History on the River Thames

'The Gull', lightvessel 38

There has been much recent interest in the 'Gull' lightship, berthed at Grays. Over a number of years several individuals and groups interested in restoring this vessel have contacted the museum. We have shared information and historic data regarding the possibility of a restoration project and what that might bring, if a positive, focused partnership were to be formed. We are aware of the historic research on the 'Gull' and have first hand knowledge and involvement, as Heritage & Museum Officers, with a number of local historical groups interested in this project. None of the groups or individuals has ownership of the vessel, which is still held, we believe, with the Thurrock Yacht Club.

We have discussed the positive side of retaining this important part of our national and local maritime heritage, while reminding people of the difficulties of ownership, management, funding, restoration, location and future presentation of the 'Gull'. We have facilitated an informal meeting with Officers from Planning and External Funding Unit, to get some idea of what is being envisioned by the Thurrock Heritage Forum. This is one such group who wish to support the possibility of a local restoration project on the 'Gull' lightship, and is being championed by Roy Offord, Allen Jones and John Platt. They were able to demonstrate some of the attributes needed for such a project (enthusiasm, historical knowledge, maritime architect, project management, commercial contacts) but no committed funding source at present!

However, even at this early stage of forming ideas, we can see many problems to overcome, but we feel with the right support, sound project management, positive involvement and the best advice from all the agencies identified, this could be the start of a Thurrock 'community' heritage project. The outcomes of a project based on the 'Gull' could make a difference, both to those directly involved in the project and through the long-term survival and interpretation of the 'Gull', into the new millennium. If kept within the vicinity of the Grays Beach and Wharf regeneration zones, the timing would be fortuitous. This southern end of the Grays Town High Street has become very run down and could do with a real focus. The 'Gull', even as a wreck, offers a 'Beacon' of light and some visual stimulus and impact, which becomes greater within the regenerated landscape and restoration work now underway by Property Services and Cleaning & Greening.

We believe there is a lot of good support and interest from the local community, and beyond that, the Lord Lieutenant of Essex and his local Deputy Lieutenant, Mr Merlyn Jones, on behalf of the steering group trying to raise awareness of the Gull and a possible restoration project, have enquired and received the 'moral' support from H.R.H. Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh, as Master to Trinity House to the project.

She operated as part of the safe navigation service provided under the grant of a Royal Charter by Henry VIII in 1514 to a fraternity of mariners called the Guild of the Holy Trinity, "so that they might regulate the pilotage of ships in the King's streams. In 1604 James I conferred on Trinity House rights concerning compulsory pilotage of shipping and the exclusive right to license pilots in the River Thames.

Lightvessels are lighted floating Aids to Navigation that are moored in deep water or over sands too unsuitable for a lighthouse. They are recognisable with their distinctive shape, red hull and elevated lantern. The first lightvessel station was as the Nore in the Thames Estuary, in 1732, and was simply a couple of ships' lanterns mounted twelve foot apart on a cross beam upon a single mast. The lightvessel was put on station by two private patent applicants, who saw an opportunity to improve navigation at night by setting up variations on lighting arrangements to make stations more readily identifiable.

The lightvessel, despite some unstable legal footing, gradually found favour once the patent was given by the King to Trinity House, and the lease passed to the original applicants. The lightvessel became a success, and similar vessels were eventually established around the coasts. Lightvessels are placed chiefly on the east coast, where shoals extend well out to sea, and also in the Bristol Channel. Moving on from crude elevated ship's lanterns, the navigation light in older vessels consisted of a grouping of oil wick burners focussed in silvered copper reflectors mounted on a frame, and rotated by a weight-driven clock. By rearranging the reflector groupings, angling the reflectors and changing the speed of rotation, different light characters could be achieved, a very important identification measure at night in areas with several lights. Lightvessels are not self-propelled; they are towed to and from station by Trinity House's tenders for overhaul. Each lightvessel normally remains on station continuously during the three year period between routine dry-docking and overhaul. For this reason the vessels are numbered while the stations are named.

The lightvessels were equipped with lanterns to illuminate signals originally powered by candles, later oil and electric lamps gave far stronger beams, which were concentrated by powerful lenses and could be seen over greater distances. They also had another big advantage. Using these types of fuel also meant that the lights could be made to flash or rotate. This allowed individual lighthouses to have distinctive patterns, so mariners could identify them from how often they flashed in a given time. Lighthouses are not much help in fog, so many have audible signals which are switched on when visibility is poor. The experimental lighthouse at Purfleet was operated by Trinity House and was used to try new oils and gases and only illuminated back to London so its light could be observed at some 20 miles away!

Where there needs to be a warning of shallow water but it is difficult to build a lighthouse, a light ship would be anchored. For instance, the notorious Goodwin Sands off Kent lie close to a very busy shipping lane used by traffic up and down the east coast of England. No less than three lightships marked the sands. Today, lighthouses and all lightships around the British Isles are automated, so the days of men working for months in these isolated stations are mostly over. Lights and other navigational aids round the coast are paid for by `dues` - charges collected from every ship that uses a British or Irish port. These are passed to the three authorities that maintain navigational aids: Trinity House (for England, Wales and the Channel Isles), the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses (Scotland and the Isle of Man) and the Commissioners for Irish Lights (for the island of Ireland).

