51 - Records of the Corporation of Trinity House
The records of the Corporation of Trinity House have suffered from fire in 1666 and 1714 and from bombing in 1940. Though the court minutes survive from 1661, many other series of records are only present from the 19th century. Because of the many ways in which the Corporation of Trinity House has touched on British maritime life, the records which survive are still very rich and extremely varied.
NB: The archive is subject to a thirty year closure period and researchers must seek permission to see any record less than thirty years old. Please ask staff at the Information Desk or email firstname.lastname@example.org for further details.
The Corporation of Trinity House was incorporated by royal charter in 1514. There is a tradition which dates the existence of a Trinity guild from the 13th century but there is no firm evidence to support this. When the charter was granted, Trinity House had a hall and almshouses at Deptford. Premises were acquired in Ratcliff and Stepney in the 17th century and meetings were held at all three sites. The Corporation bought a property in Water Lane in the City of London in 1660. The Hall in Water Lane burnt down and was rebuilt twice, in 1666 and 1714. When it proved too cramped for proposed improvements in the 1790s, the Corporation bought land at Tower Hill on which Trinity House was built 1793-6. The present building retains the 1790s facade but a bomb on 30 December 1940 destroyed most of the rest of the original building which was sympathetically rebuilt in 1952-3.
The Corporation of Trinity House has had three main functions for most of its history:
- General lighthouse authority for England, Wales, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar
Pilotage authority for London and forty other districts
Charitable organisation for the relief of mariners and their dependants
Trinity House is responsible for providing lighthouses, light vessels, buoys and beacons. Until 1836 though, the Corporation of Trinity House did not have a monopoly on the erection of lighthouses and many were built by private entrepreneurs. This competition occurred because of the large sums of money which could be raised from 'light dues', charges levied on ships entering or leaving port. Light dues were collected by Customs officials in each port, acting as collectors for the Corporation of Trinity House and the other proprietors. From 1841, when the Corporation bought the last lighthouse in private hands, all lighthouse keepers were employed as Trinity House staff. The dues continued to be collected by H M Customs and the money was paid (from 1898) into the General Lighthouse Fund.
The Corporation of Trinity House is not responsible (and never has been) for Scottish or Irish lights although it does advise the separate lighthouse authorities for Scotland and Ireland (Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland).
General sources for lighthouse history
- Light committee minutes, 1941-77. (Ms 30076)
This series begins in 1941 as earlier volumes of minutes were destroyed by the bomb which landed on Trinity House, Tower Hill, in 1940. The light committee inspects lighthouses, lightvessels, buoys and beacons and is in charge of the operation of the lighthouse and lightvessel service.
Before 1941 other records have to be used. There is much lighthouse material in the archive, some of which can be found relatively easily. Lengthy searches may sometimes be necessary, particularly if the volumes are unindexed.
- Court minutes, 1661-2000. (Ms 30004) There are many lighthouse entries (except for 1665-76) and all volumes are indexed. Search under 'lights and individual lighthouse names. References are to both Corporation of Trinity House and private lighthouses.
- Board minutes, 1685-2000. (Ms 30010)
There are many lighthouse entries, some short but others are very detailed. From 1746, all volumes are indexed - look under 'lights' and individual lighthouse names.
- Letter books, 1685-1747. (Ms 30048)
These volumes contain much about lighthouses. The letters can be quite detailed and informative.
- Letters patent granting right to erect lighthouses, 1616-1839. (Ms 30071-2)
- Wardens' committee minutes, 1822-1994. (Ms 30025)
These minutes are very useful for lighthouses and are all indexed. They include joint meetings of the Wardens and Light Committee so they do help to make up for the missing Light Committee minutes.
- Examining committee minutes, 1864-1975. (Ms 30073)
Very brief entries dealing with proposed lights as well as those already erected. The examining committee recommends the establishment of new lighthouses, buoys and beacons and alterations to existing lighthouses, buoys and beacons.
- Visiting committees' inspection reports, 1900-36. (Ms 30094)
Detailed reports of visits to individual lighthouses.
- Engineer's weekly reports on lighthouses being built, 1838-9. (Ms 30095)
Very useful – for the two years for which they survive, they make up for the missing light committee minutes.
- Reports of the Corporation's scientific advisor (Michael Faraday 1836-65), 1836-71. Papers on the illumination of lighthouses. (Ms 30108-9)
NB: Some of the Faraday papers require production of a current History Card for access.
- Registers of title deeds of sites of lighthouses, 1820s-65. (Ms 30123)
The registers include transcriptions of deeds from 1637-1835.
- Copy catalogues of plans and drawings of lighthouses (including those sold or demolished), 18th century onwards. (Ms 30131A)
NB: The originals are held by Trinity House. For more information please write to Trinity House, The Quay, Harwich C012 3JW or telephone 01255 245155 or email email@example.com.
