd’s introduced in 1872 a classification in the format of 100A1 to describe the quality of construction of these more modern vessels. A1, though, usually without any reference to Lloyd’s, is the shorthand still used today to refer to something or someone of the finest quality.