H.M. Coastguards

A Brief History - Part One.

                    Part Two         Napoleon 

Extracts from: "COASTGUARD! An Official History Of HM Coastguard." by William Webb, have been used - this book makes excellent reading for those wishing to read further about the smugglers and Coastguard. 

Station Officer - Eric Campbell

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The Start of The Coastguard Service

The history of the Coastguard is a strange one which has passed through many phases. There have always been people whose job it has been to guard and watch the coast, although the title 'Coastguard' has only been in existence for 150 years.

In A.D. 400 the Roman general appointed as 'Count of the Saxon Shore' employed civilians to patrol his coast to watch and give warning of the approach of the Saxon longboats who were starting to raid the shores of Roman Britain. In Tudor times men stood on the cliffs of Devon and Cornwall ready to sound the alarm at the approach of the Spanish Armada. When Napoleon threatened to invade in 1805 the coast of Kent was guarded and watched over, and the modern Coastguard performed the same duty in the Second World War.

The Coastguard Service came about mainly as a result of a reorganisation of other existing services used at combating the hugely profitable smuggling activities that has been in action during the early part of the 19th century. Since then, it has undergone many further reorganisations until, it is now responsible for ship and coastline safety.

Smuggling in Britain has existed for many centuries. Whenever a tax or duty was placed on the export or import of materials or goods there have been some who have tried to exploit the opportunity of trade by illegally importing or exporting those goods. The export of tin from Cornwall, iron from Sussex and wool from many parts of Britain all gave rise to smuggling. The taxes placed on imports of luxury items like silk, tea, coffee, wine, brandy and gin, led to the illegal imports of such magnitude that it has been estimated that by the middle of the 18th century 50% to 65% of the spirits consumed in Britain was smuggled ashore.

It was not only the smugglers and their 'customers' who benefited from the lack of preventive measures in restricting these activities, it is reported that the Emperor Napoleon also profited, he even set a base for them in France! 

To ensure that taxes and duty was paid, Customs Officers were appointed at ports and the official export of some goods was restricted to specific ports only. The Board of Customs collected import taxes on goods via their network of Customs Officers at ports.

By the 17th century the Board of Customs operating a small fleet of boats, this could be backed up by the force and might from the Royal Navy. Ashore the Customs Officers could, in theory, call upon the local units of soldiers - mainly Dragoons. However, the vast majority of the public who welcomed cheaper goods and the high illegal earnings, as well as the local land owners who were often investors in the trade, were against them.

In 1698 the Treasury and Board of Customs established the 'Riding Officers' in Kent and Sussex to help combat the rise in smuggling. This was to be the first peace-time force for 'the guard of the coasts of Kent and Sussex,' By the early 18th century the force had risen to around 300 men. Towards the end of the 18th century it was increased further to cover most of the British coastline including Wales. Scotland had it's own fleet.

For the reader to get some idea of the extent of smuggling, in 1779 the greater part of 3,867,000 gallon of gin distilled annually in Schiedam, Holland was earmarked to the English black market. At the same time, another distillery in Dunkirk made its entire operational output available to the smugglers. A favourite spot for smuggling gin into Britain was Crow Link Gap in Sussex - for many years wine spirit merchants in London openly advertised their Hollands gin as "Genuine Crow Link."

At sea the small fleet of Revenue sloops could not effectively tackle the bigger and better armed smuggling vessels. Warren Lisle, Surveyor of Sloops of the South Coast, succeeded in obtaining new larger and better armed vessels. These were clinker built (used over-lapping boards or planks) cutters with a large spread of sail and a very long bowsprit. By 1782 there were 40 vessels in service totalling 4,000 tons and carrying 700 crewmen and 200 guns. It was around this time the Revenue Service began to gain the upper hand.

In 1809 the 'Preventive Waterguard' was formed to operate in coastal waters. They were based in Watch Houses around the coast and boat crews patrolled their allotted stretch of coast each night. At this time there were 42 Revenue cruisers and 59 boats covering the three divisions comprising the British coastline. So at this time there was a triple defence line for would-be smugglers to pass: at sea the Preventive cruisers, inshore the boats of the Waterguard and ashore the Riding Officers.

At the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Captain Joseph McCulloch proposed the creation of a unified service to guard the coast of Kent where he was at that time commander of a Royal Navy ship supporting the Revenue Service.  He proposed that the shore patrols, the in-shore water patrol and the off-shore cruiser activity should all be united under a single command. So in 1816 the 'Coast Blockade Service' was created under McCulloch’s command on the Kent coastline between North Foreland and Dungeness. This proved to be highly successful but not popular. By 1820 there were 6,708 officers and men, including 2,375 men on 31 Royal Navy ships, operating at a total cost of just under £521,000. 

There was considerable scope for confusion and duplication because of the fragmented approach. The reason being the Board of Excise had its own Revenue Cruisers and its own officers called Riding Officers; these covered the entire country, not just the coats of Kent and Sussex, and were concerned with the collection (and preventing the evasion) of excise duty. 



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