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Pharology - History of Lighthouses in the British Isles - The Business of Lighthouses

BR09: The Business of Lighthouses

Of course, until 1660 government was by the monarch not by the Parliamentary system we know today. It was common for certain close members of Court to be in favoured positions and for anyone to obtain a Royal Patent depended on influence, the mood of the monarch and, in some cases, financial rewards in the right pockets.
The first recorded petition for a lighthouse to a private individual was made in 1580 by Gawen Smith. His proposal to Elizabeth I requested a Patent for erection of a light on the treacherous Goodwin Sands. The Queen rejected the petition because she considered the application was solely for financial gain and not for the well-being of the mariner. It would appear from contemporary House of Lords documents that the Master of Trinity House, Henry Church, objected to the Smith proposal because of the applicant's involvement with wrecking [Charters,,121V].

In 1612, Sir Edward Howard exploited his position in the court of James I and sponsored a petition for a lighthouse at Dungeness. A share of the profits from the proposed business venture was offered as an incentive to Sir Edward Howard by Hugh Bullock and his partner. The Elders of Trinity House objected to the petition, but this time James I ignored the opposition and issued a Patent. Trinity House complained to Sir Henry Yelverton, the Attorney General, arguing that the Patent was in breach of their Charter of Elizabeth I [Committee, 1822].

In 1617, Sir Henry Yelverton sent a letter to the Board of Trinity House, acknowledging the Corporation's Charter had given them the right to erect all lights and seamarks, but not the exclusive authority which was vested in the King. He wrote, 'his Majesty is not restrained to provide them, according to his Regal power and Justice for the Safety of his subjects' [Commission,,IV].
When Hugh Bullock received his Dungeness Patent, the area of land around the lighthouse was rent-free for 50 years. He was also given the right to collect a compulsory levy of one penny per ton from English ships for the upkeep of his light. In 1623, James I reduced the levy to a halfpenny per ton after numerous ship owners complained that the light was badly maintained. However during the period that Hugh Bullock exhibited his Dungeness light, the number of ships being wrecked this part of the coast was greatly reduced.

In 1617 Royal privilege and politics came into conflict when Trinity House instructed two Elder Brethren, Captains Norreys and Gere, to erect a lighthouse at Winterton. By that summer, the Winterton tower was completed with authority granted by the Privy Council of James I [Stevenson, 1959], but while Norreys and Gere were building the Winterton lighthouse, Sir William Erskine and Sir John Meldrum were issued with a Patent for the same area of land. This Patent also gave the Patentees the right to erect as many lighthouses that may be required within a 2 mile radius. The final clause in the Winterton Patent showed the importance of royal favouritism, 'For their true, faithful and acceptable service as being the first suitors to him for erecting lighthouses near Winterton and for other good causes and considerations.'
Trinity House was told by the Patentees that it could continue with its light but an agreed lease would be necessary. The Corporation refused to consider the offer and were evicted. To further insult the Elder Brethren, the Patentees were allowed to use the Corporation's newly built lighthouse free of charge until they had completed their own. Although a formal protest was sent to Sir Henry Yelverton by the Elders of Trinity House, only a short reply was received. In this letter the Attorney General stated that the King was guided by the point of his Divine Right and, if he agreed with the Privy Council's arrangement with the Corporation, it would be taking away his powers as monarch.

Under its Royal Charter, Trinity House held exclusive rights to all seamarks and was expected to organise a uniform system of navigational lights, but during the early 17th century this failed to materialise and in many cases the lights were inadequate. Many in the Royal court made clear their jealousy of such large profits for so little in return. James I instigated an investigation into the powers of Trinity House, beginning with the process of favouring private lighthouse ownership, with the view to increasing his own personal fortune. Trinity House objected and reminded the Privy Council of the Corporation's exclusive rights. A compromise was reached whereby James I gave the Corporation the authority to erect lighthouses, but said that it would have to apply to the Crown for a letter-patent each time. This allowed James I the right to issue, at his own discretion, letter-patents in virtue of common law and his Divine Right as King. The agreement seemed to mean that when Trinity House applied for a Patent it would be a mere formality for it to be issued. In fact, this was not the case.

