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'Introduction', Trinity House of Deptford Transactions, 1609-35: London Record Society 19 (1983), pp. IX-XVIII. URL: Date accessed: 16 April 2014. Add to my bookshelf


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On 20 May 1514, letters patent were granted to the Trinity House of Deptford which conferred upon the corporation two main responsibilities: the superintendence of pilotage in the Thames and the maintenance of an almshouse at Deptford. (fn. 1) By the early seventeenth century, as a result of a statute of 1566 (8 Eliz. c. 13), further letters patent of 1594, (fn. 2) and the growth of usage, the corporation was also concerned with the conservation of the river and the administration of the ballastage supply for shipping there; beaconage, buoyage and lighthouses; licensing of indigent seamen and their wives and widows to beg; authorising watermen for the river; arbitration in maritime disputes; provision of ordnance to merchant ships for self-defence; and advice on merchant shipping, the construction of the king's ships and sea defence. These and other maritime topics constitute the subject matter of the Transactions published in the present volume.


The Charter of Henry VIII was confirmed by his three successors, but in 1604 James I made a new grant which confirmed and extended the rights and powers of Trinity House but was primarily concerned with the government of the corporation. Formal recognition was given by the new charter to the division of the brethren of Trinity House into two classes, the elder and the younger brothers. The elder brethren, thirty-one in number, constituted the governing body of the corporation and within their ranks was an inner group consisting of the master, four wardens and eight assistants. The master and the wardens were elected from the elder brethren by the whole membership, younger as well as elder brethren, for a year in the case of the master, and two years in that of the wardens. Assistants were appointed for life by the master, wardens and assistants who had reserved to themselves a number of important functions, including the selection of elder and younger brothers and the issue of most formal documents. Prior to 1604, the assistants seem to have been chosen annually. (fn. 3) According to a report by Sir Robert Cotton, annexed to the findings of the commission of enquiry into the navy set up in 1608, the change to life appointments resulted in mismanagement: revenues were let out for less than their true value for private benefit; aliens were allowed to practise pilotage in the Thames; the house fell into debt; the recruitment of new members was neglected; and the poor were left without relief. Cotton went on to say that James I had secured the appointment of Hugh Merrit (a principal master of the navy) as master, and that the affairs of the corporation had then quickly improved, for revenues were raised 'from the proportion of £150 to £750' yearly, debts had been reduced, and as many new members, all of them shipmasters and the greater part shipowners, were admitted in his term of office as in the preceding seven years. It all sounds too good to be true. (fn. 4)

Premises and officials

By the early seventeenth century, the effective headquarters of Trinity House had moved from Deptford to Ratcliff, then a mariners' hamlet in the parish of Stepney (3), probably because it was here or nearby that more important members of the corporation lived; it may also have been regarded as more accessible. After the Restoration, however, there was a further move to Water Lane, close to the present site of Trinity House on Tower Hill, because Ratcliff was considered to be too remote. Nevertheless, the brethren returned to Deptford for their annual Trinity Monday meeting. What was believed to be the old hall, which stood close to Deptford church, was not demolished until 1786. (fn. 5) The premises at Ratcliff have not been identified, but the later ballast office which stood on the riverside near Ratcliff Cross may have been the site. (fn. 6)

Richard Nottingham (d. 1626), clerk of Trinity House, was living at Ratcliff in 1610 and 1613 (5, 38), perhaps in or adjacent to the headquarters of the corporation. By the early 1630s, Josias Best, son of one prominent elder brother and son-in-law of another, was clerk and held the office until his resignation in 1641. Best engaged in private trading ventures as a part-time activity, and some of his personal commercial correspondence is entered in a later volume of Trinity House Transactions. The clerk must have had—as was certainly the case in the early sixteenth century—at least one servant or assistant. (fn. 7) There was also an 'officer' (113), lighthouse and buoy keepers (172, 325–6, 332) and collectors of the corporation dues (172, 177, 180).

