Trinity House was responsible for the supervision of lighthouses round the English coast and also distributed charitable funds to disabled seamen and their families.
The Trinity House Papers cover the whole of the United Kingdom and are a very rich source of genealogical information. Covering the period 1787 to 1854, most of the papers are Petitions for aid, submitted by the seaman or, often, his widow. The Petitions contain a wealth of family information about the seaman and his dependents. Other papers include Apprenticeship Indentures of seamen, and a collection of Miscellaneous papers, consisting mainly of marriage and baptismal certificates.
The ancient Corporation of Trinity House was responsible for the supervision of lighthouses and buoys around England. Under the terms of its Charter of Incorporation granted in 1514, it was concerned also with the distribution of charitable funds which had been entrusted to it by many benefactors, for the benefit of poor disabled seamen and their widows and orphans.
Great care was always taken by Trinity House to ensure that it’s charitable funds were carefully disbursed. Every mariner or his dependent applying for help was required to give full particulars of his or her circumstances. These forms of application were known as ‘Petitions’. It is impossible to say when they were first in use but some sort of petition must have existed from the earliest days of the Corporation. Even before the Charter of 1514, it possessed almshouses at Deptford, Kent, for the benefit of distressed mariners and subsequently it acquired further almshouses at Mile End, London.
The records of Trinity House suffered severely by fire in both 1666 and 1714 and what was left was almost totally destroyed by bombing in 1940. The Society of Genealogists have all of the surviving Petitions covering 1787 to 1854.
The great majority of the Trinity House papers are Petitions with relating documents but there are two other separate collections of papers: Apprentice Indentures and Miscellaneous Papers. All three collections are searchable by the individual’s surname and any other surname that appears in the papers.
In nearly every case, the Petitions follow a stereotyped formula as the forms contain a printed set of questions which are to be answered by the applicant. The following example Petition is of Ann Bell in January 1848:
To the Honourable Master, Wardens and Assistants, of the Corporation of Trinity-House of Deptford-Strond. The humble Petition of Ann Bell, aged forty six years, residing at Queen Street, Whitehaven, Widow of John Bell,
That your Petitioner’s Husband went to Sea at the Age of 15 in the Year 1820 and was employed in the Merchant Sea Service for 27 Years, in the following Ships, and others, and in the annexed Stations:
Station on board
From what Place,
to what Place
of 158 tons
up to death
That your Petitioner’s Husband on the 16th day of January, 1848, went on board the last named vessel early in the morning to get her into a proper Berth in the Whitehaven Harbour and the Hatches having been left off he fell into [the] Hold and was killed on the place, and she has 5 Children, viz. 2 Boys under 12 Years of Age, and 3 Girls under 14 Years of Age, viz.
DATE OF CHILDREN’S BIRTH
born 25th February 1835
born 12 November 1837
born 10 May 1840
born 3 August 1842
born 2 July 1846
That your Petitioner has no Annual Income from Real or Personal Property. That your Petitioner’s Means of Support are from her Friends, she being in a delicate state of health which not being sufficient to support herself and Family, she most humbly prays that she or her Children may be admitted to the Pension of this Corporation.
Your Petitioner will ever pray, &c.,
Ann Bell X her mark
Dated 25th January 1848.
On the other side of this Petition are certificates, one signed by the owner of the ship in which John Bell last served, another by a Medical Practitioner saying that Ann Bell is "incapable of gaining her livelihood", and the third by "two respectable Persons" (in this case six Whitehaven ship-owners sign) vouching for the truth of the Petition. Then follow five certificates of baptism of the children signed by the Curate of St James, Whitehaven, a certificate of the marriage of John Bell and Ann (formerly Dobson), at the same church, and five birth certificates of the children, on one of which the informant is "John Bell of Whitehaven, Master of the House of Correction, in attendance and grandfather of the infant". The Petition is endorsed "4s.6d." and dated 14th February, 1848. This means that the Petitioner was granted that amount monthly from the date stated.
Naturally, every Petition varies in the amount of information given and the number of documents enclosed in support of the Petitioner’s claims. As the period covered by petitions includes the whole of the Napoleonic Wars, there is a tremendous amount of valuable genealogical information about many seamen who either fought or were taken prisoner during those times.