The Origins of the Coastguard
Today HM Coastguard is a world leader in maritime search and rescue. Looking back 200 years, the goods, which now travel by road, were carried by hundreds of small ships. Year in year out dozens of ships and hundreds of lives were lost within sight of the coast. Public shock and dismay at the tragedies drove forward the creation of national life saving organisations. Though its beginnings lie in those decades HM Coastguard originated not to meet the dangers of the seas but to combat a pernicious threat to the country’s economy and security - smuggling.
As soon as Medieval taxes were charged on imports and exports, people began smuggling, shipping goods unseen by Customs officers. In the eighteenth century, Custom duties were imposed on luxuries like silk and lace, tea, tobacco and brandy. At each port, staff from the Customs House searched cargoes and collected dues. At sea, Customs Revenue Cruisers watched for vessels illegally offloading cargo. From 1698 Riding officers patrolled the coast to catch smugglers as they beached cargoes and carried them inland.
The 1743 estimate that half the tea drunk in Britain was illegally imported shows that smuggling was highly profitable. This well organised ‘free trade’ employed and supplied many people, from paupers to peers. Smugglers have often been romanticised but the reality was brutal. Local people lived in fear, with violent reprisals on informers and the murder of conscientious Revenue officers, while corruption enabled captured smugglers to evade harsh penalties.
Serving Many Masters
Created to end smuggling, as a disciplined coastal force the Preventive Water Guard quickly acquired extra duties. In the 1820s officers were instructed to take responsibility at shipwrecks to safeguard cargoes and vessels from looters. In addition boatmen were to train with life saving equipment, supplied by the Board of Ordnance.
In 1816 the Preventive Water Guard had been withdrawn from part of Kent in favour of shore based naval crews. The Admiralty favoured this Coast Blockade as a reserve of trained seamen, and later extended it from the Isle of Sheppey to Seaford, Sussex.
In 1821 a Committee of Enquiry examined every aspect of the Customs service. It recognised the Preventive Water Guard as a major force against smuggling and recommended that it be again controlled by the Board of Customs along with the Riding officers and Revenue cruisers. On 15 January 1822 the Treasury accepted the proposal noting that the new force would be called the Coast Guard. The words Coastguard were linked in the twentieth century.
When, in 1831, it was decided that the Board of Customs Coastguard should replace the Coast Blockade on the whole coast the Admiralty made its own proposal. It won the right to appoint Coastguard officers and to select boatmen from paid off naval crews, so setting the scene for the Coastguard as a naval reserve and recruiting agency.
Within a decade Coastguard vigilance was praised for greatly reducing smuggling, though lower taxes helped end illegal trade. The Admiralty was already re-styling the Coastguard with naval style uniform and drill, and training on large guns for coast defence. The Coastguard continued to take charge at wrecks and to save lives. The Board of Trade issued life saving apparatus to Coastguard stations, thus fulfilling its responsibility for safety at sea imposed by the 1854 Merchant Shipping Act.
The role of naval reserve and coast defence force was sealed when the Coast Guard Act (1856) passed control from the Board of Customs to the Admiralty. Though still available for revenue protection, Coastguards trained to supplement naval crews. By 1900 advancing technology in ships and arms had outmoded this style of naval reserve and the Admiralty proposed reducing the Coastguard. This was opposed by the public, the Board of Customs and the Board of Trade who championed the need for life saving and revenue protection.
An enquiry in 1921 found that the Coastguard had become the eyes and ears of many organisations with coastal interests. For the Admiralty they provided visual signalling and telegraphy, reported fleet movements, rendered mines safe, undertook recruitment, and reported changes in navigation marks to the Hydrographer. For the Board of Customs and Excise they searched vessels, supervised discharge of cargoes, collected dues from coastal vessels, kept shipping statistics, and patrolled the coast. For the Board of Trade they assisted ships in distress, acted as Receiver of Wreck, and operated life saving apparatus. In addition Coastguards: assisted the Post Office and Lloyds with telegraphy and wireless; provided the Fishery Department with statistics; enforced quarantine regulations for Agricultural Departments; made meteorological reports to the Air Ministry; passed distress calls to the RNLI; and reported faulty navigation aids to Trinity House.
In 1923 the Coastguard, placed under the Board of Trade, was dedicated to life saving, salvage from wreck and administration of the foreshore. The new force was sanctioned by the Coastguard Act (1925). The early Coastguard had been caught between the demands of different government departments, but change could now focus on the needs of seafarers, especially the scope for new technology to improve both safety and rescues.
The 1920s Coastguard kept a visual watch. Stations overlooking major shipping lanes and hazards, maintained constant watch day and night and were able to summon auxiliaries to intermediate stations should visibility decrease or bad weather set in. An enquiry in 1931 correctly predicted that increased use of radio would eliminate the need for visual watches; this initiated a controlled reduction in Coastguard stations, lookouts and personnel, which continues in this century.
