by Peter Gurnett
Trinity House’ is often mentioned in books about the river and the estuary - but rarely explained.In April this year Peter Gurnett gave a talk to the Docklands History Group on Trinity House and we reproduce it here (with permission and our thanks to them). We would stress, however, that this is not the text of Peter’s talk but the notes taken by the minutes secretary at the DHG meeting. Peter has however seen this script and approved publication.
Peter Gurnett's depth of knowledge and passion for his subject was amply demonstrated in his talk on Trinity House and Deptford Strond.
Peter explained that 'there are three bodies responsible for safe navigation around our islands:
· Trinity House responsible for lighthouses, light vessels, buoys and beacons around the coast of England, Wales, the Channel Islands, and Gibraltar. Until recently it was also the principal Pilotage Authority for the LWL, with responsibilities for London (including River Pilots) and forty other districts, including such ports as Milford Haven and Falmouth. Trinity House is now only responsible for deep-sea pilotage.
· The Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses. General Lighthouse Authority for Scotland and the Isle of Man
· The Irish Lights Commissioners who are the general Lighthouse Authority for the whole of Ireland
In addition separate Trinity Houses operate at Hull, Newcastle and Dover
Around 1511, Thomas Spert, who spelt his name Spertt, founded the Corporation of Trinity House at Deptford Strond, and its existing Hall with Almshouses behind St. Nicholas' Church Spert is generally agreed to be the true founder of the Corporation of Trinity House, as we know it today, during the early years of Henry VIII’s reign, when Spert was serving as the sailing master of the ill-fated "Mary Rose' from 1511 to late 1513. In 1514 the "Great Harry", (“Henri Grace a Dieu"), was built at Woolwich and Spert was transferred to her as Sailing Master. Henry's largest ship, she was around 1000 tons, compared with the 600 ton "Mary' Rose".
The year 1514 was also generally thought to be that when Trinity House was granted its 'Charter of Incorporation', by Henry VIII. An earlier Charter petition found carries Henry's signature on it, and as it dates from the early part of 1513, it may be one of the earliest documents outside of Henry's personal correspondence containing his signature. In 1513, Henry had set up the famous Royal Dockyard at Deptford, near St Nicholas’ Church.
Various Acts have given Trinity House powers to make laws, ordinances and statues in controlling the passage of shipping round the English coast, with legal powers to levy charges and enforce them for the services provided, and levy fines for non-payment. It also assumed responsibility for the charitable protection of its less fortunate members. The Almshouses of Deptford were built probably earlier in the 15th century to cater for the needs of old and decayed members The motto of the Corporation is Trintas In Unitate ,which roughly translates as “All one under the Holy Trinity”.
Around 1520, the Admiralty and Navy Board were formed and held their meetings at Deptford. This probably had some bearing on the appointment of Spert in 1524, as 'Clerk Controller of the King's Ships'. Thus he became an administrator and his deputy Thomas Jermyn took over as Master of the "Henri Grace a Dieu", presumably to leave Spert free to carry out his full time duties of Clerk which would have involved provisioning, manning and paying the crews of ships He held this position until July 1540, when it passed to John Bartelot. The post was later renamed 'Secretary of the Navy'. In November 1529 Thomas Spert was knighted at York Place by Henry VIII. He died in 1541 and was buried in St.Dunstan’s Church at Stepney.
Trinity House Charter was renewed by Mary I in 1553, and Elizabeth I in 1558. An Act was passed in 1566, concerning the placing of sea-marks by Trinity House at dangerous parts of the coast to ensure the safety of ships and mariners. In 1573 they were granted a seal and a Coat of Arms. In 1594, Elizabeth granted Trinity House by Act, the rights on the river Thames of all lastage (duty paid for the right to dispose, stow and tally goods on ship’s ballastage, beaconage and buoyage and setting up of channel navigation markers, which were also dutiable). These provided a steady and lucrative
income for the next 300 years.
In 1604, James I further revised the Charter to include the rights granted by Elizabeth in 1594. The new Charter was primarily concerned with the governing of the Corporation, which now divided into 31 Elder Brothers, the group from which all executives are elected, and an unspecified number of Younger Brothers. All Elder Brothers must have been Commanders or Masters for a period of not less than four years, to ensure that experience would be added to all decisions made by the Corporation. Trinity House was given the exclusive rights to licence all pilots on the Thames. Existing and successive Acts now gave Trinity House the charge in respect of laying buoys and erecting beacons for safe navigation. Ships of the Royal Navy to be built or purchased were laid down to their design, accepted or rejected on their certificates Provisions, cordage, ordnance and ammunition for Royal and Merchant Ships all passed through their control. They were responsible for pressing crews in time of war, both Masters and Seamen, and had the right to appoint Consuls in certain foreign countries e.g. Leghorn and Genoa. They acted as hydrographers for the navy and all the limits and boundaries of seas and channels were referred to them. In the early 1600's, an additional meeting house was acquired at Ratcliffe near Limehouse. Ratcliffe and Wapping were busy maritime centres then, and provided crews for ships on many famous voyages of discovery. In 1618, the final move to the new headquarters at Ratcliffe from Deptford took place
By the early 17th century relations between Trinity House and the Admiralty became very close. Trinity House had now effectively become the civil arm of the Navy. The first purpose built lighthouses were two in Caister, Norfolk, in 1620 by a private owner and later passed to Trinity House. In 1638 Trinity House raised wrecks from the Thames and helped suppress pirates around the coasts. Around 1650 they leased part of a building in Stepney and about this time St Dunstan's took over from St. Nicholas' Church at Deptford as the Trinity House Church In 1650 Samuel Pepys was appointed clerk of the Acts to the Navy (Board), a similar position to that held by Spert earlier. He attended St. Olave's Church, in nearby Hart Street which was later to supersede both St. Dunstan's and St. Nicholas' Churches, to become the Trinity' House Church. During the Commonwealth Trinity House was dispossessed of all rights and their activities were carried out by an appointed committee.
