Trinity House London, in 1914

The Skerries in December 1911. Note the Sector Light to the right of the main tower

The Skerries before 1903. Note the absence of the Sector Light, added in that year

Trinity House staff welcome a helicopter delivery to the Skerries in 1960

The 'blondin' aerial cableways in place circa 1966. Photo by Mr Sidney Whitaker

Only the bases of the 'blondin' cableway apparatus now remain

The cobbled lighthouse courtyard seen from the tower in 1996.
The small building with green door is a privy

The small crane serving the northern landing-place on the lighthouse island

The lighthouse terrace on the east side of the complex in 1996

The massive base of the Skerries rotating light in 1996

The complex lens assembly of the Skerries light in 1996

The present building embodies the earlier towers in its structure



Harmsworth’s Encyclopedia [c.1920] describes the famous institution of Trinity House thus

Trinity House Corporation which has supervision over pilotage around the British coasts and over all lighthouses, lightships, and beacons on the coasts of the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands, and at Gibraltar. It also looks after the removal of wrecks that are a danger to navigation. Trinity House is an ancient corporation dating from 1514. It has considerable property, maintains almshouses, and gives pensions to distressed mariners and their widows. The Elder Brethren of Trinity House are chosen from among members of the royal family, statesmen, retired naval officers of high rank, and prominent officers of the mercantile marine. The headquarters are at Trinity House, Tower Hill, London E.C. and there are Trinity Houses at Hull and Newcastle.

It is not quite certain when the famous old Trinity House Corporation was first founded. The Trinity House Regulations of 1894 state that ‘no official in the service of the Corporation shall contribute to the press, or supply to any journalist, or other person for publication material relating to the affairs of the Trinity House, except with the special sanction of the Board’ [1]. For this reason there is a lack of published sources on which to draw for the detail of the activities of the Corporation. This is made worse by the almost complete destruction of Trinity Houses’s records in two great fires, the first in 1714 and the second during the London Blitz on 29th December 1940. What remains is now in the care of the Guildhall Archives in London.

It seems clear that the Corporation must have arisen out of a medieval guild of mariners, concerned with the welfare of its members and their dependents in sickness and old age. There are two graves in Leigh Church, Essex, dedicated to Richard Haddock obit. 1453 and Robert Salmon obit. 1471. Both are described as Trinity Brethren, and Michael Tarrant [2] has speculated that they were members of an early seaman’s welfare society founded by Archbishop Langton, but no documentary evidence is known.

In 1513 Henry VIII was petitioned by the Thames watermen who wished to re-found such a guild anew, to be dedicated to St. Clement and the Holy Trinity; ultimately it was to become known as The Guild, Fraternity or Brotherhood of the Most Glorious and Undivided Trinity and of Saint Clement in the Parish of Deptford Strond, commonly shortened to the Brotherhood of Trinity House. The actual site of the original guild’s hall seems to have been in Deptford, and its Charter was formally granted in 1514. Similar fraternities soon sprang up and were duly chartered, in Dover, Hull and elsewhere.

Control was vested in the Master, the Wardens and their Assistants, originally intended to be thirteen in number and known as the Elder Brethren, who all had to be eminent seafaring men. Two were supposed to be elected from the Royal Navy and eleven from the Merchant Service. Later, additional persons of high rank and eminence were also occasionally created honorary Elder Brethren. The first Master was Sir Thomas Spert, former Captain of the ill-fated Mary Rose. Over the centuries, the Elder Brethren have included Sir William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, Samuel Pepys the Diarist, Prime Minister William Pitt, the Duke of Wellington and within living memory, Sir Winston Churchill. They were supported by a further body of Younger Brethren drawn from all walks of life. From the 18th century onwards, control at local level was delegated to Agents, renamed District Superintendents at the end of the 19th century. [3]

In 1536 Henry granted a Charter to the Trinity Bretheren at Newcastle to

build, make and frame of stone, lime and sand, by the best ways and means which they know or can, two towers, one in [North Shields] at the entrance to the port ... the other upon a hill there fit and convenient for signals ... the towers [to be] embattled and fortified [4].

