The World Lighthouse Hub

Pharology - History Lighthouses in the British Isles - Private Ownership

BR21: The End Of Private Ownership

In England and Wales private ownership of lighthouses was allowed until 1836, by which time the majority of English lighthouses were already under the full jurisdiction of Trinity House. The Corporation again petitioned Parliament for the need to centralise lighthouse management and to make the levies uniform. Records in Trinity House clearly show the confused state of lighthouse levies around the beginning of the l9th century. If a ship passed more than one light on its voyage around the English or Welsh coasts, a levy would be imposed for each light. Not only was this a financial burden but the rates of dues varied from lighthouse to lighthouse. One of the main points of contention was the 20% commission charge that the customs officers levied from the light dues as their collection fee. At times, some customs officials were the highest paid crown officers in the land.

In 1834 a Parliamentary Select Commission was set up to inquire into the management of private lighthouses and the levies that their owners were authorised to collect. The Commission's chairman, Joseph Hume MP, became the main proposer of lighthouse management reform and the abolition of private or leased lights. By 1836, Acts of Parliament made all lighthouses the responsibility of Trinity House [William, ,c.79]. The Corporation was given the power under these Acts to use a compulsory purchase order on all privately owned lights. Only 10 lighthouses were still in private ownership, but the compensation to their owners would cost the Corporation a staggering £1,182,546.

The rate of compensation was calculated from the number of years left on Patents or leases multiplied by the previous year's net profit. Of these ten lighthouses, the Patents for three were considered to have been given 'In Perpetuity'. A further Act of Parliament was therefore necessary to rule that the number of years should be 23.5 years. The method of calculation was not shown.

In the case of Tynemouth, owned by T. Thorpe Fowke, the compensation figure was £12,4678, about £5,305 net profit per year. The Angell trustees at Spurn Point contested the offered compensation, but finally agreed to £309,531, almost £13,172 per year.

One Patent, destined to be of particular note, was issued at the beginning of the 18th century. On the 13th July 1714, William Trench was granted a Letter-Patent to build a lighthouse on the Skerries Rock, off Anglesey, in Wales. This would be the last Patent issued by Queen Anne, also the last reigning monarch to exercise her power of veto, over any legislation in the British Isles.

The Patent also granted William Trench the right to collect from all shipping that passed the rock a compulsory levy for the upkeep of the light of 'one penny per tun'. This authority was originally for 60 years, at an annual rent to the Crown Treasury of five pounds. Advisors to Queen Anne, who verified the viability of William Trench to be the right person to hold the Patent, included Robert, Earl of Oxford, Earl Mortimer, the High Treasurer of Great Britain and Sir William Wyndham, Baronet, Chancellor and Under-Treasurer of the Exchequer.

Skerries was to become the most profitable lighthouse around England and Wales. Its owner, Morgan Jones II, refused to accept any offer until the matter was settled in court. He argued that the Corporation was not allowing for the increase in net profits after 1820. Over the period from 1836 to 1841, Morgan Jones II was offered £260,000, then £350,000 and finally £399,500 by Trinity House, but each time the offer was rejected. Trinity House even asked Jones for his own estimate of the compensation he believed Skerries was worth, but he refused to give any figure until it had been decided by a court. In his greedy manipulation of human justice, he did not bargain for natural justice which caused him to die in March 1841 before the final negotiations were completed. However, by the terms of his will the Skerries Patent became the property of his daughter, her husband, Rev. A. B. Buncan and their partner Thomas P. Clarke. On the 26th July 1841, a jury awarded the Patentees £444,984 in compensation for the Skerries lighthouse [Committee, 1845]. The Skerries lighthouse clearly showed the considerable profits that were to be made from private lighthouse ownership. Even after Trinity House took over the lighthouse and halved its light levy, a huge profit was still being made.