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Pharology - History of Lighthouses in the British Isles - Light Dues

BR05: Light Dues

It is natural that people should have spotted a way to make money from lighthouses. The idea soon caught on that if a service could be provided to people engaged in commercial activity, then they would be prepared to pay for that service. Lighthouses were big business and entrepreneurs with both good and bad motives moved in for the kill. Payments, such as the prime gilt being charged in Leith, could be demanded from ship owners and Masters for 'upkeep of the light' from which they drew benefit, but profits could also be made. To make any charges at all, it was necessary to obtain Royal approval. Authority for private individuals to collect a levy from shipping for a lighthouse dates back to the 13th century when Henry III (1216-1272) issued the first Royal Patent in 1261 which allowed the imposition of light duties on shipping to pay for the upkeep of a light. These Patents were the ultimate permission of the monarch and given under the 'Divine Right of Kings'. To fail to acknowledge this authority was considered treasonable. The Patent was given to the Barons of the Cinque Port of Winchelsea who were entitled to collect two pence from every ship that entered their port. This is the origin of the entire principle by which lighthouses have been operated for centuries right up to the present: a system of taxation known as 'light dues' based on the rule that the user pays.