Guest blog by one of our research interns, Stephen Courtney, University of Cambridge

On 5 March 1861 the Royal Commission, appointed to enquire into the ‘number, quality and position’ of the nation’s ‘lighthouses, floating lights, buoys, and beacons,’ presented their findings in an extensive parliamentary report. The investigation had occupied the Commissioners for two-and-a-half years, during which time their working lives consisted of carefully co-ordinated observations and the collection of written evidence. One week after the submission of this report the unsalaried commissioners, Sir Alfred Ryder, John Gladstone, Duncan Dunbar, and Samuel Graves, gathered to present a peculiar object to the chairman of the Commission. In recognition of his service to the lighthouse system, and by extension British maritime interests, Admiral William Hamilton was presented with an ornate model lighthouse within which a hand-held telescope was concealed. It was inscribed to mark the occasion:

PRESENTED to Admiral W. B. Hamilton by his COLLEAGUES of the LIGHT HOUSE COMMISSION as a token of their regard and esteem 12th March 1861. Alfred P. Ryder, Duncan Dunbar, L.H. Gladstone, S.R. Graves, J.E. Campbell, Secretary.

The ivory lighthouse presented to Admiral William Hamilton in 1861 (NAV1694) The ivory lighthouse presented to Admiral William Hamilton in 1861 (NAV1694)

Hand-held telescopes were an essential means of communication between land and sea, providing the means for observing visual signals from a ship’s deck or a lighthouse’s gallery. The material associations of this object, combining the instrument design of New Bond Street’s Moritz Pillischer with silver plating and carved ivory from the edges of the mid-Victorian empire, provide us with an insight into contemporary framing of British lighthouse technology.


The Commission met for the first time on 19 January 1859. Their principal aim was to secure a wide range of testimony relating to the three lighthouse authorities operating in Britain. This began with the circulation of questionnaires to related practitioners including the agents of Lloyd’s, prominent ship-owners, steamship companies, foreign lighthouse organisations, scientific authorities, and sailors. This questionnaire was reproduced in various newspapers, advertising the Commission’s activities to a broad readership. Public interest in the activities of this governmental body reflects the close relationship between coastal periphery and urban centre in nineteenth-century Britain.


Alongside the accumulation of written evidence the Commissioners undertook their own observations of the British lights. In the summer of 1859 the Commissioners embarked on a lengthy voyage on board the steamer Vivid. Boarding for the first time in Portsmouth on the 5 June 1860, the Commissioners spent over a month in close company conducting detailed tours of inspection. The published report hints at the privations and danger endured on this voyage:

The Commission had now been afloat 32 days, had almost circumnavigated Great Britain, had seen, so as to be able to form an opinion of their efficiency, 130 light establishments, of which 79 were personally inspected.

As well as commenting on the efficacy of individual stations, this tour provided evidence on a number of other concerns. The welfare of isolated lighthouse keepers, the strange phenomenon of birds colliding with lighthouse lanterns, and the necessity of installing lightning conductors on exposed towers, were all discussed in the final document.


The Commission’s findings touched on the political circumstances of the British lighthouse system. Cases were highlighted in which the Board of Trade, empowered by a Merchant Shipping Act of 1854, impeded the actions of the three lighthouse authorities. One solution to this ambiguous system of authorities was the solicitation of scientific advice on technological questions. The Commissioners had become familiar with public representatives of science, such as George Biddell Airy (the seventh Astronomer Royal) and Michael Faraday (the Royal Institution’s superintendent), during the progress of the investigation. Their experience of these practitioners moved them to recommend the appointment of a permanent ‘optical engineer’ for the lighthouse service. It is possible that the influence of the Astronomer Royal informed the choice of a telescope as a memento for the Commission’s departing Chairman.


One aspect of the British lighthouse system highlighted as particularly inefficient was the continued use of parabolic mirrors and fixed lights in place of the rotating lens systems favoured in French stations. Although many of the catoptric lights were among the most powerful described by sailors, it was decided to introduce lenses throughout the Trinity House service. Central to this plan was the glass-making firm of Chance Brothers in Smethwick, whose Spon Lane works had been producing lighthouse optics since their popular display at the 1851 Great Exhibition. The introduction of dioptric lights across the British seaboard was conducted alongside a major programme of lens adjustment that incorporated every station operated by Trinity House.


Following his work with the commission, William Hamilton served as a Permanent Secretary to the Admiralty until his death from ill health in 1881. His Commissioners, meanwhile, continued to conduct research into the condition of the Victorian marine. Sir Alfred Phillips Ryder served on a national Committee on ship design in 1871, articulating a strongly conservative attitude to maritime technology and a firm belief in the advantages of sail over steam. Alongside another member of the Commission, Samuel Graves, he was responsible for an essay on the deteriorating quality of British sailors. John Gladstone continued his research into light and optics, producing a paper on the solar spectrum alongside the eminent Scottish physicist Sir David Brewster. Succeeding Michael Faraday as Fullerian Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Institution, Gladstone wrote a biography of his predecessor that gestured towards his long career in the service of the Trinity House lighthouse corporation.


The lighthouse telescope remained for many years in the possession of William Hamilton before passing to the Museum, and serves as a fitting embodiment of this period of feverish exchange between professional science and practical government. It is a striking reminder of the national importance of the Victorian coastal lights and the work of the Royal Commission.