Encroachment on privileges

Two major privileges of the corporation acquired during the sixteenth century were successfully challenged under the early Stuarts. First, Trinity House lost their monopoly to provide lighthouses. The elder brethren had interpreted the statute of 1566 concerning seamarks as giving them sole power to erect lighthouses. In 1607–9, they had established four lights on the coasts of Norfolk and Suffolk in response to petitions from shipmasters and owners who had offered to pay a toll to meet the cost. Letters were secured from the privy council authorising the levy (256–8). In 1615, however, they allowed a private projector, Sir Edward Howard, to obtain letters patent permitting him to maintain a lighthouse at Dungeness and to exact a levy. Since Howard was cupbearer to the king (388), they may have had no choice, but it was a tacit admission that their monopoly was not exclusive, and it was a precedent for a government always alert for means to reward hangers-on at court. Soon afterwards Sir John Meldrum and Sir William Erskine, both of whom had connections with the court, sought a patent for a lighthouse at Winterton on the dangerous Norfolk coast. The elder brethren, who had previously failed to respond to a petition by 300 shipmasters and owners for a light there, now argued that lights were unnecessary but nevertheless stated their intention to build lighthouses. The outcome was that Trinity House lost their monopoly and did not regain it until the nineteenth century. (fn. 8)

The second disputed privilege was that of ballastage in the Thames. There was an important link between ballastage and the conservation of the river. Silting in the harbour of Sandwich had destroyed the commerce of that port, and the government and the city aldermen feared a similar fate for London if the deterioration in the condition of the Thames was allowed to go unchecked. Such fears had foundation: in 1633, the elder brethren reported that during their lifetimes the depth of water in the Pool of London had been reduced from twelve or thirteen feet to eight or nine feet, and they considered that the river would soon not be navigable within six or eight miles of London (414). The deterioration was partly attributable to natural silting, but a major factor was seen to be the propensity of Londoners to use the river and streams flowing into it as a repository for rubbish. (fn. 9) Apart from measures against such dumping, the remedy was dredging. But that was an expensive operation and one way of cutting costs was to utilise the spoil (i. e. the product of dredging). It could be used for brickmaking, paving, and above all as ballast for ships. The spoil, even when left to dry, was not ideal as ballast; the scourings of a river which was used partially as a sewer were bound to be smelly and unhygienic, as well as damp.

Under the letters patent granted in 1594, Trinity House secured the office of ballastage in the Thames—indeed the elder brethren claimed in 1633 that they had been concerned with the ballast supply for 120 years (425), although there is no evidence to support their assertion. (fn. 10) Their tenure of office in the early seventeenth century proved to be very uneasy. In 1609 the aldermen of London complained to the government of the brethren's failure to use sand and gravel dredged from the river as ballast. It was certainly true that the agents of Trinity House rented land on the outskirts of London where ballast was quarried. (376, 413). Trinity House exercised a monopoly of the sale of ballast on the basis of the grant of 1594, which must have been particularly irritating for the aldermen because the government held them responsible for the deterioration of the Thames. The complaint was repeated in the House of Commons in 1621, and inevitably private projectors came forward. Although not the first in the field, Innocent Laniere and Alphonso Ferabosco, both court musicians, obtained a grant from James I for the cleansing of the Thames, and Trinity House were forced to accept them as tenants for the ballastage office. The relationship proved to be most unhappy (169, 232–3). Eventually the brethren freed themselves of the two partners, but other projectors, such as Edward or Edmund Needham, were almost as tiresome (391, 393, 461). Difficulties were also encountered with interlopers who supplied land ballast as opposed to sand and gravel dredged from the Thames. Perhaps the most troublesome of these was Miles Croxton, who sold ballast from Greenhithe, which he alleged was the best in the kingdom, much superior to the sandy ballast supplied by the main agents of Trinity House. The lawsuits, together with Croxton's allegation that he had been shot with poisoned bullets, are recited in his petition to the House of Commons (331). An altogether more fundamental issue was raised when it was claimed that the ballastage office conferred no right to a monopoly of the supply of ballast; the function of the office was held to be simply one of inspection. That contention was eventually accepted, and the right to supply ballast in the Thames was granted by letters patent to Thomas Smyth and others in June 1636. Trinity House consequently lost revenue. The brethren had to wait until the Restoration to recover their monopoly. (fn. 11)

