As a frequent passenger on the Hook of Holland boat, I must have sailed past the Harwich depot of Trinity House dozens of times, and couldn’t even attempt to estimate how often I’ve relied on their buoys, beacons and lighthouses as a leisure sailor. In the case of the lighthouses, I’ve even used them for landmark navigation on my rambles ashore. Until recently, I did all these things without giving much thought to the institution behind those buoys, beacons and lighthouses, or to the unprepossessing grey building at Harwich. I dare say I’m not the only one guilty of this particular sin – for a sin it is, as I know now.

AAA1048 Trinity House jack, c.1910 (NMM AAA1048)

I came to learn a lot about Trinity House in the context of my research on masters in the sailing navy (which I have been allowed to ramble about on this blog before). In the course of these studies, I’ve come to realise that, in order to honour the achievement of this fabulous corporation, it should be given a 21-gun salute from every ship sailing past – in fact I’d advocate rigging passenger ferries with long eighteens specifically for this purpose.

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, known informally as the Corporation of Trinity House of Deptford Strond and usually shortened (even by themselves) to Trinity House, was incorporated by Royal Charter, granted by Henry VIII in 1514. Its foundation followed the petition of a guild of mariners to regulate pilotage in the river Thames, since many pilots were inexperienced or careless, much to the detriment of shipping in the estuary. One of its founding members and first Master was (Sir) Thomas Spert, master of the famous ships Mary Rose and Henry Grâce à Dieu. Apart from pilotage, Trinity House, like its predecessor, was also a charity for the relief of seamen who had fallen on hard times or were unfit for work, and for the widows and orphans of mariners. Women, however, were not just the passive recipients of the corporation’s alms. The 1514 charter explicitly speaks of ‘bredern and sustern’ of the fraternity – in other words, it was possible for both men and women to join as active members.

In the course of its 500-year history, Trinity House acquired a number of other functions in addition to its charitable activities and the examination and licensing of pilots. In 1566, during the reign of Elizabeth I, it was granted the power to erect beacons and seamarks, as many and in any place ‘as to them shall seem most meet, needful, and requisite’. The first lighthouse was eventually erected at Lowestoft in 1609. Many more were built in the following two hundred years, and a proliferation of other seamarks, buoys and light-vessels was installed.

BHC1796 Eddystone Lighthouse, c.1708 (NMM BHC1796)

Step by step, Trinity House was illuminating the coastline of Britain. In addition, it acquired the rights of dredging shingle from the Thames and selling it to ships as ballast, examined masters for the Royal Navy, and delivered expert opinions to the Admiralty – sometimes unsolicited ones. In other words, they were the prime authority on matters of seamanship and navigation, and their power – even over the Navy – was considerable. So it’s no surprise that the Master of Trinity House was named in the 1714 Longitude Act as one of the ex officio Commissioners of Longitude. And in a revealing quote two years later, Isaac Newton noted (while giving his opinion of a proposal for a mechanical ship-log) that, ‘I have no experience in sea affairs nor ever was at Sea and therefore my opinion is not much to be relied on without the opinion of Trinity House’.

AML/A/8 Receipt for duty for the Eddystone Lighthouse, 1786 (NMM AML/A/8)

Today, even though shingle ballast and sailing masters have gone the way of all earthly things with the advent of steel ships and steam navigation, the Trinity House still fulfils the same core functions as at its inception. It is the General Lighthouse Authority for England, Wales, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar and a Deep Sea Pilotage Authority. It is also still a charitable institution concerned with the ‘safety, welfare and training of mariners’. Thus, it has an enormous impact on all of our lives, even if we are seldom aware of this, and even for those of us who are not professional or leisure sailors, or regular ferry passengers. One only has to remember that up to 95% of goods arriving in the UK continue to do so by sea, to give just one example.

2014 marks the quincentenary of Trinity House, and Royal Museums Greenwich has created the exhibition Guiding Lights: 500 Years of Trinity House and Safety at Sea by way of celebration. The exhibition features fascinating and sometimes emotionally moving objects and stories from the corporation’s long history, many of which you are not likely to get another chance of seeing any time soon. One of my favourites among these must be a magnificently adorned pilotage certificate which begins in archaic solemnity with the words: ‘To all whom these presents shall come, we the Corporation of Trinity House of Deptford Strond, London, send Greeting’. This certificate is not, as you will be excused for thinking, centuries old. It was made out in 1989 and is just one hint at the tradition and venerability of the institution behind it.

A friend of mine – a self-taught boat builder and keen sailor – said recently, as I recommended the exhibition to him: ‘Ah, yes, the Trinity House; it is surrounded by some kind of glow.’ So, the next time you happen to sail past the Harwich depot or walk past the headquarters on Tower Hill, take a moment to bask in that glow, and to relish the comforting thought that after keeping us safe at sea for 500 years, Trinity House is still going strong. Unless you happen to have a few long eighteens on you – in which case, you might ditch the contemplation and fire a salute instead.

PAD1428 New Trinity House on Tower Hill (NMM PAD1428)

This is the second guest post by Lena Moser, who is currently studying for a PhD at the University of Tübingen. Thank you again, Lena!