On This Day in Trinity House History – 16 January


BBC Men Stranded on Bishop Rock are Rescued

“I spent three years as a prisoner-of-war, and would rather go behind barbed wire again than face a further few weeks on that damned rock.”

Edward Ward, BBC Reporter

Edward Ward and Stanley Coombs of the BBC are rescued from the Bishop Rock after bad weather strands them at the lighthouse for 29 days.

In December 1946 the BBC’s radio features department revived the pre-war round-the-world link-up of Christmas Day greetings which preceded the annual message from the Monarch. So Edward Ward and an engineer set off for Bishop Rock Lighthouse, the most westerly part of England, some 40 miles off Cornwall and seven from the Isles of Scilly, to record the Yuletide contribution from the isolated keepers.

The two men had planned to stay on the lighthouse for only a few days, but the same gale-force winds and heavy seas that featured in their Christmas round-up were also preventing their scheduled relief.

For almost a month the weather did not let up, and with five men on station the supply of fresh food dwindled; the lighthouse keepers radioed Trinity House for permission to break into the emergency stores of bully beef and biscuits.

“It was always the same old walls,”  Ward recalled,

“living completely in one room about 15ft. in diameter, and the only change of view was a trip up to the light above, and walk around the balcony or a trip down into the rock’s ‘vitals’ to look at bits of machinery… I made my own bed each day and helped with the kitchen and house work… Then there was always the polishing of the light and wireless talks with other lighthouses and the coastguard station ashore. But it was all pretty boring once the novelty wore off… we had nothing stronger than tea to drink, and towards the end the cigarettes ran out.”

On the 29th day, a lifeboat boat made it to the lighthouse and the men were lowered by rope towards the boat through the surf.

It took just ten minutes to leave the lighthouse in the breeches-buoy and reach the lifeboat,” he told the gathered newspaper reporters, “but it was the longest ten minutes of my life… There I was, dangling on what seemed a dreadfully thin rope between the sky and the boiling sea. It was not funny at all.”

Now remembered as one of the very best of the BBC’s war correspondents, Ward (1905-1993) was held as a POW in Italy and Germany from 1941-45; four or five days on a lighthouse must have seemed  a relatively trouble-free assignment in comparison. He signed off his stretch as a lighthouse keeper with a palpable sense of relief:

I wore the same shirt for 29 days, and I am fed up of the sight of it. Now I am going home for a bath, a drink, and a change of clothes, and I hope I don’t get another job like that in a hurry.”

Relief Overdue Bishop Rock newspaper clipping

Relief Overdue Bishop Rock newspaper clipping


On This Day in Trinity House History – 13 January


The Elder Brethren Required as Nautical Assessors at Admiralty Court

Court Minute:

“A Clerk belonging to the Court of Common Pleas attends with the Crier of the said Court, with three rules from the Judges, and served three of the Brethren with notice to appear at Westminster on the 5th February next and give their opinion in a case depending, the business wholly relating to the sea.”

One of the many duties of the Elder Brethren is sitting, when summoned, to assist the Judge of the Admiralty Court as nautical assessors on the bench of that court when questions of seamanship, navigation and nautical knowledge arise, and when the High Court sits as a prize court. The two Brethren best acquainted with the issues raised by the case in question attend the Judge as Assessors.

The first reported case of assessors assisting the High Court of Admiralty is in 1541, and the Charter of James II prescribes that the Master, Wardens and Assistants, and their Deputies, being always at the king’s call, are exempted from all manner of land service except Admiralty Sessions, “which they and every one of them shall be tied and bound to attend, upon their Perils, being lawfully summoned.”


Trinity House on Water Lane Burns Down

The Board minute for 14 January 1715 recorded

“A terrible Fire hap’ning last night at Bear Key in Thames Street which burnt with such violence that about two this morning it took the houses in Water Lane and entirely consum’d the Trinity House belonging to this Corporation. The Deputy Master, Wardens, and Elder Brethren… mett together to consider what was proper to be immediately done on this dismal occasion, and Resolved that the business of the Ballast Office, and other affairs of the Corporation be for the present transacted at the Mitre Tavern in Fenchurch Street…”

The Corporation’s Clerk John Whormby’s 1746 account of the Corporation recalls a number of invaluable archives lost through fire and the chaos of moving from site to site: the Book of By-Laws; various charters and grants, Court minutes, reports, letters; ancient records of ballastage, buoyage and beaconage, several in Latin; “a small venerable vellum book of great antiquity” containing translations of the charters of Henry and Elizabeth, the By-Laws of 1514, the form of oaths in Elizabeth’s reign; a book of Proceedings in the Courts of Exchequer and Chancery and the House of Peers and copies of books lost to Trinity House but found in Pepys Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge.