Other activities

Matters other than silting concerning the Thames occupied the attention of Trinity House. They might be asked for advice about wharves upon the riverside which could be a hazard to navigation (138, 157, 184, 501). They commended a proposal in 1635 for the use of mooring chains instead of anchors, the arms of which might protrude and cause accidents (485). They supported a proposition to build houses for seamen at Blackwall because of the proximity of the East India 'works' and the number of ships lying there—seamen close at hand were needed in case of fire or storm (156). They were unenthusiastic about plans in 1633 to rebuild houses on London Bridge which had been destroyed by fire, for fear that soil from the houses would augment silting in the river (414).

From the time of their incorporation by Henry VIII, the supervision and provision of pilotage in the Thames had been one of the most important responsibilities of the brethren. Their role was supplemented by that of the Fellowship of Lodemanage of the Cinque Ports, operating mainly from Dover under licence from the lord warden of the Cinque Ports. (fn. 12) The Fellowship had the major part in providing a service for ships entering the Thames through the southern channels, and a working relationship was maintained between the two authorities (283, 297–8). There was no comparable organisation to deal with the northern approaches. While pilotage was the original reason for founding Trinity House, the brethren displayed no excessive zeal in carrying out their duties in the early seventeenth century, rather the contrary. Sir Henry Marten, the admiralty court judge, complained in 1621 about their toleration of unlicensed pilots (178), and Sir Robert Cotton had expressed similar views in 1608. (fn. 13) No trace has been found of any of the licences which were supposed to be obtained by pilots before they undertook the conduct of ships, although the explanation may be that there was a separate register, now lost. The corporation also opposed two projectors who wished to make pilotage of alien ships compulsory throughout the realm, so as to prevent strangers from learning the secrets of the channels: these projectors sought the right to appoint pilots for all alien ships, except in the Thames. Trinity House rejoined that a mariner needed pilotage into a harbour only once for him to be able to enter unaided for ever thereafter (446). Yet one of the original reasons for the foundation of Trinity House had been the exclusion of aliens. (fn. 14)

Two further activities of the corporation were the licensing of watermen for the Thames and the beaconage and buoyage of the river. Under the statute of 1566 (8 Eliz. c. 13), Trinity House had power to license watermen for the Thames, (fn. 15) although the Watermen's Company also had authority to do so. The formal right of the brethren to administer buoyage and beaconage in the river rested primarily upon the letters patent of 1594, but there are indications of their earlier involvement. (fn. 16) Problems encountered by the brethren in the installation and financing of a new buoy at the Gunfleet in the mouth of the Thames and their contacts in east coast ports and with the Trinity Houses of Newcastle and Hull (founded in 1536 and 1541 respectively) (fn. 17) are fully documented (332–58).

Trinity House were also concerned with the supply of ordnance to merchant ships for self defence. Ordnance made in England was still highly favoured by foreigners, who went to some lengths to secure possession of English guns for use in their ships. Regulations to control manufacture and exports were made by the privy council in 1574, 1588 and 1601, and revised in 1619. (fn. 18) Under the 1619 regulations, a certificate from Trinity House was required before ordnance could be issued to merchant ships in the Thames (or elsewhere) for self defence (464). Two volumes containing over 350 certificates are contained in state papers, (fn. 19) but there are no copies of certificates in the volumes of Transactions. (fn. 20) Several documents do, however, reflect the concern of the elder brethren that ordnance allegedly destined for English ships was in fact for alien use (e.g. 193–4). The brethren sometimes advised on matters relating to the navy. Most notable are the detailed reports on ships being built for the king at dockyards on the Thames (e.g. 421, 454). Trinity House helped to choose ships and seamen for the king's service: in 1628 they prepared a list of over sixty ships in the Thames suitable for requisitioning, complete with details of tonnage and ordnance (313–14); in 1630 they prepared a report for the lord mayor about ships for convoy duties (379).

