A Very Very Brief Introduction to the History of the Corporation of Trinity House

So as to give readers of this blog a little bit of an overview of Trinity House history, here is a very brief run through the basics of what we’ve been doing for the last 500 years. If you follow the blog, however, you’ll soon come to realise that we’re far more than the sum of the jobs that we have signed up to do; the blog will roll out over time the stories, the quirks, the characters, the photos, the treasures and more that will form a fuller, more descriptive picture of who we really are.

Setting the scene  Early British sea power

In the late 1400s, King Henry VII mandated the development of both a navy and a merchant marine, noting that the fleet vital to the kingdom’s military and economic security was so decayed that England would soon lack the power and ability to defend itself. The increase in overseas trade demanded a strong navy; Henry built three large men-of-war, which became the nucleus of the navy, including the 1,000 ton, four-masted Henri Grace a Dieu, with its crew of 700.

History 1

Henry VIII  Mariners’ petition  Royal Charter  Light Dues  Almshouses  Deptford yard

When Henry VIII ascended the throne, he built upon the momentum created by his late father, establishing the Royal Dockyards at Deptford and Woolwich on the banks of the Thames in 1513. In March that same year a group of mariners—describing themselves as “your humble subjects and true liegemen the masters rulers and mariners of your navy within your River of Thames”—sent a petition to the king on the issue of the lack of suitably qualified mariners to pilot ships on the River Thames.

The petitioners pointed out that many of the men being hired by shipowners to pilot ships up and down the Thames were inexperienced and unregulated. They also stressed that there could be serious consequences if this 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.”

The Charter was accepted on 20 May 1514 by Sir Thomas Spert, Master of the Henri Grace a Dieu and the first Master of the new Corporation, on behalf of 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.

The earliest charter is loose in its description of the Corporation’s powers, but does allow for the Corporation to collect a levy 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. In the seventeenth century, 90% of the nation’s commerce passed through London.

The Brethren (or Wardens and Assistants as they are also known) were responsible for, among other affairs, the maintenance and management of the almshouses for retired seamen and their benefactors at Deptford and Mile End. This duty is carried on today, with the homes at Walmer in Kent. The Brethren would also become responsible for the smooth operation, manning and victualling of the king’s yard at Deptford.

Act of Elizabeth 1566  Ballastage  James II Charter 1685

Through faithful and competent service, the Corporation’s powers were increased and evolved by various grants and charters, as well as the exclusive right in 1594 to sell ballastage dredged from the Thames, an important income for the Corporation’s charitable works.

The ‘Seamarks’ Act of Elizabeth, in giving the Corporation powers to erect seamarks, describes the corporation as “a company of the chiefest and most expert masters and governors of ships incorporate within themselves, charged with the conduction of the queen’s majesty’s navy royal, and bound to foresee the good increase and maintenance of ships and of all kind of men traded and brought up by watercraft most meet for her majesty’s marine service.”

Amongst several subsequent royal charters, including the rights conferred by James I 1604 concerning the compulsory pilotage of shipping, and the exclusive right to license pilots in the River Thames, that granted by James II in 1685 is most important in defining the constitution of the Corporation, and is still the governing document to this day.

New powers, new responsibilities

In the seventeenth century the sphere of the Corporation’s activities had become so wide that it would probably be difficult to discover any maritime matter in which the Brethren had not some authority or interest. It was their business to erect beacons, to lay buoys, grant certificates to Pilots, settle the rate of pilotage, examine and recommend Masters for the Navy (until 1874 they examined the Officers of the Navigation Branch, formerly known as Masters and Mates) and at times to act as an auxiliary press gang. They also examined the Mathematical Scholars of Christ’s Hospital and appointed British Consuls in foreign ports.

History 2


The first lighthouse built by the Corporation was at Lowestoft in 1609. A long interval, however, elapsed before the Corporation became responsible for the management of all lighthouses owing to the continued practice of the Crown of issuing patents or grants of lighthouses to private individuals. In 1836 Trinity House was given compulsory powers to levy out the private owners and to maintain the lights itself at a cost of £1,200,000. The Lighthouse Board and its operational arm the Lighthouse Service is now responsible for 68 major lighthouses within its jurisdiction, as well as the great many buoys, beacons and lightvessels.

