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Page last updated at 13:09 GMT, Friday, 19 February 2010
London's lighthouse and the story of Trinity Quay Wharf

By Gary Holland
BBC London

A trip to London's only lighthouse uncovers an area rich in history and home to creative industries.

London's only lighthouse at Trinity Quay Wharf
London's only lighthouse at Trinity Quay Wharf

Trinity Buoy Wharf, as the name suggests, has close links to the UK's nautical industry.

For nearly 200 years the Corporation of Trinity House was responsible for the repair, installation and maintenance of Britain's lighthouses, lightships and buoys.

The wharf is in an industrial area known as Leamouth close to East India Dock Basin in London's Docklands. This is where the River Lea joins the Thames and was once known as Bow Creek. The land lies directly opposite the O2 arena.

Aerial view of Trinity Buoy Wharf
Aerial view of Trinity Buoy Wharf

The Corporation of Trinity House was an association of shipmen and mariners dating back to the reign of King Henry VIII. They were a granted a royal charter in 1514 and received its coat of arms in 1573 along with the authority to erect and maintain beacons, markers and signs of the sea.

Trinity House set up a workshop by the river in 1803 and it became a place where wooden buoys were made and repaired.

Later, iron buoys were also tested and repaired here, some of which can be seen along the quayside and surrounding streets.

By 1910 the company employed 150 workers from engineers to chain testers.

Michael Faraday

Michael Faraday is best known for discovering electromagnetic induction in 1831, the principle behind the electric transformer and generator.

Faraday's Hut
Faraday's Hut

However he was appointed Scientific Advisor to Trinity House in 1836 and for nearly thirty years he worked closely with lighthouses.

He worked on the optical adjustments of lighthouse lenses, ventilation and improvements.

He invented a new form of chimney for lighthouses which would prevent the products of combustion settling on the glass of the lantern. The result proved so successful that it was installed in all lighthouses run by Trinity House.

This was the only invention of Faraday's ever to be patented.

There is a hut dedicated to the work of Faraday showing a recreation of how he would have worked during the 19th century.

Quayside history

A Roman lighthouse is located on the Cliffs of Dover that was constructed during the first century.
The twin towers of the Lizard Lighthouse, Cornwall mark the most southerly point of mainland Britain.
The world's first stone lighthouse tower at sea was the Smeaton Eddystone lighthouse, built in 1756-9.
Before electricity lighthouses were lit by fire then had to rely on candles then paraffin vapour lamps.
The first lighthouse built by Trinity House was at Lowestoft in 1609.
In 1853 electricity was used for the first time in the Isle of May lighthouse.
Most lighthouses around the world today are automated and many are tourist attractions.

Other notable buildings include the Electrican's Shop (1835), the Experimental Lighthouse (1864) and the Proving House (1870) that tested chains.

Lightships were also made by Trinity House. Lightships were used when it was difficult to build lighthouses or where there was not enough hard land. You can still see two that are now privately owned and moored at the wharf.

The Trinity House workshops continued until they closed in December 1988 when it was purchased by the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC). Urban Space Management have owned the land since the LDDC disbanded in 1998.

The Corporation of Trinity House still exist today and are the General Lighthouse Authority for England, Wales, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar, responsible for a range of general aids to navigation, 'signs of the sea', from lighthouses to radar beacons.

They are also a charitable organisation dedicated to the safety, welfare and training of mariners and provide expert navigators for ships trading in Northern European waters.

The Experimental Lighthouse

The lighthouse was built in 1864
The lighthouse was built in 1864

London's only lighthouse is here at Trinity Quay Wharf.

This iconic building was built in 1864 by James Douglass against the chain and buoy store. It was used as a testing place for the network of lighthouses maintained by Trinity House.

There were in fact two lighthouses here but the smaller one, built in 1954 and used by Faraday, was demolished in the 1920's.

The lantern was installed in 1866 and both lighthouses were in constant use.

During the 1900s it became a training centre for lighthouse keepers and later reverted back to testing lights.

The Grade II listed building and adjacent chain and buoy store had a strengthened roof space to take the weight of Faraday's experimental equipment.

When the LDDC were wound up in 1998 Urban Space Management took over and provides space for artists and cultural events.

The lighthouse today is home to Longplayer - a one thousand year long musical composition. It began playing at midnight on the 31st of December 1999, and will continue to play without repetition until the last moment of 2999. It was developed by 'The Pogues' Jem Finer.

Trinity today

Trinity Quay Wharf is home to Container City - a network of studios using recycled shipping containers. They were built in 2000 and 2002 and provide a unique place to work/live.

Container City
Container City

Containers have also been used to create 'Music Boxes' - sound proofed studios and rehearsal rooms.

Alongside the historic buildings there are workshops, studios, offices, galleries, cafe and a new pier. One of the old lightships has been transformed into photography studio.

The Wharf attracts artists and creative businesses ranging from fine arts to photography including the English National Opera and the London International Festival of Theatre.

Exhibitions, events and art installations take place at the Wharf throughout the year.

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