Trinity House

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There have been guilds or fraternities of seamen dedicated to the Holy Trinity in several ports around the English coast since at least the 14th century. They initially came into being to assist distressed sailors and their families but their interest in the seamen’s welfare naturally developed into a concern for the construction of buoys and the building and lighting of beacons.

Deptford and London[edit | edit source]

In 1514 a guild of mariners at Deptford (then called Deptford Strond or Strand) in Kent who were worried about the scarcity of pilots with sea-going experience and the fact that Scots, Flemings and Frenchmen were learning, as lodesmen, ‘the secrets of the Kings streams’, petitioned Henry VIII and received a charter as the Fraternity of Trinity House. In 1547 it was formed into a Corporation, governed by a master, four wardens and eight assistants, who were elected annually, and in 1566 its powers were extended, it being authorised to levy dues on shipping with which to maintain buoys at any dangerous place on the coast. These lucrative ‘light dues’ were collected by customs officials on ships entering or leaving port.

In 1599 the Corporation was given the valuable rights of ‘ballastage’ (the right to supply ballast to ships), beaconage and buoyage’ on the river Thames and five years later it obtained the right to licence and regulate all the pilots on the river. The members of the Corporation were then divided into Elder and Younger Brethren. They were originally all seamen, but later noblemen and gentlemen were appointed. They now met in London, but until 1852 returned to Deptford once a year to elect the Court. Today the Elder Brethren are elected for life from the pool of 300 or so Younger Brethren who were primarily Merchant Navy captains with a sprinkling of Royal Navy officers.

The Corporation had built its first lighthouse at Lowestoft in 1609 and its first lightship was placed at the Nore in 1732. Although Charles II gave it powers to examine the boys in his new mathematical school at Christ’s Hospital in 1673 he unfortunately granted patents to other individuals to erect lighthouses and it was not until 1836 that the Corporation’s monopoly was restored. In 1812 its jurisdiction was extended to lighthouses around the coast of Ireland and in 1836 it was given a Government loan with which to purchase the privately owned lighthouses which had been built around England, the last being taken over in 1841. Their keepers then became Trinity House staff. The rights of ballastage were surrendered to the Thames Conservancy in 1894 and responsibility for local pilots passed to the various local Harbour Authorities in 1988.

Today the Corporation of Trinity House remains responsible for lighthouses, light vessels, buoys and beacons around England, Wales, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar, it licences Deep Sea Pilots, provides expertise to the Admiralty Court in collision cases, continues to examine the Royal Navy navigation officers in pilotage and the mathematical scholars of Christ’s Hospital in navigation, and it administers relief to indigent mariners and their families.

Records[edit | edit source]

The London headquarters of the Corporation of Trinity House in Water Lane with many records was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, rebuilt and again burned in 1714. The successor building was too small and was replaced with another, this time on Tower Hill, in 1793-6. This was itself gutted by a bomb in 1940 when the remaining records were decimated and many paintings and artefacts destroyed. The building’s facade has been incorporated into the present 1950s re-building.

The surviving records were deposited at the Guildhall Library, London, in the 1990s, and are now at the London Metropolitan Archives (collection CLC/526). Many are on restricted access and there is a 30-year closure period. Apart from official and administrative papers there are some sections of interest to family historians:

Brethren[edit | edit source]

There are indexed lists of the Elder Brethren 1660-1950 and un-indexed lists of the Younger Brethren 1628 and 1660-1850. The admissions of the latter were recorded after 1850 in the Court Minutes, which survive from 1660, and are indexed there.

Lighthouses[edit | edit source]

The surviving records of lighthouse keepers and of the crews of light vessels and Trinity House cutters all relate to the 20th century. There is a register of staff appointed 1914-72, a Station Book listing keepers and crews 1941-55, and a register of pensionable staff born in the period 1870-1931.

Masters and Mates[edit | edit source]

Those masters and mates who had been examined by the Corporation could be granted exemption certificates to enable them to pilot their own vessels. Registers of their examinations survive 1864-1986 with registers of exemption certificates 1850-1957. The latter show the age and physical description of the masters and mates and the names of their vessels and shipping companies.

Mathematical Scholars[edit | edit source]

The boys in the mathematical school at Christ’s Hospital were examined by the Elder Brethren and then bound as apprentices to ships’ captains for seven years. There is a register of ships’ apprentices 1816-57.

It seems likely that the apprenticeship indentures, 1780 and 1818-45, calendared in the volume of Petitions mentioned below, relate to some of these boys, though several are described as coming from the Upper School of the Royal Hospital at Greenwich and there is one from the Royal Naval Asylum.