In his diary, Lord Grenville wrote a memorandum which gave a clear view of the procedures to follow when approaching the King, 'To watch the moment when the King is in good temper, to ask of him for a lighthouse' [Z, 1999]. It is difficult to estimate the financial returns made by those the King favoured but many new lavish lifestyles resulted from this new policy. This action by James I clearly went against both the spirit and the letter of the Elizabeth Charter, for now the Sovereign could legally grant leases or sell land to private individuals. Within a few years every rock, island or stretch of coastline was examined by 'Favourites of the Royal Court' for possible lucrative Patents. Trinity House found it impossible to obtain some Patents as it soon became the norm that speed of issue was related to the size of the return to the King.

Trinity House still had the power to oppose any proposed project, and it is true that, in many cases, their objections were upheld. Others were allowed to proceed with a clause allowing Patentees to collect dues from shipping on a voluntary basis only. As the majority of shipowners favoured the proposed uniform system of levies put forward by the Corporation, very few of them paid anything. Shipowners displayed open annoyance at being forced to contribute to the upkeep of lighthouses, most poorly managed, some indistinguishable from other lights along the coast and in many cases not lit at all. Trinity House was quick to respond in backing the shipowners objections, especially as the rates being levied varied from one lighthouse to another. The Corporation lobbied for a uniform rate based on 'tunnage' calculated from the number of 'tuns' (or casks of wine containing approximately 252 gallons) a ship could carry.

From 1668 many lighthouse Patents were issued but the Corporation could have a clause added to the effect that 'on expiry of the term, the lighthouse, buildings and roads had to be vacated without a penny compensation from the Corporation'. Most Patents were for either 90 or 50 years, although some had 60 year provisions.
Amongst those who became private lighthouse owners was Sir John Clayton who obtained a comprehensive Patent for no less than five sites, but because he boasted to the Lords of the Privy Council that 500 shipowners and merchants had promised to support these lights by voluntary contributions, no compulsory order was granted. Because of this only two lighthouses at Corton were lit. The remaining towers at the Farne Islands, Flamborough Head and Foulness were never lit. On Admiralty charts these lighthouses were shown as 'lighthouses that hath no lights'. The annual rent which Sir John Clayton had to pay to the Crown was £20 and for a period of 60 years [Stevenson, 1959].

A strange Patent was issued to the Joseph Angell family in 1675, despite the fact that the land where the lighthouse was to be built belonged to Lord Dunbar. Land originally owed by the Angell family had been washed away by the sea, but in 1609 two Angell brothers obtained new land known as Spurn Point, together with the fishing rights around its coast. In time the land was bequeathed to a Justinian Angell. Following numerous wrecks along this stretch of coastline he applied for a Patent to erect a lighthouse and enlisted the help of his cousin Joseph to obtain signatures from shipowners and merchants for the petition. However, Joseph Angell decided to build a lighthouse and to display a light before the petition was sent to the Lords of the Privy Council. He then bribed members of Trinity House with £80 per year, disguising it as an annual subscription to the Corporation's Charities. Not surprisingly, the Corporation offered no objection. In November 1675, the Privy Council for Charles II issued a Patent for the Spurn Point lighthouse which authorised Justinian Angell to collect by compulsory contribution one quarter penny (farthing) per ton from all passing ships. These levies were to be collected at the vessels' port of destination by the revenue officers. In 1678 the Patent was amended with the levy raised to a halfpenny per ton from English ships and one penny from foreign [Hague, 1975].
Justinian Angell died in 1680 and left the Spurn Point Patent and all its rights to his wife and son John, but by 1690 Lord Dunbar was waging war against the Angell family over the disputed land ownership. One night Dunbar sent his men to wreck the lighthouse and in the process they took the keeper prisoner. The matter went to the court of William III who ordered that the keeper should be released and the land returned to the Angell family. John Angell died in 1750 and his son, also John, assumed the management of the Spurn light. In 1751 the land agents for the Crown, were instructed by the Privy Council of George III to establish, once and for all, the ownership of Spurn Point. Whether John Angell bribed the land surveyors is not known but he managed to establish the land as his own. It is recorded in Trinity House papers that John Angell moved the land markers while the surveyors were at the local inn [Tait, 1902].