Records of individual lighthouses
There are no series of records about individual lighthouses. Most records of the lighthouse and light vessel service appear to have been destroyed in the 1940 bombing of Trinity House. The archive includes some miscellaneous papers of individual lighthouses, mainly predating Trinity House's acquisition of the light. These were probably bought or given to Trinity House during the twentieth century.
These papers are only substantial for the following lighthouses:
- Eddystone, 1708-1824 (and a little later material). (Ms 30127-31)
- Spurn, 1765-77. (Ms 30143)
- Winterton and Orfordness, 1692-1720. (Ms 30146-8)
- Miscellaneous papers of individual lighthouses (Ms 30124-50)
There are hardly any lighthouse log books in the archive (they are held for North Foreland and St. Mary's Island, Whitley Bay only). They are believed to remain (inaccessible) in each lighthouse.
Photographs, pamphlets and research notes
- Pamphlets and research notes on the lighthouse service and on individual lighthouses, 1940s-70s. (Ms 30116-7; Ms 30368; Ms 30377)
- Glass lantern slides. Probably made in the 1930s but contain some 19th century images of lighthouses. (Ms 30362A)
- Photographs and postcards of English and Welsh lighthouses, 1900-71. (Ms 30363-5)
Guildhall Library, Aldermanbury, London EC2V 7HH, holds many books about British lighthouses. There is a general history of Trinity House lighthouses, The Lighthouses of Trinity House by Richard Woodman and Jane Wilson (2002) as well as a series of pamphlets about individual lighthouses by Martin Boyle called the Lighthouses of England and Wales. Much of the detail in the history and the pamphlets is derived from the lighthouse plans retained by Trinity House. For more information please email firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone 020 7332 1868.
Records of lighthouse keepers and other employees
Surviving records specifically of lighthouse keepers and the crews of light vessels and Trinity House cutters are all 20th century. Most records of the lighthouse and light vessel service appear to have been destroyed in the 1940 bombing of Trinity House. Some pension records covering staff appointed 1900-88 have been retained by Trinity House and enquirers should email requests for information to email@example.com.
Specific family history sources are:
- Register of staff appointed 1914-72 (Ms 30121)
- 'Station book' listing keepers and crews 1941-55 (Ms 30122)
- Registers of pensionable staff (staff born 1870-1931) (Ms 30055)
However, other sources can be used such as indexed volumes of court, board and wardens' minutes. It is worth trying to find the surname of the individual keeper first but you will normally have to look up the lighthouse name (if known) in the index. At some periods the keepers are grouped together in the index as 'lightkeepers' or 'keepers' and this is indicated below.
- Court minutes, 1661-date(Ms 30004) especially 1720-47 and 1816-51 when indexed as 'lightkeepers' or 'keepers'
- Board minutes, 1746-date (Ms 30010) especially from 1781 when sometimes indexed under surname and from 1809-41 when indexed as “lightkeepers” and then surname. NB from 1848 the board minutes indices are not very helpful for keepers and from the 1860s the board minute entries do not normally name the keeper
- Wardens' minutes, 1828-date (Ms 30025).
From 1828 onwards try the Wardens' minutes first. The entries in the Wardens' minutes are quite informative and normally name the keeper(s). From 1828-54 the entries are indexed as 'lightkeepers'. From 1854 try 'lighthouse service' and 'lightvessel service' as well as individual surnames
Pilotage authority for London and forty other districts
(known as outports) including Southampton but excluding Liverpool, Bristol and several ports in the North-East of England.
Although the Corporation had general powers to regulate pilotage from 1514 and the exclusive right to license pilots on the Thames from 1604, the system of outports was only formally established in 1808. The pilotage service was financed by a levy on pilots' earnings, by dues paid by vessels and by pilots' licences. The Corporation of Trinity House lost its role as a pilotage authority in 1988 but remains the licensing authority for deep sea pilots.
Records of pilots
Pilots were licensed, not employed, by the Corporation of Trinity House. When a pilot first applied to be licensed, he had to have British nationality, have several years' experience as a watch-keeping officer of a ship, hold a foreign-going Master Mariner's certificate (or Naval certificate of service) and be under 35. Each pilot had to renew his licence yearly when his general health, eyesight and knowledge of local waters were tested. However, separate records of examination and licensing of pilots only begin in 1808.
The Corporation examined London Pilotage district pilots itself (about two-thirds of all pilots). The London Pilotage district extended from Felixstowe to Dungeness, taking in all the intermediate harbours and the River Thames up to London Bridge. In the forty outport districts, sub-commissioners of pilotage, appointed by the Corporation, examined pilots and recommended them for licences. In the smaller ports, "Trinity House pilots" were often fishermen.
