On This Day in Trinity House History – 1 December

1806

Flamborough Head Lighthouse is lit for the first time

The current Flamborough Head Lighthouse is first lit.

The following description of the lighthouse is taken from Joseph Cotton’s Memoir on the Origin and Incorporation of the Trinity House of Deptford Strond written in 1818:

“The site of Flamborough Head was of all others the most calculated for a lighthouse, either for coasters or for vessels from the Baltic and North Sea, but it was not concurred in by the trade until lately, when its utility having been admitted, the present lighthouse was erected, and the light exhibited upon the principle of the Scilly light, but with coloured red glass in front of the burners, by which it is distinguished from Cromer.”

Flamborough Head watercolour

Flamborough Head watercolour


1737

Flatholm Lighthouse is lit for the first time

Flatholm Lighthouse was first lit by private lessees.

The Island of Flatholm lies centrally in the busy shipping lanes where the Bristol Channel meets the Severn estuary. The need for a lighthouse on the island had been discussed for many years by leading shipmasters and by members of the Society of Merchant Venturers of Bristol when, in 1733, John Elbridge, a senior member of the Society, forwarded a petition to Trinity House setting out the dangers to navigation and the general desire for a light on the island. However, Trinity House informed Elbridge that no application had been made to the Crown for a light and at the same time the Corporation took steps to ensure that no light was erected other than in their name.

In April 1735, William Crispe of Bristol informed Trinity House that he had leased Flat Holm Island for 99 years from John Stuart, Earl of Bute, and wished to build a lighthouse at his own expense, but in the name of Trinity House. Crispe may have demanded too high a toll, or possibly he was not prepared to pay enough to build the tower considered essential for an efficient light by the Society of Merchant Venturers. At their meeting on 9 May his scheme was rejected.

At the end of 1736 sixty soldiers were drowned when a vessel was wrecked near the Holms, and this gave added impetus for further negotiations to erect a light. On 17 March 1737 William Crispe attended at the Hall of the Merchant Venturers with new proposals. The merchants then agreed to support a petition to Trinity House and this was submitted to Trinity House on 2 April. In the petition Crispe stated that the society of Merchant Venturers required the following tolls:

For all Bristol ships to or from foreign parts 1½d per ton both inward and outward, according to their reports of tonnage at the custom house, and double these dues on foreign ships. For all coasting vessels to or from Ireland 1d per ton: vessels from St. David’s Head or Lands End up the Bristol Channel (market boats and fishing boats excepted) one shilling for every voyage inward and one shilling outward”.

The Merchant Venturers insisted that Crispe should lay out not less than £900 for the building of the tower. This he said he would do, and also that he would pay the expenses of Trinity House in obtaining the Crown patent for the light. In return he would expect to be granted a lease at a yearly rental of £5. The Corporation agreed at their next meeting on 9 April, 1737, to apply for a patent and grant him a lease from the kindling of the light to Lady Day 1834, when the lease had expired at a yearly rental of £5 for the first thirty years and thereafter at £10 for the remainder of the term. The lease was finally signed and a light was first shown on 1st December 1737.

 

Trinity House became responsible for the light on 21 March 1823.

Flatholm Lighthouse

Flatholm Lighthouse


1847

Trevose Head Lighthouse is lit for the first time

Trevose Head Lighthouse is lit for the first time.

A lighthouse was first proposed for this area of the North Cornish coast as early as 1809 there being no light at that time to guide ships trading in the Bristol Channel other than the Longships to the south and the old Lundy light to the north.

The position was further considered by Trinity House in 1813 and again in 1832, but it was not until 1st December 1847 that an oil light comprising wicks backed with reflectors, was first lit at Trevose Head.

The light is situated on the north west extremity of the head, with gigantic cliffs of grey granite rising sheer from the sea to a height of 150 feet or more. The area, like so much of the Devon and Cornish coastline is constantly threatened by sea mists that make even the most powerful lights seem like candles.

Trevose Head Lighthouse (Photo by Dave Wilkinson)

Trevose Head Lighthouse (Photo by Dave Wilkinson)


 

1966

The Varne Lightvessel Incident

The No. 95 Lightvessel stationed at the Varne was almost dragged on to hazardous nearby shoals by Force 10/11 storm conditions. The event was later written up in Trinity House’s Flash magazine:

“At the enquiry into the circumstances under which the VARNE (No. 95) Light Vessel dragged her anchor on the night 1st/2nd December, 1966, the Chairman of the Light Committee told Mr. W. Bate, the Light Vessel’s Master how very much the Elder Brethren appreciated the fact that the whole crew returned to their ship without hesitation after experiencing such hazards. 

