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Trinity House

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

Lowestoft lighthouse
View full size imageLowestoft lighthouse in 1856. © NMM
Henry VIII's original charter had given Trinity House the authority to light beacons on the River Thames. This privilege was extended to include the whole of England by Elizabeth I in 1566.

The rights of 'beaconage' included lighthouses, but the first Trinity House lighthouse was not built until 1609 at Lowestoft.

During this period, Trinity House had to share the administration of lighthouses with several private firms. Many of these had little concern for the safety of sailors, but a great interest in making money from light dues.

Light dues

Ship off a lighthouse at night in a rough sea.
View full size imageA sailing vessel off a lighthouse at night in a rough sea. © NMM

In these early years, shipowners were annoyed at being forced to contribute to the upkeep of private lighthouses, most of which were poorly managed.

Some were indistinguishable from other lights along the coast and in many cases not lit at all.

A Dutch galliot, a Spanish felucca, a French Chasse-Maree off the Eddystone Lighthouse.
View full size imageA Dutch galliot, a Spanish felucca, a French Chasse-Maree off the Eddystone Lighthouse. © NMM
Trinity House backed the shipowners' objections, especially because the charges varied greatly between one lighthouse and another. Therefore, the Corporation successfully campaigned for a charge based on 'tunnage', calculated from the number of 'tuns' (or casks of wine containing 252 gallons) that a ship could carry.

The Lighthouse Fund

Flamborough Head Lighthouse.
View full size imageFlamborough Head Lighthouse. © NMM
Today, commercial shipping shares the full cost of the service from which it benefits through user charges called 'light dues'. The Secretary of State for Transport has the responsibility for the General Lighthouse Fund into which light dues are paid.

The expenses of the Trinity House Lighthouse Service (but not the Corporation's charitable activities) are paid from the General Lighthouse fund - at no expense to the taxpayer. This is also true of the General Lighthouse Authorities for Scotland and Ireland.

The Trinity House lighthouses

South Elevation of the Original Lighthouse, built upon the Eddystone Rock, according to the first design of Mr Winstanley.
View full size imageThe original Eddystone Lightshouse at Plymouth. © NMM
It was not until 1836 that the entire control of English lights was made over to the Corporation. By this time, Trinity House was managing several of the most famous lighthouses in the country, including Eddystone off Plymouth, the first rock lighthouse to be set up.

Eddystone became the responsibility of Trinity House in 1696 and was originally made of wood. At the end of the 1990s there were 70 Trinity House lighthouses around the coasts of England, Wales and the Channel Islands.

Wolf Rock Lighthouse.
View full size imageWolf Rock Lighthouse, 1970. © NMM 

Today, almost all of the lighthouses around Britain are fully automated. Offshore stations are occasionally visited by a helicopter operated by the Lighthouse Service. Before this, Trinity House staff had to spend up to two months at a time in an isolated rock or island station.

On land stations there was often accommodation for a keeper's family, but on rock stations the staff lived a lonely life for weeks on end until relief arrived. Relief at rock lighthouses was often overdue in winter conditions.

Wolf Rock lighthouse

In January 1965 at the Wolf Rock lighthouse, 6 km (4 miles) south-west of Lands End, the relief was 19 days late because a Trinity supply vessel could not land in the rough seas.

Wolf Rock Lighthouse
View full size imageWolf Rock Lighthouse. © NMM

Wolf Rock Lighthouse got its name from the howl heard when the wind blows through the cracks in the rock on which it stands. Work on the current structure started in 1861, but was slow because of the poor weather.

The tower was completed in July 1869 and the light started shining in the following year. In July 1988 the station was automated and it is now monitored from the Trinity House Operations Control Centre at Harwich.

At Harwich a team of monitoring officers constantly oversee the operation of all automated stations, diagnosing any faults and arranging repairs.

Maintenance and training

Training of Lighthouse personnel at Orchard Yard.
View full size imageTraining of lighthouse personnel at Orchard Yard. © NMM
In 1869 Trinity House established its depot at Orchard Place in Blackwall, at the junction of Bow Creek and the Thames. The workshops were built alongside a ship depot that had been on the site since the early 19th century.

In the early 1880s a miniature lighthouse was built for training likely keepers. The ship depot was transferred to Harwich during the Second World War because of enemy air attacks. The workshops remained, and after the war the bombed buildings were renovated.

Trinity Bouy Wharf.
View full size imageTrinity Buoy Wharf. © NMM
Until it closed in the 1980s, the Blackwall depot, also known as Trinity Buoy Wharf, serviced and maintained lighthouse and lightship machinery, and supplied replacement buoys.

Trinity House depot at Trinity Buoy Wharf
View full size imageTrinity House Depot, Blackwall, in 1984. © NMM
Technicians would go from the depot to lighthouses and lightships throughout the country to make repairs and supply spare parts. This is now done by the Trinity House Operations Control Centre at Harwich.



Lighthouse life

On mainland and island stations, lighthouse keepers had homes next to their lights. Land-based staff were not relieved in the same way as those on isolated rock stations. Instead, the keeper was given an annual holiday.

In those locations where keepers were given a house, it was often the case that his family would move in with him. As a result, lighthouse keeping, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, became something of a family business.

Grace Darling and the 'Forfarshire'

Grace Horsley Darling
View full size imageGrace Darling. © NMM
Perhaps the most famous Trinity House family was that at the Longstone Lighthouse on the Farne Islands, off Northumbria, where Grace Darling lived.

The Longstone house contained four rooms below the lantern where William Darling and his wife lived with their nine children. All of the family, except Grace and her brother William, left home in due course, but these two regularly looked after the light.

In the early hours of 7 September 1838, William was ashore when Grace saw the paddle steamer Forfarshire grounded on a rock. Of the 60 people on board, only about 13 remained alive and managed to scramble onto the rocks.

Grace Darling & her Father going to the Rescue of the Forfarshire Steamer.
View full size imageGrace and William Darling rescuing the survivors from the Forfarshire in September 1838. © NMM
During the night two children and two more adults died from exposure and their injuries. Then at daybreak, Grace and her father rowed out to the wreck through the crashing waves. They managed to rescue nine survivors, whom they took back to the safety of the lighthouse.

Rescue story

The details of the rescue are given in a letter from William Darling to the Secretary of Trinity House:

Quotation marks left
On the morning of the 7th September, it blowing a gale with rain from the north…my daughter observed a vessel on the Harker's Rock. Owing to the darkness and spray going over her we could not observe any person on the wreck…until near 7 o'clock, when, the tide being fallen, we observed three or four men upon the rock.

We immediately launched our boat, and was enabled to gain the rock, where we found eight men and one woman, which I judged rather too many to take at once in the state of weather, therefore took the woman and four men to the Longstone. Two of them returned with me, and succeeded in bringing the remainder, in all nine persons, safely to the Longstone about 9 o'clock. Afterwards the boat from North Sunderland arrived and found three lifeless bodies, one man and two children, which they carried to the high rock,

Quotation marks right
and came to the Longstone with great difficulty.

Letter from William Darling to the Secretary of Trinity House.
View full size imageLetter from William Darling to the Secretary of Trinity House. © NMM
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The Darling legend

The Interior of Longstone Lighthouse
View full size imageGrace Darling and her parents helping the survivors at the Longstone. © NMM
The rescue, and Grace in particular, became something of a legend. Her part in the drama soon became one of the most celebrated cases of female heroism of the Victorian era. Well-known artists sought permission to paint Grace's portrait and plays were written about her.

Four years after the wreck, Grace became ill with tuberculosis and died aged only 26. Her early death only served to strengthen the legend that grew up around her.


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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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