The house, which Trinity House had occupied since 1660, was rebuilt after the fire and the Corporation continued to use it as a headquarters until 1796, at which time the current headquarters was built and opened on Tower Hill.

Trinity House Water Lane

Trinity House Water Lane

On This Day in Trinity House History – 12 January


The Frozen Thames Halts Trinity House Ballast Office Works

Trinity House Board Minute:

“Ballast men praying for the loan of some money to support their families during this very hard frost and they unable to work. The supervisor to advance them five shillings each.”

Seal of the Ballast Office

Seal of the Ballast Office

On This Day in Trinity House History – 11 January


Trinity House and the Royal Navy

Trinity House Court Minute:

“Trinity House to the Duke of Buckingham. Petition to prefer a Bill to Parliament for increase of pay to men in the King’s ships, by ancient allowance 4d. per day.”


Trinity House By-Law ‘Against Scandalous Words’

Trinity House Court Minute:

“Notice of a by-law that if any Elder or Younger Brother speak scandalous words against an Elder Brother, for the first fault he was to pay 20s., and for the second fault be expelled.”


Electric Light  First Exhibited at Souter Point Lighthouse

Extract from The Newcastle Courant of 12 January 1871:

“The important lighthouse on the north-east coast was opened last night and there were present at the ceremony a deputation from the London Trinity House, consisting of the Deputy Master (Captain Sir Frederick Arrow), Admiral Collinson, and Captain Nesbit; Professor Holmes, of London, the patentee of the electric light; Mr. Douglass, the chief engineer of the London Trinity House. There was also a select party of visitors, including Sir Hedworth Williamson, Bart., M.P., Lady Williamson, and the Dowager Lady Williamson; the Rev. Mr. Hitchcock, Rector of Whitburn, Mr. and Mrs. Hodgson; Mr. and Mrs. Charles Harrison, Mrs. Green, & c. For the purpose of giving further protection to the growing commerce of the Tyne and Wear, and to facilitate the navigation of that part of the coast, the Trinity House determined to place another powerful light in this neighbourhood.

An excellent site has been selected on Souter Point, about midway between the two rivers where the light will be comparatively free from the dense masses of smoke that are ever sent from these busy centres of manufacturing industry. The tower is based at a distance of 315 yards from the edge of the cliff; it is 75¾” feet high from base to vane and shows at an elevation of 150 feet above high water, a revolving electric white light of great brilliancy at intervals of 30 seconds; the duration of flash to interval of darkness is in the ratio of 1 to 5, thus giving 5 seconds for the duration of each flash, with 25 seconds for each interval of darkness. Each flash will differ somewhat from that of an ordinary apparatus for oil light, inasmuch as it will appear and disappear suddenly and be of nearly equal intensity throughout.

This apparatus has been manufactured expressly for the purpose, and consists of a portion of dioptric apparatus of the third order for fixed light; around this is rotated a hexagonal drum of glass, consisting of eight panels of vertical lenses; by three lenses the divergent and continuous sheet of light from the fixed rotation of the apparatus is gathered up so as to form distinct beams which successively reach the observer as the panels pass in succession before him. It is a remarkable piece of optical skill requiring the utmost care both in mathematical calculation and manufacture; the perfections in both are due to the scientific attainments of Mr. James Chance.

A lower light also electric is shown from the same tower at a distance of 22 feet below the upper light, for marking dangers in Sunderland Bay. Directly this light is opened from seaward it will show white, and seamen will know that while it continues so they are on the line of Mill Rock; standing further into the shore it will change to red, indicating that they are then in the line of the Hendon Rock and the White Stones. As Mill Rock is a very short distance from the lighthouse it will be safe to navigate in the White Beam unless close to, but when the Red Beam is opened except seamen be going to Sunderland they should not go further in shore. If bound to Sunderland the Red Beam, with the assistance of the Sunderland pier light, will enable them to avoid the Hendon Rock and White Stones.

This lower light is a novelty in lighthouse illumination on a principle adopted by the Trinity House engineer and is from the same electric spark as the upper light. To obtain this result, the light of the landward side of the spark, which is usually imperfectly utilized, is collected and condensed into a small cylinder beam of great intensity, and is sent, by reflection, down the centre of the tower to the required distance below the upper light, where it is again reflected and sent through a lower window over the required sector of sea surface. At this lower window a simple but important contrivance has been introduced for cleaning the glass externally in all states of weather, without the necessity of opening the window or for the lightkeeper in charge to go outside the tower.

The electricity for the production of the spark is generated by one of Professor Holmes’ magneto-electric machines, worked by a steam-engine of 6½ indicated horse-power. The magneto-electric machine contains 56 compound permanent steel magnets, and is driven at a speed of 400 revolutions per minute. The steam-engine, boiler, and magneto-electric machine are all duplicated in case of accident or repair to any part, and during such states of the atmosphere as lights are imperfectly visible, both magno-electric machines will be worked, this doubling the power of the current of electricity and consequently the intensity of the light.