Watermen[edit | edit source]

The Corporation had the right to licence mariners to row on the Thames as watermen. These Trinity House Watermen were older and fewer in number than the better-known apprentices and freemen of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen but the only surviving register covers the years 1829-64.

Pilots[edit | edit source]

Although the Corporation had a general power to regulate pilots from 1514 and the exclusive right to licence pilots on the Thames from 1604, a system of outports was only formally established in 1808 and records of examination and licensing begin in that year. The outports included Southampton and forty other districts but did not include Liverpool, Bristol and the ports in the north-east of England. Pilots in the London district, which extended from Felixstowe to Dungeness and included the Thames up to London Bridge, were examined by the Corporation and form about two-thirds of the total. Those in the districts were examined by sub-commissioners appointed by the Corporation.

The pilots themselves were self-employed and had to renew their licences every year when their general health, eyesight and knowledge of local waters was tested. When first licensed the pilot had to be under the age of 35 and of British nationality. He was required to have several years’ experience as a watch-keeping officer and to hold a foreign-going Master Mariner’s certificate (or Naval certificate of service). In the smaller ports the Trinity House pilots were often fishermen.

There is an indexed register of pilots’ licences in the London district 1808-1929 and a register of those in the outports 1808-1876. Both show age, residence, qualifications and physical description. There is also a list of those already working in the outports in 1808 and later returns by port, also showing name, age and qualification.

Charitable work[edit | edit source]

The Corporation at Deptford and London always had a surplus from the light dues and used this, together with income from its trust properties and bequests from the Elder Brethren and others, for charitable purposes, assisting large numbers of distressed mariners and their widows and orphans. In 1812-3 assistance was also given to the wives of many seamen imprisoned in France. This charitable work was curtailed in 1854 when the income from light dues was withdrawn. Those assisted, either by monthly pensions (and in 1815 there were over seven thousand out-pensioners) or in almshouses at Mile End and Deptford, did not need to have had any previous association with Trinity House.

The Trinity Almshouses in the Mile End Road, London, had been built in 1695 and were intended to house 28 ‘decayed Masters and Commanders of Ships or ye widows of such’. At the end of the 19th century there was a move to demolish the red-brick cottages but permission to do so was refused by the Charity Commission. In 1934 they housed 80 people but they were bombed in 1941 and then modernised. At the same time the little chapel linking the two rows of houses was restored. The former almshouses at Deptford had existed since before the Charter of 1514.

To receive assistance either in an almshouse or as a pension, one had to complete a formal petition in considerable detail. A typical example of these valuable documents, dated in 1828, reads:

To the Honorable the Master, Wardens and Assistants of the Corporation of Trinity-House of Deptford-Strond. The humble Petition of Elizabeth Day aged Fifty One Years, residing at Appledore in the County of Devon, widow of David Day.

Sheweth, That your Petitioner’s Husband went to Sea at the Age of Twelve in the Year 1784 and served there for 26 Years, in the following Ships, and others, and in the annexed Stations:

[The Petition then provides a table showing the Year, Ship or Vessel's name, its Registered Tonnage, Station, and From what Place to what Place, with the following details:]
1781 Active, 45, Apprentice, Barnstaple to Bristol
1791 Valentine, 90, Mate, Coasting Trade
1796 Glory, 110, Mate, Irish Trade
1798 Friendship, 130, Mate, Foreign Trade
1800 British Isle, 150, Mate, Foreign Trade
1803 Betsy, 50, Master, Coasting Trade
1809 Jeremiah, 70, Master, Coasting Trade

That your Petitioner’s Husband left off the Sea in the Year 1819 in consequence of Ill health and died Drown’d in 1827 and she has 3 Children under 12 Years of Age, viz. James Day, 11 Year & 8 Months, Mary Day, 9 Year & 8 Months, Ann Day, 7 Year & 3 Months.

That your Petitioner has No Annual Income from Real or Personal Property to the Amount of £- except two Shillings weekly from the Parish of Northam.

That your Petitioner’s Means of Support are from the Parish which not being sufficient to support herself and Family, she most humbly prays she may be admitted a Pensioner of this Corporation, at the usual Allowance.

Your Petitioner will ever pray, &c. Elizabeth Day.

