Lightvessels in the United Kingdom

Lightvessels in the United Kingdom

The history of Lightvessels in the United Kingdom goes back over 250 years. This page also gives a list of lightvessel stations within the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar.


The world's first lightvessel was the result of a business partnership between Robert Hamblin, an impoverished former barber and ship manager from King's Lynn, and David Avery, a projector and inventor.Naish, J. M. "Seamarks: Their History and Development", Stanford Maritime, 1985, ISBN 9780540073092, p. 107] Securing a patent on the technology they had developed, Avery had a lightvessel placed at the Nore in the Thames mouth in 1731, against the wishes of the lighthouse authority Trinity House, who considered the scheme worthless and the two men to be little more than adventurers. The lightvessel proved to be a great success, and Trinity House moved to acquire the patent themselves, granting Avery lease revenues in exchange. A further lightvessel was placed at the "Dudgeon" station, off the Norfolk coast, in 1736, with others following at "Owers" (1748) and "Newarp" (1790). Many others were commissioned during the nineteenth century, especially off England's east coast and the approaches to the Thames, where there were many treacherous shoals.

Following their acquisition of the patent, all English and Welsh lightvessels were maintained by Trinity House, with the exception of the four vessels in the approaches to the River Mersey, which were maintained by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board until 1973, and those in the River Humber, which were the responsibility of the Humber Conservancy Board. In order to act as effective daymarks Trinity House lightvessels were painted red, with the station name in large white letters on the side of the hull, and a system of balls and cones at the masthead for identification. The first revolving light was fitted to the "Swin Middle" lightvessel in 1837: others used occulting or flashing lights. White lights were preferred for visibility though red and very occasionally green (as with the "Mouse" lightvessel) were also used.Miltoun, F. (ed) " [ Ships and Shipping] ", Moring Ltd, 1903, Ch. 11]

Communications and safety

Communication with lightvessels proved to be a major problem for Trinity House; lightvessel crews were well-placed to observe ships in distress, but could not always alert lifeboats on shore. After a series of shipwrecks, an experiment was conducted whereby a nine-mile undersea cable was run from the "Sunk" lightvessel in the Thames Estuary to the post office at Walton-on-the-Naze. This was intended to commence in 1884, but was plagued by delays; [ BOARD OF TRADE — TELEGRAPHIC COMMUNICATION WITH LIGHT VESSELS] , Hansard 16-05-1884 ] the trial was unsuccessful as the cable repeatedly broke. As a result of a motion brought forward by Sir Edward Birkbeck, a Royal Commission was established to look at the issue of 'electrical communication' and gave its first Report in 1892; [ COAST COMMUNICATIONS] , Hansard 26-04-1892] [ COMMUNICATION WITH LIGHTHOUSES] , Hansard 21-03-1893] the "East Goodwin" lightvessel was used during one of Guglielmo Marconi's early experiments in radio transmission in 1896.Baker, W. J. "History of the Marconi Company", Routledge, 1998, ISBN 9780415146241, pp.39-40] The world's first radio distress signal was transmitted by the "East Goodwin" lightvessel's radio operator on 17 March 1899, after the merchant vessel "Elbe" ran aground on the Goodwins, while on 30 April that year, the "East Goodwin" transmitted a distress signal of its own when the "SS R. F. Matthews" rammed it in a dense fog. Safety was further improved by the development of more powerful lamps and through the replacement by foghorns of the gongs previously used as fog signals.


Until the later 20th century, all Trinity House vessels were permanently manned. An 1861 article in the Cornhill Magazine described lightshipmen as being paid 55 shillings a month (in addition to drawing 1 shilling and sixpence a week "in lieu of 3 gallons of small-beer"): the vessels were supplied, and the crews relieved, once a month. It was also noted that "a general tone of decent, orderly and superior conduct" was observed, that the men were "very respectable [...] swearing and profane language are [...] prohibited" and that every man was supplied with a bible as well as "a library of varied and entertaining literature"." [ Light-Vessels] ", The Cornhill Magazine, III (1861), 39.]

By the start of the 20th century, Trinity House lightvessels had a crew of 11, of whom 7 (a master and 6 ratings) would be on active duty at any one time. It was an extremely demanding and dangerous profession, and it would take 15 to 20 years of service to be promoted to master. [ Trinity House] ,, accessed 02-09-08]


The majority of British lightvessels were decommissioned during the 1970s - 1980s and replaced with light floats or LANBY buoys, which were vastly cheaper to maintain: at the time of Trinity House's original project to develop LANBY buoys, a lightship cost £30,000 annually (at 1974 prices) to maintain, whereas a buoy cost £3,000.Rowlands, D. " [ Points of Reference] , "Design" 310 (1974)]

The remaining UK lightvessels have now been converted to unmanned operation and most now use solar power.

