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Maritime Tales – the great cyclone

23 April 2007 by Stephen

black and white photo of a bearded man with the words 'Chancellor, Sept '98, Dublin' beneath, and an unreadable signature

John Towne Danson. Image courtesy Liverpool Daily Post & Echo

Storms and rough seas generate emotions from awe to fear for me, Stephen Guy, but it must have been terrible to experience the following catastrophe. The great Calcutta cyclone of 1864 killed 60,000 people and destroyed more than 160 vessels making it probably the biggest single disaster to hit British shipping. Insurance companies in Liverpool went bust when the demands came in from shipowners.

The effects of the cyclone were catastrophic not only to Calcutta, then the seat of British rule in India, but the shipping industry. Roaring winds tore out trees by their roots, ripped roofs off buildings and caused a tsunami tidal wave 30 ft high in the Hooghly River. Ships were sunk, smashed to smithereens and left stranded ashore. Most were sailing ships and Liverpool, as the centre of their operations, received a crippling blow. The Albion and Empire Marine Insurance Companies were among those effectively wiped out by the size of claims made on them as a result of the Calcutta disaster.

Merseyside Maritime Museum has a number of items in its collections relating to marine insurance and underwriting, vital components in the shipping world. One of the companies that did survive the crisis, going on to enjoy success, was Liverpool’s first incorporated insurance company, the Thames and Mersey. It grew out of the aspirations of John Towne Danson (shown), a leading Liverpool figure with seafaring connections. Danson thought that Liverpool’s marine insurance facilities did not match her growing stature as a port. He found backing in the town and he was made secretary of the Thames and Mersey, incorporated in 1863.

Marine insurance boomed at the time of the American Civil War when business was transferred from New York to Liverpool.

The Liverpool Underwriters Association (LUA) was formed as far back as 1802 to increase Liverpool’s role in shipping insurance. In the 18th century shipping insurance was met by prosperous merchants covering modest risks as a business sideline. Later they formed groups and employed brokers to draw up policies. Bigger risks were placed on the London insurance market. LUA was established by merchants, insurance brokers and underwriters to cover shipping intelligence and to influence government legislation.

Other items in the museum’s collections include paperwork relating to 50 cases of muskets shipped from Liverpool to Havana in Cuba in 1834.

A new Maritime Tale appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.

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