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Trinity House

The origins of Trinity House
Ballast and buoys
Charitable activities
A military role
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The origins of Trinity House

Petition to Henry VIII

Henry VIII, 1491-1547
View full size imageKing Henry VIII (1491-1547). © NMM
In 1513 Henry VIII chose Deptford as the site for one of his naval dockyards. In that same year a group of mariners sent a petition to the King to tell him about the lack of suitably qualified sailors to pilot ships on the River Thames. 

The mariners pointed out that many of the men involved in pilotage were inexperienced and easily tempted to make money from wrecking.

They also stressed that there could be serious consequences if this unregulated practice continued, as it was dangerous to allow 'foreigners, including Scots, Flemings and French, the opportunity to learn the secrets of the King's streams'.

Trinity House gets its charter

Oldest known view of St. Nicholas' Church.
View full size imageSt Nicholas' Church and the Trinity almshouses. © NMM
Henry agreed with the petition and his charter of 19 March 1513 formed what later became the Trinity House Corporation.

Their title was 'The Master, Wardens and Assistants of the Guild or Fraternitie of the most glorious and blessed Trinitie and Saint Clement in the parish Church of Deptford Stronde in the County of Kent'. (St Clement is the patron saint of mariners.)

The Corporation's headquarters, along with several almshouses, were established at Trinity Hall near St Nicholas' Church, Deptford. The picture shown here is the oldest known view of the church. Trinity Hall and the almshouses can be seen to the east.

The first master

The Great Harry of 1488.
View full size imageThe Great Harry. © NMM

The Charter was accepted from Henry VIII by Sir Thomas Spert, Comptroller of the Navy and Master of the man-of-war, the Henri Grace a Dieu (also known as the Great Harry). Sir Thomas was the first person to hold the title of Master of Trinity House and was the longest holder of this position (1514-41).

Ancient state of the suburbs of Southwark.
View full size imageThe River Thames at Southwark, c. 1660. © NMM

The Charter also allowed the Corporation to collect light dues from ships using its beacons and buoys on the Thames. Payment was:

  • six pence for two-masted ships
  • four pence for one-masted vessels
  • two pence for others.

The customs officers were responsible for collecting the money. This artist's impression of the Pool of London shows how busy the river was in this early period and how many ships would have had to pay their dues to Trinity House.

The Trinity Brethren

Flagmen of Lowestoft: Admiral Sir William Penn, 1621-70.
View full size imageAdmiral Sir William Penn, (1621-70), Master of Trinity House 1666-69. © NMM
After Sir Thomas Spert's long period as leader Trinity House's constitution was changed. From that time, all masters could only hold their positions for three years, after which time they had to stand down or be re-elected by the membership, which was known as the Trinity Court of Brethren.

The master of the Corporation was assisted by a deputy master who was elected from the Elder Brethren. Several of the masters, deputy masters and Elder Bethren of Trinity House are shown in the attached gallery in the right hand column.

The Trinity House
View full size imageThe members of Trinity House, c. 1809. © NMM

While the deputy master would manage the day-to-day running of the corporation, the master's role was as to communicate with the Crown or the government.

To become one of the Brethren, a potential member had to have a close association with the sea. This image shows the members, all in uniform, attending the monthly court inside one of the large meeting rooms in Trinity House.

Trinity House Full Dress Coat: 1866 pattern.
View full size imageTrinity House full dress coat, 1866 pattern. © NMM

The Brethren of Trinity House had to wear a distinctive uniform while on duty at the Corporation's headquarters.

The two items of uniform shown here include a full dress coat of blue cloth (1866 pattern) and the Trinity House cocked hat (1879 pattern).

Trinity House Cocked Hat: 1879 Pattern.
View full size imageTrinity House cocked hat, 1879 pattern. © NMM

As the Corporation's influence grew, its achievements were finally rewarded. On 13 January 1573, Elizabeth I granted Trinity House its own coat of arms with the motto:

'Trinitas in Unitate' (Trinity in Unity).

Move to Trinity Square

The Trinity House
View full size imageTrinity House, September 1799. © NMM
In the 17th century the headquarters of the Corporation moved from Deptford to Trinity Square on Tower Hill. This picture shows what the new premises looked like.

During the Second World War the building was damaged by bombing. After the war it was restored and was reopened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. Today it remains the centre of the Corporation's activities.

Election ceremony

Procession of the 'Trinity Board' on Trinity Monday.
View full size imageProcession of the Trinity Board on Trinity Monday. © NMM
Although the headquarters had moved to Tower Hill, every Trinity Monday a grand procession returned to Deptford by river to elect a new council.

The Duke of Wellington.
View full size imageThe Duke of Wellington, Master of Trinity House from 1837. © NMM
Landing at Deptford Green, they would march to the old Trinity Hall where the 'Loving Cup' was passed around with finger biscuits before a trip to St Nicholas' Church for a sermon.

The ceremony continued for many years and was kept up by the Duke of Wellington.

He was Master from 1837, but the custom ended soon after his death in 1852.


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Light dues

Find out more
GalleriesMasters and Deputy Masters of Trinity House
StoriesThe Tudor and Stuart port
London becomes a gateway to the markets and products of the world
StoriesThe 18th-century port
London becomes a centre of finance, commerce and industry
StoriesThe 19th-century port
Docks and industry transform the Thames
StoriesThe 20th-century port
The changing fortunes of Docklands and the port
Fact fileHenry VIII
The king who had six wives
Fact fileSir Thomas Spert
The first and longest serving Master of Trinity House
Fact fileElizabeth I
Queen of England, 1558-1603
Fact fileSamuel Pepys
Diarist and Master of Trinity House
Fact fileDuke of Wellington
One of the finest soldiers in British history
Fact fileGrace Darling
A Victorian heroine
National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory Greenwich New Opportunities Fund  
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