The shipment of coal from Newcastle to London, a trade made hazardous by navigational perils and the depredations of privateers, occupied their attention. A table of imports to London shows that the bulk was shipped in the summer when the domestic demand was lowest, but so was the risk of storms and fog (1). Shipowners were unenthusiastic about a proposal that convoy should be provided by the king, preferring to rely upon their own resources (306). In 1620 Trinity House opposed the suggestion that all coal for export overseas should be shipped from the Thames or Plymouth on the grounds that inconvenience to the city and the suburbs of London would be caused thereby, but their reasoning is obscure (161–2). Coal was measured in chaldrons, but there are difficulties over the definition of the term. (fn. 21)

It was common practice at this period for the civil courts to refer cases to experts for an opinion or for arbitration, and frequent use was made of Trinity House for this purpose by chancery, the admiralty court, and in a few instances, king's bench and the court of requests (e.g. 14, 18–19, 409). Parties in a dispute were not always content to accept a reference to, or a decision by, Trinity House (e.g. 52). On the other hand, the elder brethren were sometimes asked to arbitrate by the parties without formal reference from a court of law. Most of these disputes concerned wages, damage to ships, or maritime custom (e.g. 7, 16, 32–3). A quick and easy way of settling wage disputes was desirable: seamen had neither the time nor the resources to pursue their complaints through the courts. In one case, the elder brethren pointed out that seamen who were cheated of their wages were forced to resort to piracy (43). On that occasion, the root of the problem was a disagreement between the merchant and the shipowner over freight. Only after the balance of freight had been paid (which was done apparently at a customary place, the Telling House on the west side of the Royal Exchange) (15) could seamen have their wages.

Another important task of Trinity House was certification of the misfortunes of seamen, and sometimes shipowners, in order to enable them to obtain licences to beg and not fall foul of the vagrancy statutes. But although documents concerned with that matter comprise a quarter of the first volume of Transactions, there are very few in the second. Some of the unfortunates, generally residents of London and its suburbs, suffered such a series of disasters that it is difficult to resist the suspicion that they were either accident-prone or incompetent. Fortunes could change quickly. The John Chaplin of Ipswich who signed a petition to Trinity House on behalf of William Androwes in 1610 was almost certainly identical with a man bearing the same name, also from Ipswich, who said that he was forced to sell his cloak from his back in order to buy victuals in Germany after an unfortunate voyage three years later (12, 36–7). Captain Reynold Whitfield, gentleman, imprisoned for debt in Poultry Counter, secured a certificate from Trinity House some twenty years after the event which perhaps finally overthrew his fortunes—the theft of his ship by one Norice of Wapping (153). William Cradle of Ratcliff dared not show his face in 1613–14 to earn a living, for fear of being arrested by his creditors (39).

Many of the cases of misfortune were attributable to the activities of Turkish pirates operating from the ports of North Africa, whose depredations extended to the west coast of England and to Ireland. Sallee was one important pirate base, and in 1626 Trinity House complained about the ability of pirates coming from there to find winter refuge in Holland and at Flushing (261). The Transactions contain accounts of desperate fights, of the hardships inflicted upon captives, and the tortures used to force prisoners to turn Turk (45, 213, 238, 267). Two letters of captives of the Turks in particular illustrate the hazards of commerce in the Mediterranean and the hardships of prisoners (13, 422). Ships and seamen also suffered from the attacks of other pirates, notably one Captain Easton. Yet the pirates did not always have it their own way. In 1624, the master of the Barbara of London reported that nine Christians had turned the tables on 29 Turks who held them captive in a small vessel, and had brought the ship into Portland (215). On the other hand, there are cases of Englishmen voluntarily serving with the Turks (87, 148). The brethren were closely involved in helping to raise money by levies on shipping to finance the Algiers expedition against the Turkish pirates (e.g. 110–12). Naturally there were difficulties when the brethren found themselves committed to raising double the sum which they said they had expected (e.g. 198).