In the 1930s effective watch and communication reduced the number of shoreline casualties. Coastguards warned vessels approaching danger in time to take evasive action or alerted lifeboats, now with engines, which could quickly assist vessels still offshore. This preventive role has evolved with specific modern tasks. Since 1967 shipping between Margate and Beachy Head has been separated into northeast and southwest bound lanes. Using computer enhanced radar; Coastguards monitor this Channel traffic, warning vessels which contravene the special rules. Following the "Torrey Canyon" (1969) oil spill, Coastguards were tasked as the early warning system for pollution control. In the 1970s the Coastguard support vessel "Miranda" began to accompany British fishing fleets into northern seas. After the "Braer" incident (1994) Emergency Towing Vessels were added to Coastguard resources for assisting disabled vessels. Coastguards provide liaison and training to enhance search and rescue awareness for the merchant marine and oil/gas industry.
Pleasure boating became popular in the 1960s and, today, from the 12,000 plus incidents handled annually by the Coastguard, most result from the ever growing list of coastal pursuits, from hang-gliding to wreck diving. The scope of Coastguard co-ordination has extended as new facilities have been created to match modern rescue situations. The RNLI and independent groups introduced Inshore Rescue Boats. From 1964, Coastguard rough terrain vehicles have increased mobility and provided mobile communication bases. In 1971 Coastguards improved their access to rivers and remote coastal areas with patrol boats. Military helicopters were first used for rapid rescue from the late 1940s. Coastguard helicopters supplemented military cover in the 1980s when minimum response times were set. Fixed wing, military aircraft can also be tasked for long-range searches.
The RNLI's gold medal for gallantry was awarded first in 1824 to Charles Fremantle of the Lymington Coastguard for swimming with a line to rescue crew from the 'Carl Jean' ashore near Christchurch. Like fishermen and seamen around the coast, Fremantle seized whatever was available to save the lives of fellow seafarers.
Many people proposed ingenious equipment to save lives from shipwrecks. Captain Manby experimented firing mortars to carry a line to a ship, achieving his first rescue in 1808 from the 'Elizabeth' 150 yards off the beach. The following year he brought the crew of the 'Nancy' ashore using a 'cot' slung beneath the line.
The Board of Ordnance and then Parliament endorsed Manby's invention, and the Preventive Water Guard were supplied and drilled with his Life Saving Apparatus (LSA). Apart from rockets replacing mortars, Coastguard LSA supplied by the Board of Trade altered little until the twentieth century brought electrically ignited rockets and lines of man-made fibre.
On 24 November 1864 Coastguards began a rescue from the 'Stanley', aground on rocks beneath Tynemouth. In the dark they were unable to supervise helpers from the large crowd and the LSA jammed. While runners fetched the nearest replacement, onlookers helplessly witnessed the steamer break up drowning 26 crew and passengers. Within a fortnight the Mayor hosted a public meeting which formed the Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade to provide trained assistance with LSA. In 1866 the Board of Trade's regulations for Coastguard using LSA urged them to establish new volunteer companies
By 1913, 404 companies existed, and records for 1856-1909 show 17,446 lives saved from shipwrecks by LSA and shorelines. In 1923 the Board of Trade introduced an annual award for the Best Wreck Service. However, improvements in ships and lifeboats meant fewer casualties along the shoreline and the number of LSA rescues was decreasing. Following the enquiry in 1931 the Board of Trade formed the Coast Life Saving Corps, for LSA (watching and intelligence work) and this absorbed many of the old companies. In 1966 the 7,000-strong Corps became the Coastguard Auxiliary Service which used LSA until it was withdrawn in 1988.
Professional Coastguards have increasingly been concentrated in a small number of high-tech Maritime co-ordination centres dealing with thousands of emergencies. It is the Auxiliaries of the Coastguard Rescue Teams who are often first on scene feeding back information. In the 1990s their membership of 3,200 volunteers was reorganised. Initial Response Teams were designed for rapid call out to assess situations, while Back Up Response Teams formed mobile search and rescue units, trained and equipped to work on cliffs and in mud, and with rough terrain vehicles and boats for reaching inaccessible cliff and river sites. Issued with specialist equipment and trained by Coastguard officers the volunteers in these Coastguard Rescue Teams carry the tradition of local life saving into a third century.
From 1831 the Admiralty had fostered the Coastguard as a naval reserve. However, there were criticisms of the 2,300 Coastguards who joined naval ships in 1854 to combat Russia in the Crimea. While character and discipline were praised many were thought too old and out of touch with modern warships. The Admiralty responded by gaining control of the Coastguard and imposing training, with sea time, suitable for a naval reserve.
