Past Talks : July 2019

“The Trinity House” by Captain Rory Smith

As I walked into the auditorium a SOFFAAM colleague said “I am intrigued to know the origin of the name Trinity House”. Oddly enough that point was not really dwelt on in the talk, so where better to start these notes. According to Wikipedia ‘The Corporation came into being in 1514 by Royal Charter granted by Henry VIII under the name: “The Master, Warden and Assistants of the Guild, Fraternity, or Brotherhood of the most glorious and undivided Trinity, and of St.Clement in the Parish of Deptford-Strond in the County of Kent”’.

That answers the origin of the name Trinity House, but why the Royal Charter? Our speaker, Captain Rory Smith, is a member of the Brotherhood and is of course steeped in its history. Most people have heard of Trinity House and possibly think of lighthouses, but generally it is a little-known and a low profile organisation. Nevertheless, it is still very important and influential in the world of developing maritime trade. As your keen eyes will have spotted, the year 2014 was the 500th anniversary of Trinity House, and it is still going strong.

Up until relatively recent times, the only practical way to transport goods was by sea. The roads that we are so familiar with simply did not exist and were, at best, tracks running across the landscape and consequently deeply rutted and unusable in inclement weather. At its very best, road travel was slow. Consequently, most goods made their way by river to sea ports for onward transmission. Additionally, ships traded world-wide exporting goods from Britain and in exchange, importing foreign goods. The economy depended upon it, so did the fortunes of the merchants and land-owners that invested in and commissioned the ships.

More often than not, the final destination for the ships was London and the final few miles on gaining entry to the River Thames were ridiculously hazardous and the cause of many ships foundering on the final leg. The Thames was (and probably still is) abounding with sandbanks, shifting sands and rocks. Pilots were hired to guide shipping, but they were freelance and unregulated and you only discovered their knowledge and skills, or total lack of them, as the vessels progressed. The losses became so heavy that a Guild of Mariners petitioned King Henry VIII to license all pilots on all ships up and down the river, hence the Royal Charter. It was a generous charter and gave a monopoly to Trinity House to charge fees for the provision of pilots, not only on the Thames, but for most of the coastline of England and Wales.

That was a real step forward, but sadly it was not the end of the problems. Between Newcastle and London many shipwrecks still occurred, caused by hidden sandbanks, rocks and other hazards along the coast. Further action had to be taken and this came in the form of the Seamarks Act, put in place by Queen Elizabeth I, which enabled buoys and ‘marks’ to be installed to guide shipping away from hazards. To remain stable, ships needed to carry ballast to one degree or another depending on the weight of the cargo. The Act also awarded Trinity House the monopoly on ballastage, for which they simply dug gravel from the Thames and sold it to ship operators. In 200 years they sold 400 million tons of ballast. On the subject of ballast, Trinity House proudly displays a painting of the 37 early Elder Brothers. A close look at the painting reveals that 37 ballast workers with broad shoulders and hands like spades sat for the painting, until finally the worthies themselves visited the painter to enable him to put their portrait on the shoulders of figures already painted in.

Ships were now able to make much safer transits, but when darkness fell and bad weather obscured reliable navigation, the need for more aids became a necessity. In response, in 1609 the first light tower was built in Lowestoft, illuminated by candles with reflectors. Two wooden towers were built and every passing ship had to pay a light-due of 4d every time, until six payments had been made. In 1698 the first lighthouse to be built in Europe in the open ocean was erected on Eddystone rock, off the coast of Devon and Cornwall. It was built as a private venture by Henry Winstanley, a violin maker, but also a member of Trinity House and a merchant. Sadly it lasted just five years before a storm destroyed it and, unfortunately, Winstanley himself in 1705. Its successor, built by John Rudyard, looked like a lighthouse as we know it, but was still of timber construction. It was also destroyed 50 years later when the lantern caught fire. In 1759, pioneering engineer John Smeaton built the third Eddystone lighthouse, using dovetailed Cornish granite stone blocks laid in the shape of an oak tree. Smeaton was the first to use the distinctive red and white bands, now so familiar to us. The lighthouse stood 59ft (18m) high with a 26ft (8m) diameter base. In 1810, the ownership devolved to Trinity House, who then installed 24 Argand lamps (a type of oil lamp) and parabolic reflectors. This lighthouse remained in use until 1877 when it was observed that the rocks on which it was sited were eroding and shaking from side to side whenever large waves hit. After decommissioning it was rebuilt as a memorial on Plymouth Hoe, where it still stands today. If you ever venture up to the Lake District and find yourself in Ulverston, you will also see a replica of Smeaton’s lighthouse standing as a memorial on the Hoad above the town. The current, fourth, Eddystone lighthouse was commissioned in 1882 and is still in use, although much updated. Electrification was first introduced to lighthouses in 1858, but for Eddystone it happened in 1959. Its original fog-warning system was provided by two, two-ton bells suspended from the gallery. Later these were supplanted by explosive fog signals and then followed a ‘Supertyfon’ fog horn powered by air compressors. Nowadays, sound is provided by an electric fog signal. Since 1999 the lighthouse has run on solar power and it was the first lighthouse to be automated. Maintenance crews arrive by helicopter, landing on the helipad at the very top of the tower.