In 1660, Charles II was back on the throne, and a new Charter restored the status quo, with Trinity House acquiring a new headquarters building at Water Lane, near the Tower. He appointed General George Monke and Edward Montagu as Master and Deputy Master. In 1661, Edward Montagu, the first Earl of Sandwich, and Lord High Admiral, was elected Master of Trinity House and his cousin, Pepys, along with most of his colleagues, were elected Younger Brothers. In 1666 the Great Fire of London, burnt down the Water Lane headquarters building. A large number of Trinity House records and old documents were lost. Trinity House moved its headquarters to temporary accommodation in Whitehorse Lane in Stepney, not far from St. Dunstan's Church.
In 1671, Samuel Pepys was elected an Elder Brother. Sir Richard Brown, who lived at Sayes Court, gave land for projected new almshouses in Church Street at Deptford. In 1672, Sir Richard resigned as clerk to the Privy Council's special committee, a position he had held since 1661, and was elected Master of Trinity House.
A mathematical school was founded at Christ's Hospital by Charles II, and examination of the boys was entrusted to Trinity House Brethren, to produce new navigators and ships' masters etc. In 1673 John Evelyn was sworn in as a Younger Brother of Trinity House, and Pepys was appointed Secretary of the Navy. Pepys himself became Master of Trinity House in 1676, and immediately reorganised it into a more efficient body, and took the lead in the Commons against removal of Trinity House's right to licence Thames Watermen Trinity House were empowered to inspect vessels and exact any fines they thought to be due.
Pepys was elected Master of Trinity House for the second time in 1685, as the King's nominee. In 1691, Captain Henry Mudd, then Deputy Master, died and was buried in St. Dunstan's Church. He left a gift of land in Mile End, as a site for more almshouses. In 1694, a Commission comprising the Master, Warden and Elder Brothers of Trinity House and including Evelyn, as treasurer, and Christopher Wren as architect, had been appointed to build and establish Greenwich Hospital. The Hospital was granted a lighthouse at the North Foreland to augment funds. Samuel Pepys died at Clapham in 1703, aged 70, and was buried in St. Olave's Church in Hart Street. In 1714, the headquarters of Trinity House in Water Lane was burnt down and a new one built. More early records and documents were lost, as was the flag taken from the Spaniards by Sir Francis Drake during the Armada. The first effective lightship was built by David Avery on the Thames at the Nore in 1732 under licence from Trinity House.
The second half of the 18th century saw Trinity House appointed to examine the competency of Ships Masters to grant and navigate ships of his Majesty's Navy In 1774, both sets of almshouses in Deptford were in use, at the Stowage and at Church Street. The headquarters building in Water Lane had been very badly reconstructed and in 1790 required costly repairs. As it was considered to be cramped and inconvenient a move to the new site on Tower Hill was mooted. Building commenced on the new headquarters in 1793, to the design of Trinity' House Surveyor Samuel Wyatt at an estimated cost of £12,000. The building was completed in 1798, at a cost of around £26,000 after considerable amendment to the interior had been insisted upon by the Trinity House Court.
The last Court meeting was held at Water Lane in 1796. On the threat of a French invasion in 1803, Trinity House undertook the defence of the Thames. They raised and equipped a body of men sufficient to man ten frigates. In 1804, the Trinity House workshops at Blackwall had been set up to repair and maintain buoys, sea marks and light vessels etc. This became the principal repair depot until quite recently, when it was closed down and its work transferred to Harwich.
In 1837, the Duke of Wellington was elected Master at the Hall at Deptford. Prince Albert, the Prince Consort took over as Master after Wellington’s death and was in fact the last Master to be elected at Deptford, in 1853. Since then, the elections have always been held at Tower Hill, and the commemoration service in the nearby church of St. Olave's, in Hart Street.
Latterly, Trinity' House has effectively been split into two bodies. The Corporation itself deals with all charitable work, with a separate body called 'The Lighthouse Service' dealing with aids to navigation, and having the right to levy charges under governmental control. Financial restraints have lately caused considerable reductions in staffing and premises used. Lighthouses
This article appeared in the January 2000 GIHS Newsletter