Within hours of Britain declaring war on Germany, in 1914, Coastguards travelled by train to crew naval ships, enabling them to put immediately to sea. Unfortunately their ships were obsolete. On 20 September 1914 a single German submarine sank the cruisers 'Cressy', 'Aboukir' and 'Hogue' off the Thames. The 1,400 drowned included many Coastguards. Torpedoes sunk 'Hawke' in October and 'Formidable' in January increasing Coastguard deaths.
Ashore Coastguard stations were seriously undermanned and men were sent home to re-establish an adequate coast watch against enemy landings. Here their existing skills in signalling, telegraphy and wireless were deployed relaying messages between the Admiralty and naval ships and monitoring merchant ships. At Port Signal Stations they identified all vessels entering and leaving harbour and controlled defensive booms. Individual Coastguards were trained to render beached mines safe, each taking responsibility for some twenty miles of coast.
After 1918, peacetime needs for a coastal force were debated. The Admiralty was advised to form a Naval Signalling Section while the Board of Trade reorganised the Coastguard for coast watching and life saving. The Coastguard Service Act (1925) still allowed the Admiralty control of the Coastguard in time of national need. In the 1930s the departments worked together to prepare the Coastguard as a War Watching Organisation. When war came 4,500 Auxiliary Coastguards were recruited on National Service to strengthen stations coastwide. Intelligence and signalling were again key tasks. In May 1940, fearing invasion, the Admiralty assumed control and armed the Coastguard.
Life saving was hampered by beach defences but in 1940 the LSA Brigades met one of their greatest challenges. The destroyer's 'Ashanti' and 'Fame' ran aground on the rocky Durham coast. Life Saving Apparatus carried the local firemen aboard the burning 'Fame', ferried ammunition in danger of exploding ashore, and overnight landed 104 men from the two ships.
In the south Coastguards gained a new rescue task. Lookouts used cross-bearings to direct the air/sea rescue service launches searching for airmen who had ditched in the Channel.
D-Day brought safety from invasion and a reduction in the Auxiliary Coastguard numbers. In 1945 the service was placed under the Ministry of War Transport, eventually returning to the Marine Division of the Board of Trade in 1959.
Coastguards saved life not only with Life Saving Apparatus (LSA) but also by braving the seas in their own boats and as lifeboat crews. The story of their heroism has yet to be told.
Fishermen and pilots had always launched their boats to take crew from ships grounded on sandbanks and rocks. Liverpool was probably the first port to provide a 'lifeboat' for such rescues. Many inventors had demonstrated prototype 'unsinkable' boats, but a competition in 1790 led Henry Greathead to build the lifeboat 'Original' for South Shields, and then to supply boats of the same design to over twenty ports and harbours. The life saving effort was strongest where local organisations funded the boats and supported their volunteer crews. Not until 1824 was there a National Institution for Preservation of Life from Shipwreck to promote life saving coastwide. Success still depended heavily on local effort until, from the 1850s, improved organisation and fundraising enabled the renamed Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) to establish many new stations and gradually to take responsibility for previously independent lifeboats.
Coastguards feature in every element of the history of lifeboats. Records of RNLI bravery awards show them undertaking daring rescues in their own galleys or gigs which often demonstrated the need for a lifeboat station. Local commanders petitioned for new stations and advised on the best locations, spearheaded fundraising and became secretaries to local organisations. Coastguards frequently crewed and coxed both independent and RNLI lifeboats, particularly on unpopulated coasts.
When, in 1852, the RNLI's first standard design lifeboat was put through trials she was crewed by Coastguards. A year earlier the Coastguard commanders at Yarmouth, Harwich and Thames had tested Lamb & White lifeboats for work by the Revenue Cruisers. In the 1860s the Admiralty ordered worn out gigs and galleys to be replaced by these lifeboats. In the following decades Coastguards used their lifeboats for rescues. As late as 1897, when the RNLI operated nationwide, the Coastguard lifeboat gig joined seven other lifeboats for a fundraising day organised at Bridlington by the local Divisional Officer of Coastguards.
Yet life saving was not the primary objective of the Admiralty Coastguard and official enquiries concluded that a coastwide lifeboat service could best be achieved by the charitably funded RNLI. After 1923, when the Coastguard was specifically dedicated to life saving, rather than duplicate the role of others it began developing expertise and communications to co-ordinate every resource available for search and rescue in UK waters. Coastguards now supply lifeboat stations with rapid and appropriate call outs, and with accurate information and communications throughout rescue incidents.
While radio communication was being developed in the 1890s, merchant and naval ships still depended on visual signalling. Coastguards were expected to read/send 18 words per minute with semaphore flags and 10 with a flashing lamp, the new acetylene fuel extended visibility to 12 miles. By the First World War telephone lines linked coastal stations and Coastguards were operating wireless with ranges from 100 to 1,000 miles.
