On This Day in Trinity House History – 21 December


Bishop Rock Lighthouse is automated

Bishop Rock Lighthouse is converted to automatic operation and the lighthouse keepers depart. The lighthouse was first lit in 1858.

Bishop Rock Lighthouse stands on a rock ledge 46m long by 16m wide, 4 miles west of the Scilly Isles. The rocks rise sheer from a depth of 45m and are exposed to the full force of the Atlantic Ocean making this one of the most hazardous and difficult sites for the building of a lighthouse.

The rocks around the Scilly Isles caused the wreck of many ships over the years including the loss of Sir Cloudesley Shovel’s squadron of the British Fleet in 1707 in which 2,000 men died. The Elder Brethren of Trinity House decided that the lighting of the Scilly Isles, which at that time consisted of only the old lighthouse at St. Agnes, was inadequate, and resolved to build a lighthouse on the most westerly danger, the Bishop Rock.

James Walker, Engineer in Chief to Trinity House, was against building a solid granite tower arguing that the rock ledge was too small and the elements too powerful, being exposed as it was to the full force of the Atlantic ocean. Walker demonstrated that the wind pressures at times exceeded 7,000 lb per sq.ft, and as many as 30 gales a year were not unusual in the area.

Thus in 1847, it was decided to erect a screw-pile lighthouse at a cost of £12,000. The first task was to sink cast iron legs into the solid granite, braced and stayed with wrought iron rods. The designer maintained that the waves would be able to roll freely among the piles instead of being obstructed by the solid mass of masonry tower. When work was suspended at the end of 1849 the building was complete all but the installation of the lighting apparatus. Before it could be completed the following season, a heavy gale swept away the whole structure on the evening of 5 February 1850.

Undismayed by the failure of the first lighthouse, James Walker once again turned to the idea of a granite tower based upon Smeaton’s Eddystone. After surveying the site, he finally chose a small but solid mass giving room for a base 10m in diameter. The surface waves constantly swept over the site, and indeed the lowest blocks had to be laid a third of a metre beneath low water mark. A heavy coffer dam was erected around the site and the water within pumped out, so that the masons might be able to work on a dry rock face. Each granite block, weighing from one to two tons, was set into its preselected position, and each course dovetailed and keyed into position at the sides, top and the bottom thus forming an immovable mass. The workmen were housed on a small nearby uninhabited islet, where living quarters and workshops were erected. The men were carried to and from the site as the weather permitted. Working spells were brief, as well as being few and far between, and after seven years labour the tower was finally completed. All the granite was despatched from the mainland to the island depot where it was shaped and numbered before being sent to the rock. In all the 35 m tower contained 2,500 tons of dressed granite and cost £34,560. The light was first exhibited on 1 September 1858. During one particularly powerful storm, waves rolled up on the side of the lighthouse and tore away the 550lb fog bell from its fastenings on the gallery.

Bishop Rock Lighthouse internal plaque

Bishop Rock Lighthouse internal plaque

In 1881 Sir James Douglass made a detailed inspection of the tower and reported extensive damage and weakness in the structure. It was decided to strengthen the tower and at the same time to increase the elevation of the light by 12m. The plans, though quite complex in nature essentially entailed the building of a new lighthouse around the old one, completely encasing it. The real weakness was the foundation and this Douglass proposed to strengthen and enlarge with massive blocks of granite sunk into the rock and held there by heavy bolts. It was an enormous cylindrical base, providing the lighthouse with an excellent buffer onto which the force of the waves could be spent before hitting the tower itself. The masonry casing, averaging a metre in thickness, was carried up as far as the new masonry required for the increased height of the light. The weight of the additional granite was 3,200 tons, making a total weight of 5,700 tons. Work was completed in October 1887 at a cost of £66,000.

Bishop Rock was converted to automatic operation during 1991 with the last keepers leaving the lighthouse on 21 December 1992.

Bishop Rock relief

Bishop Rock relief

On This Day in Trinity House History – 20 December


Trinity House and the Royal Navy

Two Trinity House Court Minutes:

“Commissioners of Navy consult Trinity House as to three (3) decked ships and as to the height of lower tier of guns above water.”

“A survey by Trinity House of all ships in Thames suitable for H.M. service.”


George V bestows an honour upon the Elder Brethren

George V issues a Warrant confirming the longstanding custom of the Elder Brethren using the style and title of “Captain” after Captains in the Navy:

“Now know ye that in the exercise of Our Royal Prerogative We do hereby declare Our Royal Will and Pleasure that in all times hereafter the Elder Brethren of the said Corporation of Trinity House shall be styled “Captain”, and shall on all social and ceremonial occasions have place and precedence next and immediately after the place and precedence which maybe accorded to Captains in Our Navy.”


Trevose Head Lighthouse is automated

Trevose Head Lighthouse is converted to automatic operation and the keepers depart. The lighthouse was first lit 1 December 1847.

