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Coastguard History

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The following article was originally one of a set of memoranda available only on paper in The National Archives' reading rooms.
It was designed to act as a signpost to records of interest on a particular historical subject. It may have been compiled many years ago and could be out of date. Please feel free edit this page improve the information

This memorandum was originally written in September 1992


[edit] The Origins of HM Coastguard

HM Coastguard owes its origins to the efforts made to combat smuggling throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. The Board of Customs and the Board of Excise were responsible for the prevention of the evasion of duty by smuggling and by the end of the 17th century they had a small fleet of boats and a few men on the coast.

The service was expanded throughout the 18th century with the use of the naval vessels, revenue cruisers, dragoons and a shore based mounted force called Riding Officers. Despite these efforts, it was estimated that towards the end of the 18th century, about two thirds of the brandy drunk in this country had been smuggled in.

The aid given to Napoleon by the smugglers spurred the government to strengthen the preventive forces and a Preventative Water Guard was established in 1809. The coast was divided into three divisions, Carlisle to Landsend, Landsend to North Foreland and North Foreland to Berwick. Naval Officers with the title of Inspecting Captains were appointed to each division with this title and given command of a small fleet of cruisers and boats.

The end of the Napoleonic War saw the discharge of 300,000 soldiers and sailors who provided a fertile recruiting ground for the smugglers. Further measures were therefore necessary and the preventative forces were strengthened and reorganised. The Preventative Water Guard was made responsible to the Treasury, preventative cruisers came under the Admiralty, and Riding Officers under Customs.

The Preventative Water Guard operated in coastal waters to tackle smugglers who evaded revenue cruisers. If the weather was rough, they operated from the shore. All recruitment was from demobilised Royal Navy sailors.

The Water Guard was divided into 31 districts, each under an Inspector Commander and 151 stations were established round the coast. Inspecting Commanders were required to make frequent checks on the stations and combined operations with the revenue cruisers and the Riding Officers were conducted in order to test the efficiency of the system.

Although the primary objective of the Water Guard was to prevent smuggling, it was also made responsible for giving every assistance when a ship was wrecked. Each Water Guard station was issued with Manby's Mortar which was invented by Captain G B Manby, a boyhood friend of Nelson. The mortar fired a shot with a line attached from the shore on to the wrecked ship. It was a device which was to save many lives and was used by the Water Guard and later by the Coastguard for many years to come.

The Preventative Water Guard can therefore be regarded as the immediate ancestor of HM Coastguard.

Towards the end of the Napoleonic War, a naval commander introduced a scheme whereby Royal Navy shore patrols would catch the smugglers as they came ashore. The Coast Blockade, as it was known, operated along the coast of the Isle of Sheppey to Seaford in Sussex. The Blockade's methods were harsh and uncompromising but they proved to be the most effective force yet applied. The Blockade functioned until 1831 when it was absorbed into the Coast Guard.

[edit] The Formation Of the Coast Guard

By 1820 it was clear that the forces deployed on preventative work required rationalisation as there was evidence of duplication of effort. The force now comprised Riding Officers, the Preventative Water Guard, HM ships at sea, revenue cruisers, Admiralty cruisers, and the Coast Blockade.

A committee of enquiry in 1821 recommended that responsibility for the Preventative Water Guard be transferred to the Board of Customs. The Treasury agreed to the proposals and in a Treasury Minute dated 15 January 1822, it directed that the preventative services consisting of the Preventative Water Guard, cruisers, and Riding Officers should be placed under the authority of the Board of Customs and should in future be termed the Coast Guard.

The first Coast Guard instructions were published in 1829 and dealt with discipline and directions for carying out preventative duties. They also stipulated that when a wreck took place, the Coast Guard was responsible for taking all possible action to save lives, to take charge of the vessel and to protect property.

[edit] The Coast Guard in the 19th Century

As a result of a further review of the service in 1831, it was decided that the Coast Guard should become a reserve force for the Royal Navy. This new role was emphasized in 1845 when a regulation was made under which new recruits were made to sign a written agreement to serve aboard ships of the Royal Navy if required to do so.

It was now becoming clear that the new organisation had been successful in its task of combating smuggling, and a report to the Treasury in 1839 stated that 'smuggling is in a declining state'.