When No.38 first went on station, her permanently manned eleven-strong crew consisted of two Masters (or a Master and a Mate) and nine ratings, including two Able Bodied Seamen, two Fog Signal Drivers and two Lamp Lighters; one Master and six ratings were aboard at one time. There were originally twelve, but the position of carpenter was made redundant towards the end of the nineteenth century. Duty called for seven crew to operate a watch, a master and six ratings. Each Master served four weeks afloat and has four ashore generally free of all duty; the ratings served four weeks afloat with two ashore free of all duty. The crews' single berth cabins were below the weather deck and above the waterline. Her most important feature was her lantern and revolving light, operated by clockwork (one flash, 38 feet above sea level which could be seen from 10 miles away), she was also equipped with a fog gong, when the lantern and lights were not visible. Lightshipmen were 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 being prohibited" and that every man was supplied with a bible as well as "a library of varied and entertaining literature". It was an extremely demanding and dangerous profession, and it would take 15 to 20 years of service to be promoted to master. The minimum requirement for this job was an Able Seaman's certificate, and appealed to a wide range of sea-going men who were unafraid of manual work in isolated waters, with deep rolling motions for two months at a time.

Communication before radio's were fitted was by semaphore to each other, the shore and nearby lifeboats. Life for the men on the lightvessels was subject to very little change over the decades and centuries, although improvements in shipbuilding made gradual improvements in accommodation and manual labour, such as the introduction of engines to power the fog signal (replacing Chinese gongs) in 1862, oil gas as an illuminant (1905), dioptric lenses (1913) and electric lighting (1926). LV N0.38 is believed to have first served on the Lynn Well station, near the Wash from 1860 to 1928 when she was transferred to the Gull Station on the Goodwin Sands. It was here the City of York, during the night of 18th March 1929, at 4am in thick fog, the 7,834 tons Ellerman liner 'City of York' struck her on the port side near the master's cabin and cut her down to below the waterline amidships.

The 'City of York' anchored and sounded an SOS on her siren. The damage to the lightship was so extensive that she sank quickly into 7½ fathoms of water. The crew were rescued with the exception of the master, Captain Williams, who was trapped in his cabin and drowned. . Divers entered the vessel and recovered the master's body, then examined the ship. For a time it was thought that the hulk would be blown up but it was considered worthwhile to attempt to salvage, and this was successfully done with lifting gear in July 1929.

The vessel was beached at Deal for temporary repairs and then towed to Ramsgate to be made seaworthy. After repairs and a refit at Great Yarmouth, No. 38 was returned to the Goodwin Sands in 1930.However as a result of changes in marking the narrowing navigable Gull Stream channel, caused by some alterations in the Sands, she was positioned on the western side, some four miles from Ramsgate and three and a half miles from Deal, closer to Brake Sand, which was shifting in a south west direction. The station name was changed from 'Gull' to 'Brake' and No. 38 was renamed accordingly.

While on the Brake station on the Goodwin Sands, on 2nd November 1935 in thick fog the Norwegian steamer 'Tres' collided and sank the steamer 'Lancresse' of Guernsey. The 'Tres', although with badly damaged bows, hove to by the 'Brake' lightship and transferred the ten surviving members of the eleven man crew of the 'Lancresse' to the lightship. Ramsgate lifeboat was called by radio to take the rescued men ashore. However another collision with LV No.38 on 16th January 1940, the Italian steamer 'Ernani' dragged her anchor and drifted onto the 'Brake' lightship striking it with force on the bow to near the water line and then drifted away. The crew abandoned the lightship and eventually reached the safety of the guardship HMS Holdfast. A light buoy was then used mark the 'Brake' station. The lightship was damaged and the vessel was towed stern first to Harwich to be repaired and then taken to the Mouse station near Maplin Sands in the Thames estuary where No. 38 was renamed 'Mouse'.

While on the Mouse station in the Thames, she suffered air attacks by Dornier and Stuka aircraft when strafed by the Luftwaffe. In 1941 she was replaced with a light buoy and withdrawn and towed to Gorleston, near Great Yarmouth where she was laid up for the remainder of the war.

The Thurrock Yacht Club has been in existence (under different names) since 1892 and at a meeting in 1946 it was agreed a club should be formed at its current base. Three boats agreed to vacate their berths to accommodate No. 38. The club paid £750 for the lightvessel and in 1947 she was towed from Harwich to Grays. With No. 38 converted for club activities the membership rapidly grew, due partly to the unusual clubhouse, with only a few actually interested in sailing. With increasing membership the club was able to appoint a full time steward who lived aboard the light vessel.

Regrettably after 6 short years, membership dwindled and the steward could no longer be afforded. At one point thieves started removing the copper sheathing from No. 38, so the club decided to finish the job as the £240 received for the sale of the copper helped pay off the club's debts. Maintenance of No. 38 has proved an impossible task and with reluctance the building of the existing on shore clubhouse was approved. The aft superstructure is a late addition, which would appear to have come from a large pleasure vessel or paddle steamer. 
She remained as a club house until 1971 when a more permanent club house was built and she became redundant yet again. Since then she has fallen into disrepair and vandalism and arson has speeded up her deterioration. In the late 1970s there was an attempt to refit and float the vessel as a restaurant at Battlesbridge. At this time the forward canopy was added, having been manufactured from the vandalised wooden frames. The project was abandoned.

The stopcocks were removed which left the vessel open to the action of the tides - a normal procedure which avoids excess pressure building up and bursting the timbers. Although the tide can enter and leave freely, over a long period large quantities of mud were deposited inside the hull. No. 38 was reclaimed by Thurrock Yacht Club, and then sold again in 1982. Further attempts to recover the vessel were made in 1983 and 1985 but cash ran out and the attempts were abandoned.

On Sunday 2nd June 2002 vandals set her alight much to the dismay of people who were hoping to get it restored. In May 2009 the mast and lantern were salvaged hopefully to be restored and re-erected back on the Grays waterfront sometime in the future. In November 2012 the restored mast and lantern was re-erected at the Thurrock Yacht Club.


  • Panorama, The Journal of Thurrock Local History Society. No: 31. Prepared by Jonathan Catton, Thurrock Museum. 06/1999.