Let me just stop there for a minute so that we can consider just what it was like in the early days. Rory Smith told us that a chandelier of 24 tallow candles with a reflector was used in Eddystone lighthouse; all glittering and sputtering away. Maintenance of the light was a full time task. Later, Argand oil lamps were installed, requiring less maintenance and wick trimming. Nevertheless, it still required teams of keepers working around the clock in shifts. Later, improved oil lamps had storage of 2,660 tons (note tons not gallons) of oil to provide 9 months lamp fuel. With the coming of electricity, Rory told us that early light bulbs stood 6/7ft (2m) high. How did they handle them? By comparison, lighthouses now use an equivalent of a 60 watt LED bulb about the size of a 5p coin, capable of projecting light over a 30 mile range (48km), due to the refined optics.

It was in 1838 that Grace Darling, daughter of the keeper of Longstone lighthouse off the Northumberland coast, spotted the wreck and survivors of the ship Forfarshire offshore. She very pluckily joined her father in a 21ft rowing boat in the really terrible storm, to undertake a rescue and become a legend.

Not all locations were suitable for a positioning a lighthouse, so in 1732, the first lightship in the world was moored near More Sands at the mouth of the Thames. A crew of six manned the vessel, which could be moved if the sandbank itself shifted. In WW1, the lightships were treated as neutral and kept their lights on, however, by WW2 the lights were turned off, although in fact a very narrow beam was retained for merchant ship guidance.

In addition to the lighthouses and lightships, Trinity House operates cutters, primarily intended for maintaining and positioning buoys and other sea markers, also as fast response vessels in the event of shipwreck. Within six hours of a wreck, the location is fully marked as a sea hazard. Following WW2 the cutters made an enormous contribution towards the clearance and marking of 81 wrecks that littered the shipping lanes, many of them dangerous because of their munitions cargoes. This task took decades to complete.

From the beginning, pilotage and buoy positioning was a key function of Trinity House, but in 1979 Margaret Thatcher overturned the monopoly and passed responsibility to Harbour Masters instead. However, pilotage and positioning buoys is a much specialised business and few Harbour Masters were equipped to handle it, so the work was put out to contract with ….. yes, Trinity House!

Transferring pilots to a ship via a launch was a long-winded, time-consuming task. In 1969 launches started to be replaced by helicopters, which could deliver a pilot in just 20 minutes, once being notified.

One way or another Trinity House earns a considerable income. However, it is a maritime charity and no general taxpayers’ money is used to fund any of its activities, which in addition to buoys, lighthouses and lightships include education and the welfare of mariners, from cadetships to almshouses. I could not write quickly enough to put it all in numbers, but Trinity House is also deeply involved with the Differential Global Positioning System (DGPS) which provides accurate ship location, plus the Automatic Identification System (AIS), which does as it says.

Finally, if you are looking for a different holiday, you can book passage on one of the cutters when it journeys off to position or maintain buoys, or you can rent accommodation in one of the now unmanned lighthouses – but be warned, the tower light stays on and the fog horn is frighteningly loud; but what an adventure and all in modern comfort. Thank you Captain Rory Stewart for an excellent evening.