The effectiveness of the Coast Guard as a naval reserve was put to the test during the Crimean War in 1854. In all, 3,000 Coast Guards served during that war, their places on the coast being taken by retired Pensioners.

At the end of that war in 1856, the Admiralty was criticised for it lack of preparedness in going to sea with crews who were not fully trained. The Admiralty's response to this was a proposal that the Coast Guard Service should be transferred completely to the Admiralty and trained as a reserve for the fleet. Accordingly, despite protests from the Board of Customs, the Coast Guard Service Act was passed in July 1856 to "provide for the better defense of the coast of the Realm, and the more ready manning of the Navy". The Coast Guard was placed under Admiralty control on 1 October 1856. While the act laid down that the protection of the revenue remained the responsibilty of the Coast Guard, counter smuggling activities became only a minor part of the Coast Guard duties as a result of the transfer to the Admiralty. Although the act made no mention of life saving, duties laid down included assistance to vessels in danger, taking charge of wrecks, the operation of life saving apparatus, and an active participation in the lifeboats which had been stationed around the coasts.

[edit] The Development of Organised Life Saving

Britain's colonial expansion in the 18th century brought about considerable growth in mercantile trade and there was a consequent increase in the numbers of shipwrecks. Towards the end of the century a number of communities set up local volunteer groups to rescue shipwrecked mariners and several places around the coast had volunteer rescue boats.

The first lifeboat specially designed for life saving was established at Bamburgh in Northumberland in 1785. In 1802, Lloyds of London made funds available to set up rescue stations around the coast and by 1825 there were 26 lifeboat stations. There was clearly a need for some central organisation and the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck was founded in 1824. This became the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in 1854 and at the same time lifeboats run by another voluntary organisation, the Shipwrecked Fishermen and Mariners Royal Benevolent Society were taken over by the Institution.

Life saving was always a part of the Coast Guards duties, but it is interesting to note that none of the legislation affecting the early development of the Coast Guard gave it any statutory responsibility to provide assistance. It was not until the passing of the Merchant Shipping Act of 1854 that the government took the first formal steps to assume direct responsibilities for life saving at sea. Statistics published by the Board of Trade in the 1850's clearly demonstrated the need for action. 692 vessels were wrecked in 1850, 701 in 1851, and 1115 in 1852 with the loss of 900 lives. The disasters continued throughout the decade, culminating in a terrible gale in October 1859 when 248 ships were wrecked with the loss of 686 lives. These tragedies served to focus public attention on rescue work at sea and the decade saw a number of developments in life saving policy.

As a consequence of the Merchant Shipping Act 1854 the Board of Trade provided life saving apparatus to the Coast Guard and issued regulations to Inspecting Officers making them responsible for the efficiency of the apparatus. The regulations also gave "Directions for Restoring the Apparently Drowned".

As there were times when the Coast Guard could not muster enough men to use the life saving equiptment properly, the Board of Trade sought to encourage the formation of volunteer companies who could be trained regularly by the Coast Guard. The first of the volunteer Life Saving Brigades was set up in Tynemouth in December 1864. The rules of the Brigade provided that the volunteers would work under the direction of the Chief Officer of the Coast Guard and would be regularly trained and inspected. By the end of the century there were more than 400 life saving brigades or companies around the coast.

Aother consequence of the Merchant Shipping Act was that the Board of Trade became directly involved in the running of the RNLI. In 1854 the Institute's finances at that time were in a parlous state and it became dependent for a number of years on an annual subsidy from the Board of Trade's Mercantile Marine Fund. Among the conditions laid down by the Board was that a Senior Coastguard should be a member of the local comittee and that he should countersign any application for payment. The Board also enjoined the Institute to continue its efforts to raise funds voluntarily. Fund-raising became an important part of the Institute's activities with the result that by 1869 the RNLI no longer needed the Board's subsidy and it has remained independent of Government help ever since. However, Coast Guards continued to be members of local committees, but on a spirit of co-operation rather than as a consequence of Government edict. Coast Guards were frequently members of lifeboat crews on a voluntarily basis.

