The Historical Context of the Construction of LV50

The second half of the 19th century was a time of major change in the construction of commercial shipping, which saw the move from wooden hulled sailing ships to iron and steel hulled ships powered by steam. What is LV50’s place in this history? Was she a typical vessel that was specially adapted for her role or an example of new innovations in shipbuilding technology?

In order to assess the historical significance of LV50, this study situates her within the wider historical and comparative context of 19th-century shipbuilding and engineering. Following the key parameters set out by the National Historic Ships (NHS) (Understanding Historic Vessels Volume 1, Recording Historic Vessels), this study presents a preliminary analysis of the shape, construction, technological attributes, interior arrangement and fittings of the vessel LV50 to determine how she was designed and constructed to carry out her function.

Background and general description

Trinity House, the General Lighthouse Authority, ordered the lightship in 1878 specifically to serve on Seven Stones Reef off the Isles of Scilly, some of the roughest waters in the UK. Her initial design is credited to Bernard Waymouth, Secretary to Lloyds, the UK’s leading insurer, classifier and registrar of ships and one the architects of the Plimsoll line and of the clipper Thermopylae. Fletcher, Son & Fearnall, of Union Dock, Limehouse, London built her in April 1879 for an initial cost, excluding fittings, of £5,650 (about £690,00 in today’s money).

LV50 has a wooden hull, beams and decking, but is not a totally wooden construction. She has a substantial number of wrought iron elements fixing her together, as well as bronze nailing, bolts and a Muntz metal sheath to protect her below the waterline. The vessel can therefore be classified as to some extent transitional, but mainly wooden.

How typical was LV50?

How did LV50 compare with other ships of her time? The Lloyds Registration of shipping ( is a record of all vessels registered at the time and provides data about a number of key dimensions: length, breadth, height and tonnage (both gross and net). While LV50 is not included in the register as she was not self-propelled, these dimensions serve as a basis for comparison with other ships of a similar age.

For LV50, the key dimensions are:
Length 100 ft
Breadth 21.1 ft
Height 14.5 ft, based on published figures for vessels of this size.

Gross tonnage is based on “the moulded volume of all enclosed spaces of the ship”, while net tonnage is based on “the moulded volume of all cargo spaces of the ship”. These are not confidently known for LV50, although various figures of 200, 205 and 250 have been reported (presumably gross).

Key dimensions for 100 vessels chosen at random (70 wooden construction and 30 iron) from the 1874-5 Lloyds Register were assessed to see if there was a reliable method of predicting tonnage from the other dimensions. Figure 1 shows the excellent relationship between tonnage and length x breadth x height for vessels under 500 tons of this period. It should be remembered that this is a survey of ships that were currently in service, not only new builds.

Figure 1: Tonnage vs external dimensions for LV50 and 100 ships from the 1874-5 Lloyds Register.

The linear regression predicts a tonnage of 199 tons, which is very close to the available figures.

Tonnage LV50 200 (+/- 50) Tons

Figure 2 Tonnage frequency histogram of 100 vessels from the Lloyds Register 1874-5

Having established the dimensions of LV50 with reasonable accuracy, how does the she compare with other vessels from around the same time? The same 100 vessels used to confirm tonnage were assessed to look at the average size of vessels in service at the time. Figure 2 shows that in general wooden vessels were smaller than iron ones and that the most common size was around 200 Tons. It also shows that wooden vessels were more commonly in service (70%) than iron ones (30%) and on average smaller.

As mentioned before, the Lloyds Register is a record of all vessels registered at the time and therefore for any one year it looks backwards, but how far? Figure 3 shows the age of the 100 vessels study and indicates that the most common age is around 10 years. The data also shows that 75% of vessels were 20 years old or less and 90% of vessels were 35 years old or less.

Figure 3 Age Frequency Histogram from 100 vessels in the Lloyds Register for 19874-5

Figure 4 shows the same data split for wooden and iron vessels. In 1875 iron ships were more common over the previous 5 years (registered after 1870), but very rarely more than 15 years (pre-1860) old; both the older vessels were paddle steamers. Therefore, wooden construction was more common for vessels older than 5 years.

These analyses of the data from the Lloyds Register enable us to get a good idea of how representative LV50 was of the vessels around at the time she was launched. Wooden vessels of her tonnage were still generally built of wood, although for larger vessels iron was preferred. However, it must be remembered that this study does not capture any details of the construction, such as the introduction of wrought iron for fixings etc.