From 1923 the Board of Trade saw improving communications as a key task. The old station to station telephone line was replaced with the Post Office system. The telephone now immediately informed Divisional officers of events, including the need to set bad weather watches at intermediate stations, and was used to alert the RNLI.
In 1951 it was recommended that visual watching should target vessels under 500 tonnes as larger ships should have radio and could be monitored by a listening watch. By the mid 1960s many Coastguard stations used VHF radio for direct communication with lifeboats, inshore rescue boats and Coastguard vehicles. Within a decade the whole Coastguard communication system of MF and VHF radio, telex and telephone was reviewed, and by 1974 stations were able to maintain a listening watch on VHF covering nearly all UK waters. Responsible sailors around the UK inform the Coastguard of the details of their voyages, radioing in on departure and arrival.
The Coastguard became a '999' service in the 1960s enabling the public to raise the alarm as it does for other emergency services. With the advent of the mobile telephone, Coastguards can now be quickly alerted to emergencies even when radios are not available.
Satellite technology has revolutionised radio communication and navigation. Vessels can determine their position on the globe within metres.
By international agreement all merchant ships over 300 tonnes carry communications which link directly to the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS). These transmit automated urgency or distress signals as digitally encoded bursts, which assist clarity, and are received by computers in Coastguard Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centres (MRCC). The signals relay the vessel identity, location and nature of the alarm. As a result of GMDSS Falmouth MRCC has supported communications for search and rescue as far off as the South Atlantic. All vessels can also carry Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRB) whose signal quickly reaches the Coastguard and so triggers an emergency response.
The Coastguard co-ordination centres are being fitted with Integrated Coastguard Communication System (ICCS) which has replaced analogue communications with digital technology.
The ICCS enables MRCCs to share the workload during major incidents or to release staff for other duties. In line with improved communications since the 1930s this new technology has reduced the number of stations manned by full time Coastguards.
In 1999 the Coastguard replaced British Telecom in providing Maritime Safety Information. Four-hourly meteorological and navigational warnings are broadcast using VHF and MF with a coverage out to 150 miles. The Coastguard also links vessels at sea with medical authorities so that advice can be received directly from a doctor.
21st Century Search & Rescue
Efficiency drives in the 1990s made Her Majesty's Coastguard a government executive agency, then in 1998 the Marine Safety Agency and the Coastguard Agency were joined to become the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA).
The MCA exists to promote high standards of safety at sea, to minimise loss of life amongst seafarers and coastal users, to protect the environment by minimising pollution from ships and to respond to maritime emergencies 24 hours a day. This means the MCA must maintain an adequate civil maritime search and rescue co-ordination service through HM Coastguard. This clear definition of the role of HM Coastguard within the MCA has enabled the MCA to focus on introducing the best available technology, which means that the UK Coastguard is a world model for search and rescue co-ordination.
Whether you are a sailboarder too exhausted to reach the shore or a walker that slips from the scenic cliff path, cruising on a luxury superliner that looses rudder control or crew aboard a container ship battered by freak waves, fallen sick on a racing yacht or trapped on a burning oil rig, HM Coastguard can ensure that the most able rescuers are sent to your aid. Computerised data gives them access to all the resources and by touching a visual display screen they can summon lifeboats, helicopters, towing vessels or cliff rescuers. It is no matter that you are a hundred miles along the coast from their watchroom or far over the horizon. Satellite communications enable Coastguards to hear the distress calls of seafarers and coastal users who less than a hundred years ago would have hoped in vain that their feeble flares or cries might be seen or heard. Rescue was not quick; if a Coastguard spotted a vessel ashore he often had to send messengers on foot to alert the lifeboat or LSA crew.
It is no surprise that HM Coastguard is leading initiatives for a National Search and Rescue Framework. For the first time this will cover incidents arising at sea, on land or in the air, by promoting partnership between all forms of emergency service through the most advanced communications.
HM Coastguard no longer thinks only of rescue. Despite handling thousands of incidents every year, improved efficiency has freed officers to take part in safety campaigns. Each year these target the most common causes of accidents at sea, and their message is carried to recreational clubs and into schools.
You can learn more about the work of the modern HM Coastguard by calling the MCA or by arranging to visit a local Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre.
Co-author and research: Alison Gale
Research: Coastguard Museum, Humber
Photographs courtesy of Hulton Getty Museum, Rex Features, The Sutcliffe Gallery (www.sutcliffe-gallery.co.uk), Poole Museum Service and the RNLI
105 Commercial Road
Southampton SO15 1EG
Tel: 023 8032 9100
Fax: 023 8032 9298
MCA 24 hour information service 0870 6006505