The existing optic was retained but the rotation speed was slowed to alter the character to one flash every 7.5 rather than every 5 seconds. The red screens were removed to give a white light. The lamp was changed to 35 watt metal halide in a two position lampchanger. A Tideland ML300 lantern mounted on the lantern gallery hand rail gives an emergency 10 sea mile light. The air fog signal was replaced by an electric omnidirectional signal controlled by a fog detector. The light is controlled by a photocell mounted on the lantern murette; telemetry equipment was also installed for remote monitoring and control from the Trinity House Planning Centre at Harwich in Essex.

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 1 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)

On This Day in Trinity House History – 18 December


Trinity House During the Second World War

German U-Boat U-1209 strikes the Wolf Rock Lighthouse.

The crew abandoned her and ten men, including her commander Oberleutnant Ewald Hulsenbeck, were killed.

The U-Boat ran aground, but was soon pulled back under the water. This incident was witnessed by lighthouse keeper Jack Cherrett who reported that the vessel found her way clear of the rocks but was holed and sank within the hour.

Wolf Rock Lighthouse

Wolf Rock Lighthouse

On This Day in Trinity House History – 17 December


The Elder Brethren ask the Navy to stop pressganging Trinity House men

Trinity House Court Minute:

“Request to the Officers impressing seamen, not to impress Mr. John Rooff nor four men now sent down in all haste with our sloop to lay a new buoy on the Woolpack in the room of that which broke away on Friday last to prevent losses to navigation… under the seal of the Corporation.”

We can at least be thankful that the men and women on our tenders today don’t have to worry too much about being pressganged by the Royal Navy.

On This Day in Trinity House History – 15 December


The Elder Brethren consider a beacon for Woodbridge, Suffolk

Trinity House Court Minute:

“The Deputy Master and two others to Sir John Barker, saying that they are going to erect a beacon at Woodbridge, where he is the sole proprietor of the lands, and asking his favour.”

One of the earliest records of the placing of a seamark by the Corporation.


A service of thanksgiving for the lighthouse keepers

A service of thanksgiving for lighthouse keepers and their ladies is held at St. Olave’s Church in the City of London, followed by a dinner.

HRH Prince Philip The Duke of Edinburgh attended and gave a toast of appreciation, and Dermot Cronin, the lighthouse service’s senior Principal Keeper, responded. A commemmorative medallion was presented to all.

On This Day in Trinity House History – 10 December


Trinity House and the Royal Navy

Trinity House Court Minute:

“Trinity House submits a scheme for manning the Navy Royal.”

A description of the various duties of the Elder Brethren around this time can be found in Trinity House of Deptford Strond by C R B Barrett in 1893:

“What at this time were the duties of the Corporation? They had the charge and expense of laying buoys and erecting beacons, the responsibility for the naval stores at Deptford, and the care of the shipbuilding yard there. Ships for the Royal Navy, to be either built or purchased, were laid down on their designs, or were, in the second case, accepted or rejected on their certificate. Provisions, cordage, ordnance, and ammunition, both for royal and merchant vessels, all passed through the hands of the Trinity House. Pilots, as of old, received their certificates from the House at Deptford. Masters were recommended for the royal ships by them, and in times when enlistment was slow, to the Master, Wardens, and Assistants was, committed the unpleasant duty of pressing both masters and seamen for the King’s ships. The right to appoint certain foreign consuls lay with the Guild, the consuls at Leghorn and Genoa being instances in point. Acting as hydrographers to the navy, all questions regarding the limits and boundaries of seas and channels were referred to them. Causes in the Admiralty Court were partly adjudicated by the members, certain Elder Brethren acting (as they still act) as, assessors. Arbitrations on matters in dispute between owners, captains and seamen were of frequent occurrence; being cases specially referred to the professional skill of the Brethren. No fleet left our shores without its number, armament, and equipment being subject to a careful survey by and the opinion of the Brethren. To all of these multifarious duties we have to add the intricate questions involved in the suppression of piracy, the investigation of Iosses by sea, and the redemption of captives. Finally, the charitable work of the Corporation had to be considered; the Bedefolk, the outside pensioners, and the casual poor all needed attention. Who, then, were the men who performed these manifold duties?”

On This Day in Trinity House History – 8 December


Electric light introduced into South Foreland High Lighthouse

In 1858 South Foreland High Lighthouse became the first in the world to exhibit an electrically-powered light, made possible by Trinity House’s Scientific Advisor Professor Michael Faraday and his colleague Professor Holmes. They believed that electricity could effectively power a lighthouse light and so installed Holmes’ magneto-electric machine.

The experiments were a success technically, but electricity proved too costly as a power source, so Trinity House lighthouses continued to use mineral oils for some decades longer.

The front of South Foreland Lighthouse atop the White Cliffs of Dover near to Dover, Kent, in south-east England

The front of South Foreland Lighthouse atop the White Cliffs of Dover near to Dover, Kent, in south-east England