But as a further precaution against accident an oil lamp, is placed in position and is always in readiness to take the place of the electric light at any moment. The machinery was exhibited at the International Exhibition held at Paris in 1867 with which an electric light was shown every night during five months of the period during which the exhibition was open the light receiving high commendation from the international jury.

During foggy weather a powerful fog horn, also the invention of Mr. Holmes, will be sounded. This horn is placed 97 seaward of the lighthouse, at an elevation of 85 feet above high water and is blown by air compressed by the stern engine, and sent through a pipe underground to an iron receiver on which is placed an automatic apparatus which causes the horn to traverse to and fro and send its sound to every part of the adjacent sea, and regulate the number and duration of the blasts. It is arranged that the number blasts be two per minute, the duration of each blast being five seconds, with an interval of twenty-five seconds corresponding with the flashes and intervals of the light.

The building comprises dwellings for five light keepers (one principal, who is a duly qualified mechanical engineer and four assistants), engine house, boiler house, coke store, workshop, and store-room these are specially arranged for securing the utmost efficiency in the service of the establishment. As no spring of water could be found at or near the site arrangements have been made by collecting and storing a large supply of rain water for the service of the steam engines and establishment generally. The works have been designed by Mr. Douglass, engineer to the Trinity House and have been executed by the following firms:- Electrical apparatus and fog horn, Professor Holmes and Messrs. Buckett Brothers London; optical apparatus, Messrs. Chance Brothers and Co. near Birmingham; steam engines and boilers, Sir Joseph Whitworth and Co., and the Fairbairn Engineering Co. Manchester; and building, Mr. Robert Allison builder, Whitburn.

The whole of the scientific portion of the work has been carried out under the advice and personal inspection of Professor Tyndall, who has taken a great interest in the work. The Deputy Master of the London Trinity House opened the proceedings by referring to the origin of the light which he characterised as a most powerful one. He stated that on its construction and illumination the highest lighthouse engineering talent of the day had been brought to bear; and he made bold to say that no lighthouse in any port of the world would bear comparison with it. He alluded to the dangerous character of the coast, and expressed a hope that the light now about to be inaugurated would be instrumental in saving life and property.

Sir Hepworth Williamson endorsed the remarks of the Deputy Master adding that he himself had urged on the Trinity House the necessity of erecting a lighthouse to guard the shoals that lay in the vicinity of Whitburn. The Rev. Mr. Hitchcock then offered up a suitable prayer, after which Lady Williamson gracefully performed the inauguration ceremony by starting the engines, when a brilliant light was produced. The fog horn which was subsequently tested, was found to work satisfactorily and the interesting proceedings terminated. The Souter Lighthouse could be seen with very great distinction from Tynemouth, and it had a very brilliant effect, notwithstanding that the weather was very unfavourable. The light at Tynemouth was changed to red, and Coquet light was altered last night.”


Tragedy for THV Vestal Workboat

A workboat from the Trinity House lighthouse tender THV Vestal (formerly the first THV Patricia) is dashed upon the Eddystone Rocks, killing seven crewmen. Mr. E G Middleditch, a Post Office Engineer who was on board the Vestal establishing a radio-telephone link between Eddystone Lighthouse and the mainland, was a witness to the tragedy that took the lives of R W E Gibbs, J V Briggs, T G Reynolds, W E J Hammersley, E G R Stephens, R W Wyatt and W R Trenoweth.

Mr. Middleditch described the tragedy as follows:

“The boat 22′ 6″ long, 6′ 10″ beam and 2′ 9” deep, driven by a 9hp engine, was scheduled to carry 24 persons for life-saving purposes. On the trip she carried the second officer, R W E Gibbs, coxswain, bowman, two midship hands and a landing party of three, eight men in all but no stores. The intention was to go in and see what landing conditions were like and to return if unsafe. The boat dropped its grapnel, laid out its creep rope, made a perfect approach and took aboard boat ropesand hauling off rope. Up to this point there was no sign of danger, but before the boat ropes could be made fast, a sea entered the boat and stopped the engine. The boat became unmanageable and the crew were forced to abandon attempts to make fast and try instead to get out stern first on the creep rope. The officer ordered “Start bailing, it’s only up to your knees” – a lot of water in a boat only 2′ 9″ deep. From the deck of the tender it was difficult to see exactly what was happening the light was awkward –  alow sun dead ahead – rocks betwen and the swell hiding the boat in the troughs. The boat’s crew continued to do what they could without panic, and might have saved the situation but for the set of the wind and the stump rocks. Here they were in a desperate position and the bowman made a last unavailing effort to bring the boat head to wind by taking a turn round the bollard with a heaving line which had somehow remained aboard, but at this moment a heavy backwash from the rocks dropped staright into the boat and it sank immediately. The last impression seen from the Vestal was of about five of the crew standing in their boat just before it foundered, silhouetted against the glare of the white water and the light of the sun behind them.

