Trinity House: the first 500 years

Buoys, beacons, ballast … and lighthouses

Captain Richard Woodman, maritime historian and Elder Brother of Trinity House, reviews the continuing evolution of the essential services provided by the Corporation

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the incorporation of Trinity House, a guild of mariners which had existed long before it submitted a petition to King Henry VIII, the purpose of which was to impose regulation on the conduct and pilotage of all shipping on the River Thames. Prior to this date the members of the fraternity, besides providing pilots, pledged themselves to the relief of those ‘shipmen’ who had fallen upon hard times. But in 1513 the chaotic state of unregulated navigation on the Thames called for some intervention by the State, and a plea to this end was laid before the King by the then Master of Trinity House, Thomas Spert.

In 1514 Henry granted Spert and his fellow ‘brethren’ a charter of incorporation, connecting Trinity House with the administration of the nation, a connection that has continued to this day.

An expanding role

The steady increase in merchant shipping using the port of London placed new demands upon the Corporation of Trinity House, and in 1566 Queen Elizabeth I gave the Royal Assent to the Seamarks Act, empowering Trinity House to establish buoys, beacons and other such marks as were considered desirable for the safe navigation of shipping entering and leaving the Thames. The efficacy of such seamarks soon extended this requirement beyond the river’s wide estuary, while the demand for lighthouses added to the Corporation’s responsibilities. A partial solution to the knotty problem of funding for all this was reached in 1594 when Trinity House took over the monopoly of providing ballast to shipping in the Thames, a charge it executed until the introduction in the nineteenth century of iron and steel hulls with integral water-ballast tanks, which rendered it redundant. By this time, however, the poor quality of the ballast, combined with the use of the Thames as an open sewer, rendered the reputation of the Brethren of Trinity House as noxious as the ballast itself!

Despite this poor public image, the Brethren had nevertheless done their limited best, erecting lighthouses in some few locations but largely relying upon private enterprise to do so. To avoid a proliferation of private lights, they were limited by licence and while the owners could levy a fee on passing ships, they were obliged to pay Trinity House a rent for the privilege. However, all these licences were in the form of terminal leases, and by the end of the eighteenth century these were expiring, compelling a change in the system of management.

All the while Trinity House was also maintaining almshouses – first at Deptford, later at Mile End, and today at Walmer, Kent relieving acute poverty with ‘doles’ and by providing for annuitants, and licensing pilots not only for the Thames but for many other ports. The Brethren also examined the sailing masters of the Royal Navy, so that men like James Cook and William Bligh were obliged to submit themselves to Trinity House for certificates of competence.

Naval duties

From time to time the Corporation was required to come to the aid of the State in time of war, most notably during the American War of Independence when the American rebels formed alliances with France and Spain and an invasion was threatened, and during the Napoleonic War when a further invasion seemed imminent.

On the first occasion a number of small ‘lookout cruisers’ guarded the Thames estuary and gave warning of any enemy activity; on the second Trinity House took over ten naval frigates and manned and moored them to form an armed cordon across the Thames near the village of East Tilbury.

This – the Royal Trinity House Volunteer Artillery – was a fully commissioned military entity in which the Brethren, both the senior, or Elder Brethren, and many Younger Brethren, held commissions from the King. The force was maintained between 1803 and 1805, by which time the possibility of an enemy descent upon the Thames had receded.

Originally composed of senior sea- captains, the Elder Brethren by this time also included honorary figures, both naval and political, and the Colonel of the Royal Trinity House Volunteer Artillery was the Corporation’s Master, at that time William Pitt the Younger, sometime Prime Minister.

The connection with both the Royal Navy and the political establishment continues today, the Elder Brethren generally being elected from among the Younger Brethren, some 380 commanders of major warships or masters of merchant ships, the political appointees being made on their retirement from high office.

Into the modern era

The termination of the lighthouse leases in the early decades of the nineteenth century required the Elder Brethren of the day to up their game considerably. The events of the Napoleonic War had significantly changed matters; the Corporation found itself required to erect more lighthouses, sometimes in odd locations, such as the island of Helgoland in the German Bight. The long period of relative peace that commenced with the defeat of Napoleon saw an immense increase in British merchant shipping – half the world’s total ships, carrying half the world’s trade, by 1912. This in turn demanded greater provision of aids to navigation: buoys, beacons, lighthouses and lightvessels, along with improvements in lights and lenses, and the development of fog signals.

Matters thus gained a momentum; reform and improvement marked the whole century between Waterloo (1815) and the beginning of the First World War, and what grew into the Trinity House Service rapidly assumed a lead in this first technological age. An Act of 1836 enabled the Corporation to buy out all existing private lighthouses in England and Wales, and almost immediately an ambitious programme was launched whereby existing lighthouses were updated, new stations were established – particularly upon such long-term hazards as the Wolf Rock off Land’s End – and increasing numbers of buoys and lightvessels were placed on station to ‘guard’ the shoals.

To facilitate all this, Trinity House fully augmented its own service, adopting steam-powered support vessels manned by uniformed sea-staff. Keepers and lightsmen were also put into uniform and properly remunerated with permanent, pensionable employment. An Engineer- in-Chief’s Department was established in the Corporation’s new premises on Tower Hill (built in 1794) and the whole business was brought rapidly into the modern era. Methods of raising revenue were overhauled, particularly the system of Light Dues whereby a levy was taken from all ships putting into British ports. The ‘working’ Elder Brethren responsible for the day-to-day operation of the Service were properly salaried and required to give up the commercial interests many of them had formerly had.

In short, Trinity House thereafter constantly improved its service to the international mariner passing our shores. Initially possessing a supervisory role over the lighthouse services in Ireland and Scotland, today Trinity House works in close association with the other two General Lighthouse Authorities for the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.

In recent years, reflecting the emergence of a second technological revolution, and in particular the common use of global navigation satellite systems, Trinity House maintains a constant watch on the necessity for its aids to navigation, a process that is seeing the closure, or reduction in capacity, of many lighthouses and other offshore aids. For those that remain, the use of solar power, light-emitting diodes, sophisticated telemetry and computer-controlled systems means that all those stations formerly manned are now operated from a central control facility at Harwich, Essex, the principal operational base of today’s Trinity House Service.

The next half-millennium As the utility of some aids to navigation fades, others require greater attention. Today offshore wind-farms, gas and oil production platforms and traffic separation schemes all require buoying and monitoring, requiring the Corporation to be agile in its management, modern in its philosophy, and astute in its financial planning.

Both its licensing of deep-sea pilots and its charitable work continue apace. The latter includes not only the relief of poor seafarers and their dependants, but also the education of the public on maritime matters, the development of safety at sea through innovation, and the provision of cadet schemes to encourage young men and women to take up careers at sea. For these worthy and diverse causes the Corporation disburses the rents it generates from its portfolio of properties.

Underpinning all its activities, whether they be charitable grants, the licensing of a pilot, the routine maintenance of a buoy, the location and marking of a vessel sunk in collision, or the attendance of Elder Brethren in the Admiralty Court, the Corporation is ever mindful of its great charge – the safety of the mariner passing through the waters for which it has responsibility. Modern and proven, today it faces the challenges of the next half-millennium.