This week sees the 500th anniversary of the presentation of a royal charter (on 20 May 1514) to ‘the Master Wardens and Assistants of the Guild Fraternity or Brotherhood of the Most Glorious and Undivided Trinity and of Saint Clement in the Parish of Deptford Strond in the County of Kent’, now usually known by its shorter title as Trinity House. This body has long held responsibilities for lighthouses and also for pilotage.
To mark this anniversary, our blog looks at a nineteenth-century MP who had a strong connection to Trinity House, serving as one of the elder brethren who governed its affairs. Aaron Chapman (1771-1850), described as being of ‘pleasing and unassuming manners and exterior, accompanied with sound sense and judgment’, was elected as the first MP for the newly enfranchised borough of Whitby in 1832. He represented this port as a Conservative until 1847, when he retired from Parliament at the age of 75.
Chapman came from a ‘very opulent family which has flourished in the town of Whitby for more than four centuries’. His father John was one of England’s most extensive shipowners, and Chapman took command of one of his ships at an early age, demonstrating ‘great nautical skill and ability’. He retired from seafaring in the 1790s, after which he managed the London side of his family’s maritime business interests. In 1809 he became one of Trinity House’s elder brethren, and was said to have ‘commanded the esteem and gratitude of the mercantile community’ in this role. He helped to establish the General Shipowners’ Society in 1831, and was a director of the London Assurance Company, the London Docks Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company, among others. He was also involved with charitable endeavours for the benefit of seafarers, including the Seamen’s Hospital, the Merchant Seamen’s Orphan Asylum and the Royal National Institution for the Preservation of Lives from Shipwreck (later the RNLI).
Although he lived in London, Chapman’s prominence in the shipping industry made him a strong choice to represent his native borough of Whitby, where he easily defeated a Liberal opponent in 1832 despite a ‘nervous’ and ‘agitated’ performance on the election hustings. He never again faced a contest, being unopposed at the general elections of 1835, 1837 and 1841.
Unsurprisingly Chapman’s main contribution in the House of Commons was on shipping questions. It was said that his ‘good sense and close acquaintance with maritime subjects made even party men defer to his opinions’. He served with ‘unwearied diligence’ on innumerable select committees, on matters ranging from pilotage in the Cinque ports to the establishment of a pension fund for merchant seamen. Alongside this, he was a robust opponent of free trade, wishing to retain protective duties (such as the corn laws and the timber duties) for the benefit of both the agricultural and the shipping interests.
Chapman’s connection with Trinity House led him to take a particular interest in the issue of maritime safety. He sat on and gave evidence to the 1834 select committee on lighthouses, and supported the efforts of the Radical MP Joseph Hume to implement the committee’s recommendations by consolidating all lighthouses under Trinity House’s management, although he was less keen on Hume’s efforts to curb the pensions paid out by Trinity House. He later sat on the committee which assessed the effects of this legislation. He also served on the royal commission on the laws of pilotage, one of whose key recommendations was the extension of Trinity House’s powers and jurisdiction in this area. He supported the principle of a toll on the coal trade to fund improvements to harbours of refuge, and served on committees on the causes of shipwrecks in 1836, 1839 and 1843. In 1845, while serving on the royal commission on tidal harbours, he inspected several harbours in the north-east. In a speech to the Shipowners’ Society in 1846, he described himself as ‘an Englishman and an old sailor’, and he proved a committed advocate of seafarers’ interests throughout his fifteen years in the Commons.