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Trinity House

The Corporation of Trinity House and its charitable trusts

The Corporation of Trinity House has been the freeholder of the Newington (Trust) Estate since 1661. There follows a brief history of the Corporation, its acquisition of the Estate, and the charitable trusts under which it holds the Estate. For more information, see the Trinity House website.

The Corporation of Trinity House

There is a tradition which dates the existence of a guild of mariners connected with the Thames as far back as the 13th century but there is no firm evidence to support this. The first reliable record is a royal charter of 1514 under which Henry VIII incorporated ‘the Master, Wardens and Assistants of the guild or fraternity of the most glorious and blessed Trinity and St Clement in the parish Church of Deptford Strond’. Subject to a few small changes, this colourful wording remains the proper legal name of the Corporation and appears on all lease agreements within the Estate.

When the charter was granted, the Trinity guild had a hall and almshouses at Deptford, the latter being a royal dock and the station where outgoing ships were supplied with pilots. The charter granted the Corporation general powers to regulate pilotage. In 1566, Elizabeth I conferred powers to erect seamarks, an early form of navigation aid. In 1604, James I granted exclusive rights to license pilots on the Thames. Later charters granted additional rights such that by the end of the seventeenth century the Corporation dominated British maritime affairs. New powers included the examination of Navy masters, the appointment of British Consuls in foreign ports, the placing of buoys and, at times, the raising of press gangs. Some of these functions have now been abolished or have been passed to other bodies. Today, the Corporation’s main function is to act as the General Lighthouse Authority for England, Wales and the Channel Isles.

In 1660, the Corporation moved from Deptford to Water Lane in the City of London. The Hall in Water Lane subsequently burnt down and was rebuilt twice, in 1666 and 1714. When it proved too cramped for proposed improvements in the 1790s, the Corporation bought land at Tower Hill on which Trinity House was built between 1793 and 1796. The present building retains the 1790s facade but a bomb destroyed most of the rest of the building in 1940 and it was rebuilt in 1952.

The current constitution of the Corporation was granted by a royal charter of James II in 1685. The charter appointed Samuel Pepys, then Secretary of the Admiralty and erstwhile diarist, as Master, together with four Wardens, eight Assistants and eighteen ‘Elder Brethren’. The current Master is Prince Philip, who is supported by a Deputy Master, two Wardens, and 27 Assistants and other Elder Brethren. The latter include the Prince of Wales, the Duke of York, various senior naval officers and other members of the ‘great and the good’. Elder Brethren are elected for life from a pool of around 300 ‘Younger Brethren’, many of whom are officers in the Merchant Navy or Royal Navy. The day-to-day affairs of the Corporation are handled by the Secretary, who is based at Trinity House.

Newington (Trust) Estate

The Corporation acquired what is now the Newington (Trust) Estate/Trinity Village in 1661 from Christopher Merrick, a London merchant who had recently been admitted as a Younger Brother. The price paid was £1,694. At that time, the land was used mainly for grazing cattle, market gardening and occasional horse fairs, the latter giving the names of Horsemonger Lane (now Harper Road) and Horsemonger Gaol, on the site of what is now Newington Gardens. A large inn, the Swan, lay just south of St George the Martyr Church and subsequently gave its name to Swan Street.

 The current Estate comprises the whole of Trinity Church Square and Merrick Square, together with substantial parts of Trinity Street, Cole Street, Swan Street and Falmouth Road. See here for more detail.

The Trinity House Charities

The land acquired from Christopher Merrick in 1661 was conditional upon it being held in trust by Trinity House:

for Relieving comforting Easing & Maintaining of the poor Aged Sick Maimed Weak and decayed Seamen and Mariners of this Kingdom, their Wives children and Widowes where most need was.

Over the years, these aims have been expanded into wider charitable objectives such as the provision of new almshouses and pensions to retired pilots and other needy mariners. More recently, the charitable objectives were extended to include cadet training, research on marine safety and any matters promoting education in navigation, shipping and seamanship. These activities are collectively known as the ‘Trinity Homes and Mariners’ Charity’ and are subject to regulation under the Charities Acts.

The Estate remains the largest single part of the charity’s investment portfolio. Together with income from farms in South Humberside and Essex and other trustee investments, the income from the Estate funds the charity’s various activities.

No charity for tenants

A common misapprehension is that the status of the charity allows the Corporation to adopt a relatively relaxed attitude towards the management of the Estate. Alas, the reverse is the case. Charity law imposes strict responsibilities on the charity trustee, which can go beyond those affecting an ordinary commercial landlord. TNRA is ever-vigilant, however, in arguing that the charity’s objectives can be best served by maintaining a balanced community, comprising residents with a variety of tenures, rather than simply letting each individual property to the highest bidder. In this way, the great sense of community that is felt by all the Estate’s residents is fostered.