Pilotage History Part 1


View the original pdf illustrated article from the magazine:


The majority of serving UK pilots have joined the service since the implementation of the 1987 Pilotage Act and many are probably largely unaware of the origins of the UKMPA. June marked the 120th anniversary of the UKMPA (originally the UKPA) and for the 1984 centenary Manchester pilot Harry Hignett (now retired) wrote a book detailing the history of the UKPA. Long since out of print this book is now unknown to the majority of pilots but it contains much interesting research. Harry has recently updated this original work but having failed to .nd a publisher for the book he has permitted me to place it on my website for all to access. As an introduction Harry has kindly agreed to provide an edited version for inclusion in the magazine which I will be running over two issues.


Although pilotage will have been undertaken since vessels first started trading and

ancient texts such as Homer’s Iliad from the 7th century BC make vague references

to pilots one of the most precise early written descriptions of a pilot’s work was

around 64 AD.

“The passage is difficult because of the shoals at the mouth of the river. Because of

this, the native .shermen in the King’s service go up the coast to Syrastrene (Surat) to meet the ships. And they steer them straight and true from the mouth of the bay between the shoals with their crews and they tow them to fixed stations going up with the flood and lying through the ebb at anchorages and in basins. These

basins are deeper places in the river as far as the port, which lies about 10 stadia up

from the mouth.”

In this extract we can recognise the work of an estuary or river pilot from the earliest times until the steamship arrived onto the maritime scene.

In the UK one of the earliest records is from the 12th Century. Godric was born in Norfolk in 1069 and became a Chapman (travelling salesman carrying his own wares). He turned to carrying them not only using the inland waterways but also on coasting vessels along the coast and across the North Sea to Denmark. He made the trip so often that he eventually became a ship owner at one time owning four ships. A “colourful” character he was actually referred to by some as a pirate before he turned his energies to religious fervour and sub-sequently gave all his considerable wealth to charity! Such was his skill of navigation that he was asked to pilot vessels and he became famous not only for his pilotage skills but also for his ability to forecast the weather. Giving up his pilotage career around 1110 he became a hermit and was later canonised becoming St. Godric of Finchale (near Durham). He died in 1170 at the amazing age of 101, and his hermitage became Finchale Priory where his tomb (despite being pillaged many centuries ago) can still be visited.Later references to pilots are for London and include a 1387 reference to a “Pilot of the Black Deeps” (Thames Estuary). Other London records from a log-book reveal that pilotage charges on the Thames in the 1400’s were as follows:

to the losmanne who sailed me into the Temse . . . 10s 6d

to the man who led the shippe through the bridge . . . . . 8d

to the man who led the shippe into the dock . . . . . . . . . . 6d

The first organisation of UK pilotage was established by Trinity House and in 1457 the Trinity House of Hull was an exclusive maritime organization which in 1512 passed an ordinance restricting pilotage between Hull and the mouth of the Humber to members of Hull Trinity House. The founding of the Corporation of Trinity House on the Thames was in 1514. There were initially, 40 members (mostly pilots), 8 assistants, four wardens and the master. For the first fifty years the Corporation was, to all intents and purposes, exclusively concerned with pilotage, and most of the senior members were important naval officials, shipmasters or both.

The Cinque Ports pilotage was formally inaugurated in 1527 in Dover and before the end of the sixteenth century there was strife between the Dover pilots and their Trinity House counterparts because, when they disembarked off the Cinque Ports, the Corporation pilots attempted to pilot inward bound ships. However, the boating services were provided by relatives and friends of the Dover pilots and they were naturally reluctant to offend the Cinque Ports pilots. The Corporation pilots therefore had to travel home by land, a journey of at least two days via Canterbury to Gravesend and thence by boat to Deptford. Naturally the Cinque Ports pilots found similar difficulty in obtaining vessels to pilot from the Thames outwards.One may criticise one-way pilotage as being wasteful and inefficient, but ships in the days of sail arrived in great numbers according to the winds and travelling in company against pirates and enemy ships.Pilots near a pilot station remained at home on stand-by. So began the Thames pilotage system; Trinity House outwards, Cinque Ports inwards.

The Cinque Ports Pilotage Act of 1717 was the first parliamentary legislation covering pilotage. The Dover pilots now had something that Trinity House had not and the Elder Brethren applied for their own legislation. The next Pilotage Act, passed in 1732, confirmed the provisions of the 1717 Act and, gave exemption to the Trinity Houses of Hull, and Newcastle wherever their respective jurisdictions overlapped.

