By courtesy of Alfred Collins

The Development of the Coastguard Service:

The Coastguard Service was originally the result of a reorganisation of

other existing services aimed at countering the immense smuggling

activity that prevailed during the first quarter of the 19th century. It

has subsequently undergone many further reorganisations and 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 individuals 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 activity.

The taxes placed on imports of luxury items (silk, tea, coffee, brandy

and gin) also led to illegal imports of such magnitude that it has been

estimated that by the middle of the 18th century 50% of the spirits

consumed in Britain was smuggled.

To ensure that tax and duty was paid Customs Officers were appointed

at ports and the official export of some goods was restricted to

specific ports. 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 had a small fleet and this

could be backed by efforts from the Royal Navy. Ashore the Customs

Officers could, in theory, call upon the local units of dragoons.

However, against them were the vast majority of the public who welcomed

cheaper goods and high illegal earnings as well as the local land owners

who were often investors in the trade.

In 1698 the Treasury and Board of Customs established the Riding

Officers in Kent and Sussex to help combat the rise in smuggling. By the

early 18th century this force was around 300 men. It was further

expanded to cover most of the British coastline.

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 from 1740 to 1779, succeeded in obtaining new

larger and better armed vessels. These were clinker built cutters with a

large spread of sail and a very long bowsprit. By 1782 there were 40

vessels in service totalling 4000 tons and carrying 700 crewmen and 200

guns. From this period the Revenue Service began to gain the upper hand.

In 1809 the Preventive Waterguard was formed. 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: at sea the Preventive

cruisers, inshore the boats of the Waterguard and ashore the Riding


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 6708 officers and men, including 2375 men on 31 Royal Navy

ships, operating at a total cost of just under 521000. There was

considerable scope for confusion and duplication because of the

fragmented approach. 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 Coastguard Service came into operation in 1822. In 1831 the Coast

Blockade was absorbed into this new service.

Coastguards served on ships and on shore. Men on shore were moved away

from their home location for fear of collusion. Coastguard Stations were

equipped with living quarters for married men as well as single

quarters. Each station was commanded by a Chief Officer (normally a

Royal Navy lieutenant). 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 4553 Coastguards.

The first Coastguard Instructions were issued in 1829 and included a

section on lifesaving and lifesaving equipment. The Manby lifesaving

equipment was already in widespread use.

In 1831 the Admiralty determined that the Coastguard Service should be a

reserve force for the Royal Navy. As a consequence the regulations for

recruitment of officers and men were laid down.

In 1856, at the end of the Crimean War, control of the Coastguard

Service was transferred to the Admiralty. By this time smuggling was on

the wane and the lifesaving role and Naval Reserve aspects were more

significant. After the First World War there was a significant reduction

in the manpower of the Coastguard Service. Control of the Service

changed hands 5 times after 1923.


Books and Pamphlets:

Webb, W. Coastguard! HMSO, 1976

Provides a wealth of useful background information on the organisation,

pay scales, benefits etc. of the Coastguard Service.

Waugh, Mary. Smuggling in Devon & Cornwall 1700-1850: Countryside Books

1991 (ISBN 1 85306 113 1)

Smuggling in Kent & Sussex 1700-1840: Countryside Books 1994 (ISBN 0

905392 48 5)

These books provide good reference material in an easily read form. They

give an excellent background to the fight against smuggling. They do not

provide much genealogical information.

Rodger, N.A.M. Naval Records for Genealogists. Public Record Office

Handbook No. 22, HMSO 1998, (ISBN 1 873 162 58 8)

Detailed guide to the PRO Holdings on Royal Naval Records. It includes

the records of the Coastguard Service. A good finding aid.

Anon. The Coastguard. Public Record Office, Military Records Information

44, 1999.

This is a useful 5 page pamphlet giving details of the holdings at the

PRO on the Coastguard Service. A must for the genealogist.

Milton, Mrs. F. R. Index to Coast Guards working on a 16 mile stretch of

Sussex Coast around Eastbourne taken from the Census for 1841, '51, '

61, '71 & '81

Part 1 of 3 (1989)

Index to Parish Register Entries concerning Coast Guards and

their Associates in the Eastbourne Area c1813-c1841.

Part 2 of 3 (1989)

Index to Coastguards in the District of Eastbourne from the Censuses


Supplement to Coastguard Series1 (Part 3 of 3) (1994), Family Roots FHS

Local genealogical listings for Eastbourne based Coastguards.

Arnold-Foster, Rear Admiral D. At War with the Smugglers Ward, Lock &

Co. 1936.

The story of Dr Arnold's father, William Arnold, Collector of Customs,

Isle of Wight 1777 -1801. Good account based on contemporary letters and

Customs Outport Letters.


Most newspapers of the period regularly reported the battles and

skirmishes between coastguards and smugglers. These accounts often give

the names of the coastguards involved. Good examples are the West Briton

which covered the Devon and Cornwall area and the Sussex Weekly

Advertiser published from Lewes in Sussex. These newspapers also carried

advertisements placed by the Board of Customs offering rewards for

information about smugglers who may have injured coastguards. The names

of the coastguards concerned are mentioned. Filmed copies are usually

available through Local Libraries.


The major records concerning the Coastguard Service are held at the

Public Record Office, Ruskin Avenue, Kew, Surrey

The records of the precursors to the Coastguard Service are also held


Records of service for coastguards are held in ADM 175

England 1816 to 1918

Scotland 1816-1866

Ireland 1816-1869

These records are indexed by station so it is necessary to know where a

man served. One way of doing this is from the place of birth of his

children given in later censuses. Coastguards were moved fairly

frequently so they may have served at 3 to 5 locations. Often, this

pattern of service can be seen from the census records for their

children. I have used this a number of times to follow a man back.

Many men entered the service from the Royal Navy so they will have had

previous records of service there. First postings in the Coastguard

Service for the period 1819-1866 can usually be traced from the

registers of nominations for appointments. There are some nominal

indexes available for these in ADM175/97-101. These records are held on


Men who served on Revenue cruisers can be traced from the ships

establishment and record books 1816-1879, ADM175/24-73. For the period

1824-1857 their records can be found in the Ships' Musters: Coastguard

and Revenue Cruisers, ADM 119. These are usually original bound volumes

of Muster Records for a particular ship. Again it is important to know

which cruiser he was on. When a man transferred from a cruiser to

another or to a shore station this event will be recorded in the Muster

Records. This enables you to continue your search forward or backward.

Pension records are another source of information. One sometimes finds

an individual in a census who is recorded as a "coastguard annuitant".

Such a person had survived the rigours of the service and usually

retired in his 50's with a pension. Those who received their pension

from the Admiralty (e.g. after 1866 when the Admiralty had full control

of the service) are recorded in Additional Pension Books covering

1866-1926, ADM 23.

Other civil pensions were paid by the Paymaster General and are recorded

in Coastguard Civil Pensions, PMG 23.

There are other record classes which deal with coastguards but the most

significant for the genealogist are those above. For a more detailed

treatment Rodger's Handbook listed above gives useful information as

does the PRO pamphlet.

Click here for an index to Coastguard Officers in 1851
Click here to visit the Coastguard of Yesteryear Website
Click here to go to my page of extracts from the Times relating to Coastguards 1785 - 1850
Click here to go to my page of extracts from the Times relating to Coastguards 1851 - 1859