As soon as it was seen that the boat was in difficulties the starboard quarter boat, previously launched ready for ferrying stores, was ordered away in charge of the first officer, who was heard exhorting his crew to “bend to it, there’s men in the water.” Directly this boat had been got away I went up to the bridge to enquire of Captain McCarthy – who was just ordering  second boat away – if there was anything we could do to assist him. As his crew of 37 had been considerably depleted and he was not aware if any first aid men remained aboard he accepted the offer to attend to any survivors who might be picked up. While rescue attempts were proceeding hot blankets and bottles were prepared, and we watched, through glasses, the fforts of the rescue crews, and could see that the lightkeepers were also making attempts from the set-off. Unfortunately only one survivor was picked up, the coxswain, C H Pike, a man of 42 years of age and of heavy build. He had been seen to wash up twice on to rocks, on each occasion lying quiet until floated off with the back-wash finally swimming strongly with the tide clear of the rocks. When brought aboard the tender he seemed to be in a bad state, but was quickly relieved if the water he had swallowed, and was soon breathing normally again. He had no physical injuries, but was extremely cold and complained bitterly of attempts to restore circulation; the skin seemed painfully tender. He was made as comfortable as possible in hot blankets with plenty of hot water bottles and at once fell into a deep sleep, from which he awoke about half an hour later, anxious to talk, but was given a hot drink and encouraged to sleep again.”

Although Mr. Pike survived the tragedy, it is regretted that he never really recovered from the effects of his ordeal and he died in the following year after a sever attack of chronic pleurisy.

Patricia (1) later Vestal

Patricia (1) later Vestal


The Texaco Caribbean Disaster

THVs Siren and Ready rush out to mark the wrecks of the tanker Texaco Caribbean and the Peruvian cargo ship Paracas in the Dover Strait off Folkestone. The tanker collided with the cargo ship and had blown up, sinking in two parts close to the Varne Bank, creating a major hazard to navigation to outward-bound traffic in the shipping lane. The German cargo liner Brandenburg and the Greek cargo ship Niki would soon join the casualties piled upon the wreck site. The severity of the disaster led directly to the formulation of the 1977 IALA Maritime Buoyage System, an improved means of marking safe passage using buoys of different type, colour and markings.

On This Day in Trinity House History – 10 January


A Moving Lighthouse at Lowestoft

Trinity House Board Minute:

“Mr. Jull reporting that the Moving Lighthouse At Lowestoft was finished and that Captain Long would not kindle a light therein till he should receive their orders: Ordered that the Clerk do write to him to kindle it on the 1st. February, and to give notice thereof in the three next Gazettes, and in the daily newspapers.”

Lowestoft 1866 chart

Lowestoft 1866 chart

On This Day in Trinity House History – 9 January


Trinity House Vessel Damaged During the Second World War

THV Reculver is heavily damaged in the Yarmouth area, with the crew of a recently relieved lightvessel on deck. 55 men are wounded, and Second Officer George Purvis is killed. She was repaired and sent out, but was attacked again by aircraft on 12 July in the Harwich area.

THV Reculver damage (1940)

THV Reculver damage (1940)

On This Day in Trinity House History – 8 January


Trinity House Vessel Lost During the Second World War

THV Strathearn is destroyed by an enemy mine, with the loss of 17 men.

BARRETT, Percy Victor – Greaser

BOWMAN, Henry Quinton – Chief Engineer

BULL, David Cecil – Third Engineer

CAPPS, John Alfred – Seaman

CASON, Wilfred Henry – Steward

COOPER, Frederick George – Donkeyman

EDWARDS, Daniel Edward – Seaman

JAMES, John Leslie – Lightvessel Fog Signal Driver

HARRIS, Albert Sidney – Seaman

HART, Harry Rivett – Seaman

LOVICK, William Robert – Seaman

MAYSTONE, Edward – Steward

RAVEN, Ronald Spackman – Master

SMITH, William George – First Officer

STONE, William Daniel – Seaman

THORPE, Frederick Walter – Seaman

WILLIAMSON, John Hawkes – First Officer

THV Strathearn, built in 1935, was the first diesel ship commissioned for Trinity House.

The lives lost during the First and Second World War are commemorated in a stained glass window at St. Olave’s Church, Tower Hill. St. Olave’s is the chapel of the Corporation of Trinity House and the resting place of 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys, twice Master of the Corporation.

Stained glass window at St Olaves Church - Saint Clement  Trinity arms

Stained glass window at St Olaves Church – Saint Clement Trinity arms