In the mid 1700’s establishing longitude at sea was difficult and many shipmasters feared to approach the Isles of Scilly, with rocks that made the area a noted graveyard for ships. The fishermen of the Scillies began to take up pilotage, meeting the vessels well out of sight of land and guiding them past the Isles up the channel and by 1800 they conducted ships to all parts of the British Isles and the coasts of France and Belgium. The successful application of parliamentary legislation led to several local Pilotage Acts, including those for Boston, Lincs, in 1774 and Hull in 1800 which were older established ports. In the late 18th century new industrial ports such as Swansea appeared receiving its first pilotage regulations in 1791.

The first comprehensive Pilotage Act was placed on the stature book in 1808, “An

Act for the better regulation of Pilots andof the Pilotage of Ships and vessels

navigating the British seas”. Its most important provisions were the establishment

of compulsory pilotage in all districts where licensed pilots were

available and the authority was given to the Deptford Trinity House to form

pilotage districts where it was deemed necessary to control pilots and regulate

pilotage. Almost immediately 35 Trinity House “outports” appeared around the

coast of Britain. The 1808 Act was replaced in 1812 but re-enacted most of

the provisions of its predecessor and gave the Trinity Houses of Hull and Newcastle

the powers they had exercised previously and also in “any ports or harbours or

places within the limits of their respective jurisdictions”. All licensed pilots were required, in an entirely new section, to execute a bond for their good behaviour in the sum of £100. This requirement has been carried through to the present day with the amount unchanged.

An important section of the Act attempted to define the responsibility and

rights of the ship owner, master, and owner or consignee of the cargo, with regard to

any damage to ship, goods or persons occurring through “neglect, default, incompetency or incapacity of any pilot taken under the provisions of the Act.”

Another Pilotage Act was passed in 1825 and prolonged the existing situation, without easing the litigation then giving the industry extra worries.

In 1835 a Royal Commission was instituted to look into the “existing laws,

regulations, and practises under which pilots are appointed, governed and paid in

the British Channel and the several approaches to the Port of London, and

also in the navigation connected with the other principal ports in the United

Kingdom.” It was the first major inquiry into pilotage and one of the main items in the findings and report of the Commission was the recommendation that there should be a central body to control all pilotage affairs. Alas the ensuing Pilotage Act of 1836 did not include this far-reaching proposal. The Merchant Shipping Act of 1854 included and consolidated most of the existing legislation on pilotage, as did the Merchant Shipping Act of 1894.Further inquiries arose in 1860, 1870 and 1880: that of 1870 being particularly significant being specifically instituted to study compulsory pilotage since it developed into a major study of all aspects of pilotage lasting three months. However, its findings were ignored by Parliament. At the end of the 19th century it was again obvious that the existing legislation was outdated and inadequate and, after a searching inquiry in 1910/11, the Pilotage Act of 1913 came into being.

The Nineteenth Century: The Coming of Steam

The years from 1800 to 1914 were the most difficult any pilots have had to face.

Iron ships and screw propulsion appeared mid-century, improving standards and

speeds but pilots had to handle ships up to eight times larger, with single screw

propulsion. When shipowners realised that ships were no longer dependent on wind

and tides they suggested that pilots were no longer as important and proposed

reductions in pilotage tariffs. The 19th Century opened peacefully but by 1803

Britain and France were once again at war which continued until the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. There followed a period of peace in Britain for nearly the next 100 years but it was anything but peace and contentment for pilots. The Pilotage Act of 1808 promoted a wider regulation of pilotage than previously, but the 1812 Act included an extra 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 or in pursuance of the provisions of this Act.”

A somewhat simple idea, but the interpretation of this clause by the courts brought chaos for shipowners and pilots alike and fortunes for the lawyers in the Admiralty Courts. The clause granted absolute freedom from claims for any damage done to other vessels or property to ships under compulsory pilotage. i.e. if ship ‘A’ under compulsory pilotage collided with ship ‘B’, a barge or any other vessel not subject to compulsory pilotage, ship ‘A’ was free from liability even when, under normal circumstances she would be at fault. Under this clause ship ‘A’ was also free from liability for damages after striking a shore installation. In 1824 another Pilotage Act replaced the 1812 Act, a section of which made it possible for a non-British vessel to enter or leave British ports without pilots.

