Origins of the Royal Charter

On 19 March 1513 a guild of mariners, troubled by the inexperience and poor conduct of unregulated pilots on the Thames endangering life and cargo, petitioned the king for license to set up a fraternity enabled to regulate pilotage on the capital’s river.

On 20 May 1514, a Royal Charter was presented to The Master Wardens and Assistants of the Guild Fraternity or Brotherhood of the Most Glorious and Undivided Trinity and of Saint Clement in the Parish of Deptford Strond in the County of Kent, the Corporation’s full name to this day; Sir Thomas Spert, Master of the Mary Rose and the Henri Grace a Dieu, became the first Master.

This new corporation was to be governed by a Master, four Wardens and eight Assistants, elected annually. Today, the Master’s extensive powers and jurisdiction are deferred to the Deputy Master. As John Whormby, Clerk to the Corporation, wrote in 1746, the general business of the Master, Wardens and Assistants was

“to improve the art and science of mariners; to examine into the qualifications, and regulate the conduct of those who take upon them the charge of conducting ships; to preserve good order, and (when desired) to compose differences in marine affairs, and, in general, to consult the conservation, good estate, wholesome government, maintenance and increase of navigation and sea-faring men; and to relieve decayed seamen and their relatives.”

The latter function—performed to this day—essentially comprised the management of almshouses and the dispersal of welfare and pensions to seamen and their dependants, as well as the deserving poor of London.

The Seamarks Act and new powers

In 1566 Queen Elizabeth I’s Seamarks Act enabled Trinity House

“at their wills and pleasures, and at their costs, [to] make, erect, and set up such, and so many beacons, marks, and signs for the sea… whereby the dangers may be avoided and escaped, and ships the better come into their ports without peril.”

The Corporation’s powers evolved steadily, so that by the start of the 17th century its duties included marine surveying, naval stores inspections, pilot licensing, buoyage and beacons and the Ballastage Office, the latter a major income for the charitable works.

The advent of lighthouses

With the increasing number of ships lost along the Newcastle to London coal route, a petition for seamarks was drawn up by shipowners who asserted that “no doubte but everyman that tradethe the North partes will willingly contribute thereunto.” Consequently, Trinity House established the Lowestoft Lighthouse in 1609, a pair of wooden towers with candle illuminants.

Until the late 18th century, coal or wood fires were used as lighthouse illuminants. In 1782 came the circular-wick oil-burning Argand lamp. In 1777 the first ‘catoptric’ reflector was created using silvered glass set in a parabola; much is owed to Augustin Fresnel for inventing the ‘dioptric’ system, a bullseye lens with concentric prisms, in 1823.

The NORE lightvessel was established as the first floating light in 1732, identified by candles in a simple lantern; in 1861 came the first iron lightvessel.
In 1836 Trinity House was given powers to levy out the last private lighthouse owners and maintain the lights itself. The difficulties of building some of that era’s most iconic designs can be illustrated by looking at the weather conditions that the builders were forced to contend with: the first Bishop Rock (1847-50) was carried away during a storm before the lantern could be fitted; the construction of the Wolf Rock’s black conical beacon took 302 hours across five years (1836-40); in 1861 work began on the lighthouse: in the eight years it took to complete, there was an annual average of only 33 days on which landings could be made.

The District Depots

In 1803 the Corporation established the Blackwall Depot as a Thames-side buoy workshop. To reduce long sea passages to and from Blackwall, six district depots were established at Harwich, Great Yarmouth, East Cowes, Penzance, Holyhead and Swansea.

Trinity House during wartime

During the First World War, the Steam Vessel Service was busy buoying shipping lanes, swept channels and naval operations, moving and replacing lightvessels and laying hundreds of additional buoys; the tenders covered points as far-flung as the White Sea and the Persian Gulf.

As the Second World War came around, Trinity House kept the sea lanes marked and lighted for Allied convoys and met all calls for emergency measures. The Pilotage Service guided countless ships safely to their ports under hazardous and abnormal conditions; at the time of the evacuation from Dunkirk a number of pilots helped in piloting vessels to and from the beaches. As D-Day commenced, Trinity House laid 73 lighted buoys to indicate a safe route to the landing beaches, and lightvessels JUNO and KANSAS were established off the landing beaches. Trinity House pilots were responsible for piloting all commercial vessels and many of the service vessels engaged in such operations. In the month following D-Day nearly 3,000 ships were handled by 88 river pilots and nearly 2,000 vessels by 115 sea pilots, working day and night without relief.