The success of the measures taken in the second half of the 19th century can be gauged from statistics published by the Board of Trade. In the 53 years from 1856 to 1909, 173, 528 lives were saved from shipwreck, of which 19,706 were saved by "luggers Coast Guard boats and small craft", and 17,446 by "rocket apparatus and assistance with ropes from the shore".

[edit] The Need for Rationalisation of the Status of the Coastguard Service

It must be remembered that despite the substantial involvement in life saving duties on behalf of the Board of Trade, the Coastguard was still under the control of the Admiralty for whom its primary role was that of a naval reserve. The coastguard also still had revenue protection responsibilities for the Board of Customs and Excise and undertook a variety of duties on behalf of other Departments. Having to serve so many masters was causing problems for the Coast Guards, and the Admiralty was unhappy with the situation as the total cost was charged to the Naval Vote. The Admiralty was therefore anxious to divest itself of these non Naval activities but there was a public outcry against any suggestion that Coast Guard as a life saving force should be disbanded. Responding to pressure, the Admiralty agreed to reconsider its proposals.

Before the matter could be resolved however, the First World War intervened.

[edit] The First World War

Most of the Coast Guard were mobilised into the Royal Navy and they suffered very heavy losses. Three old cruisers called Aboukir, Cressy and Hogue were torpedoed by German U-boats in September 1914 while they were patrolling the southern approaches to the North Sea. Because the weather was so bad, it was thought that the submarines could not operate so the destroyer escort was withdrawn. Of the 2,200 men aboard these ships, more than 1,400 were drowned and most of these were Coast Guards. Other reserve ships, partly manned by Coast Guards which were lost, were the cruisers Hawke, torpedoed off Scapa Flow with a loss of 600 men, and Formidable, torpedoed of Start Point with a loss of 547 men. A temporary mortuary was set up at what is now the Coastguard Training School and according to one report, it was so full of bodies that fishermen were told to leave in the sea any other bodies trawled up. The Good Hope and Monmouth also partly manned by Coastguards were sunk in an engagement with the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau at the Battle of Coronel off the Coaast of South America. The entire companies of these ships were lost.

All these old reserve ships were obsolescent and were no match for up-to-date German battle cruisers and U-boats.

The coast was guarded by the army but the wireless signal stations continued to be manned by the Royal Navy. It was clear however, that the mobilisation of the Coastguard had left serious gaps in the coastal defences and it was decided that the Coastguard be disembarked and returned to the Coastguard stations. Their new war time duties included looking out for enemy spies and saboteurs and giving early warning of attacks by warships on coastal towns. Coastguards also became experts in the disposal of mines washed up on the shore. The effective use of communications was now becoming an essential part of warfare and the high standard of signalling achieved in the Coastguard demonstrated their ability as communicators. Coastguard stations were equipt at an early date with the newly developed telephone and wireless telegraphy.

[edit] Establishment of HM Coastguard as a Full Time Life-Saving Force

It was not until 1922 that the interrupted plans for the organisation of the Coastguard were revived. A committee was set up in 1922 with the following terms of reference. "To enquire and report what establishment is necessary for carrying out the civil duties and revenue protection, life saving, coast watching, etc., what arrangements should be made for a division of responsibility and cost between the departments concerned and what economies consistent with the maintenance of the necessary national services can be effected.

The committee recommended that in times of peace the Coastguard, as such, should be suspended and that in its place there should be:-

  • A Naval Signalling Force for manning such stations as were considered necessary to conform with Naval requirements
  • A Coast Watching Force administered by the Board of Trade to perform duties in connection with the saving of life, the salvage of wreck, the administration of foreshores and certain other miscellaneous duties.
  • A Coast Prevention Force, administered by the Board of Customs and Excise for revenue protection purposes.

They further recommend that on the outbreak of war, the Admiralty could order that the management and control of HM Coastguard should be transferred to the Admiralty.

The recommendations of the Committee were adopted by the Government and the Board of Trade assumed responsibility for the Coastguard on 1 April 1923, retaining by Royal sanction the title of HM Coastguard. The Coastguard Act 1925 gave statutory effect to the change and the Coastguard Act 1856 was repealed. The Act also transferred from the Admiralty to the Office of Works (later the Department of the Environment) the powers contained in the 1856 for the compulsary acquisition of land for Coastguard purposes.