Modern administration

During the early part of the 19th century British vessel entering and leaving the Tyne enjoyed preferential rates of pilotage. The advantage over foreign vessels was ended by the 1824 Act that gave equal treatment to foreign vessel wherever their governments gave similar treatment to British vessels. To compensate the Tyne pilots for the loss they would have sustained they were to be paid, by the Treasury, “Reciprocity Money”, viz. the difference between the old and the new tariffs for foreign vessels. Newcastle Trinity House claimed the full difference for all vessels entering the Tyne although many never went above the entrance, but the pilots were paid only on the ships they piloted.The unclaimed pilotage was then allocated to the Superannuation Fund, although the pilots disputed the right of Newcastle Trinity House to retain the money and demanded a full distribution of the amounts involved. The Newcastle authority refused and was unwilling or unable to account for the money.

In 1861 the Treasury discontinued Reciprocity Money, but as compensation the pilots were to receive, for a ten-year period, a sum equal to the Reciprocity Money paid in 1861 of which only 50% was handed to the pilots. The pilots commenced legal proceedings against the Elder Brethren who in turn sent for the pilots’ leaders, senior pilots, John Hutchinson and Robert Blair. The two pilots refused to attend and were threatened with dismissal. Newcastle Trinity House then began to examine and license local fishermen. The two pilots then went to London, to the Board of trade and Parliament. In 1863 an order by Parliament forced Trinity House to publish the accounts that showed a balance of more than £20,000 although further unclaimed pilotage of over £3,207 was not shown in the accounts. A long legal battle with Trinity House at Newcastle ensued from which the pilots emerged successful and a new body, the Tyne Pilotage Commissioners, was formed in 1865. It was proved that Trinity House had withheld over £24,000 from the pilots whose average wage at that time was about £180 per annum; the Elder Brethren claimed £3,500 for expenses incurred in opposing the Parliamentary Bills and other legal proceedings. Of the pilots, Hutchinson and Blair, they were to become founder members of the UKPA almost twenty years later.

An inquiry into pilotage in 1835, was the first to open up the subject in depth,

covering all major British ports and found that to make pilotage entirely optional

would “hold out a boon to the foolhardy” recommending that certain exceptions to compulsory pilotage be made for vessel in the short sea trades. The Commissioners suggestion that there was a need for a central body to control local authorities was ignored. About this time the pilots of the east coast ports were badly hit by Parliamentary legislation giving preferential taxes to the Canadian trades. Timber from the Baltic abruptly dropped to a minimum. Pilots of the west coasts such as Liverpool and Bristol found their incomes rising, just another example of the wild swings and variations of incomes due to political decisions.

A further Act in 1840 covered many aspects of pilotage and continued exemptions from compulsory pilotage to non-British vessels flying the flags of countries having so-called reciprocal treaties with Britain. Several decades later the Board of Trade was to use this provision against British pilots even to the extent of allowing complete falsehoods to be used about exemptions for British-flag vessels in continental ports.

In 1853 an Act of Parliament dissolved the Court of Loadmanage of the Cinque Ports and it effectively became a Trinity House Outport. One of the conditions was that the pilots could retain their licenses which were issued for the district from Dungeness to London Bridge and vice-versa.It was this condition that was to prove so disastrous for the Cinque Port pilots some thirty years later.

At the 1888 Inquiry into Pilotage, it was stated that on the Thames there was

bribery and corruption and that a few pilots had obtained more “choice” work

than they could handle and farmed it out making considerable income in additions

to their ordinary fees. Trinity House seemed to meet the situation with complete inaction.

The Parliamentary Select Committee of 1870

The Merchant Shipping Act of 1854 collected all the pilotage laws then in force and re-enacted them into part V. In 1860 ship owners, still affected by the freedom from liability of compulsory piloted vessels, again attacked the principle of compulsory pilotage at the meeting of the Parliamentary Select Committee into Shipping. The Committee recommended its abolition but Parliament took no action.In 1870 the Parliamentary Select Committee again examined pilotage with terms of reference that were much the same as the previous committees. But this was the most comprehensive Inquiry ever with witnesses from all sections of the shipping industry, port authorities and Government Departments. The Deputy Master of Trinity House and the Principal of the Marine Department of the BoT, each spent days explaining the vagaries of the several pilotage systems.

In the decade1871-81 there was great unrest among pilots especially in the Bristol Channel since towards the end of the 1850’s the ports of Cardiff, Newport and Gloucester had begun a campaign to remove the superiority claimed by Bristol Corporation in the matter of pilotage since the 16th century. Their efforts were rewarded in 1861 by the passing of an Act that gave them independence in their own pilotage affairs. This had the effect of disturbing the pilotage income of the Bristol pilots and caused a number of them to move across the Channel to take licenses at Cardiff.

