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:
1) General Lighthouse Authority for England, Wales, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar. It is therefore responsible for providing lighthouses, light vessels, buoys and beacons. Until 1836 however, 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 archive includes some records of lighthouses which predate the Corporation's acquisition of them. These records were probably acquired by purchase or gift and were found amongst the papers of Captain Chaplin, an elder brother with an antiquarian interest in the Corporation's history. All plans and drawings of lighthouses (including those sold or demolished) have been retained by Trinity House. These may be viewed by prior appointment and/or copies purchased via firstname.lastname@example.org. Guildhall Library holds catalogues of these plans (GL Ms 30131A).
2) 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. Separate records of examination and licensing of pilots only begin in 1808.
Until the Corporation lost its role as a pilotage authority in 1988, it licensed but did not employ pilots who were all self-employed. The pilotage service provided by the Corporation was financed by a levy on pilots' earnings, by dues paid by vessels and by pilots' licences. Each pilot had to renew his licence yearly when his general health, eyesight and knowledge of local waters were tested. The Corporation remains the licensing authority for deep sea pilots.
3) Charitable organisation for the relief of mariners and their dependants in distress. 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.
The Corporation of Trinity House has had many other functions, largely carried out or supervised by the Board of 10 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.
ACCESS TO THE RECORDS
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.
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 contact the Manuscripts Section for further details.
Because of shortage of staff time, Guildhall Library is unable to carry out detailed searches of the Corporation of Trinity House archive. Enquirers are welcome to visit the Manuscripts Section in person or to hire a record agent (details are given in the access leaflet).
The Printed Books Section of Guildhall Library holds a number of published works on the history of the Corporation of Trinity House.
Last updated December 2008
Leaflet Guides to Records
Guildhall Library Manuscripts Section