The next question to look at is how shipbuilding evolved over time using the Lloyds Register World Fleet Statistical of vessels registered during this period ( Unfortunately these data started in 1879, the year LV50 was launched. It is not practical to try and get earlier figures from the large yearbooks which detail all vessels registered. The statistical review gives a year-by-year picture of newly registered vessels, not necessarily newly built vessels, and gives an evolving picture of shipbuilding. Data for the years 1879 – 93 were studied.

Figure 5 shows the main page of the statistical review for 1879.

Figure 5 Lloyds Statistical Review of newly registered vessels
Figure 6 shows the number of wood, iron and steel ships registered during this period. It is clear that in 1879 iron built ships were dominant, to be replaced by steel in the mid 1980s. Wooden built ships were less common and suffered further when steel construction dominated in the second half of the 1880s.

Figure 6 Number of Wooden, Iron and Steel vessels registered by Lloyds

If this figure is considered alongside Figure 7, which shows the average tonnage for each type of vessel, it can be seen that steel was the material preferred for large ships and then replaced iron progressively for the smaller ones. Also, by the early 1890s iron was preferred to wood for the smaller ships and the number of wooden ships declined sharply between 1885 and 1888.

Figure 7 Average Tonnage of Wooden, Iron and Steel vessels registered by Lloyds


• This is very much an initial study giving no more than an indication of overall trends.
• At the time LV50 was built about 2/3 of ships already in service were wooden built, but only 1/3 of the those being newly registered ships were wooden (Fig 8).

Figure 8 Percentage of wooden vessels newly registered by Lloyds

• Most iron vessels were less than 15 years old.
• Vessels of the size of LV50 (200 tons) were commonly of wood construction at this time.
• In 1879 iron had replaced wood for the construction of larger vessels, but wood still remained popular for smaller ships of around 200 tons.
• Most ships built in 1875 were of iron construction, but by mid 1880s steel had become more common. Wooden shipbuilding declined further when steel vessels became more common.


It appears likely that LV50 was built at a time when wooden construction had given way to iron for larger ships, but still remained common for smaller ones (around 200 tons). The commercial fleet was still dominated by wooden vessels, yet this was on the decline.

Considering Trinity House’s reputation for being at the cutting edge of technology, why were light vessels still being constructed of wood? Were wooden vessels cheaper or were wooden vessels better suited to their role?

The Trinity House ship list for 1927 (Figure 9) indicates that LV50 was their last fully wooden lightship (the entry erroneously lists LV50 as having iron beams). Their subsequent vessels were all composites with wooden hulls and iron beams (also presumably with wooden desks). It is possible that the brittle nature of iron, as opposed to steel, made it unsuitable for lightship construction. These vessels took a considerable battering during their service life and strength was of primary importance. This would explain the switch to iron beams and wooden hulls in 1879 and perhaps why LV50, which was designed for the very severe condition of the Seven Stones station, was all wood.

Figure 9 Extract from Trinity House ship list 1927

How was LV50 designed and constructed to carry out her function and what can be said about her significance for the history of engineering and shipbuilding? The above analyses reveal that her general construction was in no way revolutionary or technologically cutting edge. Comparing LV50 with other contemporary vessels allow us to situate her within the wider context of the history of shifting shipbuilding technology, at a time when wooden vessels were being gradually phased out for commercial shipping. While smaller vessels such as LV50 were still commonly constructed mainly from wood (with some iron fittings) during this period, they were slowly being superseded by iron and eventually steel.

LV50’s wooden construction thus formed part of the broader history of this transition from wood to iron shipbuilding in the 1880s. At the same time, a close examination of LV50 reveals that she was very well adapted to her function as a light vessel in the following ways:

• Massive construction in wood and iron to withstand prolonged exposure (< 7 years) in very hostile conditions
o 3” thick teak hull planking
o Large closely spaced oak ribs for strength
o Double skinned hull (inner hull was not watertight but for strength)
o Iron sub-deck from stem to stern
o Large stem cheeks reinforcing bows
• Wrought iron knees which increased internal space, decrease build cost and construction time
• Extensive use of bronze bolts meaning she could be dismantled and repaired relatively easy and cheaply
• Muntz metal sheathing to decrease degradation of the hull due to marine boring animals etc.

While LV50 is an outstanding example of the small ship building technology of her time, her primary historical interest is in her detailed adaptation to her role with Trinity House. Her massive strength, spacious interior and ease of repair well fitted her to a life dedicated to warning mariners of danger and as a navigation beacon.