Major family history sources are:
- Registers of pilots' licences (London) 1808-1986 (Ms 30172)
NB: Dover and Cinque port pilots were not licensed by Trinity House until 1854
- Registers of pilots' licences (outports) 1808-46 & 1810-76 (Ms 30174) covering different ports
- Both London and outport registers give pilot's age, residence, qualifications and physical description and are indexed in Ms 30173B, held on the open shelves in the Information Area
- Lists of pilots already working in outports 1808 (Ms 30193)
- Returns of pilotage listing pilots (by port) 1854-1912 (Ms 30198) giving name, age and qualification
- Pilotage committee minutes (1809-1969) (Ms 30158)
The pilotage committee minutes are a valuable resource for searchers who want to find out more detailed information about a pilot's career. Appointments, promotions, details of specific incidents and pensions are described. These records are sometimes indexed by name, and sometimes just under 'pilots'.
Until 1854, the Corporation was able to extend assistance to mariners and their families throughout the UK (independent of any previous connection with Trinity House) because some of the large income from light dues was channelled to charitable purposes. The Corporation also raises money from estates left by Elder brethren and other benefactors. In 1815, for example, it supported 144 almspeople and 7,012 out-pensioners.
To receive a Trinity House pension or enter an almshouse, one had to petition the Corporation. Petitions survive from 1787-1854 and are a useful family history source; they are available to consult on microfilm:
- Main series of petitions 1787-1854 (Ms 30218A)
- Second series of petitions 1787-1853 (Ms 30218B)
Both series are indexed in a volume "Trinity House Petitions" on the open shelves in the Information Area
Other family history sources are:
- Registers of almspeople and pensioners 1729-1946, giving age and reason for assistance. Indexed 1907-39 only. (Ms 30218)
- Registers of almspeople only 1845-1971, giving age and reason for assistance. Indexed. (Ms 30219)
The Corporation of Trinity House has had many other functions, largely carried out or supervised by the Board of Ten Elder brethren. Elder brethren are elected (for life) from the pool of around 300 Younger brethren who are primarily Merchant Navy captains (with a few Royal Navy officers).
These functions have included the supply of ballast to ships in the Thames; sitting in the Admiralty Court to hear collision cases; the examination of Royal Naval navigation officers in pilotage; and the examination of Christ's Hospital mathematical scholars in navigation.
Elder and Younger brethren
Merchant and Royal Navy officers elected to the fellowship of Trinity House.
Family history sources are:
- Lists of Elder brethren 1685-1984 (Ms 30302)
- Lists of Elder brethren 1660-1950 (indexed) (Ms 30307)
- Lists of Younger brethren 1628 and 1660-1850 (Ms 30324)
- Admissions of Younger brethren are entered (and indexed) (Ms 30004) in court minutes thereafter
Merchant Navy masters and mates
Masters and mates, if examined by the Corporation of Trinity House, could be granted pilotage exemption certificates to enable them to pilot their own vessels in waters where they would otherwise need to take an independent pilot.
Family history sources are:
- Registers of exemption certificates 1850-1957 giving age and physical description, and the vessel's name and shipping company. (Ms 30182)
- Registers of masters' & mates' examinations 1864-1986 (Ms 30184)
Trinity House watermen
The Corporation of Trinity House had the right to license mariners to row on the Thames as watermen. These watermen were both older and fewer in number than the apprentices and freemen of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen. (London Metropolitan Archives also holds the records of the Watermen and Lightermen's Company – see Information Leaflet no. 18). The only surviving register of Trinity House Watermen covers 1829-64 (Ms 30335).
Christ's Hospital Royal Mathematical School
Mathematical school boys were examined by Corporation of Trinity House Elder brethren and bound as apprentices for seven years to ships' captains. The only surviving register of "ships' apprentices" covers 1816-57 (Ms 30338). However, this register only repeats the discharge information given in the children's registers of Christ's Hospital (Ms 12818) also held at LMA (see Information Leaflet No.29 'Records of Christ's Hospital and Bluecoat Schools' for details).
Other records held by the corporation of trinity house
In addition to the material deposited at LMA, Trinity House holds records collected from local depots as well as material from its London headquarters that may be useful for family historians. These collections include:
- Names and service registers of lighthouse keepers, light vessel crew members and depot staff
- Photographs of lighthouse keepers, light vessel crew members and depot staff
- Rolls of honour and casualty lists, with accounts of staff from the period during World War Two
For more information about these sources and other material held by Trinity House, contact Trinity House, The Quay, Harwich, Essex, CO12 3JW or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Records of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution are held at RNLI HQ, West Quay Road, Poole, Dorset BH15 1HZ.
Records of HM Coastguard are held at the National Archives.
Records of Trinity House Newcastle are held at Tyne & Wear Archives, Blandford House, Blandford Square, Newcastle-Upon Tyne NE1 4JA.
The other Trinity Houses retain their own records :
- Trinity House, Trinity House Lane, Hull, Humberside HU1 2JE.
- Trinity House (Leith), 99 Kirkgate, Edinburgh EH6 6BJ.
- Records of Scottish Lighthouses are held by the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses, 84 George Street, Edinburgh EH2.
- Records of Irish Lighthouses are held by the Commissioners of Irish Lights, 16 Lower Pembroke Street, Dublin 2, Ireland.
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