The Sollys and the ‘Great Ship Swallower’

By Peregrine Solly

This article was published in the December 2020 edition of Soul Search, the Journal of The Sole Society

A record of the Sollys management of the North and South Foreland Lights in the eighteenth century.

Painting by Michael Angelo Rooker of the North Foreland Light in 1780 showing the open platform for the coal fired lights

As a child I was told that a number of my Solly forebears had been relatively important figures in Sandwich in the eighteenth century and that a number of them, as well as becoming Mayor, had also been involved in collecting customs dues. I was fairly unimpressed by this news, as at that age I would much rather that they had been pirates or smugglers, although my father tried to cheer me up by telling me that they were also famous for having the best ‘cellar of port’ in Kent, which sounded impressive to my young ears.
It was only much later that I discovered that among the Solly’s responsibilities in the eighteenth century was the upkeep and management of the North and South Foreland lighthouses that overlooked the area of sea between Chatham and Dover called ‘the Downs’. Since 1719 these lights had belonged to The Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich which also owned other lighthouses along the South Coast. It would be another century before they all came under the jurisdiction of Trinity House, which in the 1700s was primarily involved in protecting, and profiting from, the busy East Coast coal route from Newcastle to London.
There had been beacons to warn ships along the Kent cliffs from the fourteenth century, but these were very haphazard arrangements, and it was only in the early 1600s that proper lighthouses had begun to be built. Both the North and South Foreland lights were designed and built by Sir John Meldrum in 1635. They were positioned to protect shipping from the Goodwin Sands, a major hazard with such a fearful reputation among seamen that it was known as ‘The great ship swallower’. In recognition of the expense needed to build and maintain these new lights, Sir John Meldrum was allowed to raise money from all passing shipping in the form of light-dues, a tax that continues to be collected today. The Foreland lights, placed as they are at the eastern entrance to the Channel, were soon recognised as important collection points for dues and by 1719 they had moved from private ownership to that of the Royal Hospital at Greenwich.
Much of my information comes from a large ledger that was in a trunk full of Solly papers and account books that I inherited from my father about 30 years ago and which I confess that have only recently begun to sort out. The ‘lighthouse book’ is one of the more interesting items in a collection of largely legal and financial papers dating from the 1650s through to the 1880s covering the Solly’s time at Sandwich. The bulk of the papers date from the eighteenth century and belonged to William Henry Solly (1714-70) and Richard Heaton Solly (1746-1824).
The ‘lighthouse book’ covers the management of the North and South Foreland lights from 1760 to 1786. It is primarily an account book, recording all the issues involved in keeping the lights lit (they were coal fired at this time), the taxes raised, and the wages and costs associated with their collection. It is also a fascinating insight into the ships that used the Channel as every vessel is listed by name, master, home port and destination. The majority were ships from Amsterdam bound for the Dutch colonies in Batavia and Surinam, home coalers from Blyth, Sunderland and Newcastle putting in at Deal; but there were also ships sailing to and from the Americas, the Caribbean (Curacao, Guadeloupe and Jamaica), most European ports, the Cape of Good Hope and even China – all at a time when England was embroiled in the Seven Years War and unrest was growing in the Colonies.
The first of family to become Collector of Light Dues was Richard Solly (1703–89), who was appointed in 1760 when he was 54 years old. Seven years later his son Richard Heaton Solly (1746-1824) was appointed the Deputy Collector when he was twenty-one and took over the management of the lights until 1786. The following is an extract from the copy of RH Solly’s deputation on 1st December 1767.