The Charter placed on the bretheren the duty of maintaining a ‘perpetual light nightly’ in these towers, and in return they might exact a toll of two pence on every British vessel entering port, and four pence on foreigners. These towers seem to be the first Trinity House lighthouses; however, early records are scarce and it appears that the bretheren were rather tardy in construction, so some doubt exists. The earliest definitely attested tower was only built in 1609, at Lowestoft.

Successive Tudor rulers confirmed the Charters granted to Trinity House, as when an Act of Elizabeth dated 1566 stipulated that the Corporation’ duties should include the erecting and setting up of ‘such and so many Beacons, Marks and Signs for the sea’. In 1732 another major step was taken when the first lightship was established, at the Nore.

The jurisdiction of the Corporation was never extended beyond the waters of England and Wales to include Scotland or Ireland. Neither were the bretheren at any time granted any unequivocal monopoly on lighthouse construction. As a result, many private lighthouses were erected during the 17th and 18th centuries, as we have seen occurred at the Skerries.

According to H. R. Davies, the Skerries lighthouse of 1804 still stood virtually unchanged in 1855 when a view of it illustrated the Report of the Anglesey Branch of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution [5]. This may be incorrect, however, as Hague dates the completion of the Trinity House reconstruction and crenellation to circa 1848 [6]. Since then, the upper works have been completely reconstructed and the lower part is now surrounded and concealed by modern buildings. Hague and Christie[7] comment

The later dwellings on the same rocks [as the old cottage] are laid out in a lavish style probably influenced by the fact that nearly half a million pounds had been spent in acquiring the site from its tenacious owner. The buildings have now lost their battlemented parapets but the remainder of the attractive layout of curved protective walls survives, including two delightful cobbled court yard, each furnished with its quaint turret latrine.

The engineer responsible for these mid-Victorian improvements was James Walker, who was born in 1781 and died in 1862. He trained in Glasgow as an engineer and was then articled to his uncle Ralph Walker in London. Here he became involved with a range of dock and harbour building projects, of a type which was then becoming increasingly common. While he was still practising with his partners Messrs. Burges and Cooper he was appointed to be Trinity House’s consulting engineer. He, or sometimes his firm, were to go on to design some twenty-nine lighthouses, the earliest being at West Usk in 1821. In addition to lighthouses proper, whenever space permitted, as at the South Bishop or the Skerries, he produced highly innovative and original complexes of auxiliary buildings with attractive sheltered courtyards.

He gave much attention to plumbing and hygiene and Wolf Rock and the Smalls are the first island lighthouses to be equipped with proper water-closets. Although his first effort at the Bishop Rock was considered rather imperfect, his designs for rock towers later improved greatly. Built in 1859, the Needles lighthouse had perpendicular sides. The exposed Smalls and Wolf Rock buildings, of 1861 and 1870 respectively, are examples of his use of a stepped base. This caused waves to dissipate their force on impact and went some way to preventing high seas from engulfing the lighthouse tower, as tended to occur at the Eddystone and at Bell Rock.

Hague and Christie point out that Walker may also have initiated the Trinity House style of glazing the optics of their larger lighthouses using rhomboidal panes. These were encased within heavy duty inclined uprights and horizontals of somewhat lighter cross-section. Similar mid-19th century lanterns to those of the Skerries survive at the Smalls [8].

Walker died rather suddenly in 1862. Trinity House did not appoint another Consultant Engineer, preferring to establish their own Blackwall workshops under a full-time Engineer-in-Chief, James Nicholas Douglass (b.1826) who became Sir James in 1882 on his completion of the famous fifth and present Eddystone lighthouse. Douglass’s father Nicholas (b.1798) had also been a famous lighthouse engineer, responsible for the strengthening of the Bishop Rock tower.

The Triton was in service with Trinity House from 1901 to 1935 on the Holyhead station. She was 126 feet in length, 22 feet in the beam and drew just under 12 feet, weighed 234 tonnes gross and could cruise at 10.5 knots [9]. This Triton should not be confused with a later Trinity House vessel of the same name, a converted deep-sea trawler used as a lighthouse relief and towing vessel from about 1940 until 1960.

