H.M. Coastguards

A Brief History

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

The Start of The Coastguard Service   .........Continued

In 1821 a committee examining the operation of the Customs recommended the combination of all services (except the Coast Blockade which would remain under the Admiralty) under the control of the Board of Customs. Officers would be recommended by the Admiralty. The title 'The Coastguard' Service rose and came into operation on 15th January 1822 - it's official birthday. In 1831 the 'Coast Blockade' was absorbed into the new Coastguard Service. This new service employed nearly 6,700 men.

Coastguards served on ships and on shore. Those men on shore were posted away from their home for fear of collusion and/or collaboration with smugglers. Coastguard Stations were designed and equipped with living quarters for married men as well as single. Each station was commanded by a Chief Officer who normally was a Royal Navy lieutenant. In rank - beneath him were Chief Boatman, Commissioned Boatman and Boatman ranks. The size of the station determined the number of each rank. By 1839 there were over 4,553 Coastguards.

In 1829 the first 'Coastguard Instructions' were issued and, included in them was a section on lifesaving and lifesaving equipment. At the time, the Manby lifesaving equipment was already in widespread use.

In 1831 the Admiralty were determined that the Coastguard Service should be a reserve force for the Royal Navy. As a result the regulations for recruitment of officers and men were laid down.

On 1st October 1856, (after the end of the Crimean War), control of the Coastguard Service was transferred to the Admiralty. Here, all the traditions and historical associations with the smuggler finally disappeared. By this time smuggling was dropping and the lifesaving role and Naval Reserve aspects were more significant. 

The Coastguard had always performed some kind of duty in wrecks, salvage and lifesaving apparatus. In 1866, they were finally authorised, by an Instruction to 'take an active part in the workings of a lifeboat.' Another duty became the reporting on movements of buoys, beacons and light vessels - and the list continues to grow through the years.

From its earliest days signalling was the forte of the Coastguard Service, and it was this skill that was the greatest value to the naval Reserve. Signal exercises were constantly conducted - twice daily - using semaphore flags and telegraphy, and flashing lamps at night. There were many exercises and manoeuvres involving the Royal Navy and the Coastguards which, through practice were completely successful.

On one such manoeuvre, a new method of communication was used and proved, thanks to the trained Coastguards, to be very successful - the General Post Office (G.P.O.) telegraphic system had arrived! In 1892 a System of Coast Communications was built under the G.P.O, with nearly all Coastguard Stations to which Life saving Apparatus (L.S.A.) were situated or where lifeboats were stationed. Soon a line was installed right around the coast.

This scheme started after the Royal National Lifeboat Association drew the attention of 'a means of conveying information of the need for lifeboats between signal stations and lifeboat stations.'

In 1905, an additional ten Wireless / Telegraph (W/T) and Signal Stations were built in to the established stations, at Duncansby Head, Fraserburgh, Tynemouth, Cleethorpes, Winterton (Yarmouth), Tiree, Slyne Head, Dunmore Head, St Anne's and Port Patrick.

It became clear that the Admiralty did not accept responsibility for life saving duties and was shown in Article 654 of the Admiralty Coastguard Instructions of 1911 which states: 'It is to be noted that the Admiralty does not accept responsibility for any adequacy of the system of life-saving arrangements that may exist in any portion of the coasts of the United Kingdom, but, at places where Coastguardsmen are stationed, such Coastguardsmen are to render every possible assistance to the local life-saving services as far as is compatible with their proper duties."

In an attempt to fill the space in the life-saving services, a number of private life-saving corps were formed. The Board of Trade, under the Merchant Shipping Act 1854, took over the supervision and took responsibility of the Rocket Life-Saving Apparatus Companies and Brigades, and were dependant on the assistance of the Coastguard for it's effectiveness. These were the forerunners of the modern Auxiliary Coastguard Service.

The Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade was formed in 1864, and on 31st January 1866, a second Brigade was formed at South Shields. Four days after Tynemouth was founded, Cullercoats, which only a mile from Tynemouth, gave notice they were beginning to form a Brigade. In early 1865 Cullercoats Brigade was formed with sixty to seventy members, most of which were fishermen.

During the next 70 years the service acquired a variety of different responsibilities, ranging from those laid down in the Coastguard Service Act 1856 (to provide for the defence of the coasts of the realm, the more ready manning of the Royal Navy in the event of war or emergency, and the protection of the revenue), to assisting vessels in distress, taking charge of wrecks, operating life-saving apparatus, participating in the lifeboat service, searching for mines and torpedoes lost at sea, and performing sundry duties in connection with signals, telegraphs, buoys, lighthouses, wild birds and rare fish washed ashore.

The Coastguard as run by the Admiralty consisted of three distinct bodies; the Shore Force, the Permanent Cruiser Force and the Guard Ships, naval ships which lay at major ports to act as headquarters of Coastguard districts.

After the First World War the Coastguard Service showed there was a significant reduction in it's manpower. Control of the Service changed hands 5 times after 1923:

Board of Trade


Ministry of Shipping




Ministry of (War) Transport


Department of Trade


Department of Transport 
(now Dept. for the Environment, Transport 
and the Regions.)

 1983 to date


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