The Board of Trade then began the task of establishing a full time professional service able to provide a comprehensive and co-ordinated search and rescue organisation around the coast of the UK.

Recruiting policy was changed. Admiralty recruitment had been largely from the Royal Marines and Stoker ratings but it was now regarderd as essential that the general level of qualifications should be raised by recruiting among seamen and signalmen. Recruitment was also made open to officers and men of the Mercantile Marine.

A large programme of repairs to station buildings was put in hand and the communications systems were modernised and improved. HM Coastguard would co-ordinate all life saving activities. Liaison arrangements with Post Office Coast Wireless Stations were established, and closer co-operation with RNLI was encouraged. The Air Ministry agreed that the HM Coastguard could call on RAF aircraft to assist them. Rocket Life saving Apparatus companies would be trained and inspected by the Coastguard and transport would be provided to move the aparatus to any point on the coast where it might be required.

To operate this more professional system, the Coastguard had to acquire greater skills. He was required to have proficiency in semaphore and morse. He had to be able to recognise distress and other signals, to identify the various types of vessels and the lights they carried. He had to demonstrate his knowledge of ropes and knots, first aid, rocket life saving apparatus and cliff rescue techniques. He was required to have a thorough knowledge of his area, to know the local lights and buoys, the coastline and tidal conditions.

The Board of Trade also had to lay down a policy to determine the extent of the coastal surveillance that was needed, and set up an organisation able to provide the coverage. The coast was divided into 12 divisions, each under an Inspector, and these were subdivided into a total of 51 districts each under a District Officer. The principle governing the disposition of stations was that HM Coastguard should provide:-

  • Well-manned stations at the main danger points of the coast.
  • Stations with smaller staffs at less dangerous places.
  • Auxiliary stations (generally based on somewhat widely spaced Coastguard stations occupying commanding positions in relation to shipping traffic) at less important parts of the coast.

The stations under the first two bullet points were manned by regularly employed personnel and those under the third by auxiliary personnel.

The number of staff allocated to stations and the type of watch kept ie. day watch, constant watch, bad weather watch, were determined by local conditions. Day watch was maintained on headlands flanking main shipping lanes and copnstant watch was kept at stations overlooking the more dangerous areas such as Goodwin Sands.

The difficulties of establishing an adequate coastal surveillance network which remained in the bounds of practicability were highlighted in 1930 by a highly publicised incident involving the sinking of a yacht off Cornwall with the loss of five lives, three of whom were Royal Navy Officers and one an MP. At the court of inquiry, the Coastguard was criticised for not keeping a watch on a particular headland. A committee was then set up to undertake an exhaustive investigation into the workings of the Coastguard Service. The Committee's findinge were in effect an expression of confidence in the efficiency of the Service and their report included the following statements:-

"Although a mishap may occur on any part of the coast, the provision of a continuous chain of Coastguard Stations to cover the whole coast irrespective of the volume of shipping traffic could not, in our view, be justified".
"Conditions under which shipping operates change from year to year and we are of the opinion that with the further development of wireless telegraphy and telephony the need for visual watching should gradually be reduced".

The committee recommended a reduction in the numbers of regular personnel and a reduction in the number of regular stations, with a corresponding increase in the numbers of auxiliary stations manned by volunteers.

The committee also recommended an alteration in the principles governing the disposition of stations, as follows:-

  • Manned by regular personnel
    • Constant Watch Stations where there were serious dangers to navigation or which guarded the more important ports.
    • Constant Night Watch Stations placed in comanding positions which would also set watch by day in bad weather or in periods of low visibility.
    • Occasional Watch Stations situated in less important areas, near small fishing ports, etc., which would keep watch in bad or thick weather only, but from which in fine weather a general look out would be maintaining during hours of daylight.
  • Manned by Auxiliary personnel

Auxiliary Stations which would provide for the maintenance for bad and thick weather watch in areas where the amount of traffic did not justify the employment of full-time personnel.

