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‘For Those in Peril on the Sea’

All mariners have one thing in common – they owe a debt for their safety to an organisation based in London but which reaches out around the UK and Northern Europe, and whose example gives guidance to maritime authorities around the globe. 

Trinity House as most people know it today was founded in 1514 by Royal Charter by Henry VIII under the rather lengthy title of ‘’ The Master, Wardens, and Assistants of the Guild, Fraternity, or Brotherhood of the most glorious and undivided Trinity, and of St. Clement in the Parish of Deptford-Strond in the County of Kent’’. Rather a mouthful!

Its statutory responsibilities extend around all of the UK – so take in Scotland, Northern Ireland AND Ireland, the surrounding islands – and Gibraltar.

The standards set by Trinity House have given leadership to most nations, providing a more-or-less standard system around the world.

The powers of Trinity House have developed over time, from Elizabeth 1sts ‘Seamarks Act’ in 1566 allowing them to ‘’at their wills and pleasures, and at their costs, [to] make, erect, and set up such, and 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’’.

Such marks were placed on Plymouth Hoe, in the form of three obelisks in differing colours to indicate safe courses past the reefs toward the Plym and Sutton Harbour.

Trinity House’s responsibilities are wide ranging, and more than you might realise.

Primary responsibility is for the Lighthouses and Aids to Navigation (bouys, lights and other marks) which are to be seen all around our coastline. 

Lighthouses of course form a powerful feature in the art, history and romance which we associate with the sea. In Devon you are likely to find the smallest and tallest lights – Berry Head at just 5 metres, and the Eddystone at 49m.

Pilotage is also a crucial responsibility, and so when a Pilot is carried aboard a vessel to bring her safely in or out of a port it is Trinity House who ensure that the service is competent.

Navigation is also at the high-tech end of what the Corporation does, as it researches, deploys and maintains radio and electronic systems such as Differential GPS to provide navigational location accuracy to within 5-10 metres. The Corporation has also played a major part in the development of solar and wind energy systems as it seeks ways to power the systems it deploys in remote and hazardous locations.

Trinity House is a Charity, and in addition to the ‘hard’ work of providing safe navigation, it has a ‘soft’ side as a provider of welfare to seafarers. It is also a major player in maritime education – and perhaps surprisingly is an estate manager with much income derived from endowed land and property, together with a fair number of holiday cottages in old keeper’s homes!

This side of business funds the charitable aspects of Trinity House work, but what about the Lighthouses and buoys?

These are funded from ‘Light Dues’, levied on commercial vessels and based on their registered tonnage. The Department for Transport sets and administers these – currently 38p per tonne, up to a capped maximum (just over £15,000 per annum, and with no further charge beyond 9 voyages). Tugs and fishing boats pay an annual premium based on the length of the vessel.

Trinity House is one of the oldest ‘companies’ in the world, and it has some aspects which appear quaint to us today. 

Why ‘Trinity House’? Simply because when established, seafaring was a very risky business and all under the eye of God – the ‘Trinity’ is simply the Holy Trinity – hoping for the protection of the Almighty.

The Corporation is governed by ‘Brethren’ – Elder and Younger. Henry VIII commanded that his  “trewe and faithfull subjects, shipmen and mariners of this Our Realm of England” should “begyn of new and erecte and establish a Guild or Brotherhood of themselves or other persons as well men as women, whatsoever they be…”. So – a ‘band of brothers’  as we might view it today (which is of course a phrase used by Shakespeare in the time of Elizabeth I)

The ‘Younger’ Brethren are drawn from appropriate walks of life mainly with maritime connections (about 400 of them, around 70% being Royal or Merchant Navy and 12% Pilots or Harbour Masters), and some may in time become ‘Elder’ – in effect Directors, and Governors.

Trinity House has its Headquarters on Tower Hill in London, literally just above the Tower of London itself. You can arrange a tour in advance and view more of the fascinating history and interior. You might also reflect on the names on the war memorial in the gardens outside, representing so many lives lost by the Merchant Service during the Wars.

Plymouth of course has a greater opportunity for insight into all that Trinity House does with the iconic presence of Smeaton’s Tower on Plymouth Hoe, and so many buoys and lights open to clear view; you will also see the pilots come and go to the larger ships entering and leaving the Cattewater.  

More ways to Discover and Enjoy Plymouth’s Lighthouses

You can find so much more to learn about Trinity House and Plymouth’s Lighthouses by heading to The Box or looking the Trinity House website

You can also visit Smeaton’s Tower on Plymouth Hoe, Tuesday to Sunday and Bank Holidays – 10am to 5pm (last entries at 4pm).

Watch the Plymouth Hoe Live Webcam for a daily dose of Britain’s Ocean City. 

Did you know that you can actually get married in Smeaton’s Tower


If you’d like to know more about buoys, lighthouse design, and many other Trinity House facts, take a look at https://www.trinityhouse.co.uk/about-us/a-to-z-of-trinity-house and the amazing ‘A to Z of Trinity House’ to be found on their website!

Smeaton’s Tower is a historic building in a unique location. But how much do you know about the origin of our lighthouses and Trinity House?
Smeaton’s Tower is a historic building in a unique location. But how much do you know about the origin of our lighthouses and Trinity House?


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