The Charity  Cadet training  Education  Welfare of seamen

As a charitable body, Trinity House has always maintained homes and offered welfare and pensions for mariners and their dependants; the last of the homes is now at Walmer, Kent. In addition, Trinity House has for centuries managed a number of legacies left by former Elder Brethren and other benefactors of the Corporation.

In April 1989, following a long-standing tradition of sending young men to sea through benevolent bequests, the Trinity House Scholarship Cadet Training Scheme was launched using the Corporation’s charitable funds to provide training for deck and engine room cadets—both male and female—for a career in the Merchant Navy or elsewhere in the shipping industry.

The charitable arm of the Corporation disperses around £4 million in grants for the welfare of retired seamen, the training of Merchant Marine and leisure industry cadets and the education and promotion of safety at sea.

Local Pilotage — Deep Sea Pilotage

The Pilotage Act, 1987 brought to an end over 4½ centuries of Trinity House’s superintendence of over 40 pilotage districts around the UK, most notably the examination and licensing of Master Mariners fit to bring ships in and out of Britain’s ports. Although these responsibilities were transferred to various harbour authorities, Trinity House has retained a hand in deep sea pilotage licensing.

History 3

The Master  The Elder Brethren  the Court  Uniform

The Corporation of Trinity House is led by a Court of Elder Brethren under the Master, HRH The Princess Royal. Power is delegated from the Court to two separate Boards which control, respectively, the charitable and deep sea pilotage activities of the Corporation, and the Lighthouse Service.

The Corporate Board consists of Elder Brethren, who are Master Mariners with long experience of command in the Royal and Merchant Navies, together with leading figures in the world of commerce, and the Secretary. The Lighthouse Board comprises Elder Brethren, senior staff and non-executive directors appointed by the Department for Transport and is supported by administrative and technical staff at the London headquarters, the Harwich and Swansea depots and the airbase at St. Just.

Well-known Masters and Brethren have included Samuel Pepys, William Pitt, William Gladstone, Winston Churchill, Duke of Wellington, Admiral Sir William Penn, Benjamin Disraeli, and Admiral Lord Mountbatten, among many others.

Sir Winston Churchill took pride in wearing his Elder Brother’s uniform, frequently courting curiosity in this distinguished attire. The much-beloved 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys, twice Master of TH, often enjoyed “a good dinner of plain meat, and good company” and maintained that “there was discourse worth hearing among the old seamen.”

History 4

Today  Mission statement  Functions  Quincentenary May 2014

Today, Trinity House performs three core functions:

– First, as the General Lighthouse Authority (GLA) for England, Wales, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar, responsible for a range of nearly 600 general aids to navigation, from lighthouses to a satellite navigation service. Its also inspects and audits over 10,000 Aids to Navigation provided by local port and harbour authorities and on offshore structures. Trinity House is also responsible for marking and sometimes dispersing wrecks which are a danger to navigation.

– Second, as a charitable organisation dedicated to the safety, welfare and training of mariners.

– Third, as a Deep Sea Pilotage Authority providing expert navigators for ships trading in Northern European waters.

It also provides the Admiralty Court with Assessors and assists judges on technical navigation issues at the same court; the fraternity’s pool of maritime knowledge also supports all of Trinity House’s other functions.

The mission statement of the three combined GLAs (alongside the Northern Lighthouse Board and Commissioners of Irish Lights) is “To deliver a reliable, efficient and cost effective Aids to Navigation Service for the benefit and safety of all mariners.”

There are not too many independent organisations that can take pride in almost half a millennium of service, broadly retaining the same constitution over that time. Lloyds List wrote of Trinity House in 1914, on the occasion of its quatercentenary, that “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.”

Now that the brief introduction is through, hopefully you know a little more about us or at least enough that what follows on this blog will make sense. Let’s now get on with plumbing the depths of what we think you will find a very diverse and interesting history, and we hope that on 20 May 2014 (and for the rest of that year too) you will join us in celebrating our 500th anniversary.

ps. In case you were wondering, the Saint Clement referred to in the Corporation’s title is usually considered to be Clemens Romanus, third Bishop of Rome (but the first of that name), who died in AD101 and is regarded as one of the Patron Saints of sailors.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s