“Know all men by these present that I, Alexander Hood Esq, Treasurer of the Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich by virtue of letters patent under the great seal of England have by these presents to appoint authorise and impower (sic) Mr Richard Heaton Solly of Sandwich to be my Deputy Receiver and Collector (during my pleasure only) for me and in my Name and for the proper use and benefit of the said Hospital to collect and receive every sum and sums of money, tolls and duties whatsoever (according to the rates mentioned in the said Letters Patent) which shall become payable to me for and towards the maintenance of the three Light Houses, with lights therein, at the North and South Forelands in the County of Kent, on account of all such ships, hoys, bauks and other vessels whatsoever, whether British or Foreigners, which shall pass or cross by any of the said Light Houses and which shall come to or be bound out from any place within the Port of Deal or the Roads, Members or Creeks thereunto ….’
Quite how Richard Solly became the Collector of Light Dues is not clear. He was a respected figure in Sandwich and had been mayor of Sandwich in 1749 (and would be Mayor again in 1778). Richard’s uncle, William Henry Solly (1714–70) had been the Collector of Customs at Sandwich (Deal) from 1737 during George II reign and it may have been because of this connection. Certainly, it was a time when the Hanoverian monarchy was heavily in debt and increasingly dependent on the taxes it could raise from shipping and customs duties; ‘poundage’1 was raised on all light dues.
Lighthouses in the 18C were still rudimentary structures and were very inefficient. They had moved from candles to open coal fires at the turn of the century, but they were still notoriously unreliable, particularly in bad weather. The Foreland lights were improved in the 1720s, with addition of a form of open lantern, but the protective glass made the illumination from the lights so feeble, and so many ships were wrecked, that it was quickly removed. The three lights that Richard Solly took over in 1760 were still lit by open coal fires in a brazier. The North Foreland Light was a two-storey octagonal tower first built by Sir John Meldrum in 1636 and rebuilt after a fire in 1691. The smaller two lights at South Foreland were also Meldrum lights built in 1635.
The position of the North and South Forelands lights was important to the maritime community as it covered the area of the Channel known as the Downs – covering the treacherous Goodwin Sands. For the Royal Hospital the North and South Foreland Lights were particularly important as they were the first collection point for ships travelling through the Channel. Each British ship was charged 1d a ton of cargo, 2d for foreigners (today’s rate is not too dissimilar at 37.5p per ton which is paid into the General Lighthouse Fund). Dues were accounted for quarterly and ranged from as little as £7.0.0 to as much as £200.0.0 (£1 being worth roughly £100 in today’s money). The Sollys received the sum of £10 (£1,000) a year in wages for their services, not a great deal for the work they clearly put in.
Much of this work involved managing the six lighthouse keepers (two for each light), paying their wages (£16.0.0 a year with an annual bonus of £2.2.0 for not letting the lights go out), paying for rent of the land, repairs to the buildings and paying for wood and coal to burn. Coal was delivered in ‘chaldrons’2 which equates to a wagon load. With sixty chaldrons being delivered at a time, the life of a lighthouse keeper at this time was clearly not one of lonely contemplation, but more that of a stoker on a steam train.
Interestingly, while the Sollys managed the lights at North and South Foreland, their accounts also record dues collected at Dungeness, Portland, the Caskets, the Lizard, Milford and as far as the Skerries on Anglesey; although quite how these were collected I have yet to work out.