Lightvessel stations

The following are lightvessel "stations"; i.e. a named position at which a lightvessel was placed, rather than the names of vessels themselves. Individual vessels were often transferred between different stations during their existence. Stations themselves were occasionally changed, especially during wartime, when lights were only displayed in response to specific shipping needs.


Active lightvessel stations

The following are active stations at which Trinity House still maintains unmanned lightships, which also act as weather stations.

*Channel Lightvessel
*F3 Lightvessel (middle of English Channel, east of Ramsgate)
*East Goodwin Lightvessel (Goodwin Sands)
*Greenwich Lightvessel
*Sandettie Lightvessel
*Sevenstones Lightvessel
*Sunk Lightvessel (Thames Estuary)
*Varne Lightvessel

Former lightvessel stations

*Bar (Mersey Estuary; maintained by MDHB)
*Barrow Deep (Barrow Deep channel, Thames Estuary)
*Black Deep (Thames Estuary)
*Brake (Brake Sand, near Goodwin Sands)
*Bull (Bull Sands, mouth of River Humber; maintained by Humber Conservancy Board)
*Calshot Spit
*Cockle (North Sea)
*Cork (Cork Bank, off Harwich)
*Corton (North Sea)
*Crosby (Mersey Estuary; maintained by MDHB)
*Inner / Outer Dowsing (North Sea; Inner Dowsing was the last manned lightship station, replaced by the Dowsing lighthouse in 1991) [ Trinity House] ,]
*Dudgeon (North Sea; the Dudgeon lightvessel was bombed by the Luftwaffe on 29 January 1940. Only one crew member, John Sanders, survived. The incident was the subject of a 1940 British Government propaganda film produced by Alberto Cavalcanti) [ Men of the Lightship] , EDINA, University of Edinburgh]
*Edinburgh (Thames Estuary; the name refers to the Edinburgh Channel)
*English and Welsh Grounds (Bristol Channel)
*Formby (Mersey Estuary, maintained by MDHB)
*Galloper (Galloper shoal, North Sea)
*Girdler (Thames Estuary)
*North / South Goodwin (the South Goodwin vessel was driven onto the Goodwin Sands and wrecked during a severe storm on 27th November 1954, the first Trinity House ship to be lost in this manner. Ronald Murton was the only crew member to be rescued, after clinging to the ship's hull for eight hours) [ South Goodwin Light Vessel] ,]
*Gull (marked the Gull Stream on the Goodwin Sands)
*Gunfleet (Gunfleet Sands, Thames Estuary; replaced by Gunfleet lighthouse in 1850)
*Hasborough (North Sea)
*Humber (maintained by Humber Conservancy Board)
*Kentish Knock
*Knoll (Smith's Knoll, North Sea) off Norfolk
*Leman and Ower (North Sea)
*Longsand (Thames Estuary)
*Morecambe Bay
*Mouse (Mouse Sand, Thames Estuary)
*Nab (Straits of Dover; replaced by the Nab Tower in 1920)
*Nore (Thames Estuary; the world's first manned lightship, 1731)
*Newarp (North Sea)
*Northwestern (Mersey Estuary, maintained by MDHB)
*Outer Gabbard (North Sea)
*Owers (Owers Bank, off Portsmouth)
*Royal Sovereign (off Eastbourne; replaced with Royal Sovereign lighthouse 1971)
*Shambles (the Shambles Bank, off Portland Bill)
*Shipwash (North Sea, off Harwich)
*Spurn (Spurn Head; maintained by Humber Conservancy Board. A former Spurn lightvessel is preserved at Hull Marina)
*Swin Middle (Swin Channel, Thames Estuary)
*Tongue (Tongue Sands, Thames Estuary)
*Well (outside The Wash; replaced with buoy 1975)
*Would (North Sea)

cotland, Isle of Man

Lightvessels in Scotland and the Isle of Man were maintained by the Northern Lighthouse Board, with the exception of one maintained by the Clyde Lighthouse Trust. Only the "North Carr" station was manned.

*Bahama Bank (off Maughold Head, Isle of Man; replaced by Maughold Head lighthouse 1914)
*North Carr, Dundee
*Otter Rock (south-west of the Isle of Mull)


Welsh lightships were maintained by Trinity House.

*Breaksea (off Breaksea Spit, Bristol Channel)
*Helwick (off Worms Head)
*Milford Haven Lightvessel
*Scarweather (Cardiff Bay; replaced with buoy 1989)
*St Gowan

Northern Ireland

*Petrel Lightvessel
*South Rock Lightvessel

ee also

*List of lighthouses and lightvessels
*Trinity House


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