In the last half of the 19th century the UK shipping industry was subject to severe cycles of economic booms and depressions of the British overseas trades. The improvement in steam propulsion bringing larger vessels tended to reduce incomes and bring disorder to working routines and rotas of pilots. But the underlying cause of the pilots’ apprehension was still the clause in the 1812 Pilotage Act relating to the freedom of liability for vessels subject to compulsory pilotage and it was also the cause of about seven major Governmental inquiries into pilotage. This clause can be said to have led indirectly to the formation of the United Kingdom Pilots’ Association.

The Origins of the United

Kingdom Pilots’ Association

It was the situation in the Bristol Channel, particularly at Bristol that brought together all the parties most likely to form a core of a national body since a series of events there as a result of the change in the nature of maritime traffic and trade, in particular a growth of the new South Wales industrial ports.In the 1870’s Samuel Plimsoll, campaigning for increased safety for British ships and seamen, called together a number of interested parties: MPs, shipowners and mariners. Known as the Plimsoll Committee, the secretary was Plimsoll’s brother-in-law Roger Moore, a Bristol toilet-soap manufacturer. One of those consulted by Plimsoll’s Committee was Captain George Cawley, an experienced shipmaster, and part owner of a steamship, who later left the sea to take a post ashore. A few months after being appointed pilot master at Cardiff he had been drawn into a serious dispute between the 84 pilots there and the port management.A channel dredged through notorious banks, the Cefyn-y-wrack shoal, in the approaches to Cardiff docks, silted up. In March 1878 pilot John Howe, refused to take the Royal Minstrel to sea with a draft of 24 ft 8 inches. The dockmaster said that there was 25 ft of water over the shoal at the time. A month later, David Samuel also refused to pilot a ship to sea in similar circumstances. The charterer of both vessels complained that his ships had been neaped and thereby delayed three days.Both pilots were suspended. The Cardiff pilots wanted a strike. But Cawley resigning in disgust, advised the pilots to lobby for support from Plimsoll’s Committee.

Within a month Plimsoll had visited Cardiff, and verified the pilots’ complaints.A few weeks later, he raised the matter in Parliament causing the Board of Trade to ask the Cardiff authorities to explain their actions. There was enough of an outcry for a local inquiry to be set up in 1879 and two seats were subsequently allocated for the pilots on the new Pilotage Board.Across the water the 37 pilots at Bristol were also unhappy about the actions or inactions of their pilotage authority.With 37 apprentices and 74 Westernmen (time-served apprentices), any fall in traffic affected the whole village of Pill – a village of watermen and pilots on the River Avon about a mile from its confluence with the Severn. The traditional working routine could mean a loss of income of disastrous proportions if “choice” (appropriate) pilotage appeared.The pilots did not work a “turn” or “rota” system, but sailed in competition the first pilot to board an incoming vessel normally given the work and he would also claim the outward pilotage. In November 1880, however, a firm of Bristol shipowners, the Great Western Shipping Company, with a very successful line across the North Atlantic, built several larger steam vessels to cope with the trade and resolved to have their own “choice” Bristol pilots. The masters were instructed to take only the pilots displaying the prearranged signal. Three pilots were covertly selected and informed of the date and time of arrival of the ships.

In December the same year one of these “choice” pilots, on the way to sail his cutter from Pill Creek, encountered some 50 women and boys and was tarred and feathered. A week later the Westernmen went on strike – licensed pilots could not.The “choice” pilots tried in vain to get boat- men at Ilfracombe, (some 30 miles down the coast) to take them to a couple of inward-bound ships. Returning to Pill they were blocked from taking their cutter to sea by a chain made fast to a bollard which had been organised by the owner of the local inn, Captain Henry Langdon (then current secretary of the Bristol Pilots’ Association).

At the suggestion of Roger Moore, Tamlin, with Edward Edwards of Cardiff, met representatives of the Bristol Pilots’ Association, Craddy (chairman), Langdon and Joseph Browne at the Waterloo Hotel, Pill. Initially a Bristol Channel Pilots’ Association was envisaged, but those present encompassed pilots from other districts, and they suggested forming a British Association There were favourable responses from all the major pilot districts around the British Coasts. In October 1883 a meeting at Bristol, of representatives from the largest ports decided to form a national body using the services of the Bristol Pilots’ Association. Plimsoll was approached to be chairman, but being heavily involved in Parliament refused and suggested Captain George Cawley.