The North Foreland light painted by Heironymous Grimm about 1760

The North Foreland light painted by Heironymous Grimmabout 1760

Indeed, there is much more for me to learn about the Sollys and their relationship with the Royal Hospital at Greenwich. This seems to have been cordial, despite the occasional complaint that the light keepers had been asleep and failed to keep their lights going with ships going aground as a result – most investigations exonerated the light keepers and the Sollys. Much of the correspondence is necessarily fairly humdrum, covering the ordering of coal, getting letters of protection for the staff who went on board ship to collect dues, and sorting out replacement light keepers when someone died or was taken ill. However, it was not all routine as can be seen by this request for a certificate of safe passage from a form of certificate for Boatmen collecting light dues.
These are to certifie to all Officers of His Majesty’s Ships of War that ……. a Man about …… feet …… inches high of ……. Complexion wearing ……. and of about ……years of age is a Boatman belonging to the collection of Light Duties for the Royal Hospital at Greenwich at Deal and on this account is obliged to enquire where ships are bound to. They are therefore to desire His Majesty’s Officers not to molest or detain him.
There is also the odd record of note, such as the instruction from the Admiralty in August 1779 to put out the lights ‘on the appearance of an Enemy’s fleet’ as we see in this letter to Mr Solly at Sandwich from Jn Ibbetson, Admiralty Office 19th August 1779:
Sir. Having heard this moment from the Rt Hon Lords of the Admiralty directing the Directors of Greenwich Hospital to give the necessary orders for the lights at the North Foreland Light House to put out at the appearance of an Enemy’s fleet upon the Coast and to be kept out during its continuance there.
This was part of the defensive preparations for the Great Armada of French and Spanish ships that was expected to sail up the Channel. Fortunately, poor leadership, disease, delay and the wrong winds meant that the Armada did not get beyond Plymouth before giving up and sailing home3.
After all these years after first hearing about the Solly’s involvement with lighthouses, I have been much cheered by my research. Sadly I haven’t learned as much as I would have liked about either Richard Solly or his son, Richard Heaton Solly; but I have been fascinated to learn about the workings of these eighteenth century lights and their importance to the Royal Hospital at Greenwich and to the Crown as a source of revenue. I have even discovered a mention of smugglers, but sadly nothing about a fine cellar of port.


  1. Poundage. This was a contentious royal tax that, along with tonnage, had been levied on all imports since the Middle Ages and was abolished in 1787 just as the Sollys stopped collecting light dues. From these records it was a deduction of 1/5th from every light due collected (about £20.0.0 in every £100.0.0).
    2: Chaldrons of coal: A chaldron (or chalder) was a wagon load – technically the maximum amount that a horse could pull. It was a measure of volume rather than weight and was therefore open to fraud with unscrupulous traders buying large dry coals but selling them out as small wet coals. Coal was also taxed by the chaldron, so over the years chaldrons had grown considerably in size as traders tried to get round the tax. A chaldron also varied whether it was a “Newcastle Chaldron” or a “London Chaldron” – the Newcastle load was about double the London one (2,679kg v 1,420kg). I have assumed that the Sollys used the London measure which was set at the equivalent of 36 heaped bushels.
    3: The Great Armada of 1779. This little-known naval enterprise saw a combined fleet of 66 Spanish and French ships with many lesser ships carrying 40,000 men enter the Channel on the 11th August with the intention of destroying a much smaller English fleet of 40 ships and to land its Army near the Isle of Wight. The appearance of the Armada unsurprisingly caused considerable panic in England, hence the instruction from the Admiralty to the Sollys on the 19th August. On the 3rd September, under cover of fog, the English fleet manged to slip unharmed past the Armada to the safety of the Solent where it began to prepare for battle. This news was sufficient to turn the Armada, which was weakened by disease, hunger and poor leadership, to head for home.
Upper South Foreland Light from about 1900

A print of the Upper South Foreland Light from about 1900. Note the enclosed platform for oil lamps introduced in 1793.

Two Images of the Ledger:

Transcription of above:
Signal by Day
Upon discovering a Fleet in the Offing. 
The Kings Vessel which shall be Stationed between the North Forland & the Falls, is to hoist an Union Jack at their main top masthead & to fire one gun, which signal is to be repeated by the Cutter stationed between her and Margate Roads.”
Should the Fleet in Sight prove to be an enemy; etc [Hoist a red flag and fire 5 guns at half minute intervals]. Upon a false alarm, the Fleet not being an enemy [A white flag and 2 guns]. Signal by night [if a ship falls in with an Enemy Fleet is to what sail she can for the shore; to burn false fires & to fire guns until perceived in Margate Roads.] On a false alarm (by night). [Show 3 lights and fire 3 guns].

This is a record of payments made by Richard Solly for the North and South Foreland Lights including for coal, carpentry and even for his own salary.