The Transactions contain a number of items relating to the internal affairs of the corporation and the control exercised over seamen. These include a summary list of the poor maintained by the corporation, analysed by their places of residence in London (127); the action taken against John Goodladd for inciting four or five hundred seamen to riot on Tower Hill over wages (316–17); the imprisonment of a mutineer in the Marshalsea (406); their subscription to the Virginia Company (25–6); the agitation of an elder brother because of accusations that he had gone to sea without taking formal leave of his brethren and that he had disclosed the business of the House to outsiders (149). A document of 1634 claims that all the brethren, younger as well as elder (they numbered respectively 254 and 31 in 1629), (fn. 22) were owners or masters of ships (459), although it is doubtful whether this was really so. (fn. 23)

There are lists of shipowners, shipmasters and seamen (84, 112, 159, 228, 253, 306–7, 334, 475, 484); papers concerning the campaign which Trinity House waged against the export of herrings in alien ships (e.g. 57, 60–1, 510), which superseded the earlier practice of transporting the fish in small vessels to the Thames Estuary, where they were transferred to larger ships for carriage overseas (61); reports on rivers and harbours (e.g. 132, 221, 434); the measurement of the tonnage of ships (e.g. 276); a note of Winterton lighthouse dues which may throw some light on the seasonal pattern of trade of London (465); the appointment of shipping consuls (e.g. 380–2, 401–2); and on saltmaking, cordage and sail cloth manufacture (304–5, 460, 495).

The documents

The documents here calendared are contained in two bound volumes in the archives of Trinity House entitled respectively 'Transactions 1609 to 1625' (1–272) and 'Court minutes 1626 to 1635' (273–523). The second title is misleading because no court minutes are recorded in the volume, and the contents are similar to those in the first volume. Both volumes contain a few documents somewhat earlier or later than suggested by their titles. (fn. 24) Over a quarter of the contents are undated, and a third lack the name of the sender or recipient, sometimes both. But in almost every case, at least the approximate date may be deduced, and in many cases so may the identity of the writer or addressee. Entries vary in length from a couple of lines to several pages. Transcripts or summaries, sometimes incomplete, of about one fifth of the items are printed in Acts of the Privy Council, Calendar of State Papers Domestic, Statutes of the realm, or the 8th Report of the Historical Manuscripts Commission.

Vol. 1 measures 15¼ × 10½ inches and vol. 2, 14¾ × 10½ inches. Vol. 1 is foliated 1–23, 25–34, 36–56, 56,57–98. Vol. 2 has two series of foliation: from the front 1–102, and from the end 77–8, 78,* 79–87. There is a separate unbound schedule of what were evidently regarded as the more important entries in the two volumes.

There are three other pre-1660 volumes among the records of Trinity House: a book of hours, printed by Wynkyn de Worde, into which are entered copies of early grants, by-laws, etc; a cash book, badly faded, for the period 1648–61; and a volume (probably an eighteenth-century copy of the original) entitled simply 'Transactions', which contains the court minutes for 1658–61, other documents dating back to 1615, and private trading papers of Josias Best, clerk of the corporation.

The compilation of the volumes of Transactions was the work of the clerk of the corporation, or his assistant, and they were carefully kept, although there were occasional mistakes of transcription. They are not a complete record of incoming and outgoing correspondence, for while nearly 100 letters to or from Trinity House feature in the Calendar of State Papers Domestic, less than half of these are included in the Transactions.

Editorial method

In order to reduce the Transactions to a manageable length for publication it has been necessary to calendar them. Each item has been assigned a serial number printed in bold type. References in the text to documents entered elsewhere in the Transactions are followed by the appropriate serial number in square brackets; the absence of such a cross reference indicates that the documents are not entered. The numbers are also used for references in the index. Privy council orders already printed in Acts of the Privy Council receive very brief treatment but orders not entered in the registers, now in the Public Record Office (256–8, 313, 365 and perhaps 68) and therefore not appearing in the Acts, are calendared in full. Similarly, items adequately summarised in the Calendar of State Papers Domestic are treated briefly but where names or other details are lacking they have been supplied.