On the back of this form are three certificates which had to be completed, (1) by the owner of the vessel in which the Petitioner last served in his highest station at sea, (2) by the minister or churchwardens of the Parish where the Petitioner lived and (3) by at least two respectable persons. To show evidence of her age and family Elizabeth Day had also to provide a certificate of her baptism as Elizabeth Stephens in 1777, her marriage to David Day in 1799 and the baptisms of her three children, all from the registers of Northam. The cost and difficulty of obtaining certificates was in itself quite a problem for poor people and the Petitions naturally vary in the amount of detail given and in the number of documents provided in support of a claim.

The above Petition is endorsed ‘4s 6d, 14 January 1828’ which means that Elizabeth Day was granted 4s 6d a month from that date. There is an additional note ‘Still living very Aged 72 occasionally residing at Swansea with a poor relative’.

The surviving Petitions, all made in the years 1784-1854, have a very uneven geographical coverage. They relate mainly to London, Liverpool and the smaller ports, but places like Cardiff, Bristol, Glasgow, Hull and Newcastle are hardly represented.

These Petitions, originally in date order, had providentially been presented to the Society of Genealogists by the Corporation of Trinity House in 1934. They were sorted into alphabetical order and bound into 102 volumes. Additional petitions were then found, sorted and bound into eleven volumes. The Society of Genealogists published a calendar of the two series (most often giving the name and age of the petitioner, the name of the spouse, residence and year) with an index of surnames as The Trinity House Petitions: a calendar of the records of the Corporation of Trinity House, London, in the library of the Society of Genealogists (1987) [FHL book 942 U3]. The volume may be consulted for fees online at The Petitions were microfilmed [FHL films 395554-395610] and the originals are now at the London Metropolitan Archives but ‘Not available for general access’.

Received by the Society with the Petitions were a group of apprenticeship indentures of seamen, 1780 and 1818-45 (mentioned above), and a group of miscellaneous papers, mostly baptismal and marriage certificates, which seem to relate to pension and almshouse applications made between 1790 and 1890, the majority in the period 1830-80. Short abstracts of the indentures and of these other documents were made and published in the printed calendar mentioned above. These records are now at the London Metropolitan Archives and are now classed as ‘Not available for general access’. They have not been microfilmed for the Family History Library.

Registers of the almspeople and of those who received pensions from 1729 to 1946, giving their ages and the reason assistance was given, which were retained at Trinity House (where those before 1775 could not be found in 1934) are now at the London Metropolitan Archives. They are indexed for 1907-39 only. There is a second indexed series of the almspeople only 1845-1971 giving similar details. Both series are on restricted access.

Other Trinity Houses[edit | edit source]

Guilds of seamen, also called Trinity Houses, developed in a few other ports, mainly for charitable purposes. Although they became involved in pilotage, lightage and buoyage, from 1836 onwards they had to have the sanction of Trinity House at Deptford in all the positioning and type of lights which they used.

Newcastle-upon-Tyne[edit | edit source]

The Trinity House at Newcastle-upon-Tyne received a charter in 1536 and its jurisdiction extended to Sunderland, Stockton and Hartlepool. Its records, 1530-1990, are now with the Tyne & Wear Archives, Blandford House, Blandford Square, Newcastle-upon-Tyne NE1 4JA, and described (collection GU.TH) at There are guild and account books but apparently no records of charitable assistance.

Kingston-upon-Hull[edit | edit source]

A very active Trinity House at Kingston-upon-Hull, where members of the guild acted as pilots in the treacherous waters of the Humber, received a Charter in 1541 and had complete control of the river until 1908. It had built an almshouse in 1457 and by 1800 administered 73 rooms for pensioners in various almshouses and hospitals as well as much out-relief. It remains extremely active in the charitable field. A maritime school was set up in 1787 and continues to flourish. The records remain with the Secretary at Hull Trinity House, Trinity House Lane, Hull HU1 2JG and are not open to public access. The Archivist will make searches for fees.

Scarborough[edit | edit source]

A little known Trinity House at Scarborough, founded in 1602 with mainly charitable objectives, also survives (though it was taken over by Deptford from 1747 to 1855) and has a President, two Wardens and fifteen Brethren.

Dover[edit | edit source]

Another guild which was united with Deptford and disappeared in 1853 was that at Dover in Kent where a Court of Loadsmanage had held a Commission from the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, but its records seem not to survive.

Acknowledgment[edit | edit source]

This article has been adapted with permission from an article by Anthony Camp, ‘Your Petitioner’s Husband went to Sea … The records of Trinity House’ in Family Tree Magazine (UK;, vol. 19, no. 2 (December 2002) pages 50-52.