“We all did our best”, said Mr. Bate.

To those of us who serve Trinity House from behind an office desk doing one’s best rarely calls for heroism, but the ‘best’ of Mr. Bate and his crew needed courage and devotion to duty which was in all respects in accordance with the best traditions of the Service.

Such devotion and fine seamanship were also displayed by Commander E.J. Lawrence of T.H.V. SIREN, his Officers and crew, for their part in standing by the Light Vessel under appalling weather conditions and eventually towing her back to her assigned position.

The Varne incident began at 2100 on 1st December 1966 when the Light Vessel’s Master was informed by the Coastguard at Folkestone, via his normal shore R/T link at Deal Coastguard Station, that his bearing had altered.

The weather at the time was Wind S.W. Force 8 with a heavy sea and swell, intermittent, rain and spray making it impossible for the Master to check his position as his usual marks were not visible.

The Light Vessel was at the time riding to 150 fathoms of cable which was at all times taut and there was no indication that the anchor was dragging, but at 2300 the Coastguard reported that the vessel was about ¾ mile 070 degrees from her usual position.

Meanwhile T.H.V. SIREN, sheltering in the Downs, had picked up the R/T Signals and immediately weighed anchor to go to the assistance of the light vessel. At least that was the intention, but the wind had by now increased to force 10/11 with a very high sea, so that the SIREN was steaming off Dover without making any headway until 0530 on 2nd December when the tide turned.

The Light Vessel Master informed Commander Lawrence, with whom he was in continuous R/T contact, that he was aware that he had been dragging but thought he had now brought up.

The SIREN reached the light vessel on 2nd December at 0650, checked the position and found her to be 050 degrees 2.4 miles from her station, lying in broken water just clear of the tip of the Varne Shoal.

The Light Vessel was by now flying the usual ‘Off Station’ Signals, and at 0730 the Master veered his riding cable to 180 fathoms.

The question facing Mr. Bate and those advising him via the R/T was whether to let go one or both of his bower anchors, the problem being that, in doing so, the riding cable may have been fouled and the situation worsened.

In the event, the decision not to let go the bowers was justified as the Light Vessel held her position at the edge of the shoal in spite of an even further deterioration in the weather conditions.

At about 1030 on 2nd December; with the flood tide about to make and it being impossible for the SIREN to launch a boat in such rough seas, it was decided to call out the Dover lifeboat for the purpose of taking the crew off the Light Vessel. This was done and the mission was safely accomplished at 1148 under very hazardous conditions.

During this operation the lifeboat sustained damage when she was caught by a heavy sea and dashed against the side of the light vessel, breaking the glass in one of the engine room portholes.

Before he would leave his ship Mr. Bate went down below and fastened the deadlight over the broken port which was close to the waterline, and through which the sea was already entering, further evidence of his devotion to duty in the face of danger.

Mr. Bate and his men had previously secured all doors, gangways etc., in order to safeguard the light vessel as far as possible prior to their evacuation.

The lifeboat, escorted by T.H.V. SIREN in view of the damage she had sustained, took the crew of the Varne into Dover Harbour where they were very kindly provided with hot baths and a substantial meal by the personnel of the Pilot Vessel PATROL.

Early on the morning of the 2nd December, T.H.V. PATRICIA had been detailed to assist the SIREN as necessary and, having landed the men from the Harwich South Relief at Deal (with the exception of those from the East Goodwin who were still awaiting relief) entered Dover Harbour, collected the crew of the Varne Light Vessel, proceeded, transferred them to the SIREN off Hythe at 1730 that evening, and anchored there for the night ready to assist as necessary.

By 0745 on 3rd December the weather had improved sufficiently to allow T.H.V. SIREN to return the light vessel crew to their ship, where they quickly had her operational again, and hove in the riding cable after the SIREN had got a towing hawser on board.

The Varne was towed back to her assigned position where she resumed her normal station duties at 1127.

This final operation itself called for a great degree of skill and courage on the part of all concerned as there was still a heavy sea running and the wind was W.S.W. Force 7.

In the long history of Trinity House there have been many examples of devotion to duty and fine seamanship. The Varne Light Vessel Incident will rank high among them.

