21 October 2013 marks the 60th anniversary of the day that HM Queen Elizabeth II reopened the rebuilt Trinity House for business after it had been destroyed during the Blitz of the Second World War.
THE LOSS OF THE HOUSE
Before the Second World War was declared, the Elder Brethren of Trinity House arranged to evacuate not only the staff, but also most of the valuable contents of the house on Tower Hill. The silver plate and the most valuable paintings were safely removed to the vaults beneath the Tower of London’s Jewel Tower, with the remainder of the paintings sent to Bayham Abbey in Kent.
Knowing that the 18th century Trinity House comprised timber-built rooms connected by wooden stairs and passages, the Elder Brethren had, from the very first days of the war, organised themselves and their staff into trained fire-fighting parties who were on duty both day and night.
By late 1940 the paintings stored beneath the Tower were showing signs of damp, and so another house was found for them in Northumberland. They were temporarily brought back to Trinity House on 28 December 1940 for repairs, and were due to travel north on the 30th.
On the night of 29 December, however, Trinity House fell victim to the most severe of the air attacks on London. When incendiary bombs landed on the wooden beams of the house, fire fighters were able put out the first fire caused by the bombs, but the shortage of water prevented their efforts to extinguish subsequent fires.
On the morning of 31 December 1940 the staff found the whole of the Wyatt building and the offices at the back with their walls more or less intact, but the interiors completely gutted; apart from the separate East Wing, the only surviving portion of the building was the basement wine cellar. Many archives, rarities, fine models, hangings and paintings were destroyed, save for the paintings that had been at Bayham Abbey, and some archives and books that had gone to the countryside.
But normal business had to be resumed, and a number of interim offices were leased over the following years, as the various Departments occupied spaces at the Swedish Chamber of Commerce, Tower House, Hopetown House in Lloyds Avenue, the General Steam Navigation offices in Trinity Church Square, London House in Crutched Friars and Ocean House in Great Tower Street.
THE HOUSE IS RESTORED
Professor (later Sir) Albert Richardson initially submitted plans for building a new house, but the Brethren were determined to not only reinstate Wyatt’s building as it had been, but also to demolish the old Pilotage Service office building and build in its place a new library, grand enough to host functions and banquets, laid with carpet of the same pattern used in cabins of ships of the line at the end of the 18th century, as well as offices and sleeping quarters elsewhere in the building. In addition, an entirely new seven storey office block was built at the rear, with laboratories, a research department and recreation rooms.
Wyatt’s building restored at last, the house was reopened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth on 21 October 1953 — Trafalgar Day.
“Following the tradition of our Family, which I hope will be long maintained, my Father was an Elder Brother of Trinity House, and, as you know, had intended to open your new building. I am therefore especially glad that I can today carry out his wishes, and join with you in celebrating your return to your historic home. This new building is a noble replica of the old House, so tragically destroyed, and is one of which the City of London can be justly proud. The Corporation of the Trinity House has a great record of public service and of charitable benefaction. For centuries, its members have been the Good Samaritans of the sea. I should like to take this opportunity of telling all those who have ever been associated with our Lighthouse and Pilotage services how deeply I appreciate their work and their devotion to duty on which depends the safety of those who sail the seas around these islands.”
HM The Queen, 1953 Trinity House re-opening ceremony