Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Happy Birthday, Trinity House

Yesterday, May 20th, was the birthday of Trinity House, the lighthouse authority for Great Britain. It began as a medieval mariners guild of "Godley disposed men who do bind themselves together...to succor from the dangers of the sea all who are beset upon the coasts of England." King Henry VIII chartered Trinity House on May 20, 1514. Unfortunately, he is better remembered for his many dalliances and multiple wives than for the important work of launching an effort to protect mariners and shipping. Trinity House took its name from the Holy Trinity, under which seamen fervently placed themselves for protection at sea and the blessing of St. Clement, patron saint of British sailors and fishermen. The initial charter provided for a master and twelve wardens to make laws and govern shipping throughout the realm.

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, King Henry VIII's daughter, Trinity House was authorized to erect beacons and seamarks and was given a coat of arms and the motto "Trinitas in Unitate." The first lighthouse built by Trinity House was at Lowestroft in 1609. Before this time, any beacon lights in the British realm were operated by monks, merchants and ship owners, or private citizens. As the British Empire grew, Trinity House established lighthouses and other navigational aids at home and in its many crown colonies and territories--Australia, India, the Bahamas, Polynesia, China, and many, many more places far from England. Trinity House built the first offshore, wave-swept lighthouses, of which the famous Eddystone Light was the first. A number of nations, including the United States, modeled their lighthouse systems on Trinity House.

Today, Trinity House oversees hundreds of lighthouses, buoys, daymarks, and vessels and continues a long tradition of keeping the coasts and waters safe. Trinity House has a wonderful website and a blog, both rife with pictures and history, plus information about the entity's current efforts. You'll find information on the blog about next year's 500th birthday celebration and a new book about Trinity House due to be released in October 2013. Go here to see the blog: http://trinityhousehistory.wordpress.com/category/trinity-house-on-tower-hill/

Here's a Wikimedia Commons image of the Trinity House HQ in London. Note the whale weathervane on the roof.

For many years, when British lighthouses were still staffed, I corresponded with several lightkeepers. They sent letters, postcards, pictures, Christmas cards, and great stories of their experiences. There's no better pen-pal than a lonely lighthouse keeper! I have lots of mail to prove it. In fact, most of the postcard collection I have from the British Isles came to me via postal mail from a lightkeeper at Inner Dowsing Lighthouse in the North Sea. On his time off ashore, he traveled to lighthouses all around England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland and took pictures and talked with the lightkeepers. He spent more than ten years on this lighthouse. I'd say the work was definitely a calling. A look at his lighthouse home will explain why. One would most certainly need to like lighthouse work to live on Inner Dowsing. No doubt it gets a dowsing in the winter when huge storms brew up on the North Sea.  (Photo from Trinity House)

Today I am finishing up an article for the U.S. Lighthouse Society journal, The Keepers Log, about the lighthouse on tiny Denis Island in the Republic of the Seychelles. It's a much different place than Inner Dowsing and an example of the reach of Trinity House. It was built by Great Britain in 1883, rebuilt, rebuilt again, and the 1910 tower still stands (though not as a functional lighthouse). The island is now private and has a posh resort next to the lighthouse. The image below is from the National Archives of Britain and shows the old wooden tripod lighthouse on the left and the newer steel one (1910) on the right. Denis Island had copra, cinnamon, and vanilla operations for many years, so the lighthouse was critical for delivery of supplies and provisions and pickup of cargo. It's rainy and cold in Puget Sound this morning, so an escape to the idyllic Seychelles is a pleasant diversion, if only in my imagination.

Here is a sampling of British lighthouses pictured on the Trinity House website, from top to bottom:
St. Catherines
Longships at Lands End, being slammed by a large wave
Bishop Rock, with its help pad on top
Europa Point at Gibralter (the gate to the Mediterranean Sea and site of a big shipwreck a few years back)

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