At Lloyd's of London, a hoary tradition is housed in stainless

298-year-old underwriter group expands into functional setting, but red-coated `waiter' remains

The dust has been flying at Lloyd's of London.

One of the most controversial buildings London has ever seen has risen at Lime and Leadenhall Streets. It is the new headquarters of the celebrated Society of Insurance Underwriters.

At the same time, Lloyd's has been tainted by the type of insider-dealing scandal that has hit New York's Wall Street and London's City financial center. Shady dealings on the part of several Lloyd's underwriters recently brought calls in Parliament for tighter legislative control of Lloyd's. In response, stricter controls were imposed from within, averting the threatened legislation for the time being.

Although serious, these upheavals must be seen in light of the age of this institution, which will celebrate its tricentenery in two years. While a revolutionary new building might not seem a proper home for hallowed traditions, Lloyd's has regularly outgrown its buildings over the years - and yet has managed to retain much of its historical content.

Its latest headquarters is the work of Richard Rogers & Partners, the architectural firm that was also responsible for the Pompidou Centre in Paris. The Lloyd's building is the full flowering of the architects' functional style, in which all service facilities, in gleaming stainless steel, are uncompromisingly exposed on the exterior for ease of renewal at the appropriate time.

An unsuspecting passer-by may be forgiven for supposing that a North Sea oil platform has been plopped down in the middle of the City. Still, at the imposing, canopied entrance stands a liveried doorman in a brilliant red coat. In common with all the liveried staff, he is called a ``waiter'' - a link with Lloyd's 17th-century coffeehouse origins.

Edward Lloyd himself was not directly connected with underwriting, but kept a coffeehouse where merchants and ship captains met and transacted their insurance business on informal terms. Lloyd, however, provided more than coffee and amiable surroundings. His key to success was the provision of up-to-date information on the movements of ships, with which most of the underwriting business was concerned.

By 1734 this information was published daily as Lloyd's List. It has the distinction of being London's oldest daily newspaper, and it continues to be a valuable source of information gathered from Lloyd's agents around the world.

Marine insurance has always formed an important part of the underwriting business, and the old wording ``Insurance against the perils of pirates, rovers, thieves, jettisons, etc.'' is still incorporated into the modern policy.

Taking a prominent position on the floor of the vast underwriting rooms, beneath the glass dome 12 stories overhead, is the Loss Book, which records ships lost at sea. It has been kept daily since 1774, every entry written with a quill pen. One can understand that in the past the hazards of sea travel were considerable and the loss of vessels would be commonplace. But it does come as a surprise that such a ledger is still necessary on a daily basis.

Back copies of the Loss Book contain momentous entries; none more than that of April 16, 1912, which briefly records the loss of the Titanic the previous day.

A relative newcomer to the collection of Lloyd's traditions, but one of the best known, is the Lutine Bell. It hangs in the dome of the rostrum where ``waiters'' operate their computer terminals. The bell, salvaged in 1859 from one of Lloyd's most costly wrecks in the late 18th century, is rung to herald important announcements - two strokes for good news and one for bad.

In a break with tradition, Lloyd's is now open to the public. A viewing gallery on the fourth level is open on weekdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.. An excellent exhibition is included which demonstrates not only the history of underwriting but the modern range of its covered activities - from Elizabeth Taylor's eyes to the latest satellite.

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