The islands were connected to the mainland by wireless telegraph. The wires were carried on conventional poles via the valley leading to Ynys Fydlyn cove[10]. In addition, in 1900 an inductive telephone speech link was successfully established between the Skerries and a mainland station at Cemlyn, a distance of about 6.5 km[11]. This was based on technology pioneered by William Henry Preece (1834-1913), a native of Caernarfon and the Chief Engineer of the Post Office until 1899.

We are afforded an interesting sidelight on the fauna of the Skerries at the time of the Trinity House takeover, thanks to no less a person than Charles Darwin. His correspondence[12] includes a letter from the Belfast naturalist Robert Patterson dated 18th October 1860, in which Patterson relates that ‘Captain Nesbitt R.N’[13], one of the Elder Brethren of Trinity House had told him how in 1845, when the Skerries passed into their control, there were immense numbers of rabbits inhabiting the islands, naturally exploited by the lighthouse staff for meat. However, a few years later an American vessel was wrecked there and a number of rats swam ashore. These subsequently bred and ‘increased prodigiously in numbers’, all but destroying the rabbit population and becoming dependent largely upon shellfish for food. The lighthouse men were even hard-pressed to rear tame rabbits, because of the predations of the rats[14].

The Anglesey Census returns allow us to identify the Skerries lighthouse staff around the time that Trinity House took over. In 1841 there were the usual two Keepers, young Lewis Hughes said to be aged 20 and the more senior William Owen, aged 45. William’s wife Margaret accompanied him and was aged 50. The three children of the marriage were Thomas (15), Catherine (15) and Owen (6). The other person listed is another Catherine Owen, aged 20. She may have been in service. Such a large number of persons cannot all have resided on the islands simultaneously. No doubt, as Rev. Freeman noted in an earlier generation, the Keepers alternated their spells of duty. But then who kept house for young Lewis ?

The 1851 Census returns for Llanfairynghornwy parish record still list William Owen with wife Margaret (who, we learn, were natives of Bodedern and Llanfaelog respectively) and Lewis Hughes, as being Keepers along with a new young assistant, Thomas Williams (25) of Llanfairynghornwy. There appears to be some uncertainty about ages, for William is now said to be 59, while Lewis Hughes, who was a native of Holyhead, is said to be 34. In the interval he has acquired his wife Catherine Hughes (28), a native of Llanfairynghornwy and their daughters Eliza L. Hughes (4) and Margaret J. Hughes (3) have been born at Llanfechell. Ellen Davies (16) of Llanwenllwyfo is a new young maid-servant. Note that neither of William’s sons Thomas and Owen figures in 1851. There can have been few hereditary rights for families of Keepers under Trinity House!

1 Tarrant Trinity House Gomer Press 1998 p.9
2 Michael Tarrant op. cit. p.9
3 Tarrant loc. cit. p.13
4 John Whormby An account of the Corporation of Trinity House p.16
5 Davies T.A.A.S 1926
6 Douglas B. Hague Lighthouses of Wales RCAHM Wales 1994 p.50
7 Hague and Christie Lighthouses- their Architecture, History and Archaeology Gomer Press 1975 p.108
8 Hague and Christie op cit p.186
9 See Cdr. Richard Woodman Keepers of the Seas 1983 ISBN 0861 380 185
10 F. Glazebrook Anglesey and North Wales Coast Bookland and Co. 1964 p.78
11 H. Williams Marconi and his wireless stations in Wales Gwasg Carreg Gwalch 1999 p.20
12 The Correspondence of Charles Darwin Vol.8 (1860) Cambridge 1993 p.436
13 Actually Capt. Edward Parry Nisbet
14 Nevertheless, there were still a few rabbits to be seen on the islands in 1996 and 2001.

The iron screw-steamer African in-bound for Liverpool in 1856 and awaiting a pilot off the
Skerries. The Trinity House-modified 1804 lighthouse is already in place. By Samuel Walters

The Trinity House crest adorns a curved interior wall which was originally the outer wall
of the 1804 lighthouse tower. Photographed in 1996.

The walled lighthouse-keeper's garden and modern helicopter landing pad in 1996

Detail of the driving mechanism

The remains of the narrow gauge tramway in 1996

Douglas Hague's view of the inner construction and evolution of the Skerries Tower