Christian names, place-names (including those which form part of titles), punctuation, the use of capitals and spelling have generally been modernised even where they form part of passages quoted verbatim. The original form of surnames has been retained. A few place-names have not been modernised, either because the seventeenth-century name is more familiar or because no modern equivalent has been found. The year has been taken as beginning on 1 January and not on 25 March. In supplying headings it has not been assumed that a document emanated from Trinity House unless there is positive evidence (e.g. the signatories being described as master, wardens and assistants); the fact that signatories were elder brethren has not, in itself, been regarded as adequate proof. The full title, Trinity House of Deptford, is only used when needed to distinguish it from the Trinity Houses of Hull and Newcastle. An asterisk shows that a term is included in the select glossary.

The index

Place-names have been identified wherever possible. County boundaries prior to the 1974 reorganisation of local government are used for English places. Offices held are given where necessary, and positions such as elder or younger brother of Trinity House are indicated. Two elder brothers, Walter and William Cooke, cannot always be distinguished: Walter first appears in 1621 (172); William, a principal master of the navy, was recommended by Charles I for election as elder brother in 1628 but may have been elected then or later. (fn. 25)


Dr Brian Dietz of the University of Glasgow, Dr A. P. McGowan of the National Maritime Museum, Mr John Bosomworth, my brother Philip Harris and my niece Clare Harris have helped in various ways. The Master, Wardens and Assistants of Trinity House gave me permission to publish the calendar. Successive principals of the Corporate Department of Trinity House, especially Mr V. G. Stamp, and members of the Corporate Department were unfailingly kind, helpful and hospitable on my visits to Trinity House, as have been the officials of the Public Record Office (especially Mr S. R. Bickell), the British Library Reference Division, and the City of London Records Office. Finally I owe a great debt to the late Captain W. R. Chaplin, formerly Warden of Trinity House, who generously gave me the benefit of his own deep knowledge of the history of the corporation, and Dr Alwyn Ruddock, formerly Reader in History at Birkbeck College, University of London, who first directed my research on Trinity House and who pioneered its early history.

The errors (fn. 26) and obscurities which remain constitute the present writer's particular contribution.


1 For a fuller history of Trinity House before the Restoration, see G. G. Harris, The Trinity House of Deptford, 1514–1660 (1969). For the early history, see A. A. Ruddock, 'The Trinity House at Deptford in the sixteenth century', English Historical Review, lxv (1950), 458–76; THD, 19–30.
2 C 66/1410, mm. 11–12.
3 C 66/1651; THD, 28–9.
4 SP 14/41, ff. 70–1. I was unaware of the references to Trinity House when THD was prepared.
5 THD, 46–7.
6 Sir H. Llewellyn Smith, The history of East London (1939), 227. The ballast office was probably close to the ballast wharf, which was near Ratcliff Cross, just SW. of the S. end of Schoolhouse Lane (J. Gascoyne, An actual survey of St Dunstans, Stepney, 1763 (BL, Maps, Crace, xvi 12)).
7 G. W. Hill and W. H. Frere, Memorials of Stepney parish (1890–1), 68; THD, 54–5.
8 THD, 183–213, 263.
9 THD, 128.
10 THD, 130.
11 THD, 132–5, 143–6, 262; C 66/1410, mm. 11–12.
12 THD, 81–2.
13 See above, pp. ix-x.
14 THD, 19.
15 271 may be the beginning of a licence.
16 THD, 261–9.
17 THD, 27.
18 THD, 235.
19 SP 16/16; SP 16/17.
20 But 216 may contain the beginning of one.
21 See J. U. Nef, The rise of the British coal industry (2 vols, 1932), ii. 367–8; 275, 336.
22 THD, 66.
23 THD, 64–6.
24 vol. 1, 1599 × 1603 (253) – 1639 (272); vol. 2, 1605 (437) – 1636 (500).
25 THD, 34.
26 Attention is drawn to four errors in the present writer's earlier work (THD): Humphrey Basse was not an elder brother; Peter Frobisher was the heir to, but not the son of, Sir Martin Frobisher; the grant of a patent for the Lizard lighthouse to Sir John Killigrewe occurred on 29 July, not June, 1619; and the fire at the Palace of Westminster occurred in 1834, not 1837.