On the night of 29 December Trinity House fell victim to the most severe of the air attacks on London; the interiors were completely gutted and many archives, rarities, fine models, hangings and paintings were destroyed. Wyatt’s restored house was reopened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth on 21 October 1953 — Trafalgar Day.

Post-war recovery

After the war, the battered but recovering Corporation was as busy as ever, repairing war damage to the lighthouses and bringing electricity and telephone lines to many of the stations at a time of fledgling progress being made on ‘automatic working’ at lighthouses; this programme of modernisation would continue through to the great automation phase of the 1980s.

The Corporation’s successes were marred by tragedy when Lightvessel No. 90 was dashed across the Goodwin Sands on the night of 26 November 1954, losing all crewmen during one of the worst channel storms in two centuries. One man, a visitor from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, would survive the night.

The automation period

1969 saw the debut of helicopter reliefs to and from lighthouses, rendering the tradition of keepers trapped by foul weather with dwindling supplies of food and fuel a thing of the past.

Trinity House played a leading part in the successful deployment of the IALA Maritime Buoyage System, designed to address the disastrous mix of over 30 buoyage systems being used worldwide. THV Ready laid the first IALA buoy off Dover, watched over by representatives of 16 nations on 15 April 1977.

In the 1960s the 120-foot pilot cutters made way for a fleet of nimble fast shore-based launches; at this time Trinity House licensed about 500 pilots, of whom about 350 were in the London District, handling an estimated 60% of the nation’s piloted tonnage. 1987’s Pilotage Act saw Trinity House passing its District Pilotage responsibilities to various local harbour authorities. Ensuring the continuance of one of its oldest duties, Trinity House is now a licensing authority for deep sea pilotage.

The last lighthouse keepers

The completion of the lighthouse automation programme came with North Foreland Lighthouse on 26 November 1998; the last six keepers were given a warm farewell by the Master HRH The Duke of Edinburgh. On 9 June 1989, the last manned lightvessel, at the CHANNEL station, was towed to Harwich, and an automated lightvessel left in her place. With no more manned lighthouses or lightvessels, the far-reaching network of depots around England and Wales was scaled down; busy offices and buoy yards remain today at both Harwich and Swansea, with a satellite depot close to Land’s End.

The charity

As a charitable body, the Corporation has owned a number of properties and lands for their benevolent purposes, chief among them being the estate at Newington and the almshouses at Deptford, Mile End and Walmer. It disperses millions in grants for the welfare of retired seamen, the training of Merchant Marine and leisure industry cadets and the promotion of safety at sea.

In 2011 HRH Princess Royal succeeded HRH The Duke of Edinburgh as Master, the longest sitting in the Corporation’s history, and took pride of place when Trinity House Motor Boat No.1 led the vanguard of the Diamond Jubilee procession, continuing the Corporation’s long-standing engagement with the nation’s most famous waterway.

Lloyds List wrote of Trinity House in 1914, that

“As a matter of history the record of Trinity House is fascinating. In its time it has been many sided. It has served the nation in this capacity and that, and all the while it has somehow managed to make itself so indispensable that, in an age of scant reverence for ancient institutions, it stands not only unassailed, but, we might also add, unassailable.”

Looking forward

What the next 500 years holds no one can say for certain, except the sea will continue to play a vital role in maintaining the way of life we all take for granted. As Captain Ian McNaught, Executive Chairman of Trinity House, said

“With over 90% of goods entering the UK having spent some or all of their journey to our shores by sea our lives would be very different without our mariners and to them we say thank you.“I would also like to take this opportunity to thank my colleagues throughout Trinity House who work so tirelessly to ensure we provide a world class service on a daily basis. It is also fitting that I pay tribute to those who have gone before us who have raised us to this position which we strive to maintain every day.”

Since the Royal Charter granted by Henry VIII on 20 May 1514, the Corporation of Trinity House has been entrusted with many responsibilities and powers; the 1685 charter along with the Merchant Shipping Act 1995 provides the Corporation with the robust but flexible constitution that allows it to change with the times and ensure its utility to the mariner as a General Lighthouse Authority, a major maritime charity and a Deep Sea Pilotage Authority.

The technology available to it, and the advances the organisation is making with it will no doubt influence the way in which Trinity House fulfils its statutory duty, but its remit will continue to be to serve the mariner.


If you are interested in reading a more in-depth history of the Corporation of Trinity House, Light Upon The Waters by Richard Woodman and Andrew Adams is available now, priced at £29.95.

Find out more and buy a copy.