PortCities London
UK Bristol Hartlepool Liverpool London Southampton
You are here:  PortCities London home > The working Thames
Text Only About this Site Feedback
Explore this site
About maritime London
Early port
Tudor and Stuart port
18th-century port
19th-century port
20th-century port
People and places
Port communities
Crime and punishment
Leisure, health and housing
Thames art, literature and architecture
The working Thames
London's docks and shipping
Trades, industries and institutions
Port of science and discovery
Historical events
Ceremony and catastrophe
London in war and conflict
Fun and games
Things to do
Timeline games
Matching games
Send an e-card

Trinity House

The origins of Trinity House
Ballast and buoys
Charitable activities
A military role
Send this story to a friend Send this story to a friend
Printer-friendly version Printer-friendly version
View this story in pictures View this story in pictures

Ballast and buoys

Gravel for sale

Study of a dredger
View full size imageStudy of a dredger, c. 1672. © NMM

Elizabeth I issued a new charter in 1594, granting Trinity House the sole rights of ballastage in the River Thames. This had previously been the preserve of the Lord High Admirals. This meant that the Corporation could dredge up gravel from the river bed for sale as ballast to unladen sailing ships.

A dredger moored off Greenwich Hospital.
View full size imageA dredger moored off Greenwich Hospital. © NMM
Dredging took place to keep the river navigable for ocean-going ships. The waste that was left behind from this dredging was a profitable sideline since all vessels in the Thames had to obtain their shingle and gravel from the ballast owners.

A Plan of the Crescent's Ballast as stowed by the orders of Captain WM Ge Lobb, Deptford May 6 1799
View full size imagePlan of the Crescent's ballast, Deptford, 6 May 1799. © NMM

This diagram of the warship HMS Crescent (1784) gives an idea as to how ballast was distributed around a sailing vessel to keep it stable.

At the height of the trade, in 1804, the Corporation employed nearly 250 men in the work of ballasting ships. With the passing of sail in the mid-19th century, ballastage began to die out because steamers used water as ballast.

Keeper of seamarks

Captn Bullock's Safety Beacon erected on Goodwin Sands, Septr 10th 1840 for the Proprietor of the Nautical Magazine.
View full size imageCaptain Bullock's safety beacon erected on Goodwin Sands, September 1840. © NMM
The 1594 charter also recognised Trinity House as the keeper of all British seamarks. These included buoys and land-based beacons, such as steeples, woods and other marks visible from the sea.

The Corporation was allowed to fine anyone up to £100 for removing any of these land-based seamarks without the Trinity House Elders' permission. If the guilty person was not worth that amount, he could be convicted of 'outlawry'.

Until lighthouses became widespread, landmarks were vital navigational aids. This picture shows a mark being erected by Trinity House's Captain Bullock on Goodwin Sands, a notorious stretch of coast in the Thames Estuary.


Bouys used by Trinity House.
View full size imageBuoys used by Trinity House. © NMM
Buoys are floating seamarks used to indicate:

  • channels through sandbanks and shoals in estuaries
  • the approaches to a port where shore marks are too distant for sailors to see
  • wrecks and other dangers to ships.

This image shows the variety of buoys used by Trinity House in the 19th century.

Two bouys at the National Maritime Museum main gate.
View full size imageBuoys at the National Maritime Museum main gate. © NMM

Most buoys have two main colours, black and red, either used plain or with white. There are also green wreck buoys.

Sometimes they have flashing lights or bells that ring with the movement of the waves and serve to warn approaching ships. The buoys vary in size and are usually conical, cylindrical or spherical in shape. These two examples are currently on display at the entrance to the National Maritime Museum.

Repairing a Trinity House Buoy.
View full size imageRepairing a Trinity House buoy. © NMM

In this photograph, two Trinity House workers are repairing a buoy that has been winched on board the Trinity House vessel Hanton.

From 1 April 1993, following the Ports Act, the management of lights, buoys and beacons needed for local navigation was transferred from Trinity House to local harbour authorities.



Page 4 of 9. Previous page Next page


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  
Legal & Copyright Partner sites: Bristol Hartlepool Liverpool Southampton About this Site Feedback Text Only