A Report of the Society’s Visit to Trinity House - 9 February 2015

A group of our members was lucky enough to visit Trinity House (at Tower Hill), London on 9 February and enjoy a very informative tour by Geoff Boyd. Trinity House is now celebrating its 500th anniversary, having been given a grant of the Royal Charter by Henry VIII in 1514. 

The present building, which is Grade II listed, was designed and constructed in the 1790’s. The interior was destroyed during World War II. It was reconstructed by using a number of photographs of the rooms, taken by Country Life Magazine in 1919, to reconstitute almost exactly the interior in its original form.  In contrast to the Livery Halls more commonly associated with the City of London, Trinity House has the look and feel of an elegant private residence.

The first official record of Trinity House is the Royal Charter by Henry VIII to a fraternity of mariners called the Guild of the Holy Trinity, .. "so that they might regulate the pilotage of ships in the King's streams". At the time of inception, this charitable Guild owned a great hall and almshouses, close to the Naval Dockyard at Deptford on the River Thames.
The house still contains many interesting paintings, sculpture, ship’s models, furniture and artifacts, although many were lost in various fires and during the war. The entrance hall contains several models of ships and lighthouses, including a model of the Prince Royal, with its very unusual figure head of St George and the Dragon. 

Opposite the stairwell, are two ship models, the HMS Victory and HMS Foudroyant. The latter is similar to those made by French prisoners of war and constructed from mutton bones and horse or human hair. At the top of the grand staircase, a very large painting hangs of the elder brethren accepting the plans for the house. This was painted in 1794 by Gainsborough Dupont, nephew of Thomas Gainsborough, to commemorate the approval of the designs of the house. Trinity House is ruled by a court of thirty-one Elder Brethren, presided over by a Master, at present HRH the Princess Royal, who has taken the post previously occupied by her father, Prince Phillip. Previous Masters of Trinity House have included the diarist Samuel Pepys, William Pitt the Younger, and the Duke of Wellington. 

The magnificent court room and ceiling mural was restored in 1953, based on a coloured aquatint of the room in 1808. The previous restoration of the ceiling was done in 1840 by William Holman Hunt. The carpet is the second largest in the British Isles (the largest being at Windsor Castle) and arms of the corporation are woven into the fabric. Weighing 850lb, the carpet had to be lifted through a window by crane for installation in the house. 

Several portraits hang on the walls of the court room, including George III and Queen Charlotte, George V, and King Edward VII, as well as a copy of Holbein’s painting of Henry VIII, and a contemporary portrait of Elizabeth I, possibly painted by John Gower.

In 1566 Queen Elizabeth I’s Seamarks Act enabled Trinity House “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”. In 1604 James I conferred on Trinity House rights concerning compulsory pilotage of shipping and the exclusive right to license pilots in the River Thames.

The library contains lovely enameled windows to the east, and wonderful views of the Tower of London to the south. The enameled panels were taken from the old hall at Deptford in 1788, and transferred to the chapel of the Mile End almshouses. During the Second World War, they were removed for safety and later re-installed in their present position. 

On 29 December 1940 Trinity House was destroyed by air attacks on London; and the interiors were completely gutted and many archives and treasures were lost. The restored house was reopened by HM Queen Elizabeth on 21 October 1953. When one visits today, there is a feeling of stepping back into the interior of the older building. Today the Corporation is comprised of a fraternity of approximately 300 Brethren drawn from the Royal and Merchant Navies and leading figures in the shipping industry. Its Master since 1969 was the Duke of Edinburgh, the longest serving Master in Trinity House history. He was succeeded in 2011 by HRH The Princess Royal. 

Many of the historical records were destroyed when Trinity House suffered fires in 1666, 1714 and bombing in 1940.

The majority of the surviving Trinity House’s historical records are held at the London Metropolitan Archives. LMA holds a large amount of Trinity House records. The Society of Genealogists also holds copies of the Trinity House Calendars (1787-1854) availble in our library and also at findmypast.com (available to SoG members through SoG Data Online). Some (mostly modern) staff records are still available through Trintiy House, you can read more about these by emailing the archivist, or visit the genealogy section of their website. 

Visit the official history blog of Trinity House, Deptford Stond 


-Lori Weinstein


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