By order of the Board, letters of commendation were sent to Mr. Bate and each member of his crew, to Commander Lawrence, Officers and Ratings of T.H.V. SIREN and also to Acting Commander G. Roberts, Officers and Ratings of T.H.V. PATRICIA.

Letters of thanks were also sent to the Coxswain and Crew of the Dover Lifeboat for taking the crew off the light vessel under extremely difficult conditions, to the Coastguard at Folkestone for their vigilance in noting that the Varne was off station, to the Dover Harbour Board for the assistance rendered by their Port Control Officers, to the Superintendent of Pilots at Dover and his staff for their willing co-operation and for the facilities placed at the disposal of Captain R.J. Galpin, R.D., Chairman of the Light Committee, who used their office as his centre of communications during this incident, and to the Master, Officers and Crew of the Pilot Vessel PATROL for looking after the men of the Varne so well while they were in Dover Harbour.”

 

On This Day in Trinity House History – 26 November

1998

North Foreland Lighthouse is automated and the last lighthouse keepers leave

The completion of the ambitious lighthouse automation programme came with the North Foreland Lighthouse. Ending four centuries of service, the last six keepers in the Trinity House Lighthouse Service were given a warm farewell by the Master HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, and the profession passed into folklore and history.

A light was first exhibited at North Foreland in 1499, but the first real lighthouse was built by Sir John Meldrum in 1636. The lighthouse consisted of a two storey octagonal tower made of timber, lath and plaster with an iron coal burning grate on top. This tower was destroyed by fire in 1683.

A temporary measure of a single candle in a lantern hoisted on a pole proved, not surprisingly, ineffective and the present structure was built in 1691; originally the tower was 12 metres tall constructed of brick, stone and flint. In 1698 the lighthouse is recorded as using 100 tons of coal a year.

North Foreland Lighthouse came into the hands of the Trustees of Greenwich Hospital in 1719, they used the surplus from the light dues for the upkeep of the hospital for the benefit of seamen. They enclosed the fire in a glazed lantern in 1719 but this was removed in 1730 after complaints from shipping. In 1793 a further two storeys were added to the tower and the coal fire was replaced by 18 oil lamps.

Trinity House purchased the lighthouse in 1832. In 1890 a separate room known as the lantern house, was built on to the top of the tower to accommodate the light. An improved light source was installed in 1894, a pair of eight wick Trinity House-pattern burners for heavy mineral oil, replaced in 1904 by a triple mantle burner, and again replaced in 1923 with a ‘Hood’ 100mm petroleum vapour burner.

North Foreland was the last Trinity Lighthouse to be automated when it was converted to automatic operation at a ceremony attended by his Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh in 1998.

North Foreland Lighthouse Automation [Flash 1998] copyright Trinity House

North Foreland Lighthouse Automation [Flash 1998] copyright Trinity House

On This Day in Trinity House History – 22 November

1900

Recollections of a Lighthouse Keeper

A letter to the Editor of Flash magazine from Mr. F Squibb on the Isle of Wight offers the following brief recollection of life in the Trinity House service:

“I joined the Lighthouse Service on the 22nd November 1900. At that time we were paid on the 24th of the month, so my first pay day on the 24th November was 3 days. Not a very big sum. I cannot understand about the Classes for Instruction, for at that time we received instruction firstly at the Experimental Room at Trinity House in the management of the Oil Burners which were 8 wick burners and terrors they were. We also received instruction in semaphore and Morse code. If I remember rightly, a Mr. Morrison was our Instructor.

After finishing at Trinity House, we then had to go to Blackwall for further instruction. Captain J.G. Browne was Superintendent at Blackwall then, but before I finished my course there I was sent to duty at the Admiralty Pier, Dover, which they were lengthening at that time. I went back there again in 1913 and stayed there for 11 1/2 years all through the 1914-1918 war, when I went to the South Foreland. I should like to add here that my grandfather, who was a Cornish stone-mason, helped to build the “Scilly Bishop Lighthouse” before he joined as a Lighthouse Keeper.

After that I had three uncles and four cousins in the Service, so we were quite a service family. I served in several more lighthouses including South Foreland, Nab Tower, Lizard, Casquets and the Maplin Sands before finishing up at Pendeen in 1940. So I had a good time and now have been enjoying my retirement for 33 years. So I am what they call one of the “bad bargains”.

