Holmes' Marine Life Protection Association

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The Holmes' Marine Life Protection Association was a United Kingdom company set up in the 19th century to produce marine signal lights and foghorns. It was founded by Nathaniel John Holmes, a telegraph engineer from Middlesex; and it passed to his son Joseph R. Holmes. The company was taken over by Albright and Wilson in 1919.

Holmes' patents[edit]

In 1875 Holmes obtained a British Patent for a marine audible alarm signal (B.P. 2564 of 1875); and in 1877 he bought, for £80 Pound Sterling, a half-share of John Grey's Patent (B.P. 2564 of 1868) for Improvements in fog alarms.

In 1876 he obtained, with J.H. Player as co-applicant, a provisional application for Improvements in self-igniting and inextinguishable signal lights for marine and other purposes; it became British Patent 4215 of 1876.

Further patents were taken out by Holmes in 1885 and 1887; and his company up to 1906.

Marine markers and signals[edit]

In July 1873 he demonstrated his Patent Signal Light to the Liverpool shipping company P and W Maclellan and was awarded a Certificate of Merit. It was based on the use of Calcium phosphide; which they initially made themselves at Feltham, Middlesex, before moving to Barking. Up to the end of World War I the Holmes' Marine Life Protection Association sold lifebuoy lights and distress lights; and sales increased dramatically during the war.

Lifebuoy. Photo: Georges Jansoone

The provision of Lifebuoy lights was mandatory for British seagoing vessels under Board of Trade Regulations. Holmes' lights were sold under various Trade names: The Handyman's Light for lifebuoys; the Manwell-Holmes Marine Light distress light for merchant vessels; and a modified Handyman Light for lifebuoys for the Admiralty. They also produced a distress signal, the Deck Flare. They were all charged with calcium carbide, it produced acetylene gas when water was dripped onto it. They also included a small quantity of calcium phosphide, which in contact with water produced impure phosphine, it spontaneously ignited, thereby igniting the acetylene.

The Handyman lifebuoy light had a buoyancy chamber filled with air to keep it afloat. It was attached to the lifebuoy with a long cord, and to the boat with a shorter cord. When the lifebuoy was thrown overboard, the short cord pulled away two plugs, one to let sea water in and one to let gas out. For the mast-head distress signal light and the Deck Flare the two plugs were removed by hand and the units placed in a bucket of water.

Expansion under Albright and Wilson[edit]

Albright and Wilson bought the company after the end of World War I, they had large stocks of produced and sales had dropped substantially.

See also[edit]


  • Threlfall, Richard E., (1951). The Story of 100 Years of Phosphorus Making: 1851 - 1951. Oldbury: Albright and Wilson Ltd.