E17: The Imperial Lighthouse Service

The General Lighthouse Authority in England, Wales and the Channel Islands is the Corporation of Trinity House, which is the oldest Institution of its kind in the world, founded in 1514. Over the course of more than 300 years, it gradually assumed responsibility for all of the lighthouses those countries. In a parallel, but later period, two sister organisations, the Northern Lighthouse Board and the Commissioners of Irish Lights, assumed responsibility for Scotland and the Isle of Man, and Ireland, respectively. The detailed history and development of these organisations is described in another paper.

Rather oddly, although Trinity House had been in existence throughout the growth of the British Empire, it assumed direct responsibility only for the lighthouses in Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands, whilst providing keepers to several others such as Sombrero Island in the West Indies. (The details of these activities remain obscure at the present time.) The lighthouses of empire were dealt with by an entirely separate organisation, the Imperial Lighthouse Service, which was financed by the Board of Trade. Again, little is presently known about the history of this part of the British Empire and it is the aim of this paper to begin the process of uncovering it.

The Imperial Lighthouse Service covered lighthouses in all parts of the British Empire, but the area that receives most attention at present is the Bahamas, largely due to the profile gained for it by Richard Langton-Jones who was head of the Service there in the 1950s and who published an informative book about his time there. Other parts of the Service have received less attention, India Ceylon and Burma being good examples. We know that ‘European’ men were employed as keepers on Alguada Reef and on Minicoy (built, 1885). Thus we would speculate at this point that this was the norm throughout the Imperial lighthouses. However, Japan and China were never part of the Empire and so the lighthouse work carried on in these countries was, in the first instance, by British engineers and technicians under contract to the respective governments. In China it was the Imperial (i.e. Chinese) Customs Service, based in Shanghai, with David Henderson as Chief Engineer (see below). In Japan, a Scottish engineer, Richard Brunton, headed the Service, and further details are to be found in the sections on lighthouses in Japan.

As the British consolidated their presence in any given country, so a wide range of buildings and infrastructure were built. In many ways, the development paralleled what the Romans had done some two thousand years earlier. Lighthouses were not high on the list of priority items for construction. The British installed Governors at sites where significant amounts of buildings had been constructed. On completion of the inevitable fortifications necessary to defend themselves, they built roads, canals, and bridges. They also constructed jetties and docks in the designated port areas where both naval and commercial ships could safely handle the many and varied cargoes that maintained the colony in contact with the motherland. They could re-supply the garrisons and the growing communities of expatriate citizens living abroad to support the imperial structures of government. Finally, when it was considered that the colonial presence had reached a certain level of development and security, they built lighthouses.

The British Army, in particular, the Royal Engineers, initially carried much of this construction work out, so we find most of the early lighthouses to have been built in this manner. References appear in relation to Burma, where we see the Great Savage lighthouse built by Lieutenant Siddons Royal Engineers in 1844, and a programme of structures supervised by Captain (later Colonel) Fraser.

In the nineteenth century, the sphere of influence of Great Britain around the world was at its most extensive. Besides those countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, India and Ceylon, which were occasionally or continuously under direct rule, there were others that were, if not ruled directly, significantly influenced by the British and who accepted assistance from Britain in developing their economies and infrastructures.

Trinity House had no formal remit in the Far East, yet, once the rule of the British had become well established, they took on an increasingly important role. They became responsible for the supply of keepers to some lighthouses in Ceylon. James Douglass was contracted to build lighthouses on the Great and Little Basses whilst Trinity House employed him as Engineer-in-Chief. David Marr Henderson was formally employed in China but the Stevensons exported a great deal of lighthouse technology, through their own offices, rather than under the auspices of the NLB who had no jurisdiction there. All this seems to have begun from around 1860.

In recent times, although the independent countries managed and manned their own lighthouses, they relied heavily on British support and maintenance. Sutton-Jones describes such activities in his book and companies have continued to provide engineers and equipment right up to the present day.