18th & 19th Century Piloting

By Alfred Collins

Following the creation of Trinity House of Deptford Strand in 1513,

which ultimately became the principal maritime authority in the UK, it

took many years before a reasonable amount of authority was gained over

Thames pilotage. In other parts of the country developments followed on

a local basis.

In Dover the Fellowship of the Dover Ferry Services founded the Court of

Loadmanage of the Cinque Ports. There was acute rivalry between them and

Trinity House which was to last for 400 years.

Trinity House of Newcastle was formed in 1536 and regulated pilotage on

the Tyne. Trinity House of Kingston-upon-Hull (founded 1369) was given a

charter in 1541.

Although in possession of a charter it did not automatically command

obedience. Some masters would not pay the dues and unlicensed pilots

operated although they could be fined by Trinity House.

Unlicensed piloting existed into the 20th century. For example at

Newport, (Monmouthshire/Gwent) "Dock Pilots" who were not licensed by

the Newport Pilotage Authority operated alongside the licensed "Channel

Pilots" right through to the middle of the 20th century.

The records of Trinity House at Hull record many instances of unlicensed

piloting during the 18th century where individuals were fined up to

3.33 per occasion.

By 1801 the four major ports of the UK were London, Liverpool, Bristol

and Hull. Pilotage control was not officially exercised at Liverpool

until 1766 when an Act appointed Commissioners to do so. These comprised

the Mayor & Council together with Merchants, Mariners and the late

Commanders of Vessels.

Prior to 1766 pilotage existed and was operated by fishermen and local

seamen with special knowledge of the area.

In Bristol control of pilotage had been vested in the Corporation of

Bristol and was delegated to the Society of Merchant Venturers of

Bristol from 1611 onwards. Bristol controlled all pilotage in the

greater part of the Bristol Channel. Bristol exercised this power for

pilotage into the ports of South Wales.

Swansea obtained independent control in 1791 (Swansea Harbour Act).

Cardiff, Newport and Gloucester obtained independent pilotage control

from 1861 onwards.

Exe Estuary pilots were subject to the control of Exeter City Chamber in

1687 when pilotage was made compulsory for all vessels with a draught of

5ft or more. The local navigational difficulties resulted in high

piloting charges which, in 1884, were amongst the highest in the

kingdom. This, in part, contributed to the decline of the Exe ports

during the 19th century.

During the 17th century there was a shortage of pilots for the Royal

Navy. Samuel Pepys, as Master of Trinity House, wrote a memorandum on

the subject. Pilots on RN ships were not members of the Royal Navy nor

members of the crew and, therefore, had no standing and were treated

very casually by Naval Officers and were often not provided with food or


Problems continued between Trinity House (and other Authorities) and the

Royal Navy throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries. It was not

uncommon for pilots and their apprentices to be impressed into the

service. Plots bringing in homeward bound merchant ships often warned

the masters of the presence of press gangs and advised them on ways to

avoid them.

Pilot cutters did not change a great deal between the middle of the 18th

century and the early 20th when steam cutters were introduced. The

Bristol Channel pilots favoured boats of around 20 tons (range 12 to 30

tons) manned by the pilot, a boatman ("westerman") and frequently an

apprentice. They were fast little skiffs because speed meant that the

pilot could beat his competitors to win business in a highly competitive


Between 1800 and 1914 pilots faced some of the most difficult years any

had to face. Steam power and improvements in safety of ships, frequently

iron built and driven by screw propulsion presented new challenges to

pilots. The size of ships grew rapidly and they were capable of greater

speed and less dependent on tides and wind. In addition ship-owners

suggested that pilots were no longer important and suggested reductions

in tariffs. They also suggested that vessels towed by tugs did not need


In 1812 an Act included the paragraph:-

"No owner or master of any ship shall be answerable for any loss or

damage for, or by reason of, any neglect, default or incompetence of any

pilot taken on board of any such ship under any provision of this act."

In effect this clause gave absolute freedom to ships under compulsory

pilotage from claims for damage done to other vessels or property. This

clause was to be a problem for over 100 years.

There were conflicts between Trinity House and local pilots. Trinity

House licensed pilots (in areas under its control) and local pilots were

paid a controlled rate for ships they handled. Rotas of pilots were set

up to cover the port. Trinity House set up superannuation funds for the

pilots' retirements and widows benefits. Other licensing authorities

emulated this.

In 1862 a conflict arose between Trinity House at Newcastle and the

local pilots over Reciprocity Money (Treasury payments to compensate

pilots for loss of earnings resulting from the equalisation of tariffs

between foreign and British vessels using pilots) and its successor

payments. It was shown that Trinity House was withholding substantial

sums. As a result a new Pilotage Board was set up for the Tyne.

In the 1870'sa serious dispute broke out at Cardiff between the 84

pilots there and the Dock owners. Two pilots refused to take ships

through a dredged channel at the Cefn-y-wrack shoal on the grounds of

safety because of silting of the channel. The dispute between the

dock-master and the pilots led to them being suspended. To avert an

impending strike by the pilots Samuel Plimsoll was called in and after a

thorough investigation including sounding the channel he reported to the

Board of Trade in favour of the pilots.

There were frictions between the Pilotage Authority and the 37 pilots at

Bristol at about this time. The pilots there decided to organise

themselves into a Pilots Association and from this sprang the United

Kingdom Pilots Association in 1884. This organisation represents the

interests of licensed pilots throughout the UK today. It gave added

power to the individual pilot or group of pilots who might run foul of a

Pilotage Authority or of harbour management.

The above is provided by courtesy of Alf Collins. Alf's E-mail address is alf.collins@lineone.net


Records for pilotage are generally held either by the Pilotage Authority concerned (eg Port of London Pilotage Authority) or at County Record Offices. Because pilotage tended to run in families the records can be of great use to Family Historians.

For example, Glamorgan Record Office has excellent holdings of pilotage records for Cardiff & some for Barry going back to the formation of the Cardiff Pilotage Board in 1861. These records include apprenticeship records, licencing details, information about pilot cutters, the minutes of the Board, details of the wives and familiesof pilots, which include dates of marriage, years of birth for the pilots themselves, their wives and their children, and other useful information.

Phil Roderick has a special interest in Barry, Bristol, Cardiff, Gloucester, Newport and Swansea pilots and has a substantial database of pilots for those areas. He also produced a very useful booklet on Cardiff pilots for the Glamorgan Family History Society which can be obtained from the Society at a modest cost.

Phil's E-mail address is Prode18115@aol.com. Phil's website is at http://members.aol.com/PRode18115

or click here

Another site worthwhile looking at in connection with Bristol Channel Pilotage is "the Wave"

An index of Pilots, Boatmen and associated occupations in Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan is on my Glamorgan site at https://www.angelfire.com/ga/BobSanders/PILOTS.html

or click here