There was also a recommendation about the formation of a Coast Life Saving Force and as a result the status of the Auxiliaries was raised and they were organised into a recognised force compromising three main branches L.S.A. (Life Saving Appliance), Coast Watchers, and Intelligence Section. Althought the Corps would be made up of part-time volunteers, it was agreed that payments should be made to recompense any loss of earnings.

Most of the remaining Volunteer Life Saving Companies and Brigades were eventually absorbed into the Corps. It became the Coastguard Auxiliary Service in 1966 and the three branches were re-named Rescue Section, Look-out Section and Reporting Section. Of the volunteer Brigades only those at Tynemouth, South Shields and Sunderland remained as independent organisations.

The period between the wars saw the beginning of decline in the impotance of rescue by means of shore based life saving apparatus. The pulling and sailing lifeboat had been replaced with high-powered motor boats which could operate in conditions that were impossible for the old type, and being very much faster they were better able to reach vessels in distress before they foundered.

[edit] The Second World War

As part of the contingency measures taken in 1939 in anticipation of the outbreak of war, the Board of Trade co-operated with the Admiralty to prepare the Coastguard for a war-time role. The Coastguard would continue as a life-saving service and would take on additional work as a War Watching Organisation. The extra staff needed to put all stations on constant watch were recruited as Auxiliary Coastguards under the National Service Scheme.

A government re-organisation at the end of 1939 resulted in the transfer of responsibilities for HM Coastguard to the Ministry of Shipping. As the danger of invasion increased, the Admiralty took over responsibility for the War Watching functions of HM Coastguard. Administration and responsibilty for non-military functions passed to the Ministry of War Transport which had taken over the Ministry of Shipping.

The effect of the Admiralty order was to make regular Coastguards liable to the provisions of the Naval Discipline Act. They were niminally posted to HMS President II but their ranks and pay remained unchanged. Auxiliary Coastguards were later treated similarly.

Both Regular and Auxiliary Coastguards were issued with Khaki battledress and were armed. Coast patrols were mounted to watch out for signs of landings of enemy agents and look-outs maintained for enemy aircraft spottings and to pass on information about suspicious ship movements. Several Coastguard Stations came under attack from enemy aircraft and a number of Auxiliaries were killed by mines on their beaches.

[edit] Post War Reconstruction

As the War neared its end, consideration was given to the future role of HM Coastguard. Proposals came from the Admiralty that they should retain control of HM Coastguard and there was evidence of an opinion held in some quarters of the Admiralty that HM Coastguard should be run on the same kind of para-military lines as the US Coastguard Service.

The proposals were strongly resisted by both the Ministry of War Transport and the then Chief Inspector of Coastguard, Captain V S Rashleigh with a result that as from 1 October 1945, HM Coastguard once more became a civilian service under the Ministry of Transport.

A significant step was taken in 1948 when Coastguard became established Civil Servants. Coastgurds were now become entitled to the same conditions of service as other civil servants with job security, paid sick leave and earnings-related pensions at 60. Entry into HM Coastguard could now be regarded as a career in its own right and not as a method of supplementing a Naval pension.

In 1949, the Ministry of Transport set up a Departmental Working Party to consider, "in the light of recent advances in the efficiency and seaworthiness of shipping and the extension and use of radio and radio navigational aids, whether any alterations should be made in the organisation of HM Costguard". Their main recommendations were that:-

  • The coast-watching system should continue to be organised on the basis of an extensive visual watch, at any rate in bad weather.
  • The coast-watching system should be planned mainly from the point of view under 500 tons on the grounds that all ships over this size would soon be fitted with radio.
  • Coastguard stations should be located mainly in order to cater for commercial traffic, but should be established wherever there were dangereous navigational hazards in or near waters frequented by many yachts and other small craft. In addition the numbers of such small craft in any area should be taken into account in deciding the degree of watch to be kept at the Coastguard stations there and the conditions under which watch should be set.
  • The normal type of watch should be a bad weather watch and (apart from an occasional lookout by day) watch should only be kept in fine weather for particular reasons.
  • A continuous watch should only be kept at points where there is a large volume of coastal and fishing traffic and the navigational hazards are such that immediate action is necessary to save lives if a casualty should occur in fine weather.

In the implemention of these recommendations the number of regular Coastguards was reduced from 677 to 488 by natural wastage, with an accompanying reduction in the number of stations.

