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Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 9

The Canadian Lighthouse

by Edward F. Bush

The murmur rose soft as I silently gazed
On the shadowy waves playful motion
From the dim distant land, till the lighthouse fire blazed
Like a star in the midst of the ocean.

Thomas Moore
(composed on leaving Halifax aboard a British frigate, October 1804)


The purpose of this study is to trace the evolution of the Canadian lighthouse from its inception in the 18th century to the present time, and to provide, it is hoped, a sound historical reference work on Canadian lighthouses. In no sense, however, should it be considered an architectural treatment, for which the writer is hardly qualified. Architectural reports on specific lighthouses, where available, have been quoted.

Trinity House

Warnings to mariners in the form of towers or other structures bearing lights have been in use for centuries. The lighthouse system in Canada, however, was based on the British "Trinity House," formed in the early 1500s.

Lights in the form of beacon fires and pole lights were frequently maintained by various monastic orders in England throughout the Middle Ages. With the suppression of the monasteries in the reign of Henry VIII, it became apparent to mariners and ship-owners alike that some authority should be established to carry on the good offices of the monks along Britain's storm-swept coasts. In 1514 the king granted a charter in the name of the Holy Trinity as the Shipmen of Mariners of England. Its present charter, granted by James II in 1685, describes it under the impressively mediaeval title of "The Guild, Fraternity, or Brotherhood of the Most Glorious and Undivided Trinity and of St. Clement in the Parish of Deptford Stronde in the County of Kent." Its first function, however, was merely the direction of the naval dockyard at Deptford: only in 1573 did it undertake the erection of beacons and sea marks.

In 1604 a board of directors composed of two naval officers, eleven officers from the merchant service and several prominent figures from civil life to be known as the Elder Brethren of Trinity House was selected from the members of this association. In 1609, the Elder Brethren assumed complete executive control, with the otherwise designated Younger Brethren holding the franchise or the election of members to the senior body. The Trinity House charter was suspended during the republican interlude, but was renewed at the Restoration. This internationally celebrated authority has functioned continually from that day to this. Its contribution to lighthouse design and technology can scarcely be overestimated.

In later years, the Scottish coast became the charge of the Northern Lighthouse Board, and similarly the Irish coast of the Irish Lighthouse Board, both of which were fully autonomous.1 Our own Quebec Trinity House, established in 1804, owed both its inspiration and its title (though not its authority) to the English parent body.

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