As a similarly ancient British institution (although not quite as old as us!) we can’t help but feel an affinity with Trinity House or, to give them their full title, the Corporation of Trinity House of Deptford Strond. The House itself is situated on Tower Hill, not too far from our previous home at the Tower of London – indeed, there’s a wonderful view of the Tower from Trinity House.
As the General Lighthouse Authority for England, Wales, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar, it’s responsible for lighthouses, lightvessels, buoys, other navigational aids and communication systems in the seas that surround our shores, as well as providing deep sea pilotage in Northern European waters.
The Corporation’s flag is composed of a red ensign on which four Elizabethan ships sail in each quarter of the cross of St George – maybe reflecting the four geographical areas it covers?
Royal and Rocky Beginnings
With Britain being an island, mariners have always played a significant part in our history. For Trinity House it all began when a group of mariners formed themselves into a fraternity calling themselves the Guild of the Holy Trinity. The Guild was granted a Royal Charter by Henry VIII on 20 May 1514 ‘so that they might regulate the pilotage of ships in the King’s streams’. In 1573 their Arms of the Corporation were awarded by Elizabeth I following the 1566 Seamarks Act that granted powers to set up ‘so many beacons, marks and signs for the sea whereby the dangers may be avoided and escaped and ships the better come into their ports without peril’. Thirty six years later, in 1609 during the reign of James I, the first lighthouse off British waters was built at Lowestoft. Many more followed over the centuries, together with the placing of seamarks on the coast and in British waters.
The most famous Trinity House lighthouse is undoubtedly that built on a small and very dangerous rock off the Plymouth coast – the Eddystone Rocks lighthouse. In fact, four lighthouses have been built there. The original in 1698 – Winstanley’s Tower – was the first lighthouse built on a small rock in the open sea. The most amazing tales are told about their construction, featuring kidnapping, fire and molten lead, helipads and inventions still in use today. Too long for this article, but I’d recommend these tales as a really good read.
Trials and Triumphs
While researching their history, I was struck by the number of homes the Corporation has occupied over the years, the first being established at Deptford in the year of their Royal Charter. In 1618 they relocated to Ratcliffe, followed in 1660 by a move to Stepney. Additional premises acquired in Water Lane in the City of London in the same year are memorable for the fact that, in spite of the address, they were actually twice destroyed by fire – in both the Great Fire of London in 1666 and again in 1714! However, they were rebuilt and the Guild remained there until 1796. Their current home at Tower Hill was opened by George III in 1796 but it too suffered its trials when it was destroyed and the interior gutted by enemy bombing during the Second World War.
On the night of 29 December 1940 many treasures and archives were sadly lost to the Corporation. In a cruel twist, this included several of their oldest and most valuable paintings, only brought back to Tower Hill the day before and due to be moved again on the 30th. A further unlucky casualty was a mirror from their original home, destroyed in a lorry crash while being taken to safe storage in 1939. Fortunately, many smaller paintings survived due to the Tower of London offering them refuge in a dungeon during this period. The restored house was re-opened by HM The Queen on 21 October 1953, the year of her Coronation. Externally, Trinity Square Gardens contains a memorial to merchant navy heroes of both World Wars, two anniversaries of which are commemorated in 2014 – the outbreak of the First World War and the 70th anniversary of the D-Day Landings.
Longevity and Loyalty
The post of Master of Trinity House has a long and illustrious history. Particularly notable is that the longest-ever serving Master in their history is His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, who served as such from 1969 to 2011. Other well-known Masters in former centuries were the diarist Samuel Pepys, the Duke of Wellington and William Pitt the Younger. However, you can imagine The Duke of Edinburgh’s pride that the current holder of the post is none other than his daughter, Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal.
The royal connections go on with one of Trinity House’s recent acquisitions – the brass bell from the Royal Yacht Britannia – no doubt bringing back happy memories for The Duke of Edinburgh and The Princess Royal whenever they attend events.
We join Trinity House this year in celebrating their 500th anniversary with the issue of a commemorative £2 coin featuring possibly their most defining image in its design – the beam from a lighthouse. Available in Brilliant Uncirculated and precious metal versions it’s sure to appeal to collectors as well as those wishing to mark a nautical connection or occasion.