[edit] Return to the Board of Trade

As a result of a Government reorganisation in 1964, HM Coastguard was returned to the Board of Trade, which subsequently became the Department of Trade. A working group was set in 1966 to consider what improvements were needed in the Coastguard Service.

In its report, the group noted the changes that had taken place since the previous review. Nearly all vessels over 100 tons now carried radio. There had been a great increase in the number of yachts and small craft around the coast with a consequent significant increase in the number of incidents dealt with, particularly in summer and often in reasonably fine weather. Military helicopters were now extensively used for marine incidents. Land Rovers had given Coastguards increased mobility. The use of RT (MF and VHF equiptment) and telex had vastly improved the communication system.

No substantial changes were suggested for the organisation, but it was recommended that Constant Night Watch Staions and Occasional Lookout Stations should be replaced by Day Watch Stations which would, when necessary, mount a bad weather watch outside normal watching hours. Bad weather was defined as wind force 6 and above the visibility of half a mile or less. A visual watch would also be kept at places where there were a large number of pleasure craft and where the casualty risk was high.

The group also looked at the question of what were described as seashore incidents, ie incidents involving bathers, skin divers, cliff climbers etc. It was noted that while a number of different authorities, principally the Home Office and Local Authorities, had responsibilities and obligations in respect of the seashore, HM Coastguard was making quite extensive use of its resources to deal with such incidents. However, without a considerable expansion of the Coastguard service, it would not be possible for HM Coastguard to assume responsibility for all seashore incidents. Nevertheless, it was recommended that all requests for ILBS and helicopters should be made to HM Coastguard so that the use of these services could be co-ordinated.

[edit] The Modern Role of HM Coastguard

Although the Working Group did not recommend any substantial reorganisation of HM Coastguard, the changes in circumstances referred to above were in fact bringing about a quite significant change in the development of the Service, particularly in the field of communications. The considerable growth in the use of radio by vessels of all sizes resulted in the audio "watch" replacing the visual in being the most effective way of monitoring distress situations at sea.

In response to this, in 1966 HM Coastguard embarked on a major programme of expansion of the communications system aimed at greatly extending MF coverage and at providing complete VHF coverage of the coasts of UK. Unmanned equipment installed at remote sites could be controlled at central locations.

The post-war changes in the volume and nature of shipping and new developments in technology were creating an altogether more complex situation in the maritime world, and search and rescue operations now required a more professional and sophisticated approach. This placed greater demands on HM Coastguard's role as co-ordinator of the various facilities available for SAR (Search And Rescue)operations, and emphasised the need for very close co-operation between the organisations providing these facilities. To assist this co-operation, a committee was set up by the Board of Trade to act as a forum for the exchange of views and information and to provide general oversight of the SAR organisation. This committee, now known as the United Kingdon Marine Search and Rescue Organisation, is composed of representives of all the numerous organisations involved in SAR matters. This committee has given HM Coastguard a better opportunity to establish its authority as the only full-time professional SAR organisation; it has provided the means whereby all SAR operators have formally recognised HM Coastguard's role as co-ordinator of SAR operations; and it has made it possible to get firm commitments from SAR operators about the availability of specified facilities.

Another post-war development has been the general acceptance of the need for international co-operation on maritime SAR. The Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organisation has laid down guidelines for the setting up of co-ordinated national SAR organisations capable of mounting co-operative operations across national boundaries. In accordance with this policy, HM Coastguard has established liaison arrangements with neighbouring countries. This is of particular significance in the case of France where joint arrangements have been made to cope with special problems of the English Channel. Here, HM Coastguard is co-operating in the control of traffic (the Channel Navigation Information Service) and has established contingency plans to deal with major disasters (MANCHEPLAN).

The preceeding paragraphs give some indication of the complex system of which every modern Coastguard is part. They can call on the sevices of a very large organisation and they must therefore be, to a large extent a manager and organiser of resources. This applies as much to the Coastguard in a Sector in charge of Auxiliaries, as to a Regional Controller responsible for a Region. The increasing importance of HM Coastguard's management function has been recognised, and the Service has undergone a general reorganisation to ensure that the most efficient use is made of available resources.

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