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Trinity House

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

Samuel Pepys 1633-1703
View full size imageSamuel Pepys, Master of Trinity House in 1685. © NMM
Trinity House's involvement with pilotage stretched back to 1513 when Henry VIII granted it powers to regulate pilots on the Thames.

In 1687 the Corporation was also given permission to test these pilots after Samuel Pepys' visit to Spain. Pepys' involvement with the Admiralty had won him the position of Younger Brother in 1662. He later became Master of Trinity House in 1685.

In the previous year, Pepys had gone to Spain to study the Spanish system of examination. Aspiring pilots were questioned on their knowledge of navigation and sea management. Only the best would achieve a certificate of competence and become pilots.

Charter to test new pilots

'The Royal Charter of confirmation, granted by His most Excellent Majesty King James II, to the Trinity-House of Deptford-Strond, for the government and encrease of the navigation of England'
View full size imageThe Royal Charter granted to Trinity House in 1685 by King James II. © NMM

Pepys' report was accepted by James II who acknowledged it in a new Charter in 1685.

It was entitled, 'The Royal Charter of confirmation, granted by His most Excellent Majesty King James II, to the Trinity-House of Deptford-Strond, for the government and encrease of the navigation of England'.

The front page of the charter is shown here.

James, Duke of York, 1633-1701
View full size imageKing James II (1685-88). © NMM

King James' charter also permitted Trinity House to set its own rates of pilotage and to examine masters for the Royal Navy.

On 24 February 1696, Ambrose Marshall became the first recorded pilot to receive his licence.

It allowed him to cover the area down the Thames as far as Gravesend. 


Pilotage districts

Pilot Boat Vigilant
View full size imageTrinity House ketch Vigilant. © NMM
Over the years, Trinity House's responsibilities for pilotage increased. By the 20th century, the Corporation was the pilotage authority for London and over 40 other areas.

These regions were known as 'Districts' and included Southampton, Milford Haven and Falmouth. This photograph is of the Trinity House ketch Vigilant. Built in 1879 and weighing 70 tons, Vigilant was used as a pilot vessel on the River Thames.

Payments for services

Receipt for Trinity House dues.
View full size imageReceipt for Trinity House dues, 11 December 1810. © NMM
Whenever the master of a ship entered unknown waters he would ask a Trinity House pilot to join his ship to guide the vessel to its destination. The owners of the vessel would then pay the Corporation for these services.

Shown here is a receipt, dated 11 December 1810, for pilotage dues of £8 10 shillings (£8.50) payable to Trinity House from the ship Aeolus.

Trinity House Pilot Boat 121
View full size imageTrinity House Pilot Boat 121. © NMM
At its peak, the Corporation licensed 500 pilots who handled about 60% of the nation's piloted shipping. The Trinity pilots used a variety of vessels in their districts, including tugs, ketches and yachts. Shown here is the Trinity House Pilot Boat No. 121 at full sail in a choppy sea.

Pilots' uniforms

Trinity House Cap
View full size imageTrinity House pilot's cap. © NMM

Trinity House pilots wore a distinctive uniform. The two images here show a pilot's cap and jacket. The cap has a white cotton cover and the Trinity House badge with gold laurel on the peak.

Trinity House jacket
View full size imageCaptain Henry Austin Fraser's Trinity House pilot jacket. © NMM

This jacket, which has eight buttons, belonged to Captain Henry Austin Fraser who served in both world wars. For his services, Fraser received:

  • the Mercantile Marine Medal 1914-18
  • the Victory Medal
  • the 1939-45 Star
  • the Atlantic Star
  • the Africa Star
  • the Burma Star
  • the 1939-45 War Medal
  • an OBE (Order of the British Empire).

The medal ribbons can be seen on the left breast of the jacket.

John Foot, pilot

John Foot joined the Trinity House Pilot service in 1967. He was posted as a junior pilot based on the Isle of Thanet, dealing with small ships bound for London from near the Continent. In addition he managed the traffic in and out of Ramsgate and Whitstable. 

Foot recalled:

Quotation marks left
Ramsgate posed the biggest challenge, and it is amusing to reflect that a pilot with the least experience was thrown into the deep end when bringing a ship into this small port in adverse conditions.
Audio File A Thames pilot's recollections (Ramsgate).
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A vessel was boarded about a mile off the port and the first job was to reassure the worried Captain that the entrance was not as narrow as he feared. Round the fairway buoy, and then N.N.E aiming at the port hand pierhead as the strong N.E. going tide swept across the entrance. Some speed had to be maintained, for once the bow was inside, in still water, the stern rapidly closed the starboard pierhead.

Once inside the Royal Harbour, one could sense the Captain's relief, and it was only when shaping up for the narrow lock entrance that he would realise the ordeal was not yet over. The usual practice was to steer her straight through with fenders at the ready and fingers

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crossed. With the lock negotiated, another tight turn in the inner basin and, at last, the berth.

On another occasion, Foot boarded a small ship of the North Foreland during foul mid-winter weather:

Quotation marks left
At the red flashing East Margate buoy, course was set for the Princes Channel en route for London. With the wind abeam, vessel rolling heavily, and the treacherous Margate Sands, a lee shore to port. Not an unusual situation - the visibility was good even though the conditions were uncomfortable.

Audio File A Thames pilot's recollections (North Foreland)
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But I was soon to be reminded that only constant vigilance will achieve safety. Unknown to me, the ship was loaded with steel coils and the magnetic compass was registering an error of thirty degrees. I had not double-checked our course and it was not until the vessel was surrounded by white seething foam that I realised we were about to go ashore on the Margate Sands. Starboard, and more starboard and slowly, so slowly, the vessel clawed away from danger.

A very close call, and a situation for which I alone was responsible. Had the ship been stranded, possibly lost, and within site of my home, there would have followed a visit to

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Trinity House, a six month 'holiday' or perhaps worse.

End of a tradition

Scenes from pilotage in the Channel.
View full size imageScenes from pilotage in the Channel. © NMM
On 1 October 1988, as part of the Pilotage Act of 1987, Trinity House's responsibilities for district pilotage were transferred to various local Port and Harbour Authorities. This ended a tradition that stretched back to the 16th century.

This 1885 image illustrates several scenes from the life of a pilot. The scenes include:

  • a pilot vessel in rough sea
  • sending a pilot on board a steamer
  • showing a signal flare.

Pilot Hoist on a Union Castle vessel
View full size imagePilot Hoist on a Union Castle vessel. © NMM

Although no longer responsible for local pilotage, Trinity House is still authorised to license deep sea pilots. These often join a vessel off Brixham and stay onboard the whole time the vessel is trading in the continental area. The pilot will only leave when the ship passes Brixham on its outward journey. This 1965 image shows a deep sea pilot being winched on board a Union Castle steamer.

Trinity House Vagabond leaving Harwich Pier on 31 March 1986.
View full size imageVagabond leaving Harwich Pier, 31 March 1986. © NMM
Deep sea pilotage is not compulsory, but ships' masters unfamiliar with European waters often like to use one. The traditional way of taking a pilot on board is from a local pilot vessel, which would wait in readiness for ships. This photograph is of the pilot boat Vagabond, leaving Harwich Pier in March 1986.


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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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