The Early Years

The Inaugural Conference opened on 11th June 1884 in the Athenæum Hall, Bristol.Supported by a few remarks from Bedford Pim, the 30 delegates from a total of 18 UK ports approved the selection of Captain George Cawley, Lt RNR, as president.Observers from Spain and Denmark also attended. Roger Moore represented the American Pilots’ Association.

Henry Langdon, as Secretary, stated there were 3,168 pilots in the British Isles and in 1883 they piloted 168,418 vessels for an income of £427,532; the association hoped to redress wrongs, repeal bad laws and obtain proper representation.

The subscriptions were agreed at 12 shillings per year. Towards the end of the

Conference, which lasted two days, Cawley reminded the delegates, to be

careful to maintain a watch that no further attack on compulsory pilotage should be made.

The Second Conference was held in London in 1885 with 50 delegates – 20 more than attended the previous year –and representing 28 ports. The Secretary’s report gave the membership as being between 1,200 and 1,300 out of a possible 2,955 licensed pilots many of whom were earning less than £30 per annum.

Liverpool, the venue for the third Conference was in the throes of a severe depression, but its maritime system and connections were unsurpassed in efficiency but not economy. Cawley informed members that just before the Conference, he learned that two Poole pilots had been suspended for six months for attending the previous year’s conference without permission even though their colleagues had carried out the work in their absence.In the following year, 1887, at South Shields the Committee introduced two new officers, JT Board, solicitor and A Northmore Jones, barrister. In future the legal work would be separate from the day-to-day work of the Association.In a debate, Bristol pilots explained that as the average age of their pilots was 54 their pension funds needed supplementing, they were promoting a Parliamentary Bill to amend the local Act. Robert Blair (Tyne) said that the main problem in the Tyne was that 30 of the 161 pilots took two thirds of the gross pilotage income. Again this was due to the effects of “choice” pilotage.At the sixth Conference, in London the members looked back with satisfaction at the development of the UKPA which had been formed to protect the principle of compulsory pilotage, to ensure that pilots had proper representation on pilotage bodies and to maintain a watch on the funds which pilots were expected to contribute to.

The 1889 Pilotage Bill was about to pass through Parliament and each clause was debated with great thoroughness and enthusiasm. Alien pilotage and pilotage exemption certificates were again points of irritation. In another direction many pilots tried to have a clause inserted to make the towage of vessels without pilots illegal.Thus the pattern of the work of the UKPA was set in the first six years. When the Merchant Shipping Act (Pilotage) 1889 came into force the members found that more then half of their wishes had been incorporated in its provisions. The moderate success provided a guide to their future actions. The new Act, however, was not without loopholes.

In the early 1890’s Trinity House came in for strong criticism for its apathy in many respects of pilotage administration.

It was said that their pilots were required to produce certificates from magistrates or

clergymen that they were “well affected to the Sovereign and her Government”, but

a foreign subject could be handed a pilotage certificate at his will.

1895 – 1900

In South Wales, Llanelli pilots were threatened with abolition of compulsory pilotage. Initially they had approached the Association for advice, but an offer of legal aid had not been taken up and, at the Cardiff Conference in 1895, there was a note of discord. Three times the Llanelli representatives were asked in open session to comment. They felt that Mr Northmore Jones could be placed under “social influence” and therefore they felt his services should not be used.Apparently Northmore Jones’ services were taken up a couple of years later, for the Association had fought the challenge to compulsory pilotage at Llanelli and were preparing to ward off yet another attack.In the years immediately before the end of the 19th century incomes were an ever present topic and the Executive Committee were at pains to search every corner to find arguments for the negotiations. In 1898 they suggested that as pilots were also quarantine officers, they should receive an allowance from the State.This idea was to be taken up by their MPs. The passing of the 1894 Merchant Shipping Act, which incorporated the pilotage provisions of the 1889 Act, unfortunately did little for pilots and this was reflected in attendances at conferences which began to decrease even though incomes were declining.

Pilots’ incomes at the turn of the Century pilotage incomes averaged about £300 per annum.

2 Responses to “Pilotage History Part 1”

March 2nd, 2010 at 19:49

Very useful post, thanks a lot. Nice blog as well! I might start my own blog soon, do you have any advice? Whats the best host to use, WordPress or Blog engine? Restaurant in Ilfracombe


John Barwis
June 4th, 2018 at 20:59

What is the bibliographic citation for the quotation of 64 A.D?


Leave a Reply

UK Maritime Pilots' Association
European Maritime Pilots' Association
Internation Pilots' Association SITE SPONSORS
Navicom Dynamics
OMC International