In his seminal 1974 paper, ‘The Lighthouse in Economics’, 1991 Nobel Prize winner Ronald Coase criticised then-commonplace idea from J.S. Mill and Arthur Pigou that lighthouses were an essential public good necessarily provided by the state due to the difficulty of charging passing ships sailing far out at sea. Coase pointed to the ‘private’ entrepreneurs in early modern England who provided lighthouse services for profit. Work of Bertrand and others uncovered historical reports of the poor quality of private lighthouse provision and the extortionate light dues levied by owners and their descendants. Others have shown that early modern private entrepreneurs can be better described as public-private because they received public taxation as a reward for their investment. This created complaints about corruption in the nineteenth century which in part led to their nationalisation with the abolishment of private lighthouse ownership by act of parliament in 1836.
Research presented at the Economic History Society conference supports the revisionist position by showing that lighthouse building exploded and their capabilities improved after nationalisation in 1836. We intend to look into this development further in a journal publication.
Below is a GIS map showing spread of lighthouses including beacons mostly under private ownership 1690-1830. Progress had been made under the private system. The second map shows the developing nationalized system 1850-1910 and the hundreds of lights built by local harbour authorities and Trinity House by 1911 and after the nationalization Act of 1836.