But I hope to go on enjoying it as long as the Good Lord gives me the health and strength to do it…”

Lizard Point, Cornwall, lighthouse, lighthouse keeper, Trinity House, history, lighthouse service, British maritime history

Lizard at Night from Housel Bay

 

On This Day in Trinity House History – 20 November

1945

THV Alert is launched

Originally intended as a wartime cable-laying ship, Alert was taken over by Trinity House during the building stage for work as a lighthouse tender.

Although she required a considerable amount of time to get up to steam using her water tube boilers, she performed faithful service for 24 years and was decommissioned in 1970.

 


1961

The current Dungeness Lighthouse was first lit

The current Dungeness Lighthouse was first lit after being officially opened by HRH The Duke of Gloucester, the Master of Trinity House.

A lighthouse at Dungeness was first lit around 1615.

Dungeness Lighthouse (1975)

Dungeness Lighthouse (1975)

On This Day in Trinity House History – 4 November

1717

Skerries Lighthouse is lit for the first time

Skerries Lighthouse is lit for the first time by a private owner. It was purchased by Trinity House in 1841, the last privately owned lighthouse in the British Isles to be bought by Trinity House.

The rocks upon which the Skerries Lighthouse stands are at the end of a low tract of submerged land North-East of Holyhead which lies directly in the path of many of the major shipping lines from Liverpool and Ireland. The lighthouse gives a guide to passing shipping and a warning of the dangerous rocks.

A light was proposed on the Skerries as early as 1658, by Henry Mascard, a private speculator who saw the lucrative possibilities of the tolls that could be levied on the site, but this was opposed by Trinity House, as was a petition in 1705 from the Irish Sea Traders. In 1714, William Trench, who actually held the lease of the Skerries was granted a patent by Queen Anne for the building of a light. For a Crown Rent of £5 a year, Trench was given the right to levy dues of one penny per ship and twopence per ton of cargo, but far from being the profitable venture which he envisaged, the Skerries proved to be his ruin. When the light was first kindled on 4 November 1717, William Trench was wealthy but traders and mariners evading payment of dues caused him to fall heavily into debt. He died in 1729 a ruined man.

After Trench’s death the lease passed to his daughter, and because of the nature of the debt, an Act of Parliament was passed to give his family sole claim to the Skerries. This act caused a great deal of embarrassment to Trinity House. In 1834 when an attempt was made to purchase the patent for this lighthouse, the proprietor, Morgan Jones, asserted that under this Act he was absolved from any responsibility to sell. For five years after the Act of 1836 which empowered Trinity House to purchase all private lighthouses, he opposed the purchase, the Skerries by this time being an extremely profitable light. It was finally purchased by Trinity House in 1841 for over £444,984, the last privately owned lighthouse in the British Isles to be bought by Trinity House.

The original coal-burning grate which surmounted the tower was replaced in 1804 by an oil lamp, and was subsequently converted to electric operation in 1927. The lighthouse was converted to automatic operation and demanned in 1987 and is now remotely monitored and controlled from The Trinity House Planning Centre at Harwich.

Skerries Lighthouse

Skerries Lighthouse

On This Day in Trinity House History – 3 November

1973

The First Helicopter Relief of a Rock Tower Lighthouse

Following the installation of a helicopter landing platform above its lantern, the first relief of lighthouse keepers and their supplies took place at Wolf Rock Lighthouse.

Wolf Rock Lighthouse

Wolf Rock Lighthouse

On This Day in Trinity House History – 1 November

1662

Samuel Pepys dines at Trinity House

Samuel Pepys’ diary:

“With Mr. Creed to the Trinity House, to a great dinner there, by invitation, and much company. It seems one Captain Evans makes his Elder Brother’s dinner to-day.”


1718

Trinity House Marks the Anniversary of the Gunpowder plot

Trinity House Board Minute:

“Adjourned to this day sennight* by reason of next Wednesday being the anniversary of the Powder Plot.”

* old English seofon nihta ‘seven nights’, i.e. a week


1975

Trinity House Assumes responsibility for Mumbles Lighthouse

Trinity House assumed responsibility for Mumbles Lighthouse from the British Transport Docks Board.

The lighthouse was first lit in 1794, originally displaying two open coal fire lights one above the other to distinguish it from St Ann’s Head Lighthouse which had two lights on separate towers and Flatholm Lighthouse with one light. The coal lights in braziers were expensive and difficult to maintain so were quickly replaced with a single oil powered light consisting of argand lamps with reflectors within a cast iron lantern. The original two lights are still reflected in the two tier structure of the tower.

Mumbles Lighthouse, image by Ian Cowe

Mumbles Lighthouse, image by Ian Cowe